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‘I’m Warm, Dammit’ (Blake Rutherford On Politics)

5 min read

There is a certain culture of understanding in political life that success is measured in pertinent part by personality. That is to say, more times than not the likeable candidate is victorious.

Consider that since 2000 likeability in politics has been measured by the response to a simple question: With whom would you rather have a beer? More people answered that question in favor of George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004. He won those elections, and naturally people assumed that had a lot to do with it.

But likability isn’t necessarily predictive. A study in the British Journal of Political Science published after the American presidential election in 2000 found that in the 13 American presidential elections between 1952 and 2000, Republicans won four of six elections in which their candidate had higher likability ratings. The Democrats won only three in seven of those contests in which their candidate did.

Notably, few people recall that Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter and Bob Dole all had higher likability ratings than their opponents on the Election Days in which they lost to John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton respectively. After all, when we think of mystique and charisma in the modern political era, those last three certainly come to mind.

Politics can be odd that way, I suppose, and voters often surprise us. What is important from that study, however, is that from time to time, performance can trump persona, which has a great deal to do with why Carter lost and Clinton won.

Two weeks ago Manu Raju published a story in Politico that began, “Democrats are trying to turn the critical Senate race here into a personality contest, and Republican Tom Cotton knows he’s got a serious problem if they succeed.” This, Raju concluded, prompted Cotton to launch “an all-out charm offensive.”

“My entire campaign is not just an effort to show warmth, it’s an effort for people to get a sense of me and know who I am — not just know how I vote,” said Cotton, as quoted by Raju. “They can look at the House roll call and figure that out.”

The unfortunate reality for any politician — particularly one who, like Cotton, has represented one-quarter of the state for less than two years — is that fewer people probably care. As much as Arkansas still holds itself out to be a retail state, many more people will inform their opinion from the millions of dollars television advertising that currently coat the airwaves.

So the important question is not whether Cotton is likable. Rather, it is whether Cotton is up to the task of governing, and that is why much more attention is being paid to his voting record and positions on key issues.

While it may seem like enough to placate the narrowing Tea Party with, in my view, harsh votes against student loan reform, disaster aid for FEMA as well as victims, much-needed farm legislation, raising the debt ceiling, compromise on immigration, the Paycheck Fairness Act for women, or, in the affirmative, providing support for the draconian Republican Study Committee budget that would dramatically reshape Medicare, those positions are very real things with serious consequences for many more people.

The same is true for his attitudes toward women’s health, evidenced by his opposition to the Violence Against Women’s Against Act, his support for “personhood,” and his gleeful response to the Supreme Court’s decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby to permit corporations to discriminate against women on religious grounds by denying them access to contraception coverage under the Affordable Care Act.

The Court’s decision is ill-conceived for that reason and others, including its unintended consequences, including for the anti-vaccine movement which has a profound and dangerous effect on public health already. It is also quite easy to see how the Hobby Lobby decision paves the way for discrimination in myriad forms, another chilling outcome.

Cotton’s star rose quickly, which explains why he was polling the Senate race merely one month into his lone term in Congress. He had reasons to feed his ambition, of course, most notably that President Barack Obama was quite unpopular back home in Arkansas. But events in other states gave him hope at that time, too.

In 2012, Texas’ election of U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz was important and had Republicans regaling. Cruz appeared to be part Barry Goldwater libertarian, part Mike Huckabee evangelical, part George W. Bush confrontationist, plus educated in the Ivy League and a former clerk for the Chief Justice of the United States who read Ayn Rand. As Pulitzer Prize-winning conservative columnist George Will wrote, “For conservatives seeking reinforcements for Washington’s too-limited number of limited-government constitutionalists, it can hardly get better than this.”

Two years later, we know that it can, in fact, get a lot better than that. Far right obstructionism over the Affordable Care Act resulted in a shutdown of the federal government at a $24 billion cost to taxpayers. U.S. Sen. Richard Burr, R-North Carolina, said, “It was the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard of.” Afterwards, Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, was quoted in the New Yorker saying, “It was a fool’s errand, and it hurt the Republican Party and it hurt my state.” Cotton, you may recall, endorsed Cruz’s “kamikaze” tactic, as The Wall Street Journal described it.

In the Senate, Cruz’s approach has also stymied meaningful reforms to immigration, climate change and gun control, even in the wake of the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut. Cruz, in dramatic fashion, opposed raising the debt ceiling and even opposed something as sensible as the United Nations Treaty on the Rights for Persons With Disabilities, despite support from disabled war veterans like former Republican U.S. Sen. Dole.

Once considered to be “the next great conservative hope,” according to National Review, Cruz is no longer a first tier GOP presidential contender, in significant part because of this. David Frum, formerly a speechwriter for President George W. Bush and a well-regarded political commentator, noted that Cruz was “not a bet responsible Republicans should be willing to take if we have any intention of restoring our party to the White House in the near future.”

Like Cruz, Cotton is searching for a broader national profile, and a position in the U.S. Senate would provide him with one. But at what cost to Arkansas’ interests? Furthermore, can the goals of moderates, particularly Republicans, be met with Cotton in the Senate? The answer to those questions are far less certain than when this race began.

That may have something to do with persona, but I think it has a lot more to do with performance. Ultimately, Cotton may persuade voters that he’s warm, but as he continues his misguided strategy to double down on irresponsible and extreme positions, he may also persuade them that he would, if given the opportunity, make a mess of things in the Senate, just as another of similar cast has done.

(Blake Rutherford 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.)

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