The Art of Buying Cotton

FAYETTEVILLE, AR - OCTOBER 31: U.S. Rep. Tom Cotton (R-AR) and Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in Arkansas looks on during a tailgate party before the start of a Fayetteville High School football game on October 31, 2014 in Fayetteville, Arkansas. With less than a week to go before election day U.S. Rep. Tom Cotton (R-AR) is holding a narrow lead over incumbent U.S. Senator Mark Pryor (D-AR). (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Former generations might have looked upon filmreel of American servicemen dumping helicopters and other equipment overboard as our ships fled east Asia in the wake of our military debacle in Vietnam and been expected to believe that was what victory looked like. And that really is a note for middle age, because even my own generation seems to forget how we used to say, “America has never lost a war”. And over time that notion has been variously scaled, such that we’ve never fought a foreign war on our territory, and other such historical inaccuracies. No, really, there is even a way in which we argue that what happened in 1814 wasn’t a foreign invasion; after all, they were British. Fast forward to the twenty-first century when a guy from Mexico looking for work constitutes an invasion.

Never mind. Nostalgia, of a sort.

Let’s try a game show voice. Beauchamp says!

Wednesday night, Sen. Tom Cotton went on Wolf Blitzer’s Situation Room to talk about Iraq and ISIS. He said something surprising.

Meta-irony. The headline is, “Tom Cotton says ISIS is winning in Iraq. That is false.”

It’s a nice headline, I suppose. Functional. Direct. Not really much of a gray area, you know?

The headline isn’t the problem, of course; it is merely the frame. Because the question does, in fact arise: Why is this surprising?

“We just haven’t rolled back the Islamic State at all over the last six or seven months since we began our air campaign,” he said. “They’ve continued to hold the ground they always have. They haven’t advanced, but we haven’t rolled them back, either. And that’s not going to be enough to defeat them.”

“The Islamic State seems to be winning now,” Cotton later added.

This is, in fact, the exact opposite of what is occurring. ISIS is losing substantial ground in Iraq, and it’s hard to imagine why Cotton is insisting otherwise.

Zack Beauchamp’s assessment of what is wrong with Cotton’s argument works well enough, but Steve Benen approaches the question of surprise from a different angle:

Eight years ago at this time, then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) offered a bleak assessment of the U.S. war in Iraq, which was almost immediately condemned by his Republican critics. Then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) speculated about how American troops “are going to react” to such discouraging rhetoric about America’s enemies winning a war.

Rhetorical standards have changed in the years since. When Reid said our enemies had effectively prevailed, it was a scandal. But this year, Sen. Tom Cotton (D-Ark.) seems almost preoccupied with the assertion that Islamic State militants are “winning,” despite the U.S. military offensive against the radical group.

In February, the far-right senator said that to “many radical Muslims all around the world,” ISIS appeared to be “winning this war right now, and people like a winner.” In March, Cotton added that the United States is “not winning” the conflict.

This week, the Arkansas Republican repeated the argument once again, this time to CNN’s Wolf Blitzer ....

.... Apparently, by 2015 standards, there’s nothing shocking about Cotton’s dour assessment.

Rhetorical standards certainly are shifting. And we’ve seen this sort of trap before. I sometimes tell a bit referred to as the time machine jokeα, intended to make a similar point about how what was once unacceptable is now actually laudable, and the only difference seems to be whether the rhetoric is deployed in opposition to or on behalf of traditional empowerment.

And in the case of Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR), the question is not simply one of his rhetoric, but, to be certain, those who really ought to know better. The idea of a backbencher from an embittered Southern state saying stupid things is hardly mysterious, but as the #GOP47 reminded, even Senate Republican Leadership is too feeble to ward off these lowest of temptations.

Do we really need takeaway talking points? This is the list, then, and it is shorter than the list of blessings we might count in thanking God for such brevity:

• Tom Cotton is a whining, oppositional prig willing to say any stupid thing to get attention.

• There is nothing surprising about the stupidity of his rhetoric.

We might think what we will about changing rhetorical standards in American politics, but the blindness and stupidity of Mr. Cotton’s fearmongering, intended either to foment misdirectional distrust of the president or, more directly, compel our nation to war, is as nakedly apparent as it has become expected.


α An example, from 2008:

Once upon a time, when I was young and still building a political conscience, I said something that upset my father. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. Right. Anyway, I said something about President Reagan or his administration that he didn’t like. I probably called them criminals. He angrily explained that you cannot say such things about people. They were good men, trying their best. Certainly, they had not been convicted of any crime. (Perhaps whoever I was badmouthing was not among the thirty-two Reagan administration officials convicted of crimes—four of whom saw their convictions overturned.)

This story leapt ferociously to mind during the run-up to the war and harangued me through the subsequent string of failures and scandals that have plagued the early military campaigns of the New American Century. And on those occasions that I recall it, I usually wind up with a time-machine joke.

After all, if I could hop back to 1984 or so, and explain to people what re-electing a Republican president would lead to, it’s hard to say at what point the story would become unbelievable. Certainly, by the Clinton era, it was acceptable to say all sorts of horrible things about the President and his administration. But the idea that a Republican president would usher in so many of the things I was taught to fear of liberalism would have been a stretch. And the sad tale of the Iraqi Bush Adventure? My father is not a violent man, and never has been as long as I’ve known him. He would have thought I’d gone crazy. But telling the story, accusing Republicans of the things they have done, would likely have seen me run out of town by angry “patriots”, or simply beaten to death by a mob.

Beauchamp, Zack. “Tom Cotton says ISIS is winning in Iraq. That is false.” Vox. 7 May 2015.

Benen, Steve. “Tom Cotton’s favorite talking point: ISIS is ‘winning'”. msnbc. 8 May 2015.

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