What '16 Hopefuls Are Saying (And Not Saying) About Obama's War Authorization

Image: Secret Service Uniformed Division officers patrol in front of the White House in Washington
Secret Service Uniformed Division officers patrol in front of the White House in Washington on Jan. 20, 2015. JONATHAN ERNST / Reuters file

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The news yesterday that President Obama is asking Congress to vote on an authorization of force against ISIS isn’t just a White House and Capitol Hill story. It’s also a story for the still-developing 2016 race, because the next president will inherit this war against ISIS -- regardless if Congress ends up passing an authorization. But here’s the thing: The 2016 frontrunners haven’t even commented on the authorization yet (we’re talking about Hillary Clinton; Jeb Bush; Scott Walker, who declined to answer an ISIS question while in London yesterday). And those who have commented (with an exception or two) haven’t spelled out what they’d do differently or even how they might vote. Case in point was Rand Paul, who dodged reporters’ questions on whether or not he supports Obama’s authorization, according to National Journal. No doubt the last authorization vote, in 2002, proved to be a political albatross for Hillary Clinton and others in the ’08 presidential race. But because the next president will inherit this war, it’s important that these candidates say if they support the authorization -- and if not, what they might do differently. Here are the statements we did get from the 2016ers:

CRUZ: "It will be beneficial to have serious public hearings and debates over the plan that was presented. Congress should strengthen the AUMF by making sure the President is committed to clear objectives and a specific plan to accomplish those goals. That should begin by clearly defining the enemy as ‘radical Islamic terrorists.’”

HUCKABEE: "[T]he President's limitations of a three year commitment and against 'enduring offensive ground combat operations' place counterproductive restraints on our national power, and the military's ability to accomplish the mission.”

JINDAL: "Yesterday, Americans watched President Obama telegraph in detail what we are willing and not willing to do to defeat ISIS terrorists. No one can possibly explain why our Commander in Chief would do this. It's just an inexcusable approach to military strategy. President Obama does not like to use the words Radical Islam. The President refuses to own up to the challenges we face. He is letting this threat fester and and it's metastasizing by the day."

O'MALLEY: “The new AUMF should address ISIS specifically, and mitigate any unintended consequences by including clear language on the use of ground troops and the length and terms of engagement.”

RUBIO: “There is a pretty simple authorization [Obama] could ask for and it would read one sentence: ‘We authorize the president to defeat and destroy ISIL.’ Period. And that’s what I think we should do,”

SANDERS: “I oppose sending U.S. ground troops into combat in another bloody war in the Middle East. I therefore cannot support the resolution in its current form without clearer limitations on the role of U.S. combat troops.”

SANTORUM: "[Wednesday's] request for war authorization against ISIS by President Obama puts our nation in an untenable position. To limit our commitment to fighting this existential threat to just three years is shortsighted and shows a complete misunderstanding of who our enemy is, what they believe, and what motivates them. To further complicate this request, the President's decision to put limitations on ground combat options forces our military to fight this war with one hand tied behind its back."

Why Congress is unlikely to act: It rarely does something when it doesn’t have to do it

As for the authorization itself, we can tell you that the Obama White House worked extensively with Senate Foreign Relations Chair Bob Corker (R-TN) on the language. But what many Republicans are looking for is a clearer plan when it comes to Syria. But if there’s a reason why Congress is unlikely to pass an authorization -- regardless of the language -- it’s this: Congress DOES NOT HAVE TO DO THIS. If the authorization doesn’t pass, we simply return to the status quo; after all, the United States has been conducting airstrikes against ISIS for six-plus months now. As we’ve learned, when Congress doesn’t have to do something, it rarely does. But make no mistake: This is a big moment for Congress. If it punts, it will be hard to complain in the future when a president takes unilateral action, either when it comes to international affairs or even some domestic ones.

Ceasefire in Ukraine

In other foreign-policy/national-security news, there’s a ceasefire in eastern Ukraine. “World leaders announced on Thursday a cease-fire to the violence in eastern Ukraine that has claimed more than 5,000 lives and forced hundreds of thousands more to flee their homes,” NBC News reports. “The truce, set to kick in midnight Saturday-Sunday, came after marathon talks between the leaders of Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany in the Belarusian capital Minsk. ‘We now have a glimmer of hope,’ said German Chancellor Angela Merkel following the breakthrough. ‘There is a real chance turn things for the better.’ The deal, details of which were posted on the Kremlin website, included a full pardon for rebel fighters, an all-for-all prisoner swap, and the removal of ‘all foreign forces...and mercenaries from Ukraine.’”

Scott Walker OVER-LEARNING from Christie’s mistakes?

In London yesterday, Scott Walker not only punted when he got a question on evolution. He also punted on questions regarding ISIS and 2016. NBC News: “Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker focused on trade issues while traveling in London Wednesday but brushed away questions on ISIS, his 2016 aspirations and even evolution.... But when asked by BBC radio host Justin Webb whether Britain should be doing more in the fight against ISIS, Walker said he would adhere to the political tradition of declining to comment on policy while traveling outside the United States.” But here’s the thing: The old rule is that an American politician doesn’t criticize his/her president while on foreign soil. It’s not that a politician should REFUSE to answer any political questions while overseas. This only exposes a weakness for Walker right now: foreign policy.

Kasich heading to South Carolina

In other 2016 news, look who's headed to South Carolina -- Ohio Gov. John Kasich. "Ohio Gov. John Kasich, a long-talked about potential Republican presidential contender, will travel to South Carolina next week to promote his hawkish brand of fiscal politics in one of the GOP primary’s early voting states," the Washington Post says. With Jeb and Walker in the 2016 race, it’s hard to see where there is room for Kasich. But if either one falters, then there’s a little bit more room.

Bright Light, Big City -- for Jeb

“Big-city Republican donors are already lining up to attend Jeb Bush's fundraisers, throwing their support behind the former Florida governor even as he trails in polls in Iowa and faces deep challenges convincing conservative voters in the GOP that he is not too moderate,” NBC’s Perry Bacon writes. “While making few public appearances, Bush has attended at least 14 private fundraising events in St. Louis, New York, Los Angeles, and other major cities over the last six weeks, with a slew in Washington and Chicago scheduled for next week, according to a list compiled by the non-partisan Sunlight Foundation. And the attendees and hosts of these events, some of whom have donated up to $100,000, are unknown to most Americans but influential within the Republican Party.”

Kirk, Flake call for “clean” DHS spending bill

Turning to the congressional fight over DHS spending, don’t miss this reversal from Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL), who earlier this week was talking about how Republicans could capitalize on a DHS shutdown. “I generally agree with the Democratic position here," Kirk told reporters yesterday, per NBC’s Frank Thorp. "I think we should have never fought this battle on DHS funding… "I would think that we ought to strip the bill of extraneous issues from--make it just about Homeland Security." Wow. And Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) also called for a “clean” DHS bill. "I think that's the way the game ends,” Flake said, per Thorp. Double wow. Bottom line: As it stands right now, there are more Senate Republicans calling for a clean DHS bill than Senate Democrats who support the GOP legislation.

Keystone tees up Obama’s first expected veto of the new Congress

Well, the bill approving construction of the Keystone XL pipeline is finally on its way to the president’s desk – and his veto pen - after the final version passed the House last night. (Twenty-nine Democrats voted with Republicans in favor of it.) After he receives the bill, Obama has 10 days to act on the legislation. House Speaker John Boehner offered a preview of how Republicans will paint the president’s expected veto of the bill yesterday, when he accused Obama of “standing with a bunch of left-fringe extremists and anarchists.” Reminder: Obama has issued just two vetoes so far in his presidency; the Keystone bill tees up his third.

Kitzhaber was thisclose to resigning

The story of the scandal facing Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber – involving ethical questions about his fiancée’s state business dealings – keeps getting wilder. The Oregonian reports today that the embattled governor had decided to resign on Tuesday but then did an about-face and insisted on Wednesday that he’s not leaving his job. The paper writes that he changed his mind after meeting with his attorney and his fiancée Cylvia Hayes, although it’s not clear what was said in that meeting to pull him back from what his staffers considered an imminent resignation. Jeez.

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