I am fairly certain that I will never forget the first conversation I ever had with Newton Leroy Gingrich. This was back in September of 1994, and Gingrich, then a bomb-chucking leader of the lower congressional chamber’s apparently permanent minority, told me in no uncertain terms that he was destined to become the first Republican speaker of the House in 40 years.
The memory of his supreme self-confidence—and/or overweening egomania—came rushing back with particular force the other day, when Gingrich, now one of his party’s presidential candidates, declared to ABC News’s Jake Tapper, “I am going to be the nominee.” Had Gingrich uttered these words even a month ago, they would have induced the same reaction as his prediction seventeen years earlier: an overwhelming desire to ask what he’d been smoking and demand that he give me some.
And yet today, just four weeks out from the first ballots’ being cast in the Iowa caucuses, there is mounting evidence that Gingrich might again be about to prove us skeptics wrong. In fact, if the available public polling is to be believed, he is the new Republican front-runner. In Iowa, South Carolina, and Florida, Gingrich has surged to double-digit leads over Mitt Romney. And while Romney still commands enormous advantages in New Hampshire, in endorsements, and in cash reserves, Gingrich has seen his stock on Intrade, the online betting market, rise from 5 percent a month ago to 37 percent at the end of last week—even as Romney has watched his plunge from 72 to 47.
The most compelling evidence that Gingrich is the real deal doesn’t lie in the numbers, though. You can find it in the reaction of Team Romney, which until last week was calmly asserting that Gingrich would collapse under his own weight but which now intends to speed that outcome by bringing down a ten-ton shithammer on his head. The Romneyites will attack their rival as an inveterate Washington insider, and for a penumbra of flip-flops and conservative apostasies that make their own guy’s seem picayune; they will indirectly raise the issue of Gingrich’s gaudy personal life by highlighting the wholesomeness of Romney’s. But the most interesting and significant broadside they are uncorking is on the issue of immigration: interesting because it says so much about the contemporary Republican Party, and significant because it might prove decisive in the general election.
What Gingrich did to render himself vulnerable on immigration was to cough up a morsel of common sense at a recent Republican debate, when he argued that the status of illegals should be determined case by case and that not all of them should be—or ever would be—subject to mass deportation. “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 … separate them from their families, and expel them,” Gingrich said. “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.’ ” Then he added, “I do believe if you’ve been here recently and have no ties to the U.S., we should deport you.”
The next day in Iowa, and repeatedly since then, Romney pounced hard on Gingrich’s stance, contending that it amounted to “a new doorway to amnesty”—a loaded term for immigration hawks. “My view is that those people who have waited in line patiently to come to this country legally should be ahead in line, and those who’ve come here illegally should not be given a special deal or a special accelerated right to become a permanent resident or citizen,” he said.
This is not the first time that Romney has wielded the immigration cudgel against one of his foes. Two months ago, after Rick Perry suggested that those opposing the extension of in-state tuition benefits to the children of illegals “don’t … have a heart,” Romney and his campaign pounded him mercilessly, and to considerable effect. Almost immediately, Perry’s support among self-identified conservatives plummeted from 39 to 19 percent, according to a Washington Post–ABC News poll in early October, and among tea-party sympathizers, the drop was even more precipitous, from 45 to 10. Indeed, a credible case can be made that, although Perry’s all-purpose gormlessness on a series of debating stages hurt him badly among elites, what actually killed his candidacy was his flub on immigration—and the withering exploitation of it by Team Romney.
That immigration is a hot-button issue with the Republican base is hardly news, of course. But the rise of the tea party has only increased both its salience and combustibility. In a landmark book-length study being published this month, The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism, Harvard political scientist Theda Skocpol and her grad student Vanessa Williamson maintain—on the basis of copious, careful, and not unsympathetic field research—that it is not the opposition to big government per se that is at the core of their subjects’ belief system. Rather, it’s an animus against “freeloaders” that unifies the tea-partiers across the nation, with illegal immigrants preeminent in that category.
The implications of this for the impending knock-down-drag-out between Romney and Gingrich are stark. Unlike in 2000 and 2008, when George W. Bush and John McCain emerged triumphant despite espousing views on immigration at odds with the party’s base, this year the centrality of the tea party makes it hard to conceive that a candidate with even vaguely moderate views on the issue can prevail. Thus we see Romney unrepentantly adopting a line at the far-right restrictionist extreme. And thus we see Gingrich scrambling on defense: arguing that the number of illegals he would spare from deportation would be “relatively small”; insisting that he would make deporting the rest much easier; and stating that any of his rivals claiming that he is in favor of amnesty are uttering “an Obama-level … statement.”
All of which makes a certain kind of sense (the depressing kind) within the context of the Republican-nomination fight. But, as both Gingrich and Romney are perfectly aware, what they say this winter will be remembered come the fall, when the dynamics in play in the general election will be very different. With the explosive growth of the Hispanic voting population—Latinos made up 7 percent of the electorate in the 2010 midterms, the highest total in a nonpresidential year in history—an already pivotal demographic cohort will be even more important in 2012, especially in key swing states such as Florida, New Mexico, Nevada, and Colorado. And, at least in theory, President Obama should be ripe for the plucking here, given the disappointment among many Hispanic voters over his failure to wage the aggressive fight he promised for immigration reform. Having won 67 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2008, Obama has seen his approval rating with this group slip nearly twenty points below that.
To capitalize on this weakness, however, it would help somewhat to have a Republican nominee not seen by Hispanics as overtly hostile. Will Romney be able to achieve that affect if he is the standard-bearer? Consider first the experience of McCain, a figure who by dint of temperament, geographic base, and legislative and political history was arguably the most congenial-to-Latinos GOP nominee ever—and yet still only secured 31 percent of the Hispanic vote. Now consider Romney, who brings to the table none of those assets and now is saddling himself with positions on immigration reminiscent of Tom Tancredo’s. The chances that he’ll improve on McCain’s vote totals with Hispanics strike me as de minimis.
Romney and his people understand the problem but feel they have no other choice than to be where they are. Gingrich, by contrast, at least set out to position himself in a better place. His talk of a more “humane” immigration policy was widely—and correctly, in my judgment—interpreted as having been offered with an eye toward the general election. But in his bid to topple Romney, the pressure on Gingrich to tack to the right rhetorically and substantively will be, and already is, intense. And that, coupled with his penchant for provocative, insensitive, and incendiary language on matters cultural and ethnic, is all but certain to land him in the soup by the time … well, really, any minute now.
It’s possible, to be sure, that none of this will matter in the end. That either Romney or Gingrich or any other Republican nominee will be able to secure such a lopsided margin among working-class whites that a heavy loss among Hispanics will prove endurable. But I wouldn’t count on it—and heaven knows the Obama reelection campaign will be doing everything in its power to ensure that it doesn’t. For the hard guys in Chicago, indeed, nothing has caused more glee than the sight of Romney’s maneuvers on immigration, which they see as extending them a precious lifeline in any number of Latino-heavy states.
Wishful thinking? Maybe so. But it’s not just Democrats who hold such views. It was Karl Rove, after all, who in the wake of 2008 proclaimed, “An anti-Hispanic attitude [would be] suicidal” for his party. Maybe Romney and Gingrich should pick up the phone and give Karl a call before it’s too late—if it isn’t already, that is.