Syria Vote Could be Defining Moment for Members of Both Parties in Congress

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The upcoming vote on whether or not to authorize the use of force against Syria could be a defining moment for many members of the House and Senate in each party. The vote may be especially consequential for those members with presidential aspirations and for those who occupy positions of leadership in Congress. This is not an easy vote, nor does it fall neatly into partisan camps like many votes in Congress. A Washington Post analysis of each member of the Senate and most members of the House, reveals that conservatives and liberals alike can be found leaning in both the pro-intervention and anti-intervention camps.

The vote entails considerable risk for politicians in both parties since the war weary American public is skeptical of military action and that includes Republicans, Democrats and Independents. According to a Pew Research poll released on September 3rd, Republicans are somewhat more likely than either Democrats or Independents to support military action, but even a plurality of Republicans (40-35) oppose using military force. Democrats oppose military strikes 48-29 and Independents oppose them 50-29.

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In this context, a vote to authorize military force could cause future problems if US involvement turns out to be ineffective or if the intervention becomes a costly and prolonged intervention. Presidential hopefuls like Ted Cruz. Marco Rubio and Rand Paul will have to weigh their votes carefully to make sure they end up on the right side of history. At this point it appears that all three of them will vote against the resolution to authorize force against Syria.

Hillary Clinton is probably grateful that she is not a US Senator right now, so she can avoid repeating her 2002 mistake of casting a vote for the use of force as she did against Iraq, only to have it come back to haunt her in the 2008 Democratic primaries. She is also probably doubly grateful that she is no longer Secretary of State in charge of selling the war. Nevertheless, Clinton did express support through an aide for “the president’s effort to enlist the Congress in pursuing a strong and targeted response to the Assad regime’s horrific use of chemical weapons,” putting her in a position to have to defend Syrian intervention if she runs in 2016.

Former Secretary of State Colin Powell lost a great deal of credibility when he sullied his reputation by being duped into promoting lies about Saddam Hussein possessing weapons of mass destruction in order to drum up support for waging war on Iraq. John Kerry’s hyperbolic “Munich moment” speech is probably doing little to bolster his reputation which already suffered in 2004 for his “flip flop” on the Iraq War. Many will remember that he infamously voted for the war before he was against it, a position that was easily mocked by Republicans during the 2004 campaign.

In 2002, both John Kerry and Hillary Clinton, each with future presidential aspirations, bet on the war in Iraq in the hopes that it would make them not appear weak on national defense. However, when the war turned sour and public opposition mounted against it, Kerry and Clinton ended up appearing weaker by criticizing President Bush for a war they helped authorize. A consistent no vote early on would have made each of them appear stronger and with more backbone as they ran their 2004 and 2008 campaigns respectively.

2016 hopefuls may be  advised to heed the experiences of candidates Kerry and Clinton. If a Syrian intervention turns into a prolonged conflict that yields little tangible results, a candidate that supports it may regret it come 2016 as support for the war could hang like a political albatross around the candidate’s neck. On the flip side, it is also possible that a vote against military strikes could also be damaging if the Congress and President fail to act and the situation deteriorates to the point where inaction draws criticism as a form of insensitive isolationism. Rand Paul and Ted Cruz, in addition to a moral calculus will also be weighing the political calculus surrounding whatever decision they make.

Cruz and Paul appear almost certain to opt for a more isolationist foreign policy than the party leadership. While former presidential candidate John McCain and House leaders like John Boehner and Eric Cantor are pledging support for Obama’s plan to possibly strike Syria, Ted Cruz and Rand Paul both appear to be leaning strongly against the plan. If so, they may be redefining the foreign policy of the Republican Party. Under the Bush administration, hawkish neo-conservatives like Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz called the shots. By contrast, today’s Tea Party wing of the GOP seems much less inclined to support foreign engagement. Republican Party primary voters may have to decide whether they want to embrace a new non-interventionist GOP or stick with tradition and support a continuation of Bush era aggressively pro-military interventionist neo-conservative policies. If Rand Paul and Ted Cruz align as isolationists, they run the risk of splitting the GOP anti-war vote and opening space for Chris Christie to run against each of them as the patriotic internationalist, although so far Christie has not taken a public position on Syria.

On the Democratic side, particularly in light of Clinton’s position supporting a targeted military response,  there is space for an up and coming Democratic contender to become the voice of the anti-war left if somebody with presidential aspirations is willing to assume that mantle. Howard Dean in 2004 and Barack Obama in 2008 both garnered plenty of support from the fairly large dovish-leaning wing of the Democratic primary electorate. Though neither was expressly an anti-war candidate like fellow Democrat Dennis Kucinich, both Dean and Obama were able to parlay opposition to the Iraq War into support, although in Howard Dean’s case the support was short-lived.

The Syria vote might also be consequential for House leaders in both parties. With Boehner, Cantor, Pelosi and Wasserman-Schultz all lining up in favor of intervention, the door is open for challenges to their leadership positions from the anti-establishment wings of each party. Boehner and Cantor may especially be imperiled as they occupy leadership positions in the opposition party while pledging support for the president. Neither one of them wants to end up like former House Minority leader Dick Gephardt (D-MO) who ended up short-circuiting his political career by supporting Bush’s Iraq War resolution. Eighty fellow House Democrats joined Gephardt in authorizing the Iraq War resolution, but a majority of Democrats (126 of them), led by Nancy Pelosi, broke ranks and opposed the use of force in Iraq. That political coup within the Democratic Party, helped propel Pelosi to become the leader of the party and eventually Speaker of the House. Boehner and Cantor surely do not want to become this decade’s Republican versions of Dick Gephardt.

The situation in Syria is very volatile and it has created an unpredictable political environment at home. As members of Congress evaluate the merits of authorizing force in Syria they must also consider the potential political consequences at home. Political careers could be enhanced or broken simply by voting “yes” or “no” on a single resolution regarding taking action against the Syrian government. Politicians take note, and choose wisely. It is your call, but your vote could have far-reaching political consequences.

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