Jewish World Review Sept. 16, 2011 17 Elul, 5771
The Mob Takes a Seat
By Roger Simon
Not every evening. Just the evenings that have Republican presidential debates.
There have been five such debates so far, but only the last two of them have been considered major because they have featured Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who is leading in the polls.
Except the debates haven't really featured him. They have featured the audience.
If you have ever asked yourself how crowds could have gathered to cheer public burnings, beheadings and guillotinings in times past, tune in to one of these debates, and you will stop asking.
At a Politico/NBC debate last week in Simi Valley, Calif., Brian Williams began asking Perry about one unique aspect of his record as governor: the number of people Texas has put to death.
Williams: "Gov. Perry, a question about Texas. Your state has executed 234 death row inmates, more than any other governor in modern times. Have you ..."
At this point, at least part of the audience burst into loud applause and whistles and stopped only because Williams continued with his question.
Williams: "... have you struggled to sleep at night with the idea that any one of those might have been innocent?"
Perry: "No, sir. I've never struggled with that at all. ... You kill one of our children, you kill a police officer, you're involved with another crime and you kill one of our citizens, you will face the ultimate justice in the state of Texas, and that is, you will be executed."
Here the audience erupted into very loud, prolonged applause with a couple of "whoops" thrown in. It was certainly the biggest audience reaction of the evening, so much so that Williams asked a good follow-up question on the fly.
Williams: "What do you make of that dynamic that just happened here, the mention of the execution of 234 people drew applause?"
Perry: "I think Americans understand justice."
Or at least they understand cheering.
Flash forward five days to Monday, when there was another Republican debate, this time in Tampa and sponsored by CNN and the Tea Party Express. The crowd was even more demonstrative in Tampa than in Simi Valley. It was filled with tea partiers, who don't believe in hiding their feelings.
The moderator was Wolf Blitzer, who was trying to pin down Ron Paul, a libertarian and a physician, on the question of health care and what you do about people who refuse to buy it and then get deathly ill.
Libertarians believe in no government at most — OK, OK, a slight exaggeration — and Ron Paul was not about to endorse forcing people to buy health insurance. Blitzer hammered away with question after question about what would happen if a healthy young person refused to buy insurance.
Paul: "What he should do is whatever he wants to do, and assume responsibility for himself. My advice to him would (be to) have a major medical policy, but not be forced ..."
Blitzer: "But he doesn't have that. He doesn't have it, and he needs intensive care for six months. Who pays?"
Paul: "That's what freedom is all about, taking your own risks ..."
Here loud, raucous applause and whistling broke out from the audience, almost covering up the rest of Paul's answer.
Paul: "This whole idea that you have to prepare and take care of everybody ..."
Blitzer: "But congressman, are you saying that society should just let him die?"
"Yeah!" a man screamed loudly from the audience, setting off more applause.
And then Paul explained how when he practiced medicine before Medicaid, "the churches took care" of those without insurance and "we never turned anybody away from the hospitals."
But it was the audience that made the news, not Paul. Some people wondered how you cheer for letting a sick person die.
Easy. You just open up your mouth and spew. And it became one of the debate moments that people remembered.
The next morning, Rick Perry, probably after being briefed by his handlers, told reporters: "I was a bit taken aback by that myself. We're the party of life. We ought to be coming up with ways to save lives." (Though not the 234 lives Texas took by lethal injection in the cause of justice during his term, of course.)
Jacob Weisberg of Slate called the audience reaction "medieval," Tommy Christopher of Mediaite called it "ugly" and "ghoulish" and many news organizations carried the story that Ron Paul's former campaign manager, a libertarian, died at age 49 in 2008 from viral pneumonia, was uninsured and left $400,000 in medical bills for his mother and friends to pay.
There have been a number of loud and ugly moments in America's recent political history, ranging from U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., shouting, "You lie!" during President Barack Obama's address to a joint session of Congress in September 2009 to the cheering for a sick person's death in Tampa this week.
But at least Wilson was forced by the leaders of his party to apologize for his boorishness. In Tampa, those who want to be the future leader of the Republican Party stood on stage in utter silence, not one using the moment to rebuke the crowd for its behavior.
It is said there is wisdom in crowds. But sometimes a crowd is just a mob that happens to be sitting down.
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