Mark Pryor’s mess: Why he attacked Tom Cotton’s ‘sense of entitlement’ over his military service

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
Font Size:

You’ve probably heard about it. It might be the biggest gaffe in the most hotly contested U.S. Senate race this year. Arkansas Sen. Mark Pryor recently uttered these infamous words: “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.'”

He was talking about the military service of his opponent, Rep. Tom Cotton. Were it not for the fact that Pryor’s political survival was already in grave danger, it would be easy to suppose this gaffe might have cost him the election.

In fairness, Pryor prefaced his remarks by praising Cotton’s military service. But it hardly mattered. The damning headlines were accurately written: “Mark Pryor attacks Tom Cotton’s ‘sense of entitlement’ over his military service.” 

So why would Pryor say that? Where did it come from?

A closer look into the campaign provides clues as to what Pryor was at least attempting to convey. It’s all about messaging.

Tom Cotton’s strategy is pretty simple. It begins and ends with tying Pryor to Barack Obama. But Pryor’s challenge is much more complex. Unlike Democrats across the nation, he can’t call Cotton a right-winger, since that might actually help him in Arkansas.

So, in lieu of an ideological cudgel, Pryor had to settle on calling Cotton “reckless and irresponsible.” When Cotton voted against the farm bill, for example, it wasn’t because he was a right-winger, but — according to their narrative, at least — because Cotton was “reckless and irresponsible.”

That was clever, but not enough. Not this year, at least. And so, the next step was to attempt to impeach Cotton’s otherwise favorable biography (or, at least, muddy it up).

And here, Pryor had the narrowest of openings.

Cotton is a graduate of Harvard, and Harvard Law School — and he worked as a management consultant in Washington for McKinsey & Co. These are all very impressive credentials, but they are presumably outside the experience of most Arkansans. Pryor would have to try to turn McKinsey & Co. into Cotton’s Bain Capital.

The good news for Cotton is that the sixth generation Arkansan actually looks and sounds like an Arkansan. The attacks on McKinsey have (so far) failed to resonate.

But Pryor still had something to work with. In order for a narrative to work, it has to ring true, and having met Cotton several times, it’s fair to say he does carry himself with an air of superiority that might not play well in Arkansas.

Enter the new line of attack: Tom Cotton is… ambitious.

My theory is that most politicians are — to one degree or another — egotistical. But considering Cotton’s military decorations include a Bronze Star Medal, Combat Infantry Badge and Ranger Tab, I’ve always written it off as being par for the course. I mean, I’m not sure I want to meet a decorated combat veteran who doesn’t project confidence.

Grasping at straws, however, Team Pryor must have seen this trace of arrogance (a prerequisite for a one-term Congressman daring to challenge a sitting U.S. Senator and heir to a local political dynasty!) as a lifeline. Presumably, voters who would meet Cotton on the trail would have this sense reinforced by his demeanor.

This would help explain the anti-Cotton micro site called “Ambitious Tom.”

Essentially, the attacks on Cotton would now stem from the notion that he is ambitious. As such, his voting record doesn’t demonstrate his conservatism — or that he is out of touch with the interests of Arkansas — but rather, his “blind ambition for higher office has caused him to ‘pony-up’ to the special interests in Washington…”

His time working at McKinsey & Co., thus, simply represents his penchant for “putting ambition before Arkansas.”

You get the idea…

Cotton’s arrogant “ambition” therefore became the crux of Pryor’s campaign. And it is in this context that you might understand why Pryor fumbled over the military question.

“He wanted to talk about arrogance and ambition,” says one source active in Arkansas politics, “but what he said was entitlement — which takes on a different context — and doesn’t really fit for Tom because it’s pretty clear he’s worked for everything he’s gotten in life.”

Pryor had clearly been schooled to avoid attacking Cotton’s military record, which is likely why he initially praised it. But (speculation is) pressed again by NBC’s Kasie Hunt to talk about Cotton’s military record, Pryor tried to segue to his message about Cotton’s ambition. “There’s a lot of people in the Senate that didn’t serve in the military,” he said, before referring to Cotton’s “sense of entitlement.”

This was a huge mistake, of course. And the fact that Pryor went off script so badly is probably indicative of a sloppy campaign — which, of course, it is.

But the point here is that when you see a political gaffe such as this, there’s a pretty good chance that — if you do some digging — you’ll find a backstory.

Pryor should have known better than to diminish Cotton’s military service — especially in a state like Arkansas. But it is at least clear what he was attempting to do. He was trying to push a message. He just failed miserably.