Syria Debate Breeds Electoral Doubts in Both Parties

Both Democrats and Republicans fret about Syria's impact on their political fortunes

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Joshua Lott / Reuters

U.S. Senator John McCain (R-AZ) at a town hall event in Mesa, Arizona August 27, 2013.

Members of Congress in both parties heaved sighs of relief Wednesday after Barack Obama said he wants Congress to delay voting on his unpopular proposal for a military strike against Syria. But both Democrats and Republicans are still fretting about the political fallout of the Syria drama that has now dominated Washington politics for weeks.

Democrats complain that Obama has waffled, first calling for swift retaliatory action before abruptly deciding to slow the process and seek a congressional vote. “It plays into every stereotype that Democrats are weak and indecisive on foreign policy,” one Democratic operative who would only speak on background complained about the administration’s strategy. “What are they thinking over there?”

Republicans, meanwhile, are worried by a growing schism in their party over foreign policy, as well as the possibility of primary challengers picking off pro-intervention moderates. “I’m concerned with the debate that’s going on within my own party with the rise of the isolationists,” Sen. John McCain told TIME. “We haven’t seen anything like this in the Republican Party since the 1930s.”

(MORE: In Prime Time, Obama Struggles to Reason With Nation Over Syria)

“The isolationists set national policy right up until midnight on Dec. 6, 1941 as we watched Mussolini gas people in Abyssinia, as we watched Hitler in the Sudetenland,” McCain added. “We saw him in Czechoslovakia while the trainloads of Jews went into the gas chambers. We watched all these things happen when it was the ‘America Firsters.’ Those who ignore the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them a old adage but a true one.”

McCain’s rivals for control of the GOP’s foreign policy, including Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, scoff at such talk, insisting their position is much closer to the American people—and that interventionists like McCain were discredited by the Iraq War. The dispute could make it difficult for the GOP to craft a clear message against Obama and the Democrats in next year’s campaigns.

It’s impossible to predict political winners and losers now, as the outcome of the Syria drama hangs in the balance while the Obama administration pursues a possible diplomatic solution with Russia, about which many people are skeptical. “It’s too early to know [about the political consequences],” said Rep. Henry Waxman, one of the most outspoken Democrats in favor of responding to the chemical weapons attack.

But Waxman is among those Democrats hoping that Obama will, in effect, pull a rabbit out of a hat—both strategically and politically: “Hopefully we get a diplomatic solution for which President Obama would deserve an enormous amount of credit,” he said. “And the Republicans would be looked at as unwilling to stand up for American values of trying to stop the use of chemical weapons.”

Still, uncertainty over the endgame has placed political operatives in a bind, and powerless to sway an outcome on which their fortunes could depend. The Democratic National Committee has been almost entirely silent on Syria, and Obama’s vaunted Organizing for Action group merely urged people to watch Obama’s Tuesday night address, without promoting his position. A host of liberal and progressive groups like, meanwhile, have rallied their members to oppose intervention.

Republican operatives have been somewhat more unified, teaming up to bash the president’s management of the crisis. After Obama’s address, Republican National Committee chair Reince Priebus blasted a “haphazard” administration strategy and Obama’s “rudderless diplomacy.” But Priebus offered no solutions of his own, and the vague criticism–as opposed to the specifics leveled against the president on other recent issues including the IRS scandals and the budget showdown–indicate how dangerous the issue is, and how cautious Republicans are about owning an alternative.

“The overriding theme that will dovetail with the GOP message is that this is another example of how the Obama administration has bungled a very important policy issue,” said Tim Miller, the Executive Director of the GOP super PAC America Rising. “It’s the feeling that this president doesn’t have his act together, and that on issue after issue – economy, healthcare, Syria, he has been unable to put forth an agenda that is effective and that Democratic candidates can run on.”

Democrats naturally disagree. “Hard for Republicans to argue that Democrats are weak and indecisive if while the President takes action to promote deterrence they do nothing while a dictator uses chemical weapons against innocent civilians in broad daylight and in clear violation of international law,” said former Obama campaign spokesman Ben Labolt.

Despite the dueling soundbites, operatives on both sides know that Syria’s political impact won’t be decided by operatives in Washington but by diplomats and officials in Washington, Moscow and Damascus.

With reporting by Jay Newton-Small and Alex Rogers/Washington
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