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First Thoughts: No good options when it comes to Syria

No good options when it comes to Syria… Jeffrey Goldberg: But not acting might be the worst option… Obama sells immigration reform at Bush library dedication… On the FAA fix: Business travelers of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your frequent-flyer miles!.... Our weekly 2016 round-up… Cuccinelli’s up on the air, while McAuliffe’s car company remains in the news… One camp is trying to be likeable (Cuccinelli’s), while the other camp isn’t (McAuliffe’s)... And “Meet” has John McCain and Tony Blair.

*** No good options when it comes to Syria: The Obama administration yesterday did two somewhat contradictory things regarding Syria’s bloody civil war. One, it confirmed that Syria might have crossed the red line President Obama established -- using chemical weapons against it people. “The U.S. intelligence community assesses with some degree of varying confidence that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale in Syria,” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said yesterday, per NBC’s Jim Miklaszewski. But two, the administration wasn’t sure about the intelligence. “We still have some uncertainties about what was used, what kind of chemicals were used, where it was used, who used it,” Hagel added. So why the two contradictory messages? Well, for one thing, the administration was sort of forced into publicly disclosing this intelligence, because if it didn’t, everyone else was (not just the Brits and Israelis, but lawmakers on Capitol Hill). Secondly, this is all about buying time to further cobble together an international coalition opposing the Assad regime (just as Obama meets with Jordan’s King Abdullah II at 1:55 pm ET today). But there’s another reason why the administration is trying to buy time: Because there are no good options.

Handout / Reuters

Demonstrators carry banners and Syrian opposition flags during a protest against Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in Kafranbel, near Idlib, April 26, 2013.

*** But not acting might be the worst option: Indeed, even the hawks are split about what to do when it comes to Syria. Do you institute the no-fly zone? Put U.S. boots on the ground? Arm the rebels (who could turn out to be another problem down the road)? And this was the cloud hanging over the dedication of the Bush library yesterday -- the American public probably doesn’t have the stomach about intervening (one way or another) in a foreign civil war. But as Jeffrey Goldberg writes, the Obama administration not acting might be the worst consequence of all. “There are no good choices -- good outcomes in Syria are impossible to imagine. But if it is proved to a certainty that Assad is trying to kill his people with chemical weapons, then Obama may have no choice but to act, not only because he has put the country’s credibility on the line … but also because the alternative -- allowing human beings to be murdered by a monstrous regime using the world’s most devilish weapons, when he has the power to stop it -- is not a moral option for a moral man.” And Goldberg recalls this line that Obama said when he was a senator: “What I don’t want to see happen is for Iraq to become an excuse for us to ignore misery or human-rights violations or genocide.”

*** Obama sells immigration reform at the Bush library: Speaking of yesterday’s dedication of the Bush library, perhaps the biggest news -- other than Barbara Bush saying that the country has had enough Bushes in the Oval Office -- was Obama selling immigration reform by invoking George W. Bush’s legacy. “I am hopeful that this year, with the help of Speaker Boehner and some of the senators and members of Congress who are here today, that we bring it home -- for our families, and our economy, and our security, and for this incredible country that we love,” Obama said. “And if we do that, it will be in large part thanks to the hard work of President George W. Bush.” When you think about it, this was perhaps the largest Republican audience that Obama has ever addressed, and he put the prospects of immigration reform this way: “Passing immigration reform is just as much George W. Bush’s legacy as it is mine.” 

*** Business travelers of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your frequent-flyer miles! NBC’s Kasie Hunt and Mike O’Brien report that the Senate last night passed a measure to give the FAA flexibility to prevent the air-traffic-controller furloughs and delayed flights across the country. “Senators unanimously approved the ‘Reducing Flight Delays Act of 2013’ — a patch to fix the deep cuts that have furloughed air traffic controllers and delayed flights across the country… The House could take the bill up tomorrow and pass it with two-thirds support of that chamber.” So let’s get this straight: As soon as business travelers are inconvenienced for LESS THAN A WEEK, Congress takes action to fix the sequester. But where are the fixes to the sequester cuts to programs benefiting the poor, like Head Start? The White House, which said it will sign the fix into law, made that very point even as it showed no stomach for this fight. “We hope Congress will find the same sense of urgency and bipartisan cooperation to help the families who have had children kicked out of Head Start, the seniors who have lost access to Meals On Wheels, the hard-working employees who have been laid off due to defense cuts, and the 750,000 Americans who have lost a job or won't find one because of the sequester.” The lesson here: Congress will act, but only if it and its friends are hurt or simply inconvenienced. That’s a devastating indictment on how Washington works.

*** Our weekly 2016 round-up: On Thursday, the dedication of the George W. Bush presidential library featured two potential 2016 attendees: Hillary Clinton (who gave her first paid speech the day before) and Jeb Bush (whose mother said there were already enough Bush presidents)… Marco Rubio starred in a new TV ad by GOP supporters of comprehensive immigration reform… On Wednesday, Joe Biden delivered a moving speech at a memorial for the slain MIT police officer… His wife, Jill, has a new Twitter account… Rand Paul said the Boston bombings should put immigration reform on hold, and he also appeared to flip-flop on drones… Paul Ryan championed immigration reform… And Martin O’Malley, in Israel, talked about his 2016 intentions. “I plan for the latter half of this year to dedicate some more thought time — reflection time — to the question of whether or not I would run in 2016,” he said. O’Malley also gave Netanyahu a Joe Flacco jersey

*** Surprise, surprise -- Toomey’s approval rating goes up: We said Pat Toomey (R-PA) had a political motivation, looking ahead to 2016, to work on that background-check compromise with Joe Manchin (D-WV). “Though the background-check amendment co-sponsored by Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., failed last week to earn enough votes to be adopted, Toomey's standing among Pennsylvania voters is now at the highest point of his three-plus-year term, according to a new Quinnipiac University poll released on Friday,” National Journal’s Steven Shepard writes. Toomey’s approval is 48%/30%, up from 43%/32% before the background-check push in March; Sen. Bob Casey (D) gets a similar 48%/34% approval, the same as March; President Obama’s is split at 48%/48%, an improvement over his underwater 44%/51% approval last month.

*** Cuccinelli up on the air, McAuliffe’s car company remains in the news: In Virginia’s gubernatorial contest, Ken Cuccinelli (R) is up with his first TV ad of the race -- and it appears intended to soften the Republican’s image, especially with female voters. The ad, which will begin running on statewide TV on Monday, features his wife speaking to the camera. “I’m Teiro Cuccinelli. My husband Ken has spent his life standing up for the vulnerable and those in need,” she says. “He’s worked the night shift at a homeless shelter, spent his college days leading efforts to prevent sexual assaults, and represented those suffering from mental illness. As attorney general, Ken fought to find and prosecute child predators and human traffickers. Virginia deserves a Governor who is experienced, principled, and honest. I think you’ll find that’s what Ken Cuccinelli is all about.” This new ad comes as the New York Times dives into the controversies surrounding the car company, GreenTech, formerly owned by Democratic candidate Terry McAuliffe. “Documents have surfaced questioning his explanation for why he located the plant in Mississippi, not Virginia, including memos from Virginia officials expressing ‘grave doubts’ about his business model and suggesting its financing was a “visa-for-sale scheme” for Chinese investors.” 

*** One camp is trying to be likeable; the other isn’t: What ought to scare McAuliffe supporters is this: One campaign is trying to figure out how to be liked (Cuccinelli’s), and the other campaign isn’t trying or doesn’t know how (McAuliffe’s). Harry Wilson, a political scientist at Roanoke College, put it very well to the Times: “This may be the first time we don’t like our governor the day after the election.” But the question is: Which candidate is at least trying to be liked? But this story raises a larger question. What’s going on with the McAuliffe campaign? Is its strategy really just to sit back and then carpet-bomb Cuccinelli as out of touch and hope he can scrape by? Is that any way to win? Yes, it is. But is that any way to govern if you do actually win? No. Many Virginia Democrats are grumbling about the way McAuliffe is running this race (or the fact that Terry is their standard-bearer). What’s amazing is how much fear there is in the Virginia Democratic Party about challenging McAuliffe publicly on this. Of course, this isn’t fear of Terry as much as it is fear of the Clintons.  

*** UPDATE *** The McAuliffe campaign counters by saying it has focused mostly on a positive campaign thus far. "Terry has spent the last three months making front page news across Virginia by focusing on a positive message about making the Commonwealth better for business," spokesman Josh Schwerin says in an email to First Read. "Ken Cuccinelli has hidden from the public and been forced on defense over extreme statements on women's health, opposition to Social Security and an ongoing ethics scandals that have dominated the campaign since January."

*** On “Meet this Press” this weekend: NBC’s David Gregory interviews John McCain and Tony Blair. And the program has already released this excerpt from Blair on Bush: “Well I thought, it was great advertisement for America today by the way, you had five presidents including President Obama and all behaving with a sort of graciousness and a civility toward each other that I thought was fantastic and President Obama actually put his finger on it when he said, 'it's impossible to know George Bush and not like him,' so you know, often people say to me back home, they say, 'come on, you didn't like him really, did you?' And I say you can totally disagree with him but as a human being he is someone of immense character and genuine integrity, so, you can say- people have different views about decisions, but there's very few people who know him and don't like him and respect him as a person.”

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