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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Teixeira: Will Biden’s ‘Jailbreak’ Work?

The following article by Ruy Teixeira, senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, politics editor of The Liberal Patriot newsletter and co-author with John B. Judis of the new Book “Where Have All the Democrats Gone?,” is cross-posted from The Liberal Patriot:

Well, he finally did it. After dithering for months, Biden has finally issued an executive order (temporarily) closing the southern border if a trigger number of illegal crossings is hit. (The details may be found here.)

This is a step in the right direction on an issue that is both highly salient and on which voter sentiment toward Biden and the Democrats is heavily negative. But will it work?

I am skeptical that by itself it will yield big political benefits. This is for a very simple reason: it’s just taken too long for Biden to do this. As wave after wave of illegal immigrants entered the country on his watch and voter concern about the crisis at the border spiked, he did nothing. That has allowed voter attitudes on the issue to harden in a way that is both highly disadvantageous to Biden and difficult to change this late in his term. He has, after all, been in office for three years and four and a half months, with a mere five months to go until the November election.

So: what took him so long? The progressive left is the culprit. They have, in a sense, been holding him prisoner and preventing him from responding to a worsening situation earlier. Consider how this whole mess started.

When Biden came into office, he immediately issued a series of executive orders dramatically loosening the rules for handling illegal immigrants. This was rapturously applauded by the progressive left and the various immigration advocacy groups. As summarized by the invaluable David Leonhardt:

Biden tried to pause deportations. He changed the definition of asylum to include fear of gang violence. He used immigration parole—which the law says should be used “on a case-by-case basis for urgent humanitarian reasons”—to admit hundreds of thousands of people. The parole programs alone amounted to “the largest expansion of legal immigration in modern U.S. history,” Camilo Montoya-Galvez of CBS News wrote.

Would-be migrants, as well as the Mexican cartels that run transit networks, heard a clear message: Entering the United States had become easier. The number of people attempting to do so spiked almost immediately.

Another Times reporter, Miriam Jordan, crisply explained why so many migrants came:

It is not just because they believe they will be able to make it across the 2,000 mile southern frontier. They are also certain that once they make it to the United States they will be able to stay.


And by and large, they are not wrong …

Now, who could have seen this coming? The answer is: practically anyone who was not under pressure from the progressive left not to see it. At the time, and even more now, the reality of American public opinion and politics is that border security is a huge issue that cannot be elided in any attempt to reform the immigration system. Public opinion polling over the years has consistently shown overwhelming majorities in favor of more spending and emphasis on border security.

Therefore, even though the public had become more sympathetic to immigrants and immigration, partially as a thermostatic reaction to the practices of the Trump administration, that did not mean that Democrats could simply be the opposite of Trump on this issue. He was closed; we’re open! He was mean; we’re nice! Any moves toward greater leniency at the border raised the possibility of knock-on effects and unintended consequences that would be highly unpopular. How did you prevent people from gaming the system? How did you handle the possibility of surges at the border to take advantage of lenient rules?

These questions were not asked by Democrats and, as the situation worsened, still could not be asked because the progressive left, inside and outside of the administration, would not permit it. The implicit mantra was “more is better and less is racist.” The result was inaction: Biden was the prisoner of progressive left forces who threatened to scream bloody murder if he tried to clamp down on the porous border. And claimed that the mighty armies of progressive voters they allegedly controlled would punish Biden and his party by withdrawing their support or simply failing to turn out in elections.

Now Biden is attempting his jailbreak. Predictably, the progressive left is not happy. A sampling:

It’s disappointing and I’ve made that clear to the White House as well. It does not solve the problem at the border…It makes it so that we have bought into sort of this idea that you can fix the border without fixing the legal immigration system. What you need is more resources, more legal pathways, modernization of the system—none of those things are happening with this.

Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Seattle), chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus

You can build a wall as high as you want. You can make it hard to receive asylum if you want. It’s not going to sustainably reduce the number of people wanting to come to the United States for a number of reasons until you identify and address root causes.

Sen. Alex Padilla (D-California)

I’m disappointed that this is a direction that the President has decided to take. We think it needs to be paired with positive actions and protections for undocumented folks that have been here for a long time.

Rep. Nanette Barragán (D-Los Angeles), chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus

Translation: if you can’t do everything, do nothing. More resources and legal pathways! Root causes! Positive actions and protections! This is a country where people are so freaked out by uncontrolled illegal immigration that half now support mass deportations of illegal immigrants, including 45 percent of Hispanics and 42 of percent of Democrats. What part of, “We need to get a lot tougher on border security,” don’t these Democrats understand?

The progressive left would clearly like to put Biden back in prison. And of course, the ACLU, the progressive left’s reliable attack dog, is suingto stop Biden’s executive order and re-open the floodgates at the southern border. They may well succeed, which would be another headache for Biden. With friends like these…

Biden would be well-advised to enjoy his freedom, even if it is perhaps too little, too late. In fact, he should extend his jailbreak to other issues, from crime to climate to race and gender, where the progressive left seeks to enforce epistemic closure and prevent sensible moves to the center. That would help him rebuild the normie image which helped him so much in 2020, but is now so tattered thanks to his “friends’ on the progressive left.

Five months left and Trump is still ahead. Maybe the New York verdict will help Biden. Maybe an intensified campaign focusing on Trump’s vulnerabilities will move low information, low engagement voters from key demographics back towards Biden. Maybe, maybe, maybe. But fixing Biden’s vulnerabilities clearly needs to be part of the strategy.

In short, the jailbreak should continue!

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