Red-State Wonder

Tom Cotton’s Run for Senate in Arkansas Makes Him the New Neocon Darling

Challenging incumbent Mark Pryor, Cotton delights Republicans by espousing deeply conservative positions without sounding like a nut job, writes Michelle Cottle.

In their quest to retake the U.S. Senate—or at least gain ground and jam a thumb in Harry Reid’s eye—Republicans found reason to rejoice this week when Rep. Tom Cotton of Arkansas’s Fourth District officially announced his candidacy to unseat Democrat Mark Pryor.

Even setting aside Pryor’s handicap as the lone remaining Dem in the congressional delegation of a state that’s fast trending red and that really really doesn’t like President Obama, Cotton is a genuinely impressive political specimen. The lanky, whip-smart 37-year-old has a CV that is, as GOP strategist Ralph Reed puts it, “out of central casting”: two degrees from Harvard (undergrad and law), a stint at the Claremont Graduate University (including a Publius fellowship in conservative political thought at the Claremont Institute), a federal clerkship, a turn at the crème de la crème consultancy McKinsey & Co., plus—and here’s where it gets almost too good to be true—an Army stint that featured tours of duty in both Iraq and Afghanistan. He left the service with the rank of captain and, among other decorations, a Bronze Star. “He’s a star,” asserts Reed.

As for Cotton’s politics, the man is conservative through and through. He is pro-life, pro-gun, anti–gay marriage, anti–women in combat, anti–comprehensive immigration reform, and a devout budget hawk. Where he has been most outspoken, however, is in the realm of foreign policy. An aggressive interventionist, Cotton is being touted as “the last, best hope” of the neocons—a group that has seen its star dim since the late Bush era. In particular, Bill Kristol and The Weekly Standard have developed a big ol’ man crush on Cotton, emitting a stream of glowing coverage. But, really, who can blame them? Whether opposing Chuck Hagel’s nomination to head the Pentagon, dismantling Sen. Ted Cruz’s Rand Paulian take on drone policy at a closed-door AEI retreat in March, or simply slamming the Obama administration for not keeping America safe, Cotton is an eloquent spokesman for the cause: passionate, informed, and meticulous, yet not a hyperventilating bomb thrower. Better still, his military bona fides give him the kind of street cred that is rare among the political class.

Well aware of this, Cotton whips out the military card every chance he gets—regardless of the topic at hand. Doubt the wisdom of a border fence? Let the congressman explain how, in Iraq and Afghanistan, the first line of protection for American encampments was always a physical barrier around the perimeter. Or, as he told the folks who turned out Tuesday for free barbecue and his campaign announcement at the Dardanelle Community Center, “This is a mission briefing, just like the briefings I did in Iraq on a map on the hood of a Humvee.” Listen to enough of his interviews and speeches, and Cotton starts to remind you of the Gov. Danny Chung character on HBO’s Veep, whose endless invocation of his war service is a running gag.

That said, Cotton is a genuine ass kicker who will be tough for Democrats to stop. He’s sharp, he is ambitious (even Hill Republicans observe that his vanishingly short House tenure seems to have been devoted to positioning himself for a Senate run), and he has an abundance of what one colleague called “that farmer charm.” And as with his war service, Cotton plays the plainspoken farm-boy angle for all its worth. During an appearance on Bill Bennett’s radio show, for instance, the congressman paused in his musings about the potential merits of learning Spanish to gig his host: “I don’t speak Latin or Greek or other fancy languages like you do.”

This anti-fancy-pants persona will likely serve Cotton well with Arkansas voters. Already, he has been out there slamming Pryor for siding with “the Washington elites who want to run your life” and decrying the “corrupt game” of politics and all the “crony capitalists” who have rigged it in their favor.

Such outsider-versus-insider talk is not novel in this age of Tea Party agitation. But Cotton is hardly some anti-elitist good ol’ boy. His academic and professional background is even more gold-plated than Barack Obama’s. Young Barry was a lowly community organizer, while Cotton clerked for a federal judge and spent a year at the pinnacle of the consulting world with McKinsey. And Cotton’s time studying conservative thought at the knee of people like Claremont’s Charles Kesler and Harvard’s Harvey Mansfield makes conservative intellectual types like Kristol and Bennett all tingly. As Fred Barnes gushed in his October paean to the then–House candidate, “Cotton talks about conservative ideas and little else. His favorite Republicans in Congress are the most idea-oriented conservatives.”

Nor is Cotton an outsider when it comes to financial support. He is backed by establishment heavy hitters including the Club for Growth (his top contributor), GOP eminence Fred Malek, hedge-fund billionaire Paul Singer (who co-hosted a fund-raiser for Cotton in New York City last fall), 2012 celebrity moneyman Sheldon Adelson, and a variety of neocon A-listers, including Elliot Abrams, the Kristol clan (Bill’s wife and daughter), and Michael Goldfarb. He’s been praised as “a conservative leader and rock-star candidate” by Karl Rove’s American Crossroads. And much of his campaign money comes from the commercial banking and securities and investment industries—as one might expect from a guy who sits on the House Financial Services Committee.

When it comes to the small-government, cost-cutting enthusiasm that has made him the darling of Club for Growth types, Cotton sticks to his guns, even at the risk of ticking off constituents back home. Despite Arkansas’s dependence on agriculture (which accounts for roughly a quarter of the state’s economy), Cotton was among the House members to tank the Farm Bill by uncoupling it from food-stamp funding. This did not sit well with the state’s ag interests, which loudly lamented the House’s action. Undeterred, Cotton cheered his conference’s push to free farmers from the clutches of a bloated, wasteful welfare program like SNAP—this, despite the fact that some 16 percent of households in Cotton’s district are on SNAP. In an interview on Arkansas TV, when Cotton was pressed on the issue, he took a page straight from the “welfare queen” chapter of GOP’s makers-versus-takers playbook, noting sorrowfully, “Right now we’ve all been in a situation where we stand in the grocery line” behind a SNAP recipient who “has steak in their basket, and they’re talking on a brand-new iPhone, and they’re going out to a brand-new SUV.” When Cotton’s hosts asked if he was suggesting that a significant chunk of the SNAP recipients in his district were skeezy welfare cheats, the congressman swiftly demurred, saying the problem was obviously worse in other places, “like California.”

How’s that for a quick study? When all else fails, blame California.

Cotton’s political promise has folks like Kristol dreaming big for the future. In a recent Fox News appearance, Kristol quipped that Cotton should be the VP nominee in 2016. And, in his October profile, Barnes touted Cotton’s “bright prospects for gaining still higher office,” quoting a Democratic player in Texarkana who declared that Cotton was “going to be our congressman, then our senator, then our president.” (Two down ...)

Maybe. Cotton has, after all, already shown an ability to appeal to a broad cross-section of his fractured party. And Mark Pryor will need to pull some big-ass rabbits out of his hat if he wants to hold on to his seat. That said, taking the long view, Cotton does nothing to move the GOP away from its problematic image as the last bastion of traditional, white, disproportionately Southern men. His manner may not be as angry as some, but his policies are as conservative as they come. If anything, his foreign-policy positions would move the party not forward but backward, toward the neocon heyday of the Bush-Cheney White House. Kristol et al may long for such a devolution, but polls suggest that the majority of Americans do not.

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Then again, when is politics ever about taking the long view?

With further reporting supplied by Ben Jacobs.