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Post Leadership
Posted at 12:31 PM ET, 01/17/2012

The SC GOP debate — and the fault within ourselves

“Today,” former Utah Governor Jon Huntmsan said Monday morning in announcing the end of his campaign, “I call on each campaign to cease attacking each other and instead talk directly to the American people about how our conservative ideas will create jobs.”

Most of the candidates were ignoring Huntsman before he suspended his campaign. So it makes sense they would ignore him afterward. And in fact, they did—just hours later in the GOP debate in Myrtle Beach, S.C. Monday night, each candidate continued attacking each other and talked little about how they would create jobs other than to cut regulations and taxes.

Rick Santorum called Newt Gingrich’s ideas for job creation “irresponsible” and, like Romney’s, “not bold”—perhaps even more of a snub for the self-styled GOP “ideas man.” Gingrich questioned, quite oddly, what kind of influence Romney would have as president, because he “apparently has no influence” over his Super PAC, a relationship that laws prevent. Romney called an ad Gingrich’s Super PAC put out against him “probably the biggest hoax since Big Foot.”

It had been that way all night. Rick Perry poked fun at Ron Paul’s foreign policy views by suggesting the moderators needed a gong rather than a bell to end his remarks. And when Paul was asked if he agreed that negative attacks should be abandoned, he simply doubled down, saying only that he couldn’t get to all the criticisms he wanted to make about Rick Santorum because he didn’t have enough time. “My only regret is that I couldn’t get enough in that one minute,” Paul said.

This is not surprising, of course. But what did surprise me was the level of influence the crowd in Myrtle Beach Monday night seemed to have in egging on the candidates’ sparring words. Most of the comments mentioned were greeted with thunderous applause, moreso than in any of the debates thus far. Moderators were booed for asking legitimate, if provocative, questions. And some of the loudest cheers of the night came when Rick Perry said that Texas is “under assault by” and South Carolina “is at war with” the federal government. As the Fix’s Chris Cillizza put it in his recap, “it became clear after about 15 minutes that Gingrich, Perry and, to a lesser extent, Santorum were all vamping for crowd reaction in each of their answers.”

That’s not what we should expect from our potential presidential leaders. Rather than pandering to a crowd’s base instincts, it should be a candidate’s job to hold back on some of the red meat and delve into the issues more substantively instead. We may all complain, like Huntsman, about the lack of civility in Washington today, about the negative ads and harsh attacks in presidential campaigns, about the lack of detailed discussions about issues beyond mere talking points. But while it may be a leader’s job to rise above the fray and not stoop to the sort of remarks that get the crowd hopping, it’s also voters’ jobs as followers to help them do that. If we don’t, we won’t get the leaders we need. We’ll get the leaders we deserve.

More from On Leadership:

The GOP candidates’ best leadership traits

Jon Huntsman and letting go

PHOTOS | Top ten places to work in government

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