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.
“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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