When the country is considering military action – no matter how limited we’re all promised it will be – everything else takes a back seat. That’s been the case regarding Syria throughout Arkansas and across the country, and as we’ve seen, it matters what the public believes.
In eastern Arkansas’ 1st District, Rep. Rick Crawford’s office said Tuesday that of more than 700 phone calls his office had received, more than 99 percent had been opposed to a military strike. In Northwest Arkansas’ Third District, Rep. Steve Womack’s office said of 1,500 calls, all but 20 had been opposed. Sen. John Boozman’s office reported it had received more than 3,400 emails and letters opposed, compared to 32 in support. For a while, his office received 250 phone calls a day about the subject, almost all from constituents opposed to a strike.
"What’s been different is they’re not computer-generated, and they’re not paid for by a group, which you see on a lot of issues and we’ve seen a lot in the past," said Michael Teague, whose boss, Sen. Mark Pryor, is getting stopped in the grocery store by constituents offering their opinions. "They’re not coming from out of state. They’re generally genuine calls from … Arkansas."
Crawford, Womack, Boozman and Pryor all have said they would vote against a military strike. How much of a role did public opinion play in their decisions? Significant, according to Crawford’s press secretary, Jack Pandol, though Pandol said the congressman already had concerns and that the constituent contacts "fortified" his decision. Womack’s initial skepticism was similarly fortified. His communications director, Claire Burghoff, said, "It definitely was a big part of the decision, but he agrees that (constituents) were right from the get go on it."
Rep. Tim Griffin from central Arkansas’ 2nd District said the tally in his office from all contacts including an online poll is 3,000 against and 460 in favor – "the most overwhelming I think I’ve seen on any issue since I’ve been in Congress, period."
Griffin, who voted against funding the 2011 strike against Libya, has been openly skeptical since President Obama first started talking about taking military action against Syria. He said he wanted to keep an open mind until he received a classified briefing from administration officials this week. That briefing only hardened his opposition into a firm no.
Even before the flood of contacts began swamping his office, he could tell which way public opinion in Arkansas was heading. If he had been on the fence, it would have made a difference.
"In my experience, if you’re going to vote against 85 percent of your constituents, you’d better have a really compelling reason," he said.
That’s five members of the delegation opposed to a strike. The sixth, Rep. Tom Cotton in southern and western Arkansas’ 4th District, has been vocally supportive of military action.
How much do, and should, members of Congress rely on public opinion on these big issues? What some might call following the will of the people, others might call bowing to the polls. This is a representative democracy, after all, where members of Congress have access to information not available to the general public, such as classified briefings. On the other hand, they are sent to Washington to reflect their constituents. According to Griffin, public opinion "is clearly an important part of everyone I know’s calculation and decision making process."
At this point, that process seems to be working as designed by the Founding Fathers. A president who wanted to use military force sought permission from Congress, as the Constitution says he should. Congress, listening to the people, doesn’t appear willing to grant that permission. As the debate continued, glimmers of hope for a diplomatic solution appeared. Of course, I’m writing this on Tuesday. A lot can change by the time this goes to press or online.
Is there a bigger picture than even military action against Syria? If so, it may be this. In years past, presidents who wanted to order a military strike often ended up doing so, and Congress and much of the country just sort of fell in line, at least for a while. In this case, a vocal percentage within a larger, war-weary majority has helped keep that from happening, at least for now. So are there other issues where the majority of Americans agree on a pressing issue and just need some emailers and letter-writers to genuinely speak for them?
Steve Brawner is an independent journalist in Arkansas. His email address is email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.