Politics & Policy

How Not to Win Over Congress

Sending Susan Rice, on the Benghazi anniversary, to argue for Syria is one of many missteps.

If anyone in the Obama administration thought having former Democratic representative Jane Harman appear on NBC’s Meet the Press to support the Syrian war resolution was a good idea, he must be cringing now. 

Harman, a former congresswoman from California who now runs the Woodrow Wilson International Center, weighed in on why so many in Congress were resisting a vote to authorize force in Syria: “All these folks in both parties, especially in the House, are worried about being primaried. The base in each party is against this. . . . So these folks think that their reelection . . . matters more than perhaps taking a principled stand.” When challenged on this by NBC’s Chuck Todd, she doubled down: “They want it to pass, Chuck. They just don’t want to vote for it.”

#ad#In other words, one of the most prominent advocates of President Obama’s Syrian resolution basically called out many members of Congress as cowards. I have heard from three House members who were appalled at this as a lobbying tactic. “We’re elected in part to represent our constituents, and she makes listening to 90 percent of them a sign of cravenness,” one member texted me. “Dale Carnegie this is not.” 

Perhaps things would have been even worse if the White House had started its lobbying campaign earlier. As it is, most members hadn’t heard from the administration before presidential aides announced that “a full-court press” would finally be launched, now that President Obama is back from his overseas trip — where he failed to muster additional support for a military strike.

Up until now, the White House lobbying effort has been dismal. In an astonishing display of either ignorance or brazenness, the White House will mark the first anniversary of the Benghazi terrorist attack this Wednesday by sending National Security Adviser Susan Rice to Capitol Hill to argue the administration’s case for military force in Syria. Rice infamously delivered false talking points on national television, blaming the Benghazi attacks on a spontaneous demonstration against an anti-Islam YouTube video. Sending Rice to Congress to brief members on Syria is like sending Typhoid Mary to lecture on public health. Her credibility is, to use a diplomatic term, limited. 

The administration has made other glaring missteps in its outreach efforts to Congress. Take Representative Adam Kinzinger, a former U.S. Air Force pilot who was stationed in Iraq. He is one of only eight House Republicans to firmly support the Syrian resolution so far. But he told George Stephanopoulos on ABC News’s This Week on Sunday, “I don’t even know who my White House liaison is.” He said: “My office actually reached out to the White House and said, ‘Hey, we support the strike on Syria, we’re going to help you round up support if you need it.’ I haven’t heard back from the White House yet. . . . I haven’t heard back from anyone.” The almost complete failure of the White House to build lasting ties to Capitol Hill is coming home to roost, he says: “You can’t begin to build a relationship with Congress for the first time when you need their support on something like this.”

Kinzinger was echoed by Representative Mike Rogers, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, who said on CBS’s Face the Nation that White House officials simply “don’t have strong relationships in Congress.” He called their political strategy “a confusing mess.”

Just how distant White House aides are from Capitol Hill was evident early this year when Denis McDonough became Obama’s new chief of staff. He quickly responded to complaints from Capitol Hill and pledged that his office would be more accessible to members of Congress; he promised, for example, to return phone calls. Relations have improved a bit, but they have a long way to go. A few weeks ago, a senior White House liaison to the House arrived late at a Washington dinner and sat next to a middle-aged fellow. He introduced himself and asked his seatmate who he was and what he did. “I’m Congressman Dave Camp,” the man replied. When that elicited no recognition, Camp explained that he was chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, which writes and revises all of the tax laws. As another member explains: “That tells me a.) this is what happens when you never see White House aides on Capitol Hill, and b.) this is how much the administration’s claim that it’s interested in tax reform is worth.” 

The administration is now finally engaged in lobbying Congress and briefing members, even going so far as to have former Bush national-security adviser Stephen Hadley brief Republican members of Congress on the importance of approving the Syria resolution. But the hour is late, and many minds are nearly set in stone.

And House Democrats are not getting all the help they need from Obama. Many are furious, for example, that Organizing for Action, formerly the grassroots arm of Obama for America, has been completely silent on Syria. Having cover from President Obama’s vaunted “voter vault” group would surely help entice the members who might fear being “primaried” by anti-war opponents. After all, Obama himself used anti-war rhetoric to defeat Hillary Clinton in the 2008 Democratic primaries. But President Obama so far seems to be leaving his Democratic House colleagues out to dry on this use-of-force vote, and intervention is far less popular today than it was when lawmakers were debating the Iraq War.

— John Fund is national-affairs columnist for NRO.

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