Some of us here at TAC enjoy having a little fun at the expense of politicians who make outrageous gaffes. I, myself, certainly enjoy indulging occasionally in a YouTube compilation of a particular politician’s vocal miscues. With the likes of Dan Quayle, George W. Bush, and Sarah Palin headlining the political laughfest, the GOP seems particularly apt at keeping the gaffes flowing. Of course, we cannot forget the Democrats’ own gaffe-machine, Joe Biden, who, unlike the aforementioned three, only seems to make the news because of a gaffe. Sometimes these gaffes are the result of “gotcha” journalism. Sometimes they are the result of blanking under pressure. Sometimes they are jokes gone wrong. Other times, they really point to a politician’s ignorance on an issue or topic. I don’t think a politician’s proclivity to make gaffes itself necessarily indicates that a politician is unqualified for or unworthy of a given office, though such a proclivity accompanied by other possibly worrisome characteristics in a politician (e.g., having a robust rap sheet, being a fan of light beer) may be sufficient to render him or her unsuitable for certain offices.
I want to focus on that subset of gaffes that showcase a politician’s or political candidate’s ignorance on an issue or topic. And let me demarcate a subset of that subset: the gaffes that are more than just gaffes–the gaffes that call into question the genuineness of the one who utters them. Such gaffes were on full display during a debate this morning between two of Delaware’s senatorial candidates, Christine O’Donnell and Chris Coons. At Widener Law School in front of an audience partly composed of university students and law professors, O’Donnell’s made multiple gaffes when discussing the contents of the Constitution. These gaffes were not of the Quayle/Palin varietal, however, for they raise serious questions about her honesty and intentions in running for the U.S. Senate, as well as about her understanding of her own platform.
Now, let me state up front that I am not a supporter of either candidate this election (mostly because I am not a resident of Delaware). Let me also state that I have nothing invested in either major political party this election (I tend to vote third party, anyway, and when I don’t, I tend to vote Republican). My interest is in taking an honest look at O’Donnell’s remarks, one that is neither clouded by the mist of Tea Party zeal nor wobbled by Democratic panic.
Imagine the following case: A huge part of Candidate C’s platform is the promise to uphold, defend, and impliment X while in office. C has publicly criticized Candidate D’s knowledge of X and fidelity to X. C has garnered and exploited the support of organization O during the campaign, and one of the objectives of O’s mission is to promote the ideals and values of X via the support of candidates like C who stand for X. O also attacks D for the same reasons that C does. It turns out, however, that C does not know much about the content of X at all and publicly admits as much. Has not C deliberately misled the public and organization O, as well as hypocritically attacked D? Would we not be justified in criticizing C for being disingenuous?
The generality of this case is such that it could apply to any relevant situation in which a candidate does the sort of thing C does, irrespective of that candidate’s specific political party, platform, and ideology. This means that criticizing C need not be a partisan affair. In the instance of the senatorial race in Delaware, O’Donnell, Coons, the Tea Party, and the Constitution are particulars that give content to C, D, O, and X, respectively (as could any politicians, political candidates, organizations, etc. who fit the scheme outlined above).
So what happened at today’s debate (you can hear it in its entirety here)? O’Donnell decided to pull no punches early in the debate, and the first jab she landed on Coons was the one, ironically, that put her on the ropes in the later rounds. A major part of O’Donnell’s platform is protection of, and fidelity to, the Constitution. Thus, it was little surprise that she hit Coons with the line “perhaps they didn’t teach you Constitutional law at Yale Divinity School,” a sardonic reference to one of Coons’ advanced degrees. The immediate context of the quip was a “cross-fire” discussion between O’Donnell and Coons on the relation of Griswold v. Connecticut to Roe v. Wade and the question over justices legislating from the bench. O’Donnell followed up her jab by stating that Coons knows “little” about Constitutional law. In an attempt to bolster her own constitutional cred, O’Donnell declared: “And in all of my remarks it is said that that one Constitution is the Constitution that I will defend.”
All of this big Constitution talk is business as usual for O’Donnell, and, mind you, I don’t see anything particularly problematic with coloring oneself the defender of the Constitution and one’s opponent as largely ignorant of the contents of the Constitution. However, when you take that sort of approach in a debate, there’s a bit of an onus on you to be sure to shore up your knowledge of the document in question just in case the spotlight eventually falls on your own familiarity with the Constitution. Sure enough, that’s what happened to O’Donnell this morning right after she attacked Coons’ constitutional competence. She was asked what her thoughts are about repealing the 14th, 16th, and 17th Amendment, ideas that have gained currency in some conservative quarters. After stating that she supports the 17th Amendment, things went downhill quickly for her. Unable to recall the content of the 14th and 16th Amendments, O’Donnell said: “I am sorry, I didn’t bring my Constitution with me. Fortunately, Senators do not have to memorize the Constitution. Can you remind me of what the others are.”
Indeed, Senators do not have to memorize the Constitution. Neither do Supreme Court Justices. But I think we can all agree that it is good for a Senator and a Supreme Court Justice to know the Constitution. And it seems correct to think that a political candidate who makes a habit of attacking her opponents’ knowledge of the Constitution should know the document, at least in a rudimentary fashion. But, hey, maybe they don’t teach Constitutional Law at Fairleigh Dickinson. For all we know, perhaps Coons really is ignorant about the content of the Constitution. The problem for O’Donnell is that she made that accusation, postured as if she did know the Constitution, and then failed to deliver. Pot. Kettle. Black.
Later in the debate, O’Donnell appears absolutely clueless as to the content of the First Amendment. Here’s the exchange between O’Donnell and Coons on the issue separation of church and state when the First Amendment was brought up (around the 6:15 mark):
It seems to me that O’Donnell may want to lay off Coons’ knowledge of the Constitution since, whatever the breadth of his knowledge, it’s fairly clear that her grasp of the document isn’t any stronger. In a single morning, O’Donnell managed to show the huge gaps in her knowledge of the Constitution, the very document she has been vowing to protect. And if Coons’ alleged ignorance of the Constitution is grounds not to vote for him, then O’Donnell has made the case against herself.
Before the major news outlets picked up on O’Donnell’s gaffes, her camp was already in damage-control mode. Almost immediately upon the conclusion of the debate her campaign manager, Matt Moran, issued the following statement:
In this morning’s WDEL debate, Christine O’Donnell was not questioning the concept of separation of church and state as subsequently established by the courts. She simply made the point that the phrase appears nowhere in the Constitution. It was in fact Chris Coons who demonstrated his ignorance of our country’s founding documents when he could not name the five freedoms contained in the First Amendment.
In an “exclusive” interview this afternoon with National Review‘s “Battle ’10,” O’Donnell tried to explain away her gaffes:
It seems the AP and others are twisting it out of context. What I was trying to prove is that my opponent does not know the First Amendment.
Uh huh. There you have it. The big, bad mainstream media has spun the debate transcript against her when what she was really doing was baiting Coons into betraying his ignorance of the content of the First Amendment. No doubt, video and transcript of the debate will confirm this. Right? Well, just watch the video above. The train of discussion never passed through the “five freedoms” of the First Amendment, and it’s clear that Coons’ semi-accurate paraphrase of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment is what perplexes O’Donnell. She seems utterly unaware that anything resembling Coons’ paraphrase is in the First Amendment. If O’Donnell was being as sly and cunning as she claimed, then she did such a good job that no one even noticed.
Conservative stalwarts Ramesh Ponnuru and Rush Limbaugh (among many others) are already spinning O’Donnell’s debate performance. Ponnuru attempts a sleight of hand by claiming that O’Donnell was only questioning whether the First Amendment requires the separation of church and state. Of course, O’Donnell is clear that she denies this requirement exists, and, as Ponnuru notes, she was, indeed, questioning whether the separation of church and state is in the Constitution. But that from which Ponnuru attempts to divert our attention is O’Donnell’s perplexed question over Coon’s paraphrase of the Establishment Clause, a clause that is, indeed, in the First Amendment. Had O’Donnell merely denied that the Establishment Clause requires separation of church and state, as Ponnuru tries to fool us into thinking, there would be no worry over her grasp of the First Amendment. But O’Donnell asked whether the Establishment Clause is in the Constitution. And there’s the rub.
Alexandra Petri at the Washington Post avoids playing Ponnuru’s and Limbaugh’s tricks, facing squarely the fact that O’Donnell does seem to be largely ignorant of the content of the Constitution. Petri defends O’Donnell anyway, reminding O’Donnell critics that we don’t know the Constitution very well, either. That’s well and good, but we (or, at least, I) have not accused the opposition of ignorance of the Constitution nor have we (or, at least, I) run a campaign on grounds that we (or, at least, I) will protect and follow the letter of the Constitution (remember C).
Now, O’Donnell has the backing of the formidable Tea Party, and she has called on their support on the campaign trail. Perhaps the Delaware contingent will remind O’Donnell of one of its three pillars–the one about how important the Constitution is–lest the organization, like the public, be misled by her into thinking that she has a firm grasp on it:
We, the members of The Tea Party Patriots, are inspired by our founding documents and regard the Constitution of the United States to be the supreme law of the land. We believe that it is possible to know the original intent of the government our founders set forth, and stand in support of that intent. Like the founders, we support states’ rights for those powers not expressly stated in the Constitution.
Now I am not at all suggesting that Coons is a better candidate than O’Donnell. I know little about him, much less enough to make a judgment about his candidacy. Nor do I think O’Donnell’s brand of disingenuous politics is exclusive to her (though I don’t think there is a more disingenuous candidate for the 2010 congressional elections–maybe Alvin Green?). The good news for O’Donnell is that she still has a couple of weeks to familiarize herself with the contents of the Constitution and avoid any further blunders (on that topic, at least). And, if she is elected Senator of Delaware, she will have until January to make good on her pledge to promote, defend, and implement the Constitution. After all, it seems to me that knowing X is a necessary condition for being in a position to promote, defend, and implement X.