The Washington Post

Rep. Gerald E. Connolly faces constituents’ ire in making the case for striking Syria

Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) speaks to constituents about Syria before a town hall meeting at Westminster at Lake Ridge, a senior facility, in Lake Ridge, Va., on Thursday. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

On Thursday afternoon, the debate over U.S. military strikes in Syria comes to the Westminster senior home in Woodbridge – walking right through the front door in the form of Rep. Gerald E. Connolly.

“I saw you on ‘The Rachel Maddow Show’ last night,” Bill Henry, 81, a retired journalist, tells Connolly (D-Va.), who is arriving for a group discussion about Social Security and Medicare issues.

“It was ‘Lawrence O’Donnell,’ ” Connolly corrects Henry, and adds with a laugh, “I was the pretty one.” But the truth is that Connolly is in the middle of a very ugly argument about a potential U.S. military strike against Syria in response to alleged chemical weapons attacks on Syrian civilians by government forces. In recent days, he has become one of the most vocal proponents of congressional authorization for President Obama’s plan for limited military strikes on Syria.

And like it or not, he has become one of the public faces of the effort to sell Obama’s gambit to an immensely skeptical public weary of war. It’s a risky proposition, considering . . .

Considering that a woman is in the foyer of the Westminster administrative building, accosting Connolly to ask why he’s supporting direct U.S. involvement in the Syrian civil war. She is adamant that the administration should stay out — chemical weapons be damned. That confrontation pretty much encapsulates the public reaction to Connolly’s position.

As of Sept. 4, lawmakers appear to be tentatively dividing into four camps over military action in Syria.

“It’s been overwhelmingly negative,” Connolly sighs after the encounter. He was referring to the reaction in his district — a wide swath of center-left-leaning Northern Virginia that happens to include a high proportion of military veterans and defense contractors.

Connolly and Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) have written a more narrow force resolution than the White House version in a bid to win support from lawmakers still skeptical about the proposed strikes. Of the few hundred people who have contacted his office about Syria, the vast majority have said, “Don’t do this.”

“It’s unpopular,” Connolly concedes in an interview. “I certainly listen. I like to believe the resolution I drafted reflects some of the concerns: limited time frame, no boots on the ground.”

This public pushback is a major problem for Obama, who made the political gamble to ask Congress for a vote on his resolution, calculating that it was worth the risk to win broader public backing for a military mission with no clear objectives. The president is counting on Democrats such as Connolly to complete the sale — not just to their constituents but to one another and the public.

Although House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) have said they will support Obama, most Republicans appear disinclined to follow their lead, leaving it up to the Democratic caucus to find as many votes as possible.

It’s not easy.

Take, for example, Connolly’s Facebook page, where opponents to U.S. involvement in Syria are making their feelings known.

“The American people DO NOT WANT to get involved in Syria,” one person wrote. “Are you listening? We will not forget who votes for this garbage.”

Just as Connolly takes the stage in the community room at the Westminster senior center, news breaks that Ken Cuccinelli II, the Republican candidate for Virginia governor, opposes U.S. miliary intervention in Syria. His opponent, Terry McAuliffe, has not taken a position, underscoring the dilemma for Democrats.

But Connolly is unbowed. The forum is devoted to a panel of experts who talk to a room of about 100 seniors about Social Security and Medicare, but toward the end of the discussion Connolly takes the microphone to explain his position on Syria.

He starts by reminding his audience of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Gulf of Tonkin resolution, which got the United States more deeply involved in Vietnam, and then talks about President George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq.

“Syria is different,” Connolly insists. “We have a president who is a reluctant warrior. . . . Anyone who believes he has some secret plan to put troops in Syria and invade it — I don’t think anyone really believes that about him.”

Then Connolly makes the moral case that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad must be stopped from gassing his own people. “This is a great test. This is not a pleasant moment,” he says, before conceding of the use-of-force resolution: “I don’t even know if it will pass the House.”

Afterward, Beverly Stohr, 72, approaches Connolly. “Why does it have to be us that leads this?” she asks. “Why can’t it be the U.N.?”

“Because Russia blocks everything,” he responds.

“I feel we don’t need to be policeman to the world,” Stohr says. Later, in an interview, Stohr, an independent, says: “If we get into the Middle East, it will never end. It’s a hot spot.”

Another woman expresses concern that U.S. strikes could dislodge the chemical storage units and create a bigger problem. “I worry about that,” Connolly confides.

Connolly has some supporters. Ron Christian, 74, a Lutheran minister, says he favors strikes because his wife’s Norwegian cousin was held for two years in a Nazi concentration camp in Bucharest during World War II.

Bill Henry, the retired journalist, spent time fighting in Korea in the 1950s and says of the Assad regime: “Bomb the hell out of ’em.”

As Connolly prepares to depart, he professes to be comfortable with his decision.

“They know I’m voting my conscience,” he says of his constituents. “If I was going to do something cynically political right now, I’d say, ‘You know what, I’m opposed to this.’ What do I get out of working to try to find a narrow path to achieve limited goals that are very important?”

At the very least, more time on television. The day before the O’Donnell appearance, Connolly also made the case for military strikes on “All In With Chris Hayes,” on MSNBC. This coming Sunday, he’s booked for CNN’s “State of the Union” and Bloomberg TV’s “Capitol Gains.”

David Nakamura covers the White House. He has previously covered sports, education and city government and reported from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Japan.

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