Opinion

The Tom Cotton gambit to win the Republican future

The senator from Arkansas is playing a smarter, longer game than Ted Cruz or Josh Hawley

It's shocking yet unsurprising that Sens. Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz have chosen to lead a faction of their Republican colleagues in a constitutionally dubious effort to scuttle Congress' certification of Joe Biden's win in the presidential election.

It's shocking because it shows that high-ranking elected officials in the GOP support President Trump's quest to delegitimize the outcome of the election and somehow get himself crowned the winner through anti-democratic means. But it's unsurprising because polls show that large numbers of Republican voters support the president's unconstitutional power grab, and Hawley and Cruz each desperately wants to emerge as the party's populist successor to Trump.

Yet it is another senator — Tom Cotton of Arkansas — who may well have the better shot at winning the Republican future.

That's because Cotton has made the choice to blend his support for some aspects of Trumpian populism with a rejection of the president's supremely irresponsible refusal to accept his own electoral defeat. That combination of positions — broadly affirming of Trumpism as the way forward for the GOP while distancing himself from the egregious corruption and authoritarian thuggishness of Trump the man — could be ideal for advancing the party's prospects in 2024.

To see why, consider that Hawley, Cruz, and the other Republican senators who plan to raise objections to the counting of Electoral Votes on Wednesday are going quite far in seeking to demonstrate their personal fealty to Trump. They are presumably doing it not because they genuinely believe that the election was stolen from Trump in an unprecedentedly brazen act of election fraud for which there is nonetheless no evidence. As their colleague Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse has noted, when congressional Republicans speak in private, they don't allege that "the election results were fraudulent." Rather, they "talk about their worries about how they will 'look' to President Trump's most ardent supporters."

Hawley, Cruz, and the other insurrectionists are gambling that Trump and those most devoted to him will remain kingmakers in the party after the president leaves office on Jan. 20.

But here's the problem with that gamble: If its underlying assumption is correct, then people like Hawley and Cruz are unlikely to benefit from it, no matter how obsequiously they stoop before the mad king in the final days of his reign. That's because if Trump's personal version of populism remains triumphant in the GOP, the person who will benefit politically from it will be first and foremost Trump himself. And if not him — if he's too lazy or infirm to run for president again in 2024, when he will be 78 years old — the second in line will probably be his own children: Don, Jr., or his sister Ivanka.

A Republican Party still in thrall to Trump the man four years from now will be more likely to opt for Trump or his progeny than a couple of geeks playacting the role of Trumpy populist rabblerousers.

Then there's the uncomfortable fact that Hawley and Cruz don't at all agree on what Trumpism should amount to in policy terms, which may be one reason why Hawley announced his support for making trouble on Jan. 6 separately from and before Cruz took his own stand. Cruz forged his political reputation and ran for president in 2016 as a fervent Tea Partier eager to shutter Cabinet-level departments of the executive branch and institute a highly regressive flat income tax. Hawley, by contrast, has been the Senate's foremost advocate of turning the GOP into an unapologetic champion of the working class and has made a name for himself primarily by advocating strict new federal regulations on technology companies.

Those are very different visions of the Republican future, and their respective champions are bound to begin going after each other ferociously as soon as the Biden administration gets up and running. Which means that irresponsibly demonstrating loyalty to Trump this week will do little to settle the question of who will get to serve as the man's heir apparent in 2024.

That's why Tom Cotton may well be making the smarter move by opposing this week's pointless and destructive theatrics altogether.

Note that the rationale offered by Cotton strikes a much different tone than Sasse's impassioned statement of last week. Whereas Sasse speaks as someone exasperated with Trump and everything he stands for, Cotton focuses on the much narrower issue of the constitutionality of Congress attempting to usurp the power of the Electoral College. That enables Cotton to float above the many issues dividing the party, including the record and legacy of Trump himself, while showing himself to be a level-headed, responsible statesmen, at least in comparison with the president and his rabid congressional defenders.

That could well be the smarter path forward for Republicans as the Trump administration moves into the rearview mirror. Much of the GOP outperformed Trump in 2020. That's because Trump is (and will remain) personally very unpopular with lots of Americans, including plenty of people who were eager to vote him out of office while also supporting Republicans in Senate, House, and state-level races. Acting like responsible grown-ups while the outgoing president and a dozen or so colleagues throw a temper tantrum could be a good first step toward bringing those voters back fully into the Republican fold.

Cotton's policy portfolio also makes him a potentially formidable leader of the post-Trump GOP. In place of Cruz's economic libertarianism and Hawley's untested "worker's party" agenda, each of which would divide the party's donor class from elements of the Republican base, Cotton has primarily made a name for himself as a strong (even harsh) defender of law and order at home and a hawkish (but not internationalist, or even especially moral) foreign policy.

If the recent enormous surge in homicides continues while tensions with China build over the coming years, this could be an ideal mix and emphasis to win back suburban voters who abandoned the GOP in droves over the past four years, while also capturing strong support from the party's Trumpiest faction. (In his social media battle with The New York Times last June over his incendiary law-and-order op-ed, Cotton proved himself to be fairly deft at using Twitter to "own the libs." That will be an important skill for anyone aiming to succeed Trump in the GOP.)

With would-be Trump clones massing on the right and Ben Sasse and others hoping for a return to the priorities and tone of the Bush era on the left, Cotton looks to be seeking a third way that mixes muscular swagger, constitutional high-mindedness, and populist rabblerousing. That could be just the medicine the GOP needs to move beyond its post-Trump hangover to a brighter electoral future. Whether that would be especially good for the country is another matter entirely.

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