Political Animal


November 23, 2011 8:35 AM Will being ‘humane’ cost Gingrich?

By Steve Benen

Opinions vary as to what, exactly, caused Rick Perry’s precipitous fall from “frontrunner” to “struggling second-tier afterthought,” but I’d argue the collapse was the result of one fleeting moment of sanity from the Texas governor. In September, Perry endorsed a sensible immigration policy, suggested his opponents don’t “have a heart,” and immediately saw his support plummet.

The key takeaway from this is that immigration remains fairly radioactive in Republican politics. With that in mind, as John Dickerson explained this morning, Newt Gingrich took a major risk in last night’s debate.

At the CNN national security debate on Tuesday, the former speaker said that he would not be in favor of kicking out illegal immigrant families that had been in the country for a long time. “The party that says it’s the party of the family is going to adopt an immigration policy which destroys families that have been here a quarter century?” he said. “I’m prepared to take the heat for saying, ‘Let’s be humane in enforcing the law.’” […]

After the debate Gingrich stuck to his position on immigration, the broader shape of which is based on a “red card” program put forward by the Krieble Foundation. “Millions will go home,” he said after the debate, “but there will be millions who will be staying.” He said no one should kid themselves about the unworkability of deporting 11 million people. He also made his case on the grounds of simple human kindness. This, almost exactly, was Ronald Reagan’s position. In a 1984 debate with Walter Mondale, the Republican icon said: “I believe in the idea of amnesty for those who have put down roots and lived here, even though sometime back they may have entered illegally.”

Of course, by 2011 standards, Republicans consider Reagan a borderline-socialist sell-out, so it’s not as if Gingrich can rely on Ronaldus Magnus for cover. Indeed, Michele Bachmann immediately went on the offensive, as did Mitt Romney and his campaign.

As is often the case, Romney’s team was pressed on what policy, exactly, the former Massachusetts governor would prefer as an alternative to Gingrich’s “humane” approach, but the Romney campaign struggled to answer.

Regardless, how big a problem is this for Gingrich? Time will tell, of course, but I’d be surprised if we saw a Perry-like collapse. For one thing, Gingrich simply explained his position more effectively than the Texas governor did, and didn’t condemn those who disagreed. For another, there are subtle-but-significant policy differences between Gingrich’s approach and Perry’s.

But there’s also the fact that the campaign is simply in a different phase than it was in September, and the shrinking calendar is likely to affect the party’s reaction. Not only are there no other viable non-Romney candidates for anti-immigrant candidates to flock to, but this is about the time voters are more likely to weigh general-election electability considerations.

Still, there’s no denying Gingrich gambled by saying something reasonable, especially since Iowa will be so important to his campaign and anti-immigrant animus runs strong among Hawkeye State Republicans. It’s worth keeping a close eye on this.

Steve Benen is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly, joining the publication in August, 2008 as chief blogger for the Washington Monthly blog, Political Animal.


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  • Derek on November 23, 2011 8:43 AM:

    It's just too easy ... Gingrich purporting to favor a policy based on its value to "family"? Is this the same mentality that drove him to divorce his wife whilst recovering from cancer?

  • c u n d gulag on November 23, 2011 8:48 AM:

    Newt is crazy.

    And Newt is a certifiable asshole.

    But Newt ain't stupid.

    He's the only semi-legitimate candidate up there who realizes, or at least acknowledges, that the demographics will be working against the Republicans in the near future.

    And Newt's being very clever!
    By sounding sympathetic, he, if he's the unlikely candidate, is trying to siphon-off some Hispanic votes.

    And yet, he's not promising future citizenship to further worsen an already worsening demographic outlook.

    That's pretty smart, I think!

  • T2 on November 23, 2011 8:50 AM:

    I don't think Romney's sniping at Newt over this will amount to much, I get the feeling that today's GOPer/TP voter isn't interested in Mitt's opinion. Bachmann still has the ear of the TeaParty nut base and could cause Newt trouble on that front...but really, is anyone listening to her either? I think Benen's mostly right...Newt is the only choice left in the Not Mitt sweepstakes. Hard to believe, isn't it.
    On the other hand, Newt could flip-flop on this immigrant issue today and it wouldn't surprise me, or anyone.

  • Danp on November 23, 2011 8:53 AM:

    The only thing that matters to Republicans is "can he win?" Gingrich's comment will do more to convince Republicans that he can, than it will to convince them that he will suddenly become compassionate. He's said enough things like supporting child labor to convince them that last night was just for show.

  • johnny canuck on November 23, 2011 9:14 AM:

    Newt has succeeded in doing 2 things: the conversation is about his "family values" approach to immigration (making it harder for some to attack him because of his justification); he is offering residence but not citizenship to church going illegals. As long as they can't vote it minimizes the damage to Republicans.

    I think it may actually have been quite deliberate. and be seen as brilliant. Of course with Newt you never can be sure.

  • Rugosa on November 23, 2011 9:17 AM:

    ". . . Gingrich gambled by saying something reasonable . . ." just about sums up the state of the Republican party.

    Scultchi Notes. Are those the notes emitted by dog whistles?

  • Holly W on November 23, 2011 9:24 AM:

    Nate SIlver offers good analysis on it too. It's about image: Mitt was for his time a moderate governor while Newt was the guy fighting Bill Clinton, no matter that the GOP has sailed rightward to where Newt's old positions- Cap and Trade, mandatory healthcare, amnesty- are anathema, and that he's to Mitt's left on many issues. And it's about emotions and red meat: a Republican candidate could get away with endorsing the stimulus if in the same breath, he called Obama a secular, anti-colonialist, socialist. Newt's defense of amnesty stroked conservative ego, "We are the party of the family" whereas the clumsy Perry bruised it, "You don't have a heart." Perry made the same mistake Newt made attacking Ryancare: he flashed hostility to the wrong side, his own. Newt learned from his political mistake. As Silver points out, Perry's was more of a first impression for many people.

  • jlt on November 23, 2011 9:27 AM:

    Nah...we know newt is lying...It is all part of his bombast and reckless BS stick!

  • Marko on November 23, 2011 9:28 AM:

    A misfit, a clown, and a con-man go into a bar. And everybody said, "Hi Newt!"

  • pad on November 23, 2011 9:35 AM:

    I heard it and thought he really doesn't want to be the nominee. Be reasonable, drop in the polls, go back to selling books. Sound like a plan!

  • Rip on November 23, 2011 10:00 AM:

    Newt's lack of compassion is a big part of his appeal with conservatives, so he'll probably get a pass for not being hateful enough on this particular issue, especially, as Steve notes, if they don't feel like he was attacking anyone on the right for having a tougher position on immigration.

    Not to worry, Gingrich will say something else to remind Republicans why they thought so little of him just a couple months ago.

    Iowa's caucus will be interesting, as it is the opposite of a primary - with heavy politicing and peer pressure going on right up to the last minute. I just don't see Gingrich as being the viable anti-Romney for most of the caucus goers.

  • Sasha on November 23, 2011 10:01 AM:

    Newt Gingrinch is not Mitt Romney and he's nastier and less bumbling than Perry. His "gaffe" won't hurt him.

  • SW on November 23, 2011 10:11 AM:

    Its perfect really. Willard befriends Ben (One of the more odious Koch Bros). In the end he is done in by the rampaging rats who represent the rest of the 1% rat fuck crowd because of his liberal (girlie) tendencies.

  • SW on November 23, 2011 10:14 AM:

    Sorry I posted this on the wrong thread. Just need to see the two minute "Willard" remake on SNL!

  • Lance on November 23, 2011 10:33 AM:

    Here I thought this was Newt's tacit acknowledgement that this is a book tour, not a presidential campaign for him.

    But you suggest there simply isn't enough time for Newt to lose the nomination.

    Now that is worrying.

  • Texas Aggie on November 23, 2011 11:41 AM:

    The sad part is that there are three candidates that have at least one position that rings sensible. Paul wants to get uninvolved in making an empire and getting the government out of people's bedrooms, but the rest of his program is pure ridiculousness.

    Huntsman has some decent social issue stands, but then he endorses vouchers for Medicare and other extremely right wing issues.

    And now Turkeyburger comes up with a decent immigration policy, but the rest of his program stinks on ice.

    How do you deal with this kind of a situation?

  • CDW on November 23, 2011 11:41 AM:

    Just think of all the little janitors we would have to clean our schools. Maybe they could branch out and clean office buildings at night. Humane? You betcha! We'd be doing all of them a favor.