Posted 1/15/2014 02:30 pm
Updated 6 months ago
I was surprised in December when Public Policy Polling showed Democrat Mark Pryor and Republican Tom Cotton tied in their race for the U.S. Senate. Two months removed from the Obama administration's fumbled rollout of HealthCare.gov, outside political groups opposed to the Affordable Care Act had launched a severe and sustained attack against Democratic incumbents facing re-election this year, including Pryor.
Despite its illogic (surely Pryor isn’t to be blamed for poorly written software), a barrage of paid media can influence public perception. So it might have made sense if Cotton, an intended beneficiary, had opened a sizable lead. After all, nine months before the 2010 election, Republican U.S. Rep. John Boozman enjoyed a 23-point margin over Democratic U.S. Sen. Blanche Lincoln amid similar attacks. (Boozman won by 21 points.)
Certainly, each political race is its own animal. What holds for one doesn't necessarily hold for another. But I wonder whether Cotton's rigorous partisanship hasn't resulted in missed opportunities, not only for a big political advantage over his opponent, but also for his business constituents in Arkansas.
I see four issues where Cotton — to his detriment — took the partisan path.
The government shutdown: The political question today isn't whether health care will inform the election, but to what extent. Two weeks ago Gallup found 66 percent of Americans believed they were unaffected by the Affordable Care Act; only 19 percent felt they were hurt by it. According to a Quinnipiac poll released that same week, voters, in an expression of broad mindedness and attentiveness, viewed the economy and the deficit as more important priorities.
Yet last October a faction of congressional Republicans — including Cotton — inanely shuttered the federal government hoping to win Democratic concessions to the Affordable Care Act. It was a failure that cost taxpayers $24 billion. And Arkansans opposed it by a wide margin, 59 percent to 32 percent.
The budget: Two months later, Congress approved a two-year bipartisan budget that ended the prospect of another costly shutdown. The measure also reduces the federal budget deficit by $23 billion without raising taxes. U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan — of the Romney/Ryan presidential ticket that won Arkansas by 23 points in 2012 — led the House coalition supporting the budget. Ryan said, "As a conservative I think this is a step in the right direction. What am I getting out of this? I'm getting more deficit reduction."
But Jenny Beth Martin, a Tea Party founder who — along with Cotton — opposed the deal, wrote in The New York Times calling the deal for the budget "simple gamesmanship that raises legitimate questions about which values Republicans truly hold and which are merely interchangeable with those of Democrats."
Indeed it does.
The Farm Bill: Last June — in a move that amplifies Martin's point about values — Cotton had opposed the Federal Agriculture Reform and Risk Management Act (the Farm Bill). This, when agriculture accounts for more than $17 billion toward Arkansas' economy each year in employee compensation, proprietary income, business taxes and more than 259,000 jobs.
Immigration: As we begin 2014, attention has turned to immigration reform, a policy issue of national significance that could have a meaningful effect on Arkansas' economy.
Pryor has been at work on the issue. In June, a bipartisan Senate coalition including Pryor approved the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act. The bill offered several mechanisms to attract and retain talented people from across the world who want to live and work in America, which is why Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce President Randy Zook endorsed the bill in Arkansas Business in May.
Last week, Tom Donahue Sr., president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, noted in his annual State of American Business Address that he would "pull out all the stops" to gain support for immigration reform in the House and vowed "to make 2014 the year that immigration reform is finally enacted." A supporter of the Senate bill, Donahue's full-throttle engagement is good news for the pro-business reform effort, even if the result is the House considering the Senate bill gradationally.
Of course, to do so would constitute another intra-party affront to Cotton, whose antipathy toward compromise was first conveyed in an obdurate missive in The Wall Street Journal in July. The headline? "It's the House Bill or Nothing on Immigration."
What matters to Tom Cotton? Does it matter when the answer is always no? Maybe there's a greater question: Is a reliable partisan adequately suited to meet the possibilities of our times?
(Blake Rutherford is is vice president of The McLarty Companies and previously was chief of staff to the Arkansas attorney general. You can follow him on Twitter at BlakeRutherford. His column appears every other Wednesday in the weekly Government & Politics e-newsletter. You can subscribe for free here.)