For the first time, Democrats are backing a decision by President Trump.
The Pentagon’s April 6 attack on a Syrian airfield used to launch chemical weapons has been about as popular as a military strike can be. Many world leaders support the move, either overtly or through lack of criticism. In Washington, Democrats who have been bashing Trump on everything voiced approval of the Syria strike. That includes Sen. Chuck Schumer and Rep. Nancy Pelosi, leaders of the Democratic resistance on Capitol Hill.
The glow will fade, as the Syrian civil war grinds on and the pettiness of Washington politics oozes back onto the airwaves. But Trump’s first Big Presidential Moment gives him an opportunity to rise above the bickering and scandal of his first 75 days and set his sights higher. “Trump just won some badly-needed political capital,” analyst Greg Valliere of Horizon Investments wrote in a note to clients after the strike. “He finally has some bipartisan support, and if he can capitalize on it there could be a re-set for his entire presidency.”
Trump could use a reset. His first major legislative effort, repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act, was a spectacular failure, raising questions about his ability to push through other priorities such as tax cuts—which financial markets are banking on—and a big infrastructure program. Courts have suspended Trump’s two big executive orders on immigration. With virtually no legislative or policy momentum, Trump’s administration to date has been dominated by investigations into Russia, staffing scandals and his own needless fights with the media.
Trump learned the hard way how fleeting political capital can be, when he lost the votes of 20-some-odd House Republicans on his healthcare bill, dooming his pledge to replace the Affordable Care Act, a core campaign promise. Trump is reportedly being more careful about a tax-reform bill, crafting it at the White House instead of outsourcing it to House Speaker Paul Ryan, and considering how to line up allies before launching a bill rather than after. He may also decide to change priorities and go for an infrastructure bill first, which might be easier than tax legislation bound to create losers as well as winners who are certain to fight hard against it.
A key question is whether Trump has the self-discipline to stay on a higher road, now that the Syrian strikes have shown him a way there. Political analysts of both parties have decried Trump’s incendiary tweets as a kind of gutter-surfing that makes him seem tawdry and undermines his support in Congress. Yet Trump obviously relishes his Twitter account. Can he resist?
Trump also needs to be careful not to overplay the ratings blip he’ll get from standing up to Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. The strikes on one Syrian airfield won’t do anything to resolve the awful civil war in Syria, other than probably deterring Assad from using chemical weapons again. The misery will continue and refugees will continue to stream out of the country. Nor is the Syria strike a template for how to rein in North Korea, which could rain thousands of artillery shells onto South Korean civilians if the United States lobbed Tomahawk missiles at its nuclear sites. Approving the Syria strike, in fact, may be one of the simplest decisions of Trump’s entire presidency.
It does give Trump the air of seriousness and decisiveness, however—and those attributes are useful in the more tedious aspects of governing. You can’t pass legislation with missiles, after all.
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Rick Newman is the author of four books, including Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman