Audience is the show at the GOP debates

Last modified: 9/25/2011 12:00:00 AM
Judging by the response of recent audiences, the next Republican presidential primary debate should be held in a reproduction Roman coliseum, the proper venue to cheer the execution of one's fellow human beings.

The debates have largely become a duel between Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney. Michele Bachmann fades in and out of them like a radio station on the fringe of its range. Candidates who should be heard from more, like Jon Huntsman, fade in the background, while those who should be heard less, like Herman Cain and Rick Santorum, command attention.

The audience, not the candidates, has become the reason to watch the debates and to wonder what they say about politics, culture and the state of the Republican Party in 2011.

Earlier this month, at a debate at the Reagan Library in California, Perry, who has signed off on more executions than any governor in modern history, was asked whether he lost any sleep over what was then the 234 executions on his watch.

"No sir, I've never struggled with that at all," Perry said. The crowd broke out in cheers. People who commit crimes like killing a cop or a child will face "the ultimate justice in Texas, and that is you will be executed," Perry said to loud applause and another chorus of cheers. Since that debate, Texas carried out its 235th execution under Perry.

The audience cheered death again at the next debate, in Tampa, Fla., in response to a question to Ron Paul from the debate's moderator, Wolf Blitzer.

Who should pay when a young person needs expensive intensive care but has no health insurance, Blitzer asked.

"That's what freedom's all about, taking your own risks," Paul said.

"But, Congressman, are you saying that society should just let him die?" Blizter said.

"Yeah," three people in the audience shouted, and the crowd broke out in applause.

Illegal immigration also got the crowd lathered up. Jeers greeted Perry's defense of his 2001 decision to grant in-state tuition to the children of illegal immigrants who had graduated from a Texas high school - a policy supported by all but four members of the Texas legislature.

At the most recent debate, held Thursday in Orlando, Fla., Stephen Hill, a muscular soldier stationed in Iraq, questioned the candidates via a YouTube video. He had been forced to hide his identity as a gay soldier until the repeal of the Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy, Hill said. Would any of the candidates, if elected, seek to reinstate it, he asked.

The question, from a soldier serving in a combat zone, elicited several loud boos from several audience members. Then, when Santorum, in a rambling answer, said that repealing the policy had undermined the military, his voice was nearly drowned out by applause and cheers from the audience.

What will the next question at a Republican debate to send the mob into a frenzy be about? Abortion, food stamps, torture - raise your hand if you're willing to turn the thumb screws - the need for a strong central government?

The most disturbing aspect of the WrestleMania behavior at the debates is not that some audience members booed a soldier and many cheered death. It's that not one Republican candidate, and there were nine on the stage on Thursday, spoke up to admonish the crowd and call for civility. Not one candidate, in situations that cried out for it, exhibited leadership.

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