There are a lot of people, including some Republicans, who by now have concluded that Tom Cotton’s Iran gambit was a truly terrible idea. I’d hazard a guess that at least some of the 46 other Republican senators who signed on to Cotton’s letter to the government of Iran essentially trying to sabotage negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program didn’t think through all the ramifications, and now wish they had. The move has been lambasted not only by the White House and liberals like me, but by centrist analysts, foreign policy experts who say that it helps Iranian hardliners, and even some conservatives who worry that, as Greg observed yesterday, it makes it easier for hawkish Democrats to side with President Obama on the underlying issue.
All told, it looks like quite the fiasco. But Tom Cotton himself is probably saying, “That worked out great!”
That’s partly because the name “Tom Cotton” is now on so many lips, and he surely has more requests for television interviews than he could ever wish for. More than that, he’s shown what even a Senator who’s been in office just a few months can accomplish with a little initiative and creativity. It may be a black eye for his party, but to the tea party base from which Cotton sprang, he’s now a hero. The more criticism he gets, the more convinced they become of his heroism.
Indeed, a legislator in his home state of Arkansas has just introduced a bill that would allow Cotton to run for both re-election to his Senate seat and for president in 2020.
On paper, Cotton looks like a dream politician with nowhere to go but up — Iraq veteran, Harvard Law School graduate, the youngest senator at 37. It’s only when you listen to him talk and hear what he believes that you come to realize he’s a complete crackpot. During the 2014 campaign he told voters that the Islamic State was working with Mexican drug cartels and would soon be coming to attack Arkansas. When he was still in the Army he wrote a letter to the New York Times saying that its editors should be “behind bars” because the paper published stories on the Bush administration’s program to disrupt terrorist groups’ finances (which George W. Bush himself had bragged about, but that’s another story).
While in the House in 2013, Cotton introduced an amendment to prosecute the relatives of those who violated sanctions on Iran, saying that his proposed penalties of up to 20 years in prison would “include a spouse and any relative to the third degree,” including “parents, children, aunts, uncles, nephews, nieces, grandparents, great grandparents, grandkids, great grandkids.” Forget about the fact that the Constitution expressly prohibits “corruption of blood” penalties — just consider that Cotton wanted to take someone who had violated sanctions and imprison their grandchildren. Needless to say, this deranged piece of legislation was too much even for Republicans to stomach, and it went nowhere.
And now, Tom Cotton stands ready to become the next Jim DeMint. You may remember that the South Carolina senator used his time on Capitol Hill to become the leader of the GOP’s right flank, which often meant undermining or even directly opposing his party’s leadership, including endorsing tea partiers trying to unseat his Republican colleagues in primary races. When he left Congress, DeMint became the head of the Heritage Foundation, quickly turning the think tank into an outpost of undisguised far-right hackishness.
If Cotton is to emulate DeMint and not, say, Michele Bachmann, he’s off to a good start. There’s always a market for a politician willing to express the nuttiest beliefs, but if you have real ambition you need to make a real impact. Cotton’s letter managed to pull most of his colleagues along on his misguided mission, and for him it was a victory, whatever the fallout to Republicans more generally and the headaches it generates for the party. I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s already planning his next move. And there may be other Republican senators thinking of doing something similar.
Mitch McConnell must be thrilled.