Newt's Gift to Obama: A GOP Immigration Rift

With his "humane" argument, the former House speaker has put the president's chief rival, Mitt Romney, in a difficult spot

Newt Gingrich at GOP debate - Evan Vucci AP - banner.jpg

During last night's debate, Newt Gingrich moved in a direction that is decidedly orthogonal to the party's conservative base on immigration. Whether Newt stays in his new position is to-be-determined. But if he does, it might produce from the probable Republican nominee, Mitt Romney, the type of reaction that President Obama's campaign advisers would relish.

Said Gingrich:

"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.

The party that says it's the party of the family is going to adopt an immigration policy which destroys families who have been here a quarter century. 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."

This show of "humane" feeling from the speaker will be the talk of the cablers today. It's no secret that the media establishment finds the prospect of deporting 11 million illegal immigrants to be horrifying, and tends to reward politicians who move toward this default position. It's kind of funny for Newt to be praised by the journalists he often criticizes, but that's secondary.

Mitt Romney reacted furiously to Gingrich's words. That very policy, he said, was a magnet for illegal immigrants. It was amnesty and Romney was against it.

"... we have had in the past programs that said people who come here illegally will get to stay illegally for the rest of their life, that will only encourage more people to come here illegally."

"... to say that we're going to say to the people that came here illegally that now you're all going to get to stay or some large number are going to get to stay and become permanent residents of the united states, that will only encourage more people to do the same thing."

Cue the DNC. I am not generally a fan of web videos produced by national party committees because they rarely escape the boundaries of the Beltway, but this one is a sign of what Gingrich's policy decision means for the general election. Quite simply, it could move Romney to the right, to a place where college-educated white voters question whether he is compassionate enough. Immigration is one of those suburban signal issues. George W. Bush was on the right side of it, as was John McCain, as was Bob Dole -- indeed, as were George H.W. Bush and Ronald Reagan. It goes without saying that the DNC is also targeting Hispanics themselves.

Brad Woodhouse, the DNC's communications chief, says in an e-mail that "Mitt Romney's extreme anti-immigrant views were on clear display. Romney once again went to the right of every other Republican presidential candidate, refusing to agree with others on the stage that tearing apart families is wrong or that we shouldn't implement an extreme and inhumane immigration policy."

OK. Now, whether you agree with Gingrich or Romney, recognize that the DNC and the Obama campaign now has a new incentive to see Newt Gingrich become the true face of the GOP anti-establishment opposition to Romney, as ironic as that last phrase is. If Gingrich and Romney publicly argue over immigration, the DNC and Obama 2012 will do everything they can to reproduce this debate before college-educated white voters in Virginia, North Carolina, the Rust Belt and elsewhere. It's a perfect time, because the national electorate is starting to wake up and pay attention to the race. Now is the time when Mitt Romney, the guy who Chicago expects will be the nominee, is at his most tender, most doughy, and most mold-able.

On Tuesday, National Journal's Ron Brownstein helped Ruy Teixeira and John Halpin introduce their latest demographic study of the electorate, which projects that the share of non-whites voting in battleground states in 2012 will jump two percentage points, a boost for President Obama, or a cushion of sorts for any shedding of white voters. (Working class whites will correspondingly drop three percent.)

The demographic battleground, as Brownstein, Teixeira and Halpin see it, will be among college-educated whites, particularly women, who helped put Obama over the top in the Midwest, West, and in states like Florida and Virginia even though, across all the battlegrounds, that cohort gave its vote to John McCain by four points. Mitt Romney does better among these voters than any GOP candidate. And those college-educated white voters could question Romney's compassion if he takes too hard-line a stance on immigration.

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Image credit: Evan Vucci/AP