Democrats will lose this fall by fighting over immigration now

Greg Nash

As Congress prepares to debate immigration this week, the Democrats have an opportunity to solve a political problem that could make or break their chances to regain power in Washington. That political problem is the role of immigration in the 2018 midterms and 2020 presidential election.

Put directly, the data shows that immigration probably cost the Democrats the presidency in 2016, particularly in states like Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin with a high percentage of noncollege-educated whites who switched their support from President Obama to Donald Trump.

{mosads}By agreeing to a deal on immigration, whether it be one that the president has proposed or one that Congress is now working on, the Democrats can simultaneously take the issue off the table and score what will be perceived as a victory on Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) for individuals whose parents brought them to the United States as minors and through no fault of their own find themselves here illegally.

Despite vocal resistance to the president, the party appears to have not learned its lesson from 2016. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) eight-and-a-half-hour speech last week and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer’s (D-N.Y.) federal government shutdown in late January were not only wrongheaded, but were politically destructive.

By focusing exclusively on the Dreamers and offering no practical limits on immigration, much less any border security, the Democrats are in the process of writing their own political obituary for November and beyond. But a deal with President Trump can turn this perennially difficult issue into an electoral benefit. Here’s how.

President Trump has proposed a compromise by offering a path to citizenship for 1.8 million Dreamers, building a wall on the southern border, ending the visa lottery program, and ending what he calls “chain migration” and what the Democrats call “family unification.”

In fact, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) has proposed a bill in Congress based on these four planks. The Democrats have previously said this proposal is dead-on-arrival, which is a clear mistake and there are some small bits of evidence now that the party is waking up to the fact that the Schumer-Pelosi approach was just plain wrong.

This past weekend, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) teased that he might be willing to support the president’s wall. The precise words Blumenthal used were an openness to “strengthening some of the physical structures and fence,” indicating that he was prepared to accept the president’s deal.  This deal offers a pathway to citizenship for more than twice as many Dreamers as President Obama protected through his 2012 DACA executive order in exchange for simply securing the border.

The statistical evidence is very clear that border security and controlling immigration remain central issues for the American people, particularly the 9.2 percent of Obama voters who defected from the Democratic Party to vote for President Trump, based on a report from the Democracy Fund Voter Study Group. Contrary to what the Democrats have maintained, border security tests extremely well in public polling. The latest Harvard-Harris poll found that an overwhelming majority, 79 percent, of Americans believe the United States needs secure borders.

While immigration reform has been framed by Democrats as a tradeoff between a popular initiative for the Dreamers and an unpopular wall, this is a misreading of public opinion. The wall is indeed unpopular, but it actually serves as a proxy for border security, which remains a central concern of many voters, especially in swing states and among noncollege-educated whites.

In terms of electoral politics, if the Democrats are to regain the House, they will need to win back Obama-Trump voters in the Midwest, as well as independents and moderates throughout the country. In fact, 10 of the 38 Republicans who are retiring or otherwise vacating their seats in 2018 are from the four Midwestern states of Indiana, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

The latest ABC News/Washington Post poll also finds that the advantage Democrats hold in the generic congressional vote comes almost entirely from districts the party already holds.  Indeed, the Democrats hold a lead by a strong 38 points in their own districts, yet trail Republicans by six points in the very districts they need to flip in order to regain the House.

It is very clear that immigration may very well have made the difference in 2016. In conjunction with the Democracy Fund Voter Study Group’s report, John Sides from George Washington University also found that attitudes about illegal immigration were strongly correlated with vote switching. In particular, the voters who were most likely to switch from Obama to Trump opposed a pathway to citizenship and believed that immigrants detract from American society.

Thus, to expand their base of support, the party needs to win back the precise voters who defected from President Obama to give Donald Trump his electoral college victory by reconciling their positions on immigration. It may well be that the Democrats and Republicans can arrive at a compromise, which, on the whole, would work in the Democrats favor because the primary objective is to take the issue off the table.

Approaching the 2018 midterms, the American people are tired of leaders playing politics on immigration reform and are disappointed that Democrats are putting up roadblocks when they have radically changed their position from when they supported similar legislation just a few years ago.

In 2013, Schumer and his “Gang of Eight” introduced a $46 billion overhaul of U.S. immigration law squarely aimed at strengthening border security and providing illegal immigrants with a path to citizenship. Had the bill passed, it would have doubled the number of border patrol agents to 40,000 and required the construction of 350 miles of fencing. This deal has largely gone by the wayside, clearly to the electoral disadvantage of the Democrats.

In 1996, President Clinton proposed the basis of the current immigration system, along with efforts to take other economic and social issues off the table, like the federal deficit and welfare reform, and by being committed to border security, the Democrats had neutralized the issue until their leftward shift following the failure of the “Gang of Eight.”

With Republicans still split on the issue and the Republican Freedom Caucus opposing any deal that involves what they call amnesty, the Democrats can claim a victory on DACA through a compromise, position themselves as committed to border security, and paint the Republicans as a divided, ineffective governing party.

Moreover, making a deal on immigration would force President Trump to concede that American taxpayers, not Mexico, would be paying for the wall at a time when tax reform and the new budget deal have added approximately $3 trillion to the deficit. Such a deal would reinforce the fact that the Republicans are not fiscally responsible and make the administration much weaker, and indeed hypocritical, as they commit as much as $25 billion to the construction of a wall.

Ultimately, if the Democrats can wake up and acknowledge the mistake they have made, they can turn the issue around. If not, it could well consign the party to permanent minority status.

Douglas E. Schoen served as a pollster for President Clinton. A longtime political consultant, he is also a Fox News contributor.

Andrew J. Stein is a former president of the New York City Council and a former president of Manhattan Borough.

Tags Chuck Grassley Chuck Schumer Congress Democrats Donald Trump Dreamers Election Immigration Nancy Pelosi Republicans voters White House

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