Trying to lend one of his 2008 campaign speeches a little literary heft, Barack Obama borrowed a phrase from William Faulkner: “The past isn’t dead and buried. In fact, it isn’t even past.” Four years later, the president may be considering himself, however ruefully, a prophet. For it looks like much of his second term may be framed by one of America’s oldest, most persistent political debates — the one over states’ rights.
The most direct, most publicized and least likely to succeed challenge to federal authority is, amusingly, the result of a White House public-relations misfire. The Obama administration, in a fit of populist preening, set up a website called We the People that encourages Americans to exercise “the right to petition your government” and promises an official response to any petition that gets 25,000 signatures.
The result: petitions to secede from the union filed from all 50 states. By early this week, seven had reached the White House’s 25,000-signature threshold, including Florida’s. Imagine the thrill of a referendum in which Florida’s statehood was on the ballot! Between hanging chads, butterfly ballots and ballot brokers, we’d probably wind up accidentally voting ourselves into Czechoslovakia, even though it doesn’t exist anymore, or maybe especially because it doesn’t exist anymore.
The secession petitions have several hundred thousand signatures, which sounds like a lot until you consider that about 118 million people turned out for the election a couple of weeks ago. Nonetheless, the petitions have provoked frenzied accusations of racism and even treason from progressives, who’ve conveniently forgotten that they were the ones talking about leaving the union after John Kerry’s decisive defeat in 2004.
Redrawn maps of America ricocheted around the Internet, showing Democratic strongholds on the coasts joined in something called The “United States of Canada” while those that went for George W. Bush were consigned to “Jesusland” or “Redneckistan.” In a distraught television appearance, Lawrence O’Donnell (who soon after would get his own show on MSNBC), predicted “a serious discussion of secession over the next 20 years” because “the segment of the country that pays for the federal government is now being governed by the people who don’t pay for the federal government.” (Now you know where Mitt Romney got the idea for his famous “47 percent” rap.)
Curiously, nobody called O’Donnell’s statement treasonous. That’s because it wasn’t. The Constitution doesn’t contain a single word about secession, one way or the other. But many of the Founding Fathers (including James Madison and John Marshall, whose opinions as chief justice created the foundation of constitutional law) believed it a right. Even Abraham Lincoln, who went to war to block Southern secession in 1861, was of two minds on the subject; he applauded the decision of a substantial portion of Virginians to break away from their own state and spearheaded their entry into the union as West Virginia.
Ultimately, just as its liberal counterpart did a decade ago, the conservative movement for secession will fizzle out, even in Texas where it’s strongest. (If Texans really want to mess with Obama, they have a much more potent tool. The 1845 agreement by which Texas gave up its status as an independent nation to join the United States contains a provision giving Texans the unilateral right to divide themselves into up to five states. Add eight Republicans to the U.S. Senate and the president’s entire second-term agenda is dead on arrival.) But there are more serious states’ rights threats to the White House lurking out there, and not all of them come from the right.
Voters in four states — Alabama, Missouri, Montana and Wyoming — approved referendums blocking enforcement of various provisions of Obama’s healthcare law. If their state officials honor voters’ wishes, they can delay Obamacare’s implementation for years with legal wrangling and foot-dragging. And the more successful they are, the more company they’re likely to have; despite the Democratic triumphalism, Republicans still control the governor’s office in 30 states and the legislature in 27.
Even more potentially threatening are the votes in Washington and Colorado to legalize marijuana. Obama has been a relentless foe of any challenge to harsh federal drug laws, authorizing scores of Justice Department raids on medical-marijuana dispensaries in states that have approved them. But the voters in Washington and Colorado (and their governors, who’ve pledged their support for the laws) are basically his own supporters.
So is California Gov. Jerry Brown, who — anticipating a similar vote soon in his state — last week said Obama and his Justice Department minions must “recognize the sovereignty of the states” and stop trying to “nullify a reasonable state regulation.” A speech on nullification from a governor of California in 2012! The past isn’t dead, it doesn’t even need Viagra.