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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Political Strategy Notes

New York Times opinion essayist Thomas B. Edsall addresses a question of strategic concern for Democrats in the 2024 campaign, “Can Biden Take a Page Out of Trump’s Playbook?” with respect to the immigration crisis.  As Edsall writes, “In a bid to weaken Donald Trump’s domination of the immigration crisis going into the 2024 election, President Biden has reversed his position and adopted a high-risk strategy….Biden is seeking enactment of border legislation that “would give me, as president, a new emergency authority to shut down the border when it becomes overwhelmed.”….On Monday, The Times described Biden’s rationale in “How the Border Crisis Shattered Biden’s Immigration Hopes”:

The number of people crossing into the United States has reached record levels, more than double than in the Trump years. The asylum system is still all but broken.

On Friday, in a dramatic turnaround from those early days, the president implored Congress to grant him the power to shut down the border so he could contain one of the largest surges of uncontrolled immigration in American history.

Trump, acutely aware of the critical importance of immigration to his campaign, is determined to block Biden’s border security proposal, now under negotiation in the Senate. Trump, of course, wants to make sure that the “crisis at the border” remains foremost in the minds of voters through Election Day….The prize in this struggle is the 2024 presidency and all the power that goes with it.”

Edsall notes further, “I asked political strategists and American and European scholars to evaluate the viability of Biden’s immigration initiative and received a wide range of responses….Ruy Teixeira, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute who has often argued that Democrats have moved too far to the cultural left, questioned the viability of Biden’s immigration strategy in an email:

It’s a steep political hill Biden has to climb on this issue. His approval rating on “handling the immigration situation at the U.S.-Mexico border” is now 18 percent. Eighteen percent! That’s really, really bad and the lowest presidential approval on the issue ABC News has measured since 2004. In the latest Wall Street Journal poll, Trump is preferred over Biden by 30 points, his greatest lead on any issue.

Illuminating detail, Teixeira continued,

comes from a December survey conducted by the Blueprint group. Between Trump and Biden, who are voters most likely to think is close to their views on immigration? It’s Trump by a country mile: 44 percent of voters say Trump is close to their position, compared to a mere 25 percent who say Biden is close to their position. Even Hispanic voters are more likely to say Trump is closer to their views on immigration than to say Biden is….It’s a bit late in the day to finally be moving on this issue and only under duress from the Republicans. The border debacle has been unfolding throughout Biden’s term and the political damage has been accumulating. A big part of the problem is that there are a lot of Democrats who didn’t — and don’t — really want to do much about border security….I don’t think Biden is really committed to being a different kind of Democrat, just a somewhat more palatable one. And I don’t think he really wants to go after some specific person or group to forcefully dissociate himself from “weak on border security” views in and around the Democratic Party. That limits the salience of his repositioning both in the general political discourse and to voters’ perceptions of him and his party.

“All this said, it’s still worth striking a tougher stance on border security,” Teixeira wrote. “It’s the beginning of a move in the right direction and could help Biden modestly….Would Biden “lose more support on the progressive left than he would gain in the center?” Teixeira asked. His answer: “My view is that, on this issue as on so many others, the progressive left is a paper tiger….The net for the Democrats,” he concluded, “is likely to be strongly positive”

Edsall also quotes Brooking Senior Fellow William A. Galston, who observes: “Biden’s shift on immigration will make a political difference to the situation on the ground well before the election only if his new policies change the day. In the last year of the Trump administration, encounters with illegal migrants at the southern border numbered less than 500 thousand. During the third year of the Biden administration, the total rose to 2.5 million, and the dispersal of these migrants throughout the country has produced fiscal and housing crises in large cities controlled by Democrats….Biden will have to undertake tough measures that won’t be easy to distinguish from Trump’s. The Democrats who understand the political stakes will probably go along with this, while those who see this issue through humanitarian or ideological lenses will balk. If he proceeds down this path, Biden will have to hope that gains among swing voters exceed the losses in his base.” Trump and the Republicans, in Galston’s view, “will pay a price if they are seen as being driven by politics rather than the desire to address a really difficult problem,” but Biden faces a big hurdle in his bid to take command of the immigration issue:

The administration has waited so long to act that it faces a credibility problem that will only get worse if it flinches and settles for half-measures whose effects are incremental at best. Turning this issue around will take determination — and a willingness to endure criticism from fellow Democrats that hasn’t been the administration’s long suit thus far.”

In addition, Edsall writes, “Joel Kotkin, of Chapman University and the Houston-based Urban Reform Institute, argued that adopting a tougher immigration stance is a plus for Biden that comes with little cost: “The progressives, faced with the odious Trump, will fall into line, except on the margins. The open border is not welcomed by most people.”….

It’s hard to see, Kotkin continued,

how either working-class Latinos or African Americans welcome their communities being inundated by people who have entered illegally and about whom we know nothing. Protests in New York and Chicago by working-class people should not be ignored. This year, if I were Biden, I would be more worried about them than far-left foundations or cheap-labor lobbyists who might object.

Edsall notes further that “in communities suffering economic decline and growing isolation, a relatively small influx of immigrants can propel voters to the right.”….Ed Goeas, a Republican pollster, replying by email to my inquiry concerning the current politics of immigration, argued that the Republican Party has increased the odds that the Biden strategy will work. “I believe the Republicans may have given the Biden campaign the opportunity to turn this issue into a real plus,” Goeas wrote, referring to the politicized reasoning Republicans are using to reject the legislation under consideration in the Senate.”….Overall, Kotkin contended, “The political rewards of standing up on the border are far greater than backing the current chaos. Everywhere in Europe support for stricter immigration is moving from the right to the center and even the left, particularly in the ‘enlightened’ North.” Edsall concludes, “The public clearly wants the government to take steps to control the border. If Biden does nothing, Trump will retain his advantage on immigration, which consistently ranks among the top three voter concerns in polls. And most progressive voters understand, deep down, that if they cast a ballot for a third-party candidate or abstain from voting at all, they are in practice supporting Trump.”

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