First it was Gov. Rick Perry and the death penalty. Then it was Rep. Ron Paul and health insurance. Now it is former Sen. Rick Santorum and openly gay and lesbian troops serving in the military. But instead of cheers, it is a loud boo drawing attention.
For the third time this month, the audience at a Republican presidential debate has played an active role and put an exclamation mark on a particular question.
Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who has been targeted by gay rights groups in the past, was asked by a moderator at the Fox News-Google debate in Orlando Thursday night about the repeal this week of the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy toward openly gay and lesbian service members serving in the military.
“In 2010, when I was deployed to Iraq, I had to lie about who I was, because I’m a gay soldier, and I didn’t want to lose my job,” said Stephen Hill, whose image was projected on a large TV screen in the debate hall. “My question is, under one of your presidencies, do you intend to circumvent the progress that’s been made for gay and lesbian soldiers in the military?”
Santorum launched into an impassioned defense of re-instating the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.
“I would say, any type of sexual activity has absolutely no place in the military,” he said. “And the fact that they’re making a point to include it as a provision within the military that we are going to recognize a group of people and give them a special privilege to — to — and removing “don’t ask/don’t tell” I think tries to inject social policy into the military. And the military’s job is to do one thing, and that is to defend our country.”
Applause grew in the audience as he added, “We need to give the military, which is all-volunteer, the ability to do so in a way that is most efficient at protecting our men and women in uniform. And I believe this undermines that ability.”
But Hill has already gone public as a gay soldier. What should be done with him, the Fox News moderator asked?
“What we’re doing is playing social experimentation with … our military right now. And that’s tragic,” Santorum argued.
“I would … just say that, going forward, we would … reinstitute that policy, if Rick Santorum was president, period. That policy would be reinstituted. And as far as people who are in … I would not throw them out, because that would be unfair to them because of the policy of this administration, but we would move forward in … conformity with what was happening in the past, which was, sex is not an issue. … It should not be an issue. Leave it alone, keep it … to yourself, whether you’re a heterosexual or a homosexual.”
The crowd in Orlando cheered wildly at Santorum’s answer.
Congress approved repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy in December 2010, during the lame-duck session after the elections that swept Republicans into power of the House of Representatives, but before they had taken power. Six Republicans voted with Democrats in the Senate to repeal the policy.
The policy took nine months to repeal and gays and lesbians can publicly disclose their sexual orientation without fear of being discharged, as of this week.
Santorum was asked about the boos Friday on Fox News.
“I condemn the people who booed that gay soldier,” Santorum said. “He’s serving our country. I thank him for his sercie and I hope he’s safe and returns safely and dos the mission well.”
Santorum said he did not hear the boos in the debate hall, but Megyn Kelly, one of the Fox moderators, did. Santorum said if he had heard the boos, he would have “said don’t do that; this man is serving our country.”
But it is not just the booing that has gay rights groups perturbed. Santorum’s opinion is that the man shouldn’t be able to serve as an openly gay man.
“No service member defending our freedoms in Iraq should be booed for expressing his or her views as an individual,” said Servicemembers Legal Defense Network Director Aubrey Sarvis said in a statement. “I regret that this brave patriot was not defended last night in Orlando and that no candidate spoke up to say ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ repeal has been settled by Congress and our nation’s senior military leaders – and is supported by more than eighty percent of the American people.”
Applause and cheering from Republican debate crowds lead to storylines in two previous debates this month.
At a debate in South Carolina Sept. 8, sponsored by NBC, Rick Perry was asked about the death penalty and the more than 200 executions that have occurred in that state during his governorship. The crowd applauded that question. Perry, asked about their response, attributed the crowd’s reaction to its understanding of justice and support of capital punishment.
Then, at a GOP debate in Florida Sept. 12, sponsored by CNN, Texas congressman Paul was asked a hypothetical question about a 30-year-old man who is uninsured but contracts cancer. Should that man be allowed to die? Crowd members cheered at the question.
“What he should do is whatever he wants to do and assume responsibility for himself,” Paul said, adding, “That’s what freedom is all about, taking your own risk. This whole idea that you have to compare and take care of everybody…” said Paul, who suggested churches and charities and not the government should step in to care for the hypothetical patient.
It is a personal issue for Paul, whose 2008 campaign manager was uninsured and died of cancer. Paul, a physician, helped raise money to cover his staffer’s medical bills, but he has rejected that his position against giving insurance to the uninsured is callous. It has to do with freedom, he told reports in Washington earlier this week.