As far as substance is concerned, last night’s Republican presidential debate on national security was terrible. With few exceptions, the candidates had little to say on America's withdrawal from Iraq, the prospects for preventing a nuclear Iran, the defense cuts in the Super Committee “trigger,” and the nation’s relationship with China. Likewise, CNN failed to ask the candidates about the ongoing collapse of the European economy or our detainee policies. As for less glamorous but equally important issues like the effort to reduce our nuclear arsenal, or the medium-term status of the North Korean regime? Absolutely nothing.
What was worth noting about this debate—the 13th this year—came toward the end of the night, when Newt Gingrich put himself to the left of Mitt Romney on immigration. As has been the case in nearly every debate, Romney scared off the “amnesty” straw man and offered a hard-right approach to immigration reform, proposing a system in which anyone who came to the United States illegally is deported. The former Speaker pushed back: “I do not believe that the people of the United States are going to take people who have been here a quarter century, who have children and grandchildren, who are members of the community, who may have done something 25 years ago, separate them from their families, and expel them.” Gingrich declared: “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.”
This sounds similar to Rick Perry’s rhetoric from an earlier debate, when he called Republicans “heartless” for opposing a Texas policy that provided in-state tuition rates for the children of undocumented immigrants. The difference is that Gingrich doesn’t attack the motives of Republicans as much as he makes an appeal to their better natures. Whether this will harm him is up in the air. Regardless, it was nice to see a glimmer of humanity from the presidential hopeful.
Indeed, if there was any constant throughout the debate, it was the extent to which Newt Gingrich was confident, clear, and able to hold his own (especially against Mitt Romney). On most questions, he offered the most cogent answers, even if they were sometimes restatements of Obama administration policy (his answer on Pakistan, for example). It’s not a hard call to say that he won this debate.
The question, of course, is whether this actually matters for the GOP presidential contest. How much does a good debate performance count, and will it do anything to blunt Romney’s strength as a candidate? At first glance, the answer is no, but there was evidence—if only a little—to suggest a potential weakness in Romney’s armor.
With Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, and Herman Cain, the problem is establishment credibility; despite their popularity with the rank-and-file, party elites aren't flocking to support any of them. Newt Gingrich is a little different. As former Speaker of the House, he comes with a fair amount of support from Republican insiders—a fact seen in the warm reception he received from the debate audience in Washington D.C. If he can leverage his newfound popularity into something sustainable, he’ll become the first candidate to challenge Romney on his own turf. Is it unlikely? Yes. But as the Republican presidential contest continues to unfold, it’s something to think about.