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An Infuriating Poll Finding About Trump Should Galvanize Democrats

Trump killed the border deal, but Biden is getting blamed. Here’s what Democrats need to do to turn that around.

Win McNamee/Getty Images

You’ve probably heard that Donald Trump has “tightened his grip on the Republican Party,” or that he’s “bent the party to his will.” Pundits repeat such formulations constantly, because, well, it’s true: Trump is exerting a level of influence over his party in a way that’s unprecedented in a former president.

But what if voters aren’t aware of it?

That’s one possible takeaway from a new ABC News-Ipsos survey, which has a maddening finding: Trump gets substantially less blame for killing the bipartisan border security deal last week than any other major actor in that drama:

Americans find there is blame to go around on Congress’ failure to pass legislation intended to decrease the number of illegal crossings at the U.S.-Mexico border—with about the same number blaming the Republicans in Congress (53%), the Democrats (51%) and Biden (49%). Fewer, 39%, blame Trump.

Biden strongly supported the deal, while Trump explicitly and repeatedly called on Republicans to kill it. He expressly asked for the blame for its death to be directed at him. As the measure appeared to be dying, numerous Republicans said openly that Trump was the reason for it, even suggesting that he demanded its demise to give himself an issue against President Biden. Trump himself didn’t bother trying to hide this motive.

What’s more, Democrats get almost identical blame to Republicans, even though virtually all Senate Democrats voted for the deal, while virtually all Republicans opposed it. That’s after Democrats made the bulk of the concessions required to broker the compromise, which would have made it much harder to apply for asylum, channeled vast expenditures into fortifying the border, expanded detention of migrants, and expedited processing of asylum-seekers, including faster removal of those who don’t qualify.

True, the deal gave Democrats some important things, like more visas, immediate work permits for many migrants, and investments in asylum adjudication. But those things would have made the system more functional. And it’s inarguable that the bill would have done a great deal of the cracking down on asylum that Republicans themselves keep demanding.

David Frum said the deal was far more in keeping with stated Republican priorities than Democratic ones, and he’s right. If this deal had passed, it’s likely that it would have enjoyed broad public support over time, even among some GOP voters.

All this illustrates exactly why Trump insisted his party kill it. Trump is surely aware that in a general sense, the public blames the man sitting in the Oval Office when things go badly. That same Ipsos poll finds Americans trust Trump over Biden to handle immigration by 44 percent to 26 percent: Here Biden gets blame for what’s happening at the border and also for the failure of Congress to improve the situation after Trump commanded Republicans not to.

Yes, this is only one poll, and perhaps it’s wrong. But many polls have given Trump the advantage on this issue, and it’s worth exploring why the blame-the-president dynamic is particularly brutal on immigration.

Congress requires the executive to give an asylum hearing to most migrants picked up on U.S. soil who ask for one. That requires a judicial process. But Congress underfunds the system, creating backlogs, so migrants await hearings for years. Something must be done with those migrants. Congress would never appropriate the resources required to detain them all. Expelling them to Mexico risks horrific humanitarian outcomes. The alternative is releasing many into the interior, which creates scenes of disorder the public dislikes.

No matter how many times Republicans insist the executive can “shut down the border” by himself, the Great and Glorious Donald J. Trump also presided over numerous border crises and even released huge numbers of migrants. Congress largely created this situation. It could make all this better, but as last week showed, it won’t.

The border deal’s demise shows yet again that for a former president, Trump wields unprecedented influence over his party. Yet how aware are swing voters of this level of influence?

Democrats must do more to communicate that Republicans are sabotaging the country because Trump told them to. Democrats spent a few days pointing out that Republicans themselves admitted they iced the deal to help Trump politically. But they mustn’t let this drop. Keep saying it. What if Biden did more in coming days to highlight the fact that the Border Patrol—which endorsed Trump—supported the deal that Trump killed?

The party could also be making far better use of a stable of young, energetic Democrats from southwestern and border states, who could act as surrogates. Now is the time to do exactly that.

Right now, Trump may be enjoying the best of two worlds—he can get Republicans to do his political bidding without getting the blame for the result. Sure, it’s infuriating. But Democrats must channel that anger into action, so the public places the blame for this debacle exactly where it belongs.