Even as some House and Senate conservatives remain undecided on whether to support a resolution that would allow President Obama to take military action in Syria, two conservative groups have taken a firm stand against it.
Heritage Action and FreedomWorks have both announced that they oppose any such resolution. FreedomWorks will include the vote in its annual lawmakers’ scorecard, a sign of how seriously the organization is taking this question; the organization scores, on average, only about 19 House votes and twelve Senate votes a year. Heritage Action has yet to decide whether it will score the vote or not.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve seen the kind of grassroots energy and positive response that we’ve gotten in our opposition to bombing Syria,” says FreedomWorks president and CEO Matt Kibbe. “It reminds me in a lot of ways of 2008, when this tidal wave of grassroots opposition emerged to crush the first TARP [Troubled Asset Relief Program] vote on the House floor.”
“When I saw both Pelosi and Boehner come out of their White House briefing last week pledging support to the president,” he adds, “it reminded me of that moment when Nancy Pelosi was on the House floor twisting arms in her caucus and Boehner was twisting arms in the Republican caucus, but America beat Washington.”
Of course, the ending of that movie was that TARP did ultimately pass. But Kibbe thinks the grassroots has become savvier and better at lobbying politicians in the five years since. According to FreedomWorks’ internal numbers, its members have made about 5,000 calls to their senators and representatives, and a petition to “tell congress: no new wars. deal with the red lines at home!” has garnered over 30,000 signatures so far. And FreedomWorks members are also paying visits to their representatives’ and senators’ district offices.
For many involved in the tea-party movement, the probable costs of taking action in Syria may be a driving force. “There are real questions about whether or not we can afford these things,” Kibbe says. “The numbers for Iraq are orders of magnitude bigger than we were told at the time.”
FreedomWorks is primarily energizing the grassroots to call their representatives and senators rather than lobbying directly, although the group does intend to speak directly to some congressional offices. Heritage Action communications director Dan Holler says, “Our position is well known, Heritage has laid out a really compelling case about why we don’t need to be involved in this way in Syria.”
One senior GOP leadership aide is skeptical about Heritage Action’s ability to influence Republicans in Congress. “I think every member will look at a variety of serious and intellectual sources to influence their decision in Syria one way or the other,” he explains, “but I’m not certain Heritage will be one of those places given its movement away from research towards political activism.” House Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor both support the resolution, while Whip Kevin McCarthy remains undecided.
There is also a sense that while the two groups have publicly come out against intervening in Syria, behind the scenes they may be consciously reserving some capital to focus on their longstanding goal of defunding Obamacare in the upcoming continuing resolution — an issue that didn’t really catch fire during the August recess, even though Heritage Action hosted a nationwide tour promoting the defunding. Fewer resources may be needed on the Syria resolution: “It doesn’t have to be a massive effort,” Heritage Action’s Holler says.
Meanwhile, Kibbe speculates that the grassroots enthusiasm for defeating the Syria resolution hints at a broader change within the conservative coalition. We may be seeing a “realignment” of the GOP, Kibbe says, and “a shift toward the libertarian wing of the party, more of a return to where the GOP was when George W. Bush was running for president.”
“We never wanted to be the world’s policeman; we weren’t into nation building,” he says of the GOP back in 2000. For those who oppose intervention, the Syria resolution isn’t just a chance to hand Obama a defeat. It’s also a chance to change the GOP’s foreign-policy priorities.
— Katrina Trinko is an NRO reporter.