Newt Gingrich’s Immigration Stance Won’t Play With Conservatives

The GOP’s latest frontrunner did well in the latest debate. But his decency about undocumented immigrants could kill his chances with the Republican base. Plus, Paul Begala and more Daily Beast columnists weigh in on the debate.

11.23.11 3:59 AM ET

It could end up being Newt Gingrich’s decency on undocumented immigrants, rather than his indecency in a host of other areas, that does him in. In recent weeks, Republican primary voters have been desperate enough for any conceivable alternative to Mitt Romney that they’ve seemed willing to overlook Gingrich’s adulterous history and his influence peddling for Fannie May and Freddie Mac. But expressing sympathy for people in this country illegally? That’s likely to go over a lot worse than abandoning one’s cancer-stricken wife.

Until the exchange on immigration, Gingrich seemed to be doing well in the debate, which was dominated, oddly enough, by Ron Paul. While Mitt Romney got into testy arguments with Jon Huntsman, Gingrich seemed to float above the fray, sticking to his strategy of not attacking other Republicans. Then came the exchange on immigration. “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,” Gingrich said, adding that we should be “humane” in enforcing the law.

It was a good and realistic response, but one likely to annoy the conservative base. The only thing the right resents more than illegal immigration is being called cruel because of that resentment. After all, Rick Perry’s poll numbers plunged well before he forgot that he wanted to eliminate the Department of Energy. The thing that popped his brief bubble was his defense of the Texas DREAM Act, which allows children of undocumented immigrants to pay in-state university tuition. “If you say that we should not educate children who have come into our state for no other reason than they’ve been brought there by no fault of their own, I don’t think you have a heart,” he said during a debate. He later apologized for his comments, but he never recovered. The Republican electorate will forgive many things, but compassion toward immigrants without papers hasn't often been one of them.