It was 1968. His heroes Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. were dead. The Vietnam War raged on. Gerald Connolly, a native of Boston, now a House member from Virginia, walked to Fenway Park to listen to folk and blues music from Pete Seeger and B.B. King, and to listen as presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy pledged to end the war if elected. A self-described “avid active opponent of the Vietnam War,” Connolly counseled conscientious objectors on their rights and options. Hearing McCarthy speak gave him just a glimmer of hope. Then, he never made it out of the primary.
“When Nixon won, it was tremendously disappointing,” Connolly says. “When we learned his secret plan to end the war was to expand it, that’s something that I’ll never forget.”
All this is to say that Connolly has long been an antiwar Democrat. But now, after revelations that Syria’s Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons against his own people, Connolly finds himself beset with “one of the gravest” votes he’s had to make since 2008, when he was elected to the House from his Fairfax-area district. Connolly must decide whether he can support casting a vote that could launch missiles into a country that has not been declared an enemy of the United States. Voting no means going against his president — the man whose candidacy spurred the turnout that helped propel Connolly to office.
“The ideological base of our party is strongly antiwar, and antimilitary intervention,” Connolly told National Journal on Wednesday as debate over President Obama’s request raged on Capitol Hill. “And there are reasons for that.”
But Connolly, like many Democrats at the moment, isn’t a definite “no” when it comes to the vote. While he says he remains undecided, he and Democrat Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland are in the midst of drafting a resolution for a limited strike in Syria. He says he won’t support anything “too broad” or that could put boots on the ground, but he feels it’s possible that doing nothing at all could be the worst possibility. “There are certainly risks and worries about doing something, but are they big enough to preclude me from doing anything?” Connolly wondered out loud in a phone interview. “That’s the struggle.”
And such is the conflict for many Democrats as they head to a vote next week on the matter. A new poll from The Washington Post and ABC News found that six in 10 Americans disapprove of a strike on Syria. The number among progressives is much higher still at 73 percent opposing, according to the Progressive Change Campaign Committee. And yet, with Obama calling for action, many Democrats are looking for a rationale to come onboard and act as a team player.
Much of the anti-attack sentiment comes from a public that has been described ad nauseum as “war weary” in recent weeks. But Connolly says he is trying not to think about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan when making his decision.
“It’s easy for people to make an analogy there,” he says. “But I’ve been trying to make the case that that’s a completely false analogy, though it’s an understandable one. It’s fresh in our minds, and we feel burned, but it’s not the same thing.”
It’s important to Connolly that he figure out a way to draw that distinction, for he believes the arguments for going to war in Iraq were “completely specious. Either wishful thinking or entirely fabricated.” With regard to Syria, Connolly is confident that chemical weapons were in fact used. And perhaps biggest for him is his conviction that Obama is “truly a reluctant warrior,” when it comes to Syria.
“This isn’t a case of a president wanting to go to war,” he says. “And that’s a big difference.”
Connolly is no stranger to foreign policy. The graduate of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard worked on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for a decade. His wealthy Northern Virginia district is home to the largest number of federal contractors and government workers in the nation. But what would his college-age self say to him now, seeing an older man not only voting to sanction a missile strike but helping to draft a resolution to permit it. Connolly likes to think he would understand. “Even when I was protesting the Vietnam War, I always made a distinction between being a pacifist and an antiwar activist,” he says. “I was never a pacifist. No war is desirable, but I’d recognize that sometimes action is necessary.”