As you’ve heard, Tom Cotton, the GOP candidate for Senate in Arkansas, has tried to explain away his controversial vote against the farm bill by blaming it all on the Food Stamp President.
Cotton was the only House Republican from Arkansas to vote against the farm bill, and Senator Mark Pryor continues to hammer him over it in ads and elsewhere. Cotton is running his own spot in response that claims he voted against the farm bill because Obama “hijacked” it and “turned it into a food stamp bill.” Cotton adds: “Career politicians love attaching bad ideas to good ones.”
The ad’s claim about Obama is ridiculous: Food stamp spending has been in farm bills for decades. But as a window into Cotton’s particular brand of Tea Party economics, the more interesting claim in the ad is the suggestion that food stamp spending is a “bad idea,” while the farm bill piece itself is a “good one”:
House Republicans originally wanted to separate the farm-only piece from the food stamp piece, breaking a pattern in which the two were passed together to create a coalition of rural and urban lawmakers that together could deliver for both groups’ constituents. So House Republicans first passed a farm-only bill, and then a food-stamp-only bill that contained draconian cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Congressman Cotton voted for both of those.
But conservative groups opposed even the farm-only bill in isolation. The Club for Growth, for instance, derided it as “loaded down with market-distorting giveaways to special interests with no path established to remove the government’s involvement in the agriculture industry.” In other words, even on its own, the farm-only piece, with its subsidies and giveaways to parochial interests, was exactly the sort of government interference into the free market that Tea Party conservatives are supposed to abhor. Yet Cotton voted Yes on it — presumably the “good idea” he alludes to in his ad.
The “bad idea” Cotton alludes to in the ad was the spending on food for poor people. The food-stamp-only bill that Cotton voted for sliced spending on food stamps by $39 billion; the final bill combining the two pieces, which he voted against, cut food stamp spending by “only” $8 billion. Cotton has explicitly said spending on food stamps should be cut because recipients are doing just fine and don’t need the help, claiming: “They have steak in their basket, and they have a brand-new iPhone, and they have a brand-new SUV.”
Farmers are…more affluent than the average American. Since they are overwhelmingly white and conveniently spread throughout nearly every state, their claim to public subsidy has gained some popular legitimacy….the charge Cotton falsely makes against the food-stamp program is in fact completely true about the crop-subsidy program. It furnishes its recipients with lavish benefits and many of of them are millionaires. But this is the program Cotton, even while fighting to the death against the one that feeds extremely poor, hungry people, vows to protect…He is running not quite as a principled foe of government, but instead as a committed opponent of redistribution. Government is bad insofar as it gives money to the poor and vulnerable.
The coda here is that in the ad, Cotton evokes his own father and upbringing on a farm as follows:
“On our family farm, we have a few dozen head of cattle. And one old guy with a head full of common sense: My dad. He taught me early: Farmers can’t spend more than they take in. And I listened. When President Obama hijacked the farm bill, turned it into a food stamp bill, with billions more in spending, I voted No.”
In other words, Cotton’s vote against the government spending in the farm bill is supposedly rooted in an appreciation of live-off-the-land self-reliance. But Cotton voted for the portion of the bill that Chait elsewhere describes as “agri-socialism,” only voting against the final product.
As David Ramsey of the Arkansas Times has explained, this two-step allows Cotton to make national conservatives happy, because the farm bill would be doomed if it were successfully split in two, while simultaneously telling his constituents he voted for the part that’s popular in Arkansas. That’s what his ad tries to do.
Indeed, many Republicans who voted for the final farm bill ultimately accepted the food stamp spending as a necessary trade-off to secure that agri-socialism. Cotton was not willing to do this, and he is casting this decision as heroic and lonely, telling Fox News that such votes are necessary to rein in Washington spending, even if they are unpopular. But the difference between Cotton and those other Republicans is not that he opposes agri-socialism. It’s the belief that packaging it with a too-high level of spending on food for poor people was too high a price to pay for it.