What’s the Definition of a Crazy Question?
Over the last few years, plenty of people have attacked Barack Obama using easily disprovable falsehoods and specious reasoning. (I know – I used to watch Glenn Beck for a living.) On Monday, a woman at a Mitt Romney event stood up during a Q&A session and said this:
“We have a president right now that is operating outside the structure of our Constitution. And I want to know — yeah, I do agree he should be tried for treason — but I want to know what you would be able to do to restore balance between the three branches of government and what you are going to be able to do to restore our Constitution in this country.”
The Huffington Post put up a story about the event that afternoon written by Sam Stein. Stein highlighted the fact that Romney had “remained silent” following the accusation. “Romney didn’t correct the woman,” he wrote, “choosing instead to address the question she posed.” The candidate, he said, appeared stuck between “balancing the anti-Obama sentiments of the party’s base with the need to maintain a civil level of discourse.” Stein contrasted Romney’s behavior with that of John McCain, who during a 2008 town hall had taken the microphone away from a supporter who said she couldn’t “trust” Obama because he was “an Arab.”
That evening, MSNBC’s Ed Schultz presented a piece on the event as well. In a segment entitled “Obama Derangement 2012,” Schultz also criticized Romney for letting the charge pass without comment, and he, too, brought up McCain. “For all his faults,” Schultz said, “at least John McCain had the guts to talk down the crazy.”
I have no desire to allow lies and baseless assaults to pervade our political discourse, and candidates should always reject them – especially (and this goes without saying) when they’re dripping with the racist vitriol McCain faced.
But it’s also worth asking if the question presented to Romney was, as Stein and Shultz suggested, inherently unreasonable. To be clear: treason is defined in Article III of the US Constitution: “Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying war against them, or in adhering to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort.” The application of that definition to the actions of the Obama Administration stretches the bounds of credibility, as far as I can tell.
But we should also consider the other part of the statement – the idea that Obama has upset our government’s balance of power by “operating outside the structure of our Constitution.” Is that concept also devoid of all intellectual coherence? And is it as repugnant as racist hate-mongering? I’m not saying that Romney’s questioner was right. But I think the question can, at the very least, be legitimately asked, as it could have been asked of many past presidents.
After all, questions concerning the constitutionality of some of Obama’s actions, especially those pertaining to foreign policy, civil liberties, and executive power, often underpin critiques of, and queries posed to, his administration.
It’s worth remembering that in June of 2011, lawyers from both the State Department and the White House felt compelled to publicly defend the constitutionality of America’s prolonged military campaign against the Qaddafi regime.
Or take just one other example: the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki (which again the administration felt the need to defend, via Eric Holder, from an explicitly constitutional standpoint). Following Awlaki’s death, George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley (among many others) objected, writing that, “[w]hile few people mourn the passing of figures such as al-Awlaki, who was accused of being a leader in al-Qaeda, they should mourn the passing of basic constitutional protections afforded to all citizens.” MSNBC’s own Rachael Maddow examined the legality of the action in an interview with Wired’s Spencer Ackerman, who has continued to take clear issue with the killing. And it was Jake Tapper of ABC News who, during the White House press briefing of September 30, 2011, asked spokesman Jay Carney, “Do you not see at all — does the administration not see at all how a President asserting that he has the right to kill an American citizen without due process, and that he’s not going to even explain why he thinks he has that right, is troublesome to some people?”
This isn’t to pick on Stein and Shultz. I mean, rather, to make a broader point. Within the context of illogic and paranoia that has at times defined Barack Obama’s opponents, it is tempting to write off those who make the most strident claims against him as being unworthy of further consideration. But during this campaign, we shouldn’t be afraid to ask big, fundamental questions about the conduct of the administration and its officials – and to the extent that those questions have merit, the President and his team owe us answers.