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Unpacking the Media's Christine O'Donnell Constitutional Crisis


Let's take a journey.

The Blaze was quick to cover the story of Christine O'Donnell's "separation of church and state" comments (or more like questions) during a senatorial debate Tuesday with opponent Chris Coons. We brought you the video and some early reaction (here and here).

Since then, the media has regurgitated the story ceaselessly, and thoughts and information about it have saturated blogs, TV, and radio. Luckily, we wade through it all so you don't have to. Below is a blow-by-blow recap of the story and what everyone's saying about it. As I've said in the past, let's go on a journey.

It's important to start with the original comments. You'll hear and see them plenty in the material below, but it's good to hear them sans any commentary:

(The relevant part starts at 2:50, but the entire context is important:)

Let the panic begin.

We begin with Mediaite, who pointed out yesterday that the phrase "separation of church and state" actually doesn't appear anywhere in the Constitution. That's not ground breaking, but it is key.

Also weighing in early yesterday was National Review's Ramesh Ponnuru, who quickly suggests that O'Donnell wasn't questioning the "establishment" clause, as much as she was baffled that Coons could say the actual phrase appeared in the document.

In a later post Ponnuru expounds:

After Coons says that the First Amendment bars the government from making an establishment of religion–earlier he had specified the federal government–O’Donnell says, sneering, “That’s in the First Amendment.” (Some accounts tack on a question mark, which I just don’t hear.) The question in my mind is: Is she expressing disbelief in the specific claim he has just made, or is she referring back to his initial claim about the separation of church and state? I don’t think the answer is obvious, and would not base large claims -- e.g., she’s an ignoramus -- on the proper characterization of this remark.

Hot Air's Allahpundit doesn't think O'Donnell is an ignoramus, but says the perception that O'Donnell doesn't understand the Constitution (even if she actually understands the nuances) will be damaging:

An undecided voter who sees this and thinks “I know the Establishment Clause but she doesn’t?” may well conclude that “she’s not me” and opt for condescending Harry Reid pet Chris Coons instead.

CNN's Anderson Cooper admits that O'Donnell is correct about the technical point -- the exact phrase is absent from the Constitution -- but he bashes her for not knowing the 14th and 16th Amendments, after she has claimed many times to be more or less addicted to the document:

If O'Donnell can be faulted for not knowing the document by heart, American Thinker (and Michelle Malkin) believes Coons should be held to the same standard. During the back-and-forth, O'Donnell asked Coons if he could name the five freedoms found in the First Amendment, and Fox News reveals he couldn't:

Coons would only respond, "I think the very first provision of the First Amendment is that a government shall make no establishment of religion, and before we get into a further debate about exactly which of us knows the Constitution better, how about we get the panel asking our questions today?"

Rush Limbaugh spent time on yesterday's radio show agreeing with Malkin and defending O'Donnell:

Slate's William Saletan believes Limbaugh and others are being too generous. After hearing the exchange, he's convinced that "O'Donnell did express incredulity that the First Amendment prohibits government establishment of religion." He adds that to fully understand the situation one has to listen to the audio, not just read the transcript:

In expressing her disbelief, she clearly emphasizes the word First. She seems incredulous not just at Coons' position against government-established religion, but that he bases it on the First Amendment. It's the citation that surprises her.

Later he says that conservatives are giving her credit for making complex arguments that she just didn't make:

At no point in the debate did O'Donnell offer any of the sophisticated church-state arguments her defenders now attribute to her. She didn't quote the establishment clause for the same reason that Coons didn't quote the five freedoms: because she couldn't.

While many who disagreed with O'Donnell point out that her assertions weren't idiotic, MSNBC made sure to paint O'Donnell as constitutionally ignorant. Sitting in for Keith Olbermann on last night's "Countdown," Cenk Uygur opened the show by saying O'Donnell "does not know the first thing about the First Amendment to the Bill of Rights" (which is itself a confusing statement -- aren't the amendments to the Constitution, not the Bill of Rights?):

Fellow MSNBC host Rachel Maddow piles on. "Sometimes things happen on tape that cannot quite be captured by the transcript," she said during yesterday's show. "Its remarkable ... that Christine O'Donnell seems to be challenging Chris Coons's true assertion that the separation of church and state is laid out in the First Amendment of the Constitution." Maddow goes on to mock O'Donnell, complete with wild hand gestures and fist pumps:

"This is a window into right-wing world," Maddow adds. However she continually ignores that the "separation" phrase actually doesn't appear in the Constitution.

So, now that we've heard what everyone else has to say about O'Donnell, what does O'Donnell say about O'Donnell? In an interview with National Review shortly after the incident, she clarifies the exchange:

“It seems the AP and others are twisting it out of context,” O’Donnell said. “What I was trying to prove is that my opponent does not know the First Amendment.”

“What our constitution prevents is … government establishing a religion, but it also says that it won’t prohibit free exercise thereof,” argued O’Donnell.

It's that understanding, says The American Spectator's John Guardiano, that proves O'Donnell is one step ahead of her opponent and many of her detractors:

So while the elites cluck in disapproval at what they believe is O'Donnell's faux pas, the reality is she knows and understands the Constitution better than they do.

There you have it. Journey over.

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