If the Congressional vote on taking military action against Syria were held right now, the money of most pundits would be against it passing. Perhaps, as Rep. Matt Salmon of Arizona suggests, it would fail by 20 votes. But the vote isn't right now — and there's good reason to think that you'd be better off betting on passage.
Granted, the whip counts (that is, public tallies of how members would likely vote) are grim. Four outlets have conducted them — The Washington Post, ThinkProgress, ABC News, and Talking Points Memo — and the results are similar: opposition runs three- or four-to-one against military action. The breakdown of each count is below, current as of Thursday morning. Purple bars indicate opposition; green ones, support.
Overwhelming! But flawed and premature. Here's why the president and other proponents of action should have optimism — not that the administration is lacking it.
Opponents are far more likely to be vocal than supporters.
In its ideal form, Congress is a microcosm of society, though it doesn't usually reach that ideal. But think of past examples of the United States going to war. Before Iraq, there were massive protests in opposition, but only minor public demonstrations of support. Setting aside the merits of those particular positions, it's a common response: those who don't want military action are more vocal than those who do.
On Capitol Hill, we're seeing the same phenomenon. Opponents are far more vocal. There's little political value in publicly stating support for the president's position, even for Democrats, given that members consistently report that "calls and letters [from constitutents] are opposed in overwhelming numbers," according to one Politico source. Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan has been chronicling his experiences talking to people in his district.
In the face of that, and with the onus of making the case resting on the White House, why would a supporter of action — who isn't a leader of his party's caucus — speak up?
Anecdotal opposition is stronger than polling results.
Particularly since those vocal constituent opponents are not necessarily representative of the public. A poll conducted by ABC News found that opposition to action — while still the majority opinion — was hardly unanimous. When Amash tweeted that "four people out of about 200" he'd spoken with opposed action, that's about one-eighteenth of the actual level of support ABC found.
Thirty-six percent of Americans approve of the use of force, a figure that jumps to 46 percent if the strikes happened in coordination with an alliance of other countries. That's still politically tricky, but it suggests that the vocal opposition may not be representative America on the whole. Not exactly a silent majority, but not a non-existent base of support, either.
Whip counts have their own flaws.
Putting together counts of votes is tricky, grueling work, and we don't mean to disparage the efforts of those who assembled the whip counts above. But there are several caveats that must be noted.
First, many of the counts are based on public statements that refer generally to the prospect of action in Syria. How members will react to specific proposals that are put before them — how they will vote, that is, on House Resolution 1A or whatever it's called — is another thing entirely. Some of the statements (issued as they were by politicians) contain enough wiggle room for members of Congress to maintain consistency in a vote that seemingly contradicts the count.
Second, there is no House Resolution 1A or whatever. The Senate committee responsible for doing so only on Wednesday approved its resolution, something that will be further amended and refined once it gets to the Senate floor. In other words, those House members responding to the whip counts don't know what they're being asked to vote for. In some cases (like Amash) that doesn't matter. In many, it will.
Many members of Congress may move past their initial responses to the proposal.
Our Elspeth Reeve notes Democratic opposition to the Obama proposal — opposition that he desperately needs to overcome in order for a strike authorization to pass. (And he's trying; Secretary of State John Kerry will be on MSNBC on Thursday evening, making the case to the left.)
But time may smooth the initial, fierce responses of opponents on both sides. Remember, many of the Democrats on Capitol Hill came of age by opposing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — as did Obama when he ran in 2008. While support for strikes in Syria is not exactly a flip-flop from the president's prior positions, he doesn't need to worry about any perception of that. His party members, running in 2014 or 2016, do. The president is pushing to give them political cover that he himself no longer needs.
The president needs fewer votes from the other side of the aisle. But with party leadership on-board — except Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who appears to be spooked by his hard-right primary challenger — he can expect Republican opposition to similarly smooth out somewhat. Maybe not a lot! But somewhat.
Vegas isn't tracking odds on passage of an authorization bill, as far as we know. (Even the aggressive group at Irish betting site PaddyPower seems indifferent.) The smart money today says to bet against passage. Our advice? Let your money ride.