The most obvious reason Republicans are spiking the immigration deal is that they don’t want to undercut Donald Trump’s ability to exploit the border as a campaign issue. But they also have another, less-obvious motivation: Republicans don’t want to admit that the central promise of Biden’s presidency — that he would restore moderation and unity — has been fulfilled.
Biden’s campaign program was aggressively liberal, but his themes were vanilla. Biden promised to restore a sense of goodwill and common purpose, and his connection to the popular Obama administration insulated him from attacks on the party’s post-2016 leftward turn.
The foundation of the rationale for electing Trump is that this was a lie. Trump’s argument is that Biden is merely a figurehead and “the radical left,” or sometimes “communists or Marxists,” is running the country. This idea has permeated the entire spectrum of conservative thought, from its think tanks and scholars — who have a complex theory that a radical-left “long march through the institutions” has seized irreversible control of American society — down to lowbrow propaganda on television and social media.
Republican critics of the bill had no plausible complaint that it was some kind of liberal Trojan horse disguised as a crackdown. The bill represents a consensus belief that immigration laws and enforcement are incapable of handling the surge of migrants claiming asylum. Most Democrats acknowledge that it takes the government far too long to vet the claims of migrants, who have broad discretion to claim persecution if they are deported. The entire thrust of the law is (or, more realistically, was) to give the border enforcement more tools and resources to contain the surge of asylum seekers and to make it harder for migrants to use those claims of persecution.
Conservative opponents have relied on a made-up accusation that the bill allows 5,000 illegal entries a day before restrictions kick in. The actual issue is that the system is overwhelmed by legal entires, and the bill would have set a threshold of contacts after which all migrants, even legal ones, are denied. That is why the conservative Customs and Border Patrol union supported the measure, along with the conservative Republicans who negotiated it.
Trump has both claimed that only the full House Republican bill will do, and that no law is needed at all. At other times he’s just openly blurted out that his motive was to deny Biden the political benefit of a bipartisan immigration deal.
His allies hardly even attempted to disguise that. National Review’s editorial opposing the measure backhandedly concedes it will toughen up the system, while arguing it doesn’t go far enough and insisting Biden can’t be trusted to use his new authority: “The deal has worthy provisions, but it’s not going to compel Joe Biden to do anything he doesn’t want to and further entrenches a system that has been fundamentally distorted by mass bogus asylum claims.” Obviously a bipartisan bill would not go as far as right-winger prefer, and obviously they wish Biden wasn’t president, but neither of these come close to rebutting the obvious reality that the bill would move policy in a conservative direction.
It was the fact that Biden moved so far to the center that made it so noxious to Republicans. Immigration sits at the heart of their culture-war grievance with Biden. It is now a mainstream Republican belief that Democrats deliberately want a broken system in order to import new voters to replace the old (white) electorate. To join with Biden on incremental improvements would surrender that paranoid climb, reducing immigration enforcement to a question of management. And it would be to concede that Biden is not actually trying to destroy America but simply has somewhat different policy preferences than the Republican Party.
But this impression is actually correct. Every president has some feints toward the center and the base, and the complaint that Biden was captured by the left is not totally without truth. His administration has been staffed largely by people who worked for more left-wing candidates in the primary. Biden has given his base more than a few rhetorical and substantive wins (most recently by blocking a liquified-natural-gas port).
Biden has on the whole enjoyed more bipartisan success than almost anybody expected. He has cooperated with Republicans to pass a major infrastructure law, a suite of investments in domestic science and industry, a gun-safety law, Postal Service reform, an update to the Violence Against Women Act, and more.
Buried deep in a recent column by Ross Douthat is an important concession about Biden’s presidency. Douthat writes that he assumed “Joe Biden was elected as a moderate but was too aged and diminished to actually impose moderation on his party.” In reality, though:
Liberalism in 2024 is still in all kinds of trouble, but the truly epochal defeat seems less likely than it did back then. In part this is because of adaptations within the center-left. Blue-state Covid restrictions were unwound a bit faster than I expected — in part because of the political peril they created for Democratic politicians. Many of those same politicians have found ways to get some distance from their party’s activists, especially in swing states like Pennsylvania. And ideological fervor on the left seems to have passed its peak, yielding a more contested environment inside elite institutions and a modest left-wing retreat in the culture as a whole.
This is quite an important acknowledgment! Biden did not continue COVID restrictions forever (as many Republicans claimed). Indeed, he managed to cool down the left-wing fervor that sparked up in part as a response to the pandemic and Trump.
Biden has proved willing to compromise with Republicans. He has proved willing to change his policies in the face of evidence — sometimes moving leftward but at other times moving right. He is a highly reasonable person and a sensible politician and far from an ideologue. The only problem with the immigration compromise he was prepared to take is that it made this all too obvious.