By Jon Keller

BOSTON (CBS) – “We’re calling on President Biden to reverse his policy that’s created this Biden border crisis,” said House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-Louisiana) at a recent press conference, repeating a theme that has become a mantra among Republicans.

Why are they so intent on calling the wave of migrants and unaccompanied kids at the US/Mexico border a “crisis”?

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“It doesn’t matter what you call it. It is an enormous challenge,” said White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki, part of a determined administration effort to avoid using the word “crisis.”

Why? What difference does it make what we call it?

“The difference it makes is in the tone that it sets depending on the terminology that’s used,” says Greg Henning of Henning Strategies, a Boston-based crisis management firm. “If you can label it a crisis and then show inaction, you can follow up by saying this is not the right person or the right party to lead the country because they’re putting people’s safety in jeopardy.”

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By contrast, said Henning, “what the administration is saying is the house isn’t on fire, this is not something where everybody needs to drop everything and pay attention. We’re dealing with it; we’re handling it.”

The battle to frame the narrative on the border story may seem like inside baseball, but history shows it can have a real impact on the ultimate political fallout. If the president can quickly staunch the migrant flow and deal with the children’s plight, he can leave the Republicans looking reckless and alarmist.

But that’s a big “if.” In the meantime, said Henning, Biden’s GOP critics are winning this political name game. “Even if it isn’t labeled a crisis by the Democrats, they’ve gotten the media to write stories about why the Democrats and the presidential administration have not called it a crisis.”

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None of this – the “crisis” or the struggle to define it – bodes well for the future of immigration reform. But what else is new? A hot-button topic that’s been consistently used by partisans to demonize the opposition and excite their base continues to be exploited, draining hope for some compromises that might ease what seems to be a perennial nightmare.

Jon Keller