We heard plenty of contradictions, distortions and untruths at the Republican candidates' tea party debate, but we heard shockingly little compassion -- and almost no acknowledgment that political and economic policy choices have a moral dimension.
The lowest point of the evening -- and perhaps of the political season -- came when moderator Wolf Blitzer asked Ron Paul a hypothetical question about a young man who elects not to purchase health insurance. The man has a medical crisis, goes into a coma and needs expensive care. "Who pays?" Blitzer asked.
"That's what freedom is all about, taking your own risks," Paul answered. "This whole idea that you have to prepare and take care of everybody "
Blitzer interrupted: "But congressman, are you saying that society should just let him die?"
There were enthusiastic shouts of "Yeah!" from the crowd. You'd think one candidate might jump in with a word about Christian kindness. Not a peep.
Paul, a physician, went on to say that, no, the hypothetical comatose man should not be allowed to die. " our neighbors, our friends, our churches" would choose to assume the man's care -- with government bearing no responsibility and playing no role.
Blitzer turned to Michele Bachmann, whose popularity with evangelical Christian voters stems, at least in part, from her own professed born-again faith. Asked what she would do about the man in the coma, Bachmann ignored the question and launched into a canned explanation of why she wants to repeal President Obama's Affordable Care Act.
According to the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus told the Pharisees that God commands us to "love thy neighbor as thyself." There is no asterisk making this obligation null and void if circumstances require its fulfillment via government.
Rick Perry, Mitt Romney, Bachmann, Paul and the others onstage in Tampa all had the same prescription for the economy: Cut spending, cut taxes and let the wealth that results trickle down to the less fortunate. They betrayed no empathy for, or even curiosity about, the Americans who depend on the spending that would be cut. They had no kind words -- in fact, no words at all -- for teachers, firefighters and police officers who will lose their jobs unless cash-strapped state and local government receive federal aid. I believe the Republican candidates' pinched, crabby view of government's nature and role is immoral. I believe the fact that poverty has risen sharply over the past decade -- as shown by new census data -- while the richest Americans have seen their incomes soar is unacceptable. I believe that writing off whole classes of citizens -- the long-term unemployed whose skills are becoming out of date, thousands of former offenders who have paid their debt to society, millions of low-income youth ill-served by inadequate schools -- is unconscionable.
Perry, who is leading in the polls, wants to make the federal government "inconsequential." He thinks Social Security is a "Ponzi scheme" and a "monstrous lie." He doesn't much like Medicare, either.
But there was a fascinating moment in the debate when Perry defended Texas legislation that allows children of illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition at state universities. "We were clearly sending a message to young people, regardless of what the sound of their last name is, that we believe in you," Perry said.
The other candidates bashed him with anti-immigrant rhetoric until the evening's only glimmer of moral responsibility was snuffed out.