Brace yourself, Newt Gingrich.
The former House speaker entered volatile territory on Tuesday at the GOP presidential debate when he voiced support for allowing long-term illegal immigrants to stay in the country -- a proposal his presidential rivals were quick to characterize as amnesty.
The accusation is potentially troublesome for Gingrich, who has been surging in the polls, and one he’s already seeking to rebut by saying that it’s the only “humane” option.
“The party that says it's the party of the family is going to adopt an immigration policy which destroys families who have been here a quarter century,” said Gingrich, who denied his proposal amounted to amnesty. “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.”
It didn’t take long for Gingrich to start taking heat for his proposals: Both Rep. Michele Bachmann and Mitt Romney both characterized them as amnesty.
“Look, amnesty is a magnet,” Romney said. “When we have had in the past programs that said people who come here illegally will get to stay illegally for the rest of their life, that will only encourage more people to come here illegally. The right course is to say we welcome people who want to come here legally.”
Gingrich’s remarks were the most notable part of an otherwise unremarkable debate, the 11th of the primary season, that focused on foreign policy but offered little else to change the direction of the race. It did illuminate, however, a Republican field with widely divergent views on topics ranging from the USA Patriot Act anti-terrorism law to monetary aid for Pakistan.
The split rested between candidates, such as ex-Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, who backed defense cuts and a reduced intervention abroad, and those who endorsed a hawkish vision for America’s place in the world, perhaps epitomized best by Romney.
But Gingrich’s support for letting illegal immigrants stay in the country, including support for part of the federal DREAM Act that would grant citizenship to those who serve in the military, is the one moment that could ripple across the primary. Immigration is a highly sensitive issue among conservatives –- Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s defense earlier the campaign of giving in-state tuition to illegal immigrants helped sink his formerly high-flying effort. Gingrich’s defense of his proposal as the “humane” option also echoes Perry’s suggestion that those who opposed the tuition plan “didn’t have a heart,” a comment that alienated many conservatives.
The candidates currently in the ever-evolving second tier, now behind Romney and Gingrich, gave mixed performances. Herman Cain, still trying to recover from a lack of agility on U.S. policy toward Libya evident in a recent videotaped interview, delivered vague and non-specific answers to questions about a no-fly zone over Syria and whether to sustain President George W. Bush’s assistance to Africa.
Clearly trying to distinguish himself and resurrect his southbound poll numbers, Perry said he wanted to privatize the Transportation Security Administration, called for Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to resign, and stood alone with his plan to impose a no-fly zone over Syria. And Paul, consistently running second behind Romney in New Hampshire and significant factor in Iowa, continues to solidify his circumscribed but fervent following, offering a firmly isolationist, libertarian philosophy on national security and foreign policy.
Strengthening Patriot Act, Reining In TSA
The debate began with a spirited discussion of the Patriot Act and the role of the Transportation Security Administration.
After a slow-motion start –- no candidate answered a question until 8:14 p.m. –- Gingrich fielded the first query, which came from former Attorney General Edwin Meese, about whether the Patriot Act merited a long-term extension. The former House speaker called the law “a key part” of efforts to fight terrorism and said he “would look at strengthening it.” Gingrich outlined a scenario depicting a nuclear weapon in an American city.
(PICTURES: Scenes from the Debate Floor)
Contrasting anti-terror and anti-crime policies, Gingrich said, “National security, the government should have many more tools to save our lives.” The threat, he said, is unlikely to dissipate soon. “All of us will be in danger for the rest of our lives,” Gingrich said.
When Paul called the law “unpatriotic” and pointed to the “vicious” terrorism perpetrated by Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, Gingrich countered that McVeigh’s ability to kill 168 people in the 1994 attacks argued for a stronger Patriot Act.
Bachmann pivoted the question to an attack on President Obama, whom she accused of handing the interrogation process to the American Civil Liberties Union. After Huntsman argued for a balance between civil liberties and national security, mindful of the American “brand” in protecting personal rights, Romney got behind Gingrich’s push for strengthening the Patriot Act, and was echoed by Perry.
The Texas governor said, if necessary, the government should “update it with new technologies as they come along” and criticized the Obama administration for not expending more on anti-terror intelligence gathering.
Cain, before stumbling over CNN moderator Wolf Blitzer’s name -– initially calling him “Blitz” before apologizing –- said he was open to altering the Patriot Act, but that the overarching principle behind the policy should center on a more absolutist approach: “We should use every means possible to kill them first or identify them first.”
Romney and Perry took shots at the TSA, a volatile issue among the general public, suggesting the process could be improved. But both men dodged whether pat-downs at airport security lines are necessary for national security.
“We can do a lot better than the TSA system,” Romney said. “It will get better over time. We can use better technology and identify people who are lower risk and allow them to go through the process more quickly than the current process.”
Perry said would privatize the administration and rid it of labor unions.
“This is working in Denver; they have a program where they're privatizing it,” he said. “And the airlines and other private sector groups work together to do the security in our airports.”
The TSA drew widespread fire for an aggressive set of new security techniques earlier this year, which drew fire from civil libertarians and members of both parties. It’s a difficult question for presidential candidates, who don’t want to side with an unpopular agency but don’t want to be seen as soft of national security.
Quarreling on Pakistan
The candidates got into a lively series of exchanges over Pakistan. Bachmann called Perry’s proposal to withdraw all foreign aid to Pakistan “highly naïve,” saying the funds are critical to helping prevent the country’s nuclear weapons from falling into wrong hands.
(FACT CHECK: How Serious is the Threat to Pakistan's Nuclear Program?)
“These weapons could find their way out of Pakistan into New York City or into Washington, and a nuclear weapon could be set off in this city,” said Bachmann. “That's how serious this is. We have to maintain an American presence.”
Perry articulated that he didn’t want to withdraw completely from that part of the world, but didn’t want to reward enemies.
“I think it is important for us to send the message to those across the world that if you are not going to be an ally of the United States, do not expect a dime of our citizens' money to be coming into your country,” he said.
Romney tried to split the answer down the middle, saying the money could be better directed within the country. But the country can’t simply withdraw from that region of the world, he added.
“Pakistan is the sixth-largest country in the world,” said Romney. “We can't just say goodbye to all of what's going on in that part of the world.”
His answer drew a rebuke from Huntsman, who said the country has already spent a significant amount of resources on the areas –- particularly from Afghanistan.
“I think the American people are getting very tired about where we find ourselves today,” he said.
Pressed by Romney during a somewhat testy exchange, he specified that he would leave 10,000 to 15,000 troops in Afghanistan.
Gingrich issued a de facto defense of intelligence operations in Pakistan, saying the killing there of Osama bin Laden “should have” driven U.S.-Pakistan relations to a new low due to Islamabad’s at-least tacit harboring of the al-Qaeda mastermind. “We should be furious,” Gingrich said.
Gingrich, who helped increase CIA funding when he was House speaker, is talking as perhaps the most Langley-friendly commander-in-chief. At the Spartanburg, S.C. debate earlier this month, he called for “maximum covert operations” to disrupt the Iranian nuclear program –- “all of it deniable” -– tailor-made for the CIA.
Perry on the Border
Border security is a comfortable issue for Perry, whose state has the longest border with a foreign country. And he pushed that agenda to another level, calling for a “21st Century Monroe Doctrine” to prevent foreign powers from infiltrating Mexico.
“When you think about what we put in place in the 1820s, and then we used it again in 1960s with the Soviet Union,” Perry said. “We're seeing countries start to come in and infiltrate. We know that Hamas and Hezbollah are working in Mexico as well as Iran, with their ploy to come into the United States.”
The proposal appears to imply support for earlier calls from Perry to send the U.S. military to secure the border, linking it directly to the country’s national security. That might please the party’s hawks, but it also gives the governor cover an issue that’s hurt his campaign –- immigration. Perry’s support for in-state tuition to illegal immigrants drew fire from conservatives and helped end his high-flying support.
“As the president of the United States, I'll promise you one thing,” he said. “That within 12 months of the inaugural, that border will be shut down and it will be secure.”
Perry Alone on Syrian No-Fly
Perry’s express backing for a no-fly zone over Syria, calling it a hedge against Iranian muscle-flexing, left the old Air Force pilot flying solo.
Cain issued a disagreement, with vague alternatives describing a strong military and economic clout. Huntsman discoursed briefly through the history of the Arabian Peninsula and voiced support for Israel. Paul disagreed by arguing that intervention in Syria could serve as an al-Qaeda recruiting tool. “If you have a no-fly zone over Syria, that’s an act of war,” Paul said, likening that to the Chinese setting up a no-fly over the U.S.
And Romney diced the no-fly proposal as ineffective, noting that the Syrians have 5,000 tanks that would not necessarily succumb to an air patrol. “No, this is not the time for a no-fly zone over Syria. This is the time for us to use not only sanctions, but covert actions” aimed at regime change, Romney said.
Romney the Hawk
Romney continued to move toward the Republican Party’s hawkish wing, sharply criticizing President Obama's proposed defense reductions -– including those automatically set to take place after the congressional super committee failed to reach an agreement this week. The cuts reduce “the capacity of American to defend itself,” he said.
“What we're talking about here is a failure on the part of the president to lead with strength,” he added. “And that's why we have discussions about whether Israel should have to step in to stop the nuclear program, whether Iran is going to become nuclear. We have a president who pursued an agenda of saying we're going to be friendly to our foes and be disrespectful to our friends.”
The former Massachusetts governor, who earlier in the campaign seemed to equivocate on matters of national security, has been far more hawkish of late, proposing a buildup of the US Navy and criticizing Obama’s troop withdrawal from Iraq. He also said his first trip abroad as president would be to Israel, a country Obama has yet to visit.
Romney’s concern drew a laugh from Paul, who, as usual, offered a much different view on the foreign policy question. The proposed cuts triggered by the super committee’s failure aren’t actual reductions, he said.
“The people on the Hill are nearly hysterical because the budget isn't going up as rapidly as they want it to,” he said. “It's a road to disaster. We better wake up.”
Gingrich, for his part, said the military can spend more efficiently, and wouldn’t rule out any cuts. Neither did Huntsman, who said it’s not realistic to not consider defense reductions to deal with the deficit.
Calling for Panetta's Head
It’s become tough to envision a GOP debate without at least one candidate calling one at least one Cabinet official –- or Federal Reserve chairman –- to resign. Tuesday night's was Panetta, whom Perry singled out over the defense cuts called for in the Budget Control Act that are on track to take hold in January 2013.
Republicans are hoping to avert the sequestrations, but Obama has said he would veto efforts to mitigate the sour fruits of the super committee’s failure to reach a compromise. Panetta has criticized the looming cuts as damaging for the military, saying, “We would have to formulate a new security strategy that accepted substantial risk of not meeting our defense needs.”
Perry, faulting Obama for the threat of deep defense cuts, said, “If Leon Panetta is an honorable man, he should resign in protest.”
Stop Iran, Sanction the Bank
Candidates were in agreement over the idea of imposing sanctions on the Iranian central bank, a step they said was necessary to prevent that country from acquiring a nuclear weapon.
“When you sanction the Iranian central bank, that will shut down that economy,” said Perry. “At that particular point in time, they truly have to deal with the United States.”
Gingrich voiced similar support, and said concerns that preventing the country from exporting oil would wreak Europe’s economy would instead give the United States an opportunity to develop its own domestic energy supplies.
“With all the various sources of oil we have in the United States, we could literally replace the Iranian oil,” he said.
Paul Remains the Proud Contrarian
One staple by now familiar to veteran 2012 debate watchers is the ability of Paul to derail almost any line of questioning. The Texas Republican's hard-line libertarian approach to spending –- which he applies to fiscal policy, foreign policy and just about any other policy -– is so absolute it frequently prompts candidates following him in answering to veer off course.
After Rick Santorum defended President George W. Bush’s historic efforts to prop up African efforts to curb AIDS and malaria there, Cain offered a non-specific, wait-and-see style answer that seemed a stock fallback. Then Paul replied, “The aid is all worthless. It doesn’t do any good for most of the people. The “biggest threat to our national security is our financial condition,” he said.
An exasperated Romney followed up, pouncing on defense spending cuts looming over the Pentagon and calling them national security threats. Paul shot back, “They’re not cutting anything out of anything. All this talk is just talk.”
Credit Paul with this: He may be the most on-message presidential candidate to ever take the stage.
Was Condoleezza Rice Unavailable?
The debate -- cosponsored by the American Enterprise Institute and Heritage Foundation -- was dominated by alumni of President George W. Bush’s administration, many of whom now work at one of the two think tanks.
Candidates answered questions from the AEI and Heritage officials on Bush’s unprecedented assistance to African efforts to curtail AIDS and malaria, and on a cornerstone legislative achievement of the 43rd president: the Patriot Act. After Reagan administration attorney general Edwin Meese posed the first question, on the Patriot Act, the rest of the show belonged to 43ers.
Iraq War architect, famed neocon and Bush’s deputy secretary of defense Paul Wolfowitz, who later helmed the World Bank, posed the Third World aid question. David Addington, who was Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, queried about the U.S. role in the Mideast. And former Bush 43 speechwriter Marc Thiessen asked the candidates what they thought was being overlooked.
For good measure, former Bush 43 press secretary Ari Fleischer provided post-debate analysis for host CNN.
While the debate format offered the audience a chance to ask questions, what it effectively accomplished was giving the GOP foreign policy establishment –- one branch of it, in particular –- the opportunity to have the floor.