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Cotton's foe: Obama 

Tom Cotton

Brian Chilson

Tom Cotton

Tell your Mama

Tell your Paw,

I'm gonna send you back to Arkansas

—Ray Charles          

The remarkable thing is that an aloof, bookish fellow like Tom Cotton is running for the U.S. Senate anywhere, much less in darkest Arkansas.

It's a place Cotton left behind ASAP — first for Harvard, ultimately for Washington right-wing "think tanks" — a place of small cities, country towns, and friendly, talkative people given to down home retail politics. A people historically resentful of condescending outsiders and arguably less easily bamboozled by tycoon-funded TV commercials than Americans who've never had a politician like Bill Clinton or Gov. Mike Beebe ask about their Mama by name.

Cotton either can't do that, or he won't. Although his campaign skills have reportedly improved, he's often struck observers as an outsider at his own campaign events — standing on the sidelines, making scant eye contact and smiling infrequently. Cotton's speeches list ideological talking points in a monotone. People have told reporters he's introduced himself to the same persons twice at one event.

By ordinary Arkansas standards, Cotton would appear to have committed several fatal political blunders: He questioned his Democratic opponent's Sen. Mark Pryor's religious faith in a broadcast interview. Famously pious to the point of dullness, Pryor asked for an apology he never got.

With every other statewide political candidate attending the annual Bradley "Pink Tomato Festival," Cotton was a no show. Instead, he graced a Koch Brothers-financed event at a luxury hotel in California — receiving applause for his "courage" in voting against the 2014 Farm Bill.

After a tornado devastated Mayflower and Vilonia last spring, President Obama visited the disaster site to commiserate and promise help. Mark Pryor too. Possibly wary of questions about his votes against Hurricane Sandy relief, Cotton stayed away.

"I don't think Arkansas needs to bail out the Northeast," he'd explained. Cotton also voted against funding FEMA — the Federal Emergency Management Administration. He said the nation couldn't afford it.  

Today, there's a big Tom Cotton billboard standing amid the rubble along Interstate 40 in Mayflower midway between Little Rock and Conway.

Cotton voted against funding for Arkansas Children's Hospital, the nationally-known pediatric teaching wing of the University of Arkansas Medical School. Stung by criticism, he alibied that his vote hadn't cost the hospital a dime. Because his side lost, the candidate neglected to mention.

Normally, any two of these blunders — and there are more — would doom even a personable candidate. But Cotton isn't running against Sen. Mark Pryor, a cautiously moderate Democrat and the son of the universally popular former governor and U.S. Sen. David Pryor. (Disclaimer: my wife worked on Pryor's gubernatorial staff.)

Instead Cotton is running against Barack Obama. Not the real President Obama so much as the Kenyan Usurper of Tea Party and Club for Growth fame, an alien presence whose wild overspending threatens fiscal ruin. If, as polls show, 54 percent of Americans incorrectly believe that the yearly federal budget deficit has mushroomed since Obama took office in 2009, the proportion of misinformed Arkansans is doubtless higher.

In reality, contrary to Cotton's warnings of fiscal apocalypse, the Obama administration has cut the yearly deficit by more than half. But perishingly few Arkansans understand that. It's become a Fox News demographic.

Dislike of President Obama has grown almost cultlike among white Arkansas voters. Although everybody's heartily sick of the unending barrage of outside-funded TV ads for both candidates, Cotton's relentlessly push one theme: a vote for Mark Pryor is a vote for Barack Obama.

And yet the race remains extremely close.

Now comes Atlantic Monthly's Molly Ball with a profile centered upon the 37 year-old Cotton's senior thesis at Harvard, which the proud candidate can evidently still recite word for word. Declaiming upon the Federalist Papers, Cotton expressed a young man's egocentric contempt for the yokels back home:

"Inflammatory passion and selfish interest characterizes [sic] most men," Cotton wrote "whereas ambition characterizes men who pursue and hold national office. Such men rise from the people through a process of self-selection since politics is a dirty business."

Quite so. For example, the GOP candidate for U.S. Senate in Arkansas currently stars in a TV ad explaining away an inconvenient vote. "President Obama," Cotton alibis "hijacked the farm bill (and) turned it into a food stamp bill." He also claims the bill added "billions in spending."

Both claims are categorically false. The Farm Bill and food stamp budget have been linked since 1973, before Tom Cotton was born. Furthermore, the 2014 Farm Bill that passed despite his no vote cut $8.7 billion from projected spending.

It's as brazen a political falsehood as one can imagine.

Meanwhile, back home in Yell County, one of the poorest in Arkansas, 13 percent of the population receives food stamp assistance, including 25 percent of the children. (Yell County is roughly one percent African-American.)

Politics can be a dirty business, all right.

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