It is hardly news that Christine O’Donnell is a talking head with dreams of being a television celebrity, so I’m not sure that it proves much of anything when she demonstrates that she doesn’t know much about the amendments to the Constitution. Andrew focused on her apparent ignorance of the First Amendment near the end of the video, but I thought the far more telling moment was when she asked her questioner to explain to her what the 14th and 16th Amendments were. Actual constitutionalists have at least some basic familiarity with these, not least since they tend to see these amendments and later interpretations of the 14th Amendment as having been particularly damaging to republican self-government. Based on her responses, O’Donnell not only doesn’t agree with them, but she wouldn’t even be conversant with the relevant arguments. So we can confirm what a lot of people already knew: Christine O’Donnell is a professional political activist who has no real grounding in the fundamental law she has been repeatedly invoking as the core of her beliefs during this campaign season, and as far as respecting the Constitution is concerned she is simply a phony. Anyone on the right who wants to keep defending her as anything else is wasting his time and embarrassing himself.
The real shame is that O’Donnell could have had a valid point on the question of church-state separation, but she didn’t begin to know how to make it. As an activist and talking head, she has learned slogans about the separation of church and state, but evidently she has not learned anything more than that. The establishment clause has been wildly and mistakenly misinterpreted so that a restriction created solely to prevent the federal government from imposing a religion on the states has been turned into a general imperative for all levels of government. This is not what critics of the Constitution wanted when they argued for a guarantee that the federal government would not establish a religion, but more important it is an unnecessary and obnoxious restriction of the free exercise of religion. Of course, one has to know that the establishment clause exists and know what it says before one can criticize its misinterpretation.
P.S. I should add that O’Donnell’s defenders have already attributed arguments to her that she never made. She sat there grinning like a fool, not realizing that she had been thoroughly discredited by the exchange, and they confidently declare that she has superior understanding of the Constitution because they know that the “wall of separation” line came from Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptists. This reminds me of the ridiculous contortionism some Palin defenders engaged in during the ’08 campaign when she would say something that betrayed her awesome cluelessness. As I said then:
Over the last few weeks, I have been watching Palin’s defenders deploying their expertise to make sense of answers by Palin that were wrong, insufficient or embarrassing. When she manifestly knew nothing about the Bush Doctrine, her defenders chimed in that her answer was fine because the precise definition of such a doctrine–if there really is a doctrine or just a jumble of policies–is so intensely disputed. In short, the sheer nuance and complexity of an issue excused her utter cluelessness, or, to put it another way, she knew so little about the subject that she would have no way of knowing that Biden or Gibson erred. When she talked vaguely about Putin rearing his head, there was only a relative handful of people who could have deciphered that she was referring to long-range Russian bomber flights. Even on something like that, where presumably Palin did know something about what she was saying, she could not articulate it. No doubt her claim that she reads “all” newspapers will soon be cited as proof of her voracious appetite for knowledge and her curiosity about the world. What Palin’s defenders are showing is that it takes well-informed, very engaged policy wonks to lend even minimal coherence to her statements.
Update: O’Donnell’s campaign put out a statement explicitly denying that O’Donnell believes what her defenders claim she believes:
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.
If that were the case, it would mean that O’Donnell is pedantic as well as clueless. If she wasn’t questioning “the concept of separation of church and state as subsequently established by the courts,” why was she complaining about a court ruling against a school board that wanted to teach I.D.?