The year was 2005. Continued dissatisfaction with events in Iraq created the most powerful anti-war movement since Vietnam. Meanwhile, Republicans stuck by their embattled President, even as polls showed they would suffer as a result. The 2006 elections turn out to be a bloodbath as many expected. In 2007 the situation in Iraq continues to deteriorate. Democrats in Congress refuse to help the situation in Iraq and so the President unilaterally orders additional troops to the country leading to surge in casualties but by the time he leaves office in 2009 the country is largely secure.
In 2008, during the Democratic Presidential primary both Hillary Clinton and then candidate Barack Obama profess their undying support for getting troops out of Iraq. Both also argued that Afghanistan is the conflict we should focus on. Republican candidate John McCain argued the “surge” ordered by President Bush was the right move. The anti-war movement firmly moved to the side of then candidate Obama and carried him to the White House.
Five years later we are here now. The US, under President Obama, is firmly committed to getting involved in Syria. Democrats in Congress are divided and worried. Recent polls have shown the President to be incredibly weak in his approval numbers on all issues but foreign policy. Republicans also remain divided. The 2010 election ushered in a new generation of Republicans with a more nuanced view on foreign policy. They do not want the US involved in Syria, opposed deposing Mubarak in Egypt and were critical of action in Libya,
Both the GOP and Democrats have reason to worry about Syria. The anti-war movement that helped created Democratic gains in 2006 and 2008 was largely younger and libertarian on foreign policy. Foreign policy has been one of the many reasons their approval of the President has dropped dramatically. Republicans have little reason to be giddy however. The libertarian wing of their party that has seen its views on foreign policy historically marginalized are increasingly flexing their muscle. This is evidenced by one of their leaders, Senator Rand Paul, arguing that US interests in the region are not at stake in Syria.
Initially it looked like Congressional Republicans and Democrats might be able to escape or at least minimize intervention in Syria. The President put together a multinational coalition to intervene in Syria only to see it disappear in recent weeks. Even this did not appear to phase the President until two days ago when he backed down from unilaterally ordering a strike on Syria. Instead he punted the decision to Congress.
Since that time in two days we have seen the divisions in the GOP and Democratic ranks become crystal clear. GOP hawks such as Senators Lindsay Graham (SC) and John McCain (AZ) have come out strongly in support of the President. Freshmen elected in 2010 like Mike Lee (UT), Paul and Ted Cruz (TX) have come out firmly against. On the Democratic side Nancy Pelosi is supportive but Majority Leader Harry Reid has been silent. More important, Reid is not whipping his members support.
If Congress acts it will likely be against the will of the public. According to a recent surveys a mere 29% and 36% support the strikes. The numbers are virtually even among Republicans, Democrats and Independents. For both parties seeking to go on offense and play defense in 2014 this creates a conundrum. Democrats need their base to be happy with the party in the run-up to the 2014 election, especially when they are defending several vulnerable house seats and their Senate Majority. Republicans need the various wings of their party mobilized and united to give them the margins they need to take the Senate and hold numerous gubernatorial offices throughout the country.
The lack of lines of communication the White House has to Congress also means both parties may play defense on the issue. The Democratic Party still has more doves than hawks whereas in the GOP the dynamic is reversed. For a resolution for action to pass the White House will likely need more GOP votes than Democratic. This is complicated by the fact the President has continually alienated the GOP. Hawks like McCain and Graham only have so much clout with the party. Republicans may also choose politics and 2014 over action and try to keep all elements of their base happy through inaction but deploring Assad’s actions. Ironically, this means the President may be left with courting his own party when they do not want to go along with him.
Democratic Reps and Senators in danger next year my find it is easier to turn out their liberal base and court libertarian minded Republicans if they vote against a resolution calling for action in Syria. Even a President can find his party abandoning him in his time of need if it suits enough members reelection interests. There is only so much classified, closed-door briefings can do to change members opinions if polls continue to show action is an unpopular alternative to doing nothing.
As of today it is unclear whether a resolution could pass the House or Senate. The President can brief members on the national security interests of inaction vs, action but he might be smart to brief them on the partisan impact. Inaction could come back to haunt either party when it is in power and you can bet the out of power party will fully exploit the opportunity. Perhaps this will sway enough members to vote for the resolution.
Barring this, both Democrats and Republicans in Congress seem willing to not act in Syria. The President can continue to protest but unless something dramatic happens Congress may play it safe and stay out of Syria, Democrats choosing reelection over partisan interest and Republicans seeking to give the President a black eye.