Behind the Curtain is a reported column, Web show and online conversation about the behind-the-scenes intrigue that shapes politics and policy. It will unfold every Tuesday (and beyond, when news dictates). See previous editions of Behind the Curtain here.
Freshman Rep. Tom Cotton, a veteran of two wars and with a pair of Harvard degrees, got a pleasant surprise last year that helped him win a very competitive Republican primary -- and then a very easy general election. It was a FedEx envelope full of checks that he didn't ask for, from a group he hardly knew -- the Club for Growth.
Tucked inside that envelope and several to come were $300,000 in checks from Club members, enough to help lift the 35-year-old former Army captain from obscurity -- and 47 percentage points down in his first internal poll -- to the fourth floor of the Cannon House Office Building. The Republican's district, the Arkansas 4th, is home to 33 rural counties -- and a conservative America that the media and much of the Republican establishment are struggling to comprehend.
The Club for Growth was putting its money on the most conservative Republican in a very conservative primary field -- and got its guy in Cotton.
In an interview in his still-bare office a few hours before being sworn in, Cotton told us he would have voted against both Speaker John Boehner's "Plan B" tax on millionaires, and the final tax hike that got the country off the fiscal cliff. He vowed to vote against raising the debt limit in two months, absent the sort of massive cuts the president opposes. He said he is more concerned about the "cataclysmic" consequences of inaction than the "short-term market corrections" of default. "I'd like to take the medicine now," he said.
Cotton has been flooded with calls in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook shootings, 9-to-1 against supporting any new gun control. There is zero chance he will vote for any new gun laws. And he sees a need to deal with immigration -- but in small steps that avoid granting legal status or citizenship to people here illegally.
To much of the country, Cotton is nothing more than a straight, Southern, white, male, "radical" conservative -- a befuddling relic of a fading slice of politics. But in Washington, he is the Republican Congress. Only through understanding lawmakers like him can you understand why the grand bargain collapsed, why raising the debt limit is not a given and why Boehner has vowed to quit for good his private chats with President Barack Obama, and instead invest more power in the Tom Cottons of the world.
You need to understand how Cotton won in November to appreciate how the modern Republican Congress works. The guy is a smart Harvard Law grad and former McKinsey & Co. consultant who likes to quote Socrates and The Federalist Papers. He is a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan who hired a fellow Iraq vet to mount an insurgent campaign for the Republican nomination in a vast rural district the size of West Virginia.
He is neither a hick, nor a blowhard. But he was virtually invisible until he won an audience with the Club for Growth. The Club has pioneered a technique that has helped make Congress an even more polarized mess. Instead of wasting time on high-profile races, the group intervenes in contested Republican primaries, often putting its money on the most conservative of a conservative bunch, like Cotton.
Chris Chocola, a former Republican House member from Indiana who is president of the Club for Growth, said the group zeroes in on candidates who have been overlooked or opposed by party leaders: candidates like Cotton, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio -- all of whom started at single digits in polls, then went on to beat establishment candidates after getting backing from the Club.
"The establishment opposed them, and now they're talked about as the future stars of the party," Chocola said. "The establishment is focused on party-building instead of the principles the candidates hold. Now these are national leaders who can be persuasive on fiscally conservative issues and can re-instill confidence that the Republican Party believes things."
Republican leaders generally sit out primaries, so the Club's aggressive, free-spending intervention has helped create a new generation of lawmakers who owe their success more to the Club than to Boehner and the GOP establishment.
Add this to the list of reasons Boehner often seems impotent these days.
So when it comes to Plan Bs, or tax-hike compromises, or the upcoming debt limit fight, lawmakers like Cotton have little incentive to take one for the Boehner team. So they don't -- and won't.
This is a big reason Boehner is making a dramatic change in his strategic approach. The speaker, who relished the one-on-one exchanges with Obama over a grand bargain, has promised colleagues he is quitting that approach, cold turkey. Instead, it's back to "regular order," which means committees and rank-and-file members have the power, not him.
You also need to understand how Cotton and most House Republicans see the politics of the moment -- and the incentives they respond to. Many are young and have seen victory only in vowing to fight for massive reductions in government, both in spending and intrusion into gun ownership and other matters. They think the mainstream media are full of it when they talk up compromise and balanced approaches that include more taxes or government. "We went from deep in the wilderness in 2009 to the biggest election in 80 years for Republicans by focusing on debt and on Obamacare," Cotton said.
This is bad news for Obama and anyone else dreaming of compromises on entitlement reform, guns and immigration in the year ahead. It is also bad news for those Republicans who want to reposition the party before the 2016 election. The vast majority of House Republicans are opposed to any new spending, willing to risk default to force spending cuts, dismissive of new gun laws and deeply skeptical about immigration reform.
And even though nearly 1.4 million more people voted for a Democrat for the House in November than voted for a Republican, according to a tally by David Wasserman of The Cook Political Report, the GOP won 33 more seats than the Democrats. Many in the media -- us included -- often underestimate just how conservative and how impervious to criticism and leadership browbeating these members are when appraising the chances for change in the next two years.
"I think that is the right ground for us to be on," Cotton said. "And to the extent that the Beltway, Manhattan media thinks it is not, they're mistaken about that. And they were mistaken for a long time in 2009 and 2010, as well."
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