“President Biden is pledging to “shut down the border” if Congress adopts an immigration proposal that his advisers have helped craft and the president described as “the toughest and fairest set of reforms to secure the border we’ve ever had in our country.” There is a huge risk in this approach. Biden could be making the same mistake his party made throughout the ’80s and ’90s, particularly on crime issues — adopting right-wing rhetoric and policy that made the country worse and also didn’t deliver the electoral benefits that were supposed to justify the negatives.
There are real immigration challenges for the United States right now. For a variety of reasons, from climate change to autocratic leaders taking power, an usually high number of people are leaving their home countries and hoping to live here. And even left-leaning pro-immigrant cities and states such as Chicago and Massachusetts are calling for federal help because they’re struggling to provide enough housing and other support for these new arrivals.
But if the country overall were as liberal as Boston or Chicago, I doubt Biden would be using phrases such as “shut down the border.” He probably would be emphasizing the economic benefits of greater immigration and America’s history of welcoming refugees from oppressive nations, as well calling for a path to citizenship for the undocumented and other pro-immigrant policies. Instead, his approach is one-sided, casting immigrants and immigration largely as a problem, for which the solution is more border control agents and restrictions on asylum and other pathways to enter the United States.
This is a framing and policy designed to appease White swing voters in states such as Wisconsin ahead of the 2024 election, not to make the best possible reforms to the U.S. immigration system and explain them in an comprehensive way.
I am deeply concerned about former president Donald Trump and would not object too much to some conservative policies and rhetoric if I were fairly certain they would prevent a victory by the likely Republican presidential nominee. But those trade-offs have to be smart — bad policy needs to be justified by real electoral benefits. And I have little confidence in Biden and other centrist Democrats when they make such assessments — their record is pretty bad on this front.
In the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s, the Democratic Party, including at times then-Sen. Biden, distanced itself from expansive government programs, labor unions and abortion rights while embracing deficit reduction, tough-on-crime rhetoric and policies, and the Iraq War. This reflected some sincere centrism among some party leaders, but it was also done in part for electoral reasons.
The United States would certainly have had even more conservative policies if Bill Clinton had lost the 1992 and 1996 elections. But those three decades featured many Republican wins at the presidential and congressional levels, while Democrats legitimized and at times helped enact expanded use of the death penalty, an unnecessary war in Iraq and numerous other flawed policies. The conventional wisdom of the ’90s and early 2000s was that Democrats smartly moved to the center during that period. Now, as the Democrats are doing fairly well electorally as a much more pro-labor, pro-abortion rights, pro-Black party, it’s possible much of that centrism was not electorally necessary.
Biden has moved on from those flawed policies but not the instincts that drove them. Moving to the right on immigration and policing in the 2020s is a close cousin of moving to the right on spending and crime in the 1990s. The president has attacked calls to defund the police; urged cities to spend funds from the American Rescue Plan on their already-bloated policy departments; and forced D.C. to backtrack from reforms to make its criminal justice less punitive. The 1990s Democratic Party distanced itself from Jesse Jackson to seem centrist; for Biden-era Democrats, usually unnamed progressives and activists play the same role.
And again the evidence justifying this strategy on electoral grounds is weak. Biden has dismal approval ratings. Popular Democratic governors such as Kentucky’s Andy Beshear and Michigan’s Gretchen Whitmer don’t always take the most left-wing stand, but you’ll rarely hear them distancing themselves from the party’s progressives, the people who are often correct on policy and nearly always are doing everything possible to ensure Democratic candidates get elected.
Also, the Republican Party is doing about as well as Democrats electorally — and Republican Party leaders aren’t lecturing antiabortion activists for pushing an unpopular position.
Centrist Democrats tend to make decisions by looking at issue polls. It’s true that when asked by pollsters, Americans agree with some conservative rhetoric and policy proposals on immigration, policing and other issues where Biden is more centrist, just as they did in the 1990s on government spending and crime. But issue polls aren’t well-correlated to the polls that actually matter — support and likelihood of voting for a given candidate. There is little evidence that there is a bloc of swing voters who have fairly centrist stands on 19 issues and vote for the candidate closest to those views on 10 or more of those issues.
Right now, a politician who almost always adopts the majority stand (Biden) is tied or trailing in the polls against an opponent (Trump), who regularly takes very unpopular positions.
Biden beat Trump in 2020 and could defeat him again this year. But “look at the polls and do what is popular” is hardly some kind of political cheat code. Its benefits are often small — and at times nonexistent. It’s hard to argue that being in the right place on immigration will do the trick for Biden after similar moves on other issues haven’t.
And again, there are real, serious costs to this performative centrism. It is harder to sustain a movement to reform police with the leader of the Democratic Party joining Republicans in attacking the language of activists and praising cops. It is harder to reject the unfair stereotype of Democrats as a party of overeducated elitists out of touch with regular people when the party’s leaders at times endorse that narrative.
On immigration, left-leaning parties in Europe adopting more nativist rhetoric and policies have often moved public sentiment even further against immigration but not helped those parties do better electorally. That’s happening in the United States, too. It is unsurprising that Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) is so willing to defy the Biden administration and block federal agents’ access to a park on the border, because it seems as if Biden wants to downplay the issue and therefore not be cast as too pro-immigrant.
What Biden should be doing is looking for ways to make the immigration system more effective without uplifting and validating anti-immigrant sentiments. So more border control agents and even some new limits on asylum are fine. But repeating Trump-style rhetoric about an out-of-control border that must be “shut down,” which is essentially impossible anyway, is unlikely to win a lot of voters but will make the public discussion in the United States more anti-immigration.
I could be wrong. Perhaps Biden wins the election, and there is definitive proof that his tacking right on immigration won over lots of Americans. But the worst possible outcome is that Trump is elected, and it’s harder for the news media and Democrats to condemn the Republicans for taking very conservative actions on immigration and other issues because Biden was proposing slightly milder versions of the same policies. A second bad outcome is Biden winning but moving to the right on issue after issue, reversing much of the progress made by the post-Black Lives Matter Democratic Party.
Some centrism might be required to win a national presidential election. But a lot of progressivism is required to have a more equitable and just country. So Biden should be very careful about the progressivism he is throwing overboard to win in November.“