Tom Cotton
’s elaborate dance during the Republican National Convention continues.

Here is Cotton in a CNBC interview trying to explain away Donald Trump’s apparent coziness with Vladimir Putin and Trump’s offhanded assertion to the NYT that he would back out of treaty commitments to NATO allies in the face of Russian aggression: 


I suspect, after this week, when Donald Trump is the nominee and he begins to receive classified briefings, similar briefings to what I receive as a member of the Intelligence Committee, he may have a different perspective on Vladimir Putin and what Russia is doing to America’s interests and allies in Europe and the Middle East and Asia.

We’ve heard versions of this dodge for some time — that at some future date, the wildly uninformed, impulsive, brutal, self-serving, delusional, intellectually lazy, vindictive, authoritarian, erratic, flagrantly ignorant man that we’ve seen again and again will turn out to be more measured and responsible at some future date. A simpler explanation is that with Donald Trump what you see is what you get: A dangerous buffoon unfit to be president. 

The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg ponders how Cotton, whom Goldberg takes to be a “rigid moralist,” can live with himself. Goldberg recounts asking Cotton, in a public interview about national security and foreign affairs, about the fact that Trump “doesn’t seem to have the preparation needed to do this job.” Cotton had no compelling response; he said that being president was hard and that Hillary Clinton would be worse. Here’s Goldberg: 


I find it impossible to believe that Tom Cotton thinks that a man of Trump’s knowledge, disposition, and ideology should serve as president. As one of the Senate’s stalwart young conservatives, and as a leading new voice among Republican hawks, he could have, at any moment, told the truth: A Donald Trump presidency will be a danger to national security. But instead, like so many other elected officials who should know better, he abdicated.

The simple explanation is that, moralist or no, Cotton is making what he thinks is the best bet for his own career and presidential ambitions. Unlike Ted Cruz, with his splashy, look-at-me show last night, Cotton wants to toe the line on party unity. This serves his long-term political strategy of being both a Cruz-like figure when it comes to far-right policy extremism, but also a good partisan soldier who can get along with the Republican Establishment. It’s a strategy that could theoretically open up a sweet spot for Cotton. Remember, Cruz’s golden opportunity to win the nomination this year ran into trouble in part because he was loathed by so many key GOP figures. Cotton is Cruz 2.0 when it comes to his actual positions and his unbending rigidity as a hardcore ideologue—but he’s also shown a willingness to play ball with party leaders (as I’ve written elsewhere, he votes with the “Hell No Caucus” but his public persona is more “Yes Sir”). He could be Cruz without the baggage. 

The calculating Cotton also wants to be cautious and avoid dissing Trump because he probably has hopes of sapping up Trump’s voters if Trump fails and Cotton launches his own run in 2020. For months, Cotton has been willing to offer a much more positive, or at least measured, take on Trump than most of his prominent GOP colleagues. Some pundits have even suggested that Cotton might be a future avatar for Trumpism. Color me skeptical: Cotton can probably channel some of Trump’s nationalist appeal, but Cotton is no populist, he’s no outsider, he’s an unbending war hawk, and he has none of Trump’s verve or charisma for whipping the GOP’s angry masses into hysteria. Still, like everything Cotton, you can see the political appeal on paper: if he could gain a following among the Trumpenproletariat and bring his own bona fides among key constituencies — Tea Party, Club for Growth, GOP Establishment, Bill Kristol Neoconservatives, Southern evangelicals — that could add up to a winning primary coalition in a post-Trumpacolypse Republican party. 


At the same time, like other ambitious Republican politicians, Cotton doesn’t want to be too full-throated in his support for the Donald since Trump is likely heading for electoral disaster and may be heavily associated with incompetence and crypto-fascism by the time this is all over, and since many key figures in Cotton’s party believe that Trump is a dangerous demagogue, perhaps including Cotton himself.  Not to mention the fact that Cotton’s public profile is heavily associated with being a principled, hardline war hawk, and Trump’s own foreign policy positions, such as they are, often run in diametric opposition to the stuff that Cotton supposedly cares most deeply about. 

Thus we end up with Cotton “hoping you already forgot” his convention speech, as one commentator put it.  We end up with Cotton tortuously dodging any questions about the GOP nominee. Ask Cotton about Trump, he talks about Hillary Clinton. He’s trying to step into the national spotlight while avoiding comment on the current national conversation.  

Will it work? Who knows! But all this tedious needle-threading risks exacerbating Cotton’s weaknesses: the forgettable speeches, the awkward and distant manner. Sometimes trying to play it both ways means losing your way entirely. Cotton still has the towering resume, but this week he’s been yet another small man, hiding in the shadows while a monster takes power.