TAMPA, Fla. — “I thought I had a path set in life: I was going to be a lawyer,” Tom Cotton told The Daily Caller on the last day of the Republican National Convention at the end of the August.
“But the 9/11 attacks happened in my last year of school and that diverted me from that path.”
Cotton, 35, is running for Congress in Arkansas’s Fourth Congressional District. He was in his third year in law school at Harvard, where he also earned his undergraduate degree, when America was struck 11 years ago. Though he didn’t join the military immediately — he said he “had some student loans” to pay off — he ultimately enlisted as an Army Ranger, serving in both Iraq and Afghanistan on the front lines.
A 2011 profile of Cotton in the Weekly Standard said that when Cotton went to the recruiting station, he was immediately tagged as a perfect candidate for the Judge Advocate General Corps. “Cotton politely interrupted,” said the profile. “‘I don’t think you understand. I’m here to volunteer for the infantry.’”
While serving in Iraq, Cotton became something of an Internet celebrity. After The New York Times printed a story in 2006 on a secret U.S. government program to target al-Qaida’s finances, he wrote an open letter to the Times that went viral.
“Congratulations on disclosing our government’s highly classified anti-terrorist-financing program (June 23),” the letter addressing the two reporters who wrote the story and the paper’s then-executive editor Bill Keller opened.
“I apologize for not writing sooner. But I am a lieutenant in the United States Army and I spent the last four days patrolling one of the more dangerous areas in Iraq.”
He continued: “You may think you have done a public service, but you have gravely endangered the lives of my soldiers and all other soldiers and innocent Iraqis here. Next time I hear that familiar explosion — or next time I feel it — I will wonder whether we could have stopped that bomb had you not instructed terrorists how to evade our financial surveillance.”
Cotton’s letter concluded by expressing hope “that my colleagues at the Department of Justice match the courage of my soldiers here and prosecute you and your newspaper to the fullest extent of the law.”
“By the time we return home, maybe you will be in your rightful place: not at the Pulitzer announcements, but behind bars.”
After finishing five years of military service, Cotton left the Army and worked for the prestigious consulting firm McKinsey & Company before deciding to run for Congress from his native Arkansas.
“There’s no single catalyst of what happened in Washington, just a gradual accumulation of Barack Obama’s failed leadership and failed policies,” Cotton said, explaining with his southern twang why he got into the race.
The “stimulus, bailouts, Obamacare, the excessive regulatory burdens, lack of leadership and respect in the world, and the redistricting in Arkansas [that] moved my home town out of the Republican held district of my friend Tim Griffin and into the last Democratic held district,” he said, were among the reasons he decided to run.
The redrawn Fourth Congressional District is currently represented by retiring Democratic Rep. Mike Ross. Real Clear Politics lists the seat as one of the most likely to flip to the Republicans this cycle.
On foreign policy, Cotton is a hawk. And though the president views his foreign policy credentials as a strength, the former platoon leader disagrees.
“I think the American people always appreciate national security as the first responsibility of the federal government, even when tough economic times right now may take up some of the headlines,” he said.
Speaking of what he sees as President Obama’s foreign policy failures, he said, “In international politics, weakness is provocative.”
“And right now,” he continued, “I’m afraid under Barack Obama, America is projecting weakness to people like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Iran or Vladimir Putin in Russia, or China and its aggressive moves.”
As for Iraq and Afghanistan, Cotton thinks President Obama should have fought to keep a residual force to maintain the hard fought gains in the former and failed to give his generals the full compliment of troops they asked for in the latter.
“In Iraq and Afghanistan,” he said, “the president is risking the snatching of defeat from the jaws of victory.”
“I believe in those wars that’s why I went to fight in them,” he added. “I think the world is safer and America is safer when America is leading in the world.”
Asked who he would like to model his congressional career after, Cotton rattled off a list of senators.
He says he admires Republicans Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, Marco Rubio of Florida, Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, Jim DeMint of South Carolina and Mike Lee of Utah.
They are “strong conservatives who defend America abroad and stand up for the free enterprise system here at home,” he said.
He also named Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan and Georgia Rep. Tom Graves as House members he likes.
In a blog post, Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol, a major Cotton proponent, compared his nascent political biography to Bill Clinton’s, with the exception that Kristol’s preferred Arkansas native volunteered to serve his country.
Cotton laughed at the comparison.
“Well, you know, Bill Clinton was certainly a skillful politician and had great electoral success, but we don’t see eye-to-eye much on policy views,” he said.
Asked about Kristol’s prediction that he may be a future presidential contender — perhaps in 2024 or 2028 — Cotton said he just wants to work on getting elected to Congress.
“I’ve got less than 8 weeks left until early voting begins in Arkansas so we’re just focused on trying to get absentee ballots out the door,” he said. “I’ll let future plans work themselves out. Everyone seems to have big plans for my life; they just don’t always tell me.”
But if he does get elected to the people’s chamber, he says his top priorities are to work to fix America’s debt problem by reforming and strengthening Medicare, to push for fundamental tax reform and to fight to keep America safe — specifically by working to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons.
“I’m going to Congress to try to do big things and have a big impact,” he said. “You know, I don’t want to do small things that evaporate as soon as I leave Congress and have a legacy as lasting as Cotton candy at a county fair.”