In the aftermath of President Trump’s first State of the Union address, both parties are on a collision course with each believing the recently passed tax law and the next immigration showdown can be a political winner for them.
“An entire row of Democrats refused to stand for the family of two girls murdered by the vicious MS-13 gang,” said Erin Montgomery, communications director for America First Policies, a pro-Trump organization. “They listlessly sat on their hands or disrespectfully checked their phones as our president acknowledged God, our flag, our military, historically low unemployment for minorities, a booming economy, and a tax cut that allows Americans to keep more of their hard-earned money.”
“Only their need to protect a broken and dangerous immigration system seemed to elicit any sort of emotional response — and that right there is all we need to know about the Democratic Party’s values,” Montgomery continued. “It’s astonishing, sickening really.”
Democrats also described themselves as astonished and sickened, panning Trump’s speech as divisive and “frustrating.” Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., who called Trump an “outwardly, explicitly racist American president,” offered only the most backhanded praise: “Whoever translated it for him from Russian did a good job.”
The dueling assessments of Trump’s speech are part of a larger messaging war over the tax legislation Republicans have already enacted and the immigration fight that is still ongoing, all ahead of this year’s midterm elections with GOP majorities in Congress on the line.
Republicans are touting tax relief for the middle class that Democrats are casting as a temporary break for working families but a permanent windfall for big corporations. Republicans are framing the tax cut as a driver of jobs, pay increases, and economic growth, while Democrats see it mainly as a driver of debt.
On immigration, Trump says he is proposing a “down-the-middle compromise” offering legal status, including a pathway to citizenship, “that covers almost three times more people than the previous administration.” Democrats counter that Trump precipitated a looming humanitarian crisis with Dreamers — undocumented immigrants brought to the United States illegally as children — by canceling the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program in the first place. President Barack Obama put in place deportation protections for this population that Trump yanked away by gradually ending DACA by March 5.
Trump’s unpopularity — he is hovering around 40 percent job approval nationally — and divisiveness give Democrats confidence they can win the battle for public opinion. But since the tax law has become a reality and Democrats unsuccessfully forced a partial government shutdown over immigration, their generic ballot advantage has shrunk to the single digits. A Monmouth poll released Wednesday showed the Democrats’ lead narrowing to 2 points and a 10-point gain in Trump approval in one month.
Another potential shutdown looms with a Feb. 8 deadline looming. Senate Democrats consented to a short-term spending bill in the belief that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., had committed to a DACA vote. Liberals, already incensed by “shithole countries” capping a string of racially incendiary Trump controversies stretching back to the day he announced his campaign, were not happy with how the impasse was resolved.
“The messaging [by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.,] was too complicated,” complained a Democratic operative, who said it was difficult to simultaneously argue that DACA was important enough to shut down the government over and that the resultant shutdown was the Republicans’ fault. “Messaging needs to be simple.”
Trump is insisting his framework is a “fair compromise” where “nobody gets everything they want, but where our country gets the critical reforms it needs” — and is hinting it might be his final offer. Ten Democratic senators are running for re-election this year in states Trump carried, including in places like West Virginia, North Dakota, and Montana where he is still popular. Many of them were uneasy with the last shutdown and pushed to expedite its end.
"The challenge for the Democrats on handling immigration is that there seems to be a serious lack of consistent political or communications strategy on a party-wide level,” said Ron Bonjean, a Republican strategist. “It feels very much like shifting sands that may cause them to once again lose momentum going into another round of negotiations.”
Republicans have their own divisions on this issue. Restrictionists protest that under Trump’s framework reforms to family-based immigration and the abolition of the visa lottery system come too far after legal status for Dreamers is in place. Critical Republican senators are balking at the reductions in legal immigration that would occur once those changes are eventually in place.
But Trump has pushed back more aggressively on immigration than any recent Republican leader. While Democrats regularly showcase high school valedictorians and other impressive people who have benefited from DACA, Trump used his State of the Union to highlight victims of MS-13 and other negative immigration anecdotes, arguing it was government’s obligation to “protect our citizens of every background, color, religion, and creed,” adding, “Americans are Dreamers too.”
Many Democrats believe that the wider public understands the difference between Dreamers and the broader debate over illegal immigration, pointing to polls showing strong bipartisan support for DACA solutions. This includes many college-educated, suburban voters who are already turned off by Trump, want to support inclusive candidates, and live in congressional districts with weak Republican incumbents.
“If you are a Republican up for re-election in 2018 in certain parts of the country, do you really want local and national news to be showing young people, whose only crime was to follow their parents over here, in handcuffs being put in the back of trucks and horded into detention facilities?” asked Rodell Molineau, a Democratic strategist. “Do you really want to answer for that?”
While the Trump administration has said Dreamers would not be an enforcement priority as their DACA protections lapse, the loss of legal status would put them at heightened risk of deportation.
“I think Democrats are on the right side of history on this,” Mollineau said.