Democrats got some very bad news last week in the form of the latest Harvard CAPS-Harris poll. In it—for the first time in the poll’s history—Americans ranked immigration as their top policy concern, overtaking even inflation. Adding insult to injury, only 35 percent of respondents approve of President Joe Biden’s handling of the issue.
Since then, a swing state poll conducted by Morning Consult and a general election one done by NBC News gave former President Donald Trump the overwhelming advantage on the issue by 22 percent and 35 percent, respectively. This should come as a shock to exactly no one who has been paying attention.
Back in August 2022, I wrote a column that did not make a lot of Democrats in Washington happy. In it, I pointed out that President Biden’s unilateral decision to reverse some of Trump’s border policies, including his “remain in Mexico” decree, while morally admirable, amounted to political and governmental malpractice. I took this stance, not because I supported Trump’s positions then or now, but because Biden made the move so ham-handedly that even Mr. Magoo could see the disaster coming a mile away.
It’s one thing to rhetorically oppose something—it’s an entirely different proposition to match those words with governmental action.
Biden reopened the spigot at the border—and once he did that, he had an obligation to manage the flow. Here, he failed spectacularly.
There was potential for a great win if the Biden administration had matched its policy shift with an effective government program that could have used the situation to the benefit of American communities that are losing population or are having trouble filling job vacancies. But there was no coordinated effort to identify housing or potential employment opportunities. No outreach to mayors and governors to ensure localities could absorb the influx. No funding package to cushion the blow on local budgets. No immediate emergency action to clear the immigration court logjam.
And without a management plan in place, Republicans pounced. Deftly seeing a political opening, GOP governors from Texas’ Greg Abbott to Florida’s Ron DeSantis giddily stepped into the void, using asylum seekers as political pawns and successfully turning the tables on Democrats—who for years proclaimed their cities sanctuary havens while condemning much of their ideological counterparts’ rhetoric as racist and mean-spirited from the comfort of their localities thousands of miles away from the border.
Within weeks, buses began showing up in liberal strongholds from New York City to the vice president’s own front yard, while chartered planes made unannounced stops in Martha’s Vineyard. And while those on the left rightly decried the stunts as despicable, Republicans won a two-fer, proving their point on the challenges of the migrant crisis governmentally while scoring political wins.
Budgets began to buckle, homeless systems were brought to the brink, and Dem-on-Dem finger-pointing began to break out. Video of law enforcement officers beaten by migrants has gone viral. Those, like New York City Mayor Eric Adams, who had the audacity to demand answers from the federal government—whose responsibility it is by definition to manage immigration—were politically retaliated against.
Biden not only didn’t seem to engage, he didn’t even bother to show up to meetings, instead having New York’s governor—a position that generally demands respect from the federal government—relegated to meeting with his chief of staff on not one, but two occasions. For nearly a year and a half, Democratic Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer—whose home city’s budget is being crushed by the mismanagement of the crisis—remained conspicuously silent.
Top federal Democrats, from Biden on down, have engaged in what can only be described as a protracted 18 month-long exercise in willful blindness, deliberately avoiding a massive and obvious governmental crisis to our own peril.
By not properly managing the crisis immediately, Democrats inadvertently seemed to prove Republicans’ point on immigration, and in doing so dangerously set the conversation back decades.
Worse, it’s with an issue that plays to Trump’s strengths. He ran and won in 2016 in large part on border security and his ridiculous pledge to build a wall. Never mind that he didn’t build it and everyone forgot about his promise that Mexico would pay for it– by putting the issue front and center he gave voice to a matter of national concern. Eight years later, in fumbling the issue, Biden is hand delivering Trump a Texas-sized gift neatly wrapped with a bow.
Now, with less than 275 days to go before the 2024 presidential election, Democrats in the Senate are engaging in an attempt to flip the script, releasing a border security package that, while laudable, omits traditional Democratic priorities like pathway to citizenship, to shift blame for the crisis to Republicans who have said unequivocally that they will not come to the table.
It’s a tall order, requiring political and communications savvy that appears far beyond the reach of a White House that cannot manage to get credit for its actual economic legislative accomplishments in an economy that, by nearly every measurable standard, is thriving.
That’s because the honest and undeniable reality is, it’s Democrats who are late to the game on the migrant crisis. In attempting to wish away the problem by largely ignoring it, we put ourselves at a disadvantage that no 11th-hour procedural maneuvering will be able to undo.
And there is no time machine.
The lesson? Acknowledging a problem is the first step to solving it. Democrats win when government works; Republicans win when it fails.
There’s still time for the Biden administration to step up, take responsibility and manage this crisis. Let’s just hope ten months is a long enough runway to meaningfully course correct before it's too late.