By David M. Greenwald
Ron DeSantis this week stole from the Donald Trump play book when he sent two planes carrying migrants to Martha’s Vineyard in a move that appalled human rights advocates while delighting the far right.
“It’s outrageous,” said New Jersey Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez. “They lure people, like human traffickers lure people, onto buses and unknowing where they’re going to. They have no concern for—they supposedly are the advocates for human life. They have no concern for the lives of these people.”
As CNN’s Chris Cillizza pointed out in a column on Saturday, “DeSantis couldn’t have scripted it any better politically.”
He added, “The simple fact is that DeSantis made this Martha’s Vineyard gambit solely to draw attention to himself and his opposition to the border policies of the Biden administration. It was, to be frank, a stunt. And it’s not the first time he’s done something like this.”
DeSantis has made a career out of taking actions like this—drawing criticism from the left and praise from the right, where he attempting to wrest the Republican Party from the volatile Donald Trump.
Just as quickly as the left rushed to attack him, the right ran to defend him.
“DeSantis was right to send migrants to Martha’s Vineyard. We need to bring border crisis to Democrats,” read an op-ed on Fox News’ website.
The first response has been for the left to look at legal solutions. From a legal standpoint, the question is whether the migrants gave their consent to travel to the various locations.
“If they’re being transported against their will, it calls into question the human trafficking statutes. So far, nothing indicates they’re being held captive. They’re not being handcuffed and put on buses. So it’s unlikely that federal criminal trafficking statutes will come into play,” said Steven Block, a Chicago attorney at Thompson Hine and former assistant U.S. attorney who handled trafficking and corruption cases, told Politico.
Susan Church, a prominent immigration lawyer based in Cambridge, said, “There is absolutely the possibility of both civil and criminal liability if people were lied to about where they were going, what they were going to get when they got there.”
“There’s a concern of whether people are being unduly coerced to take the buses,” Shaw Drake, ACLU’s senior counsel on border issues, said in an interview. “If they’re being offered a free ride and choose it voluntarily, that’s one thing. But if they’re being pressured or coerced that’s another.”
But this could be a more powerful issue on a moral and political dimension.
DeSantis may well have gotten what he wanted—praise by the core Republicans for whom he is potentially battling with Trump for a 2024 Presidential nomination.
For the left however, if they play this the right way—debatable might be charitable here—they could flip the script.
DeSantis and Governor Abbott from Texas are playing this as though the migrants were a nuisance and they were “dumping the nuisance” on liberals.
Democrats and liberals have a chance to flip the script here—not by turning this into a legal issue, but by playing it as a humanitarian one.
First, they take the people and find them places in their community.
Second, if played correctly, this becomes a human rights issue. DeSantis and Abbott have turned these people into political pawns. Democrats can take this issue by restoring their humanity.
DeSantis, for example, wants to appeal to anti-immigrationists on the far the right. But there is a danger. The Democrats need suburban swing voters, particularly women, and this stunt is likely to look more cruel to those voters than it looks like smart policy.
Cillizza argues, “The fact of the matter—whether you like DeSantis or not—is that his outrage machine is humming along. Largely riding his knack for stirring controversy, he has emerged by many measures as the second-most popular Republican in the country—behind only Donald Trump.”
He is widely believed to be the only candidate who can credibly challenge Trump in 2024.
Cillizza adds that “what DeSantis is offering Republican voters amounts to Trumpism without Trump. In DeSantis, you get all the anti-wokeness that Trump built a presidential campaign and presidency on, but just without some of the more embarrassing personal foibles and tics that the former President brings with him.”
But there is of course another side to this. DeSantis is likely to further alienate the more moderate swing voters, which gives the Democrats exactly what they want—another issue to push suburban women further into the Democratic Party.
The question really comes down to who plays the cards better. I’m not betting on the Democrats here, but they are being given a political gift—if they find a way to take it.