Latham’s constituents confirm his Syria skepticism: ‘What’s it going to do?’

September 3, 2013

Creston, IOWA -- Rep. Tom Latham was already leaning toward a “no” vote on President Obama’s resolution seeking authority to strike Syria, and during two town halls on Tuesday, he heard little to make him more hawkish.

Latham’s constituents, like him, seem highly skeptical about another military entanglement, this one in a civil war half a world away.

“What’s it going to do?” wonders a man at a town hall Latham has convened in the dining room of Crest Ridge Estates, a tidy seniors’ home, where a few dozen people are gathered. The questioner wears a stiff-brimmed cap that reads “82nd Airborne.”

“I’m a veteran, he’s a veteran,” he says, motioning to a friend sitting nearby. “What’s it going to accomplish?”

Latham shakes his head. “That’s what I wonder,” he replies.

A woman with short-cropped silver hair is worried about government spending already and frets that the United States will wind up footing the bill. “There shouldn’t be any action unless you have NATO or the U.N.,” she says. “This shouldn’t be a one-country thing, especially with this debt.”

Later in the day, at another town hall meeting in Corning, Iowa, the sentiment is similar. In a small room in the Corning Public Library, only eight or so people  -- plus two polite young Democratic trackers recording the events for the state party -- sit on orange plastic chairs and listen to Latham. He tells them he’s there to hear their concerns.

And so they talk.

Those who speak up on the Syria question can’t understand why the United States would go it alone.

“I was of the opinion that the U.N. was supposed to settle these things,” asks an older woman. “What happened to the U.N.?”

“We need some friends there with us,” a man agrees.

Latham agrees with them both, but keeps his own comments short. He calls the decision by the British Parliament not to join the United States in taking action “a big setback.” Syria, he says, is a “distraction.”

The Iowa Republican is among the lawmakers opposed to the White House’s request to use military force to strike targets in Syria. Like many of his colleagues, he says President Obama hasn’t made the case. That there’s a clear goal in place beyond responding to the use of chemical weapons by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad. That the attack presents a threat to Americans.

And though the issue looms large, consuming energy and attention in Washington and around the country, today, in the senior center and in the library, it’s only one of many issues the small crowds want to talk about. After a few questions at the beginning of the sessions about Syria, talk soon veers to other topics of the day.

Some are hot: the budget, Obamacare, and immigration. Others are more personal: reverse mortgages, schools teaching keyboarding instead of cursive, the windmills cropping up along the highways, whether there is still gold at Fort Knox.

Latham will return to Washington on Monday, where a divided Congress will consider a resolution authorizing a strike on Syria amid pressure from the White House and some within his own party calling for engagement. He is holding off final judgment, he says in an interview, until after he gets a classified briefing on the matter.

But in the dozen or so town halls he’s held this summer, to a constituent, everyone’s been against a Syrian strike. “For most people, it’s very clear-cut,” he says. “There’s just been no support for going in.”

He says he’s heard little from House leaders, who are not whipping the vote on what they’ve determined is a choice of conscience, and the handful of colleagues he’s spoken to have heard similar things from the voters back home.

In Iowa, Latham’s skepticism is right at home. Anti-war sentiment runs strong in the state, says University of Iowa political science professor Tim Hagle, who finds strains of it in both the progressives and the ascendant libertarian movement, or “Big Liberty” as it’s known in these parts.

Nationally, nearly six in ten people oppose strikes, according to the latest Washington Post-ABC News polling.

Hagle says Iowans may simply be a tough sell.

“We’re Iowans,” Hagle says. “We need to be convinced.”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) voted against the invasion of Iraq in 2002.

Emily Heil is the co-author of the Reliable Source and previously helped pen the In the Loop column with Al Kamen.
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