Making good use of unruly GOP audiences

Audience reactions during recent Republican presidential debates have, quite unexpectedly, become a pretty significant story unto themselves. What started with a GOP audience applauding the executions of 234 people was followed by some shouts for allowing the uninsured die, culminating last week with some debate attendees booing an Army soldier serving in Iraq.

The Democratic National Committee released this web video yesterday, connecting the three incidents, and emphasizing the fact that none of the Republican candidates were willing to speak up during the events.

The clip makes good use of an editorial from the Concord Monitor in New Hampshire, which said, “The most disturbing aspect of the WrestleMania behavior at the debates is not that some audience members booed a soldier and many cheered death. It’s that not one Republican candidate … spoke up to admonish the crowd and call for civility. Not one candidate, in situations that cried out for it, exhibited leadership.”

It’s not just the DNC. President Obama has reminded supporters about the debate audiences during his West Coast trip, and his chief spokesperson stressed a similar point yesterday.

…White House press secretary Jay Carney elaborated on the president’s remarks, saying, “There was a question asked by a soldier, a U.S. soldier stationed in Iraq, about ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ and the fact that when he was booed by audience members, not a single one of the candidates for president, people who believe they have what it takes to be commander in chief, said a thing about that. And he is there defending our country, putting his life on the line for our country.

“The president was also struck by, in an earlier debate, where the hypothetical question was asked about someone who didn’t have health insurance that had died and there were cheers at that prospect and no candidate had anything to say about that,” Carney said. “It’s a matter of values. It’s a matter of who we are as Americans.”

There’s more to this than just shining a light on unruly GOP extremism. As Carney put it, “It’s a matter of values” — the White House, as it gears up for the 2012 race, will be looking for ways to connect with voters, many of whom are disgusted with Washington and dejected by high unemployment. It makes the “values” pitch appealing — the message to voters is less about specific economic conditions and more about character and the principles of the American mainstream, which Republicans frequently reject.

President Obama told supporters in Los Angeles last night the upcoming election is “about values; it’s about character; it’s about who we are.” And “we,” in this case, aren’t the kind of people who boo soldiers serving overseas or cheer letting the uninsured die.

Keep an eye on this; it’s likely to be a theme we’ll be hearing a lot more of over the next year.

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Steve Benen

Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.