Immigration and the politics of compromise

One of my themes here has been that the Biden administration and congressional Democrats should actively and publicly seek compromise with Republicans.  The events this week illustrate the logic of compromise clearly. 

The perceived crisis on the southern border was probably the biggest single threat to Biden’s re-election, or at least the biggest threat that he could take action to ameliorate (unlike the risk of an economic downturn, etc.).  Offering to compromise was a “heads Democrats win, tails Republicans lose” proposition.  If Republicans rejected an offer to negotiate, Biden could have shifted some of the blame for the current immigration mess to the Republicans.  If he managed to get something passed, he could have taken credit for bipartisanship and problem-solving leadership on an issue that is important to voters. 

The failure of the Biden administration to grapple with the problems on the border earlier allowed the Republicans to force the Democrats to negotiate from a position of weakness.  They took advantage of this and drove a hard bargain.  Still, if the bipartisan compromise bill had been passed, Biden could have (and says he would have) taken steps to reduce immigration flows.  On the other hand, given that that Republicans have walked away from the deal, Democrats can hammer them for refusing to take “yes” for an answer.  (If the Republicans wanted to avoid a deal, they should have agreed to negotiate but then claimed that it was impossible to reach an agreement with the Democrats, and let the whole thing dissolve in a cloud of acrimony.  But originally the Republican Senate leadership apparently wanted a deal, until Trump blew the whole thing up at the last minute.)

So why has the administration often been slow to make a show of seeking compromise?  I suspect part of the answer is resistance to immigration compromise from the left wing of the party.  (I previously discussed the possibility that child welfare activists prevented a compromise on an expanded child tax credit.)  If this is what’s going on, it’s a mistake.  Democracy is about building coalitions, not burning heretics.  The Democrat’s coalition right now is simply not big enough to reliably win elections, even against an extreme party with a manifestly unfit candidate. 

Another possibility is that Biden’s time in the Senate taught him that negotiating in private is most effective.  Private negotiation is indeed often the best approach, but sometimes negotiating publicly is important, to help the public see where the obstruction is coming from.