Town halls have always been a great object of interest for me -- and I've attended my share from my days working for the former Senator Kit Bond (R-MO). I've never seen as large and energized a crowd as today's town hall held in a quiet, affluent Connecticut town about 40 miles outside Manhattan.
The town hall was convened by Jim Himes, the Democrat representing Connecticut's fourth district, but Senator Richard Blumenthal showed up, too. The crowd had come from all over the district, and the large meeting room -- at a public library -- overflowed, past standing room to a hastily-improvised extra room.
Neither Himes nor Blumenthal stated a position, of course. Both simply announced they were present to "listen." Being politicians, however, both offered opening comments. Blumenthal's didn't tip his hand either way, although he did at one point concede that an attack would constitute intervening in a "civil war." Himes, however, described himself as "skeptical" and discussed the different difficult issues in play -- from the many different groups fighting to the fact that the Syrian rebels had attracted radicals from all over the Middle East. Then, they "listened."
Anyone familiar with politics understands that one cannot gauge all constituent reaction from what one sees at town halls. Generally, those who oppose something (or are angry about something) are predisposed to show up; the most passionate are the ones most likely to run for the microphone when question time arrives.
That being said, sentiment in the overflowing room was clearly anti-war. And what was remarkable was the bipartisan consensus, albeit for different reasons. You had the predictable anti-war lefties denouncing the "war machine" and the "military industrial complex," of course. Even so, the loudest applause was generated by a woman who seemed to be a Tea Partier, who pointed out the sad fact that -- in light of Benghazi, the IRS scandal and the revelations about the NSA -- many Americans simply don't trust this government to do the right thing. And in an ironic echo of some of the President's own rhetoric, she asked why we weren't using our resources to secure our own country, and get people back to work.
Yes, there were one or two speakers who supported intervention, but they seemed to do so simply because they are die-hard Obama backers, rather than out of any heartfelt support for the course of action he is proposing. And a couple of them seemed confused.
Judging from the heated anti-intervention sentiment that prevailed among what otherwise would seem like a polite crowd, on a sunny Sunday in a quiet Connecticut town, I suspect that the President confronts an almost insurmountable challenge in both convincing Americans to support him and in persuading dubious legislators to back him (especially in the House, where elections come a lot more often).
What the President needs to address -- and I doubt he can, satisfactorily -- are two big questions:
1. Knowing that Saddam Hussein likewise had used chemical weapons, knowing that Saddam had threatened the US both directly and by implication, and knowing that the world's intelligence services (and politicians of both parties in this country) genuinely believed that Iraq had WMD, why was the intervention in Iraq a "dumb war" but a Syrian intervention is not? After all, the President himself had this to say back in 2002:
All that is true also about Assad -- except, of course, that he hasn't defied the UN with the impunity, for the same duration, or under the circumstances that Saddam did.
Now let me be clear — I suffer no illusions about Saddam Hussein. He is a brutal man. A ruthless man. A man who butchers his own people to secure his own power. He has repeatedly defied UN resolutions, thwarted UN inspection teams, developed chemical and biological weapons, and coveted nuclear capacity. He's a bad guy. The world, and the Iraqi people, would be better off without him.
2. How can the President, or anyone else, responsibly pledge in advance to circumscribe the limits of American involvement in Syria, once we intervene? As former CIA Chief Michael Hayden points out, it simply is not feasible to pledge -- as the President has -- that Syrian action would involve no "boots on the ground." It simply doesn't give one confidence that the President is committed to meaningful action in Syria. And if the Commander-in-Chief isn't committed to meaningful action, why should any American he commands be asked to put his (or her) life on the line? As a young war protester once put it, how do you ask anyone to "die for a mistake" -- or for a half measure that's ultimately meaningless?
As today's town hall highlighted, Americans are angry. They have questions and they expect the people whom they have elected -- up to and including the President -- to answer them. Obama has his work cut out for him.