Cal Thomas's commentary on the now-infamous exchange between Wolf Blitzer and Rep. Paul at last week's Republican debate illustrates the subtle yet significant distinctions that exist within the Party of Lincoln at this moment in history. Blitzer asked a question -- which Thomas said "revealed something about the questioner" -- that many people, I suppose, have wanted to ask of Republicans: if someone without insurance has a medical crisis that renders him comatose and endangers his life, "are you saying society should just let him die?" As Thomas shows, 21st century Republicanism offers at least three answers, including his own.
1. The rabble. As Thomas reports, "Some in the audience shouted 'yes.'" Thomas himself clearly disapproves of this response, though he doesn't condemn it directly. Instead, he makes the snarky observation: "They must have come from the previous debate where Gov. Rick Perry's pride in executing convicted murderers was widely applauded." It'd seem that Thomas has a problem with that, too, though it's unclear whether it's a disagreement on principle or a disagreement over tone. The tone does bother him, and it should. Those anonymous shouts were the voice of the lumpenbourgeoisie, if not of the Tea Party movement in general, and they confirm everyone else's worst fears about the movement -- that they don't give a damn whether other people live or die. It remains unclear how many Republicans or Tea partiers believe that, but we had better remember that some, if not many, do feel that way.
2. Ron Paul. The Texas solon was following up on his first answer to Blitzer, when he'd said that the theoretical uninsured man "should do ... whatever he wants to do, and assume responsibility for himself." He was contesting "this whole idea that you have to prepare and take care of everybody" when Blitzer interjected his provocative follow-up question. Paul appeared to press on with what he meant to say without responding to the raised moral stakes. "We've given up on this whole concept that we might take care of ourselves and assume responsibility for ourselves." Responding to the first question, about who should pay for the uninsured man's treatment, Paul answered, "Our neighbors, our friends, our churches would do it." Thomas called Paul's first answer "powerful," but felt the need to elaborate on the implications of Paul's second answer, the shouts of the rabble perhaps making that need more urgent.
3. Cal Thomas. The columnist clarified that "federal law prohibits anyone from being turned away from a hospital emergency room, whether in a coma or not," before moving on to the moral issue raised by the Blitzer-Paul-rabble exchange. He puts a communitarian spin on Paul's individual responsibility scenario, putting greater emphasis on the role and responsibility of "our neighbors, our friends, etc." If individuals seem to have grown more dependent upon government, Thomas suggests, that's in part because people in general -- families, neighbors, etc., have dropped out of the habit of looking out for each other. "Now, in our two-income households when we buy so much stuff we must rent public storage units for the overflow, we hardly have time for our own families, much less the concerns of others. How many of us know our neighbors?"
Thomas goes on to talk up a British plan proposed by the ruling Conservative party in which government ministers would "adopt" jobless families and help them acquire skills and find jobs. The idea seems contemptibly superficial, but it inspires Thomas to make a more important point that separates him from the Republican rabble and the individualists like Rep. Paul. In one sentence, the point is: "If we want smaller government, we will have to pick up the slack." In an admittedly generous reading, this means that his alternative to dependence (or "addiction," as he sometimes calls it) on government is not simply "sink or swim," but at the very least a transitional period of dependence upon the community, upon extended family, neighbors, social institutions (including churches), etc. Thomas's disdain for the rabble who cheered the idea of letting the poor simply die suggests strongly that, for him at least, ending the welfare state is not meant to winnow out or eliminate the weak. The big question, of course, is whether he or the rabble speak for the majority of 2011 model Republicans.
From a non-Republican perspective, we can find fault with all three degrees of Republicanism. While Thomas at least indicates that he respects life as an end unto itself, his stance begs the question: why not recognize democratic government as the neighborhood writ large, or as the means by which all citizens help one another? Before we credit him too much for his apparently charitable impulses, we should ask whether Thomas makes too much of them? Like many Americans, he seems to think that an act is virtuous only if it's voluntary, but loses that character if it becomes compulsory through the collection of taxes and so on. That is, the virtue doesn't really lie in the benefit to the recipient but in the merit acquired by the philanthropist. The charitable are like the pacifists: admirable in many respects but on an unacknowledged level more interested in their own karma and salvation than in the common good. On some level they reserve the right as individuals to define the good rather than allow that the good may define them. This may sound harsh, but it's better than saying that someone is so self-centered that he doesn't give a damn whether anyone else lives or dies, which seems to be all too true, as Thomas himself recognizes, about some in the GOP today. He might say that delegating moral responsibility to the state is a form of personal abdication that allows everyone to take persistent mass dependence for granted, and that'd be something to debate about. But if his ultimate commitment is to life rather than "responsibility," that debate might have interesting results.
Meanwhile, there's probably no debating the rabble in the cheap seats. Heard and not seen, they reduce themselves to radio emissions and trolling anonymity, opinions in the place of humanity. One can only hope that they're a loud minority, but one should not minimize the danger they represent to the country. If a politician gets into power who represents their point of view, even Cal Thomas might end up joining the opposition.