devoted several segments on Tuesday and Wednesday to Delaware
Republican Christine O'Donnell's apparent gaffe on the First Amendment,
but barely acknowledged her opponent Chris Coons's own gaffe on the
amendment. Analyst Jeff Toobin spun O'Donnell's remark as demonstrating
that "she didn't seem to know" the amendment. It took conservative Dana Loesch on AC360 to bring up Coons's own gaffe.
Anchor Wolf Blitzer played an edited clip of O'Donnell's questioning of
Coons on the First Amendment issue during Tuesday morning's WDEL
Delaware Senate candidate debate on his Situation Room program. Blitzer
did not play the part where the Republican clearly asked, "You're
telling me the 'separation of church and state'- the phrase, 'the
separation of church and state' is found in the First Amendment?" [audio available here]
After playing the edited sound bite, Blitzer continued that
"O'Donnell's spokesman later said she was not questioning the concept of
church and state subsequently established by the courts, she simply
made the point, he says that the phrase appears nowhere in the
Constitution, 'separation of church and state.'" This is an accurate
summary of the candidate's line of questioning, but since the anchor
didn't play the part where she used the term, "the phrase 'separation of
church and state,'" he made it seem like the spokesman was giving a
Blitzer then turned to Toobin, and after reading the full text of the
First Amendment, asked the CNN senior legal analyst, "So when her
[O'Donnell's] spokesman says the words 'separation of church and state'
specifically are not in the First Amendment, they're not." The analyst
confirmed that this was the case. Later in the segment, the CNN anchor
raised how O'Donnell also couldn't remember what the 14th and 16th
Amendments were during the debate and asked, "Do Senators need to memorize the Constitution?" Toobin made a fair point about the importance of the 14th Amendment in his answer, but also got something wrong himself:
TOOBIN: They certainly don't, and it's funny: those two amendments are
actually very different, the way most people think about them. All
three were passed right after the Civil War. The 14th is really one of
the most important amendments. It relates to equal protection of the
laws, the right of everyone to due process. The 15th and 16th come up
less often in modern courts, but the 14th is a pretty big deal.
Later in the evening, Toobin himself admitted that he didn't know what
the 16th Amendment dealt with, during the first minutes of the 10 pm
Eastern hour of Anderson Cooper 360. Guest and Tea Party organizer Dana
Loesch became the first person to note how Coons couldn't recall the
other freedoms protected by the First Amendment during the Delaware
debate, a moment which The Politico reported in their write-up on Tuesday. Toobin replied to her with his admission:
LOESCH: Chris Coons was unable to mention the five enumerated
rights in the First Amendment in this debate. No one's discussing that
at all, and you would think that someone who is running for Senate- the
First Amendment, that's an easy. That's a gimme. That's stuff that
everybody learned in seventh and eighth grade. You would think that he
would at least- and I realize that we're not all constitutional experts,
but if we're going to have the same standard applying to Christine
O'Donnell, it also needs to be applicable to Chris Coons as well.
JEFFREY TOOBIN: Fair-
ANDERSON COOPER: Fair point.
TOOBIN: That's certainly a fair point. Everybody has to be judged by
the same standard. You know, it's hard to evaluate something like this
in a way that makes- that is fair criticism, but you don't want to sound
like a jerk or a scold. I had to look up the 16th Amendment. I
didn't remember the 16th Amendment off the top of my head. But the 14th
is a big deal. The First is a big deal.
The CNN analyst went on to make his claim that O'Donnell didn't seem to
know the First Amendment at all. Loesch disputed with his
COOPER: The 14th- the thing about the 14th, and I was hesitant to be
critical of this, but the 14th has been bandied about so much over the
last couple of months with citizen- you know, birthright citizenship and
TOOBIN: That's right, and if you listen to the full context of
the debate about the First Amendment, it wasn't just that she didn't
know the phrase 'separation of church and state' was not in the First
Amendment. She didn't know what the First Amendment was about. I mean, that, I think- you know, you don't need it to be-
COOPER: Well, her defenders will say- well, look, she was
pointing out that term 'separation of church and state' is not in the
TOOBIN: That's what her supporters would point out. That's not
what the tape shows. What the tape shows is she didn't know anything
about the First Amendment, at least as I saw.
COOPER: Dana, do you think that's true?
LOESCH: I don't agree with that.
TOOBIN: You don't think that's true?
LOESCH: No, I don't agree with that at all. I think what she was
pointing out was Chris Coons's unequal application of the Establishment
Clause, regarding the First Amendment, and how- really, when you deny
rights in the classroom to one group, when you deny rights to one group
in favor of secularism, which is its own religion- religion is not
patented by just a faith in God or Christian principles. It's a devotion
and a set of beliefs to a certain something. You could be religious in
your love of music, or religious about green causes. But when you deny
rights to one- that's unequal. It's just let it- let whatever be
represented be represented. That's a fair application of the
Establishment Cause in first- religion- and if people- really, that was
put in the First Amendment to protect religion from government, and this
is really- when you delve into Thomas Jefferson's letter to the Danbury
Baptists, the sentence following the wall of separation between church
and state really sheds a lot light onto that.
Of course, Toobin glossed over the part where O'Donnell clearly asked,
"You're telling me the 'separation of church and state'- the phrase,
'the separation of church and state' is found in the First Amendment?"
It isn't just a matter of what "her supporters would point out."
The following morning, just after the bottom of the 7 am Eastern hour
of Wednesday's American Morning, anchors John Roberts and Kiran Chetry
asked CNN senior political editor Mark Preston about the O'Donnell
remark. Preston gave his own spin of what the Republican said:
ROBERTS: So what about the separation of church and state, Mark?
PRESTON: Hey, John, good morning. Good morning, Kiran. Well, I'll tell you what. You
know Christine O'Donnell has said a lot of embarrassing things, has had
to explain herself a lot. And yesterday, during a debate, she stumbled
over the Constitution. Specifically, it was a discussion about
creationism in public schools and how to teach it and whether to teach
it. She didn't know that the First Amendment gave (laughs) - allowed for the separation of church and state.
As O'Donnell correctly pointed out, that's not what the First Amendment
says. To his credit, however, Preston played a fuller excerpt of the
exchange, including the Republican's use of the term "the phrase 'the
separation of church and state.'" But he quickly followed this with more
PRESTON: There you go. Christine O'Donnell asking not- you
know, more than once, if whether that language is actually in the
Constitution, which is very important, because she is a Tea Party
candidate and this is a big issue for the Tea Party. In
addition, she stumbled over the 14th Amendment and the 16th Amendment.
Of course, the 14th Amendment grants citizenship to folks who are born
here in the United States. Some Tea Party activists want to repeal that, and, of course, the 16th Amendment establishes the federal income tax. So, Christine O'Donnell is trailing badly in the polls right now- another stumble- not good, as we head into Election Day.
Preston badly mangled some conservatives' call for a reinterpretation
of the 14th Amendment so that anchor babies aren't automatically granted
citizenship into saying "some Tea Party activists want to repeal" the
Later in the segment, Chetry did mention Coons's gaffe, but only as part of a criticism of O'Donnell: "She [O'Donnell] went
on to criticize Chris Coons for not knowing the five freedoms contained
in the First Amendment- odd, because during the debate, when she was
asked about the 14th Amendment, she said luckily, senators don't have to
memorize the Constitution. So, some are asking, which one is it today?"
After a commercial break, Toobin returned to repeat his spin on
O'Donnell's remark, this time without a conservative's objection:
ROBERTS: Let's go to Christine O'Donnell. We were talking about this with Mark Preston just a moment ago. In
that debate with Chris Coons, she said yesterday, where is the
separation of church and state in the First Amendment. She was roundly
laughed at, and many people are saying this is a huge stumble on her
part. Is it really?
TOOBIN: Well, certainly, the larger point O'Donnell was making is one
that is a perfectly legitimate conservative point, which is that the
courts have imposed too many barriers to religious expression in public
life. You know, conservatives think there should be prayer in schools,
there should be prayers at football games. These sorts of controversies
are perfectly legitimate things to argue about. The problem was,
she didn't seem to know that the basis of that controversy was the
words of the First Amendment. Whether that was just an awkward stumble
or she really didn't know is a little hard to tell.
- Matthew Balan is a news analyst at the Media Research Center. You can follow him on Twitter here.