The debate in Congress over authorizing a U.S. military strike in Syria is being shaped by the political calculations of prospective 2016 presidential candidates in both parties, who are working to avoid the pitfalls of an issue that could affect their White House paths.
President Barack Obama’s request for the power to employ force in Syria to respond to what he says is the regime’s use of chemical weapons is an opportunity for Paul to press his case that the U.S. should resist intervening in overseas conflicts. The Kentucky Republican voted yesterday in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee against a resolution authorizing a strike on Syria.
Republican Senator Rubio, of Florida, is staking out a more hawkish position on military action yet laboring to avoid being seen as aligned with Obama. Rubio, also a member on the Senate committee, opposed the strike resolution, saying he wasn’t convinced it would work. He also took a shot at Paul’s reasoning, saying the U.S. can’t “disengage” on global issues.
And former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, regarded as the strongest potential Democratic presidential contender, used the debate to voice support for stepping up U.S. involvement to quell the Syrian crisis, which she listed as a “lasting regret” when she left Obama’s team earlier this year.
“It is an incredibly tricky issue to navigate for someone who is looking at a run in 2016, because you’ve got to be thinking about how whatever position you’re taking might affect a presidential bid down the line -- both the primary electorate and in a general-election setting,” said Lanhee Chen, a Stanford University public policy professor who was policy director for 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney.
The annals of presidential politics are filled with cautionary tales for would-be candidates, in which lawmakers’ statements and votes on matters of war came back to haunt them during presidential campaigns.
Clinton’s backing of President George W. Bush’s Iraq war alienated her party’s anti-war wing and played a role in her losing the 2008 Democratic primary to Obama, who opposed it. Four years earlier, Secretary of State John Kerry, then a senator at running as the Democratic nominee for president, struggled unsuccessfully to overcome his reputation as a waffler after several tortured attempts to explain his stance on the war in Iraq, which he backed and later criticized. He was defeated by Bush, who never eased his pro-war stance.
“If I were advising a 2016 candidate, particularly one without any foreign policy experience, I would probably tell them to keep their head down and say very little, at least until more is known about what the president is asking for and what the consequences might be,” added Chen, who is also a Bloomberg View columnist.
That’s the approach of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, another prospective Republican candidate, who during a Sept. 3 news conference called the use of chemical weapons by President Bashar al-Assad's regime “intolerable,” yet said he would “leave that to the people who represent us in Congress to make that decision” about using military force to deter future attacks.
Paul has been the most vocal on the issue. He was one of the first members of Congress to call on Obama to seek congressional approval for any use of force in Syria.
“There’s a reasonable argument that the world may be less stable because of this, and that it may not deter any chemical weapons attack,” Paul said at a Sept. 3 Foreign Relations Committee hearing during an animated exchange with Kerry. “We all agree that chemical attacks are a horrendous thing, but people are not excited about getting involved, and they also don’t think it’s going to work.”
Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, another newcomer to Washington said to be weighing a Republican presidential bid, has aligned himself with Paul. He is “troubled” by the reasons the Obama administration is giving for military action, which he said during an Aug. 31 appearance in Orlando, Florida, would be justified only “to protect the vital national security interest of the United States.”
Together they reflect the non-interventionist wing of the party whose resurgence has corresponded to the limited-government Tea Party’s rise.
They’ve staked out their positions even as the Republican Party base is more likely to back a Syrian strike. In an NBC News poll conducted Aug. 28-29, 50 percent of respondents supported launching U.S. cruise missiles, while 44 opposed doing so. Among Republicans, 60 percent back such action compared with 38 percent who oppose it.
“Core Republicans are probably a little bit more likely to be in favor of taking military action,” said Neil Newhouse, a Republican pollster who co-led the survey. Yet that could change, leaving prospective candidates in an uncomfortable spot.
“Nobody’s got a crystal ball for public opinion two years from now on a military strike into Syria,” Newhouse said. “It would be a lot easier for these guys to make decisions if they knew already how this was going to turn out.”
Rubio has sounded a more traditional Republican tone of leaning toward military action, arguing Sept. 3 that the situation in Syria is “of vital national interest to the United States,” while being careful to leave himself plenty of room to criticize Obama’s handling of the conflict.
Speaking as much to potential Republican primary rival Paul as to Obama yesterday, he said: “We cannot solve every crisis on this planet, but if we follow the advice of those who seek to disengage us from global issues, in the long run we will pay a terrible price.”
For members of Obama’s party, politics and policy may be at odds, said James M. Lindsay, senior vice president at the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations.
“For most Democrats, there’s a consideration of political loyalty, which would say vote ‘yes,’ because you don’t want to hand the president of your political party a defeat,” said Lindsay, a National Security Council aide during former President Bill Clinton’s administration. Still, he added, Democrats are divided “between those who tend more to being non-interventionist and would rather the United States focus its attentions at home and those hawkish internationalists who believe the U.S. should use its power to influence events around the world.”
Hillary Clinton, whose 2008 primary run featured a television advertisement that portrayed her as the candidate best-suited to field a “3 a.m. phone call” about a national security crisis, best exemplifies the hawkish wing.
While she has stayed publicly mum since Obama’s request for action in Syria, a top aide said Sept. 3 she backed his decision to go to Congress for authorization for a strong and targeted response to the Assad regime’s horrific use of chemical weapons.
Vice President Joe Biden, who hasn’t ruled out running in 2016, has implicitly backed the president, standing beside him Aug. 31 as he requested the vote.
While plenty of Democrats disagree -- Senators Chris Murphy of Connecticut and Tom Udall of New Mexico voted “no” in the Foreign Relations Committee yesterday -- none of the party’s prominent potential 2016 contenders has emerged to publicly counter Obama’s case for military action.
“Hillary Clinton’s vote in favor of Iraq hurt her so much in the 2008 presidential campaign that for Democrats -- both politically and because many of them take principled positions opposed to American military force -- it’s going to be a hard call,” said Kori Schake, a Hoover Institution research fellow who served in the Bush administration and advised Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona during his 2008 presidential campaign.
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