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.
The discussion unfolded in a fascinating way during the debate. CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer drew Gingrich into the conversation by recalling that as a congressman he had voted for the 1986 legislation, signed by President Ronald Reagan, that has provided an amnesty policy as part of a program to toughen enforcement against illegal immigration.
Gingrich was careful to say that other steps must be taken before dealing with those who are already in the United States illegally, including tightening border security and offering a guest-worker program.
Then Gingrich said this: “If you’ve come here recently, you have no ties to this country, you ought to go home. Period. If you’ve been here 25 years and you got three kids and two grandkids, you’ve been paying taxes and obeying the law, you belong to a local church, I don’t think we’re going to separate you from your family, uproot you forcefully and kick you out.”
Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.) was the first to disagree. But the more important dissent came from Romney, who through his two presidential campaigns has taken a hard line on those who are here illegally without ever being precise about how he would send them back home or what provisions he would propose to allow them to remain.
In the debate, Romney called amnesty a “magnet” that would make the problem worse. “To say that we’re going to say to the people who have come here illegally that now you’re all going to get to stay or some large number are going to get to stay and become permanent residents of the United States, that will only encourage more people to do the same thing.”
Gingrich should have been smart enough to know the potential trouble he was walking into, but because he has said it before, he may have underestimated the impact his words would have. Whatever the case, he did not equivocate in his response.
“I don’t see how 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. “And I’m prepared to take the heat for saying let’s be humane in enforcing the law without giving them citizenship but by finding a way to create legality so that they are not separated from their families.”
Blitzer pressed Romney on whether he would consider allowing immigrants who have been in the United States illegally for 25 years to stay. “I’m not going to start drawing lines here about who gets to stay and who gets to go,” Romney responded. “The principle is that we are not going to have an amnesty system that says that people who come here illegally get to stay for the rest of their life in this country legally.”
By Wednesday morning, Democrats were criticizing Romney for what they said was his attack on a humane immigration policy. The quick and sharp reaction is a signal that Democrats think Romney will be President Obama’s challenger in the general election.
What is more important is how Gingrich weathers the controversy. He demonstrated Tuesday that he is more skillful in talking about the issue than Perry is, well versed in the complexities and willing to stick his neck out.
That, however, may not be enough to prevent damage, and the Romney team appeared eager to keep the focus on Gingrich’s words.
As the controversy continued Wednesday, Gingrich tweeted out a link to a 10-point immigration plan that includes plenty of tough provisions he favors in addition to his humane approach to some of those in the country illegally.
In his e-mail message, Gingrich explained why he wasn’t concerned that the issue could damage his candidacy. Romney, he said, “has been on both sides” of the issue over the years. Bachmann, he argued, is distorting his position. And, he added, the GOP politician most rabidly opposed to illegal immigration in recent years, former congressman Tom Tancredo (Colo.), “got few votes for his position.”
Perhaps most important was his final statement. “I have been saying something like this for several years in every town meeting where it comes up,” he wrote.
If he is right, that he has been saying all this for a long time without triggering a backlash, then he may be on relatively solid ground. But he may be misjudging his party’s base on the issue.