September 8, 2013

Washington Notebook: Vote on Syria strike laden with political jeopardy

With constituents saying nay, a 'yes' vote could be risky for Rep. Michaud in a tight gubernatorial race.

By Kevin Miller kmiller@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

WASHINGTON - For three of the four members of Maine's congressional delegation, the upcoming decision on Syria will be the first time they will vote on whether to authorize the president to use military force.

click image to enlarge

For 2nd District U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, the vote on military action in Syria could be especially risky as he heads into a tight race for governor.

Telegram file photo/John Ewing

Such votes are often politically risky, as evidenced by the fallout to this day over who voted which way on authorization for the invasion of Iraq. But for 2nd District U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, who was still "Candidate Michaud" during the October 2002 Iraq vote, Syria could be especially risky as he heads into a tight race for governor.

The "overwhelming majority" of people who have contacted Michaud's offices oppose U.S. military operations against Syria, according to the congressman. Meanwhile, an estimated 98 percent of those contacting Rep. Chellie Pingree's 1st District offices are opposed.

Voting "yes" on a resolution authorizing military strikes -- as President Obama and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi want Democrats to do -- could subject Michaud to voter backlash in 2014, especially if the airstrikes fail or spark a larger conflict beyond Syria's borders.

That might be particularly problematic in more liberal southern Maine, an area where one of his opponents, independent Eliot Cutler, is already well known thanks to his second-place finish in the 2010 gubernatorial campaign. Cutler declined to comment Friday on the Syria issue.

Voting "no," on the other hand, would upset those who believe the Assad government must be punished for its alleged use of chemical weapons on civilians.

A moderate Democrat representing Maine's more conservative northern district, Michaud insists he is still undecided. In a recent interview, however, Michaud seemed hesitant to approve military strikes as he insisted the U.S. "cannot be the police force for the world" and talked about possible retaliation against Israel or other allies.

Like others, he also expressed fears of getting embroiled in a wider conflict after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"Having been at Walter Reed [Medical Center] and seeing my constituents at Walter Reed, I understand that the decisions made by Congress and by this President have an impact on our soldiers," said Michaud, who is the top Democrat on the House Veterans' Affairs Committee.

His campaign said the gubernatorial race is "absolutely not" a factor in Michaud's decision.

"Mike always makes his decisions based on what he thinks is best for the people of Maine and this country, not based on whether it will help him or hurt him win his next political campaign," said spokeswoman Lizzy Reinholt.

Brian Duff, an associate professor and political observer at the University of New England, said the long-term political impacts of this issue are especially unpredictable because no one knows how the Assad regime would respond. If the situation implodes, then those who voted for strikes could definitely be subjected to voter backlash.

Duff said he "didn't see a huge danger" for Michaud, though.

"I think he will get leeway if he votes 'yes' and defends that vote," Duff said. "Because as much as people don't want to get involved [in another conflict] they are also horrified by what is going on over there."


U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, did vote to authorize force against Iraq in 2002 -- along with former Sen. Olympia Snowe -- based on the Bush administration's evidence that Saddam Hussein was stockpiling weapons of mass destruction. At the time of the vote, she described the evidence as "compelling and indisputable."

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