OK, I want to make sure I understand. Two years ago, with the nation facing a host of complex and difficult problems, voters put a bunch of thoughtful, well-educated people in charge of the government. Now many of those same voters, unhappy and impatient, have decided that things will get better if some crazy, ignorant people are running the show? Seriously?

I thought I had come to terms with the whole tea party thing, I really did. I convinced myself that it could be analyzed as a political phenomenon, an expression of disaffection, a reaction to economic, social and demographic change that leaves some Americans anxious and unsettled, blah blah blah. But then came Wednesday’s debate in Delaware — featuring Christine O’Donnell, uncut and uncensored — and all my rationalizations crumbled. This isn’t politics, it’s insanity.

I know that O’Donnell is likely to lose to Democrat Chris Coons. But until Election Day — at least — we’re supposed to take her seriously as the Republican candidate for the United States Senate. Sorry, but I just can’t do it anymore.

Nor can I pretend that Carl Paladino, the raging bull from Buffalo, is qualified by experience or temperament to be governor of New York. Or that Sharron Angle, whose small-government philosophy is so extreme as to be incoherent, could possibly make a worthwhile contribution as a senator. Or that Rich Iott, whose idea of weekend fun is putting on a Nazi SS uniform and gamboling through the woods, is remotely acceptable as a candidate for the House.

When has there been an election with so many looney tunes running under the banner of one of our major parties? It’s not that they are ultraconservative, or even that some of them believe their psychic powers let them know what the Founding Fathers would have thought about, say, stem cell research. There are radical small-government Republicans who are also intelligent and thoughtful. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin is an example.

It’s just that there is a difference between being smart but wrong, and being O’Donnell.

She wasn’t as bad as she might have been in Wednesday’s debate — which is part of the problem: Expectations were abysmally low. After all we’ve learned about her sketchy past, after all the video clips of her indefensible statements, and after the first “I’m not a witch” television ad in American political history, O’Donnell could not possibly have underperformed.

But judged by any reasonable standard, she was mediocre and often ridiculous. Asked by moderator Wolf Blitzer whether she stood by her assertion that evolution is a “myth,” O’Donnell responded that “local schools should make that decision” — meaning, she explained, that she believes local schools should be able to teach creationism as an equally valid explanation of how we and our fellow creatures came to be.

But it’s not. If you believe at all in science and the scientific method, then you believe in evolution. And if you think it’s fine to deny American schoolchildren basic knowledge that all the rest of the world’s schoolchildren routinely learn, then what use could you possibly be in the Senate? At a time when there is widespread, legitimate concern about American competitiveness in the 21st century, O’Donnell would make our educational system dumber, not smarter.

O’Donnell told Fox News recently that if she is elected, she would like to serve on the Foreign Relations Committee. One imagines that Vladimir Putin and Hu Jintao did not shudder.

The candidate displayed her mastery of geopolitics by saying nothing remotely thoughtful or insightful about U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, except to parrot Republican talking points — criticizing President Obama’s timetable for withdrawal, insisting we have a responsibility to “finish the job,” and betraying no evidence of having given the matter further thought.

Four years ago, in a failed Senate campaign, O’Donnell claimed that China had a “carefully thought out and strategic plan to take over America,” and said she knew of this via “classified information that I’m privy to.” In Wednesday’s debate, she insisted that she had indeed received some “security briefs” while working with a humanitarian group that was planning a China trip. There are only two possibilities: She needs to be fitted for a tinfoil hat, or she made the whole thing up.

I’ve had it. Let’s be honest. If she’s qualified to be a senator, I’m the king of Prussia.

Now, will somebody please warn her that she’ll have trouble finding Prussia on the map?

Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)washpost.com.

© 2010, Washington Post Writers Group

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