Tom Cotton: The Future of the GOP?

This senator could be the future of the Republican Party.

Freshman senators have in recent years played an important role in the Republican Party's quest to find itself on foreign policy and civil liberties.

Rand Paul was considered one of the great Tea Party success stories of the 2010 elections. He managed to get a group of fairly conventional Republicans to join him in a filibuster designed to bring attention to drone strikes and presidential kill lists, not previously considered major GOP issues.

Paul also took high-profile stands against surveillance and indefinite detention. He was part of a successful effort to avert a military campaign in Syria, as well as failed attempts to repeal the Iraq war authorization and block the Libya intervention.

Now another freshman senator is leaving his mark on the Republican Party's foreign-policy brand, moving it back in the Bush-Cheney direction. This time it is Tom Cotton, the Arkansas senator who was one of the GOP's big success stories of the 2014 elections, in which the party captured the Senate.

It was widely assumed that Marco Rubio, the freshman senator from Florida and a possible 2016 presidential candidate, would be the main counterweight to Rand. But while Rubio has offered a sharp rhetorical contrast with his speeches calling for robust interventionism and warning against isolationism, he sometimes acquiesced to the skepticism of intervention Paul represented.

Rubio voted against intervening in Syria and participated in Paul's drone filibuster, though he did back President Obama's ill-fated Libya war. And even on Libya, he tried to triangulate a bit.

By contrast, Tom Cotton has gotten Paul to sign on to his letter saying Obama is basically speaking for himself only in the nuclear talks with Iran. Cotton's hard line against Tehran is now the default Republican position, and even the party's relative doves seem reluctant to challenge this consensus.

Some of this simply reflects a change in political conditions. The world no longer looks as secure from terrorism as it did when Obama was reelected in 2012. Hawks can now argue that even as Obama winds down wars, the country is not necessarily safe.

Paul's anti-interventionist positions on Syria, Libya, drones, surveillance and indefinite detention all had the benefit of also being anti-Obama. On Iran, one must defend negotiations being conducted by Obama and John Kerry with an Iranian regime that has been a familiar enemy since the hostage crisis in 1979.

Part of this is also Cotton. Unlike John McCain and Lindsey Graham, Cotton is young (he's only 37) and a strong domestic policy conservative in addition to being a hawk. Unlike Rubio and some of the younger hawks, the Harvard graduate served with distinction in Iraq. Nobody can say that the foreign policy he advocates is purely an abstraction for him.

The liberal website Salon fretted that Cotton was "Sarah Palin with a Harvard degree, Ted Cruz with a war record." The article described Cotton as frightening.

Whether Cotton is frightening himself is a matter of opinion, but he certainly believes the world is a scary place. "When the statistics come out, 2014 will be the worst year ever for global terrorism," he said in a talk at the Hudson Institute. He warned that federal military spending has dipped below 4 percent of GDP, suggesting that 5 percent—with an $885 billion annual price tag—might be preferable.

"The only problem with Guantanamo Bay is that there are too many empty cells," Cotton said at a hearing earlier this year. "As far as I’m concerned, every last one of them can rot in hell. But as long as they don’t do that, then they can rot in Guantanamo Bay."

In his maiden speech on the Senate floor, Cotton asserted, "The world is growing ever more dangerous, and our defense spending is wholly inadequate to confront the danger." He cited Winston Churchill's warnings about Adolf Hitler.

Reporters covering Congress roll their eyes at such statements, but they do resonate with people concerned about terrorism and radical Islam in a way that "strategic patience" and lectures about the Crusades do not.

"We do not win by trying to accommodate Islamic terrorists who want to kill us," the senator said at the Hudson Institute event, at one point noting, "[I]n the army and in combat I learned that when your opponent is on his knees you drive him into the mat and choke him out."

Cotton served only one term in the House before bumping off two-term Arkansas Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor, contributing directly to the new Republican majority. He was backed by fiscal conservative groups like the Club for Growth.

But it's unclear how to reconcile the cost of Cotton's foreign policy with fiscal conservatives' goals of a smaller federal government. And to acknowledge that Cotton speaks with passion and authority on military matters isn't to say he's right on the major strategic questions.

It remains to be seen whether Tom Cotton is the future of the Republican Party. On foreign policy, he already seems like a step backwards.

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