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Tom Cotton and the Foreign Policy Debate

The decision by Tom Cotton, a rising Republican star and congressman from Arkansas, to challenge Democratic Senator Mark Pryor fits seamlessly into the news of the week. Cotton’s reputation as a foreign-policy hawk and a veteran of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, as well as his age (36), will undoubtedly cast him as heralding the arrival of reinforcements for the GOP’s internationalist wing.

In Politico’s story on Cotton’s candidacy the author even gives more prominence to his role as a “counterweight” to Rand Paul and Ted Cruz (though Cotton shares Cruz’s Ivy League pedigree) than to the possibility Cotton could help the GOP win back the Senate, though the latter is arguably the more significant aspect of his candidacy. But national-security rhetoric is what, still more than a year out from this Senate race, the political sphere is looking for, and on this Cotton doesn’t disappoint. There are few young Republicans willing to say things like “I think that George Bush largely did have it right,” as Cotton said to Politico in an earlier interview. He went on to state:

That we can’t wait for dangers to gather on the horizon, that we can’t let the world’s most dangerous people get the world’s most dangerous weapons and that we have to be willing to defend our interests and the safety of our citizens abroad even if we don’t get the approval of the United Nations.

On this, Cotton’s Senate candidacy joins that of Liz Cheney, daughter of the former vice president, who is running a primary challenge against Wyoming Senator Mike Enzi. Though foreign policy doesn’t usually play much of a role in Senate elections (or even, arguably, presidential elections), this debate should not surprise. The GOP is (mostly) in the wilderness, a time when parties traditionally look inward and chart their future path back to power.

The Republican Party’s identity on fiscal issues is more settled than its foreign policy identity. Neither the libertarians nor the internationalists campaign for tax increases, but they do disagree on foreign affairs. Just how even that disagreement is remains up for debate. When asked whether retrenchment chic is gaining a wide following in the GOP, Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol said: “I think Christie-Cotton is much more likely in 2016 than Paul-Amash.”

That is true enough in that particular hypothetical, and the temporary halt in hostilities called by Chris Christie and Rand Paul may give it an added boost. Paul proposed a beer summit between the two men, an invitation Christie rejected while taking a parting shot at Paul. How this ceasefire came about can be interpreted in one of two ways. Paul is surely hoping it makes him look mature and statesmanlike, sending out a peace offering and backing off, citing concerns for the party. Christie, on the other hand, seemed happy to keep swinging away, as if Paul was the one who had had enough.

Paul is also coming off a setback in the Senate, where his attempt to cancel American foreign aid to Egypt was brushed aside by his party and soundly defeated on the Senate floor. Christie may think his side has the momentum–and in any case he enjoys a good verbal sparring too much to want to pipe down. But the interesting question here relates more to what each combatant has to lose in the exchange. Christie’s weakness in a presidential primary contest would be the suspicion with which the conservative base views him after his embrace of the president. For Paul it’s the question of his mainstream appeal and electability.

Paul hinted at this aspect of the dust-up in his beer-summit proposal: “I think it’s time to dial it down. I think we’ve got enough Democrats to attack. I’ve said my piece on this. I don’t like Republicans attacking Republicans because it doesn’t help the party grow bigger.” But that’s not exactly accurate in this instance: Christie probably thinks he can win over independents and undecideds by establishing himself as a mainstream alternative to a supposedly fringe element in his party.

Whether or not Paul actually belongs to a “fringe” is far from settled. As I’ve written before, there has always been a strain of conservatives who genuinely worry that the national security state represents a military twin of the New Deal: expensive, secretive–and now, with the NSA scandals, seemingly intrusive–bureaucracies whose budgets grow inexorably even at a time when conservatives broadly favor austerity.

Those who support a robust American presence in the world counter, correctly, that Western prosperity relies on the peace kept by America and the orderly system of global trade that is highly dependent on the U.S. In many cases foreign aid, too, is a bargain–for the influence it earns the American government abroad, the prevention of armed conflict in some cases, and even the direct economic benefits it secures by spurring foreign investment in the American defense sector. Christie may not have the ear of the base when he makes these points–and the same can be said for veteran senators like John McCain and Lindsey Graham–but Cotton does, and that’s why his candidacy is already generating this attention, and will continue to do so.


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