The Arkansas Senate race gives political scientists the best laboratory yet for studying the contest between self-interest and appealing slogans for the hearts and minds of voters.
In young Tom Cotton, only 18 months in office, voters have the purest ideologue ever to run for major office in Arkansas, if you discount William "Coin" Harvey of Monte Ne, the wacky bimetallist who tried to run for Congress from Northwest Arkansas as a Democrat in 1913 and for president with the Liberty Party in 1932.
Rep. Cotton holds a consistent theory that government is almost always bad and wasteful unless it is making war. He sounds like Ronald Reagan and conservatives from Robert Taft to the new libertarians or any current Republican you care to name, but the difference is that Cotton actually votes like he talks, just about all the time.
The ultimate test of Cotton's fidelity to the libertarian philosophy he shares with his biggest benefactors, the Koch brothers, came with the serial votes on federal disaster aid for people who were displaced by hurricanes, tornadoes and floods, first on the New York and Jersey shores but finally in Arkansas. He would have scotched funding for all of them. That was a hard political act, but he had already showed his mettle by voting to start dismantling Medicare, Medicaid and other forms of medical and nutrition aid to people without resources, who included a large share of the people in his own district.
If you polled Arkansans, you might find that a good majority of them hate or distrust the federal government, though many would qualify it to Barack Obama's government. They would assent to the idea that government shouldn't help the malingerers in society who have their hands out and won't do what they need do to get better jobs and get ahead.
But here is the contest: Can they reconcile those appealing slogans about big and controlling government with their own dependency on programs like Medicare, Social Security, veterans' health services and nutrition aid, or their moral support for many of the services of big government like disaster relief and tuition aid? Or, for that matter, for big government programs like food and drug safety that they count upon every day?
Keeping that distinction blurred is Tom Cotton's big challenge. Better, it is Sen. Mark Pryor's challenge to make it clear to voters that, however appealing the slogans, he, not Cotton, serves their self-interests. He is trying to do that with Cotton's votes against disaster-aid funding and his own consistent votes for it, which he says is a moral obligation of people who are obliged to follow the Bible's many injunctions to help people in need.
Cotton is a disciple of David Koch, the billionaire industrialist and former Libertarian Party vice presidential candidate, who has channeled millions into Cotton's brief political career and promises millions more in the months ahead. A measure of Cotton's loyalty was that on the day he was supposed to be at the Pink Tomato Festival at Warren in his home district, along with every other vote seeker, Cotton quietly flew to California for a confab, golf and dinner with some of the world's richest men at a palatial oceanside resort, the St. Regis Monarch Bay, at the invitation of Koch and his brother, Charles. The brothers are reputed to be worth from $80 billion to $100 billion. The guests were expected to pony up $500 million to elect Cotton and a few other likeminded men to Congress this year.
That took some grit because Cotton had to expect that the word would leak that he was eating oven-roasted Angus natural filet mignon and braised fennel with truffle and mint quinoa — the special fare that evening at La Casa Pacifica — with billionaires rather than slurping native tomatoes on the Bradley County square with the hoi polloi.
The Koch brothers have spent a small fortune to elect a government of their vision, the Ayn Rand vision, which would get out of the way of smart capitalists and let them lead the country into prosperity rather than tax them to pay for handouts to the undeserving and strangling them with regulations. There is no place for altruism in a society founded on the rule of reason and not on faith and sympathy.
For the brothers, the ideas seem to be genuine, not based on personal greed, and there is no reason to question Cotton's sincerity either. He believes in the vision.
But can he keep voters' attention fixed on the slogans or the antiseptic idea of libertarianism — a small government that is not dedicated to helping people but to standing aside?
From time to time, it requires being a little less than candid. Cotton can't say flatly he's against disaster relief. He voted against each bill because he said they all had "pork" in them. Food stamps? Just excessive.
Medicare, which is valued by tea partiers and libertarians, is another tough one. Like Arkansas's other congressmen, he voted for the Paul Ryan plan to end Medicare as we know it. It would no longer be an entitlement. The elderly and disabled would pay a rising share of their medical expenses in a privatized system. But that would not apply to people already on Medicare or about to qualify for it.
The unstated premise is: We don't think you deserve this coverage, but since you get it and are voting we're going to let you have it along with those for whom it is impending. But we are going to phase it out for those who are so young now (55 or under) they aren't thinking about it. You say you are voting to "preserve" Medicare.
Can Cotton and the Kochs keep voters' attention on the slogans and ideas, not on themselves and their neighbors? The odds are pretty good.
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