Political Hysteria

It could be time for our nation's elected officials to take a deep breath.

Sometimes, it seems like we're living through an endless era characterized by an utter lack of public confidence in government's ability to get anything done. And the government isn't doing itself any favors-whether on Capitol Hill, in the White House, or among federal agencies-with its recent performance responding to disasters, managing a war overseas, and trying to set up and run a massive security apparatus at home.

But is this any more than simply the kind of stuff that causes bloggers to spout off and talk radio hosts to fill up air time? To Rep. Paul Kanjorski, D-Pa., it is-much more. He's convinced we're on the brink of civil war.

Seriously. "I'm in fear for the survival of the republic," he said at an economic summit at the University of Scranton in August. "People want to get their deer rifles out and go to the barricades."

Kanjorski might be in the minority in thinking that an uprising is right around the bend, but he's not the only Washington figure who's become more than a little unnerved. With approval ratings for both Congress and the president flirting with all-time lows, a sort of hysteria has gripped the nation's politicians, from presidential candidates on the campaign trail to rank-and-file members of Congress like Kanjorski. At this point, they're just not sure how to react to the disquiet in the electorate, even if it falls short of revolutionary levels.

This summer, presidential candidates from both parties seemed to be engaged in an effort to race past each other to the extremes of the debate. When Democrat Barack Obama said he'd consider using military force against terrorist targets in Pakistan, but took nuclear weapons off the table, his counterpart Hillary Clinton quickly responded by saying she wouldn't rule out the nuclear option.

Just as quickly, on the Republican side, long-shot candidate Tom Tancredo of Arizona one-upped Clinton, saying he would threaten to bomb the Muslim holy cities of Mecca and Medina in an effort to show Islamic extremists that we're serious about responding to a future attack on the United States.

The entire series of events provoked an unusual and exasperated response from the State Department, which generally bends over backwards to stay out of all things political. Tom Casey, a career Foreign Service officer and department spokesman, suggested that all the candidates consider holding their tongues on specific sensitive foreign policy options until they actually get elected.

Casey singled out Tancredo's idea as "absolutely outrageous and reprehensible," adding that "to somehow suggest that an appropriate response to terrorism would be to attack sites that are holy and sacred to more than a billion people throughout the world is just absolutely crazy."

Tancredo was unmoved. "Yes, the State Department-boy, when they start complaining about things I say, I feel a lot better about the things I say," he said at a GOP presidential debate in Iowa.

Of course, Tancredo is not alone in his disdain for institutions of government. Republican candidate Mitt Romney declared in August that the Homeland Security Department, which is barely five years old, needs to be torn asunder. He was less clear on what exactly he'd do with the pieces. "There is such duplication in Washington that you'd really like to take the place apart and put it back together, just smaller and simpler and smarter," he said.

But it doesn't appear that Romney thinks federal bureaucrats could pull that off-or much of anything else, for that matter. Asked about the possibility of implementing a national health insurance program, Romney responded, "The last thing I want is the guys managing the Katrina cleanup managing my health care system."

It seems unlikely that the folks at the Federal Emergency Management Agency would be transferred over to the Health and Human Services Department to take on such a task, but who knows? The way politicians are reacting to things these days, it looks like just about anything is on the table.

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