Democrats: We’re being played on immigration

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ stunning maneuver last week, in which Florida funds were used to fly Venezuelan migrants from facilities in Texas to the affluent island of Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts, was one of the most talked-about political stunts in the recent history. The right gushed about a mission accomplished to point out the hypocrisy of shelter cities, while the horrified left called DeSantis a human trafficker, angered him for falsely luring migrants onto planes he chartered and launched an investigation into his actions.

That was mission accomplished for DeSantis. The Reaction Storm was what he wanted. But the Democrats’ condemnation of DeSantis missed the most important point. DeSantis’ stunt wasn’t the singularly evil act of a runaway crusader, but simply the latest example of what Republicans always do. In the event of a political emergency, Republicans have one step they keep coming back to: breaking immigration glass.

Here’s an interesting coincidence: On Tuesday, September 13, Senator Lindsay Graham released his latest proposal for a national abortion ban after 15 weeks, a politically damaging issue for Republicans that has absolutely dominated media discourse. The very next day, Wednesday, September 14, DeSantis lured migrants onto planes. Hm.

In one day, we went from headlines about whether Senator Graham had just scored a massive “own goal” on his party’s halftime prospects to back-to-back coverage of the DeSantis stunt. Abortion evaporated and immigration became the top story all through the Sunday talk shows and well into this week.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is what politicians call a “pivot.”

Ron DeSantis
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at the Unite and Win Rally in support of Republican Pennsylvania gubernatorial nominee Doug Mastriano at the Wyndham Hotel on August 19, 2022 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. During his state visit, DeSantis urged Republican voters to get behind Doug Mastriano.
Jeff Swensen/Getty Images

That the ruse was completely transparent did nothing to quell the breathless media coverage of it, nor did the fact that Republicans plotted the immigration push months ago, as a leaked 60-page plan revealed. It was anything but spontaneous. And that’s important here, even more important than the grossly callous nature of it all: It’s the Groundhog Day aspect, the predictable biennial outburst of thirsty Republican immigration outrage.

Remember 2020 when “open borders” became their new slogan. From September 1 to October 15 of this year, immigration was Donald Trump’s number one topic in television advertising. In 2018, it was caravans (remember them?); In the run-up to the election, Fox News devoted more than 33 hours to an alleged country-ending threat. In 2016 it was The Wall. 2014 was all about backlash: After a brief flirtation with a bipartisan reform deal, Republicans swooped down at halftime to double down on migrant hysteria.

And the media keeps falling into the trap. In 2018, for example, the immigration message diverted media attention away from issues where Democrats were stronger and likely helped save Republican seats amid a blue wave.

Political scientists have shown that Republicans, especially Donald Trump, were particularly good at such media distractions. But most of the time it works because the Democrats are complicit in making it work.

With Charlie Brown running around at Lucy’s soccer ball, we can’t help it. Research shows that the most effective messages are those that provoke anger by appealing to the emotional over the rational. And when Republicans play the immigration card, they get a double whammy: they activate an emotional response fine-tuned to their base, and they trigger the Democrats’ heightened fairness and justice response.

In other words, Republicans push buttons, Democrats react. They play the tune, Dems dance.

That is why this moment is so critical. Republican pollster Bill McInturff recently pointed out that there are currently two campaigns in America. One is about the economy, crime, inflation and border security – and the Republicans win. But there’s a second one — on abortion, democracy and climate change — that Democrats are winning, so conveniently they’ve reversed expectations of a red wave in November. The combination of the Dobbs decision to repeal abortion as a constitutional right, falling gas prices, and several legislative wins changed the narrative and turned the tide. As of today, things are looking pretty dead.

Now what this election will lead to is simple. If the nexus of abortion, threats to democracy, and MAGAism is at the forefront of voters, Democrats will have an advantage. If Republicans can effectively shift the focus to inflation and immigration, they will see some gains.

The primary task of the Democrats now is to defy the siren song of the immigration fight, no matter how outrageous the Republican antics become. As with tic-tac-toe and thermonuclear war, the only winning move is not to play.

Matt Robison is an author, podcast host, and former convention staffer.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own. Democrats: We’re being played on immigration

Rick Schindler

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