The angry mob

Remember the campaign event in 2008 where John McCain challenged audience members who were shouting hateful rhetoric against president Obama?

It was a moment of real leadership that reminded people why McCain is an American hero.  It came after weeks of escalating extremist rhetoric against our country’s first African-American nominee for president (and his family) in which death threats increased to a point that the secret service and campaign reached out to Sen. McCain (R-Ariz.) and his staff to ask for their help.

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The 2012 presidential campaign is barely under way, but the extremism of the angry mob is already escalating to dangerous levels.

Over the last two years, most Republican leaders, including Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) haven’t had the courage McCain showed.  Both men have been unwilling — along with many others in their party — to stand up to their right wing, choosing to be led by them rather than lead.

A few weeks ago in Simi Valley, Calif., the angry mob cheered when Texas Gov. Rick Perry was asked about the 234 people executed during his tenure. It was a chilling moment, particularly against the backdrop of the Troy Davis case, which again raised questions about the fallibility and inequities of “the system.”  To his credit, debate moderator Brian Williams noted the significance of that moment and asked Perry for his reaction to the audience’s cheers.

The mob kicked it up another notch during the Tea Party debate when audience members suggested a hypothetical  30-year-old man without health insurance should be left to die.  Most of these same activists also oppose the Affordable Care Act, which will expand coverage to more than 30 million Americans when fully implemented.

We needed a “Huckabee moment” heading into the next debate.  During a discussion on immigration at one of the GOP primary debates in 2007, Mike Huckabee chose to lead rather than feed into extremist reminding the audience that, “we are all God’s children.”

Instead, Rick Perry was booed for suggesting having a heart when it comes to education for the children of illegal immigrants.

Then, the unthinkable happened when the mob booed Stephen Hill, an American soldier currently serving in Iraq who happens to be gay.  Not only did no one on the stage have the courage to stand up for Hill, none of the three debate moderators recognized the significance of that moment and asked the candidates about it.  It brought back memories of another American hero, John Lewis, being called a racial slur that begins with “n,” by an angry mob during the healthcare debate. Simply shocking.

There have been some post-debate expressions of regret, but not much outrage.  No one has apologized to Stephen Hill.  At one point in time booing a service member — particularly one serving in a time of war — would have been quickly condemned, as Democratic leaders did in response to “General Betray-us,” which also crossed a line.

We know there is more extremist rhetoric to come in this election. It’s a tactic right out of the Rove playbook.

The question is whether anyone within the Republican Tea Party will have the courage to lead rather than feed the angry mob.

Karen Finney is a political analyst for MSNBC and Democratic consultant.