The Tom Cotton Model For Conservative Self-Expression

It’s been interesting this week to watch one of those divergences in perspective that make politics fascinating. The votes are in from even the most distant precincts, and it’s virtually unanimous among respectable folk of every persuasion that the Tom Cotton-engineered Epistle to the Iranians begging them not to sign any nuke deal with the U.S. government was a bad idea. About the best that could be said for it, and many hastened to say it, was that it wasn’t treason. But it wrong-footed the GOP on a high-priority foreign policy issue just days after the party had looked triumphant in welcoming their Hero and the True Leader of the Free World, Benjamin Netanyahu, to Washington.

But change your perspective a few degrees and Cotton’s “Yahoo Letter” (as Jonathan Bernstein aptly called it) was a raging success: for Cotton himself, obviously, who was able to achieve a spectacular early vindication of the hopes that the militarist wing of the GOP had long harbored for him, but also for Movement Conservatives who had finally found a way to let their freak flag fly without the congressional Republican leadership getting in their way. This latter consequence was underlined at National Journal by Sarah Mimms:

The problem for members of the tea party is that the game is rigged against them, as they are repeatedly outmaneuvered and outsmarted procedurally. What they’ve found—and what Sen. Tom Cotton’s controversial letter to Iran this week has proven—is that they’re much better off taking the fight away from the House and Senate floors….

[Cotton’s] letter criticizing the administration’s attempts to craft a deal with Iran—and his relentless pursuit of signatures from conservative and establishment Republicans—has driven the conversation in the Senate all week and has 2016 candidates clamoring to join his effort. Cotton, with a few mere months under his belt in the upper chamber, arguably holds more power on the issue of Iran right now than Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker and, perhaps, even McConnell himself.

Whether he can translate that into legislative victory remains to be seen, but Cotton is creating a model that conservatives hope to follow. But by getting out ahead of the issue, Cotton has forced leadership to include him in the conversation from the start, rather than having to try to outmaneuver the establishment in a floor fight after the fact.

This makes abundant sense not just because the evil RINOs McConnell and Boehner better understand the dark arts of legislative maneuvering, but because so long as there is a Democratic president, the legislative route is ultimately futile. So if you are limited to symbolic efforts anyway, why not do something spectacular that won’t get you accused of trying to shut down the federal government?

As Mimms points out, this strategy has the additional advantage of forcing the intra-Republican debate onto ground the Right already controls. The Cotton letter avoided the usual arguments over strategy and tactics and got right down to the lick log of denying the legitimacy of the Obama administration and of any diplomatic blandishments that might annoy the current Israeli government or deny the War Hawks the violent confrontation with Iran they seem to crave. Hell, even Rand Paul, whose daddy came pretty close to siding with Tehran on this issue during the 2012 Republican presidential debates, felt compelled to sign on.

So yeah, this could represent the wave of the future for conservative self-expression in Washington: speak very loudly, and carry a big if symbolic stick.

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.