At times, Tuesday night’s Republican presidential debate on nation security gave the unmistakable sensation of deja vu. The audience was culled from major conservative think tanks in Washington and familiar faces from the George W. Bush era such as former Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, ex-speechwriter Marc Thiessen and erstwhile Cheney counsel David Addington kept appearing at the microphone to pose questions to the candidates. The issues sparked flashbacks, too: The candidates began the debate with a lengthy exchange on how best to balance civil liberties with expanded counterterrorism powers under the 2001 Patriot Act. And the most politically significant moment of the night came when a surging candidate was rebuked by his peers for arguing that empathy should dictate a certain level of forgiveness in U.S. policy on illegal immigrants—the exact circumstances of one of Rick Perry’s most crucial campaign stumbles earlier this year.
“If you say that we should not educate children who have come into our state for no reason than they’ve been brought there, by no fault of their own, I don’t think you have a heart,” Perry said in a September debate, defending his decision to provide in-state college tuition to some undocumented Texans. His rivals pounced, savaging him for providing a “magnet” for illegal immigration. In the following days, his grip on the conservative vote began to slip, and along with it, his frontrunner status.
On Tuesday, it was an ascendant Newt Gingrich who was faced with a question about his past support for giving government benefits, or even a path to legal status, to some undocumented immigrants. Gingrich began his answer with the usual paeans to legal immigration and border security before stating what he knows to be a conservative apostasy: “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,” he said. Later, he echoed Perry closely: “I don’t see any reason to punish somebody who came here at three years of age, but who wants to serve the United States of America.”
On cue Michele Bachmann and Mitt Romney circled in to attack. “We need to move away from magnets, not offer more,” Bachmann said. “Amnesty is a magnet,” Romney echoed. “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,” Gingrich responded. “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.”
It’s unclear how all of this will play outside a debate hall filled with Heritage and AEI thinktankers—Gingrich’s home crowd if there ever was one. After the debate, Romney spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom took the “amnesty” baton and ran with it: “Mitt Romney is against amnesty, and Newt Gingrich made it very clear he was for amnesty,” he said.
Back in September, it was as much the tone of Perry’s answer as the substance that gave him problems with conservatives. In suggesting that immigration hawks were heartless, he was insulting a broad swath of his own party. It didn’t sit well with many Republicans and Perry later apologized for his rhetoric. Gingrich’s handling of the issue on Tuesday was much more deft: He invoked Reagan, made an appeal to party values and didn’t directly criticize those who disagree with him. “Gingrich defending the Perry position 100 times better than Perry ever did,” tweeted National Review’s Rich Lowry mid-debate. Other reactions were not so charitable. There have been observers predicting that the Gingrich surge-let is going to recede at any moment. Tuesday could have well been the beginning.
As for the rest of the debate: Perry on the whole was slightly shaky. His call for Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s resignation was met with silence in the debate hall, and his proposals to impose sanctions on Iran’s central bank and a no-fly zone over Syria—essentially an act of war—got banged around a bit. But there was no nuclear “oops” moment. Herman Cain, perhaps cowed by a long-running series of foreign policy gaffes, tried to punt on every question by merely saying he would carefully consider his options (as opposed to…?). He still managed to deliver deep-dish nonsense at several points, and if Israel ever goes to war with Iran over its nuclear program, we now know President Cain’s first step will be to quiz Israeli generals on Iranian topography. CNN moderator Wolf Blitzer primarily used Ron Paul as a foil to the other candidates, calling on in him to make his well-tread arguments for non-interventionism and civil libertarianism frequently throughout the debate.
Romney, meanwhile, was largely absent. He got less time on camera than in recent meetings, and while he gave characteristically carefully-positioned answers, he did little to shake things up. (To his advantage, perhaps.) Bachmann put her experience from the House Intelligence committee to work knowledgeably countering Perry’s proposal to cut all foreign aid to Pakistan, arguing that the relationship and the intel it bears is a vital asset to the U.S. in the region—it was one of her better debate moments in a long time, but seems unlikely to change her also-ran status in the polls. Santorum and Huntsman also put in performances that played to their strengths, but remain non-entities in the race. The real question is Gingrich. He put on another show, and despite their waning importance at this point in the cycle, debates have still played an outsize role in the nominating process so far. But any lasting impact of Tuesday’s debate will largely depend on how Gingrich’s answer on immigration plays out.