As Opposition to Syria Strike Builds, NBC's Russert Tries to Whip Up Support

In back-to-back interviews with members on Congress on Friday's MSNBC Daily Rundown, fill-in host Luke Russert desperately tried to sell Democrats and Republicans on the importance of supporting President Obama taking military action against Syria. [Listen to the audio or watch the video after the jump]

Talking to Democratic Virginia Congressman Gerry Connolly, Russert worried: "How much of this do you think, within your caucus, falls on this idea of, 'Okay, we're not necessarily comfortable with the idea of launching any missiles into Syria, but God help us, if we cut the President off here at the knees he becomes a lame duck quite early in his term and looks entirely weak. So we're going to kind of go along with him here in order to preserve his ability to govern on other major issues.' Is there an element of that here?"

Connolly seized the opportunity to deny any political calculation on the part of Democrats and bash Republicans: "People have pretty much been dealing with the merits of the case, not about the politics of it, on our side. On the other side, some people have succumbed to, 'This is an opportunity to whack the President,' and that's unfortunate."

Later, in an interview with Republican Illinois Congressman Adam Kinzinger, who supports striking Syria, Russert attempted to dismiss broader GOP opposition: "Some of the latest informal whip counts place support for any type of action in Syria from the Republican side as maybe getting 50 or 70 votes from your conference. Do you think this is a new GOP that's more libertarian and isolationist in nature or this straight-up opposition to President Obama and anything that he supports?"

In part, Kinzinger responded: "I don't think it's either of that....this is actually the first time, literally the first time in probably five years, at least the 2 ½ years I've been in Congress, when the President's actually reached out to the Republicans on anything....I will put a lot of the struggle right now in Washington on the President of the United states."

Kinzinger provided an impassioned defense of military intervention, noting that in Bashar Assad's chemical attacks, Syrian children had "suffocated to death with the pure knowledge that they were suffocating to death....Their life was snuffed out in a very evil way by a very evil man."

Russert quickly tried to guilt Congress: "...obviously, a lot of pressure is on President Obama to try to deliver these votes, but if Congress doesn't join him here, is Congress also letting down those kids that you've just mentioned, if they don't back the President on this – in this resolution?"

Kinzinger pushed back: "Well, look, I don't think Congress is letting down anybody. I think Congress has to debate what the issues are and make a decision....A sophomore Congressman from Illinois is not the commander-in-chief and I shouldn't be the one out having to sell this to the American people. [President Obama's] got to be a leader on this."


Here is a portion of Russert's September 6 exchange with Connolly:

9:22AM ET

(...)

LUKE RUSSERT: How much of this do you think, within your caucus, falls on this idea of, "Okay, we're not necessarily comfortable with the idea of launching any missiles into Syria, but God help us, if we cut the President off here at the knees he becomes a lame duck quite early in his term and looks entirely weak. So we're going to kind of go along with him here in order to preserve his ability to govern on other major issues." Is there an element of that here?

GERRY CONNOLLY [REP. D-VA]: I think there probably is in the back of people's minds but so far it hasn't surfaced in people's thinking explicitly. People have pretty much been dealing with the merits of the case, not about the politics of it, on our side. On the other side, some people have succumbed to, "This is an opportunity to whack the President," and that's unfortunate. But there are also, I think, men and women of conscious by and large on both sides, who are really wrestling with this issue.

RUSSERT: From your conversations with your Republican colleagues, they're obviously in this very interesting position. Because one of the central tenets, you know, of their entire governing philosophy has been strong on national defense. You know, be aggressive abroad when need be, show American might and strength. But that sort of seems to have gone out the wayside in the last few years and it's been more of a libertarian infiltration.

From sort of the rank and file folks you've talked to on the Republican side, where are they falling on this in terms of their electoral future? Because it almost seems right now that a vote for this resolution could possibly open you up to a primary challenge. I mean, Mitch McConnell has been quite silent about Syria because he's worried about a fallout from the Tea Party.

CONNOLLY: Yeah, I think that's a real dynamic, Luke. Instead of sort of really genuinely trying to tackle this as a vote of conscious, some of my colleagues on the other side have succumbed to the politics of the moment. And that is to exploit a perceived vulnerability when the President came to Congress.

I find it ironic, because many of those same people were not so long ago pillaring this president for leading from behind on Syria, not doing enough. And not consulting with Congress. So he has, you know, we're trying to restrict what the response is, and he comes to Congress, and they kick sand in his face. So not everybody, but some of those very same people you're describing, not so long ago were critics for not doing enough in Syria.

(...)

Here is a portion of Russert's exchange with Kinzinger:

9:34AM ET

(...)

LUKE RUSSERT: Some of the latest informal whip counts place support for any type of action in Syria from the Republican side as maybe getting 50 or 70 votes from your conference. Do you think this is a new GOP that's more libertarian and isolationist in nature or this straight-up opposition to President Obama and anything that he supports?

ADAM KINZINGER [REP. R-IL]: I don't think it's either of that. I mean, look, we obviously have a group in the Republicans that are – and you see them on the news all the time – that are talking about the United States needing to disengage from the rest of the world. But the vast majority of Republicans still understand the need for a strong United States.

What's happened here, though, is this is actually the first time, literally the first time in probably five years, at least the 2 ½ years I've been in Congress, when the President's actually reached out to the Republicans on anything. I mean, we may have had a big meeting or something, but typically he's never talked to us. And so now what you're seeing is, I think, a lack of really belief that this president has a plan.

Look, I'm supportive of action in Syria. I think it has to be done. I think for decades America's put down a red line saying no chemical weapons. But I will put a lot of the struggle right now in Washington on the President of the United states. He needs to be all over television selling this to the American people. Any beginning of any military action has never been popular in the United States of America until its leaders come forward and talk about what exactly we want to accomplish there. Secretary Kerry's done a great job. President Obama really hasn't.

RUSSERT: It's an interesting dynamic you bring up. Because what we hear so much from your colleagues is that you're getting these phone calls, they're almost 90 to 10 opposed to any type of action. We just had Congressman Connolly on the show and he says, "Look, once you explain it to people, they end up being more supportive." Have you found that to be true? That if you had a conversation in a town hall, that you've been able to sort of change some hearts and minds on this?

KINZINGER: Oh, sure. I give people all the time to come up and say, you know, "No bombs in Syria." And then I explain the fact that American troops have never faced chemical weapons on the battlefield since World War I because we've held very strong to the fact that chemical weapons are not acceptable.

You look back in Desert Storm in '91. President H.W. Bush basically sent a veiled threat to Saddam Hussein through Tariq Aziz that they would face, in essence, a nuclear strike if they used chemical weapons against our troops.

Failure to enforce this red line today on chemical weapons – and enforcing that means making the use of chemical weapons far more costly to Assad than any benefit he gains from it. Failure to enforce that means I think we've lost legitimacy to enforce a chemical weapons ban any time into the future. I mean, if anything like this happens again, how do we now say that while in this case, whatever that case in the future is, we are going to enforce a ban on chemical weapons, even though we didn't under Assad?

Keep in mind one thing, young children suffocated to death with the pure knowledge that they were suffocating to death. Kids who loved their mom and dad, who had hopes and dreams and aspirations. Their life was snuffed out in a very evil way by a very evil man. And God help us as a country if we don't stand up and say that there's going to be a price to pay for doing that.

RUSSERT: Congress has passed this Syrian Accountability Act. And there's this idea now that – well, obviously, a lot of pressure is on President Obama to try to deliver these votes, but if Congress doesn't join him here, is Congress also letting down those kids that you've just mentioned, if they don't back the President on this – in this resolution?

KINZINGER: Well, look, I don't think Congress is letting down anybody. I think Congress has to debate what the issues are and make a decision. We did pass the Syrian Accountability Act and that's something I keep reminding all my colleagues. I also didn't hear a lot of people being opposed to this quote/unquote "red line" we hear so much about a year ago when the red line was put down. Now that it's actually happened, I think it's up to the President.

Look, he's the commander-in-chief. A sophomore Congressman from Illinois is not the commander-in-chief and I shouldn't be the one out having to sell this to the American people. He's got to be a leader on this. You look even back as far as, I think, Bosnia, and the American people did not support strikes on Bosnia and in Kosovo. But in hindsight, we see that those strikes actually are very popular nowadays, accomplished a lot.

He needs to put out what the plan is, what the future is. And I think it's very simple. Make the cost of using chemical weapons far exceed any benefit gained by Assad and every time he thinks about using chemical weapons there, that's going to go into his mind, this is going to cost me 'X' amount and it's far too great than what I gain.

(...)

Kyle Drennen
Kyle Drennen
Kyle Drennen is a News Analyst for MRC