It can be argued that the Tea Party movement has added an element of democracy to the internal politics of the Republican party, and the news media seem to have picked up on that fact during the debates among contenders for the 2012 presidential nomination. While the exchanges between Gov. Perry and Mitt Romney dominate the quickie coverage of these events, in each of the last three joint appearances people in the audience have tried to steal the show by making their opinions known on controversial questions. First there were cheers for the death penalty and Perry's practice of it. Then there were cheers for the idea that improvident sick people should be left to die. Last night, audience members booed when an openly gay soldier asked the debaters whether they'd allow him to serve in the military. While one Republican blogger was quick to clarify that no more than two people actually booed the soldier, another acknowledges that assertive audience members are creating a problem for the GOP as a whole, rightfully so or not.
The charge made by anti-Republicans is clear enough: the anonymous audience members are the actual intolerant and inhumane voice of the Republican party, the hateful subconscious that can no longer be suppressed by the statesmenlike people on the stage. The answer to the charge also seems obvious: in each case no more than a handful of people spoke up, and it is unfair to say that they represent all Republicans. But the point can be made that the candidates never rebuked the audience boors. Perry was glad to defend his state's pace-setting resort to execution; Rep. Paul did not state plainly that people should not be left to die; Rick Santorum answered the gay soldier by stating that the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" conferred special privileges on homosexuals. It isn't my point, however, to insist that the candidates should have corrected the audience members. I prefer to suggest that these party debates are ideal settings for the airing of controversial views from the audience as well as the stage. If any given audience member doesn't represent the Republican party as a whole, then neither does any of the candidates until one of them is nominated. Republicans have to make a choice from the candidates on the stage -- but they also have a choice to make from the people in the audience. Each of those individuals probably wants to think that he speaks for the Republican party, and there are hostile people in the national audience who'd be happy to affirm that. These cheerleaders and hecklers have made grass-roots, democratic interventions into the Republican primary campaign. They've put their opinions and their agendas on the table, whether the candidates wanted them there or not. Should the candidates have to answer for those yahoos? Should they have to clarify whether the yahoos represent Republicanism or not? That's for all of us to decide.