Jim McDermott may be about to experience something entirely new in his quarter-century representing Seattle in Congress.
He may win an anti-war vote.
McDermott, first elected to Congress in 1988, has cast dozens, maybe hundreds of votes that could be categorized as skeptical of war. He voted against starting most new military campaigns going back to the first Gulf War in 1991. Multiple times per year during the 2000s, he voted to defund the ongoing wars, or to just bring the soldiers home.
He can’t recall ever winning.
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“Maybe we’ve prevailed on a little side vote here or there,” McDermott said. “But I don’t remember any time that Congress has taken a strong stand against a president who wants to go to war.”
It’s long been a maxim of American politics. War always wins.
But something curious is happening on the way to the war machine being cranked up once more, this time in Syria. War is hardly down for the count. But it’s on the ropes.
In the U.S. House, President Obama’s bid to get authorization to launch airstrikes against Syria appears to be faltering. According to informal vote counts conducted by various media outlets, a majority of the U.S. House already is either opposed to taking military action against Syria or is leaning against it.
McDermott said last week was “a wild one” as the public bombarded congressional offices with objections to the war plans.
“We’re getting several hundred calls a day, which is unusual during a recess,” he said. “It’s running overwhelmingly against — probably 50 to 1. The members are under tremendous pressure in their districts.”
Example: Congressman Dave Reichert, R-Auburn, was visiting Israel and was quoted by a Jewish news service saying that U.S. military action against Syria is inevitable. But on Reichert’s own Facebook page he then heard from hundreds of constituents demanding he work against it.
“Dave, as a retired U.S. Army Officer, I urge you to vote NO on Syria,” wrote one Republican. “Nothing about this entire action makes sense, and I expect the leadership team of Boehner, McCain, and Graham will pay a heavy price for allowing themselves to be sucked in.”
McDermott says the “vote no” movement is a strange brew. Some Republicans are genuine libertarians, and others so dislike Obama they won’t back anything he’s for. While many Democrats, after bashing GOP-led war for the better part of a decade, now are queasy making a case for it.
The president’s approach has been to “act like some sort of hero riding in on a white horse,” McDermott said, rather than building coalitions for what is a difficult cause.
“He’s got to go to the United Nations and make a case to the world,” McDermott said, noting that even President George W. Bush did that. (It is maddening that a president elected to be a cure for go-it-alone warmongering now seems infected with that very disease.)
It’s the public, though, that seems most weary of wars to stop murderous dictators in the Middle East.
“The humanitarian aspects of this do tug at you,” McDermott said. “But people just don’t seem to trust that we won’t end up enmeshed in something much larger. Like in the middle of a civil war.”
Right. Remember how when you break it, you own it? I hesitate to write this, because it so seldom turns out to be true. But maybe we’ve learned from our mistakes.
Maybe. McDermott said within a week or two, when Congress gets around to voting, he also wouldn’t be surprised if war still somehow ends up winning.
Because as long as he’s been there, which is a long time, it always has.
Danny Westneat’s column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or email@example.com