09/25/2011 06:32 pm ET | Updated Nov 25, 2011

Debate Audiences Show Off GOP's Darkest Demons

There's no question that both parties have their fair share of "crazies."

You know the type -- the supporters and "activists" who go too far. The ones who wave the offensive sign at a rally; make the bigoted comment to a reporter; think that violent imagery or hate speech are effective ways to make a political point.

Or the ones who boo and cheer inappropriately in debates.

It's not uncommon for political operatives to be just as nervous about what some of our "friends" may say, as we are about what our opponents will say. Lord knows that politicians should not be held accountable for everything that their craziest supporters do.

That is unless they are pandering to them.

So far, there hasn't been a lot of surprise in the Republican presidential debates. With the exception of an occasional issue here and there, there hasn't been a lot of daylight between the candidates. Their talking points and "zingers" have been pretty predictable. We're learning a little bit about how each candidates handles themselves under pressure, but otherwise the debates haven't been very informative.

But one thing that has been telling about today's Republican Party is the reaction of the debate audiences, and how the candidates have handled it.

Look, for example, at three very poignant moments from the debates:

Cheering executions
In September's MSNBC/POLITICO debate at the Regan Library, moderator Brian Williams prefaced a question to Rick Perry by noting that under his leadership, Texas "has executed 234 death row inmates, more than any other governor in modern times."

Before Williams could even finish the question, the crowd erupted into cheers.


Personally, I'm pro-death penalty. But that doesn't mean I think it should be celebrated. Perry could have used the question as an opportunity to talk about the need to reduce the number of executions, by reducing the number of capital crimes committed. Instead, he played off the crowd's reaction and gave a full-throated defense of his record of executions.

Let an uninsured comatose patient die
In September's CNN/Tea Party debate in Tampa, moderator Wolf Blitzer asked Ron Paul about a comatose patient with no insurance. After Paul suggested patients needed to "take (their) own risks," Blitzer followed up by asking if we should allow that patient to die if he couldn't pay for his own care.

Before Paul could answer, more than one audience member shouted out "Yeah!"


I get that health care is a contentious issue, but are we really now advocating that we should let the most vulnerable among us just die? Paul continued his answer by talking about individual responsibility, pandering to the social Darwinism sentiments of the crowd.

Denigrating a United States serviceman
Perhaps the most jarring moment may have come in the most recent FOX News/Google debate in Orlando. Rick Santorum took a question from an American soldier deployed in Iraq. The soldier is gay, and asked Santorum if he would "circumvent the progress that's been made for gay and lesbian soldiers in the military."

Before Santorum could answer, several audience members loudly booed the questioner.


While most Americans applaud the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," I don't begrudge someone to have an opposing viewpoint. But I am stunned that ANYONE would go so far as to disparage a brave American serviceman, who has put his life on the line for our country. And what did Santorum do? Launched into a diatribe against "injecting social policy" into the military. That earned him some of the loudest applause of the night.

No one at the debate ever applauded or thanked the soldier for his service to our nation. No one ever said that booing the soldier was inappropriate and offensive. Not Santorum, not the other candidates, not the audience. They should have.

Even former Bush White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer agrees, tweeting during the debate, "Booing a soldier serving our nation is uncalled for. If I were on stage, i would make that point."


There was a time when our national political leaders appealed to our better angels. Unfortunately, today's crop of Republican leaders seem to prefer pandering to our darkest demons.