Her ears ringing with the "code words" of "nullification" and "states rights," Salon's Joan Walsh strongly suggested on Tuesday's Hardball that Iowa Republican U.S. Senate candidate Joni Ernst was cynically reaching out to nefarious elements of the GOP when she answered a question about nullification of federal laws in a September 2013 forum. [See my related story about the Daily Beast's biased reporting here]
Naturally host Chris Matthews agreed, tag-teaming with the left-wing scribe against Republican strategist John Brabender who insisted that the Iowa state senator was being taken out of context by Democrats eager to define her in a negative light ahead of November's election. [listen to MP3 audio here; video follows page break]
Introducing the segment, Matthews insisted that "In 2014, Republican Party leaders have been intent to avoid a repeat of the the 2010 and 2012 races when extreme candidates like Christine 'I'm not a witch' O'Donnell and Sharron 'Second Amendment remedies' Angle cost the party winnable seats." But just as the GOP thought it had in Ernst a "folksy" farmer and military veteran who was "inoculate[d]" against such problems, "the longer this campaign goes on, the less mainstream she seems."
Matthews then laid out a litany of left-wing complaints. Ernst was open to impeaching Obama, co-sponsored a personhood amendment, and she believes there may well have been WMDs in Saddam Hussein's Iraq. But the newest and perhaps most cardinal sin, Matthews explained, is newly surfaced videotape wherein, Matthews insisted, Ernst believes in the notion of state legislatures nullifying federal laws with which they object.
After airing the video clip in question -- in which at no point in which did Ernst endorse nullification -- Matthews snarked about Ernst's reference to the Tenth Amendment being "a very popular amendment on the far right."
[Shh, don't tell the left-wing voters in Washington State and Colorado who legalized marijuana in their respective states, disregarding the fact that the drug remains illegal under federal statute. The Tenth Amendment is hardly strictly the province of "the far right."]
At this point, Matthews introduced Walsh and Brabender and briefly read a statement from the Ernst campaign wherein a spokeswoman insisted "Joni has not and does not endorse or support nullification."
"What do we make of her position on nullification, which of course, was one of the reasons for the Civil War, the South's belief that they could say, state by state, Georgia, South Carolina, that the federal government passes a law on slavery, for example, that they could nullify or ignore it?" Matthews asked former Santorum advisor Brabender.
Moments later, interrupting Brabender's defense of Ernst, Matthews insisted "the word means something," that it "has a particular historic meaning," mostly if not completely in Matthews's mind tied in with dark, racial connotations.
"Although Ernst was not specifically referring to race, by the way, the word nullification is freighted with racial overtones because it was over the issue of slavery and nullification of anti-slavery laws that the South seceded in the Civil War. Why is she using this word?" Matthews demanded.
Of course Matthews is not merely smearing Ernst, he's doing a grave disservice to a comprehensive understanding of American history. Nullification first cropped up as a concept in the 1790s as a reaction against civil liberties-infringing laws passed by Federalists in Congress and signed by President John Adams, the Alien and Sedition Acts. In fact, it was Thomas Jefferson who authored the Kentucky Resolutions.
South Carolinians threatened nullification of federal tariff laws during the presidency of Andrew Jackson, but ultimately backed down and relented. That controversy was not over slavery per se -- Jackson himself was a pro-slavery Democrat -- but about tariffs which Southerners thought were economically harmful to the South's chiefly agrarian and export-based economy.
What's more, while they may not have described their efforts as such, there were many Northern states which passed laws in the 1850s to thwart the full force of the federal Fugitive Slave Act. Anti-slavery Northern states took positive measures to, in effect, nullify the force of a federal law which aided the cause of the slaveholding interest in the South. These states justified their actions on the basis of the hated [by the Left] Tenth Amendment.
The history of states rights and nullification is more complicated than Matthews would have his audience believe.
But historical accuracy and nuance be damned. Matthews and Walsh had a conservative Republican to smear.
"When you leap out there and start talking about nullification, you either know what you're doing or you're stupid and you don't," Walsh sneered. "She may know what she's doing. She knows she's using a code word and a buzz word and she's getting a kind of a thrill from that," the Salon editor-in-chief.
Moments later, Matthews added to that argument by quoting from a Martin Luther King Jr. speech to insist that "people in Iowa" must have been hearing a racial connotation in the reference to nullification.
"My whole point is, this is what happens in Washington: We take single words that somebody says that, in their context make perfect sense, and we're going to parse those words and try to make it that it was a code word," Brabender shot back.
Brabender is right, but I would add that this is exactly what happens not merely in "Washington" but in the supposedly objective newsrooms of major media publications in Washington and New York and Des Moines and all over the fruited plain.
Ernst scares the liberal media, and that's why we see Matthews and gang squealing like a pig as they try to lead her candidacy to the slaughter.