Nearly a month ago, Democrats ceded what little leverage they had by ending a short-lived shutdown and voting to reopen the government based on the flimsy promise of a DACA vote by Mitch McConnell. On Thursday, three bipartisan immigration bills were voted down in quick succession, making DACA recipients’ futures more uncertain than ever.
Those DACA recipients—and in turn, all undocumented immigrants—have been held hostage by Donald Trump ever since the president announced he was ending the program. Trump and the GOP were never going to play fair in their quest to terrorize immigrants and ramp up enforcement. But in their response over the past month, the Democratic Party missed the mark on two major opportunities when it comes to immigration.
The first is sending any signal to the Republican Party—the real opposition here, despite efforts to obscure that fact—that Democrats won’t blink at the first sign of trouble. As Politico reported on Friday, this was the takeaway that Republican Senator Mike Rounds, a co-sponsor of one of the bipartisan bills that went down, came away with:
Indeed, the chief GOP sponsor of the compromise found an upside in what seemed like a wasted exercise: Republicans now have a much better sense of how far the minority will bend on immigration.
“That,” said Rounds, “is a big step.”
The second was a missed opportunity to build goodwill among immigration and progressive activists, a core bloc of the party’s base. At the time of the shutdown, some argued that the Democrats didn’t really cave, and that their playing nice was actually a politically savvy move that would put them in a better position to negotiate a few weeks down the road. But the party was met by anger from immigration activists, in part because compromising its values on immigration is something that Democrats have done time and time again. As Erika Castro, a DACA recipient and immigration activist told the Washington Post: “It feels like something they’ve been kicking further down the road. To keep pushing and keep pushing and say we’re going to get it next month—that’s unacceptable at this point. Whether it’s one week or two weeks or three weeks, it’s asking a lot when we’ve been waiting for 17 years.”
Although it ultimately seems unlikely that the Democrats could have extracted any major concessions from Republicans, playing political hardball, as Osita Nwanevu wrote presciently in Slate at the time, could have “both lifted the morale of the DACA enrollees who’ve been kicked around by this process and galvanized an activist base eager to see its representatives match their outrage and energy.” Yet the party seems to continuously forget who their base is.
Not only do these moves weaken the Democrats’ current ability to push for a DACA resolution, they erode their position in the future. Depressing your base and exposing a weak backbone to the opposition is a deadly mix. If you want a glimpse of what those failures might cost ten years down the line, just think about the compromises that got us to where we are today.