Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a potential challenger to President Obama in 2012, took some decidedly outside-the-GOP-mainstream positions during a often scrappy debate with former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean Tuesday night. The architect of the 1994 Contract With America voiced his support for a pathway to legal status for some illegal immigrants, praised the way things are done in a Western European democracy — and said that, after 10 long years, the United States is losing the War on Terror.
“Any honest assessment on 9/11 this year, ten years after the attacks, I think will have to conclude we are slowly losing the war,” Gingrich said. “We are losing the war because madrasas are out there teaching hatred, we’re losing the war because the network of terror is bigger, not smaller… We’re losing the war because there’s a real possibility that in a few weeks, unfortunately, Egypt will join Iran and join Lebanon and join Gaza and join the things that are happening that are extraordinarily dangerous. “
It’s not rare to see a conservative down in the dumps over terror these days, especially with a presidential election around the corner. But it wasn’t too long ago that talk of actually losing the war on terror — after thousands of lives and billions of dollars spent — was not the kind of thing you heard from a prominent Republican’s mouth.
Gingrich also didn’t shy away from his recent controversial statements about Islam, warning the college audience that they were in for a long fight with what he called “radical Islam.”
“Your generation is going to face a long struggle at least as long as the Cold War,” he said.
Dean took issue with the term “radical Islam,” saying that it relegated the overwhelming majority of Muslims into the same tent as the few who are violent.
“We can’t fight intolerance with intolerance,” Dean said.
Dean took an independent tack on some issues as well, calling on progressives to rally around Obama and stating he’s read to give the president “a pass” on key points of disagreement within the liberal community — including on the war in Afghanistan and the continued operation of the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
“I don’t have a problem with the president’s foreign policy, though there are those who do,” Dean said. “I am willing to cut the president a lot of slack on Afghanistan — which I never had a problem with in the first place because they harbored people who killed 3,000 Americans — and on the civil rights stuff, even though I think Guantanamo is a terrible symbol for the rest of the world.”
“If it’s a matter of national security, we’re going to have to do it,” Dean said of the controversial military prison in Cuba. “It was a bad idea, I wish it had never been started, I don’t think we never should have it but we did. And now that we’ve inherited it, it’s going to be incredibly hard to close it.”
On immigration, Dean strongly backed the DREAM Act and took swipes at Republican rhetoric against illegal immigration. It was pretty standard stuff, though Dean delivered it with a passion reminiscent of his 2004 bid for the White House.
It was Gingrich who surprised here, offering up his support for a pathway to legal status for some illegal immigrants along the lines of the DREAM Act his party helped to defeat in the Senate this year.
“We’ve got to have some sort of system of human discrimination in this country that says, for example, there’s a young man in this country in Dallas, TX who came to this country when he was three. He doesn’t speak Spanish. Now to say to him, gosh, you need to go back to Mexico strikes me as something that no common sense group of American neighbors would do,” he said.
Though Gingrich stressed he does not support quick pathway to citizenship for people like his Dallas example, the did say that some sort of legal status — he called it “residency” — should be made available to people who serve in the military, get a degree or have already been here a very long time.
It was not the kind of thing you’re likely to hear a lot of on the Republican presidential campaign trail starting later this year.
But both men also found time to rally to their respective sides, with Gingrich suggesting the government should take management advice from Dell and IBM and Dean openly wishing America could have a health system more like Canada’s.
“We are in a phase where the problems are so much bigger than George W. Bush, so much bigger than Barack Obama, so much bigger, frankly, than Newt Gingrich or Howard Dean,” Gingrich said. “If we don’t find a way to have an adult conversation among all of us and find a way to finally decentralize our system in a localized, voluntaristic, genuine self-government model, we are in deep, deep trouble.”
When it came to the economy, Gingrich suggested Egypt-like times were ahead for America unless something is done about jobs — and fast.
“Georgia last week reported 36% teenage unemployment. This is very, very dangerous,” Gingrich said. “When you start getting a generation of young males who have no future, you are building up a scale of problems that are very dangerous.”
“I pick males in particular because that’s the dominant source of crime, the dominant source of social unrest,” he added.
Dean agreed times are tough, but said that without the stimulus action taken by Obama and the Democrats (as well as the bailouts supported by both Obama and President Bush) “we’d be a lot worse off.”
Then Gingrich did something you don’t often see a high-profile Republican do these days: sing the praises of the way Germany has handled its economy. Gingrich said Germany’s kept unemployment down and wages high with economic policies worthy of envy.
Dean did not miss the chance to score an easy bucket. “You know, they also have universal health care,” he said, laughing. “Bring it on!”
The night ended along more classic lines. After a student in the audience asked Gingrich to explain why he thought her gay and lesbian friends on campus shouldn’t be allowed to get married.
“I have as much right to my belief as you have to yours,” Gingrich said. He then turned the conversation to a discussion of religious tolerance, which he says has suffered as gay rights have spread across the country.
Dean was incredulous. “I really argue with the idea that you have as much right to your belief as she has,” he told Gingrich. “The problem is, in this country, there are roughly 1,700 rights that you can get if you’re married but you can’t get if you’re single…s o the issue here for me is not the right to marry, the issue for me is the rights to be treated, in the law, like any other American citizen.”
Gingrich was the last-minute replacement conservative at the debate, which was hosted jointly by The George Washington University college Democratic and Republican groups. Dean, perhaps the highest-profile progressive voice in the country, was originally scheduled to take on Liz Cheney, daughter of the former Vice President and a conservative star in her own right. But Cheney backed out last week, providing the students at GW’s Lisner Auditorium the chance to see a potential 2012 contender take the stage. Gingrich rose to the occasion, mixing in plenty of historical anecdotes and recommendations of his own books in trademark style.