For those who often find themselves simply shocked by extremism in political debate, these are certainly trying and exciting times. Although I'm not one who's easily shocked by politics that delve deeply in the mean, petty and spiteful — with age comes a persistent feeling of political déjà vu — I will admit that recent days have been exciting, in all the wrong ways.
More specifically, the Republican presidential debates have offered the same thrill as watching stock car races for the crashes — noisy, flashy and with some explosive collisions. Interestingly, what's provided much fodder for the left in the past two debates hasn't been just the candidates, but the audiences themselves.
First, there was the hearty cheering for Texas Gov. Rick Perry's extensive death penalty résumé. Then, in this week's jointly sponsored CNN-Tea Party debate, a significant number of the audience cheered the notion of allowing a hypothetical uninsured 30-year-old man to die if he becomes seriously ill. It's all very bread and circuses in the tea party mosh pit these days.
Of course, it's easy for me to sit back in judgment of this spectacle. The rightward creep — actually, more of a sprint — of the GOP over the past two decades has pretty much ensconced me on the center-left portion of the political spectrum. That's even as I have a fairly conservative reason for opposing the death penalty: Government power does have to be limited and, given the ample demonstrations that the government wields the power of life and death imperfectly and too often capriciously, the death penalty is a power that a just and democratic government should not have.
As for the ''let them die'' approach to health care, I think it's fair enough to write that off as simple, selfish barbarism.
In addition to the repulsed cringing at the spectacle being felt among Democrats, liberals and progressives, there's also an undercurrent of expectant schadenfreude as the difficult 2012 elections move ever closer. Namely, the hope that the GOP will nominate someone so far to the extremes that he or she wouldn't stand a chance against President Barack Obama. These are the people who chatter with glee behind the scenes at the antics of Rep. Michele Bachmann — who's apparently now joined the anti-vaccine know-nothings who think a free society is a society of deadly and crippling childhood diseases — as she keeps pushing the ship hard to starboard.
As entertaining as the spectacle may be at the moment, I can't help but think of the 2008 election cycle when we were told repeatedly about Obama, ''He can't win.'' And in retrospect it's still kind of amazing that he did. The greater point is that you can't dismiss anyone's chances, especially during a time when so many Americans — regardless of sexual orientation or race or region — are facing such dire economic straits.
My ''best world'' preference would be that the Republicans nominate a candidate who's both sane and competent, even if it's someone I could never see myself voting for — although that last bit applies to every Republican candidate so my approach to this is admittedly a bit self-serving. But it does mean that I'd prefer next year's election to be a contest between two rational, if deeply oppositional candidates, rather than a race against a candidate who believes not only that God has an opinion about tax policy but that he communicates it through natural disasters.
But the best world isn't the real world, so I'm not bullish on the chances of rationality from the right. I just hope that we don't mistake irrationality for unelectability.