Tom Bevan from RealClearPolitics asked me in a radio interview on Sunday, “What about the public? Don’t they matter?” This is a critically important issue.
To begin with, Edmund Burke would tell conservatives that they owe the country and their constituents more than an echo of passing public opinion:
[Voters’] wishes ought to have great weight with him; their opinion, high respect; their business, unremitted attention. It is his duty to sacrifice his repose, his pleasures, his satisfactions, to theirs; and above all, ever, and in all cases, to prefer their interest to his own. But his unbiased opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living. . . . Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.
We should expect elected officials in a representative democracy to exercise their independent judgment. This is especially true in national security, when they have access to more information than the average person, and hopefully more expertise. (Granted some of the comments suggest otherwise.) And of course in elections voters ultimately have the last say.
But in the case of Syria specifically public opinion is muddled at best. CNN reports: “Fifty-nine percent of people questioned say they don’t think Congress should pass a resolution that would authorize military action against Syria for a 60- to 90-day period and bar the use of U.S. ground troops, while about four in 10 approve of such a resolution.” However, it is a bit more complicated than that:
Hawkish Republicans and moderate Democrats say the United States should strike, while the libertarian wing of the GOP says involvement is not in the U.S. interest. Liberal Democrats say there are alternatives to military action that haven’t been exhausted.
The poll also suggests those surveyed who identified themselves as Democrats and Republicans don’t see eye-to-eye on the resolution. “Fifty-six percent of Democrats think Congress should pass it, but only 36% of Republicans and 29% of independents say the same. . . . If Congress does authorize military action, the gap between Democrats and Republicans shrinks to just four points, with 51% of Democrats and 47% of Republicans favoring military action. And if Congress rejects the resolution authorizing military action, large numbers in both parties oppose airstrikes.”
This suggests a few things. Most important, more than lawmakers, Democratic voters are rallying (somewhat) to the president, perhaps realizing this is now about his political viability. In addition, if a lawmaker is from a blue district or state, he or she can be assured that a majority of his Democratic constituents (a majority of the majority, if you will) support military strikes. And, finally, the rationale that we shouldn’t go to war without public backing is belied by voters’ support if Congress approves action. They will rally to support the war, if Congress backs the president.
This last point is powerful evidence of the president’s foolishness in allowing a vote in the first place. He may have freaked out over polling that may well have changed the moment he ordered strikes. And when an operation is successful, the public has a way of getting on board (as was the case with Bill Clinton’s action in Serbia).
Voters are often of two minds, particularly when it comes to foreign policy. They don’t want WMD use to go unpunished, but they oppose the punishment. They don’t want Congress to approve the action, but they’ll support the action if it does. One can’t construct a foreign policy based on the jumble of contradictory impulses.
This is why a president’s leadership is so crucial on matters of war and peace. He has to be the one to make sense out of a challenge, lay out a rationale, explain it to the people and yes, if national security beckons, disregard fleeting antipathy toward military action, most especially when the action is limited in nature and duration. President Obama’s refusal to do so until now is among his greatest missteps.
The bottom line for lawmakers, then, is: Man up and put aside the polls! They have an obligation to inform themselves and vote their conscience; if they and the president lead, the public, I strongly suspect, will follow.