Paul Begala: Gingrich Dominates Foreign Policy Debate

Romney did fine. And Bachmann and Huntsman got in some good lines. But Newt Gingrich had a brilliant night, says Paul Begala. Plus, Michael Medved and more columnists weigh in.

11.23.11 3:51 AM ET

In the CNN national-security debate, Mitt Romney played his usual Chris Evert game, methodically returning every serve. But Newt Gingrich, the new frontrunner, played like Ilie Nastase—brilliant when he can keep his volcanic temper under control. And in the debate he successfully held his temper in check.

Gingrich, God bless him, rushed into the minefield of immigration. He called for something less than the comprehensive reform favored by President Obama, but more than the electrified fence and the alligator-filled moat that some on the right yearn for. Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s support for the Texas DREAM Act has helped thwart his candidacy (well, that and being a total moron in prior debates). So Gingrich showed real guts in refusing to pander to the most mean-spirited xenophobic tendencies of the far right. I suspect that on careful examination we will learn that what Gingrich actually supports is a netherworld for immigrant workers—neither full citizenship nor subject to deportation. That is far from the DREAM Act—more like a dream come true for any employer seeking cheap labor.

The rest of the debate was dominated by the also-rans.

I knew I’d seen too many debates when Michele Bachmann started to make sense to me. The Minnesota congresswoman schooled Perry on Pakistan. When Perry said we should cancel all aid to Pakistan, Bachmann called him naive. She was right. Her answer was nuanced and subtle and smart—none of which could describe Perry.

Former Utah governor Jon Huntsman displayed a real command of foreign affairs—on a deeper level than a politician who’s memorized a briefing book. Reflecting on his time as America’s ambassador to China, Huntsman said he was frustrated to see 100,000 American troops in Afghanistan, only to watch China gain the Afghan mining concession.

And Ron Paul—the cranky, quirky uncle showing up for Thanksgiving dinner in an ill-fitting suit—made a passionate plea for the libertarian position, but found little support onstage.

Perhaps the biggest surprise for me was the audience. Unlike the yahoos who booed a gay solider and shouted “Let him die!” about a man without health insurance in previous GOP debates, the crowd at Constitution Hall was decorous and decent. Except, of course, for the parade of disgraced neocons who were among the questioners. A cavalcade of former Bush officials took one last moment in the spotlight, desperate to wash off the stench of their deceit and failure in Iraq. It didn’t work. Their presence only served to remind the nation of the catastrophic consequences—in both blood and treasure—of putting a Republican in the Oval Office.