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.