Friday, November 25, 2011

Newt’s figment VI: The humane touch

For months now, the Newt Gingrich 2012 campaign was thought to be on life support, the low-hanging fruit ripe for abuse by the late-night shift, the political piñata that was bound to explode all by itself. With a variety of political and optical gaffes, the former House Speaker and presumptive conservative prefrontal cortex slipped on the banana peels he laid out for himself time and time again.

But in the ongoing game of Frontrunner of the Week, Gingrich is in the high chair now, in part because of a forthright statement of principle on immigration, one that flies in the face of the reflexive policies of surveillance and intolerance that are a hallmark of his party.

In the wake of solid performances in the candidate debates — most recently the one on Tuesday in Washington — there’s a narrative emerging that the Republican nomination for a rehabilitated Newt Gingrich need not be so wild a dream after all.


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On Tuesday we got the classic Newt debate persona: combative, analytical, emeritus, relentlessly on point, and largely of the same mind as his counterparts on the stage of the Constitution Hall. The debate focused on national security, and positions on Pakistan, the Middle East, radical Islam, foreign policy and the Patriot Act.

Gingrich advocated a moderate course on Iran, endorsing the idea of military strikes “[o]nly as a last recourse and only as a step towards replacing the regime. No bombing campaign which leaves the regime in charge is going to accomplish very much in the long run.”

At one point, CNN's moderator Wolf Blitzer brought the debate closer to home with a question about undocumented immigrants. “Back in the '80s … you voted for legislation that had a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants ... Some called it amnesty then; they still call it amnesty now. What would you do if you were President of the United States, with these millions of illegal immigrants, many of whom have been in this country for a long time?”

What followed — in responses to Blitzer and to his GOP challengers — was a thoughtful, even-handed, politically practical response.

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Gingrich said: “If you're here -- 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. …

“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. ...

“I don't see how the -- 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. 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.”

That was not a series of typos; this was not a transmission from the bizzarro world; do not adjust your set. Newt Gingrich made a move to the center — not unlike the one he made in May, and renounced almost immediately, when he pushed back against his party’s call for wholesale changes in Medicare (“I don’t think right-wing social engineering is any more desirable than left-wing social engineering. I don’t think imposing radical change from the right or the left is a very good way for a free society to operate”).

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Among other things, Gingrich’s mainstream pivot forces former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney to shift from a general campaign mien to a strategy of continuing to fight the battle for primary voters. And Romney, who’s lately navigated to a more right-wing posture on a range of topics, is vulnerable on that front.

For all the changes in frontrunner status we’ve seen over the last six months — Bachmann for a minute, then Rick Perry, then Herman Cain — Romney has never capitalized, never punched through the 25 percent level of support he’s consistently drawn in early opinion polling.

The American Research Group poll released on Wednesday bears that out. In a survey of likely GOP caucusgoers in battleground Iowa, Romney (20 percent) trailed Gingrich (27 percent) in the ARG poll, taken before the Tuesday debate. That seven-point bulge for Newt is well outside the four-point margin of error.

Other polls say much the same thing: A new CNN/Opinion Research poll puts Romney in second place behind Gingrich with 20 percent support. A new Quinnipiac College poll has Romney in second place behind Gingrich with 22 percent support. The latest USA Today/Gallup poll has Romney in second place behind Gingrich with 21 percent support.

With Gingrich in the frontrunner chair, for this week at least, Romney faces the biggest challenge to his presumptive inevitability as the nominee. Simply put, despite almost five years of continuous campaigning, Mitt Romney can’t close the deal. And Republicans are starting to think that another salesman just might. Office for office, job for job, Gingrich can lay as much claim to electability as Romney can. All of a sudden, Mitt’s not the only adult in the room. And Romney knows it.

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In a way, there’s nothing surprising in the way Gingrich is handling this sudden surge in the polls. His statement about immigration isn’t even that new; he said essentially the same thing months ago, at the Reagan Library debate in September.

The reappearance of that humanely practical policy prescription at this point in the campaign makes sense. Right now, Newt’s got to double down on message. He hasn’t got any money, and his campaign is making use of volunteers and interns (something the candidate has tried to make a virtue of in recent interviews).

It’s statements of principle like his immigration stance, it’s these strikingly original moments when he departs from Republican orthodoxy that make Newt Gingrich possibly what we’d never thought he’d be — what Romney never dreamed he’d be: Electable.

And unlike the others in the GOP race, Gingrich’s rise to frontrunner status has followed a slower, steadier arc in the opinion polls. That’s exactly why it can’t and shouldn’t be ignored by the other candidates; it suggests that voters have taken their time in coming around to Newt, baggage and all, as a viable alternative to the presumed Romney juggernaut.

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Not that Gingrich isn’t capable of going a bridge too far in the idea department. Just days before the debate, at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, Gingrich proposed to overhaul today’s “truly stupid” child labor laws.

“It is tragic what we do in the poorest neighborhoods,” he said, “entrapping children in child laws which are truly stupid, saying to people ‘you shouldn't go to work before you're 14, 16. You're totally poor, you're in a school that's failing with a teacher that's failing.’”

"I tried for years to have a very simple model. These schools should get rid of unionized janitors, have one master janitor, pay local students to take care of the school. The kids would actually do work; they'd have cash; they'd have pride in the schools. They'd begin the process of rising."

This uncharitable, vaguely Dickensian idea has problems on its face. Since the students who work for their schools would presumably be expected to keep up their grades, the question is how well those students would be able to pursue the process of learning — the reason they go to school in the first place. Visions of the photojournalist Lewis Hine suddenly come to mind: Children hard at work at adult jobs of every description, their faces as empty and listless as those of the adults they replaced.

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There’s a reason why nobody makes intelligent bets on who’ll be in the World Series at the All-Star break. Ask the Phillies. Ask the Red Sox. If they won't tell you, the St. Louis Cardinals will: A lot can happen between July and October. American political history has a way of showing how the outlier no one quite believed becomes the winner no one quite expected. Improbable things happen in American politics. Last time was back in the day. In 2008.

But never mind the presidency: Whether Gingrich is capable of winning the nomination may well depend on how much, and how thoroughly, he’s capable of surprising the electorate with positions that reflect clear-eyed pragmatism on behalf of the nation, rather than the reflexive genuflecting to party doctrine that holds sway in the GOP.

We’ll know well before then whether Newt Gingrich is in the process of rising, or just falling in slow motion.

Image credits: Gingrich top: CNN. Romney: Reuters. Boy shining shoes, 1908: Lewis Hine, via National Archives.

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