The right wing mantra: If at first you don't secede . . .

By Dana Milbank
Sunday, August 8, 2010

Vacationing on North Carolina's Outer Banks this week, I've been thinking about how different things will be here when the South secedes from the Union.

The Confederates, I anticipate, will order Elizabeth's Café & Winery to banish the Maine lobster tomato caprese in favor of fried catfish. The lattes at Duck's Cottage will likely be nullified and replaced by sweet tea. Inevitably, the Sanderling spa will be ordered to discontinue its Vinyasa yoga classes and instead open a shooting range.

Happily, there is as yet no sign of imminent hostilities at the seaside; Escalades with Jersey plates continue to ply Highway 12 unmolested by rebel artillery. But you wouldn't know things were so calm from the words spoken by Republican primary candidates lately. Here in the South, they have been campaigning under a bizarre theory: nothing succeeds like secession.

The latest offender is Rep. Zach Wamp, during the Republican gubernatorial primary in Tennessee. "I hope that the American people will go to the ballot box in 2010 and 2012 so that states are not forced to consider separation from this government," he said on July 23 in an interview with National Journal's Hotline.

Wamp later said the reporter was somehow wrong to "extrapolate" from his remarks that he favors secession, but by then he had already sounded the rebel yell just in time for Thursday's primary. The campaign of his opponent, Bill Haslam, said Haslam "has the temperament to not threaten secession on a whim."

Wamp was following the successful model of Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who was preparing for a tough primary battle last year with Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison when he floated the idea that Texans might "dissolve" the union. The idea quickly won the support of Tom DeLay, who went on television to explain "how you secede," and Texas Rep. Ron Paul, who argued that "secession is a very much American principle." Perry trounced Hutchison in the primary.

And let's not forget Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), who seems to think his constituents will switch sides and join the Confederacy this time. In March, he told conservative activists "let's hope we don't have to" get together and "start a country."

Most conservatives know it sounds loopy to talk about dissolving the union. After all, it didn't go so well the last time around. That's why it's more acceptable to talk about secession's cousin, nullification. Calling themselves "Tenthers" (for the 10th Amendment, which gives states powers not assigned to the feds) they're claiming that states can merely ignore any federal law they don't like.

That was the strategy in Missouri this week, where a ballot proposition supported by the Republican Senate nominee, Rep. Roy Blunt, passed with 71 percent of the vote; the initiative essentially declared null and void the federal health-care reform's requirement that individuals have health insurance.

But nullification, like secession, has been tried before, with poor result. In 1832, Andrew Jackson threatened to use force against South Carolina for nullifying federal law, saying the state was on the brink of treason and argued that "to say that any state may at pleasure secede from the Union is to say that the United States is not a nation." A compromise held off violence for another quarter century.

President Obama's foes often claim to revere the Constitution, but the reverence is selective. By nullifying the health-care law, they are jettisoning Article VI, which says: "This Constitution, and the laws of the United States which shall be made in pursuance thereof . . . shall be the supreme law of the land."

If a state thinks the law is unconstitutional, it can challenge the law in court, as Virginia is doing. If people don't like the law, they can elect a new Congress and president to repeal it. Or, they can attempt to amend the Constitution, as several Republican lawmakers would do with the proposed repeal of the 14th Amendment, the one with all that nonsense about equal protection under the law. But secession and nullification have all the legitimacy of a temper tantrum.

Still, they make for good politics in this Tea Party year. Several other states are contemplating nullification laws or referenda, and in Minnesota, Republican gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer favors rejecting all federal laws unless a super-majority of the state legislature consents to the law. The Republican Party in Minnesota's 5th Congressional District came out in favor of nullification and secession "as options to enforce state sovereignty."

As usual, the ferment has been encouraged by the likes of Sarah Palin (who drew big cheers in Texas when she said she heard "all this news coverage about, oh, Texas is seceding from the union") and Glenn Beck (who argues that "you can't convince me that the Founding Fathers wouldn't allow you to secede. The Constitution is not a suicide pact").

The voters in Tennessee, however, hold the Constitution in higher regard. When the returns came in Thursday night, Haslam had beaten the rebel Wamp.

The Union is saved! On the beach here in Dixie, I plan to celebrate over a latte at Duck's Cottage, right after yoga class.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company