By this point, it is no secret that the Republican field of presidential candidates is not ideal (and that’s being generous). But the flaws of the party have made themselves apparent not only in the candidates, but also in the voters. The positions of the candidates and the disgusting responses of the audience at the Republican debates have put on full display just how far to the right the Tea Party has driven the GOP.
During the first Republican debate, NBC’s Brian Williams addressed Gov. Rick Perry with the following: “Your state has executed 234 death row inmates, more than any other governor in modern times.” The response of the audience was to cheer and whistle more enthusiastically than at any other point that night. Regardless of your stance on the death penalty, there is no excuse for celebrating the death of a human being. Apparently the Tea Party disagrees, however, because a similar situation played out at the second debate when Ron Paul was asked how society should respond if a healthy adult man who decided not to purchase health insurance suddenly goes into a coma and needs intensive care for six months. Paul, with his usual libertarian gusto, said that the government should not be involved.
“That’s what freedom is all about, taking your own risks,” he declared. When the moderator pushed Paul further, inquiring if society should just let him die, loud cheers of “Yeah!” followed by laughter echoed throughout the room.
A YouTube clip of a gay soldier asking a question about Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was played at the third debate, and the audience excitedly took part in booing the soldier who had risked his life fighting for his country.
Statistically speaking, the individuals who are most politically involved and most likely to attend a partisan debate are the most ideologically extreme and emphatic. So the extremism present in the audience is not necessarily representative of the larger GOP voter base. An interesting thing to note, however, is how the candidates responded to their audiences in each of these three situations. After all, the candidates are running to represent the country as a whole, not just the far right.
Yet one would never guess this based on their reactions. When Williams asked Perry about the audience’s cheering for Perry’s execution record, he said, “I think Americans understand justice. I think Americans are clearly, in the vast majority of cases, supportive of capital punishment.” Perry is correct, statistically speaking, but this dodges the question of the audience’s response. One can be in favor of the death penalty just as one can be in favor of a war, but death is not something this country celebrates. It is shameful that Perry did not state at the very least that he thought the audience’s response was inappropriate. And ironically, in response to the cheering at the second debate for letting an uninsured man die, Perry said, “We’re the party of life. We ought to be coming up with ways to save lives.” Unfortunately, Perry ignored those words 234 times.
Ron Paul responded more humanely. When the audience cheered that the uninsured man should be left to die, Paul said, “No,” noting that no one was ever turned away from a hospital. But for the third debate, the candidates were back to shaming themselves, as Santorum completely ignored the booing of the soldier — answering the question as though he hadn’t heard it. The strongest words to come from the candidates in response to the booing were “unfortunate” from Huntsman and “very unfortunate” from Perry — but they only said so after the debates. Once again, it is the height of irony that a candidate like Perry can use strong, colorful (and largely inaccurate) language attacking social programs, but when responding to booing at an American soldier, the best he can muster is “very unfortunate.”
And though the audiences at the debates are not representative of the Republican Party as a whole, they are representative of a trend within the party. These audiences have always been the most ideologically “pure” branch of the GOP, but never before have their responses been so radical. It’s indicative of the fact that just as the far right is going even further to the right, the rest of the party is also moving in that direction. This trend was clear during the debt ceiling debacle when the Republican leadership had to make the unreasonable demand of no tax increases to satisfy the desires of the Tea Party.
Indeed, the Tea Party’s influence is now a concern for more moderate GOP candidates, forcing them to take more right-wing stances than they otherwise would.
The solution to this problem is simple. During primaries, moderate Republican voters need to buck the statistical trend and turn out en masse to vote for a candidate who believes in science, does not want to completely dismantle the federal government, and actually has empathy. And during the presidential and congressional elections next year, the Tea Party should be voted out. They have been a hindrance to compromise and bipartisanship, and most of their proposals show complete thoughtlessness for other lives. We need a more moderate, rational atmosphere in which to pass policy and to steer this country through continued economic hardship, and the only place the Tea Party is steering us is off a cliff.