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The Influencers: Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark.

7 min read

U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton was on the phone, saying with a chuckle that if he’s a rising national Republican star “that’s only an indication of how dark the sky is.”

The next day he was standing next to Donald Trump in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, drawing presidential praise for a plan to overhaul the nation’s legal immigration system.

So perhaps the senator isn’t the most reliable judge of his place in the GOP firmament.

Cotton inspires strong passions as Arkansas’ junior senator, a dogged believer who rose from the family farm in Dardanelle to success at Harvard and Harvard Law, a Bronze Star in Afghanistan and national recognition as a young conservative firebrand.

And at 40, he has learned to never say never, even when discussing talk of any future presidential run. “In politics, it’s never wise to rule things out, but I’ve been telling Donald Trump for the last eight months that I plan to do my job here in the Senate, which I love.”

In a brief but broad interview, the senator explained why he’s a conservative and outlined how he’d like to influence the nation. He described the lessons he reaped from the farm, the Army and politics, and he gave an overview of the issues that drive him, including immigration, health care and changing the tax code.

“My ultimate goal is to give 3 million Arkansans a chance for a better life, with more money in their pockets and more opportunities for their kids to grow up in safety and prosperity,” Cotton said. “Those are big goals, but that’s why we go into public service.”

The senator also sent a message to Arkansas businesspeople, predicting economic growth, aggressive deregulation and eventual lower taxes. “The business climate will keep improving, and the stock market is healthy,” he said. “People can expect less intrusion from the government when it comes to taxes and regulation, but we will still be policing bad actors.”

More personally, he doesn’t want his children to emulate Trump’s behavior, and said honesty is “the best policy, in politics and in life.”

He declared bipartisanship alive and necessary, and suggested that Democratic leaders like Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California and Sen. Charles Schumer of New York are not enemies but honorable representatives of their constituents. “Of course, the wants of people in New York or San Francisco can be far, far apart from the needs of Arkansans.”

Through it all, he focused on policy and ideology rather than his own political aspirations, even as his prospects for the White House were featured in a front-page story in The New York Times.

“I’m not concerned about my star,” Cotton said. “I’m focused on doing my job for Arkansas and the country. If you do your job well, people will notice and other things may follow.”

Cutting Legal Entry in Half
Shortly after the Republican bill to repeal the Affordable Care Act failed by a single vote in the Senate, Cotton said his top priority was his legal immigration bill, crafted with Sen. David Perdue of Georgia.

He believes the system lets in the wrong immigrants — with family ties rather than exceptional job skills — and that legal newcomers should be fluent in English. The legislation, known as the RAISE Act (Reforming American Immigration for Strong Employment), aims to cut competition for low-wage jobs.

While most experts see a net economic gain from immigration, at least over time, Cotton believes the country should admit mostly high achievers even as it cracks down on illegal entry.

Trump called the bill compassionate to “struggling American families who deserve an immigration system … that puts America first,” and Cotton said it would restore “historically average numbers of immigrants,” halving the number of legal entries from nearly a million a year to about 500,000.

The bill faces an uphill climb in Congress, and it has fired debates about American values and identity, economic growth and population needs. Freelance journalist Steve Brawner of IndependentArkansas.com, who’s no liberal, asked how the nation will pay for Social Security and Medicare benefits without an influx of young immigrants. He also wrote that the bill “kind of flies in the face of Emma Lazarus’ poem at the base of the Statue of Liberty,” which welcomes the “huddled masses.”

But Cotton said RAISE will address a declining standard of living, which he called the nation’s greatest problem. “It has been decades since folks who work with their hands and on their feet have had a genuine pay raise, and that includes many struggling Arkansans.”

After immigration, Cotton’s focus is on the tax system, which he calls too complex and burdensome. But health care is also “a great source of anxiety for Arkansans,” he said. “Obamacare is still a slow-motion disaster, and it’s continuing to get worse. I was disappointed when the Senate vote failed and negotiations stopped, but in the meantime tax reform is a good focus.”

The interview came before the current crisis with North Korea over its nuclear and missile programs, but Cotton — who serves on the Intelligence and Armed Services committees — told Chris May of KATV on Aug. 12 that Trump was right to use fiery rhetoric with dictator Kim Jong Un. Kim is nearing the ability to fire a nuclear warhead “that could reach right here to Arkansas,” Cotton said, insisting that sanctions against Kim will work only if backed by the threat of military might.

Elected to the Senate in 2014 after a single two-year term in the House, Cotton said chaos in the White House has hampered the Republican agenda. But as a veteran, he expects Trump’s new chief of staff, John Kelly, to call on experience as a Marine Corps general to impose discipline. “I learned on the farm that focus and discipline are essential, and General Kelly will bring that. No one is better prepared to exert a strong hand.”

As to Trump’s infamously coarse behavior, Cotton dismissed the president as a likely role model for his two sons, a toddler and an infant. “I wouldn’t have my children look to any politician to emulate, except for me, because I’m their dad,” he said, adding that most athletes, celebrities and politicians fall short. “I hope my children will look to … biblical examples and ultimately Christ, along with great historical figures from our nation’s past.”

Describing his own sources of inspiration, Cotton cited his parents, the lessons of farm life and military service. “Starting on the farm at 5 years old helping dad with the cattle, I think I learned the basic traditional lessons,” Cotton said. “Chores teach you that hard work is a key to success, and caring for animals teaches that there’s something bigger than yourself. Nobody else is going to feed the cattle at daybreak; nobody else is going to break the ice in the winter to let them drink. You learn about discipline, and you learn the value of a dollar. The military teaches teamwork, honor and loyalty.”

In the wake of this month’s deadly white supremacist violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, Cotton denounced white nationalists as “contemptible little men who do not speak for what’s just, noble and best about America.”

‘As Ronald Reagan Said…’
Though his family wasn’t political, Cotton said he realized he was a conservative in high school when he “observed the early failures of the Clinton administration.” Conservatism, he said, “is about conserving the noblest traditions of the past” while embracing free markets, personal liberty and freedom from what he called government intrusion.

“That goes along with a healthy skepticism about government and what it can accomplish,” he said, and a recognition “that the world is a dangerous place and we must be vigilant to keep our country safe.”

Is he an idealogue? “I have firm convictions, no doubt, but I don’t want to let perfect be the enemy of good. As Ronald Reagan said, I’m glad to compromise as long as I’m getting the lion’s share of the compromise.

“In the Senate, my most unrelenting opponent today may be my ally tomorrow,” he said. “That’s why I always try to work in a cordial, professional manner. Chuck Schumer and I have had some tough fights, but we’ve also worked together on key legislation. That doesn’t always stand out in the minds of people observing the Senate, but it’s the truth.”

See more:
The Influencers: 5 Leaders Behind the Framework of Arkansas
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