Two of my absolute favorite political writers, Peter Wehner and Jennifer Rubin, have chastised O’Donnell for her recently reported constitutional error. I think that, perhaps, they’re being unfair. It’s clear from reading the news reports that the Constitutional portion of the debate was intended to be a pile-up on O’Donnell:
Also during the debate, O’Donnell stumbled when asked whether or not she would repeal the 14th, 16th, or 17th Amendments if elected.
“The 17th Amendment I would not repeal,” she said, before asking the questioner to define the 14th and 16th amendments, adding: “I’m sorry, I didn’t bring my Constitution with me.”
The 16th Amendment allows Congress to raise taxes without apportioning them among the states or tying the taxation to Census results. The 14th Amendment grants citizenship to everyone born in the United States. The 17th Amendment established direct election by popular vote of two U.S. Senators to each state.
I’m a lawyer and, beyond the 1st ten Amendments, plus the 13th and 14th, I too would have trouble nailing any given Amendment’s substance just by numerical reference. Knowing the Constitution and “speaking the code” are two different things.
As for O’Donnell’s alleged ignorance about the 1st Amendment, I wouldn’t be too hasty. I haven’t heard the audio from the debate, so I don’t know how exactly it played out. I’m inherently suspicious of the media’s spin on it, though, simply because I know that they want to paint her as an uneducated hick, unsuited to higher office. The context was that Coons was pushing the Leftist view, which is that the 1st Amendment essentially outlaws religion in any aspect of public life, leaving it to exist only within the four walls of the Church (or synagogue or temple) or the home.
Coon’s view, although the media heartily approves, is manifestly wrong. The First Amendment’s carefully phrased language was intended to keep the federal government from establishing a state church, akin to the Church of England that had so recently controlled the colonies. For those who didn’t worship at its altar, the Church of England still required taxpayer funding and it seriously restricted access to politics, employment and education. The Founders wanted to ensure that American citizens wouldn’t never be forced to worship in a centralized government faith — or, worse, be penalized for refusing to so worship. This is a far cry from outlawing faith entirely, which is where Coons is going.
Further, that same carefully phrased language was intended to ensure that local governments could, if they so desired, establish a faith: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion….” (Emphasis mine.) That emphasized phrasing makes it plain that other governing bodies can make laws respecting establishment of religion. And indeed, at the time the Founders enacted the Bill of Rights, several of the States did have official churches.
If you doubt this, contrast the 1st Amendment’s language with that in the 2nd Amendment. There, the Founders made plain that no governing entity, whether federal, state or civic, could pass any law limiting arms: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” The 2nd Amendment is one example of passive voice being a good thing.
O’Donnell clearly understands the way in which the 1st Amendment was intended to work — and it’s entirely possible that, in the context of the debate, she was still laboring over these substantive ideas when Coons, conversationally, threw out his constitutional quotation. That would explain O’Donnell’s confusion. Context is everything and, until I hear what happened there, I reserve the right to question the MSM’s reporting.
Even if the MSM is correct, though, that O’Donnell didn’t remember the precise phrasing in the 1st Amendment, the situation between the two candidates, Coons and O’Donnell, is still unequal. When it comes to the 1st Amendment, Coons knows what it says, but doesn’t get what it means; O’Donnell gets what it means, but doesn’t know what it says. And given a choice between the two, I’d always take the one who understands the Constitution, rather than the one who parrots it mindlessly and twists it to Marxist ends.
UPDATE II: O’Donnell expounds upon her accurate understanding of the 1st Amendment.