Will Newt Gingrich’s advocacy of a “humane” immigration policy come back to haunt him in his bid to win the GOP presidential nomination? Or has the former House speaker managed to find language that walks the fine line between inflaming his party’s conservative base and aggravating the relationship between the GOP and the Latino community?
The early fallout suggests that the former House speaker has bitten off trouble for himself, but Gingrich seems unperturbed. Asked how much concern he has that the issue could hurt him in the upcoming caucuses and primaries, he responded in an e-mail with customary self-confidence: “None.”
Republican presidential candidates gathered in D.C. on Tuesday night for a debate centered on national security. (Nov. 22)
INTERACTIVE: GOP debate analysis and searchable transcript
The irony of the uproar over his comments is that he has made them before. Two months ago, when the Republican candidates debated at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, Gingrich used almost the same language he employed on Tuesday, down to a call for a humane immigration policy.
No one cared much about what Gingrich said then, because few people considered him a serious contender for the nomination. The focus that night was on former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and especially on Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who was making his first debate appearance. How times have changed. Gingrich’s words now have resonance they didn’t have then. He is dealing with the consequences.
Immigration remains the biggest long-term obstacle facing the GOP. An overwhelmingly white party must find a way to expand its coalition if it hopes to have success in a country that is growing more diverse by the day. The more hawkish the GOP has become, the more it has diminished its chances to appeal to Hispanics, the fastest-growing segment of the population.
Ever since President George W. Bush was unable to prod the party to support a comprehensive immigration-reform policy that included a path to citizenship for the roughly 11 million illegal immigrants in the country, Republicans have marched almost in lock step on the issue, opposing amnesty or anything resembling a path to legal status.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) paid a huge price during his 2008 presidential campaign when he joined a bipartisan effort to push for comprehensive reform. The negative reaction nearly cost him the nomination.
This fall, Perry was dealt a significant setback over the issue. If he doesn’t win the Republican nomination — and the odds are long — he might look back and conclude that it was the immigration issue that did him in. As governor, he supported a policy that provides in-state college tuition to the children of illegal immigrants who are Texas residents. Perry not only defended the policy during GOP debates in September, but he drew the wrath of the right by calling those who opposed it “heartless.”
That is why what Gingrich said on Tuesday should be closely watched as the campaign intensifies. Not only did he talk about the issue in a way that no other presidential candidate has done this cycle, but he also seemed to put himself at odds with Romney, whom he considers his principal rival for the nod.