Democrats Must Stop Republican Sadism at the Border | Opinion

Last week's duplicitous stunt by Florida's Republican governor and human outrage generator Ron DeSantis, who chartered a plane to deposit 50 Venezuelan migrants on Martha's Vineyard, has so far done nothing to stanch the GOP's bleeding in the midterm elections. But it is no accident that the GOP would want to raise the salience of illegal immigration. It's not that Republicans have the advantage on this issue—they very much do not—but rather that Democrats are terrified of pushing their fixes and would clearly prefer not to talk about the subject at all.

DeSantis, who is very talented at picking at culture war scabs, continues to increase his profile by serving as Trump-Lite, without the "lite part." Not content with aping 45's mannerisms and intentionally donning ill-fitting suits like a sun-drenched Kim Jong-un, DeSantis is trying to lift Trump's entire governing philosophy wholesale—circus over substance every time, preferably with as much performative cruelty as the law allows.

Ron DeSantis Speaks at a Rally
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at the Unite and Win Rally in support of Pennsylvania Republican gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano on Aug. 19, 2022, in Pittsburgh. Jeff Swensen/Getty Images)

But Democrats aren't exactly outfoxing the GOP on an issue that has bedeviled the country for two decades. Even though the party's path-to-citizenship plans are broadly popular, and even though Republicans are responsible for torching multiple good-faith attempts at far-reaching compromise this century, Democrats have barely touched the issue since taking power in Washington, D.C., last year. Thanks to the myopic dedication of several Democratic senators to the filibuster rule, the Senate hasn't even passed the House's 2021 bill enshrining protections and a path to citizenship for "Dreamers," (those brought to the United States illegally as children) which has supermajority public support.

This inertia is especially puzzling because hiring glorified coyotes to scam 50 people into heading to what is an admittedly ritzy vacation spot off the coast of Massachusetts is hardly the plan of a party confident in its policy proposals. It's the dark work of people who know perfectly well that their "ideas" are radioactive. Building an easily breachable wall on the southern frontier, using innocent children as props, ending birthright citizenship, and dramatically decreasing legal immigration—somehow—not popular.

DeSantis knows this. He also knows, as Damon Linker writes, that the path to the Republican nomination for president runs directly through being the biggest jerk in the country. So, instead of saying what he actually wants to do about immigration, he reached deep into the MAGA grab bag of fever-swamp boogeymen and pulled out one of former President Barack Obama's favorite vacation spots, "Martha's Vineyard." He succesfully rerouted the entire national conversation for days around his inane ploy. He simultaneously increased his profile and did a solid for Republicans still struggling to regain their footing in the aftermath of the Supreme Court's decision to overturn Roe v. Wade.

This should hardly have come as a shock to Democrats hoping to ride of wave of Dobbs revulsion to another two years of unified power. Republicans run the greatest Change the Subject operation in world history. The GOP's expertly greased propaganda machine can fixate on a seemingly minor problem and elevate it to the status of existential threat within days. In 2010, it was the freebased fear of the "death panels" that Sarah Palin said would accompany the Affordable Care Act. In 2014, it was a relentless campaign to hype the threat of the Ebola virus, which was transmitted precisely twice in the United States. In 2018, facing a towering blue wave, Fox News and its underbosses gave us wall-to-wall coverage of caravans full of migrants headed to invade the United States, possibly with ISIS fighters in tow.

Throughout his presidency, conservatives have ripped President Biden for his handling of what they inevitably call a "crisis" or an "invasion" at the southern border. The administration's instincts seem drawn from another era in American history, when the Obama administration repeatedly made concessions on militarizing the border in exchange for compromise legislation that never passed. That means they are only paying attention to (and fearing) the majorities who tell pollsters they want better border security and more deportations of illegal immigrants, and not the exact some respondents who also want to create ways for undocumented migrants to stay legally and give shelter to innocents fleeing violence in their home countries.

It's the mirror opposite of the GOP's strategy. Democrats approach immigration like they are trying to avoid waking a vengeful baby whose wailing could kill them. Republicans focus with extraordinary discipline on elements of the immigration problem that they think could benefit them politically. They do it as loudly as possible and they don't care that they are frequently on the wrong side of public opinion. Remember: voters sympathize with Venezuelan refugees, not with the GOP's dead-eyed plot to use them to own the libs and then immediately discard them.

If they want to stop the never-ending cycle of Republican-driven immigration panic, Democrats need to get in the driver's seat and steer the discourse where they want it to go, rather than into Ron DeSantis' sadistic lies.

David Faris is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Roosevelt University and the author of It's Time to Fight Dirty: How Democrats Can Build a Lasting Majority in American Politics. His writing has appeared in The Week, The Washington Post, The New Republic, Washington Monthly and more. You can find him on Twitter @davidmfaris.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.