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Trump Says ‘Abolish ICE’ Is Bad Politics For Democrats. Is He Right?

Welcome to FiveThirtyEight’s weekly politics chat. The transcript below has been lightly edited.

cwick (Chadwick Matlin, features editor): Micah’s on vacation! So you’re stuck with me, the John to Micah’s Ringo. Today’s topic: Some Democrats have responded to President Trump’s “zero tolerance” immigration policies by advocating for an end to ICE, the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency that has carried out the administration’s since-reversed policy to separate migrant children from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border. Does that make for good politics?

Among the politicians who have recently said the agency should be dismantled is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who won the Democratic primary in New York’s 14th Congressional District last week. New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand supports it. Lots of signs at weekend rallies against Trump’s immigration policies supported it. Is this a new thread of Democratic ideology?

clare.malone (Clare Malone, senior political reporter): Well, it’s certainly picked up a lot of steam in the last couple of days! And given that Elizabeth Warren just called for it, I’m beginning to think we might be seeing a new 2020 Democratic presidential primary litmus test forming. And when we’re talking Democratic primary litmus tests, I think we’re mostly talking tests for the left wing of the party.

anna (Anna Maria Barry-Jester, lead health writer): It’s certainly got some steam among the more liberal wing of the party, though there are also plenty of Democrats who think that’s a dangerous direction to go.

natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): Gillibrand is interesting in that she’s one of the most blatant Democrats in calibrating her positions to set herself up for 2020. And also that she tends to get branded as a Clinton-esque establishment type by the left wing of the Democratic Party, and so is trying to shore up her credentials with that group.

clare.malone: I think you’re still going to get Democrats who will point out that if ICE hadn’t been enforcing Justice Department policy on family separations (which is when a lot of this “ban ICE” stuff kicked up), some other agency would have. It’s Trump administration policy. Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal was saying that this weekend. Basically, the “ban ICE” thing is a great sound bite, and, sure, some ICE tactics are broken and toxic, but the White House can still enforce these policies other ways.

anna: Right, Clare — the current support for the abolish ICE movement is pretty clearly linked to what’s happening with family separations. But it also betrays a pretty big problem, which is that people, including a lot of politicians, don’t really know a lot about how immigration works.

natesilver: I’ve seen comparisons between “ban ICE” and “repeal Obamacare,” which I think makes sense. In neither case was there much consensus about what the replacement would be.

clare.malone: There are certainly a lot of incomplete policy thoughts about immigration. I think to the Obamacare point, immigration has become, basically, the battlefield upon which all partisan politics are poured out since Trump’s campaign. It’s a place where people do a lot of projection and not a lot of actual policy talk.

cwick: To that point, when Gillibrand is talking about getting rid of ICE, she’s really talking about separating its two functions. “I think you should separate the criminal justice from the immigration issues,” she said.

anna: It’s not just Democrats who see a problem with the way ICE currently functions. A group of criminal investigators for ICE, people who work on preventing and investigating violence from MS-13 and human traffickers, recently asked that their division be spun out of ICE, according to reporting by The Texas Observer. They say that their funds are being diverted to immigration enforcement efforts and that they are having a hard time getting local law-enforcement agencies to work with them because of the “the political nature” of immigration enforcement.

As you’re kind of alluding to, Chad, ICE sort of has competing functions under a Trump administration that’s putting so much emphasis on deportations. Some branches of ICE need the relationships with local governments and immigrant communities in order to work on terrorism and organized crime investigations. But those relationships have been harmed by the change in immigration enforcement, which is also being done through ICE.

clare.malone: Well, I also think not a whole lot of people knew about ICE before it started ramping up immigration arrests! That’s gotta affect views of it, and I’m betting not a lot of people know about the institutional split that exists — i.e., the deportations focus vs. criminal investigations focus.

natesilver: Until fairly recently, Google searches for Vanilla Ice exceeded searches for ICE.

clare.malone: lol

cwick: Let’s move on to the politics of this new push: Trump thinks Democrats are being real dumb, as you might expect:

He also said: “I think they’ll never win another election. So I’m actually quite happy about it.” Is he right that this is a losing proposition for Democrats?

anna: There are lots of people who don’t think it’s a good strategy.

natesilver: I don’t know. I don’t think people have particularly strong views on ICE. Of course, the fact that Trump is now weighing in on the issue, as are many prominent Democrats, will make views much stronger and more polarized in the very near future.

cwick: One data point: A Harvard-Harris poll conducted June 24 -25 found that about half of self-identified liberals said ICE should be disbanded; 41 percent of Democrats agreed. Republican support was 22 percent.

anna: Cecilia Muñoz, who worked on immigration policy (among other things) in the Obama administration, has been making the rounds to argue that the “abolish ICE” movement will let Republicans say that Democrats want open borders. If Republicans are successful with that messaging, Democrats could lose whatever support they have among people who want tough immigration enforcement, which includes a lot of independents. I mean, with all things immigration, aren’t we seeing that it’s a motivating factor for Republicans, but not so much for Democrats?

natesilver: The best argument against “abolish ICE” is probably that swing voters mostly side with Democrats on immigration, and this is a retreat from the middle ground.

clare.malone: Which is, per the Muñoz argument, obviously the worry among Democratic strategists.

natesilver: Of course, that gets very fraught, very quickly. The notion that moderation wins elections more often than not isn’t going to persuade many people after 2016, even though it might happen to be true. The mostly young Democratic activists who are pushing to abolish ICE feel like the Democratic establishment totally misunderstands politics and are responsible for the Democrats’ electoral predicament.

clare.malone: I mean, this would endanger your play to get Obama-Trump voters in the much-talked-about Upper Midwest, for instance, right?

natesilver: Would it, though? I don’t know. It mostly feels like older, more centrist Democratic elites arguing against younger, more leftist ones.

cwick: Nate, you just described much of the digital news media.

clare.malone: Nate, are you saying that the push to abolish ICE rests on an argument that doesn’t matter to most voters and that it’s more a show for Democratic primary voters?

natesilver: I think most people had never thought much about ICE before last week. It’s not like IRS or the INS or the Department of Education. And, yeah, most of this is a prelude to the massive fights that will occur in 2020. It’s also people who feel that the Republican strategy of shifting the “Overton window” toward more radical positions has been successful and that Democrats should emulate it.

clare.malone: Yeah, I think that strategic point is interesting, and it’s where you get other Democrats pushing back. A discomfort with radicalism, basically.

anna: It seems like it will be pretty easy for Republicans to send the message that wanting to abolish ICE is equivalent to wanting open borders, even though that’s not the case (among the politicians at least).

cwick: Nate, do we know how wide a party should want its Overton window to be? I’d think that too wide means you run the risk of too big a tent and not standing for anything. Too narrow means your establishment is liable to get booted out in any election.

natesilver: For many, many years, the Democratic Party has been more of a coalition party — it’s had a bigger tent — whereas the Republican Party has been more uniform. These respective strategies have various electoral advantages and disadvantages. For Democrats, one of the advantages is that the broadness of the party shows up in the numbers — more people identify as Democrats than as Republicans — although Democrats also include a higher number of marginalized groups that may or may not turn out to vote.

All of that is just a predicate to say that it’s normal for Democrats to have a pretty wide tent and for there to be fights between the left and the center. To some extent, Obama unified those groups, but a lot of the politics in the Democratic Party reflect the aftermath of (and in some ways the backlash to) Obama’s politics.

cwick: Anna, what does the wellspring of support for “abolish ICE” tell us about the role that immigration is playing in U.S. politics right now? Is the back and forth over separating kids from their families at the border a rehashed version of the same old immigration fight Americans have been having for decades? Or is this something truly new?

anna: Oh, I think there’s definitely a lot that’s new. Obama made big changes to how deportations are carried out, which is often pointed out by groups of all political stripes. But Trump’s policy of separating children from their families, using such a large share of resources to work on deportations of people with little-to-no criminal background, at the expense of homeland security in some ways, is definitely new.

The Trump administration has essentially made the policy of reducing immigration its security strategy. That was the argument for the travel ban and for separating families at the border. You also see that in the constant talk about MS-13. That’s part of why it was so interesting to people who focus on this stuff that the ICE investigators said that focus is hurting their ability to do homeland security work.

clare.malone: Trump has made it a flash point in a way that Mitt Romney’s self-deportations never could. I mean, this all just goes back to Trump’s way of using immigration policy as a proxy to talk about race. (See: MS-13 rhetoric/travel ban.)

natesilver: We could use more polling on ICE. When I Googled for “ICE poll,” this was the top result:

cwick: Nate, order a case.

clare.malone: Can they advertise with us??

natesilver: They only ship to Belgium, France and Luxembourg unfortunately. Also it probably costs like $5,125,123,412 per case with the new tariff on effete European sparkling wines.

clare.malone: That sounds like a great Fourth of July party theme, tbh.

cwick: OK, everyone pop a bottle of Poll and offer up one last prediction: Is “abolish ICE” the platform of the 2020 Democratic nominee for president? Or is this a fad?

anna: Possibly neither? You’ll continue to see it on platforms in congressional races, but not necessarily official policy of the Democratic Party.

clare.malone: Gillibrand/Warren platforms for sure. Let’s see if other people glom on.

natesilver: I think you’ve heard me say before that 2020 is going to be a huge freakin’ fight, whereas Democratic infighting is mostly overrated as a 2018 storyline. And I think I’ll stick to that.

clare.malone: I think Warren is more influential, so there’s an interesting shot of it becoming mainstreamed more.

natesilver: What’s interesting about ICE, though, is that immigration was historically one of the issues on which the stereotypical, older, whiter Bernie Sanders-type left was actually more moderate. This is also true in Europe, where the left isn’t always so excited about immigration. There’s sort of the Scandinavian attitude where if you’re going to have a very generous welfare state, maybe it’s a problem to make it easy for outsiders to gain access to its benefits.

anna: Yeah, but the terms of the debate have changed pretty radically under Trump.

natesilver: I’m just saying that between “abolish ICE” and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, we sort of seem to be witnessing the birth of (dare I say it) intersectional leftism as a political force.

clare.malone: DSA (Democratic Socialists of America) is the shorter way to say it. I actually think they are an interesting new wing of the party. (Yes, I know they’re a different party technically, but a lot of them run as Democrats.)

cwick: Nate, getting in touch with the producers of Chapo Trap House for you now.

Clare Malone is a former senior political writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Chadwick Matlin was a deputy managing editor at FiveThirtyEight.

Anna Maria Barry-Jester is a senior reporter at Kaiser Health News and California Healthline, and formerly a reporter for FiveThirtyEight.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.