Obama (Finally) Reaches Out to Republicans. But Is It Too Little, Too Late?

Shunned by progressives on Syria, the White House lobbies key members of the opposition in the hope they can turn the tide in the House.

Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., displays a photo of Syrian children while questioning Secretary of State John Kerry at a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing, Sept. 4, 2013. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
National Journal
Ben Terris
Sept. 10, 2013, 8:56 a.m.

Over the Au­gust re­cess, Jim McGov­ern, a Demo­crat­ic con­gress­man from Mas­sachu­setts, de­cided to take in a movie. He grabbed his pop­corn and soda, found a seat, and pre­pared to es­cape from the grind for a couple of hours by watch­ing For­rest Whi­taker in The But­ler.

But even in a dimly lit theat­er, the con­gress­man’s bald head must have stood out.

“Still, six people came up to me in the dark just to tell me not to go to war,” he told Na­tion­al Journ­al.

Those half-dozen voices amoun­ted to a stronger whip­ping ef­fort than McGov­ern — who rep­res­ents a par­tic­u­larly pro­gress­ive en­clave of a par­tic­u­larly pro­gress­ive state — will ever re­ceive from the White House on the mat­ter. That’s be­cause Pres­id­ent Obama knows that for once, he may be bet­ter off try­ing to win over some Re­pub­lic­ans.

“People may have writ­ten me off as a lost cause,” McGov­ern said, ex­plain­ing why no one is try­ing to twist his arm in or­der to be a team play­er and to help out an em­battled ad­min­is­tra­tion.

For one of the few times in his pres­id­ency, pro­gress­ive law­makers are not stand­ing by Obama’s side. The heart of the op­pos­i­tion to his plan to strike Syr­ia is rooted among the same an­ti­war Demo­crats that thrust him in­to the White House. So now, Obama knows he has to whip some un­usu­al sus­pects: The House GOP. Typ­ic­ally, this would be con­sidered an un­get­table bloc. Speak­er John Boehner has re­cently asked for Re­pub­lic­ans to be judged not by how many laws they en­act, but by how many of Obama’s they re­peal. There was a time when the No. 1 goal of Re­pub­lic­ans in Con­gress was to make Obama a one-term pres­id­ent.

But this week, a half-dozen House Re­pub­lic­ans found them­selves at the White House, of­fer­ing ad­vice to Chief of Staff Denis Mc­Donough on how to garner more sup­port from their col­leagues, and pledging to help along the way. They in­clude a con­ser­vat­ive front-run­ner can­did­ate for Sen­ate, Arkan­sas’s Tom Cot­ton; a guy who says he is run­ning for pres­id­ent, New York’s Peter King; the chair­man of the House In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee, Michigan’s Mike Ro­gers; and a young rising star in the GOP, Illinois’s Adam Kin­zinger.

It was something of a sur­real ex­per­i­ence, for a group of people who spend, in the words of Kin­zinger, “99.9 per­cent of our time op­pos­ing the pres­id­ent.” But this was one of those ex­ceed­ingly rare in­stances where they were will­ing to put polit­ics aside and stand by their com­mand­er in chief.

Sort of.

“One of the main things we said was that he should have reached out earli­er,” said Kin­zinger, whose of­fice had sent cor­res­pond­ences a week earli­er of­fer­ing to help out. “You can’t just build bridges right when you need us.”

The sopho­more law­maker said that by the time he got word from the White House, most of his col­leagues had “already so­lid­i­fied their po­s­i­tions.”

Kin­zinger is one of the many Re­pub­lic­an law­makers who feel like the Obama White House has made no ef­fort over the years to build any kind of re­la­tion­ship.

“The first e-mail I ever got from le­gis­lat­ive af­fairs was on this,” said Rep. Patrick McHenry of North Car­o­lina, in re­sponse to a ques­tion about something else en­tirely. “And they nev­er even called me.”

Even on an is­sue as im­port­ant as mil­it­ary in­ter­ven­tion abroad, this lack of a re­la­tion­ship has con­sequences. “I have no doubt that there are a few people mak­ing a de­cision based on who Barack Obama is,” Kin­zinger said. “The ma­jor­ity are op­posed on prin­ciple. But if you don’t have a re­la­tion­ship with the prin­cip­al, and you only hear what he says on the press, then you are be­wildered and you don’t think he has a defin­it­ive goal.”

And yet, he and the oth­er Re­pub­lic­ans called to the White House say they are will­ing to go against the ma­jor­ity of their party, in sup­port of a pres­id­ent they de­test, be­cause it’s the right thing. GOP lead­er­ship may taken a slightly more hands-off ap­proach — or­gan­iz­ing no of­fi­cial whip­ping op­er­a­tion — but even they are play­ing a role. Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Eric Can­tor held a con­fer­ence call with the fresh­man class, in which he gave a case for strik­ing Syr­ia, and later held a brief­ing for staffers with former Bush ad­visers Eric Edel­man and Steph­en Had­ley. One staffer said that the meet­ing was “in­form­a­tion­al, but def­in­itely made the case for ac­tion.”

“Sure, to an ex­tent we are lob­by­ing for the pres­id­ent, but this isn’t just his policy, it’s also our policy,” said King, the 20-year con­gress­man from Long Is­land. “We said we will try to help, maybe talk to some people one-on-one, but [what] really has to hap­pen is, the na­tion­al de­bate has to change. The pres­id­ent has to be the one to move the needle.”

No­tice, King says he is will­ing to help in whatever way he can, but says at the end of the day it’s up to the pres­id­ent. With a con­gres­sion­al vote re­main­ing an up­hill battle, law­makers aren’t will­ing to share the blame if the ef­fort falls short. As Kin­zinger said, “A sopho­more Re­pub­lic­an can­not be the one selling it to the Amer­ic­an people—it has to be him.”

Obama un­der­stands that too. And Tues­day even­ing, he will at­tempt to do that in a tele­vised ad­dress to the na­tion.

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