Did Obama Out-Showdown the G.O.P.?

After daring Congress to vote on things for two years, President Obama has finally painted the Republicans who have stalled his legislative agenda into a corner by asking them to vote on airstrikes against Syria.

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After daring Congress to vote on things for two years, President Obama has finally painted the Republicans who have stalled his legislative agenda into a corner by asking them to vote on airstrikes against Syria.

Showdown politics have not always turned out well for Obama over the last two years. After the Newtown elementary school massacre, Obama tried to force Congress to vote on gun regulations through speeches, including an emotional call in the State of the Union that victims of gun violence like a Gabby Giffords "deserve a vote" — that failed. When a bargain for higher tax revenues in exchange for spending cuts faltered, he tried to force Congress to act with the sequester — that failed too. He did succeed in getting a vote for higher taxes during the fiscal cliff at the end of 2012, but only because Republicans wanted to avoid even higher taxes that would have kicked in automatically.

On Tuesday, it looked like the Syria showdown was going better for Obama. House Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor both endorsed strikes in Syria, the first day of Obama's "full court press" to convince Congress to authorize a strike. It's possible this will set off another confrontation with conservatives.

Rep. Paul Ryan did not endorse military action. "The President has some work to do to recover from his grave missteps in Syria," Ryan said on Tuesday. "He needs to clearly demonstrate that the use of military force would strengthen America’s security." The National Review's Jonathan Strong reported late last week that "it is highly unlikely leadership will whip support for the proposal; such 'votes of conscience' are typically left to members' discretion."

Many Republican lawmakers are wary of voting for the strike, The Washington Examiner's Byron York reports. Of the five reasons for that reluctance York lists, four boil down to distrust of Obama — that the intel is bad, that they're giving him a "blank check," etc. (They're also nervous about whether the Syrian rebels are really moderate.) A counter-argument, York reports, is that Republicans need to remember there will be a non-Obama president some day.

Perhaps in anticipation of a close vote, a new argument is circulating among pro-interventionists which says that protecting the prerogatives of future presidents is so important that Republicans should support Obama's Syrian action even if there is no good case for doing so.

The Washington Post reports that as of early Tuesday afternoon, of the 103 representatives who are a "no" or a "lean no" on Syria, 60 are Republicans. Eight House Republicans are for military action, while nine House Democrats are.

If Congress votes to authorize a strike in Syria, this will be one more case of Republican leaders caving to Obama, at least in the eyes of conservative voters. For example, a voter at an August town hall for Rep. Tom Cole demanded he vote to shutdown the government unless Obamacare was defunded, even though she knew it wouldn't end Obamacare. She wanted to "draw a line in the sand." Republican leaders have been promising that a big confrontation with Obama would happen for real this time the next few weeks over the debt ceiling, instead of the government funding bill. According to The National Review's Jonathan Strong, in January, a "Jedi Council" of Republicans decided in February to re-order the spending fights to set up a debt limit confrontation in the fall. But Obama has said he won't negotiate over the debt ceiling, and not raising the debt ceiling would cause a global financial crisis. RedState editor Erick Erickson says this means GOP leaders can't be trusted:

So desperate are they to have you believe they are willing to fight Obamacare while they are actually caving, they would have Americans believe they are willing to throw the world economy into chaos over a possible default of American credit obligations rather than possibly take public blame for a government shutdown. The debt ceiling strategy is the same one they abandoned in January and mid-summer.

Once Obama said he would ask Congress for authorization for airstrikes in Syria, it was inevitable this would happen: "Mr. President, you consider defunding Obamacare, I'll consider voting for your cruise missiles to Syria," Erickson tweeted.

But it doesn't look like it'll go down that way. And conservative pundits are revolting. Ann Coulter said the world is "laughing at us" on Fox News on Tuesday morning, while Laura Ingraham said "what's good for our country and what's good for Obama politically are two separate things." After Boehner and Cantor announced they support airstrikes, Matt Drudge was thrown into despair. "Why would anyone vote Republican? Please give reason. Raised taxes; marching us off to war again; approved more NSA snooping. WHO ARE THEY?!" he tweeted. On his radio show on Tuesday, Rush Limbaugh summed up Boehner's statement as, "Whatever the president wants." Limbaugh accused The Wall Street Journal — whose editorial board supports strikes — of telling Republicans to "let Obama snooker you." He said, "So, once again, a piece of advice to the Republicans is, 'Bite the bullet! Bend over. Be bigger and give the president what he wants for the sake of America,' and Boehner and [John] McCain are eager to do just that." He suggested Syrian President Bashar al-Assad didn't use chemical weapons on the rebels, but that the rebels are al Qaeda and gassed themselves. "What if Bashar is being framed?" Limbaugh said. "What if Bashar didn't do it?"

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.