Last Best Hope For the Neocons?

A while back I did a post focusing on U.S. Rep. Tom Cotton (R-AR), who had in turn been profiled by Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen of Politico as an exemplar of the obstructionist nature of the House GOP. Since then Cotton has gotten a lot of attention as a potential 2014 opponent of U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor, generally considered the most vulnerable Senate Democrat thanks to the heavy redward swing of his state in the last few years.

But today we learn from a different Politico writer, Alexander Burns, that Cotton isn’t just a freshman House member who may become a freshman Senator before terribly long: he may be, in fact, the “last, best hope of GOP hawks” in a national political party increasingly inclined to “stand with Rand” against indiscriminate military interventions.

To the community of policymakers and elected officials who care passionately — and even exclusively — about a forward-leaning American national security posture, there is no Republican under the age of 40 with more riding on his career than Cotton.

Cotton has been the beneficiary of a steady campaign of promotion by neocon beacon The Weekly Standard and its editor, William Kristol. Here’s how Slate‘s Dave Weigel summed it up in March:

Throughout the 2012 campaign, while everybody was scoffing at Kristol’s pleas for Paul Ryan or Mitch Daniels to run for president, TWS was picking Cotton. There were updates on his quarterly fundraising halls, news of his endorsements, previews of his campaign ads (“I Had to Do My Part”), even news that he’d signed an “Obamacare Repeal Pledge” and his opponent (backed by Mike Huckabee) hadn’t. All told the magazine ran 20 items about Cotton before the election, culminating in a profile by Fred Barnes that was best read while listening to John Phillip Sousa and cooling an apple pie. “Assuming Cotton is elected on November 6,” wrote Barnes, “he’ll face a big decision on whether to run for the Senate in 2014.”

After an election that didn’t produce many buzzworthy new Republicans, Cotton became a Sunday show presence and a loud voice of opposition to Chuck Hagel’s nomination—which was sort of a TWS cause celebre.

To round it all out, WaPo’s Jennifer Rubin reported on an interview with Cotton last December that drifted into hagiography:

He is 6-foot-5 and rail-thin. His erect posture reveals his military training. However, freshman congressman-elect Tom Cotton is not simply physically striking; in experience and depth, he is unlike most of his soon-to-be-colleagues. The 35-year-old Arkansan graduated from Harvard and Harvard Law School, clerked for an appellate judge and practiced law. Then he volunteered as an infantryman in the U.S. Army, serving five years in active duty, starting with Iraq where he led a platoon in the 101st Airborne Division. After Iraq he served as platoon leader at Arlington National Cemetery, conducting military honors for funerals. He then volunteered for duty in Afghanistan. He has been repeatedly decorated. He also racked up time as a management consultant for McKinsey and Co. Oh, and he worked on his family farm.

He is a fresh face in Washington, but he is a familiar figure to many conservatives immersed in foreign policy. He has been attending and speaking at national security symposiums for several years now.

According to Burns, even congressional warhorses like John McCain and his sidekick Lindsey Graham are scrawling Cotton’s name on their notebooks.

Aside from the queasy “he’s a dreamboat!” aspects of this early adulation of a freshman House member, and his espousal of positions not exactly designed to appeal to a general electorate (he’s called the Iraq War a “just and noble war,” and seems to think the Great Recession was a fine moral tonic for a sinful nation), what’s most interesting about all this hyping of Cotton is its reflection on the confidence level of Republican hawks and their neocon vanguard. Not that very long ago, Mitt Romney launched his presidential campaign with an entire book designed to position him on foreign policy as far to the right as possible. The ensuing 2012 Republican presidential nomination contest occasionally seemed to become a competition (with Ron Paul serving as the foil) to see which candidate was most convincingly frothing for war with Iran.

Yet here we are just a few months into 2013, and neocons seem to be staking their future on a 35-year old House freshman.

Has the GOP really changed so much so fast? I admit to some serious skepticism, because we’ve seen this movie before. Most conservatives attacked Bill Clinton as a warmonger for intervening in Kosovo, and during the 2000 presidential contest, George W. Bush was calling for a foreign policy based on greater “humility.” We saw how long that lasted. There’s every reason to assume that most of the non-interventionist strain in Republican rhetoric recently is a product of opposing whatever Barack Obama proposes, and that the next Republican president–unless his name is Rand Paul, who has himself taken a different tack than his father in talking about military interventions–will return to the GOP’s heritage as champions of the military-industrial complex.

Still, the panic in neocon circles exhibited in Burns’ profile of Cotton can’t all be contrived. Maybe Cotton’s just an ideal GI Joe figure that war enthusiasts are playing with before designating a better-known figure like Marco Rubio–who has his own strong neocon connections–as The Man for 2016. In the meantime, if Cotton does run against Pryor, expect him to get at least as much attention as Rubio received when he ran for the Senate in 2010.

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.