Decision time. President Barack Obama giving diplomacy another chance, delaying a congressional decision on military strikes against Syria. Among the decision makers, Iowa 2nd District Congressman Dave Loebsack. We're questioning him and hearing Iowa political journalists' analysis on this edition of Iowa Press.
Borg: Welcome back to a new season of Iowa Press. It's our 42nd year here on Iowa Public Television. Thank you for your support and your viewing loyalty. Well, it's a good bet that this week's congressional focus isn't what Dave Loebsack was expecting following the August recess. Most members of Congress were probably expecting they'd be focusing on fiscal matters, debt ceiling, a September 30th deadline for authorizing federal spending, immigration perhaps and farm and food assistance legislation. But President Obama's surprise request for congressional support for intervening in Syria highlighted that question on Capitol Hill and across the nation. Second district Congressman Dave Loebsack of Iowa City is especially involved as a member of the House Armed Services Committee. Welcome back to Iowa Press.
Loebsack: Thanks, Dean. And I just want to say it's an honor to be here for the kickoff of the season. I really appreciate your inviting me to do that.
Borg: Well, thank you for joining us. It's significant today. And across the table James Lynch who writes for the Gazette published in Cedar Rapids and Radio Iowa News Director Kay Henderson.
Henderson: Congressman, it seems there is a question at the crux of this Syria debate, what is the appropriate U.S. response to the use of chemical weapons?
Loebsack: Well, that's what we have been debating now for a number of days.
Henderson: What is your answer to that?
Loebsack: Well, I think I'm going to continue at this point, unless I see something different, to really remain unconvinced it looks like to me. I have not been convinced up to this point that military force is the right way to go. That's something that the President, as you know, has been pushing pretty hard on. I've been hearing from my constituents, I've been attending a lot of meetings, both secret briefings and public meetings as a member of the Armed Services Committee, before I returned on Monday I had a number of conference calls that I was a part of, one with the President's Chief of Staff. They presented evidence, which I think is incontrovertible, that President Assad engaged in a horrendous, horrible chemical attack on his own people. The real question is what we ought to do in response and I'm not convinced that the military approach is the way to go.
Henderson: So, if Kim Jong-Il unleashes a chemical strike in South Korea, is this the same response that we should expect in that instance?
Loebsack: I think it would matter depending upon the circumstances. As you know we have several thousand troops on the border with North Korea stationed at this moment. We've done what we could over the years to try to move them away from the demilitarized zone. If it were the case that we had troops who were subject to that kind of an attack that would be a different situation in my mind, there's no question about it, and military force I think would be much more on the table as an option in my mind and I think in the American people's mind as well.
Borg: Congressman, you mentioned earlier this week during the House Armed Services Committee hearing on Syria, you speculated there on how President Assad would interpret a military strike against his country. Let's take a look at that.
Loebsack - September 10, 2013: It is important for us to think about this from his perspective. We don't like him. We don't empathize with him. We don't think he's a good guy, he's a bad guy. But at the same time if you were in his shoes and the greatest power on Earth attacked him in however limited a way and if his goal is sustained power and he is a rational actor why would he not simply conclude that the strike was intent -- even though we don't want it to be the case, you may not want it to be the case, why wouldn't he conclude that the strike is intended to get rid of him as President of Syria? Why would he not conclude that?
Lynch: Congressman, I think at this point a lot of folks would be asking, why not get rid of him? Why shouldn't that be our goal in Syria to remove Assad from power?
Loebsack: I think the American people, for one thing, are war weary at this point. I think everyone has acknowledged that, including the President. Since 2001 we have been engaged in two wars, we're still engaged in one, we have 60,000 troops still in Afghanistan. We're overstretched in that sense. I would even make the argument that sequestration and other budget cuts have left our capacity to engage in another conflict less than desirable at this point. Clearly to me what has to be the case for me to go along with a military strike is that our national interests have to be at stake and have to be threatened. Our national security interests have to be threatened as well. I don't believe that is the case. I'm not convinced of that in the case of Syria.
Borg: Were you asking that question rhetorically to the House Armed Services Committee because you said, what would you expect how he would interpret that? What answer did you get?
Loebsack: No, here's why I asked that question, because a couple of years back President Obama made the case, he said that Assad should go. So if I'm the President of Syria and I'm Mr. Assad obviously I'm going to conclude that the President of the United States wants me to go. At the same time, the proposed military attack that the President and the administration are putting forth, they have said that it's going to be limited, that the goal is simply to deter them from using chemical weapons again and degrade their capability to do so. They made the argument that the goal is not to remove the President of Syria. My argument simply was this, if the President has said that he should go and if Mr. Assad is a rational actor in the classic sort of international relations sense of it, what conclusion other than what I stated would he draw from that?
Borg: Why does it matter?
Loebsack: Because I think it matters a lot because if he thinks that he is going to be thrown out of power by the United States with a limited attack, however limited, I have questions about what his response to that attack is going to be. I have questions about what the region is going to look like in response to that attack. And I just haven't received satisfactory answers yet to those questions.
Lynch: But as long as he is there can we expect anything different than what we're getting now in the continued threat of the use of chemical weapons?
Loebsack: Look, while I remain skeptical, while I remain very concerned about whether this most recent proposal on the part of President Putin can be put into effect, can be implemented, I think clearly we need to give diplomacy a chance. I'm glad that the President backed off in terms of his call for an immediate strike against Syria. And the American people are not in favor of that at this point in any case. So I think it's important that we give Secretary Kerry and the administration an opportunity to do what they can on an international front, from an international perspective to secure those weapons and ultimately to destroy them.
Henderson: If Congress eventually does vote on a resolution that would authorize the use of military force in Syria and it was voted down do you believe that no means no? Do you think the President then would not have the authority to strike?
Loebsack: I can't say what the President would do under those circumstances. I do think we have to look closely at the War Powers Act and how that applies in this instance. I was one of those who signed onto a bipartisan letter a couple of weeks back calling on the President to get approval from Congress because I'm truly not convinced that he has the authority to do it. That doesn't necessarily mean that he won't do it because we've seen presidents in somewhat similar situations act on their own without congressional authority in the past.
Lynch: You've talked about giving diplomacy a chance. But what if we don't get the desired results, if Russia and Syria don't follow through, don't cooperate with the international community? How does that change your perspective on the use of military force or an appropriate response?
Loebsack: It may or may not depending upon the circumstances. If the circumstances remain as they are today, if the American people are not convinced, if members of Congress are not convinced, if conditions on the ground have not changed then I can't see my position changing. I'm open to being convinced but at this point I haven't been.
Borg: How much does public opinion affect what you will, how you will vote and how you feel about this issue because you're facing re-election?
Loebsack: Right. Well, but the re-election quite seriously should not enter into this and it doesn't in my case. Just as when republicans, for example, say they're going to vote against the President's proposal and they're doing it primarily in some instances, hopefully not many, because they'd like to see the President weakened, I think that is the wrong calculation to make. Democrats who might not want to see the President weakened are fearful that that should not enter into the calculation of those folks, I believe. Look, as far as I'm concerned in almost every instance when I have to make a decision while I'm in Congress I need to take very seriously into account what the people of my district think about that issue. And I do on this one as well. But at the same time, as you know, I have some history, not only on the Armed Services Committee, but in my teaching career, some expertise in terms of international politics and I think I have to bring that to bear when it comes to the decision that I have to make whether it is for or against the use of force. But generally speaking too I think public opinion beyond my district does need to be taken into account and all the experts who are speaking about this as well.
Borg: I'm wondering how your views on how the United States conducts its foreign policy, acting unilaterally or collaboratively, have changed. Now, here's a look, Congressman, at you six years ago on Iowa Press.
Iowa Press - February 23, 2007 - Loebsack: We've got to be much more consultative with our traditional allies and not just the British but others as well. Yes, we have to deal with the French and yes, we have to deal with the Germans. I think we have to be much less conflictual and cooperative may be too strong a word but we certainly have to consult with these folks and we have to negotiate with them because we simply cannot go around the world in a unilateral fashion as George Bush has done and serve America's interest with that kind of approach.
Lynch: Congressman, how much discomfort does it give you that you're being asked by your democratic president basically to approve what you criticized President Bush for years ago, going to war, taking military action without broad multilateral cooperation?
Loebsack: Well, I think given my level of discomfort now at the moment I think that I have remained consistent in terms of my concern about any unilateral action by any president whether it's a democratic president or a republican president. At the same time, if there is a case where our national interests are truly at stake, if we're attacked or whatever the case may be, then we should reserve the right, we have the right to act unilaterally if need be. In this particular instance I'm not convinced that's the right way to go, I wasn't convinced in 2007 that that was the right way to go as well. So in that sense I think that we do need, depending on the circumstances, we do need to take into account others, not just the United States.
Lynch: At this point is Obama Bush?
Loebsack: I wouldn't quite go that far, James, they're completely different folks. But my point is, of course, to me politics shouldn't enter into my calculation in terms of whether I vote for or against an authorization for force. That's the bottom line.
Henderson: But is there any daylight between Bush Doctrine and Obama Doctrine when it comes to foreign policy?
Loebsack: I don't know that there is an Obama Doctrine as such. I think that assumes a lot on the part of sort of thinking about this thing more comprehensively. In this particular instance President Obama is 0responding to a particular incident and there’s a particular concern there. The Bush Doctrine was something that was more well developed over time. So I don't think they're comparable in that sense.
Henderson: Well, isn't that a problem that there's not a well developed foreign policy on the part of President Obama?
Loebsack: All I'm saying is that I don't know that there's anything that we can call an Obama Doctrine.
Henderson: It appears that this whole debate about Syria is the nail in the coffin for the farm bill. Is there any prospect for a five year farm bill? If not, is there any prospect for extending it for another year? We even hear that maybe that won't happen.
Loebsack: That's a great question, Kay, and something that has been consuming a lot of my time over the last year for that matter. Since last year, of course, we had an extension. The Senate passed a farm bill, the House didn't get its act together enough to be able to pass a farm bill. We're seeing the same thing playing out again this time only I think even more intently on the House side because, you know, we had a vote in the House and I was one of 24 democrats who voted for the farm bill. I didn't like the SNAP cuts, the nutrition cuts but I thought the right thing to do was to get this over to the Senate to have a compromise on this thing in a conference committee and that failed. And it failed, sure, because some democrats didn't vote for it but it failed because there are a lot of republicans who were elected the last couple of times who don't like nutrition, they don’t like crop insurance subsidies, they simply don't like government and that's really where we are now. We've got to have leadership I think on the part of Speaker Boehner, he has got to bring those folks together and make sure that we can get something through the House so we can get it over to the Senate. We shouldn't have gone home for five and a half weeks this summer. The Speaker sent us home and that was the wrong thing to do especially with this and so many other things hanging out there at the time.
Lynch: You talked about the need for leadership but the farm bill isn't the only issue out there. There's the continuing resolution to fund the government, there's talk about shutting down the government and defunding Obamacare. There's a debt ceiling limit approaching. What are the prospects that Congress is actually going to engage on, on these and accomplish something other than kicking the can down the road for a month or until the New Year?
Loebsack: I'll tell you, I'm not optimistic at all, I have to say because right now, given that September 30th deadline, I'm scheduled to be in Congress essentially for three, four working days at most between now and September 30th, next week, and then we're out for a week. I love to be back in my district. I love to be talking to folks at the Hy-Vee and the Casey's and doing all the things that I do when I get back to my district. But it doesn't make any sense for us to be out when all these things are happening and I should just say, Speaker Boehner, again, he is having difficulty with his own caucus. They had a continuing resolution they were going to put on the floor this week, I was going to be voting on yesterday but they couldn't corral the most conservative members of their caucus, they had to pull that continuing resolution so we didn't get to vote on it.
Borg: How much, Jim mentioned Obamacare, I just wanted to ask -- looking toward the coming election, how much of a drag on you and other democrats will Obamcare be?
Loebsack: I'll tell you, Dean, I'm not thinking about 2014. I'm truly not.
Borg: No kidding?
Loebsack: I'm not, Dean. Look, we've got all these issues that were just mentioned by Kay and Jim and by you that we've got to be thinking about. The American people aren't thinking about 2014. In Iowa there are some folks thinking about 2016 because the presidentials are coming and we're the caucus state and all the rest. But people are not talking to me about 2014. They're talking to me about Congress and the President getting their act together and dealing with these major issues and in particular the farm bill. That is really the one that is on the minds of so many folks as I travel around farms, around my district. I talked to Farm Bureau folks and others, talked to nutrition folks, environmental folks, a number of folks, that's really the big one right now.
Henderson: In a non-presidential year there is historically low turnout. Given that some in your party are unhappy with the way the President has prosecuted foreign policy, they're upset with some of the surveillance program revelations that Mr. Snowden unleashed. How do you expect to rally your own democrats to turn out to vote in 2014 when President Obama seems to be a drag for some of your folks?
Loebsack: Again, truly I am not thinking about 2014. I'll repeat it as many times as I guess I have to. But to the extent to which, you know, the point you make is a point that is a valid point, that is there will be a drop off clearly in the 2014 election and more for the President's party than for the other party, there's no question. But I feel confident, as I have all along, that if I keep doing the right thing while I'm in Congress, good policy leads to good politics and I guess I feel confident that everything will work out in the end.
Lynch: You mentioned some folks are already looking ahead to 2016 and with the Harkin Steak Fry this weekend it's sort of the unofficial kickoff for the democratic presidential race here in Iowa. Is it simply, when you look at 2016, is it simply Clinton versus Biden or are there some other folks out there who should get some consideration?
Loebsack: Well, I guess I need to be careful what I say since I'll be seeing the Vice President on Sunday. No, I think that there will be a lot of folks out there in this thing. It's pretty wide open although clearly there's no question that Hillary Clinton is a front-runner on the democratic side and certainly on the republican side, I don't know, maybe it will end up looking like the Senate race does here in Iowa and we'll get tons of people involved. Hard to know at this point.
Henderson: Who do you support?
Loebsack: I'm not supporting anyone obviously. Again, I'm focused on making sure that we don't shut down the government on September 30th and that we actually get a farm bill passed that is good for farmers and good for Iowans.
Borg: Talking about 2014, did you ever consider running for the Senate? Bruce Braley is. Did you consider running?
Loebsack: Not seriously, no. I'm trying to do the job that I can do in the U.S. House of Representatives. I have a new district. I have 24 counties. Instead of 625,000 people I have 765,000 folks. I'm getting around my district as I do every weekend and for these extended district work periods that is my focus and that's going to remain my focus.
Borg: Thanks for joining us today on Iowa Press.
Loebsack: Thanks, Dean, as always. Thanks to both of you too.
Borg: We'll be continuing Iowa Press in just a moment as Des Moines Register Political Columnist Kathie Obradovich will be joining us for a reporters' roundtable.
Borg: Continuing Iowa Press, Kathie Obradovich joins us. Kathie, what do you think about what Congressman Loebsack told us?
Obradovich: Well, he said something pretty remarkable which was that he's not thinking at all about 2014. I got a laugh at that. I think that they all have to think about the next election all the time. And on Syria in particular I think that Loebsack and all of his colleagues in the Iowa delegation are thinking a lot about what their constituents think about what is going on in Syria and frankly looking at the fact that Iowans are pretty against, pretty opposed to military action right now.
Borg: How can you divorce that from 2014, Jim?
Lynch: I don't know that you can because you can say I'm listening to my constituents but you're listening with an ear towards 2014 and I think it's going to be interesting this weekend to see what sort of a reception Vice President Biden gets from Iowa democrats who never have been very hawkish and, by all accounts, are not welcoming the suggestion that we should go to war in Syria. And so it will be interesting if he tries to make that case for involvement there and what sort of a response he gets from a really strong democratic base audience.
Borg: Kay, let's go down through Iowa's congressional delegation. Are they pretty uniform in how they're reacting to this possible decision on Syria?
Henderson: Yes. They all have indicated that they are either leaning no, in the case of Loebsack and Braley, and a definite no in the case of Latham and King. Our two senators are also in the no category as well. And among the republican candidates, the handful that are out there running around telling people that they want to be the republican party's U.S. Senate nominee in 2014, they are uniformly against it. The most curious response though among those candidates is the one from Joni Ernst, who is commander of an Iowa National Guard unit. Her answer is far different from the others. Hers is I don't think we're going in because there has been a lack of leadership. She hasn't said whether she thinks it's a good idea to attack Syria or it's not and I just wonder if that is because of her military service, if she gets called up she is going to have to strike Syria perhaps.
Obradovich: Well, she is criticizing the commander in chief for saying there has been a lack of leadership. You know, Dean, I don't see this position changing at all, even if diplomacy now falls apart, short of something dramatic like another chemical attack. I think that now Congress, our Iowa members of Congress and others who are opposed to this attack are going to say, you know, let this diplomatic process go on indefinitely and keep trying to come back to the table if it doesn't work. I don't see them ever getting to the point now of authorizing an attack in Syria.
Borg: And so you don't see an embryonic election issue here?
Obradovich: Well, people will forget about this. It is a long way toward 2014 and there are other threats in the world, there are other foreign policy issues in the world. If this just kind of drags on into infinity without ever any dramatic resolution, without ever any missiles fired, other things will replace this on the table before 2014.
Lynch: And I think even if diplomacy works, what we're hearing is that it could take a year or longer to secure chemical weapons, actually locate them and remove them. So it's not like this issue is going to be back next week or a month from now. I mean, it could be 2015 before Congress would really have to face it if that becomes the case, that Syria doesn't cooperate.
Borg: Kay, you mentioned republican candidates for the U.S. Senate seat. There's some little brouhaha in the Republican Party about the Senate race and about scheduling the republican convention next summer. What is that all about?
Henderson: The Iowa Republican Party's State Central Committee voted to move the convention to July. That sparked controversy --
Borg: A month later in the year.
Henderson: It's a month later than usual. Governor Branstad, Senator Grassley and all five republican candidates who have announced for the U.S. Senate all say move it back to June. Branstad says it has always been held in June. The chair of the Iowa Republican Party said, if we don't have a U.S. Senate candidate we can't have it until the official canvas is done and so that means we can't have it until July. There could be a re-vote on this. Some members of the State Central Committee are agitating for that. This story has not--
Borg: What is it that traditional republicans just like tradition, they want it in June because July is vacation time?
Henderson: No, the republican candidates for the U.S. Senate say that if you move it into July you give Bruce Braley, the presumptive nominee among democrats for the U.S. Senate, another month to campaign out in Iowa unchallenged by a single person.
Obradovich: I think there's another scenario at play here too. There's a fear that people who control the state party, who tend to be grassroots oriented, libertarian, liberty party, will slip in a candidate to run at the convention level who isn't running now. And that would happen if no candidate gets 35%.
Borg: Well, A.J. Spiker, the republican state chair, then, is sanctioning that possibility by refusing to consider moving it back to June.
Obradovich: He's not saying that's the reason. It is being talked about as process and it's all kind of inside baseball when it comes down to that. But I think that a month is not going to give Bruce Braley that much more of an advantage than he has now. I think it is more about control of the party and possibly who that nominee will be if there's not a clear 35%.
Borg: What is the significance, Kathie, of Vice President Joe Biden coming out to eat an Iowa steak?
Obradovich: Well, Senator Tom Harkin, who is sponsoring the fundraiser, just says that he likes to eat steak. But, of course, we all know that nobody comes to Iowa if they're not willing to be considered as a candidate for 2016. I mean, he could stop that talk right now by spending his weekend somewhere else. So it doesn't mean he's running, of course, and Joe Biden has some significant challenges in Iowa including the fact that Hillary Clinton is really, really popular among Iowa democrats.
Lynch: It doesn't mean that he's running but it doesn't mean that he's not running and he's keeping the door open for 2016 and flying the flag.
Henderson: Welcome to the campaign that never ends.
Borg: Let's go to Governor just briefly in the few seconds we have left, Kay. Governor Branstad has had some rough time, the state Department of Public Safety changing hands, the Toledo juvenile home, you can go down some of the things, how is he coming along in a re-election bid do you think in the way that he is governing and perceived?
Henderson: Well, I think the advantage he has right now is that there is not a leading democrat who is leading the charge of criticism against him for those actions. We'll have to see what happens in the spring of next year if these things have sort of a life of their own and keep being a topic of discussion among Iowa voters.
Obradovich: I think we'll hear about some of those things again but voters will probably have to be reminded of them when the campaign heats up.
Lynch: Some democrats are hoping that this sort of dribbles out over the next year as the Hedlund case, if there are hearings, if it goes to court, any other administrative hearings within the Department of Public Safety regarding this. They see a scenario where it just keeps dribbling out until the election and doing a little bit of damage each time.
Borg: Thanks to all of you. And we'll be back with another edition of Iowa Press next week, same times, 7:30 Friday night and noon on Sunday. I hope you enjoyed our first program of this new season. We're looking forward to an insightful year here on Iowa Press. I'm Dean Borg. Thanks for joining us today.