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Opinion: Watching the GOP Debate—A Visit to The Twilight Zone

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Mitt Romney and Rick Perry speak at a Republican presidential debate hosted by CNN on Monday, September 12th.

In the famous Twilight Zone episode "Eye of the Beholder," we the audience see a strange alternate universe where conventional notions of beauty are turned upside down. What we consider attractive, this other world calls heinous. What repulses us is their vision of the ideal.

In last night's Republican Presidential debate, we the people came upon just as topsy-turvy a world.

This through-the-looking-glass phenomenon began last week, at Wednesday's MSNBC/Politico debate, when the audience applauded a stat referenced by Brian Williams: "Governor Perry, a question about Texas. Your state has executed 234 death row inmates (since you took office), more than any other governor in modern times."

The ovation—before Williams could reach his question—was one of the most spontaneous and enthusiastic all night.

Flash forward five days to a debate sponsored by CNN and The Tea Party Express. There were predictable applause lines about cutting taxes, repealing Obamacare and leaving job creation to corporations. There was one particularly well-phrased question by a young audience member about what percentage of the money he earned he deserved to keep (I disagree with the point but was impressed with the framing). And then, there were the moments that made us feel we had crossed into a universe only Rod Serling could have imagined.

The rival candidates and audience turned on Rick Perry, the frontrunner with deep Tea Party support, for his claim that if you're a young person in this country, regardless of your last name, you should have the chance to contribute to society rather than be a drag on it. He was booed.

The context was giving children of undocumented workers a pathway to citizenship and the opportunity for higher education, which meant that Perry's Christian belief—we shouldn't punish children for this sins of their parents—was viewed as condoning and encouraging illegal immigration.

Mitt Romney needed to keep apologizing for getting so many people in Massachusetts covered by healthcare and to keep promising he would never do it again. Newt Gingrich got no applause for the job creation record of the '90s, presumably because of who was President. Ron Paul stood his ground to the approval of the crowd, suggesting that if a person didn't invest in their own healthcare, they shouldn't receive emergency support from government hospitals.

Last time the applause was for executions. This time for economic euthanasia.

Then, in a turn of fate, Representative Paul was given the loudest sustained jeering after Senator Santorum accused him of suggesting American actions brought the September 11th attacks upon ourselves. Though he didn't articulate it particularly well, Paul argued that "they hate our freedom" is a useful shortcut to not look at the impact of our foreign policy on the world. Regardless of whether you agree with Paul, it was one of the moments of the evening where there was a real opportunity for a debate on substance and ideas, not on sound bites and gaffes. Except that the booing was too loud.

The most divisive issue, in part because it targeted the front-runner, was over Perry's executive order in Texas that young girls be given the vaccine to prevent HPV, which can lead to cervical cancer. He was accused of it being a healthcare mandate. Michele Bachmann called it forceful coercion, as well as a give-away to big Pharma. Santorum was dismayed that it trampled on parents' rights.

I don't know the issue through and through. There are clearly times we need vaccinations, and other times when we should make sure we're not giving drug companies too much sway. There are times when parents need to make informed choices, and times when there is a public health priority and it's better that they opt out rather than opt in. At the heart of this debate was the unspoken fact that it has to do with an acknowledgement of teenage sexual activity, which nobody wanted to say too much about explicitly on stage.

That said, there was one moment when Rick Perry—the man who last week compared himself to Galileo for his disagreement with the scientific consensus over global warming; the man who thinks evolution is overrated; the man who was applauded for lethal injections—made the reasonable statement that taking action on behalf of the health of young girls in his state was an important act. An act for which he received a sharp rebuke in Texas, and a statement for which he received zero applause last night.

At that moment, as he got the cold shoulder for the most compelling thing he'd said all night, I felt an instant of sympathy for Perry. And I knew that I had entered The Twilight Zone.

Justin Krebs is a political organizer and writer based in New York City. He is the founder of Living Liberally, a nationwide network of 250 local clubs that create social events around progressive politics, and author of "538 Ways to Live, Work and Play Like a Liberal."