Has American politics ever been more extreme or partisan?
From the Republican scandal-mongering about the Clintons to the Democrats' anger over the 2000 Florida recount and the arguments over the decision to go to war in Iraq, there has been a steady escalation in the quotient of meanness and conspiracy theory mongering.
Aided and abetted by new media like Internet blogs, the core believers of both the left and the right are driving the debate over the edge. If you read the blogs or listen to talk radio, or noticed the increasingly shrill op-ed pages these days of many mainstream newspapers, the shared assumptions by both sides that they are the children of light battling the forces of darkness are unavoidable.
For many on the left, the foe is "bushitler," their charming nickname for the president whom they claim is subverting democracy by fighting a war on Islamist terrorists.
For others on the right, it's the hordes of illegal immigrants who they fear are swamping our borders.
Extremism is nothing new in American politics, but the genius of our system is that no matter how strong marginal movements have seemed, they have always been defeated by the checks and balances inherent in the Constitution, as well as the basic good sense of the American people.
In the past, when either party was captured by its extremists, a crushing defeat soon followed.
But what would happen if both parties were to be taken hostage by their own extremists?
That scenario is a long way off, but danger signs are popping up on both sides of the aisle that bear closer scrutiny.
For Republicans, several years in control of the White House and Congress make them perfect candidates for a swift kick in the rear from the voters. The key, as in 2004, will be to motivate and turn out their core voters on the right. So where will Republican candidates in trouble go to find their mojo this year?
For many GOP strategists, the answer is not in highlighting the very real threat to this nation from Al Qaeda and its allies, but the mythical peril that immigration poses.
This year's effort to enact some form of immigration reform appears fated to end in a stalemate between competing House and senate bills.
The House version, pushed through by conservative Republicans, was solely intent on ramping on barriers to illegal immigration and isolating the millions who are already here illegally by making criminals of those who employ them.
The Senate bill, which was a bipartisan affair, instead followed President Bush's lead by creating a way for illegals to gain citizenship, which its opponents, not without some justice, called "amnesty."
There's no bridging the gap between the two, and it appears that many Republicans think they can rouse their rabble by appeals to build a fence along the border or speaking of deporting undocumented aliens. Indeed, even a major figure in the Senate leadership, Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), seems to be heeding this advice as he launches into his uphill battle for re-election this fall.
But Santorum, whose strong record on Israel and other foreign-policy issues is the key to his appeal to Jewish voters, needs to think carefully about making illegal immigration the keynote of his campaign this fall.
Those Republicans who choose this path will be flying in the face of traditional GOP faith in the power and the logic of free markets. The overwhelming majority of immigrants — legal or otherwise — come here to work because there are jobs available for them, and not as some horde of would-be welfare clients. Giving them a legal path to citizenship rather than seeking to strengthen laws that are already unenforceable ought to be what a party dedicated to minimal government and free enterprise would support.
But by conflating the real need to interdict Islamist terrorists with the fools' errand of trying to keep out the flow of busboys and cleaning women, some Republicans think that they can increase the turnout even if their policy prescription is nonsensical.
Maybe they're right, but they will also be alienating many Republicans, especially since the effort for sane immigration reform has been spearheaded by President Bush and longtime Pennsylvania Republican Sen. Arlen Specter.
They are also ignoring the fact that by placing themselves in a position to be accused of anti-Hispanic sentiments, they are writing off a large and growing sector of the electorate whose social conservatism ought to make them highly susceptible to the GOP's appeal.
On the other end of the spectrum sit left-wing Democrats, whose hatred for Bush and whose distrust of the administration's anti-terrorist measures and the war in Iraq cannot be underestimated.
Just as Republicans are divided over immigration, the Democrats are struggling with their party's stand on the war. With Sen. Hillary Clinton, the party's putative front-runner for the 2008 Democratic nomination for president, and some other prominent Democrats still supporting the war (while nonetheless voicing criticism of Bush), anti-war left-wingers seem to think a purge of moderates is what is in order.
Their chief target is Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.), who faces a tough Democratic primary fight in his bid for re-election to the Senate.
To the left-wing bloggers and those zealots who think Lieberman's belief that politics should stop at the water's edge — and that unity in wartime ought to trump partisanship — the one-time Democratic vice presidential nominee is a "traitor" to their party despite his liberal record on domestic issues.
In an August primary where turnout is bound to be low, his left-wing opponent, a cable-TV millionaire named Ned Lamont could win. Though no one should underestimate a tested political battler like Lieberman, the message his defeat in the primary would send would be significant.
Even if Lieberman won in November running as an Independent, it would mean that any Democrats entering the 2008 presidential primaries without swearing fealty to the left's litmus test of opposition to an aggressive war against Islamism would do so at their peril.
That might help energize the Democratic base. But were the rabid Bush-haters associated with the Moveon.orgcrowd to really start running the Democrats, a further coarsening of the national tone will be the least of our problems.
Just as the GOP adopting the banner of xenophobia would send a chill into minority communities, a full-scale Democratic tilt toward abandoning Iraq — coupled with the downgrading of the war on terrorism — would be a blow to allies, such as Israel, and a bipartisan pro-Israel consensus.
What kind of a political debate will we have if one major party becomes a platform for the fear of foreigners, while its opponents become the standard-bearers for isolationism in a time of international peril?
The answer is one that all citizens — including Jewish voters who value both immigrant rights and the need for an assertive war against Islamism — ought to be worried about.