Why potential 2016ers outside Congress are treading very lightly on Syria

September 6, 2013

In Washington, lawmakers and Obama administration officials are in the midst of an intense debate over the question of whether the United States should launch a military strike against Syria in response to the alleged use of chemical weapons.

But outside the nation's capital, some of the highest-profile figures in both parties are wading in lightly, dancing around the issue or avoiding it altogether. Just look at some of the leading potential 2016 presidential candidates who don't belong to Congress or the Obama administration.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R). (Mel Evans/AP)
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) (Mel Evans/AP)

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R), who wasn't shy about engaging Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) in a debate over government surveillance, has declined to take a position on military action in Syria.

"Certainly, the use of chemical weapons is something that, you know, just is intolerable for civilized society," he said Tuesday. "And so I empathize with those folks who have relatives back in Syria. But I'm going to let the policy-making be done by the people who are getting the bulk of the briefing on this."

Asked again about Syria Thursday — this time by a 12-year-old — Christie wouldn't tip his hand any further, saying chemical weapons "are an awful thing" but that the right response to their use is "complicated," according to the Bergen Record newspaper.

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) said Tuesday that the Obama administration needs to explain what the U.S.'s "clear national strategic interests" are in getting involved in Syria, but didn't take a position on the yes/no question of military action.

Nor did Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley (D), who said Wednesday that he has questions. "I think all of us need a clear understanding of what it is exactly this mission would hope to accomplish," O'Malley said.

Former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton expressed support for Obama’s decision to enlist the input of Congress "in pursuing a strong and targeted response to the Assad regime’s horrific use of chemical weapons." But as the Fix boss noted, her input came from an anonymous “Clinton aide,” not in the form of an on-the-record statement.

Taken together, the collective reluctance to enter the debate full force reflects a simple reality: For high-profile politicians who don't have to take a stand on the issue (and that means anyone who isn't in Congress or the Obama administration), the best move is to keep the entire debate at a safe distance.

To answer the question of why, let's look at what would happen to if they were to weigh in. For potential Republican presidential candidates, there is no way to take a stand without some costs. If you say you are in favor of military action, you risk alienating the element of the party base distrustful of President Obama's leadership on the issue and averse to a strike in the first place. Say no, and all of a sudden you are at odds with the hawkish wing of the party that has lined up behind an attack.

For Democrats, there is also a dilemma. Polls show a strike is very unpopular. But coming out against it means you are at odds with the leader of your party.

As the overwhelming front-runner for her party's nomination in 2016 and Obama's former chief diplomat, Clinton would have been followed with questions on Syria wherever she went. So she more or less had to say where she stood, lest she raise questions about distance from Obama by staying mum. Clinton opted to put the questions to rest as quietly as possible, and without making it look like she was overshadowing the administration.

With Obama set to address the nation from the White House on Tuesday and the Senate set for a key test vote Wednesday, the debate in Washington is approaching a critical point when fence-sitters will have to choose sides. But for those pols who aren't in that position, don't expect much voluntary input.

Sean Sullivan has covered national politics for The Washington Post since 2012.
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