Newt Gingrich likes to talk about the need for "strategic" thinking on this or that big issue. Unfortunately, his strategic mind doesn't apply to his own campaign. What exactly is his strategy to beat Mitt Romney? Judging by his performance at Tuesday's CNN debate on national security issues, that is one subject to which he has not given much thought.
As usual, he displayed an impressively detailed grasp of the issues and more intellectual firepower than his opponents -- not a terribly difficult feat in this field -- but he missed the chance to cast himself as a compelling conservative alternative to Romney. Does he want to win the race or just be the smartest person in it? It would seem the latter. He prefers to play the Olympian overseer at debates, sharply evaluating the questions of moderators (Wolf Blitzer got off easy in this one and even received a pat or two on the head from Newt) while doling out compliments to his competitors and making his own expansive points.
Were Gingrich strategically focused on scooping up primary voters discontented with Romney, surely he would have said something about Romney's past and present liberalism. He didn't say a word. Romney had a so-so debate performance, but it probably doesn't matter, since Gingrich didn't bother to engage him.
Helping Romney even more was that Gingrich decided to use a national security debate to remind conservatives of the nuances of his "humane" approach to illegal immigration -- a lecture, for whatever its merits, conservative primary voters probably don't want to hear and particularly not in the scolding tone in which Newt delivered it. Perhaps Reagan could get away with a point like that but not Newt, who fell into the same pit Perry did. That is, in a previous debate, Perry had called anti-amnesty conservatives heartless. In this one, Newt suggested that they lacked family values, as a tough deportation policy would mean breaking up settled families.
Maybe Newt deserves praise for not caring about offending his audience and defending a policy he considers sound, but the upshot of that debate moment is that conservative primary voters who were eagerly shopping for someone other than Romney won't gravitate to his campaign. Illegal immigration is a difficult issue to finesse -- an issue to which Gingrich's occasionally grating and sanctimonious style does not lend itself.
Just as Newt alienated conservatives with his holier-than-thou approach to Paul Ryan's plan to reform Medicare (first calling it "right-wing social engineering" before supporting it after several throat-clearing qualifiers), so now he alienates them with his holier-than-thou approach to illegal immigration. Romney took advantage of Newt's little sermonette by reminding the audience that he staunchly opposed amnesty in any of its guises.
The other candidates didn't make up any ground on Romney either. One could hear the air going out of Herman Cain's balloon, who offered mainly unimpressive answers and at one point botched Blitzer's name. Perry seemed less witless but more desperate, throwing out as many bold but half-baked proposals that he could remember -- a no-fly zone over Syria, a half-time legislature, zeroed-out foreign aid budgets, a "Monroe Doctrine for the 21th Century," etc. Michele Bachman threw one elbow at Perry for these straining attempts to recover his relevance, calling him "highly naïve."
The fever of "isolationism" which liberal pundits feared was coursing through the GOP (after Romney at a previous debate said that he opposed fighting other people's civil wars for them) seems to have passed. Romney said that America should pull backwards countries into "modernity." Rick Santorum told AEI questioner Paul Wolfowitz that he agreed with global aid to Third World countries. Ron Paul challenged these points, but most of the candidates on stage seemed ready to continue Bush-era policies. AEI, one of the sponsors of the debate, must have been pleased with most of the answers. Herman Cain should now be able to say that he is familiar with the "neoconservative movement."
Gingrich clamored for a more "strategic" approach to toppling the regime in Iran, but the more pressing problem facing him now is his lack of strategy before Iowa.
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