If the Democrats can land the economic plane by
bringing down inflation without triggering a recession, Joe Biden should have a
pretty strong hand to play in 2024: big legislative achievements, strong global
leadership, and a powerful “get out the vote” issue in Dobbs. It’s shaping
up to be a strong messaging platform. But if you've been watching the Republican debates, you know where the Republicans see a big vulnerability...
Joe Biden and the Democrats have had a lot on their plate: Gaza, Ukraine, inflation, ongoing threats of government shut-down, abortion rights, China, Russia, Republican assaults on Democracy and the legitimacy of our elections and our judicial system, and sure, why not? UFOs. Yep, a lot to deal with.
But there is an issue that the Democrats are not
dealing with, and if they don’t wake up and do something, it could kill them in
2024. The Republicans, on the other hand, are figuring out how to unify an
assault on Joe Biden around a major issue, and they are learning how to
message it... simply and effectively.
The issue is the Southern border.
Sure, sure… we can practically hear the administration’s defensive posture now, likely words to the effect of “the Biden administration is working diligently to address the immigration issue in a fair, humane, and comprehensive manner.” Consider this – actual language on the website of the Department of Homeland Security:
“President Biden has called on Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform since his first day in office. As a result of Congress’ failure to enact the reform, the Administration has been using the limited tools it has available to secure the border and build a safe, orderly, and humane immigration system while leading the largest expansion of lawful pathways for immigration in decades.”
Huh? Biden is waiting for Congress to act? Hey, Joe, Godot is going to show up before that happens. It is not exactly a state secret that the United States House of Representatives recently displaced the New York Jets as the most dysfunctional, unproductive, and broken organization in the country. To “wait for Congress to act” is to do punt and do nothing.
Democrats need to face up to the reality that the Biden
administration has a real liability in both policy and perception: what is the
policy? Is it the right policy? Is it being communicated effectively? Is the message believable, compelling, and supported by actions?
The Democrats are vulnerable on each of these dimensions… they have neither offered a comprehensive new policy nor are they effectively communicating the actions they are taking to address the growing litany of border issues. They are being consistently outmaneuvered on the optics of immigration… and it is getting worse all the time.
Something has to be done… fast.
The Democrats may be asleep at this particular wheel simply because Donald Trump did so much to damage Republican credibility on the border issue.
Back in 2016, Donald Trump framed the Republican gripe about the Southern border in terms of caravans of undesirable immigrants flooding across the Rio Grande to steal jobs from Americans. Trump scoffed at the idea that these immigrants were simply the latest chapter in American history of tired, huddled masses yearning to breathe free, labeling them as, well, deplorables. Indeed, Trump defined an essential issue of his 2016 campaign on the need to build a wall to keep the trash out.
“When Mexico sends its people, they're not sending their best. They're not sending you. They're not sending you. They're sending people that have lots of problems, and they're bringing those problems with us. They're bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.
Trump was crude and insulting about hundreds of thousands of brown-skinned people who were eager to work hard at tough manual labor simply for the chance a better life for their families by living in the United States. Trump cynically propagated the myth that these eager workers and would-be citizens were taking American jobs. Quite the reverse: immigrants play a crucial role in filling gaps in the labor market.
Ah, but in the world of optics, facts are for twisting into optical illusions. MAGA nation loved Trump’s spin on the truth and still more his crudity. For the middle-aged white men who had lost jobs to the global economy, Trump was the guy who “told it like it is” when it isn’t, who blamed immigrants for the loss of jobs, and a government in Washington that appeared more worried about the health and well-being of undocumented nonresidents – “illegal aliens,” in Republican speak -- than its own citizens. Trump justified their sense of victim-hood.
Trump’s instinct for bombast and exaggeration, however, proved self-destructive. Trump made the immigration issue farcical with an inane announcement that he was going to build a vast, continuous wall across our entire south border, and doubled down on the laugh track by promising that “Mexico would pay for it.” Liberals cackled at the obvious naiveté of both the phrasing of the problem and impracticality of the solution.
In four years of office, Trump would build a microscopic stretch of wall, and no invoice was ever mailed to Mexico. The wall became an embarrassment to Trump, as even rabid conservative Ann Coulter, who worshiped him in a book entitled “In Trump We Trust,” turned on him with a raging, angry column on Breitbart entitled “Gutless President in Wall-Less Country.” Quite apart from never building a wall, Trump never bothered to advance a comprehensive legislative plan for dealing with the immigration crisis. He was all bloviated blowhard: all talk, no action.
When he finally did act, it was horrendous. Unable to build the wall, Trump managed to mollify the MAGA maniacs by instituting a heinous policy of separating children from their parents at the border. It was effective in its cruelty: it made would-be immigrants think twice about risking life and limb to get to a country that would take away their children. It was a deep, ugly stain on our national reputation.
The immigration problem would not fully explode under Trump, who benefited significantly from Title 42, a World War II era law invoked because of Covid that empowered the Federal government to immediately return migrants across the border, refusing any consideration for asylum. This reduced the flow of migrants who understood that they would be instantly returned to Mexico.
Taken in sum, immigration could not and would not be a big issue in Trump’s 2020 campaign for re-election. Trump’s foolishness in thinking a wall would solve the problem, his failure to build it, and then his implementation of unspeakably cruel border policy made the entire issue of immigration toxic for Republicans in 2020. The last thing Trump wanted to do on the campaign trail was talk about the wall that did not get built and the country that did not pay for it.
But that will not be the case in 2024.
Republicans can now point to four years of Democratic leadership producing no tangible breakthrough on immigration policy. Worse, they are now turbo-charging the issue of Biden’s inaction by attempting to add new implications of that inaction… fentanyl, terrorism, and budget trade-offs are all now integral to the Republican focus on the Southern border.
And what has the Biden administration been doing? Not enough.
Very early in his term – March 24, 2021 – Biden announced that Kamala Harris would be his “point person” on immigration. She was tasked with leading the administration’s effort to better understand the “root causes” that lead migrants to abandon their home countries.
Harris took on a tough job, to be sure… but it’s now two and a half years later, and no one has heard a peep from Kamala Harris on immigration. No new policy. No new nothing.
It’s no secret that Kamala Harris has not exactly dazzled in her role as Vice President, and no secret that her tepid performance is now viewed as a liability in Joe Biden’s re-election campaign. That she was given a potentially high-profile assignment for her portfolio and proceeding to go AWOL has not reflected well on anyone. Surely, by now, she should have forged some initiative – some semblance of bi-partisan legislation -- that Democrats could point to as evidence of effort, if not progress.
Here is the curious little secret: it is not like concrete legislative action on immigration is unfathomable, unimaginable, and unsolvable. In 2011, the famed “Gang of Eight” Senators – four Republicans and four Democrats -- came up with a perfectly reasonable bi-partisan approach to the Southern border. Guess what the compromise involved? You got it: Republicans would get increased funding for both border security and policing, and Democrats would get a path to citizenship for undocumented non-residents already residing in the United States. It was the essential nature of legislative compromise: both sides got much, though not all, of what they sought.
Republicans in the House, however, quickly crushed the idea, using the Gingrich/McConnell logic that it is better to do nothing than to hand a Democratic President a legislative triumph. And sure, if Kamala Harris had tried the same legislation in 2022, she might have encountered the same roadblocks. But at least there would have been the perception that the Democrats were doing something, and that their efforts were being blocked by Republicans. Heck, Harris could have proposed a plan that involved building walls in limited strategic sections (as the Biden White House actually authorized last month, spending existing “use it or lose it” Congressional funding) – what Republican would have dared vote against that?
But there was nothing. Nothing of scale or magnitude, no sweeping legislative proposal that could be branded with Biden’s name.
Nature and politics abhor vacuums, so it is not surprising that Republicans raced into the chamber of silence left by Democratic abdication on immigration policy. Into the void charged scum-soaked Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who cruelly and shamelessly manipulated migrants to perform a cheap political stunt when he herded them onto a plane heading for the ritzy liberal enclave of Martha’s Vineyard. That stunt backfired… but Republicans were onto something. Texas Governor Greg Abbott sent busloads of migrants to the huge “Blue State” northern cities… and Democratic Mayors like New York’s Eric Adams would begin chafing at the Biden Administration for allowing the situation to fester and deteriorate. Great…now even Democrats were upset about the Biden administration’s inaction.
Republicans know that border security is Red State red meat. It is an issue that intrinsically works far better for Republicans than for Democrats. Republicans get to talk tough and macho about using force to stop immigration. Democrats always end up in the role of defending the right of immigrants to strive for a better life in the United States. Almost inevitably, this puts Democrats on the defensive for appearing to advocate for “illegal” immigration, for supporting “sanctuary cities,” which most people do not understand but sure sounds like cushy refuge for undocumented non-residents, and for finding “paths to citizenship” for undocumented non-residents while those who followed immigration laws wait patiently. Inevitably, Democrats are viewed as the weenies who are “soft on immigration,” whereas Republicans are the macho tough guys who take action.
Take Greg Abbott of Texas. Please. The Lone Star governor is at his most creative when he is thinking of ways to target immigrants – setting up barriers in the Rio Grande to increase the likelihood that those who would attempt to cross will drown, bussing immigrants to Northern cities, and now passing dubious legislation that allows Texas law enforcement officers to arrest persons on suspicion of illegal entry. Not only would this law essentially authorize law officers to execute aggressive racial profiling and conviction without trial, the new law would also wildly usurp the Federal government’s authority over immigration.
All that said, we must pause and be fair. While many of us have yearned for Texas to follow through on its many threats over the years to secede from the union, we must be sympathetic to the Lone Star State’s plight in the immigration crisis. Simply by virtue of being a border state, Texas experiences the burdens and problems of illegal immigration far more than other states. There needs to be a fair and equitable solution that does not make El Paso ground zero for our national immigration crisis and does not make rogue bussing the solution to a national problem.
But there is policy, and then there is perception, and Republicans are getting a great deal more clever about messaging the border issue.
Those who have been watching the GOP debates have seen the Republicans take a far more comprehensive and frightening narrative to the immigration crisis than Donald Trump ever imagined. It is a compelling narrative that blends China, fentanyl, Ukraine funding, and terrorism into a toxic broth for the Biden White House.
The GOP argument – aggressively spearheaded by Ron DeSantis and Vivek Ramaswamy in the debates -- goes like this: China manufactures the fentanyl and ships it to the Mexican cartels that manufacture the pills that pour through our porous border, killing tens of thousands of Americans. Hezbollah, Isis, and scores of splinter terrorist groups are sending troves of terrorists through our southern border, where they will plan and execute a 9/11 grade atrocity on U.S. soil. Sounds scary as all get-out, huh?
Yes, the fentanyl epidemic that is killing thousands of Americans is real, but it is well established that almost all fentanyl flows into the United States through major ports – not on the backs of migrants wading across the Rio Grande. And that inflow of terrorist organizations? Can’t be proven – or dis-proven. The bottom line: both the fentanyl and terrorist stories are plausible, which is all it takes to create effective messaging. The combination ratchets up the issue of border security from simply a threat to American jobs to an existential, life and death national crisis.
And what, DeSantis and Ramaswamy ask, is Joe Biden doing? He’s spending billions and billions to protect Ukraine’s borders, while failing to protect our own citizens from a scourge of drugs and danger.. Biden is asleep at the wheel! He’s old! He’s senile! He’s out of touch!
You see? It is all becoming one big, ugly fully integrated radioactive message aimed at Biden… and there’s enough plausibility in it to sting badly.
DeSantis uses this logic to whip debate attendees into a frenzy, and then he goes in for the kill, announcing that he would send the United States military into Mexico to destroy the Mexican cartels, glossing over the messy little issue of how we go about invading not simply a sovereign country, but one of our closest allies. Does DeSantis care about such nuance? Watch the next debate and listen to the ovation Machine Gun Ronny gets when he talks about shooting cartel leaders dead.
All of this, it turns out, plays wonderfully into Red State Nation’s growing impatience with sending billions in aid to Ukraine. Donald Trump made clear that he saw little value in NATO, and when Trump cuddled up to Putin, he signaled to MAGA nation that Ukraine was not our problem. DeSantis and Ramaswamy then put the jigsaw pieces together in an artistic way to make it seem that they were not abandoning Ukraine per se… they simply argued that it was a matter of funding priority. Why are we sending zillions of dollars to defend Ukraine’s borders and failing to defend our own?
No, it’s not just about rapists anymore. Now, the GOP has integrated every possible frightening message into one: Joe Biden’s failed policies are why we have an unrelenting flood of undocumented non-residents, a fentanyl crisis, a risk of an imminent terrorist strike, and no money to fix our own problems while we spend billions on someone else’s.
Republicans are weaving an argument that unites all of the nation’s perceived weaknesses and vulnerabilities around the idea that the Biden Administration has not done a thing about the Southern Border. Bad news for Joe Biden: now even Democrats are joining the clamor for action.
And in the battle of perception, the Biden Administration is extremely vulnerable to this accusation. Democrats simply cannot point to enough concrete actions taken to address the immigration crisis. There has been no integrated, comprehensive proposal for immigration policy.
What can be done?
It’s not rocket science. It starts with putting an idea on the table. Let it get criticized, let it get debated… heck, let it get defeated by Republicans in the House.
It is better than doing nothing.
Biden should make a key goal for the first six months of 2024 to advance a piece of legislation that aims at accomplishing what the “Gang of Eight” tried to do in 2011 and more: increased investment on border security, aggressive action on fentanyl trafficking, more immigrant processing personnel and facilities, and a sane policy for finding permanent housing for legal immigrants in the United States.
More ambitious still: the idea of a deal that funds all of Israel, Ukraine, and the Southern Border. It would be a double-edge sword for Biden, as such a deal would not be designed to address DACA or paths to citizenship for current undocumented in the U.S. It would not be the deal progressive Democrats want, but it might be a deal that Biden could get. And forging a consensus that creates action on three of the biggest issues currently on our national stage would burnish Biden’s reputation for implementing bold legislative initiatives.
The point: everything that Biden can do now to defuse the Republican attack dogs about the Southern border will pay dividends in 2024. A good example: One outcome of the recent “Xi Loves You” summit in San Fransisco was the initiation of dialog about China’s role in the fentanyl crisis. Biden needs all the arrows he can fit in his quiver to defend his administration’s actions against the DeSantis/Ramaswamy fusillade.
Yes, it is complicated. Joe Biden is trying to manage a full plate of global crises, all with front-burner urgency. It is easy to understand that his is a world in which priorities must be set, and there are only so many hours in a day.
But anyone who has been watching the Republican debates is getting a very clear look at the new Republican messaging on the Southern border and Democrats would be wise to think hard – and fast – about it. There is precious little time to shore up the optics of the Biden Administration’s stewardship of the southern border, and now is the time to act.
Wake up, Dems. This is the issue that could kill us in 2024.
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