Commentary Magazine


Topic: Tom Cotton

After the GOP Wave

Some post-election thoughts in light of the GOPs tidal wave on Tuesday:

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Some post-election thoughts in light of the GOPs tidal wave on Tuesday:

1. The majority of Republicans have reacted to their victories in an impressive fashion. Their rhetoric is restrained, serious, and mature. They know that while they did extremely well in races at every level, they still have a ways to go to earn the trust and loyalty of most Americans (that’s more true of congressional Republicans than those who are governors). Republicans in the Senate and House are signaling a willingness to work with the president if he’s willing to show some flexibility. (The president’s apparent commitment to go forward with an unconstitutional executive amnesty order will be all the evidence we need that Mr. Obama is determined to further polarize our politics and rip apart our political culture.) Speaker Boehner and the next Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, have already put forward their to-do list; so have others. There’s evidence that Republicans–most of them, anyway–have internalized the need to show they’re more serious about putting forward a governing agenda and solving problems facing middle class Americans than “telegenic confrontations” and “volcanic effusions.”  The GOP’s detoxification effort is well under way.

2. What ought to encourage Republicans isn’t simply that their ranks have swollen, but the quality of many of the new arrivals, from Tom Cotton and Ben Sasse in the Senate to Elise Stefanik and Barbara Comstock in the House to many others. The GOP does best when it’s seen as the home of individuals with conservative principles and a governing temperament. A winsome personality doesn’t hurt, either.

3. The GOP’s victory was the result of many things, from President Obama’s unpopularity and the awful political environment Democrats faced to the superior quality of the Republican candidates, their disciplined, gaffe-free campaigns, successful fundraising, and the select intervention by various groups into Republican primaries (ensuring that the most electable conservative was nominated). But not to be overlooked is that Republicans did a much better job than in the past with their Get Out The Vote effort, including turnout of low-propensity voters. As National Journal’s Ron Fournier put it:

A review of the RNC’s targeting operation (including a preelection sample of specific projections) suggests to me that the GOP has made significant advances on targeting and mobilizing voters. While the Democratic Party may still own the best ground game, GOP Chairman Reince Priebus has narrowed, if not closed, the tech gap.

A few Democrats saw this coming. “Our side has underestimated the GOP ground game,” Democratic pollster Celinda Lake told me Tuesday morning. “Their electorate doesn’t look like ours, so we don’t recognize or respect what they’re doing.”

4. The most surprising outcome of the evening may have been how well Republicans did in governor’s races around the nation. They were predicted to lose several seats; instead, they made a net gain of three. Among the most impressive was Ohio’s John Kasich, who won by more than 30 points. He carried heavily Democratic counties like Lucas and Cuyahoga. In fact, in a key purple state, Kasich carried 86 of Ohio’s 88 counties and a quarter of the African-American vote. Mr. Kasich has amassed an impressive record as governor–and a popular one, too. He’s one of America’s most engaging and interesting politicians. If he wants to run for president in 2016, he certainly helped his cause on Tuesday.

5. There are plenty of reasons for Republicans to be buoyed. They have very impressive people, including people in their ’30s and ’40s, at every level. Of the two parties, the GOP seems to be the one of greater energy and ideas. The Democratic Party, and liberalism more broadly, seems stale, aging, and exhausted. And of course the GOP has now strung together massive, back-to-back midterm wins. But it’s still worth keeping in mind that Republicans had spectacular showings in 1994 and 2010–and they were defeated by rather large margins in the presidential races two years after those wins. The danger is that a victory like the one Republicans experienced on Tuesday creates a false dawn, a sense of false confidence. Winning midterms elections is important; but midterm elections are different than presidential elections. The GOP still has repair work to do and things to build on. But progress is being made–and the results of this week’s election are the best evidence of that fact.

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Pryor’s Insane Attack on Military Service

Arkansas Senator Mark Pryor, in an interview with NBC News, said this about his opponent, Iraq and Afghanistan war veteran and current Representative Tom Cotton:

There’s a lot of people in the Senate that didn’t serve in the military. Obviously in the Senate we have all types of different people, all kinds of different folks that have come from all types of different background— and I think that’s part of that sense of entitlement that he gives off is that, almost like, I served my country, let me into the Senate. But that’s not how it works in Arkansas.

To be clear: Representative Cotton, a very impressive man and a very impressive candidate, has never argued that he’s entitled to the Senate seat for any reason, including his military service. But Representative Cotton is arguing, quite rightly, that his military service should be taken into account when judging him in the totality of his acts. Some of the things he learned while serving in the military are transferable. And surely the problem with the Senate right now isn’t that it is comprised of too many people whose lives are characterized by virtue and valor. As for a sense of entitlement: Mr. Pryor’s father was governor and senator of Arkansas. Just FYI.

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Arkansas Senator Mark Pryor, in an interview with NBC News, said this about his opponent, Iraq and Afghanistan war veteran and current Representative Tom Cotton:

There’s a lot of people in the Senate that didn’t serve in the military. Obviously in the Senate we have all types of different people, all kinds of different folks that have come from all types of different background— and I think that’s part of that sense of entitlement that he gives off is that, almost like, I served my country, let me into the Senate. But that’s not how it works in Arkansas.

To be clear: Representative Cotton, a very impressive man and a very impressive candidate, has never argued that he’s entitled to the Senate seat for any reason, including his military service. But Representative Cotton is arguing, quite rightly, that his military service should be taken into account when judging him in the totality of his acts. Some of the things he learned while serving in the military are transferable. And surely the problem with the Senate right now isn’t that it is comprised of too many people whose lives are characterized by virtue and valor. As for a sense of entitlement: Mr. Pryor’s father was governor and senator of Arkansas. Just FYI.

Mr. Cotton is leading the race right now. That lead will grow because of Mark Pryor’s foolish and offensive line of attack. The race is still close and Cotton can’t let up. He needs to run as if he’s running a couple of points behind. But as an outside observer, my own hunch is that we’ll look back at Pryor’s comments and point to it as a sign of desperation and perhaps the moment in which (to borrow from this Willie Nelson classic) it can be said of the Pryor campaign, “Turn out the lights, the party’s over; they say that all good things must end. Let’s call it a night; the party’s over.”

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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:

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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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