Molly Ball of The Atlantic is the latest with a major profile on Republican Rep. Tom Cotton and his race against U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor. It includes an exclusive: Her look at his senior thesis at Harvard on the Federalist papers. (His columns with a weird outlook on women, the Internet and other stuff at the Harvard Crimson are entertaining. But the thesis is, to use a word Ball employed about Cotton, disturbing.)
The piece is titled “The Making of a Conservative Superstar,” and it lists all the resume points that made Bill Kristol and other Beltway conservatives so enamored of Cotton. But …..
Yet Cotton retains an air of impenetrability, a blankness that has puzzled voters and pundits alike. And his failure to dominate the race has prompted prominent Republicans to worry that something is missing.
Cotton’s thesis fills in some of these gaps—in ways some might find disturbing. A cogent and tightly argued document, it reveals the depth and intellectual roots of his reverence for American traditions. It also reveals a contrarian devotion to some ideals that seem out of date today. Cotton insists that the Founders were wise not to put too much faith in democracy, because people are inherently selfish, narrow-minded, and impulsive. He defends the idea that the country must be led by a class of intellectually superior officeholders whose ambition sets them above other men. Though Cotton acknowledges that this might seem elitist, he derides the Federalists’ modern critics as mushy-headed and naive.
“Ambition characterizes and distinguishes national officeholders from other kinds of human beings,” Cotton wrote. “Inflammatory passion and selfish interest characterizes most men, whereas ambition characterizes men who pursue and hold national office. Such men rise from the people through a process of self-selection since politics is a dirty business that discourages all but the most ambitious.”
I had a long one-on-one with Tom Cotton when he came back to Arkansas to explore a Senate race in 2010 against Sen. Blanche Lincoln. I was struck then by that same impenetrability. Is he really that sure of everything? Does he really think he’s morally superior on every possible subject? And, what, finally, turned the son of Democratic-leaning, friendly, populist, small-town, salt-of-the-earth Arkansas parents into such a cold and unforgiving hard-right ideologue? Whatever it was, it was well-developed by college years.
It’s ironic to me that Cotton brands others as motivated by selfish interests, not the higher purpose that moves him. Selfish is in the eye of the beholder. Some might think it selfish to protect the income of the wealthy at the Club for Growth and repeatedly turn a cold shoulder to the poor and sick with Darwinian logic.
Ball writes that Cotton still believes and defends the words in that thesis. You must, by extension, believe he feels the same about all those Harvard Crimson columns, which his defenders want to discount as youthful prattle. Cotton wasn’t prattling then or now.
As the article hints, that seriousness is costing him votes. It should. He HAS voted time and again against popular spending — Children’s Hospital, disaster aid, Social Security, Medicare. He’s given a road map of his votes that should give pause to voters in a poor state that is certain to continue to be a net importer of federal dollars. He REALLY believes this poor place is full of food stamp recipients with a new SUV, new iPhone and a shopping basket full of steaks. He has yet to produce one, but when you have faith, who needs facts?
I’d be interested to know what Tom Cotton thinks of this profile. He gave the writer far more access than he’s given Arkansas reporters. It’s fair, thorough, detailed and nuanced. There’s much there to discourage a Tom Cotton vote, but I think they are only things the candidate himself would own (though, as Ball notes, he’s gliding over them during the election season.)