Opinion

Why Democrats need to act tough on immigration

Borders matter. Democrats need to recognize that.

Is President Trump a gift to Democrats, or a curse?

At first glance, you would probably say "gift": the extremism, naked race-baiting, chaotic management style, and obvious psychological troubles have rendered him one of the most unpopular presidents in modern history. His political opponents are sure to reap the benefits for years to come ... right?

Maybe not. The gift of Trump could become a curse if it lulls Democrats into a false sense of security; if it makes them believe that all they have to be is "not Trump" and they'll coast to victory. More precisely, if it tricks them into believing that they can embrace the left-wing platform of their dreams, disregarding the concerns of moderate voters, since they will be compelled to vote against Trump and his extreme GOP regardless of what Democrats say and do.

Clearly, many in the Democratic Party have been tricked into this false belief. This is a huge mistake. This delusion is exactly what felled Hillary Clinton. She never truly made a positive case for her own candidacy — she spent the bulk of the campaign eviscerating Trump. It didn't work. But for many on the left, the lesson from the election seems to be that Hillary lost because she was too moderate. Wrong!

Liberals will say that America keeps moving left. And this is true. But Democrats are moving there even faster. Moderates in America can't keep up.

The Democrats of 2004 would have wiped the floor with Trump and won supermajorities in both houses of Congress in 2016. But the Democrats of 2016 didn't think they had to run as the Democrats of 2004.

America's great mushy middle doesn't like Trump — this much is abundantly clear. But moderate swing voters are also concerned that by voting for Democrats, they might well empower a bunch of left-wing radicals.

The moderates are not wrong to worry. Immigration is a case in point. Most Americans are much more moderate than President Trump, favoring immigration for a great number of illegal immigrants and a welcoming immigration policy. But here's the key: While they have mostly benign views of immigration, it is absolutely crucial for them that the immigration policy of the United States should be determined by what is in the national interests of the United States.

More and more on the progressive left, and in the Democratic leadership, you hear policies that differ from the GOP's not because these liberals have a different view of what best serves the national interest of the United States and its citizens, but because they believe that there should be no borders at all, or that America owes something to all people, everywhere.

As Vox's Dara Lind and The Atlantic's Peter Beinart have noted, even as the Trumpified GOP has ceded the center ground on immigration, the Democrats, instead of capturing it, have only grown more extreme.

It used to be a mainstay of Democratic rhetoric on immigration that border enforcement was crucial to any immigration reform, and that while they might favor some level of amnesty for illegal immigrants already in the U.S., increasing low-skilled immigration was not desirable, since low-skilled immigrants push down the wages of American citizens. Today, these sorts of arguments, which, Beinart points out, were once made by the likes of Glenn Greenwald, Paul Krugman, and Barack Obama, are likely to get you labeled as a crypto-Nazi by the left.

Now, this shift makes sense if the two-party system has just become a machine for stirring up racial tensions, rather than a way to implement policies through democratic governance. But I assume some Democrats want to win and govern, not just feel the warm fiery glow of self-righteousness in their bellies. As crazy as it might seem to many progressives, it's quite possible for a significant enough number of American swing voters to view Trump and the Democrats as equally extreme and dangerous, and even to deliver further national victories for Trump and the GOP.

The best way for Democrats to show that they want to serve the interests of American citizens, rather than the extreme form of abstract values most Americans don't share, is simple: Build the wall!

Don't laugh. Border enforcement used to be a bipartisan issue. As it should be: Whatever you believe about immigration policy in the abstract, enforcing borders is simply one of the basic duties of any state. Democrats complain that the wall is just a symbolic gimmick, since most illegal immigrants don't swim over the Rio Grande. Well, exactly: It's precisely because it's symbolic that Democrats should build the wall. Rob Trump of the issue. Show Americans you believe in an immigration policy that is generous, but also based on the rule of law and American national interests. Sponsor a clean build-the-wall bill (for which you're sure to get enough Republican support), bring it to Trump's desk, and have a big party.

Democrats almost certainly won't listen to this piece of advice. Hyperpartisanship and mutually reinforcing extremism has gone too far. That's okay. But if Trump wins re-election in 2020, Democrats will wish they had stayed closer to the center on immigration.

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