The Obama administration’s efforts to get Congress to pass an authorization for military force against Syria are going badly in policy terms, but they are looking up in political terms. Even as the administration’s arguments become more strained, the political imperative that Democrats must support their president or risk having him “crippled” for the next 40 months is being drilled into them. The same relentless message helped save Bill Clinton from being abandoned by his party in 1998 after it finally became clear he had committed perjury before a federal judge in the Lewinsky scandal.
Chris Matthews of MSNBC, who served on Capitol Hill for years as a top Democratic aide, put the party’s dilemma in stark terms on Wednesday: “I think the Democrats are going to be forced to sacrifice men and women who really, really don’t want to vote for this. They’re going to have to vote for it to save the president’s hide. That’s a bad position to put your party in.”
One reason it’s especially awkward is that on the substance, the White House isn’t doing well. President Obama tried to shift responsibility for Syria away from himself when he said in Sweden on Wednesday that when it came to chemical weapons, “I didn’t set a red line. The world set a red line.” Leaving aside that the chemical-weapons treaty the president referred to (which Syria has not signed) has no provision authorizing the use of force against violators, the president didn’t explain why he wanted to attack Syria even though the world community he described as being the offended party was refusing to join in with him.
Then there was Secretary of State John Kerry, fresh from his humiliation by President Obama’s undercutting his call for urgent action against Syria last week. Kerry appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday and proceeded to muddy every rhetorical pond he stepped in. He left even Democratic senators puzzled when he insisted that Obama was “not asking America to go to war,” an assertion that the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff declined to endorse.
Kerry followed that up by saying that, “in the event Syria imploded” or “there was a threat of a chemical-weapons cache falling into the hands” of radicals, he could foresee the use of U.S. troops on the ground in Syria. He quickly had to walk those comments back by saying he would accept language in the authorization that barred the deployment of troops: “I want to shut that door as tight as we can.” Yet again, John Kerry was for the possible use of troops before he was against it.
All of this prompted derisive comments even from liberals. Howard Fineman of the Huffington Post told MSNBC that “the only message we’re sending to the world is one of confusion.” Peter Beinart, former editor of The New Republic, found his way to concede that Kerry’s testimony was “somewhat incoherent.”
Nonetheless, leading Democrats are falling into line. After days of what must have been painful silence for the White House, Hillary Clinton had an aide issue a statement from her late on Tuesday saying she supported Obama on the issue of a limited strike on Syria. Lawrence Korb, a former Pentagon official now with the liberal Center for American Progress, says Clinton’s stance puts her in a “no-lose position.” She carefully preserves the détente she forged with Obama regarding the 2016 presidential race as she left the State Department early this year, while she can remind audiences that she wanted to do more against Bashar Assad’s regime while she was in the administration.
Howard Dean, the former Democratic National Committee chairman who was the anti-war Left’s candidate for president in 2004, issued a statement of support that was even terser than Hillary Clinton’s: “Thus far I fully support the president, including his going to Congress.” Dean recently visited Iowa, reviving rumors that he may run for president again in 2016.
Other Democrats are getting the squeeze to fall into line. Representative Jim Moran of Virginia, a Democrat known for his bullying behavior and loyalty to the Democratic House leadership, scolded Representative Charles Rangel of New York over his opposition to intervention in Syria on MSNBC on Tuesday night. Moran said that, because “we have the world’s largest military,” the U.S. has a responsibility to “do the right thing” and intervene. He bluntly told Rangel, a Korean War veteran, that “not only is your position wrong, but you’re going to cripple our president for the next 40 months.”
Rangel is unlikely to budge, but other Democrats who have been skeptical of previous interventions look to be moving Obama’s way. Al Hunt, a Bloomberg News columnist with excellent sources on Capitol Hill, reports that he sees a “congressional coalition of the political willing” reluctantly forming. Key to it are the nine Democratic senators still serving who voted against George W. Bush’s request for authorizing war in Iraq in 2002. Hunt says, “The White House is close to winning the support of all those members,” including Dick Durbin, the Senate majority whip, Armed Services chairman Carl Levin, and California’s Barbara Boxer. He also notes that the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which is influential with many members who have large Jewish constituencies, “has publicly backed the measure and privately is turning up the heat.”
The White House has other inducements for members who are still resistant. “I think the White House candy store is open,”said John Bolton, a former U.N. ambassador under President Bush who opposes a military strike against Syria, on Fox News Tuesday. “What do you need for your district or state? A post office? A new military facility? What do you want? I think anything you want you’re going to get because the White House is going to do whatever it takes to get a majority.”
So we have the irony that, even as the administration’s arguments for intervention become less coherent, its chances of prevailing by playing on tribal loyalties and the use of “non-policy” arguments are increasing.
And people thought the pressure and the wheeling and dealing that forced through passage of Obamacare were unseemly.
— John Fund is national-affairs correspondent for NRO.