The Newt/Mitt Amnesty Fight About Nothing

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Nov. 23 2011 9:33 AM

The Newt/Mitt Amnesty Fight About Nothing

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WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 22: Republican presidential candidates (L-R) Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Mitt Romney, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, shake hands prior to a debate at Constitution Hall November 22, 2011 in Washington, DC. The debate, hosted by CNN and in partnership with the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute, was expected to focus primarily on national security, foreign policy and the economy. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Last night, for the very first time, Mitt Romney's campaign focused its attack spin on Newt Gingrich. The shift was really hard to miss. Gingrich's spokesman R.C. Hammond was, for once, surrounded by reporters asking him to clear up the candidate's immigration stance. Team Romney kept giving reporters ammo.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

"The problem is the magnet issue," said former Sen. Jim Talent. "Actually, Michele Bachmann talked about it even more eloquently than Romney did. It sounded to me like Newt was for an amnesty, that he wasn't as concerned about the magnet issue."

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So that's the attack on Gingrich. The Romney solution? Much less clear. I was one of the witnesses to the Washington Examiner's Phil Klein grinding down Romney spox Eric Fehrnstrom on how far he'd take the "amnesty" attack on Gingrich. There were a few reporters around, and none of us wanted to interrupt the flow of this.

Fehrnstrom kept continuing to drive the "no amnesty" point home, and I tried to get more details.
I followed up again, asking what "no amnesty" would mean for the people already here.
“Well, first, you have to get turn off the magnets to get them to stop coming.”
Again, I asked about those already here.
“He would not grant them amnesty," Fehrnstrom said.
"But what would he do with them?" I asked.
He reiterated, "He would not grant them amnesty."
I asked again, "But what would he do?"
“I just told you, he’s not going to grant them amnesty," he said.
Again, I said, “That’s not an answer, that’s telling me what he won’t do. What would he do?
“He would not grant them amnesty," he repeated.

There's no plan for that. Is there a plan from Gingrich? R.C. Hammond got that question, too (largely, again, from Klein), and it sounded like a new policy was born on the spot. The problem of high-achieving illegal immigrants can be solved locally. "Citizens can decide whether or not their neighbors who came here illegally should be able to find a path to legality." How would these people then attain citizenship status, something the federal government grants? It was totally unanswered.

Immigration solutions aren't actually going to get hashed out over a few weeks in a Republican primary. This is where nuance goes to do. Remember the issue that weakened Hillary Clinton in 2007? It was a dodgy answer on whether New York should grant drivers' licenses to illegal immigrants, a totally forgotten issue, but one that's hard to find a middle ground on. The Newt/Mitt immigration discussion is just absurd -- there's a policy at issue that would affect a very small number of people, and neither candidate is actually explaining what he'll do to fix it.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

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