Freshman Republican Rep. Tom Cotton of Arkansas answered questions for 40 minutes in a room full of conservatives at the National Review Institute summit in Washington on Friday. When he finished speaking there was boisterous applause, and one woman walked up to him after the speech and said, "You'll be president one day." Cotton shook her hand, gave an aw-shucks thank you and walked on to glad-hand with other conservatives. He's one of the party's rising stars and is already being talked about as a potential challenger to Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor in 2014.
Here are three political lessons learned after the wide-ranging discussion.
1. Get good candidates. Bad candidates make for poor election outcomes. That might seem obvious, but there's a definite narrative developing around the party's 2012 defeat that poor candidates contributed to the drubbing at the polls. To be certain, Cotton wasn't calling for the party to moderate, but he acknowledged that weak candidates weaken the party, and he talked in more straightforward political terms than some other Republicans who instead call for the party to "modernize, not moderate." His advice? "If you want to win an election it helps to nominate skillful candidates, and I don't think on that front necessarily it's ideology," Cotton said. He pointed to Sen. Ron Johnson, a former businessman as an ideal candidate and only hinted at losing candidates like Todd Akin of Missouri whose campaign failed after now-infamous comments on rape in his contest against Sen. Claire McCaskill.
2. Exploit foreign policy. Cotton argued voters care less about foreign policy than the economy and domestic policy because it affects them less, but the fact that Obama has deemphasized the war in Afghanistan and is focused on pulling the troops out means there's a political opportunity for the GOP. Cotton put it like this. "On the campaign, foreign policy is just very different than domestic policy. … People don't ask what do you think we should do about taxes? What do you think we should do about the 2nd Amendment? They ask, 'You're gonna protect our 2nd Amendment rights, aren't you? You're not gonna raise my taxes are you?' But they do ask those kinds of questions about Afghanistan and Iraq… We all experience the economy or domestic policy firsthand in our churches homes and rotary clubs. … So there's more opportunity for leadership, for persuasion on foreign policy."
3. If you can't pass your own conservative agenda, then frustrate the president. Make the case, Cotton suggested, that the "collective government" theme President Obama pursued in his inaugural address is a continuation of the era of big government. Cotton's betting that that message won't sell with the public. Here's what he called for. "What we need are political leaders who will clearly and always make the case for conservative reform, whether that means blocking the worst of the Obama agenda or passing our own reforms," he said.