The corner of New Jersey and Independence avenues outside the Capitol on Monday night felt a bit like a time warp to the Bush era as Medea Benjamin, the long-marginalized founder of the roguish antiwar group Code Pink, was suddenly relevant again. Graced by the imprimatur of at least three members of Congress and several major news outlets, Benjamin whipped up a crowd of about 100 at one of the dozens of antiwar rallies happening concurrently across the country, and remarked, "The antiwar movement is revving back up in a very strong way!"
In recent years Benjamin, who rose to prominence leading combative protests against the Iraq War, has became more accustomed to heckling members of Congress than introducing them at rallies. She's been maligned by the mainstream Left and mocked by the center (the Right always reviled her), and dismissed as speaking on behalf of herself and not many others. But popular opposition to potential airs trikes against Syria has been a shot in the arm for her and the rag-tag antiwar movement, which suddenly finds itself being backed by the majority of Americans.
"I feel, on one level, vindicated, I suppose. But on another level, I would rather continue to be marginalized and not be on a path to war than be in the center of a new peace insurrection," Benjamin told National Journal.
If lawmakers ever actually vote on a bill to authorize strikes against Syria, Obama will need that support unlike at almost any other point in his presidency. He can't count on many Republican votes and instead has concentrated his effort on reaching out to House progressives, giving the grassroots Left a precious moment of influence after years dominated by their ideological opposites in the tea party.
Code Pink once had 300 local chapters and plenty of allies on the Left, but saw its support evaporate with the rest of the antiwar movement after a Democrat won the White House. Some progressive groups were slow to join more radical antiwar stalwarts such as Benjamin, but the liberal position has solidified in the past week, and now organizations such as MoveOn.org and Credo have starting running ads on TV, organized thousands of calls to members of Congress, collected hundreds of thousands of signatures, and mobilized in the street against the president's plan.
"So many of our colleagues that were so active on these issues during the Bush years just faded away. Suddenly we have a lot of colleagues again," Benjamin said.
While it feels a bit like the anti-Iraq War gang is back together, 2013 is very different than 2003 for at least one big reason—the party affiliation of the occupant of the White House.
According to Michael Heaney and Fabio Rojas, professors at the University of Michigan and Indiana University, respectively, who are working on a book on the antiwar movement, partisanship essentially sucked the wind out of the movement's sails after Obama's election. "Democrats, who had been motivated to participate by anti-Republican sentiments, withdrew from antiwar protests when the Democratic Party achieved electoral success," they wrote in a much-cited 2011 paper, based on thousands of surveys they conducted with protesters.
"There's always a hardcore group that doesn't care who's in the White House. They're always there, but they're small in numbers," Rojas told National Journal, referring to Code Pink and similar groups. But with Syria, "It's moving from what you might call the hard Left to the liberal core of the Democratic Party."
Almost two-thirds of liberals oppose attacking Syria, according to a Pew survey released Monday. MoveOn polled its members and found that 73 percent opposed air strikes, while VoteVets, the largest progressive veterans' group, reported that 80 percent of its membership opposed intervention. And at the same time, conservatives have joined progressives in rallying against military intervention unlike any time under Bush, presumably—at least in part—out of the same kind of partisan motivation that pushed Democrats to oppose Bush.
Progressive activists bristle at the suggestion that they gave Obama a pass because he's a Democrat. Rather, they say Syria is the latest in a string of confrontations between the Obama White House and what former White House press secretary Robert Gibbs once derisively referred to as the "professional Left." There was the backbiting over who killed the public option during the health care reform debate, Obama's foot-dragging on the Keystone XL pipeline, and the all-out Democratic civil war over the president's proposal to trim Social Security benefits.
Those fights, along with the more recent bipartisan uproar over the National Security Agency's snooping on American citizens, helped prime the pump to make it easier for liberals to oppose the White House on Syria than they may have been in years past, activists say. "There's not a lot of goodwill left," said one, who asked not to be named so as to avoid damaging relationships.
That's a big problem for a White House that is trying to convince Democratic lawmakers that Obama's presidency depends on their support for air strikes.
"It's unfortunate because I want to see my president succeed. But I took an oath to uphold the Constitution, not the president," Rep. Alan Grayson, D-Fla., who has been whipping his colleagues against intervention, said in an interview in his office after he rallied the faithful at the Code Pink vigil. "The president is asking members of Congress to choose between him and their constituents. For most members, that's an easy choice."