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Conservative with a Big C

Binyamin Rose, Washington, D.C.

The state of Arkansas has already produced one president — Bill Clinton. If it ever produces a second one, it would probably be Senator Tom Cotton. Mishpacha joins Cotton for a revealing talk in Washington

Thursday, April 20, 2017

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QUICK SPROUT Young in years but wise from life experience and a diverse military and professional background, Cotton — in four short years in Washington — has become one of the most forceful Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill (Photos: Eli Greengart)

D ardanelle, Arkansas (population 4,700), bills itself as a city of historic homes, giant trees, and friendly people located in the shadow of Mount Nebo and on the banks of the Arkansas River.

Its most famous citizen, US Sen. Tom Cotton, described his birthplace as follows: “It’s very rural. Not a lot of money, not a ton of opportunity. Strong family ties, strong sense of community, and solidarity among everyone.”

But whatever opportunities have come his way, Tom Cotton has seized them. His career has swiftly taken him upstream, from the banks of the Arkansas River to the shores of the Charles River and a Harvard education. He honed his courage and leadership skills in battle in Iraq and Afghanistan, sharpened his business acumen at global consulting firm McKinsey & Company, and in four short years, scaled Washington’s political hierarchy with alacrity.

When The Atlantic profiled Cotton in September 2014 in a piece entitled: The Making of a Conservative Superstar, author Molly Ball noted: “Tom Cotton is the ultimate product of today’s hard-edged, ideologically driven Republican Party. He unites the factions of the Republican civil war: The establishment loves his background, while the Tea Party loves his ideological purity.”

Arkansas voters like him, too.

In 2012, at age 35, he defeated his Democratic opponent by 22 points to win a seat in the House of Representatives from the district that includes his hometown. Nine months later, Cotton announced he would challenge incumbent Democrat Mark Pryor in Arkansas’ 2014 senatorial election. Some pundits and pollsters initially thought Cotton was taking a big gamble too early in his political career. Pryor was the scion of a political dynasty in Arkansas; his father David Pryor had been a popular governor.

But they don’t call Arkansas the “Land of Opportunity” for nothing. Cotton didn’t just win, he whipped Pryor handily, by 17 points.

Two years later, Cotton rolled the political dice again, climbing aboard Donald Trump’s bandwagon early in the 2016 primary season. It’s not as if Cotton was an avid Trump supporter. Whenever interviewers like The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg and MSNBC’s Chuck Todd pressed Cotton to make a positive case for Trump, Cotton instead put the knock on Hillary Clinton. But by remaining constructive on Trump and distancing himself from the Dump Trump and Never Trumpers, Cotton positioned himself as one of the GOP’s most influential senators. Early on, when Trump was left with no choice but to dump Mike Flynn as national security advisor, it was Cotton who came to Trump’s rescue, recommending H.R. McMaster as Flynn’s replacement, a choice that earned Trump rare bipartisan approval in Washington.

But Trump’s credit line with Sen. Cotton is far from unlimited. He was a vociferous opponent of the Obamacare repeal measure that Trump tried to force down the throats of a reluctant Congress. He contended it was hastily conceived, did not address the root causes of rising medical premiums, and ultimately members of Congress who voted for it would lose their seats.

That measure was pulled on a Friday late in March. My interview with Sen. Cotton took place the Monday after, in his office in the Russell Building. It soon became clear that whether Cotton offers full-throated support for Trump or not, he sees strong parallels between Trump’s meteoric rise to the presidency and his own political fast track.

Specifically, in both his 2014 senatorial campaign and the 2016 presidential campaign, Cotton contends that frustrated voters registered their dissatisfaction with the slow pace of the economic recovery following the 2008 financial collapse — along with rising crime and a decline in America’s global prestige — by supporting contrarian candidates.

While Cotton won in 2014 by tagging the election as a referendum on President Obama, and tarnishing his opponent as a key Obama supporter, he says the 2016 race was just as stark. “You had two candidates that couldn’t be more different; one of which could not be a bigger embodiment of the status quo, Hillary Clinton, and one who could not have been a greater disruptor of the status quo, Donald Trump. And you see how the American people chose. I think the 2014 election in some ways was a small preview of that.”

It’s well and good that the voters raised their voices, but will the new faces in Washington make things better?

“Well I hope the conditions get better,” Sen. Cotton says. “That’s why Arkansans elected me and that’s why Americans elected Donald Trump. We’re starting to see some improvement in the economy. We’ve started on the regulatory front and I think we’ll have more and bigger things coming there. We’re going to cut taxes and make things a little simpler for businesses and for families, and that’s going to make a big difference.”

Of course, Donald Trump hasn’t been a traditional president. His off-the-cuff tweets and exaggerations have caused his administration no shortage of trouble in its opening weeks. But for Sen. Cotton, what matters most is results.

“He’s not going to be judged based on something he said during the campaign trail or something that he tweeted on a Saturday morning. He’s going to be judged in three and a half years on whether he delivered on promises on which he campaigned. Is he bringing back jobs to America? Are wages increasing? Are streets safer? Is our nation more secure?”

Common-Man Touch

As a member of US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, security issues at home and abroad are paramount for Cotton.

A week before our interview, he visited Israel, Jordan, and Lebanon for security consultations. Cotton, a lanky 6-foot-5, returned from the Middle East with a touch of the flu, but rose from his sickbed to make it to the Senate for the vote approving David Friedman’s nomination as ambassador to Israel.

That commitment to duty is one of the things that distinguishes Cotton. Another is the remnants of his distinct southern twang; despite his powerful position, Cotton hasn’t lost his common-man touch.

He attributes much of his down-to-earth attitude, and his success, to the values his parents, Len and Avis, instilled in him.

“My father is as honest as the day is long,” Sen. Cotton said. “He has a strong sense of duty and responsibility, whether it’s to his family, to his animals, to his community, or to his friends. My mother is very loving and caring and always puts others first, whether it was my sister and me, or my father.”

The Cotton household was not politically active, and Tom didn’t take much interest in politics until he arrived at Harvard.

“We didn’t talk about politics or policy ideas around the dinner table. But it was a very conservative upbringing, with a ‘small c,’ ” Cotton said. “They taught me from an early age about the difference between right and wrong and the importance of hard work, discipline, and caring for others. Once I became older and began thinking about politics and government, I became a Conservative with a big C.”

Tom Cotton was raised in Dardanelle’s First United Methodist Church.

He made his first Jewish friends at Harvard, where he quickly learned what Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur were all about.

“I’d heard of them in a vague Biblical sense, but the idea that you wouldn’t have classes on them or that people might be going home for them was just not something that was within my realm of experience as a high school kid growing up in rural Arkansas,” Cotton says.

Two months into his first semester at Harvard, Israel’s prime minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated. Cotton took interest in the intense debates among his right- and left-wing Jewish classmates, and through that experience, began to gain an appreciation for the depth of the bonds between the US and Israel. That’s when he began reading more about US-Israeli relations and Israel’s role in the Middle East.

Home on the ranch, where Tom Cotton still pitches in to help his father raise cattle

Up until that time, his only experience with the phenomenon of anti-Semitism came through history classes and movies, but it was something he could never fathom.

“For the longest time, when I was a teenager watching the news, it was never clear to me why there was such antipathy for the Jewish People. It was especially never clear to me why there is so much antipathy for Israel and why it is targeted by both nation states and by terrorists,” Cotton says. “As one who had been taught by my parents, especially my father, to stand up for right against wrong and protect the little guy if you had to, I couldn’t understand why this relatively small nation that was peaceful and democratic seemed to be getting picked on all the time and ostracized when you got all these other countries that were committing terrible crimes against their own people or against their neighbors, as you saw during the Iran-Iraq War or during the Persian Gulf War.”

While it is not uncommon for the majority to single out small, insular minorities — such as Jews — as being different from society at large, Cotton says that is no excuse for prejudice: “Anti-Semitism is a form of irrational hatred. It’s not something we can tolerate as a country, or I can tolerate as an individual.” 

Next Generation

Once out of Harvard, with a degree in political science, Cotton spent a year at Claremont Graduate University. One of his mentors was the conservative scholar Charles Kesler, who would lambaste progressive liberals for breaking faith with the constitution and setting out to create a new, living constitution and a new, unlimited state.

Cotton returned to Harvard, where he earned a law degree in June 2002. He then clerked for a federal judge before entering private law practice, but not for long.

In January 2005, Cotton traded legal briefs for army khakis, following both his father’s and grandfather’s footsteps in the US Armed Forces.

Cotton led a 41-man air-assault infantry platoon in Baghdad with the 101st Airborne Division and in 2008, was assigned to Afghanistan, where he planned daily counterinsurgency operations for an 83-member team. He won an array of medals and received an honorable discharge in September 2009.

What did he learn from his military experience that’s applicable to Washington’s political battles?

“It’s very concrete and it’s very practical. It’s very tethered by the reality of the day to day. How much can you carry? How far can you move? What are the bad guys going to be doing that day? It can make you somewhat skeptical to ‘airy-fairy’ abstractions.”

During his first and only term in Congress, Cotton’s military experience also came in handy as a member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, and its subcommittees on the Middle East, North Africa, and Terrorism. Cotton won support from pro-Israel groups due to his hawkish stance toward Iran. Just a few weeks into his senate term, he took a leadership role, drafting a letter cosigned by 46 Republican colleagues warning Iran that Congress, or a future president, could revoke or alter any nuclear agreement that was not formally approved by Congress.

That single-term in Congress also marked the end of his single days.

Following a speech he gave a few days after he was sworn into the House, a Virginia lawyer named Anna Peckham introduced herself to Cotton. They were married a year later, in March 2014, and have two sons, Gabriel, 2, and Daniel, four months old.

Born a few weeks premature, Daniel’s lungs were undeveloped, giving the new parents a scare. “It was distressing,” Cotton recalls. “We only got a couple hours together and then they took him away and put him in the NICU. For the first four or five days it was touch and go, so obviously that was a challenge for us. But it also made us more grateful for him, and for advances in modern science and medicine that helped save his life. But he’s fine now and there’s no lasting impact. Judging from the volume at which he screams, I think his lungs are pretty strong.”

Cotton says the boys’ Biblical names were chosen by design.

“My wife and I were both a little bit older when we married and had children,” he says. “Young for the Senate, old for parenthood. Gabriel was our little angel and a messenger of G-d that brought us good news. Daniel, we named after the prophet Daniel. We felt that our little Daniel was in the lion’s den in the NICU.”

Now that the topic of the next generation arises, I remind Sen. Cotton of the interview he granted me three and a half years ago, just as he was announcing his decision to run for the Senate. At the time, I cited an article from Politico that suggested he might be among the next generation of Republican presidential contenders. Early on, there was talk of a Christie-Cotton ticket in 2016.

Cotton interrupts: “Funny how things turn out.”

“For sure,” I reply. “And I remember at the time your answer was — ‘Well, that would be news to me. I’m not going to be on anyone’s ticket in 2016 to the best of my knowledge.’ ” But how about 2020?

Cotton chuckles.

“I would imagine that Donald Trump and Mike Pence will be carrying our banner forward in 2020,” he says. “I’m very grateful to have a chance to serve Arkansans here in the Senate where I can have an even bigger impact than I did in the House. I’ve got a lot of runway in life, and right now as a relatively new senator, still the youngest senator, and with two boys under two, I’m very happy to be getting my work done here and letting the future sort out itself.” 

 

THE BUSINESS OF POLICY MAKING

During his short stint as a consultant for McKinsey & Company, Tom Cotton built a broad foundation in both operations and strategy, and sales and marketing, in agriculture, energy, and health care.

“In a company like McKinsey you learn how important practical wisdom is,” Cotton says.

In addition to practical skills, he gained insights into how government policy can impede or assist businesses. “It’s probably a good lesson for people in politics who haven’t had that kind of practical experience to listen and understand from that experience and point of view rather than to try to think in terms of abstract principles deduced into a kind of policy.”

 

Donald Trump also rose to higher office on the back of his business experience. Will that experience aid his presidency, or is there little connection between real estate and politics?

“It’s a good thing that Donald Trump has business experience and that so many of his senior advisors and cabinet members have business experience. By contrast, Barack Obama was a professor and a lawyer. We need those in our society as well, but we probably had a few too many of them in the Obama administration, which is why so many of their policies seemed to be cooked up in a college seminar room. You know the kind of abstract ideas that are applied without consideration of concrete practical realities in the world? Donald Trump was in one of the most concrete, practical businesses you can imagine, building stuff. Donald Trump is a man who has come to the White House much more skeptical of politicians and the abstractions and generalities in which they often tend to deal.”

 

On health-care reform, you said that the House Obamacare repeal was rushed. If Senator Tom Cotton was rewriting the health bill, what would it contain?

“The broad framework of that legislation was the right approach, to try to turn Medicaid into a program that is primarily administered by state governments and give them a chance to design Medicaid systems that work for their state in a way that contains costs without simply cutting doctor payments. That’s one reason Medicaid is such a flawed program today. The only way states have to control costs is simply to cut payments to doctors, and therefore doctors don’t like to see Medicaid beneficiaries. The final amendments to the bill would have given states a choice between having either a straight block grant in which they control almost everything or getting an amount of money based on a per capita cap and then hold them accountable if they go over that cap in terms of the money they have to kick back to the federal government.”

 

Sounds as if you like the bill. So why didn’t you support it?

“The bigger problems with the bill were in the individual insurance market. That is the fundamental problem with Obamacare. It’s been driving up the cost of insurance for everyone. Premiums have been going up now for three years. Not just in the individual market, but also in the employment-based market, where most Americans get their health insurance. The fundamental reason for that is all of the Obamacare regulations. And this legislation simply did not touch many of those regulations. It would have been much better to try to get after those regulations, allow people to buy health insurance plans that are more tailored to their own needs, whatever those needs might be, with some degree of financial support through tax credits for those who are older and those who are poor.”

 

Last year, when the story first broke over wiretapping the DNC and President Trump’s alleged Russian connections, you made a statement that when Trump would start getting security briefings, he would begin to understand exactly how Russia undermines US interests around the world. How does Russia undermine US interests, or is this just another “red scare”?

“No. Russia is not our friend and Vladimir Putin is, always has been, and always will be the KGB through and through. Just look at the way they treat [US] citizens at our embassies and consulates in Russia and Eastern Europe. Just last summer they beat an American diplomat on the doorstep of our embassy. There are widespread reports of them breaking into the homes or spiking the tires or killing the pets of American diplomats who are in Moscow.”

 

That sounds like cruelty, not undermining on a policy level.

“No, this is so deep-seated in the Russian political mind. It’s an object of Russian policy to undermine and display cruelty to Americans wherever they are. So if you’re a Russian spy in some hellhole in the Third World that doesn’t really have much value to Russia, you’ll spike the tires of an American diplomat, and that will be in your monthly fitness report as a great accomplishment. That’s just on a very small level of what they do. On a broader level, obviously in the Middle East, they are trying to undermine our interests. They’ve given Syria their most advanced air defense systems, which are now threatening Israeli planes when they need to strike Hezbollah-bound convoys, and they’ve done the same thing for Iran. In Europe, they continue to interfere with the political systems of our allies in countries like France. They continue to occupy Ukraine and Georgia and Moldovan territory. They consistently try to undermine US interests around the world. I’ve not spoken with the president since he was inaugurated about his assessment of Russia, but I’ve noticed that he has not taken a single policy action that you might consider being anything that’s other than hawkish on Russia. Nor has he hired anyone in his cabinet that is anything other than a Russia hawk.”

 

You aren’t concerned about the reports of Trump’s Russian connections?

“The media talks about it a lot, but I would just ask where’s the beef? Name one thing that Donald Trump has done since he took office that could be conceived as soft on Russia. Or dovish. Or that’s pro-Russian. If you’re sitting in Moscow and you have an American president who has appointed people like H.R. McMaster, Mike Pompeo, John Kelly, Rex Tillerson, and Jim Mattis to his cabinet, that doesn’t seem like a very friendly administration. If you’re sitting in the Kremlin and you have a president who proposes to build up our military and our nuclear arsenal, accelerate ballistic missile defenses, and produce more oil and gas, again that doesn’t seem like a president who is going to support your interest. Quite the contrary. It’s a president who is changing the basic correlation of forces between our two nations.”

 

Should Israel have to consult with the United States before taking military action, in Syria, or anyplace else for that matter?

“Of course it doesn’t have to consult with the United States before taking military action in its vital national security interests. There are good reasons why it frequently does, whether it’s a means to simply deconflict airspace in a crowded airspace like Syria, or to get various kinds of intelligence or logistical support. Israel is a sovereign nation, and it has to take the actions necessary to protect its national security when needed. Again, there are good reasons why they usually do consult with the US, but that’s not something they have to do.”

 

The two-state solution is undergoing a reassessment. Do you have an opinion?

It’s hard to have a two-state solution when you got the second player divided deeply in two — between the PA in Judea and Samaria, and Hamas, a recognized terror group in Gaza — and when the PA is repeatedly, whether it was under Yasser Arafat or Mahmoud Abbas, turning down offers from multiple Israeli leaders that would have given them virtually everything they want. This is a choice for the people of Israel and the Palestinian people, and not something that we can impose upon them. But it’s understandable why peace negotiations have been long stalled when you look at what the Palestinians have turned down, and also the fact that a terror organization controls one of the main pieces of what would be a Palestinian state.”

 

Do you favor moving the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem?

“We should move the embassy to Israel’s capital. We would consider it an affront if nations put their embassy in New York or Chicago or Houston, so we should put our embassy in the Israeli capital. It can be done in a careful and deliberate fashion. There is no reason to be precipitous about it. It’s something that we should do in consultation with the government of Israel, but I think we should have our embassy there.”

  

A LIFE WE CAN RELATE TO

Abraham “Avrumi” Schwartz, a Flatbush native and Boston resident, conducted legal and regulatory analysis while clerking for Tom Cotton in the Senate this past summer. He found at least two areas of commonality with the senator from Arkansas.

The first is Harvard Law School, Cotton’s alma mater, where Avrumi is finishing his second year of studies. The second is putting family first.

While working for Cotton, Avrumi lived in Silver Spring, a Washington, D.C. suburb. To make it back to Monsey in time for Shabbos with his wife and children, he knew he would have to leave D.C. every Friday by 11:30 a.m. “The senator was understanding and everyone in his office was extremely accommodating,” says Avrumi.

On one occasion, Avrumi accompanied Sen. Cotton on a fact-finding trip to New York and remarked that it must be difficult for the Senator’s wife to be home alone taking care of the children. “He responded, ‘Yes, it’s quite difficult, but luckily, my in-laws flew into Arkansas to help her,’” Avrumi recalls. “The exchange had a ‘yungermanish’ feel. Yes, he is a prominent US senator, but he is living a life that many of us can relate to, and vice versa.”

Avrumi describes the atmosphere in Cotton’s office as all business, yet relaxed. “The hierarchy is not felt. The senator is wont to walk among the interns bantering and joking. His door is normally open and he is very approachable and congenial.”

That said, at times the pressure can get intense.

Two weeks before the Brexit vote, Cotton’s general counsel asked Avrumi to prepare a research brief on the potential economic and foreign policy ramifications of a British exit from the EU.

“My final day at the office was the day of the vote,” Avrumi recalls. “I submitted the brief just before I left. The British betting markets had it at 85% that Britain would stay, and I assumed my report would be in the trash by morning. When the vote came in to leave, it was both gratifying and nerve-wracking to know it would be used.”

Some of Avrumi’s research assisted in another area of keen interest to Sen. Cotton — exploring legal and diplomatic mechanisms with which to pressure kleptocratic foreign governments, primarily in Latin America and Central Africa, into reforming their corrupt and oppressive behaviors.

Closer to home, Cotton shares the concerns of the Orthodox Jewish community on education and taxation. “Our issues of concern are his own and instinctively so. While other members of Congress, particularly those of closer geographic proximity, are not naturally aligned with our community’s values and require various forms of incentivization on a host of issues, Senator Cotton remains a powerful ideological advocate,” Avrumi says. (Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 656)

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