When it comes to Republican presidential debates, we’re reaching a point where the behavior of the audience overshadows the rhetoric of the candidates. At last week’s debate in California, for example, audience members cheered when Texas Governor Rick Perry defended his frequent use of the death penalty.
It’s hard to believe, but that paled in comparison to the bloodlust and callousness on display at last night’s Tea Party debate in Florida. There, the audience moved the bar for outrageous behavior up a notch. Indeed, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to describe last night’s audience as the id of the Republican Party. To wit, here are the moments that generated either the most applause -- or the most disdain -- at last night’s event.
At the midpoint of the debate, moderator Wolf Blitzer pressed Rick Perry on his decision to mandate the HPV vaccine for 12-year-old girls. Perry defended his choice, and in response, Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann declared that it was “flat out wrong” for “innocent little 12-year-old girls to be forced to have a government injection.” The crowd then gave its loud approval to the idea that the government has no interest in preventing ovarian cancer, which claims over 4,000 lives every year.
This was followed by an exchange between Blitzer and Ron Paul over the government’s responsibility to the uninsured. Blitzer posed a hypothetical situation to the Texas congressman, describing a young man who holds a job and pays taxes but fails to purchase health insurance. He is stricken by serious illness, and needs care, but can’t afford it. What should we do? Paul refused to budge from his dogma -- “What he should do is assume responsibility for himself -- and when Blitzer asked if “society should just let him die,” members of the audience shouted “Yeah!” and people began to applaud.
Toward the end of the debate, the audience loudly booed Perry’s insistence that the children of illegal immigrants should not be denied a chance to go to college, and practically shouted down Ron Paul when he noted the terrible conditions of Palestinian life and attacked the idea that Muslims are collectively responsible for 9/11.
As for the candidates, there was nothing new in the debate, despite the usual round of Beltway excitement over the event. As with last week, the focus was on Rick Perry, whose front-runner status remains strong. Mitt Romney continued to attack Perry’s stance on Social Security, demanding to know if Perry “thinks Social Security should be ended as a federal program,” and maintained his focus on the general election with policy-oriented answers to each question. Rick Santorum, Herman Cain, and Newt Gingrich remained on the periphery, and Michele Bachmann bounced back from last week’s sedate performance with vocal attacks on Perry’s record and strong statements of conservative principle. “We have to be an ownership society where individual responsibility, personal responsibility becomes the animating principle,” she said in her opening statement.
If there was anyone who conclusively lost the debate, it was erstwhile nice guy Jon Huntsman, who began his campaign with a declaration that he would take the high road and likely ended it by declaring Rick Perry “treasonous” when the Texas governor spoke to the difficulties of enforcing border security.
In the end, the landscape remains where it was before the debate. Rick Perry is still the front-runner, Mitt Romney is still scrambling for the top spot, and we are still stuck with a vicious, unhinged right wing.