September 5, 2013

The White House is confirming this morning that President Obama may make a speech from the Oval Office outlining the rationale for strikes on Syria, at a moment when public and Congressional skepticism is running high.

This risks making the Syria decision all about Obama, at a time when too many Republicans are already seeing it in these terms. Rick Santorum is now coming out against strikes despite previously calling for military intervention, because Obama’s “red line” comment was “reckless.” (This is in keeping with the GOP strategy of making opposition all about Obama’s competence.) Such a high profile push would also mean more pundit chatter about how much “political capital” and “prestige” Obama is putting on the line, and how a defeat would be devastating and reveal him to be weak and incapable of leading.

But Obama may have no other choice, because let’s face it, the prospects of Congressional approval are now in serious doubt.

With many Republicans likely to oppose the resolution, a lot will be riding on whether such a speech can persuade House and Senate Democrats. On this score, it’s worth noting that skeptical Dems fall into two camps:

1) Democrats who accept that the case has been made against Assad, and believe that because doing nothing is not an option, limited strikes are required, provided the Congressional resolution puts enough limits on Obama’s warmaking authority. Ultimately, this group will very likely support Obama in the end.

2) Democrats who do not accept the fundamental, underlying premise of Obama’s argument. These Dems agree that the case has been made for Assad’s guilt and remain uncomfortable with doing nothing, but do not accept the core argument that strikes will dissuade Assad from further attacks or that “sending a message” to other tinpots will prove persuasive.

They just don’t accept the core argument that military violence will improve the situation or that the potential upsides — whatever they are supposed to be — outweigh the potential risks, including more civilian casualties and more chaos later. Nor do they believe that the U.S.’s own stated objectives preclude a deeper military involvement later. John Kerry said on Tuesday that if Assad responds to strikes with more chemical attacks, “he will invite something far worse and I believe something absolutely unsustainable for him.” What does that mean?

If the White House is to prevail, this latter group of Dems needs to be won over. Their concerns must be addressed convincingly. There’s talk that Dems won’t be willing to undermine the president and for this reason will vote Yes in the end. I don’t know if the White House believes this or not, but this bet is increasingly looking like a bad one.

* LIBERALS AND DEMS MAY BUCK OBAMA ON SYRIA: The New York Times has an excellent look at just how deep the skepticism about strikes on Syria is running among House liberals and Democrats. Crucially, many Dems seem very unwilling to accept the basic mission itself, as opposed to only being worried about how much warmaking authority the force revolution gives the president:

“I think a lot of us believe there’s a legitimate use of military action where a state has used chemical weapons,” said Representative Peter Welch of Vermont. “On the other hand, there is a very compelling question about what the effect of that will be. Will it make the situation better or worse?”

As I noted yesterday, White House officials are working hard to win over liberal Dems, but on this question, they are unpersuaded. And they may well remain so.

* WHIP LISTS SHOW UPHILL BATTLE IN THE HOUSE: If you take a look at the latest whip lists from the Hill and the Post, you’ll see that right now, more House Dems oppose or are leaning against supporting the President than are supporting him. There are still big numbers of undecided House Dems, so this is still doable.

But given the large numbers of House Republicans who are already pretty much in the No column, the White House will have to win a big percentage of remaining undecided Dems. This is the crucial terrain where the battle will be fought.

* HOUSE GOP LEANING AGAINST SYRIA STRIKE: Related to the above, CNN captures the state of play perfectly:

When George W. Bush and Dick Cheney led the United States to war in Iraq over the issue of chemical weapons 11 years ago, they had the support of all but six of the majority Republicans in the House of Representatives. Now there are three times as many Republicans on the record against a strike on Syria.

There are certainly legit reasons that Republicans are opposing strikes, but news accounts continue to downplay the degree to which opposition is driven purely by a desire to oppose everything Obama proposes.

* PELOSI WORKING HARD TO WIN SUPPORT FOR OBAMA: With passage of the Syria resolution in doubt, Nancy Pelosi is urging House Dems to play a more active role in the debate, in hopes of getting them to buy in to the proposal to intervene in Syria and ultimately support it. This is her key quote:

“Please offer further suggestions or ideas you may have as to what you can support, so I can convey your concerns to the White House.”

But again, if the problem for many House Dems is the underlying premise of the mission, i.e., that intervening will help make the situation better, what sort of Dem input can change their minds?

* BUT SYRIA RESOLUTION STILL COULD PASS: E.J. Dionne makes the case that a coalition of reluctant Democrats, skeptical-but-responsible Republicans, and hawkish GOP interventionists could still put a vote over the top:

Ultimately, after intricate negotiations, the balance of power among all these factions will almost certainly give the president the congressional victory he needs to take action — in part because majorities in both houses know that an Obama defeat on Syria would be devastating to American foreign policy. Wednesday’s 10 to 7 Senate Foreign Relations Committee vote for a resolution was a sign of things to come.

More on the real state of play in the House later.

* 20 HOUSE MEMBERS TO WATCH ON SYRIA: Roll Call has a good road map. Pay close attention to House Dems like Xavier Becerra, Rosa De Lauro, and Jan Schakowsky, who are undecided but could ultimately provide a glimpse of which way the Dem caucus is going.

* THE LIBERAL INTERNATIONALIST CASE FOR SYRIA STRIKES: Nicholas Kristof notes that without U.S. military intervention, it could mean another 60,000 Syrians die, even if we try “peaceful interventions,” and asks:

To me, the central question isn’t, “What are the risks of cruise missile strikes on Syria?” I grant that those risks are considerable, from errant missiles to Hezbollah retaliation. It’s this: “Are the risks greater if we launch missiles, or if we continue to sit on our hands?”

I’d only add that some are already asking that question, and concluding that, Yes, the risks may be greater than the advertised upsides.

 * GOOD NEWS FOR OBAMACARE: Bloomberg reports on a new Kaiser Family Foundation report, the most comprehensive of its kind yet, that finds that under the Affordable Care Act, the cost of insurance is turning out to be affordable:

A 25-year-old New Yorker earning $25,000 a year will pay as little as $62 a month for health insurance next year, and a peer living in Vermont may pay nothing, according to a 17-state survey of premiums under the U.S. health-care overhaul.

Remember, Obamacare opponents have argued the young will see premiums soar; some are explicitly trying to dissuade young Americans from signing up for the exchanges, in order to make the law fail.

 

 

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