Get ready for a lot more of this sort of thing, should Congress vote No on Syria strikes:
The fate of President Obama’s second term hangs on his Tuesday speech to the nation about Syria.
This is a particularly cartoonish version of what much of the punditry will be like if Obama doesn’t get his way from Congress, but make no mistake, the roar of such punditry will be deafening. Jonathan Bernstein offers a much needed corrective:
There’s one permutation that absolutely, no question about it, would destroy the rest of Barack Obama’s presidency is: a disastrous war. Ask Lyndon Johnson or George W. Bush. Or Harry Truman. Unending, seemingly pointless wars are the one sure way to ruin a presidency.
Now, I’m not saying that’s in the cards; in fact, I don’t think it is. I’m just saying: that’s the kind of thing that really does matter a lot to presidencies. And if you do believe that the administration is going down a path that winds up there, or a path that has a high risk of winding up there, then you should be very worried about the health of this presidency.
If not? None of the other permutations here are anywhere close to that kind of threat to the Obama presidency. Presidents lose key votes which are then mostly forgotten all the time. They pursue policies which poll badly, but are then mostly forgotten, all the time.
Look, there is no question that if Obama loses Syria vote, the coverage will be absolutely merciless. But let’s bring some perspective. The public will probably be relieved, and eventually all the “Obama is a loser” talk will sink out of the headlines and be replaced by other big stories with potentially serious ramifications for the country.
It’s key to distinguish between two things here. One question is: How would a loss impact the credibility of the President and the United States with regard to upcoming foreign policy crises and confrontations? That’s not the same as asking: How would a loss impact Obama’s relations with Congress in upcoming domestic battles?
And on that latter score, there’s a simple way to think about it: Look at what’s ahead on the calendar. The two looming items are the government shutdown and debt ceiling battles, and when it comes down to it, there’s no reason to believe a loss on Syria would substantially alter the dynamics on either. Both are ultimately about whether House Republicans can resolve their own internal differences.
Will a Syria loss weaken Obama to the point where Republicans would be even more reluctant than they are now to reach a deal to continue funding the government? Maybe, but even if a shutdown did result, would a loss on Syria make it any easier for the GOP to dodge blame for it? It’s hard to see how that work in the eyes of the public. Same with the debt limit. Is the argument really going to be, See, Obama lost on Syria, so we’re going to go even further in threatening to unleash economic havoc in order to defund Obamacare and/or force cuts to popular entitlements? There’s just no reason why a Congressional vote against Syria strikes would make the “blame game” on these matters any easier for Republicans.
Is it possible that a loss on Syria will make Congressional Dems less willing to draw a hard line along with the president in these talks, making a cave to the GOP more likely? I doubt it. It will still be in the interests of Congressional Dems to stand firm, because the bottom line remains the same: House Republicans face potentially unbridgeable differences over how far to push these confrontations, and a united Dem front exploits those divisions. Syria doesn’t change any of that. If a short term deal on funding the government is reached, the prospects for a longer term deal to replace the sequester will be bleak, but they’ve been bleak for a long time. Syria will fade from public memory, leaving us stuck in the same stalemate — the same war of attrition — as before.
What about immigration? The chances of comprehensive reform passing the House have always been slim. Could a Syria loss make House Republicans even less likely to reach a deal? Maybe, but … so what? Does anyone really imagine Latinos would see an Obama loss on Syria as a reason to somehow become less inclined to blame the GOP for killing reform? The House GOP’s predicament on immigration will be unchanged.
Whatever happens on Syria, and no matter how much “Obama is weak” punditry that results from it, all of the remaining battles will be just as perilous for the GOP as they appeared before the Syria debate heated up. Folks making the case that a Syria loss throws Obama’s second term agenda into serious doubt — as if Congressional intransigence were not already about as bad as it could possibly get — need to explain what they really mean when they say that. It’s not clear even they know.