Mingling with Senate Democrats at the White House earlier this summer, President Obama had a tart comeback to the suggestion that he should seek a vote of Congress before deepening American military involvement in Iraq. "Guys, you can't have it both ways here," Mr. Obama told the group, according to Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia. "You can't be ducking and dodging and hiding under the table when it comes time to vote, and then complain about the president not coming to you" for authorization.
About a year ago, President Obama was convinced that Syria had used chemical weapons -- crossing a rhetorical "red line" -- and his national-security team had prepared a military response. First, however, the president would go to Congress to seek authorization to use force.
Congressional Republicans suddenly became the dog that caught the car. Some of the same GOP leaders who'd spent months calling for U.S. military intervention in Syria suddenly decided they were against their own idea. Congress ultimately decided to do what it does best: nothing.
It turns out, lawmakers' aversion to action did not carry adverse consequences. On the contrary, while congressional Republicans abandoned their own position, President Obama and his team struck a deal to rid Syria of its chemical weapons altogether, and it's working out quite well.
A year later, however, as Obama launches military strikes in Iraq, Congress is once again confronted with questions about the responsibilities it doesn't appear to want.
Kaine, of course, has been one of the more prominent voices calling for a congressional vote -- one way or the other -- on the use of force in Iraq.
But he doesn't have many partners in this endeavor. Members of Congress are perfectly comfortable complaining from the bleachers about President Obama's foreign policy, but when it comes time to meet their constitutional obligations and authorize military intervention abroad, these same members think "hiding under the table" is the right way to go.
Kaine told the New York Times, "This is not about an imperial presidency. It's about a Congress that's reluctant to cast tough votes on U.S. military action.... We should not be putting American men and women's lives at risk if we are not willing to do the political work to reach a consensus that it's necessary."
The problem, of course, is that Kaine is taking a mature, responsible, legally sound approach to his duties as a federal lawmaker -- and this Congress has no use for such an attitude. Indeed, Obama met with congressional leaders in June and they "explicitly" said the president can use force in Iraq without congressional action.
Let's just say these folks won't be nominated for a Profile in Courage Award anytime soon.
All of this, incidentally, exacerbates the farce surrounding Republican complaints about Obama's alleged "abuses" of executive power. When the president delays a deadline of an obscure health care provision, House Republicans literally sue him for the perceived overreach. When the president uses his prosecutorial discretion to protect immigrant children, the congressional GOP insist that Obama is an out-of-control tyrant, hell bent on destroying the Constitution and becoming a dictator.
But when the president launches military strikes abroad without congressional authorization, these same lawmakers who whine incessantly about Obama's radical misuse of power, proudly declare, "We're cool with that. Just don't ask us to actually vote on anything."
It's cowardice, obviously, but it also effectively lays waste to the entire GOP pitch about presidential overreach.