The impending congressional vote on Syria is exposing President Obama’s fraught relationship with his own party faithful. The Progressive Change Campaign Committee (PCCC), a grassroots group with nearly a million members, is reportedly making thousands of calls to congressional offices urging members to oppose the intervention in Syria. And a new ad from progressive group Moveon.org compares Syria to conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. According to the latest Pew poll, 53% of Democrats oppose airstrikes while just 35% support them.
The decline in public support runs in stark contrast with past interventions. In 2003, a full 92% of Republicans supported the Iraq intervention in the run-up to the invasion, compared to just 31% of Democrats. Before the 1991 Gulf War, President George H.W. Bush enjoyed a 30% increase in his approval rating, the largest increase ever recorded.
A decade later, we are seeing the “rally ‘round the flag effect” in reverse. Political scientists use the concept to describe upticks in support for presidents during international crisis or war. Wars are not the only triggers for the rallying effect. President Bush’s approval rating rose 18% in the wake of the September 11th attacks. The bombing of Pearl Harbor, the first bombings of Hanoi, and President Reagan’s invasion of Grenada in 1983 all led to an spike in popular support for the president.
There are a couple of possible reasons for this. One explanation is polarization. As EJ Dionne writes in the Washington Post, “It was only a matter of time before our polarized politics threatened to destroy a president’s authority and call into question our country’s ability to act in the world.” The cliché that politics ends at the water’s edge is partially true. As many remember, few Democrats questioned the shoddy intelligence put forward by the Bush administration in 2003. Today, the same Republicans who led the U.S. into Iraq are assailing President Obama for a more limited intervention.
Another factor is the shift in public sentiment in the ten years since the Iraq War. A centerpiece of the Bush administration’s case for invading Iraq was the (false) link between Saddam Hussein and the attacks on September 11. Less than two years after the 9/11 attacks, Americans were predisposed to support the fight against terrorism. In the wake of a recession and revelations of national security overreach, Americans are extremely skeptical of another foreign entanglement.
Whatever the causes, you can expect that pressure from both parties will continue to weigh on the White House’s efforts to gain support for intervention in Syria.