Tom Cotton continues to position himself as Trump’s legacy
Senator Tom Cotton, R-Ark., Can be seen at the Capitol Visitor Center on Tuesday, May 19, 2020. (Photo by Tom Williams / CQ-Roll Call, Inc. via Getty Images)
Senator Tom Cotton is still a young man in a hurry.
A near-certain 2024 candidate, Cotton is quietly slipping into his next plans, taking up his appearances on Fox News, and having the talks with mentors and potential donors that all budding young presidents have. But most importantly, the Arkansas Senator (perhaps very wise) split the baby over the imbroglio electoral fraud that upset the Republican Party.
Cotton declined to object to electoral college certification as rival Senators Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley did, but did not personally break with Donald Trump. After recording her disappointment with him on an insightful profile on Tim Alberta, former US Ambassador Nikki Haley can’t get the former president to return her calls. And if you’d been on the news lately, you’d have noticed that neither Hawley nor Cruz could take a big break, with slip-ups they made themselves.
But Cotton generally doesn’t pull the fire of the media or an exiled president. While he never risked going down with the Trump ship, it is striking that Cotton draws his attention, only to the senator’s political advantage.
Cotton recently praised Trump in a new report on China. The report, succinctly titled “Beat China”, advocates “deliberate decoupling” with the country, a formulation that only factions in the Trump administration have ever threatened.
“The most consistent policy of the Trump administration will, in my opinion, turn out to be a tougher stance on the People’s Republic of China,” writes Cotton. “This approach deserves praise and should form the starting point for a long-term, bipartisan national strategy. The ultimate goal of this strategy should be to cite the document that launched this country’s ultimately successful strategy against the Soviet Union, the “breakup or gradual mitigation” of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) power. “
Cotton was elected to the House of Representatives in 2012 and the Senate in 2014, and had already considered running a presidential election in 2016, according to people familiar with the situation. After Trump took power in Republican politics, Cotton backed him with an enthusiasm that other party elites did not have, declaring his support for the new standard bearer at Congress in 2016. The defeated competitors of 2016, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, were for example more unruly. The Florida Senator only appeared on video (long before this became the norm of the COVID era) and the Texas Senator notoriously pushed for a conscience vote (before reversing fall).
When Trump triumphed, the administration’s acolytes tried to recruit Cotton as a CIA director or secretary of defense. Cotton, by most reports, had a tough pass to stay at the Trump White House. It was another step in a long line of careful calculations and another subtle differentiation from its conservative rivals.
Cotton was viewed in conservative circles as a younger, if more mysterious, version of Mike Pompeo, a politician a decade older than him. Speculation about joining the Trump team peaked when the Hawk duo of Pompeo and John Bolton took over government foreign policy while Trump continually struggled to somehow enforce his control of the Pentagon. Though the two were basically viewed as subject matter in Washington for much of their tenure, Bolton is now running against Pompeo, openly mocking Trump as unfit for duty and blaming Pompeo for positioning himself naked for the presidency.
It’s plausible that a similar fate could strike the Cotton and Pompeo relationship when it comes to the duel in 2024 and occupies a remarkably similar turf. It might be useful, therefore, to contrast their attempts to bring the Republicans back to power.
While Pompeo is officially banned and sanctioned by the People’s Republic with his new report, Cotton does not shy away from claiming the China issue for himself. The status of Taiwan is a particular focus.
“Naturally [Chinese Communist Party] will risk a military conflict to keep power at home – for example, to maintain control of Taiwan – or if tempted by American indecision, “Cotton writes. Lyle Goldstein of the US Naval War College calls Taiwan “the most dangerous place on earth”. And many regional experts believe that this decade will see Chinese President Xi Jinping launch an invasion. As the most aggressive leader since Mao, he will almost certainly secure a third term in office that has been unprecedented in modern times.
If Cotton goes further and explicitly promises a military response to such an invasion as president in the years to come, he will be ahead of his competitors. Cotton is itself a product of elite institutions and signals that he recognizes that American corporations are strongly democratic and is skeptical of a change of guard against China: “The most significant domestic resistance will come from the China lobby: American and Western companies benefit from the economy integration with China. “
Cotton is an old antagonist of Iranian realists who leads efforts to tell Iranians in 2015 that Barack Obama’s nuclear deal (JCPOA) with Tehran under a Republican president would be null and void. Every Republican, even the realist Rand Paul, signed up. Regardless of what you think of the maneuver, Cotton was right about what was going to happen. The deal was null and void under Trump, and Iranian falsehood seemed the price to be paid for a conservative president who was otherwise more skeptical of intervention in the Middle East than any president of a generation. It is extremely unclear whether President Joe Biden will be able, or genuinely interested, to part with large political capital in order to revive it.
Cotton is in a way up to his old tricks with a Democratic president. He came to if not led, the Hill Skeptics Choir of the appointment of Robert Malley to lead the negotiations as Special Envoy for Iran. But there’s something theatrical about the conflict: the stakes in Malley’s appointment appear to be performative, and both sides have dug themselves in.
Biden may not be moving much on Iran, an extremely hot topic that will attract a court press from the Iran Hawk Choir in Washington. He gets into his subtle arguments like he’s just calling Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a conservative who teamed up with Trump weeks and weeks after he came to power. But Biden watched as his younger, more charismatic predecessor Barack Obama fought fiercely on the Iran issue (and was even turned down for a mostly Jewish country club after his presidency), and what for in the end? In particular, while the President appointed Malley, Biden did not throw a bone to Ben Rhodes, the bete noire of the Iranian hawks. Those who would still seek a less rigorous approach to the land are on a funk. “Biden is practically continuing Trump’s failed” max pressure “campaign,” concludes national security analyst Joe Cirincione in a Quincy Institute publication.
While Cotton doesn’t think this approach has failed, he may not find it very interesting – or at least one that has mass popularity. In his speech at the 2020 Congress last summer, the Senator particularly emphasized “endless wars”. Cotton is certainly still an Iranian hawk, even an over hawk, but recent activity shows that China is increasingly dominating its focus. One can see an emerging distinction here between Cotton and Pompeo, who ran an overtly neoconservative State Department and when asked about “endless wars” said, “endless wars are a direct result of weakness.”
If cotton has a second problem after China, it is the new culture war. Lawsuits against teachers’ unions for keeping American public schools closed can be found on Cotton’s social media. And he has made a name for himself as a leading, fearless advocate of military force to ward off violent demonstrators of all kinds.
Pompeo, on the other hand, has gone the other way and has continued to delve into the trench warfare between Iran and Israel. This is a move to corner the neo-conservative donor base as it shows off his record on Israel to evangelicals in the early electoral states of Iowa and South Carolina. It could work.
Pompeo tweeted about a former official not in the Biden administration:
– Mike Pompeo (@mikepompeo) February 18, 2021
Critics pointed out that it probably wasn’t what Rhodes said, stating that Rhodes is itself Jewish; They also dredged Pompeo’s account of inflammatory rhetoric about Muslims.
And what did Cotton say about it? For not the first time in the past few months, he was diligently calm.