To get a sense of how far we’ve come since 2008, consider the moment in Monday night’s debate when Ron Paul was asked whether or not an uninsured 30-year-old man should be left to die if a tragedy put him into a coma. Before Paul could say no and wistfully describe the good old days when “churches” and neighbors and friends would come to such a person’s aid, the crowd erupted into applause and yelled “yeah!” to host Wolf Blitzer’s question.
What was astonishing in this episode was not Paul’s response—his libertarian views are well known. It was not even the crowd’s appalling applause over the idea that, yes, someone who meets such an unfortunate end without insurance should not get a safety net and be left to die. What I couldn’t get over was the fact that none of the other candidates stepped in at their next opportunity to remind the crowd that life is sacred, and while we may disagree on how to save it, we do have a responsibility to our fellow man. It was an opportunity to demonstrate leadership that every person on stage missed entirely.
It was also a long way from a 2008 rally in Minnesota, when then-GOP nominee John McCain stood up to a supporter who called Barack Obama “an Arab.” After criticism that GOP rallies had racism on display, McCain responded to the woman by saying “No ma’am. [Obama's] a decent family man, citizen, that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues. And that’s what this campaign is all about.” Back in 2008, the crowd applauded for that.
Fast forward to 2011, and while the issues may be very different, the qualities of leadership that are called upon are the same. McCain had a responsibility to remind rally goers that no matter how much such ideas might help his campaign, bigotry and xenophobia are not American values. And the GOP candidates on the stage had a responsibility to remind audience members in the debate Monday night that no matter how much they may despise big government, human life is something that deserves more respect.
They ignored that obligation, however. When Blitzer turned the same question about the hypothetical 30-year-old man to Bachmann, she immediately turned to Obama’s health-care legislation, not answering the question and not addressing the crowd’s response. When the debate returned from a commercial break, the topic changed to illegal immigration and no one tried to return to the discussion. Rick Perry reported in post-debate interviews that he was “taken aback” by the cheering; but if that’s really the case, why didn’t he say anything?
People have a right to their policy opinions, even those that are at the far extremes of either end of the political spectrum. But anyone who fashions himself or herself as a leader also has an obligation to remind people of our basic humanity, our shared values and our responsibility to the truth. Eight candidates had an opportunity to demonstrate that Monday night, but none of them took it.
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