In three consecutive Republican presidential debates, members of the partisan audience have displayed obnoxious and callous attitudes in response to questions directed to the candidates. In the first, a portion of the assembled conservatives cheered an accounting of the convicted murderers put to death by the Texas penal system. During the second, vocal members of the audience shouted “Yeah!” to Wolf Blitzer’s questioning whether uninsured Americans should just be allowed to die without medical care. Then, in this week’s debate, the crowd jeered a videotaped soldier who declared himself as gay before asking if the candidates would support the recent elimination of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” as military policy.
Pundit efforts to characterize these outburst as typical of the Republican, conservative or Tea Party constituencies are blatant stereotyping, cynical and unfair. Anyone who has any experience speaking or performing to an audience knows that a few people can dominate audience reaction without being representative of it. No, it is not the Republican constituency that was exposed by these incidents, but the contenders for that party’s and the nation’s leadership. The failure of any one of the assembled candidates, nine in the first two debates, ten this week, to clearly and emphatically condemn the offensive reactions and the “thinking” underlying them suggests that none of the candidates possess the integrity, courage, confidence and values required to be a trustworthy leader of the United States.
Each of them had a duty to confront and reject these embarrassing audience responses. There were 28 opportunities, among all the candidates in the three debates, to do so. None were taken.
After the third debate, Rich Santorum tried to retroactively show some character by telling Fox News,
“I condemn the people who booed that gay soldier. I have to admit I seriously did not hear those boos. … But certainly had I, I would’ve said, “Don’t do that. This man is serving our country and we are to thank him for his service.”
Sorry, Rick…too late, and not good enough. I call this kind of tactic “The McCain,” after the supposedly courageous Arizona Senator only decided to oppose South Carolina’s support of the Confederate flag as its state flag after he had lost the 2000 state presidential primary and the nomination. It’s easy to oppose the wrongful sentiments of a potentially hostile audience a day later, in the safety of a TV studio. Did you “not hear” the previous outbursts, Rick? My guess: after the media had weighed in about the ugliness of the disrespectful and bigoted response to the gay soldier, you saw an opportunity.
The audience responses this week and in the earlier debates didn’t create opportunities. They created ethical obligations for responsible and ethical leaders to reject the sentiments expressed by the audience, and to explain why they were inappropriate. The fact that not one of the candidates met those obligations on the scene is smoking gun evidence that their instincts are to pander the worst instincts of the electorate rather than to lead them to their better, wiser natures.
President Obama, who recently declined to serve as “speech police” when Jimmy Hoffa Jr. explicitly defied the standards of civility the President had piously urged on the nation eight months ago, has failed in this respect as well. The Republican contenders, however, are arguing that their leadership would be an improvement over his. Based on their conduct so far, their argument is a weak one.