Democrats: We're Being Played on Immigration | Opinion

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis's mind-spinning maneuver last week—using Florida money to fly Venezuelan migrants from Texas facilities to the affluent Massachusetts island Martha's Vineyard—was one of the most talked about political stunts in recent history. The Right crowed about the mission accomplished of pointing out the hypocrisy of sanctuary cities, while the horrified Left called DeSantis a human trafficker, excoriated him for luring migrants under false pretenses onto the planes he chartered, and launched an investigation into his actions.

That was a mission accomplished for DeSantis. The storm of reaction was what he wanted. But the condemnation of DeSantis from Democrats missed the most important point. DeSantis's stunt wasn't the uniquely evil act of an out of control crusader, but rather, simply the latest example of what Republicans always do. In case of political emergency, Republicans have one move they return to over and over: break immigration glass.

Here's an interesting coincidence: On Tuesday, Sept. 13, Senator Lindsay Graham released his latest proposal for a national abortion ban at 15 weeks, a politically harmful issue for Republicans which absolutely dominated the media discourse. The very next day, Wednesday, Sept. 14, DeSantis lured migrants onto airplanes. Huh.

In one day, we went from headlines about whether Sen. Graham just scored a massive "own goal" on his party's midterm prospects to back-to-back coverage about the DeSantis stunt. Abortion evaporated, and immigration became the top story all the way through the Sunday talk shows and well into this week.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is what political operatives call a "pivot."

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

That the ploy was nakedly transparent did nothing to quell the breathless coverage of it, nor did the fact that Republicans planned the immigration push months ago, as a leaked 60 page plan revealed. This was far from spontaneous. And that's what's important here, even more so than the grossly callous nature of it all: It's the Groundhog Day aspect of it, the predictable biennial outbreak of thirsty Republican immigration outrage.

Recall 2020, when "open borders" became their new en vogue tagline. From September 1 to October 15 that year, immigration was Donald Trump's number one topic in TV ads. Back in 2018, it was caravans (remember them?); in the runup to the election, Fox News devoted over 33 hours to a supposedly country-ending threat. In 2016, it was The Wall. 2014 was all about the backlash: After briefly flirting with a bipartisan reform deal, Republicans fell all over themselves down the midterm stretch to double down on migrant hysteria.

And the media falls into the trap ever and again. In 2018, for example, the immigration message sucked media attention away from issues where Democrats were stronger and likely helped save Republican seats amidst a blue wave.

Political scientists have shown that Republicans, particularly Donald Trump, have been particularly good at these kinds of media diversions. But mostly it works because Democrats are complicit in making it work.

Like Charlie Brown running at Lucy's football, we can't help ourselves. Research shows that the most effective messages are the ones that draw out anger by appealing to the emotional over the rational. And when Republicans play the immigration card, they get a two-fer: activating an emotional response fine-tuned to fit their base, and triggering Democrats' elevated fairness and justice response.

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

That's why this moment is so critical. Republican pollster Bill McInturff recently pointed out that there are two campaigns in America right now. One is about the economy, crime, inflation, and border security—and Republicans are winning. But there's a second one—on abortion, democracy, and climate change—that the Democrats are winning, so handily in fact that they have reversed the expectations of a red wave in November. The combination of the Dobbs decision repealing abortion as a constitutional right, falling gas prices, and multiple legislative successes changed the narrative and turned that tide. As of today, things look pretty close to dead even.

So what this election will now boil down to is simple. If the nexus of abortion, threats to democracy, and MAGAism are at the forefront of voters' minds, Democrats will have an edge. If Republicans can effectively change the focus to inflation and immigration, they will grab some gains.

The Democrats' most important job now, no matter how outrageous Republican antics become, is to resist the siren song of the immigration fight. Like tic-tac-toe and thermonuclear war, the only winning move is not to play.

Matt Robison is a writer, podcast host, and former congressional staffer.

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