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First Thoughts: Will Israel's strikes in Syria spur U.S. involvement?

Will Israel’s strikes in Syria spur U.S. involvement?... On that “red line” and how Libya (and other conflicts) has shaped the administration’s thinking on Syria… Recapping Obama’s Ohio State commencement speech… Mark-up time for the “Gang of Eight” immigration legislation… Wrapping up the NRA conference… WaPo poll: Cuccinelli leads McAuliffe… Remember, candidates matter… Does Sanford’s GOP base show up tomorrow?… Steve King passes on IA SEN bid… And Jessica Taylor’s early look at the Top 10 House races to flip in 2014.

Uriel Sinai / Getty Images

Israeli Merkava tanks participate in a drill near the border with Syria at the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights on May 6, 2013.

*** Will Israel’s strikes in Syria spur U.S. involvement? The Washington Post on the weekend’s biggest news: “Israel’s reported airstrikes in Syria — and the threat of a retaliatory strike by the Syrian government — are likely to accelerate the decision-making of the Obama administration, which was already moving toward a sharp escalation of U.S. involvement in the two-year-old crisis. Senior officials said the deployment of U.S. troops to Syria remains unlikely, but they have indicated that a decision will come within weeks on options ranging from the supply of weapons to the Syrian rebels to the use of U.S. aircraft and missiles to ground President Bashar al-Assad’s air power by destroying planes, runways and missile sites inside Syria.” As NBC’s Andrea Mitchell noted on NBC’s “Weekend Nightly News,” Israel used American-made weapons and most likely had U.S. intelligence support to strike those Syrian targets. And, in an interview with Telemundo while the president was in Latin American, President Obama made it clear that the U.S. supports what he sees as Israel’s right to defend itself from what could be game-changing weapons. But remember, Israel is focused on what is essentially a side conflict with Syria, and that is Assad’s support of Hezbollah.

Israel's reported attack on Syria adds another layer of complexity to the Obama administration's decision on how to handle the crisis, NBC's Andrea Mitchell reports.

*** Red lines (don’t, don’t do it): On Sunday, the New York Times reported that administration officials realize the president’s previous “red line” comment on Syria -- which he made to one of your authors during an Aug. 2012 press conference -- was a mistake. That’s something we’ve reported on, but the Times goes into more detail: “‘The idea was to put a chill into the Assad regime without actually trapping the president into any predetermined action,’ said one senior official, who, like others, discussed the internal debate on the condition of anonymity. But ‘what the president said in August was unscripted,’ another official said. Mr. Obama was thinking of a chemical attack that would cause mass fatalities, not relatively small-scale episodes like those now being investigated, except the ‘nuance got completely dropped.’” Georgetown’s Daniel Byman argues that presidents should draw “red lines” that the U.S. will tolerate. “The muddle over the red line on Syria’s chemical weapons should make the Obama administration and its successors think twice before issuing similar public threats without considering what happens if the red line is breached or if an adversary continues committing atrocities that fall short of the line.

*** How Libya (and other conflicts) has shaped the administration’s thinking on Syria: The administration is leery of being pushed into doing something big in Syria too soon. Look for incremental ramping up, including direct arming of the rebels and continued diplomatic efforts to get Putin off of Assad’s side. One thing that colors the Obama administration’s decision-making in all of this is Libya. As “clean” of an operation and intervention as it was, the instability there is very much on the forefront of the Obama administration’s mind. Who fills the vacuum? Watching this administration manage the Arab Spring, don’t overlook how each event has impacted a later decision (from Iran to Egypt to Libya to Yemen and Syria). The experience in one country has colored the decision making going forward.

*** Recapping Obama’s Ohio State commencement speech: President Obama’s commencement addresses are always interesting to watch/read, because they offer additional examples of how he views U.S. government and society. They become the windows to his core ideological beliefs which, believe it or not, he rarely actually talks about in public. And his commencement address at Ohio State University yesterday was no exception -- he talked about the importance of community (over individualism) and an engaged citizenry.  “In the aftermath of darkest tragedy [in Boston, Texas, and Connecticut], we have seen the American spirit at its brightest. We’ve seen the petty divisions of color, class, and creed replaced by a united urge to help… That’s what citizenship is. It’s the idea at the heart of our founding—that as Americans, we are blessed with God-given and inalienable rights, but with those rights come responsibilities—to ourselves, to one another, and to future generations.” More Obama: “I will ask you for two things: to participate, and to persevere. After all, your democracy does not function without your active participation. At a bare minimum, that means voting, eagerly and often. It means knowing who’s been elected to make decisions on your behalf, what they believe in, and whether or not they deliver.”  

*** Mark-up time: The Senate Judiciary Committee this week is slated to mark up -- that is, add amendments at the committee level -- to the bipartisan “Gang of Eight” immigration-reform legislation. Politico: “Foes and friends of reform are set to offer a slew of amendments to the mammoth immigration bill this week as the Senate Judiciary Committee begins to mark it up. But observers believe that between Democrats, who hold the majority on the committee, and the two Gang of Eight Republicans who wrote the bill, it will emerge from committee largely unscathed. ‘I suspect it’ll come back [from committee] with a 13-5 margin, and that’ll be a tremendous momentum going to the Senate floor,’ said Frank Sharry, executive director of the pro-reform group America’s Voice.” On “Meet the Press” yesterday, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Pat Leahy said, “I think the so-called ‘Gang of Eight,’ four Democrats, four Republicans, across the political spectrum, deserve an enormous amongst of credit for the work they've done. I met with them many times. And I think we can get it passed.

As the NRA wraps up its annual convention, the group is setting its sights on the 2014 midterms and telling members not to give up the fight for gun rights. NBC's Gabe Gutierrez reports.

*** Wrapping up the NRA conference: NBC’s Tom Curry wrapped up Friday’s speeches at the National Rifle Association conference in Houston. Republicans -- including Ted Cruz, Sarah Palin, Rick Santorum, and Rick Perry -- “addressed the National Rifle Association’s annual meeting in Houston Friday, celebrating the defeat of gun legislation in the Senate, assailing the media, and offering a strong defense of the powerful lobbying organization,” Curry wrote. By the way, Politico reports how not a single Democrat spoke at last week’s NRA conference in Houston. The NRA -- the National Republican Association? It’s a concern some inside the organization have, and it’s why there have been so many mixed signals when it comes to where the NRA stood on certain issues, including expanded background checks. Some inside the NRA did want to work with their Democratic allies and forge some compromise (even if the NRA didn’t OFFICIALLY support it). These are folks who want the “R” in NRA to stand for “Rifle” and not “Republican.” But those folks have lost out as the NRA -- internally -- has become more partisan.

*** WaPo poll: Cuccinelli leads McAuliffe: As we and others have pointed out, this year’s Virginia gubernatorial race is a contest between two flawed candidates. But Ken Cuccinelli (R) has always had one advantage over Terry McAuliffe (D): He has a base, while his Democratic opponent doesn’t -- at least not yet. And that edge is evident in a new Washington Post poll, which has Cuccinelli ahead by five points, 46%-41%. “Among all registered voters, [Cuccinelli is] backed by 95 percent of Republicans, 73 percent of conservatives and 62 percent among white men. By contrast, compared with Obama’s win seven months ago, McAuliffe, the former Democratic National Committee chairman, is badly underperforming among key Democratic constituencies he would need to prevail — young voters, women, African Americans and those in the vote-rich areas of Northern Virginia.” The good news for McAuliffe? The poll found that barely 10 percent say they are following the campaign ‘very closely’ and that nearly half of the electorate says they’re either undecided or could change their minds.” Neither party is happy about its standard-bearer, but Cuccinelli is giving the GOP establishment a reason to believe since he’s executing a smart campaign so far. McAuliffe has work to do to get the Democratic establishment comfortable again

*** Another VA GOV poll coming out on Wednesday: By the way, there will be another poll coming out on the Cuccinelli-McAuliffe -- NBC/Marist surveys on Virginia and New Jersey, which we’ll unveil on Wednesday morning on MSNBC’s “Daily Rundown.”

*** Remember, candidates matter: Given the Washington Post poll, tomorrow’s special election in South Carolina, and the tighter-than-expected special Senate race in Massachusetts, it’s always important to remember this political truism: Candidates and campaigns matter. In Virginia, both Cuccinelli and McAuliffe are flawed, but which one has bigger flaws and which one is running a better campaign? In South Carolina, the only reason why the contest in this GOP-leaning district is competitive is due to Republican Mark Sanford’s past baggage. And in Massachusetts, one candidate right now is getting the buzz (Republican Gabriel Gomez), while the other hasn’t run a competitive race in a LONG, LONG time (Ed Markey).

*** Does Sanford’s GOP base show up tomorrow? Speaking of tomorrow’s special election in South Carolina, the Washington Post’s Cillizza sees Mark Sanford as the candidate with the momentum. “In conversations with Democratic and Republican strategists closely following the special election set for Tuesday in South Carolina’s 1st Congressional District, the consensus is that the former governor, not businesswoman (and sister of Stephen Colbert) Elizabeth Colbert Busch, is the candidate gaining momentum in the race’s final 48 hours.” The question we have is whether base Republicans show up for Sanford. That’s going to be the difference between him winning and losing.

*** King passes on IA SEN race: On Friday, Rep. Steve King (R-IA) became the latest Republican to say “no” to running for Iowa’s open Senate seat. “The best tool we have now is the majority in the U.S. House which functions mostly to keep the Leftist genie in the bottle. I cannot, in good conscience, turn my back on the destiny decisions of Congress today in order to direct all my efforts to a Senate race for next year, while hoping to gain the leverage to put the genie back in the bottle in 2015,” he said in a statement. And that raises the question: Just who will Republicans get to run in a contest that’s VERY IMPORTANT to their chances of winning a Senate majority in 2014?

*** Ten House races to watch for ’14: Finally, don’t miss Jessica Taylor’s very early look at the 10-top House seats likely to flip in 2014.

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