Finger-in-the-wind political maneuvering doesn’t get much more stark than Republican gubernatorial candidate Asa Hutchinson and Republican Senate candidate Tom Cotton announcing earlier this month that they would support the ballot initiative to raise the state minimum wage. Despite general opposition to minimum wage hikes throughout their careers (and in Hutchinson’s case, specific opposition to this ballot initiative), the two saw the light the moment the initiative was approved. They know which way the wind blows: according to a Talk Business poll, 79 percent of Arkansans support it.
I was thinking about this when I read Molly Ball’s recent big profile on Cotton in the Atlantic:
The day after his speech in Conway, I spoke to Cotton in Hot Springs. I asked him whether it was important to stand on principle even when doing so might be unpopular. “I’ll tell you the truth, even in an election year, and that’s what people are ready for,” he said. “They don’t want traditional politicians like Mark Pryor, who’ve been hanging around for 24 years, who trim and hedge and won’t level with you.”
If you cover Tom Cotton, you will hear some version of this — from the candidate himself, from his campaign, from his allies, from his supporters, even from his childhood friends. You will hear that Cotton doesn’t do what’s politically expedient or what’s popular, he does what’s right. It is a point of honor to Cotton and his admirers that, as he learned in the Army, he does the “hard right” rather than the “easy wrong.” Cotton’s brand, as the political consultants say, boils down to this: You might not like the way he votes, but at least he’s principled. Nowadays they’re hedging, but for a long time the Cotton campaign took his vote against the Farm Bill as a kind of badge of honor. Here’s Cotton back in June: “Look, the easy vote would be to vote for the farm bill. It’s called the farm bill for goodness sake!”
Cotton has never granted me a one-on-one interview, but I get the distinct impression from talking to those close to him that this idea — the statesman who takes the principled, difficult stand rather than the unscrupulous, easy one — is very, very important to him. As Ball put it, “Cotton has always had a heroic sense of himself.”
Cotton’s ham-fisted endorsement of the minimum wage hike the day after the initiative was approved for the ballot was presumably meant to neutralize the minimum wage issue in this campaign, which Sen. Mark Pryor might have used as a political cudgel. As Roby Brock of Talk Business put it, the “strategy was to take it off the table — you’re not going to see a TV commercial that says Asa Hutchinson opposes the minimum wage or Tom Cotton opposes the minimum wage.”
The thing I wonder about, though, is whether for Cotton in particular that maneuver will damage his brand (Hutchinson, of course, is being called a flip-flopper). First of all, I would have loved to be a fly on the wall when Team Cotton decided to go this route. By all accounts, Cotton takes his self-conception as a principled and virtuous statesman personally. This had to sting.
More broadly, the “principled” defense has often been the Cotton campaign’s shield for some of his unpopular votes (like the Farm Bill, or voting against disaster relief funding, or against all kinds of federal spending that benefits Arkansas). That shield begins to crack if Cotton starts taking clearly unprincipled stands. Does Tom Cotton switch gears and take the easy road if it gets too politically hard? (I should add that Pryor himself has been cynical his positioning on the minimum wage issue, but cynical moves to stake out the middle…well, that’s Pryor’s bag.)
We’ve seen the same thing play out recently with Cotton’s votes against the Farm Bill and Children’s Hospital funding, with Cotton bobbing and weaving for cover rather than simply owning his votes. But that’s run-of-the-mill political spin, really. What stands out about his positioning on the wage hike is that he’s voicing support for something that he obviously doesn’t.
Of course, I’m not entertaining another possibility: that Cotton, after deep reflection, concluded that raising the minimum wage to $8.50 in the state of Arkansas was the right thing to do! (And to be clear, as I think a wage hike is right on the merits, I’m pleased as punch that Cotton and Hutchinson plan to vote for it.) Cotton had been very careful to avoid taking a position on this ballot initiative, saying he was “studying” the issue. I’ll just say that the notion that Cotton, on the day that the ballot initiative was approved, came to a policy conclusion diametrically opposed to the rigid ideology that has guided his entire public life…well, that seems unlikely. I’ve spoken with a number of Arkansas Republicans about Cotton’s flip and not a one has tried to argue to me that Cotton actually believes in it.
Since many Arkansas GOP lawmakers have actually voted against a state wage hike, and many local conservative advocacy groups and activists have lobbied against it, I was curious if anyone would condemn Cotton on this issue. (A similar state wage hike was killed in committee in 2013; Republicans voted en masse against a smaller wage hike in 2009 in the House, including Rep. John Burris, now the Cotton campaign’s political director.) Nope. Arkansas Republicans may not like the wage hike, but they’re not going to make a stink out of it now, out of loyalty to the election prospects of Cotton and Hutchinson. Conservative blogger Caleb Taylor reported that House Majority Leader Ken Bragg emailed caucus members and Republican candidates and told them to keep their lips sealed:
As you probably heard yesterday, Asa (Hutchinson) and several of our statewide and federal candidates announced they will be supporting the minimum wage proposal. We should stand behind these candidates and not let this be a distraction. I know each of us has our own thought toward this issue, but as Jeremy mentioned in the caucus meeting, we need a united front going in to the general election. Our focus instead should be executing our J.O.B.S. plan to create higher paying employment opportunities for those now in a minimum wage position. Let’s stay on message about creating more opportunities through a growing economy.
Arkansas Republicans had plenty to say about the minimum wage when it was actually up for a vote in the legislature, but now they’re standing by their Cotton.
Cotton’s foes, of course, say that he’s not really principled, that you can track all those “hard” votes via a scorecard from groups like Heritage Foundation and the Club for Growth. My own Unified Theory of Cotton is that he really does like the heroic self-image of standing up for unpopular, principled votes and he likes the political career advantages of receiving gobs of cash and support from these groups. The happy serendipity for Cotton is that staying in the good graces of his financial backers requires taking some difficult votes. In any case, Cotton said he’s voting for the initiative “as a citizen,” a key distinction. Congressman Cotton would get demerits on his scorecards if he voted for a minimum wage hike, but these groups aren’t too concerned with Citizen Cotton.
In any case, when the authorized biography of the Principled Mr. Cotton is written, this will be a chapter they’ll want to omit. He just looks like, well, a typical politician. Here’s what I wrote about Cotton when I did my big profile on him back in July:
Cotton seems to be a true believer on all of this. He is resolute and uncompromising. He’s not pretending to be someone he’s not. It will be up to Arkansans to decide whether they like what they see.
Approximately zero people think that of Cotton’s new stance on the minimum wage.