Welcome to The Campaign Moment, your guide to the biggest developments — and the stunning failures — in the 2024 election.
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The Washington dance that played out in the U.S. Capitol this week is a familiar one by now. Efforts to overhaul our nation’s immigration laws for the first time in decades are suddenly injected with momentum. The two sides work together to forge a big, bipartisan compromise … and then things fall apart as Republicans get cold feet.
It happened in 2006 with a bill spearheaded by then-Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.). It happened in 2013 with an effort led by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.). It happened in 2018 with an effort to pair protecting young undocumented immigrants with border security. And today, it looks like it will happen again, with Republicans tanking a border security deal forged by Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.).
More so than with past efforts, though, the quashing of this deal by conservatives following Donald Trump’s lead is infused with presidential campaign politics, nine months before the 2024 election. And the blame game has begun, with the GOP’s unsteady handling of matters punctuated Tuesday night by its shocking failure to impeach Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas.
So what could all this mean for the race ahead?
We can say a couple of things.
One is that the border crisis is looking like President Biden’s most problematic issue right now — particularly with the economic picture improving. An NBC News poll this week found that Americans preferred Trump to Biden on border and immigration issues, 57 percent to 22 percent. Even in our polarized country, you very rarely see such a huge gap.
The other is that Republicans have rather clumsily stumbled into potentially lessening the president’s clear vulnerability on the issue, by seeing Biden apparently call their bluff.
To hear some of their own GOP colleagues tell it, Republicans are not-so-subtly calculating that it’s better to use immigration as a wedge issue against Biden then to actually clamp down on a chaotic border by passing a pretty tough immigration bill. Whether Biden will be able to capitalize on that by calling out the GOP for sinking a bipartisan compromise is up in the air.
The impact could wind up being negligible. But it’s now a major question for the race ahead, and Republicans have at least handed Biden an argument.
Here’s a quick summary of how this all went down:
Republicans demanded border security measures in exchange for continued Ukraine funding, and Biden assented.The Senate deal forged by Lankford and others made major concessions to the GOP. Unlike the predecessors mentioned above, it didn’t include usual Democratic requirements like a pathway to citizenship or protections for undocumented children.The deal fell apart after Trump signaled Republicans should accept no compromise at all. House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) declared the deal dead on arrival in the House, and Senate Republicans gradually walked away.
Even as the deal has apparently fallen apart, though, the process has given Democrats ammunition.
Several Republican senators played up how conservative and what a good deal the proposal was. And more than a few Republicans have suggested their party’s opposition is political — i.e. designed to help Trump — rather than principled. (Lankford on Monday dryly noted, “Obviously a chaotic border is helpful to” Trump.)
Republicans have also struggled to reach for arguments against the deal, suggesting they don’t have great ones available. They have suddenly argued new immigration laws aren’t needed, despite years of saying quite the opposite. And they have tried to claim the bill is actually somehow a boon to undocumented immigrants or even “amnesty,” which doesn’t at all comport with the details.
A case in point for how Democrats could sell the idea that Republicans are playing politics: The deal on Monday earned an endorsement from the labor union that represents Border Patrol agents. That union has twice endorsed Trump — something he loves to remind people. It called the bill “far better than the current status quo.”
To the extent Republicans are making a 2024 political calculation, it’s that however bad this all looks right now, it’s still preferable to taking co-ownership of a border that so dogs Biden — and to potentially helping Biden by making it less chaotic.
Given all of the above, could Democrats convince Americans that Republicans are now responsible for — or even desire — this crisis?
Biden has set about making that case. Last week, he claimed the bill’s passage would allow him to “shut down the border right now.” The implication would now seem to be that congressional Republicans are depriving him of that power.
And after keeping his powder dry on the congressional politics, Biden delivered a forceful statement Tuesday afternoon.
“Every day between now and November, the American people are going to know the only reason the border is not secure is Donald Trump and his MAGA Republican friends,” Biden said.
To highlight the alleged hypocrisy, Democrats could certainly seize upon the comments from the likes of Lankford and Sens. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) and Bill Cassidy (R-La.), or the Border Patrol union’s endorsement. They could highlight more unvarnished comments from the likes of Rep. Troy E. Nehls (R-Tex.), who has said repeatedly that he doesn’t want a border deal to help Biden’s approval rating. They could also point out that Republicans have instead focused on impeaching Mayorkas — for things some of their allies have said simply aren’t impeachable — and failed even at that, at least initially.
But that argument most often involves a fair amount of inference and wrangling with the complicated legislative details and politics. Generally, casual voters will just see a problem and blame the incumbent president for not solving it.
“If Republicans kill the bipartisan border compromise, Trump could say the Republicans did it because the deal does not go far enough in restricting the number of arrivals,” said Georgetown University professor Anna Maria Mayda, who studies the politics of immigration. “In general, the situation at the border is (unfortunately) out of control, and the public is likely to think of the Biden administration as being responsible for the situation.”
Mayda pointed to literature on misattribution bias, which shows people tend to judge presidents even for events caused by factors outside their control.
What I’m watching, moving forward? The House looks set to again try to impeach Mayorkas once House Majority Leader Steve Scalise (R-La.) returns from cancer treatment and provides a potentially decisive missing vote. And next week, there’s a competitive special election for former congressman George Santos’s (R-N.Y.) seat where immigration has played a central role. It should provide clues about how this issue is playing.
Speaking of rather astonishing failures: I present the Nevada Republican presidential primary Tuesday.
Nikki Haley managed to lose it to nobody, quite literally. The latest results show voters there selected “none of these candidates” instead of Haley by a more than 2-to-1 margin, 63 percent to 31 percent. (Trump was not on the ballot.) I previewed a potentially embarrassing outcome like this for Haley last week, but 2-to-1 is something.
What to make of it?
Yes, this was basically a symbolic contest, with no actual delegates at stake. (They will be awarded in Thursday’s caucuses, where Trump is competing but Haley is not.) And yes, “none of these candidates” — an unusual option Nevada has had since the 1970s — has won primaries before.
But that’s usually in very crowded races. Haley was really the only candidate of note Tuesday, and only 3 in 10 people who turned out decided she was good enough to check a box for, even without Trump as an alternative.
It’s merely the latest evidence that, Trump’s dominance notwithstanding, Republican primary voters just don’t seem to like Haley all that much. Haley must be asking herself whether she wants to risk another embarrassing outcome in her home state of South Carolina on Feb. 24.
The Democratic primary, meanwhile, reinforced the lack of a real contest in that party. Biden was taking close to 90 percent of the vote — shortly after he took 96 percent in South Carolina. Rep. Dean Phillips (D-Minn.) wasn’t on the Nevada ballot. (And “none of these candidates” had a comparatively poor showing here, taking just 6 percent.)
That’s the percentage of registered voters who say Trump is “too extreme,” but that they still plan to vote for him.
The CNN poll divulging that interesting nugget showed 63 percent of registered voters overall believed Trump is “too extreme.” The head-to-head between Trump and Biden in that poll? Trump led by four percentage points.
(Thirty-eight percent of voters viewed Biden as “too extreme.”)
“Republicans fear they will be targets in Trump’s ‘retribution’ campaign” (Washington Post)“4 takeaways from Trump’s loss in his immunity case” (Washington Post)“When Joe Biden lost his purpose” (Washington Post)“What the 14th Amendment says about whether Trump can be on the ballot” (Washington Post)“McDaniel is expected to leave as RNC chair amid pressure from Trump” (Washington Post)“On the Border, Republicans Set a Trap, Then Fell Into It” (New York Times)