It’s been over a decade since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and as it has in the past, America is increasingly turning inward. Even some Republicans are saying things like “We’ve got problems to take care of here,” “We just need to leave them alone and they’ll leave us alone,” and so on. Inevitably, this begins to affect our electoral politics. The brouhaha last week between Senator Rand Paul and Governor Chris Christie, both considered 2016 presidential contenders, is one example. Yet Congressman Tom Cotton’s announcement that he will be running for Senate in his home state of Arkansas is arguably even more important to the debate.
Cotton has an impressive resume for a a first-term congressman. At age 36, he has already graduated from Harvard Law School, clerked for an appellate judge, practiced law, joined the Army — as an infantryman no less — completed tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, done management consulting after leaving active duty, run his family farm, and been elected to Congress.
Aside from the national security debate, this is big news. Senator Mark Pryor (D-AR), son of a former Governor, has watched the devastation of Arkansas Democrats over the past two cycles, losing the other Senate seat, three House seats, both houses of the state legislature, and several statewide offices. President Obama lost the state by nearly 25 points. A Republican as impressive as Cotton represents a mortal threat to the Democrats ability to maintain control of the Senate. Polls show Pryor is in deep trouble.
Yet Cotton isn’t just a generic overachieving rock-star. He achieved notoriety not only because of his impressive resume or work ethic, but because as a soldier, he wrote a letter to the New York Times, blasting their coverage of the Bush Administration’s program to clamp down on terrorist finances. The Times didn’t print the letter, but it caught fire in the conservative blogosphere and was published in full in several other newspapers. When he finally got around to running for office, he was already wildly popular both with the activist base and with the Republican establishment.
Shaped both by his experiences in the military and with conservative academics like Peter Berkowitz in college, Cotton has been one of the most assertive voices for a hawkish foreign policy. Running for his current seat in Congress, one of his favorite slogans was “No matter what the state of the economy, the first responsibility of the federal government is to keep America safe.” It was a big applause line in Arkansas.
Cotton’s willingness to get his hands dirty dealing with difficult foreign policy issues has made him influential. Fewer Republicans are willing to make the case that American leadership remains indispensable in world affairs to assure peace and security. “I know there is war weariness among the American people, just like there is war weariness among conservatives,” Cotton has noted. More problematic is that the most prominent elected officials making that case are John McCain and his allies, who are distrusted by the conservative base, most notably because of issues like immigration. Cotton, on the other hand, is popular with the base and is an articulate opponent the immigration bill championed by McCain’s crew. This kind of credibility with the base made people listen when he spoke out against ending the NSA’s controversial metadata program. He expressed concern for overreach, but pointed out “It does not constrain the program. It ends the program. It blows it up.”
Cotton’s race in Arkansas is not the only high-profile race that features a candidate who is vocally opposed to the dovish trend on the right. Liz Cheney, daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney and a former State Department official, is challenging incumbent Senator Mike Enzi in the GOP primary. Yet, so far, she has not made foreign affairs a centerpiece of her campaign, and the fact that she is running against a fairly hawkish entrenched incumbent of her own party in a tiny state makes the race less of a referendum on foreign policy.
Cotton wants such a referendum. He understands that unlike domestic affairs, foreign affairs require an even greater degree of public leadership. “They experience the economy, but they don’t experience Gaza or Libya or Afghanistan,” he’s said of voters. One example he cites is the body politic’s capricious view of conflicts in North Africa. “Left to its own devices, public opinion would look at Libya and Egypt and say, ‘Let’s wash our hands of it all.’ In fact, Libya is very different from Egypt.” Making the case for the best path forward on such issues requires someone willing to take a difficult stand. Most politicians see North African domestic conflicts as distant from the concerns of their constituents. Cotton sees them as an opportunity.
This reveals a historical truth: America goes through phases of withdrawal, precisely because its citizens do not understand how foreign affairs affect their lives, and it takes leadership from people willing to take political risks to shape public opinion in a new direction. The late Senator Henry Jackson spoke out strongly in favor of American strength in foreign affairs during the 60’s and 70’s. Jackson served as a guiding light during these dark times, forming what became Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy. Cotton is in a position to accomplish a similar task, bridging the divide between a conflict-averse public and those who know there are no holidays from international affairs, and no good substitute for American leadership. His success now depends on his ability to make his case to voters.