Shine On Brightly

I’m not a big fan of the journalism of Politico‘s Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen. You could look it up.

But now and then, they offer something their fellow Beltway chroniclers of movers-and-shakers ought to take to heart. That is definitely true of their profile of freshman U.S. Rep. Tom Cotton (R-AR) as exemplar of what they call the “hell no caucus” of the House GOP.

They explain how Cotton won an open seat in Arkansas in no small part because of a sizable unsolicited Club for Growth contribution that gave him the resources to win one of the many “more-conservative-than-thou” GOP primaries. Thus he owes absolutely nothing to the NRCC or the House leadership. And Cotton does not appear to be a man interested in learning the mores and folkways of Washington, or how to “get things done.”

In an interview in his still-bare office a few hours before being sworn in, Cotton told us he would have voted against both Speaker John Boehner’s “Plan B” tax on millionaires, and the final tax hike that got the country off the fiscal cliff. He vowed to vote against raising the debt limit in two months, absent the sort of massive cuts the president opposes. He said he is more concerned about the “cataclysmic” consequences of inaction than the “short-term market corrections” of default. “I’d like to take the medicine now,” he said.

If the greater meaning of Cotton’s statement isn’t clear enough, he’s calling a potential return to national and global recession a “short-term market correction,” and “medicine,” the latter reference suggesting that phenomena like millions of people losing their livelihoods is good for the country if it ultimately leads to millions of people losing government benefits.

VandeHei and Allen do not mention the controversy Cotton aroused back in 2006 when he was serving as an infantry officer in Iraq. Having read a New York Times article on a covert Bush administration operation to gain access to the financial records of American citizens without warrant or subpoena in an effort to find possible links to terrorist networks, Cotton penned a letter to the Times suggesting that reporters and editors responsible for the story be prosecuted for espionage.

This is clearly not a man of nuanced views. But as VandeHei and Allen point out:

To much of the country, Cotton is nothing more than a straight, Southern, white, male, “radical” conservative — a befuddling relic of a fading slice of politics. But in Washington, he is the Republican Congress. Only through understanding lawmakers like him can you understand why the grand bargain collapsed, why raising the debt limit is not a given and why Boehner has vowed to quit for good his private chats with President Barack Obama, and instead invest more power in the Tom Cottons of the world.

Aside from confusing “much of the country” with “most of the people we talk to,” VandeHei and Allen are spot on here. And they also point out that Cotton is no ignorant yahoo from Dogpatch: he’s a magna cum laude graduate of Harvard and Harvard Law school who clerked for a circuit court judge and then volunteered for combat in Iraq and Afghanistan before joining McKinsey & Company.

Cotton is emblematic of a brand of movement conservatism that has slowly taken over the Republican Party after decades of struggle; saw its ultimate validation in the 2010 midterm elections; and isn’t about to loosen its grip on its trophy of ideological war. Its shock troops believe in a rigid, permanent model of governance that is impervious not only to Washington power games and deal-making, but to the social and economic consequences of its preferred policies and indeed to all contrary empirical evidence. Most of them believe the destruction of the Welfare State is the only path consistent with patriotism and constitutional government; many (I don’t know enough about Cotton to know if he shares this particular motivation) believe their ideology reflects obedience to the eternal laws of Almighty God.

So yeah, it kind of matters that so many people like Cotton carry so much weight in the House Republican Caucus. Asking them to be “realistic” is like staring into the eyes of a goat and expecting to find a glimmer of comprehension. It just ain’t happening, and the punditocracy had best remember that next time it is surprised by right wing intransigence, which will shine on brightly through all the haze of conventional politics.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.