September 17, 2013

Kevin Drum continues bucking the pundit conventional wisdom on Syria:

Being willing to change course isn’t a sign of vacillation or weakness. It’s simply nuts to think this. The Russian proposal for UN inspections represented a pretty good opportunity to salvage a decent outcome from the congressional mutiny; it was a chance to nudge Vladimir Putin in a constructive direction; and it doesn’t preclude future military action in any way. Only someone with near-clinical insecurity issues would reject this opportunity simply because it represented a change of course. [...]

Syria will have precisely zero effect on domestic fights over the budget and the debt ceiling. The whole idea is preposterous, and I think everyone knows it. The Republican gridlock freight train has been on track for months and it hasn’t budged an inch since spring. Syria hasn’t had the slightest impact on this.

Well, yes, but “everyone” does not “know this.” High profile pundits such as Albert Hunt and Stuart Rothenberg have both suggested Obama’s standing is taking such a hit from the Syria crisis that it could impair his ability to handle domestic politics. Ruth Marcus claims Obama is so diminished that it could have repercussions in the debt limit and government shutdown fights.

The only way to sustain this belief is to ignore the reality of what’s happened for the last five years. The notion that Obama’s “standing” will impact the GOP posture towards him is just deeply strange. How could Republicans be any more intransigent towards Obama than they already have been, short of pursuing impeachment?

Even a casual glance at what’s happening right now among Republicans — see Jonathan Strong and Robert Costa for good inside views — should be enough to remind anyone that the only thing that will really matter to the outcomes this fall is whether Republicans can resolve their deep internal differences, chiefly over how aggressively to confront Obamacare. Right now, GOP leaders themselves want to pass a measure funding the government — and plainly want to raise the debt ceiling as well. But they can’t see any way to getting that done, even at current austerity levels, solely because conservatives are insisting that they use these things to stage an Apocalyptic confrontation to defund Obamacare. Obama’s standing is utterly irrelevant to any of that.

This isn’t to say Obama’s approval rating doesn’t matter at all, or that Obama’s handling of Syria hasn’t been problematic in many ways. It has. But the notion that this will impact his ability to wrest a deal funding the government or raising the debt limit from Republicans seems like an outgrowth of a larger inability — widely shared among commentators — to reckon with the ways in which the current political situation is highly unconventional. GOP obstructionism of Obama’s agenda has in many ways been unprecedented, and the party’s conservative wing is both asymmetrically radical while wielding outsized control over the party, thanks in part to GOP lawmakers’ fear of primary challenges and other structural factors. The main storyline this fall will turn on whether GOP leaders can figure out a way to overcome this, now that it has veered out of their control. Not much else matters.

It’s conceivable that if Obama’s approval rating drops it could embolden conservatives in Congress to argue even more vehemently that GOP leaders mustn’t cave to his demands in the government shutdown and debt limit fights. But come on — conservatives are currently demanding that the GOP leadership threaten to unleash economic chaos to force Obama to unilaterally agree to unwind his signature domestic accomplishment, after trying but failing to repeal it dozens of times. To imagine that this could get any worse requires ignoring what’s currently happening all around us. The big story that will shape our overarching political situation in the near future remains the GOP’s internal differences — and the question of whether Republicans will figure out how to resolve them.

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