The GOP Debate: Newt Gingrich Is His Own Worst Enemy

By Conor Friedersdorf

Widely deemed the loser Thursday, the former House speaker hurt himself by calling an opponent "anti-immigrant" and reveling in his own grandiosity.

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Newt Gingrich wasn't beaten by his opponents Thursday night on the Florida debate stage. They did fine, Rick Santorum having finally honed his message, Ron Paul appealing to his core of support, and Mitt Romney defending his investment portfolio as capably as he's ever done. But more than anything else, Gingrich was hurt by words that came out of his own mouth. The inevitable rebuttals were so obvious that any opponent would've made them.

One ruinous exchange for Gingrich concerned his ad attacking Mitt Romney on immigration. Here's what happened:

MODERATOR: Speaker Gingrich, you had an ad, but you pulled it this week, in which you described Governor Romney as the most anti-immigrant candidate. Why did you do that?

GINGRICH: Why did we describe him that way? Because, in the original conversations about deportation, the position I took, which he attacked pretty ferociously, was that grandmothers and grandfathers aren't going to be successfully deported. We're not -- we as a nation are not going to walk into some family -- and by the way, they're going to end up in a church, which will declare them a sanctuary. We're not going to walk in there and grab a grandmother out and then kick them out.

We're not going -- and I think you have to be realistic in your indignation. I want to control the border. I want English to be the official language of government. I want us to have a lot of changes. I am prepared to be very tough and very bold, but I'm also prepared to be realistic, because I've actually had to pass legislation in Washington and I don't believe an unrealistic promise is going to get through, but I do believe, if there's some level of humanity for people who have been here a long time, we can pass legislation that will decisively reduce illegality, decisively control the border and will once again mean the people who are in America are here legally.

MODERATOR: I just want to make sure I understand. Is he still the most anti-immigrant candidate?

GINGRICH: I think, of the four of us, yes.
It's strange that Gingrich doesn't recognize how sensitive the GOP base is on the topic of illegal immigration. What so many Republican voters feel, rightly or wrongly, is that they're constantly being lectured about sensitivity and cynically accused of being "anti-immigrant" even when doing no more than affirming that they want the law enforced. In this campaign, Rick Perry drew jeers for calling Dream Act opponents heartless. Romney had no trouble exploiting Gingrich's mistake, for what does a GOP audience like more than a smack-down of someone who alleges xenophobia?

ROMNEY: That's simply unexcusable. That's inexcusable. And, actually, Senator Marco Rubio came to my defense and said that ad was inexcusable and inflammatory and inappropriate.

Mr. Speaker, I'm not anti-immigrant. My father was born in Mexico. My wife's father was born in Wales. They came to this country. The idea that I'm anti-immigrant is repulsive. Don't use a term like that. You can say we disagree on certain policies, but to say that enforcing the U.S. law to protect our borders, to welcome people here legally, to expand legal immigration, as I have proved, that that's somehow anti anti-immigrant is simply the kind of over-the-top rhetoric that has characterized American politics too long. And I'm glad that Marco Rubio called you out on it. I'm glad you withdrew it. I think you should apologize for it, and I think you should recognize that having differences of opinions on issues does not justify labeling people with highly charged epithets.
That answer drew big applause. 

Another exchange where Gingrich did himself a disservice concerns the moon. As most political observers know by now, he has promised to build a colony there by 2020 if he is elected.

Inevitably, the subject came up:

BLITZER: This question is related from -- we got it from Twitter. Speaker Gingrich, how do you plan to create a base on the moon while keeping taxes down in eight years?

GINGRICH: I think, look it's a great question. You start with the question, do you really believe NASA in it's current form is the most effective way of leveraging investment in space? We now have a bureaucracy sitting there, which has managed to mismanage the program so well that in fact we have no lift vehicle. So you almost have to wonder, what does the Washington office of NASA do? Does it sit around and think space? Does it contemplate that some day we could have a rocket?

My point in the speech I made yesterday, which is on CSPAN and I'd love to have all of you look at it. It's based on having looked at space issues since the late 1950s when missiles and rockets was a separate magazine. And working with NASA and others. I believe by the use of prizes, by the use of incentives, by opening up the space port so that it's available on a ready basis for commercial fight, by using commonsense for example the Atlas-V could easily be fixed into a man capable vehicle so you didn't have to rely on -- on a Russian launch or a Chinese launch.

There are many things you can do to leverage accelerating the development of space. Lindbergh flew to Paris for a $25,000.00 prize. If we had a handful of serious prizes, you'd see an extraordinary number of people out there trying to get to the moon first in order to have billed that. And I'd like to have an American on the moon before the Chinese get there.
Aside from missing that America beat the Chinese to the moon several decades ago, this is as good an answer as anyone can expect from a presidential candidate... if he's already pledged, at a time of record breaking deficits and a deep recession, to build a lunar colony if he's elected.

Santorum responded first:

...let's just be honest, we run a $1.2 trillion deficit right now. We're -- we're borrowing 40-cents of every dollar. And to go out there and promise new programs and big ideas, that's a great thing to maybe get votes, but it's not a responsible thing... We're going to cut programs. We're going to spend -- under my administration, we're going to spend less money every year -- every year. Year, to year, to year the federal government amount of spending will go down for four years until we get a balanced budget. And you can't do that by -- by -- by grand schemes.
Then Ron Paul:

I just think that we don't need a bigger, a newer program, when you think of the people -- I mean, health care or something else deserves a lot more priority than going to the moon.
Wolf Blitzer then decided to hand Gingrich a short length of rope:

MODERATOR: We're going to leave this subject, but before we do, I want Speaker Gingrich to clarify what you said yesterday in that major speech you delivered on space. You said that you would support a lunar colony or a lunar base, and that if 13,000 Americans were living there, they would be able to apply for U.S. statehood from the moon.

GINGRICH: I was meeting Rick's desire for grandiose ideas. But --

MODERATOR: That's a pretty grandiose idea.

GINGRICH: But let me make just two points about this. It is really important to go back and look at what John F. Kennedy said in May of 1961 when he said, "We will go to the moon in this decade." No American had orbited the Earth. The technology didn't exist. And a generation of young people went into science and engineering and technology, and they were tremendously excited. And they had a future. I actually agree with Dr. Paul. The program I envision would probably end up being 90 percent private sector, but it would be based on a desire to change the government rules and change the government regulations, to get NASA out of the business of trying to run rockets, and to create a system where it's easy for private sector people to be engaged.

I want to see us move from one launch occasionally to six or seven launches a day because so many private enterprises walk up and say, we're prepared to go do it. But I'll tell you, I do not want to be the country that having gotten to the moon first, turned around and said, it doesn't really matter, let the Chinese dominate space, what do we care? I think that is a path of national decline, and I am for America being a great country, not a country in decline.
It's a monologue that set Romney up for his most pointed critique of the night:

ROMNEY: I spent 25 years in business. If I had a business executive come to me and say they wanted to spend a few hundred billion dollars to put a colony on the moon, I'd say, "You're fired."

The idea that corporate America wants to go off to the moon and build a colony there, it may be a big idea, but it's not a good idea. And we have seen in politics -- we've seen politicians -- and Newt, you've been part of this -- go from state to state and promise exactly what that state wants to hear. The Speaker comes here to Florida, wants to spend untold amount of money having a colony on the moon. I know it's very exciting on the Space Coast. In South Carolina, it was a new interstate highway, and dredging the port in Charleston. In New Hampshire, it was burying a power line coming in from Canada and building a new VHA hospital in New Hampshire so that people don't have to go to Boston.

Look, this idea of going state to state and promising what people want to hear, promising billions, hundreds of billions of dollars to make people happy, that's what got us into the trouble we're in now.

We've got to say no to this kind of spending.
It's an almost perfect answer. With an assist from Blitzer, Romney re-framed Gingrich's reputation for "big ideas" into a penchant for imprudent grandiosity. And he next cast him as a big spending panderer -- the presidential equivalent of a congressman earmarking projects left and right. Even coming from Romney, himself an epic pandered, that had to connect with Tea Party voters. A lunar bases sounds expensive. And if you don't live on the Space Coast it sounds a lot less important than lower taxes or deficits or an extension of unemployment benefits.

One way to think about the last few days is that Newt Gingrich committed multiple unforced errors -- calling an opponent anti-immigrant, touting a lunar colony. But that's slightly misleading, because it presumes that he is capable of avoiding comically grandiose ideas, or engaging other candidates in debate without lapsing into disdain and cheap demagoguery. As far as I know, there isn't any evidence suggesting he can sustain even that low level of self-discipline for more than a few days. And he doesn't get to choose which days. He is, as he once put it, "a very unconventional candidate." It's a quality that helped his rise. This week, it perhaps cost him the nomination.

Image credit: Reuters

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