Even without a question from a talking snowman, Wednesday’s CNN/YouTube Republican debate made for lively viewing. It also left an unsettling aftertaste. Eight years ago, George W. Bush began his first presidential campaign by proudly identifying himself as a “compassionate conservative.” But on Wednesday, many of the Republicans who aspire to succeed Bush seemed to be competing for the title of “meanest candidate.”
In pursuit of that goal, the candidates’ hearts were especially hardened toward illegal immigrants, including children. Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-El Cajon) boasted that “I built that border fence in San Diego” and promised that, as president, he would fence off the entire border in six months. Mitt Romney professed dismay at the fact that Mike Huckabee, his fellow former GOP governor, had “fought for giving scholarships to illegal aliens.” Rudy Giuliani, on the defensive over charges that New York City was a “sanctuary city” during his administration as mayor, conceded he allowed undocumented children to attend public schools -- but insisted he wasn’t interested in giving them an education as much as trying to keep them off the streets “at a time in which New York City was going through a massive crime wave.”
It wasn’t just the troubles of those in the U.S. illegally whose plight failed to move several of the candidates. Hunter, Huckabee, Romney and Sen. John McCain defended the demeaning policy of “don’t ask, don’t tell” that still governs gays in the military. Hunter added insult to insensitivity by suggesting that gays can’t be allowed to serve because most of their comrades would be conservatives with “Judeo-Christian values.”
Finally, completing a tough-guy trifecta, Romney refused to say whether the waterboarding of suspected terrorists amounted to torture.
The debate was not devoid of voices of humanity. McCain -- a former prisoner of war -- upbraided Romney for seeming to wink at torture: “Governor, let me tell you, if we’re going to get the high ground in this world and we’re going to be the America that we have cherished and loved for more than 200 years, we’re not going to torture people.” The Arizona senator, a supporter of comprehensive immigration reform, also reminded his rivals that children without immigration papers still are “God’s children.” Huckabee was equally eloquent in defending the idea that able students in Arkansas high schools, no matter what their immigration status, should have been able to compete for scholarships. “We are a better country than to punish children for what their parents did,” he told Romney. He’s right, but you wouldn’t know it from Wednesday’s debate.
In 1999, then-Gov. George W. Bush asked: “Is compassion beneath us? Is mercy below us? Should our party be led by someone who boasts of a hard heart?” Judging from this week’s debate, at least some of the men who aspire to follow Bush believe the answer to those questions is “yes.”