The GOP presidential debate in Orlando produced a profile in courage and nine profiles in cowardice.
The profile in courage came courtesy of the brave active-duty soldier named Stephen Hill, serving in Iraq, who chose the Republican debate as the opportunity to come out to his fellow servicemen and the nation via video. He was, of course, marking the newfound freedom to do so granted by the repeal of "don’t ask, don’t tell." And he was greeted with a chorus of boos from people in the conservative crowd who don’t like his kind.
The profiles in cowardice came from the nine presidential candidates onstage who chose to stand through the insult to a military man serving in a war zone, struck dumb by their political calculations. This was an opportunity to speak out in favor of civil rights, to condemn a basic lack of kindness in the crowd, to stand up for our fighting men and women serving in harm’s way. It could have been a defining moment for a candidate with the courage and decency to buck the base.
But instead, there was the awkward silence of a political pitch going by—an acquiescence to some of the ugliest impulses in society combined with a lack of moral clarity. And the reason was simple fear—fear of alienating the base and fear of being called a RINO for being in favor of gay rights. It was not a proud moment for the Party of Lincoln.
In the wake of the debate, libertarian Gary Johnson and centrist Jon Huntsman at least had the decency to condemn the crowd's reaction, but that was after the fact. Perhaps not coincidentally, they are two of the few candidates running who do not favor a federal marriage law, which would roll back the gay civil-rights movement sweeping the states in favor of a constitutional amendment. Their positions of principled independence in a conservative populist year have them so far mired in single digits. And, to his credit, even the socially conservative Rick Santorum eventually got the message and condemned the boos.
But the two frontrunners—Rick Perry and Mitt Romney—have so far been shamefully silent on the moment in the debate, going so far as to refuse further comment through spokesmen. This lack of courage will look bad in the eyes of history and takes a further chunk out of any claims they will make about how they can be moral leaders of the nation in the White House.
Take a moment to see the crowd’s eruption in a larger context of this year’s presidential debates. Draw a mental line between the cheers that greeted Rick Perry’s proud claim that he hadn’t lost any sleep over the 234 (now 235) executions he has presided over as governor of Texas, and the giddy applause that greeted Wolf Blitzer’s question about whether an uninsured 30-year-old in a catastrophic car crash should be allowed to die or be given treatment, and, finally, the booing of soldier Stephen Hill.
They are all flashes of an ugly impulse we have seen periodically in our politics—when conservative populism meets with a mob mentality. These are the forces that H. L. Mencken wrote about when he covered the Scopes "Monkey Trial" and what Richard Hofstadter wrote about in The Paranoid Style in American Politics. It is resurgent again in a party that has allowed the fringe to blur with the base, to the extent that otherwise responsible presidential candidates are afraid to condemn it because of the potential political fallout in closed partisan primaries.
The point is not that those boos—or the execution applause—characterize the entire debate crowd, let alone the conservative movement or even the Republican Party. Let’s say, giving the benefit of the doubt, that it was just a very vocal minority hijacking the debate. Nonetheless, the lack of condemnation speaks to a growing problem in the GOP—evidence that the inmates are coming close to running the asylum, enabled by a cowardice that comes from the pressure to ideologically conform.
Conservative populism is usually, almost by definition, on the wrong side of history. But it has always been a powerful force in American politics. When it is combined with a mob mentality that cheers executions or reinforces bigotry, bad things can happen.
Right now, responsible Republicans are needed to stand up and condemn the extremes on their side of the aisle. In doing so, they can take comfort in the knowledge that they are following the example of William F. Buckley, who condemned the John Birch Society’s paranoid delusions in the 1960s. If they have the courage to state that their belief in individual freedom extends to gays and lesbians, they can do so in the knowledge that conservative icon Barry Goldwater backed gays in the military decades ago, famously saying that "you don’t have to be straight to shoot straight." And they will know that they are doing their part to redeem the reputation of the Party of Lincoln.
But if the GOP presidential candidates continue to pander to the lowest common denominator in our politics, standing silent when the mob mentality rears its head, they only provide more evidence of the current field’s weakness.