Paul Begala on Why the GOP Needs Better Crowd Control

The night’s real loser was the audience, which showed a stunning capacity for cruelty, says Paul Begala.

As happened in previous debates, the audience in the Fox News/Google debate stole the show—and shocked the conscience. When a gay soldier asked a question, the audience booed. They booed a man who is risking his life for their freedom. Rarely have I seen a more unpatriotic public display. Not long thereafter, Mitt Romney gave a sappy paean to cheap patriotism, saying we’re the only country whose citizens put their hands over their hearts during the National Anthem. Fine. But shouldn’t someone have spoken up for that brave soldier? That would have taken real courage and shown real patriotism. Just as no candidate spoke up in prior debates when audience members cheered executions and yelled, “Let him die!” in response to Wolf Blitzer’s question about a young, uninsured man who would die without health care, the entire field was gutless and the audience was downright disgusting.

If the boos went according to shameful type, the applause lines were pre-programmed as well. The EPA and Department of Education were vilified (“Yaaaayyyy!!!”), President Obama was labeled a “socialist (“Hooooraaaaayyy!”), taxes should be zero (“Huzzzzaaaaah!”), foreign aid should be eliminated (“Yipppeeeee!!”), and Israel must be supported (“Whoooppppeee!...errr, umm, wait: do they get foreign aid?”).

Let’s start with the frontrunners. Mitt Romney turned in another strong debate performance. Gone were the pre-planned canned lines of the early debates. In their place was a confident and aggressive critique of Rick Perry, and tough counterpunches (“I actually wrote my book.”).

Former pilot Rick Perry lost a little more altitude. His game does not seem to be improving with time. He ran out of gas, noticeably fumbling his attack on Mitt Romney’s health-care plan. Perry had back surgery in July, and one wonders if he has the stamina to go toe-to-toe through a long campaign. I have touted Perry’s political skills for some time, but he’s making me look foolish. Perry, a staunch opponent of gay rights, even suggested that in seeking a running mate he would look at “mating up” Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich. No wonder he got a C in Animal Breeding at Texas A&M.

Perry did show flashes of the skill I’d anticipated when he stood up for the Texas Dream Act, which allows undocumented residents of Texas to pay in-state tuition. His position is likely to hurt him with the GOP base, but Perry seemed unfazed.

Rick Santorum seemed to eclipse Michele Bachmann as the prophet of the social right. I can’t wait for the post-election reporting to tell me how and why Bachmann, who began as an electrifying presence on the stump, has been remarkably low-wattage of late.

I may start a betting pool on what the Republicans will boo in the next debate: puppies? Ronald Reagan? Ronald Reagan’s puppies?