September 3, 2013

It’s been widely noted that both parties are deeply divided over Obama’s request for Congressional authorization for the use of force in Syria. Dems are split into many camps, including liberal interventionists, Dems who support the president, those who favor action but worry it won’t work, and those wary of any entanglement abroad.

Meanwhile, there are fresh signs of divisions among Republicans: As a big New York Times piece details this morning, they are split between Tea Party isolationists and neocon hawks. But like many other accounts, the Times politely downplays another key cause of GOP division: Opposition to anything Obama proposes.

Fortunately, a new piece from the well-connected Byron York brings much needed candor in this department. York talks to multiple Republicans on background, and finds they have many reasons for opposition. But this is the most telling one:

The lack of confidence in Barack Obama. There’s no doubt the president has been extremely reluctant to take action in Syria. He also showed terrible judgment by painting himself into a corner with his 2012 “red line” comments on chemical weapons. For those reasons, and more, some Republicans will argue that they simply cannot entrust special warmaking powers to a president who they believe is not competent to use them.

This conclusion says it all:

In the end, many will carefully consider all the evidence and then vote their instincts. And that will mean a vote against Barack Obama.

It looks like this will be the way some Republicans will try to put an acceptable-sounding spin on opposition to intervention that is rooted in nothing more than the identity of the president who proposed it. After all, given that this involves matters of war and national security — and not Obama’s domestic policies, which are simply presumed to be nothing more than expressions of Obama’s peculiar brand of tyrannical socialism — it’s harder for Republicans to reflexively oppose him. And so, by casting their opposition as rooted in concerns about Obama’s competence and ability to execute, as opposed to his proposals and their goals, Republicans can oppose intervention without engaging in a serious, substantive debate over their merits and demerits, and without appearing overly reflexive or political in their opposition.

By the way: Dems have practiced their own version of this, which the left at the time labeled “the incompetence dodge.” When things deteriorated in Iraq, many Dems who’d initially supported the war blamed George W. Bush’s execution for it, to avoid engaging in a debate over whether they themselves were complicit in supporting an idea that was fundamentally flawed, dodging accountability.

None of this is to say there aren’t legitimate reasons for Republicans to oppose Obama’s request. There are. And there are many legitimate questions about the flaws in Obama’s approach to Syria thus far that deserve continued discussion. But the point is that the request for authorization could, if lawmakers are willing, prompt a serious and searching Congressional debate over the true prospects for success, however that is defined, and whether they really outweigh risks; over whether Obama is placing strict enough limits on the authorization he’s requesting; over how to deal with atrocities when international institutions won’t act; and over America’s need to maintain credibility (presuming you even place stock in this argument) in reserving the right to use force abroad to realize geopolitical or humanitarian ends. So keep an eye out for GOP use of the “incompetence dodge” as a way to skirt real debate.

By the way, don’t take my word for it. Republicans who favor intervention, such as GOP Rep. Mike Rogers and neocon Michael Goldfarb, agree that making this all about Obama — however this is accomplished — risks scuttling the conversation we need.

* PELOSI SUPPORTS ATTACK ON SYRIA: Don’t miss Dana Bash’s report on a private conference call during which House Dems told Obama officials they harbor serious skepticism about a strike on Syria. This is key:

House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi at one point asked Kerry if she could interrupt and made the point in support of using force, saying that punishing Bashar Al-Assad for using chemical weapons should be a pillar of national security, according to sources on the call.

Pelosi won’t “whip” the vote, meaning Dems can vote their consciences, but by making her views known, she is plainly trying to help engineer a Yes.

* McCAIN AND GRAHAM EDGE TOWARDS BACKING OBAMA: Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, who had previously derided Obama’s planned strikes on Syria as too weak, appear to be edging towards supporting the President’s plan, after being privately reassured that Obama’s intentions to aid Syrian rebels are more robust than previously thought. However, it’s unclear whether this will help win Congressional backing, since the emerging bipartisan alliance is against deepening foreign entanglements.

* OBAMA FACES TOUGH CHALLENGE IN PERSUADING CONGRESS: Gerald Seib offers a useful roadmap to Obama’s prospects of persuading Congress to back him on Syria. As Seib notes, his best hope of cracking the liberal Dem/libertarian GOP alliance against intervention is to peel off Dems first, by persuading them inaction is unacceptable.

The White House hopes that a coalition of skeptical-but-persuadable Dems, “pro Israel” Dems and Republicans, and GOP “hawks” will be big enough to allow him to prevail.

* HOW OFFICIALS WILL PERSUADE RELUCTANT DEMS: Also in the above story, one Dem succinctly sums up how administration officials such as Secretary of State John Kerry have been privately pressing their case:

“One of the important propositions that Kerry put to members was, are you willing to live with the consequences of doing nothing?” said Representative Gerald E. Connolly, a Virginia Democrat.

If the administration addresses Dem concerns about the broadness of the use-of-force resolution, this case could prove persuasive to those Dems with a liberal internationalist streak. The question is whether that will be enough.

* THE CASE OBAMA NEEDS TO MAKE: This, from an expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, neatly underscores just how difficult it will be for Obama to make a persuasive case:

“To secure a yes from Congress, the White House will need to make a compelling intelligence presentation, have persuasive answers to questions about what it will do if the Assad government persists in using chemical weapons despite a U.S. military strike, and write authorizing language that is neither too expansive for skeptics nor too limited for hawks.”

The White House will also need to persuasively argue that strikes would deter more attacks or have a real impact; and that the downsides will be minimal. It seems likely, though, that the resolution’s scope may prove the biggest influence on Congressional opinion.

* KERRY’S ARGUMENT TO CONGRESS: Also in the above story, here’s Kerry’s private case:

Kerry plans to argue that “the failure to take action against Assad unravels the deterrent impact of the international norm against chemical weapons use, endangers our friends and our partners along Syria’s border” and risks emboldening Assad and his backers Iran and the Hezbollah militant network, said a senior State Department official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to outline Kerry’s main arguments.

Right, but would taking action actually have the impact Kerry implicitly suggests it will? That’s also key to making the case.

* BREATHING ROOM FOR DEMS IN SENATE FIGHT? Dems are distributing a new poll showing Dem Senator Mark Begich of Alaska leading his GOP challenger by over 10 points. Remember, Republicans will have to oust three red state Dems — four, if Dems can win in Georgia or Kentucky — to recapture the Senate.

* NO END TO GOP OBSTRUCTION OF OBAMACARE: The Post has a good editorial excoriating Republican efforts to sabotage Obamacare. This is a new one:

Republicans at the state level also have applied a variety of less visible measures to impede the law’s implementation. Some won’t enforce consumer protections, including a ban on insurance companies rejecting patients with pre-existing conditions. The result will be illegal discrimination. Another tactic has been restricting the work of federal “navigators,” consumer assistants who help people understand their options and get coverage. The result will be more people without health insurance.

As the editorial rightly notes, there is a difference between continuing to argue against the law on the merits and actively trying to make it fail. I’d only add that this is a distinction the public appreciates, too.

* AND NO END TO TED CRUZ’S DISHONESTY ABOUT OBAMACARE: Glenn Kessler takes apart the Texas demagogue’s latest dissembling and dishonesty about the health law. Unsurprisingly, Cruz traffics in widely echoed distortions of Max Baucus’ “train wreck” comment. Kessler also puts GOP glee over union dissatisfaction with the law in helpful perspective.

Isn’t it interesting that Republicans suddenly (and only) profess deep worry about labor’s concerns when unions are seeking changes to Obamacare?

Greg Sargent writes The Plum Line blog, a reported opinion blog with a liberal slant -- what you might call “opinionated reporting” from the left.