When Syria becomes a handy smokescreen

Many of the pundits have been suggesting that if Congress doesn’t vote to authorize the air strikes against Syria as requested by President Obama, this would just about drive a stake through the heart of the president’s second term. Well this may be. And if things in fact evolve in such fashion, we will have witnessed a hall-of-fame type political scam job, perpetrated by that very active, very angry anti-Obama element in Washington and kindred spirits across the land.

The congressional blowback (from Republicans, primarily) against the president’s call for punitive action in Syria, in response to Assad’s alleged chemical weapons atrocities, has centered much on lopsided public objection to any military involvement. About which, one would be perfectly justified in asking: since when, this sensitivity to public reaction?

When last we checked, the favorability rating for Congress was still languishing somewhere in the teens. And we’re pretty sure those numbers are guaranteed to stay put, what with government shutdown threats, debt ceiling intractability and all else that has gotten the Congress more or less fixed in the electorate’s crosshairs. How come a Congress so indifferent to this dramatic representation of public disgust with its performance becomes at once so concerned about public sentiment on Syria? Whence comes this concern for how the public feels? Can we really give validity to this when thumbing its nose at the public seems to be par for the course with Congress?

Earlier this year, some well-nigh token gun control measures failed to get to first base in Congress. Some of us felt sure that in the wake of a Newtown horror that had so mortified the nation, such no-brainer provisions as widened background checks and limiting magazine clips could not but secure a modest display of congressional backbone. Polls showed public support for these seemingly low-risk measures to be around 90 percent. Including hefty majority approval numbers even among NRA members. Incredibly, congressional identification with where the people stood was non-existent when it got to showtime.

Politicians have a way of brazenly trying to fool God-only-knows whom when insisting that they don’t believe in polls. But there’s no way around it; given poll numbers that were so through the roof on those gun violence measures, that congressional balk was one pulverizing kick in the teeth to the public. Who among us is now sap enough to fall for an alleged concern for what the masses think about responding to Syria? Who among us fails to see the theatrics for the smokescreen it is?

Let’s get real. This, at its core, is not about Syria. It has to do with some folks (including the type who would shout, “You lie” during a State of the Union address) salivating at the opportunity to stick it to this president. Obama’s call on the Syria issue is altogether secondary to the idea that, for some, there appears now to be a clear track to his humiliation.

Part of this searing enmity toward Obama has its basis in the mindset on the right that a mere hint of progressivism from any quarter assures an instant “expendable” branding. Bill Clinton, during his White House tenure, was the right’s public enemy number one, and a drumbeat aimed at derailing his presidency proceeded non-stop, from the very beginning when he dared to announce that his would be a cabinet “that looks like America”. That element would get its best shot at Clinton with the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Even then, conforming to the playbook, the hounds made light of sentiment out among the population. A solid majority, polls reported, and even Republican bigwigs like James Baker and Alfonse D’Amato found Clinton’s indiscretions well short of impeachable offences. No matter. The scent of blood was too strong to restrain those who saw advocates of any other course as dead wrong.

Intransigence on that scale remains locked in place as the other side’s battle armor. So that in today’s knotty issue one could reasonably expect more of the same. The slings and arrows turned loose toward target Obama couldn’t possibly be intended for impact with less ferocity than in 1998-99. And notwithstanding those who live in denial of an elephant in the room that wasn’t a factor back in the late 90s, yes, there is potential and enhanced possibility of a greater ugliness this time around.

Chances are the president could get his authorization vote in the Senate, although even there some rough sledding might be unavoidable. One fully expects the House to be quite another matter. Among the renegades nestled in that place there’s loathing in plentiful supply to channel the president’s way, the better to be of a piece with those swats of contempt for the president that they represent. The object of their hostility, whom an electoral majority had the audacity to return to office last November provides hate machine fodder 24/7.

And now, here comes Syria, as if sent by the gods to bring relief. They will say it was all about the nation’s war weariness when they trample all over the president’s authorization request. All about responding to war-related alarms sounded by constituency folk. They’ll be lying. It’s a whole lot more sinister than that.

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