- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 15, 2001

Does anyone out there want to amend the Constitution? I didn't think so. But not so long ago, plenty of members of Congress, particularly on the Republican side, had all sorts of bold ideas for improving the work of the Framers. One of the few benefits of being embroiled in a shooting war with foreign enemies is that people quickly learn to separate the necessary from the needless.

Attorney General John Ashcroft is currently under fire from liberals and civil libertarians for supposedly bringing the dark night of repression down upon the land. They might be grateful that at least combating terror has kept him out of the mischief he used to enjoy.

As a senator from Missouri, he sponsored several constitutional amendments, including one to ban desecration of the flag, one granting a line-item veto to the president, one imposing term limits on members of Congress, and why doesn't this surprise me? one making it easier to amend the Constitution.

Mr. Ashcroft was by no means alone in pushing harebrained ideas. When the GOP gained control of Congress in 1996, Republicans churned out ideas by the bushel, and many of them deserved to be laughed out of town. Prayer in schools, new constitutional rights for crime victims, denying citizenship to infants born here to illegal immigrants, requiring a two-thirds vote to raise taxes all got taken seriously by legislators who were not particularly discriminating about using their new power. For a while, there was a serious danger that if someone handed Newt Gingrich a Chinese takeout menu, it might end up written into legislation.

If the GOP was partial to ideas that were big, goofy and controversial, President Clinton gravitated toward the trivial and inoffensive. In fact, any program that involved making a small gesture of support for an outwardly unassailable goal reducing violence on TV, promoting school uniforms, discouraging kids from smoking sooner or later would find itself the centerpiece of a ceremony in the Rose Garden.

He specialized in gimmicky motherhood-and-apple-pie initiatives designed to make people say, "Oh, what could it hurt?" In the international arena, no country was too insignificant to warrant American intervention. History may soon forget that Mr. Clinton was the president who sent troops to Haiti.

The signature moment of his administration may have been when, in a major speech on education, he solemnly advised parents to start singing to their infants and "immediately," in case anyone doubted his resolve. A lot of adjectives were used to describe the Clinton presidency, but "imperial" was not one of them.

The focus on issues that would have been thought too trivial for Franklin Roosevelt or Dwight Eisenhower was a defining trait of the 1990s, when peace and prosperity meant the government didn't have to devote much attention to its larger responsibilities. Running against President Bush in 1992, Mr. Clinton compared the incumbent's restrained approach to his office with Union Gen. George McClellan's maddening refusal to attack Confederate forces. President Lincoln's response, he recalled, was to ask, "If you're not going to use your army, may I borrow it?"

Since the federal government obviously had nothing better to do, Mr. Clinton set it to work on tasks that once were the mundane purview of state and local governments, or of no government. The two candidates vying to replace him spent last year's campaign talking about similarly small-scale issues. And when he heard the news of the attack on the World Trade Center, President Bush was in a setting that Mr. Clinton made a presidential cliche an elementary school classroom.

But things have changed. The president now concentrates on the central duties of his office such as commanding our armed forces and organizing the defense of American soil against its enemies. Congress has been occupied with paying for the war on terrorism, reviving the economy, and watching out for executive-branch encroachments on constitutional rights.

Limited-government types worry that wars lead to permanent expansion of government budgets and programs. Civil libertarians fear the fight against terrorism will do irreparable damage to basic freedoms.

Those concerns are valid, but the current war also forces our leaders to focus on the essential tasks of government, instead of dreaming up nonsense to justify their existence. It may also compel both the public and elected officials to ask whether the government might have done a better job combating terrorism in the months and years before September 11 if it had not been distracted by so many less urgent matters.

Earlier this year, politicians could curry favor with voters by using their power for whatever worthy cause that came to mind. Today, anyone proposing a flag desecration amendment or a peacekeeping mission in Haiti could expect a new reaction: Get real.

Steve Chapman is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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