As the pressure intensifies on Republicans to declare their undying commitment to the highest conservative cause of the moment — doing whatever it takes to bring about the total destruction of Obamacare, including threatening a government shutdown — one person worth watching is GOP Rep. Tom Cotton, now that he has entered the Arkansas Senate race to the cheers of national conservatives.

In an interview last week that passed under the radar, Cotton came very close to declaring his support for a shutdown, without quite embracing it definitively. He certainly endorsed it as a legitimate tactic, which puts him squarely on the side of Ted Cruz and company.

Cotton is widely seen as having the unique ability to appeal to both the establishment and insurgent wings of the party, which are at war over the very question of whether to push a government shutdown over Obamacare, so his position on this will be watched closely. In a piece making the rounds today, an Arkansas writer details that he has struggled to get a Cotton spokesperson to say whether he supports a government shutdown, to no avail.

But here’s what Cotton told Hugh Hewitt, in a July 30th interview flagged by the DSCC:

“I think that when we return from our August recess in September with our continuing resolution and then in October-November with the debt ceiling, those are important opportunities to try to strike another blow against Obamacare before that law takes effect, before the insurance marketplaces begin to open for enrollment on October 1 and before they open for business on January 1. And whether that takes the form of trying to defund it or trying to effectively defund it by delaying for a year or two years the core provisions — the employer mandate, the individual mandate, and the insurance marketplace exchanges — it’s something that we’re still debating internally, but because those are two must-pass pieces of legislation, it gives us an opportunity to try to stop Obamacare before it takes effect.”

This quote — in which Cotton says funding the government and the debt limit are legitimate vehicles to block Obamacare — is newly relevant in light of Cotton’s entry into the Senate race. A spokesperson for Cotton didn’t answer an email requesting clarification.

All of this comes as some Republican elected officials are screaming at the shutdown brigade to get down from the ledge. Writing for Commentary magazine, Peter Wehner described the bloc of Republicans pushing for a shutdown to defund Obamacare as the “suicide caucus.” As Wehner put it:

If both sides dig in, if there’s a showdown and the federal government is closed down, the Affordable Care Act will not be defunded. Shutting down the government is within the power of the House of Representatives–but defunding the ACA would require the House, the Senate, and the president to sign new legislation into law. So the Rubio & Co. strategy hinges on an obvious fiction–that Barack Obama and the Senate will agree to pull the plug on his signature (and historic) domestic achievement. Short of that, ObamaCare lives on. [...]

The argument isn’t who finds the Affordable Care Act more detestable; it’s who is pursuing the more reasonable tactical approach to advance the conservative cause. I would argue it’s Ryan and Coburn and the vast majority of Coburn’s conservative colleagues.

But the rub is that, for the suicide caucus, the argument isn’t over who is pursuing the “more reasonable tactical approach” to undermining Obamacare. The suicide caucus has openly and explicitly redefined real opposition to Obamacare as a willingness to wreak as much havoc as possible in pursuit of that goal. It no longer matters whether that goal is attainable by this means; embracing the means itself has become a statement of conservative principle in its own right. Cotton appears, at a minimum, to be willing to humor this camp.

 

Greg Sargent writes The Plum Line blog, a reported opinion blog with a liberal slant -- what you might call “opinionated reporting” from the left.