The Numbers That Explain Why Congress May Bail on Obama’s Syria Attack

From left, National Security Adviser Susan Rice, Boehner, and Obama meeting the press in the White House's Cabinet Room on Sept. 3 Photograph by Carolyn Kaster/AP Images

President Obama and his allies will spend the next few days conducting a furious campaign to convince members of Congress to support a retaliatory air strike against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. The Senate appears likely to accede, but the House is anybody’s guess. Amid the shadow of the Iraq War and the limited information about the chemical attack on Syrian civilians—a U.S. intelligence official told the Associated Press that establishing Assad’s culpability is “no slam dunk”—this would be a challenge for any president. Obama’s task will be even more difficult because the last few elections have changed Congress in ways that make both parties less likely to support a U.S. military intervention in the Middle East.

Start with the Democrats. When Obama was elected in 2008, he brought with him to  the 111th Congress a total of 255 Democratic House members, which dwarfed the Republicans’ 179 members. Subsequent elections ended the Democrats’ dominance; the party now holds 200 members in the current (113th) Congress, to the Republicans’ 233. This hollowing-out process didn’t shrink the party uniformly, but hit conservative “Blue Dog” Democrats especially hard, reducing their number from 54 in the 111th Congress to 14 in the current one; this means that the hawkish, pro-military Democrats who would be most inclined to support an attack on Syria have all but disappeared from Congress. They have left behind a House Democratic caucus that is smaller, more liberal, and still seared by U.S. misadventures abroad under George W. Bush. Rather than being able to count on unity, as Obama generally can do on matters of taxing and spending, he’ll have to contend with liberals such as Representative Alan Grayson (D-Fla.), who has just launched

Persuading Republicans could be even harder for the president—and not just because of their knee-jerk antipathy to anything he proposes. The House Republican caucus has grown substantially since 2008, increasing its number by 54 members. Far more important than the size of the Republican coalition is its composition, which has changed radically in just a few years. According to David Wasserman of the Cook Political Report, 47 percent of the House GOP caucus was elected in 2010 or afterward. Most of these new members came of age politically during the Bush foreign debacles and got elected by vowing to displace the war-happy, spendthrift Republican establishment that reigned throughout most of the 2000s.

One early sign that these Republicans differ from their predecessors was their willingness to accept the defense sequester, the automatic military cuts that horrified many older Republicans. This was interpreted mainly as a reflection of the importance they place on reducing the deficit, but it also reflects an isolationist streak that didn’t exist five years ago. See, for example, this tweet from Representative Justin Amash (R-Mich.), who was elected in 2010: “[George W. Bush]-era foreign policy is nearly extinct among GOP grassroots. Some Rs in DC either didn’t get the memo or haven’t been home in a while.”

Obama is off to a good start, securing the support of the Democratic congressional leadership and—just this morning—that of House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio). But if the last few years have demonstrated anything, it’s that members of Congress are less likely to follow their leaders than at almost any time in the past. Obama’s burden on Syria is even heavier because he’ll have to overcome this.

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.