Cotton the populist

Sen. Tom Cotton
By Steve Brawner
© 2017 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

Sen. Tom Cotton made a name for himself because of his combat service, support for the military, opposition to the Iran deal, and fierce criticism of President Obama. These days, he’s talking a lot about a top issue in the 2016 presidential campaign – immigration, and not just the illegal kind.

Cotton has expressed support for the president’s border wall with Mexico and for his refugee policies, while also raising the ante by introducing the Reforming American Immigration for Strong Employment Act.

Cotton’s RAISE Act would reduce the number of legal immigrants admitted into the country from more than 1 million in 2015 to a little more than 500,000 by the act’s 10th year. It would do so by eliminating preferences for some adult family members, eliminating a lottery system that is supposed to increase the diversity of immigrants but which Cotton says really doesn’t, and limiting the number of refugees to 50,000 per year.

Cotton’s argument is that immigrants are creating surplus labor, driving down wages in low-skilled jobs and making it harder for certain Americans (including the immigrants who are already here) to get ahead. As long as a new immigrant is willing to work a job for subsistence wages, then that’s what the job will pay. It’s a pretty good deal for corporations that profit off cheap labor, Cotton says, but not for blue-collar Americans.

These are not brand-new stances for Cotton, but they and other bread-and-butter issues are getting more emphasis since you-know-who was elected president. On Feb. 16, Cotton criticized the high cost of a prescription drug on the Senate floor by saying, “We should be channeling people’s ambition and entrepreneurial spirit into finding cures, not finding new and clever ways to make a profit.” It wasn’t long ago that few Republicans would ever use the word “profit” negatively in any circumstance.

For decades, the Republican Party has been composed of an increasingly awkward alliance between big business interests and culturally conservative Americans. Those two groups’ interests are not always aligned economically, particularly for Americans without a college degree, who have not recovered much in this economic recovery while the rich have gotten a lot richer.

In election after election, Republican candidates have bridged that gap by mixing pro-big business politics with culturally conservative stances on social issues, all seasoned with promises of tax cuts that everyone likes. The formula has worked particularly well among whites without a college degree. According to the Pew Research Center, John McCain won that group of voters 58-40 percent in 2008, while Mitt Romney, the ultimate big business elite candidate, won by an even bigger margin, 61-36.

In 2016, Trump ran a different kind of Republican campaign by appealing to those culturally conservative voters on both social issues and economic issues, helping him pick up just enough new voters to win key states. Trump ran as a populist, his message being that the common man is being hurt by the kind of “unfair trade deals” that big business Republicans (and big business Democrats) have often supported. As a result, according to the Pew Research Center, Trump won the votes of 67 percent of whites without a college degree versus only 28 percent who supported Hillary Clinton, a bigger spread than in 2012 or 2008. That gap is one reason he won 107,000 more votes than she did in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, just enough to make him president.

It’s a potent formula in certain parts of the country, including Arkansas. At the moment, Republican elected officials in those parts oppose Trump at their own peril. So we’re watching one of two things happen: either a historical anomaly that will correct itself in four years, or the transformation of a party as it better aligns itself with its own voters and potential voters. Democrats, who lost in 2016 after nominating a candidate who didn’t match their own voters’ mood, probably will undergo their own transformation in 2020.

The country’s already cynical enough, and I try not to add to that cynicism. Cotton’s recent emphasis does not equate to insincerity. I’m not saying his principles have changed, but it’s fair to say he has made an adjustment in his politics in the age of Trump.

So have a lot of other Republicans, and if they haven’t, they’d probably better.

One thought on “Cotton the populist

  1. If you are searching for the correct words to describe Cotton, try “political expediency.”

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