That there’s still even “debate” over whether the United States should engage in torture is a national embarrassment, and the way it was addressed in last night’s debate wasn’t exactly encouraging.

Co-moderator Major Garrett read an email from a veteran of the Vietnam War who believes “torture is always wrong in all cases,” and asked if the candidates agree. The question was first directed to Herman Cain, who said he’d do whatever military leaders said they wanted to do. Garrett pressed further, specifically noting the argument over waterboarding. Cain replied:

“I agree that it was an enhanced interrogation technique…. Yes, I would return to that policy. I don’t see it as torture. I see it as an enhanced interrogation technique.”

This generated applause from the South Carolina audience.

Michele Bachmann took a similar line, which also drew applause from attendees:

“If I were president, I would be willing to use waterboarding. I think it was very effective. It gained information for our country. And I also would like to say that today, under Barack Obama, he is allowing the A.C.L.U. to run the C.I.A.”

I have a hunch David Petraeus would disagree.

In fairness, I should note that the pro-torture position was not universally endorsed by the Republican candidates, and both Ron Paul and Jon Huntsman were quite articulate in condemning U.S. use of torture techniques. Given what’s become of Republican politics, I’m inclined to give both of them credit for taking unpopular, principled stands on the issue.

But in light of the Cain and Bachmann responses, it’s worth keeping a couple of things in mind. First, in GOP circles, support for torture remains painfully strong, even now. Post-Cheney, it’s become practically a party norm to support torture techniques that America used to consider unthinkable. Though Rick Santorum didn’t comment on this last night, it was just this summer when he said John McCain “doesn’t understand how enhanced interrogation works,” because the former prisoner of war opposes torture.

And second, Republican debate audiences continue to be a legitimate story in their own right. Over the last few months, we’ve seen GOP audiences cheer the execution of 234 people, cheer letting the insured die, boo an American soldier who happens to be gay, and now applaud torture.

There’s a deep strain of ugliness in Republican politics in 2011, and it appears to be getting worse.

Steve Benen

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. 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.