It's easy to find political critics of Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton's letter to Iran. Colorado Representative Jared Polis, who represents a safe Democratic seat, labeled Cotton "Tehran Tom"—or as the conservative Washington Times put it, he referred to "Tom Cotton, Army veteran, as ‘Tehran Tom.’" Vice President Joe Biden called Cotton's letter "beneath the dignity of an institution I revere"—or, as Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal put it, Biden insulted a man who "wore the boots in Iraq."
Worth remembering here: How Cotton got into politics in the first place. In 2006, while serving in Iraq, Cotton wrote a letter denouncing the New York Times. The newspaper didn't run the letter, so it went viral on conservative blogs. "By the time we return home," wrote Cotton, "maybe you will be in your rightful place: not at the Pulitzer announcements, but behind bars."
In a 2013 profile, Cotton told Marin Cogan what he'd learned from the letter experience. "Initially, my chain of command was not very pleased—not necessarily that I wrote the letter (that's within any soldier's right), but not very pleased that I didn't tell them," Cotton said. "But it turns out that the chief of staff for the Army, Pete Schoomaker, had seen the letter, and he forwarded it to all Army generals and said it was great words of wisdom from a brave lieutenant on the front lines. I went from getting chewed out to getting patted on the back overnight."
What should anyone take from a reaction like that? In the Senate, with a landslide victory behind him and no election until 2020, Cotton's finally in a position of strength over his opponents. He's pre-discredited his foes on the left and the libertarian right in two ways.
One: The White House petition calling for charges of treason against Cotton and his letter-signers has taken off, with more than enough signatures to force a response from the White House. How can it respond? Well, not by charging him with treason, which would be punishable by death, and which he didn't commit. Sometime after this news cycle ends, Cotton can expect an official statement from the White House explaining why people should lay off.
Two: Kentucky Senator Rand Paul co-signed the letter—a decision that has caused real fury in the libertarian base. Justin Raimondo, the influential AntiWar.com columnist, called the signature "Rand Paul's Munich."
"Rand Paul has pulled the rug out from under his attempts to open up a real foreign policy debate in the GOP—and perhaps also from under his presidential aspirations," wrote Raimondo. "After all, his marketing of himself as 'a different kind of Republican' has been undermined, perhaps fatally, by his joining the neoconservative 'bomb bomb bomb Iran' chorus."
Paul's rejected that reading of his signature. In this week's Senate Foreign Relations hearing, when the issue of authorization of military force in Iraq was subsumed by the Cotton letter tempest, he told Secretary of State John Kerry that "the message was to President Obama, that we want you to obey the law, we want you to understand the separation of powers." A boiling thread on Paul's Facebook page filled up with debate, plenty of fans telling him he was wrong.
"You just aligned yourself with 46 senators who want another war—thought you were different," wrote Colleen Grace on the page.
"Rand, I believe you to be a patriot of sorts, but controlled by the same propaganda as your successors have been," wrote Andrew Beavers.
"I believe the Republican senator's letter to the president was dictated by Israel," wrote Walter Chin. "The invasion of Iraq was also dictated by Israel based on lies. Those senators who signed the letter are traitors."
Those comments hardly made up a majority of opinion from Paul supporters. But Cotton had no enemies in his base. After the controversy is over, Cotton is likely to end up in the same position as the Democrats who attempted to undermine Ronald Reagan's Iran negotiations—secure within the party, safe for re-election, taking advantage of bigger microphones. As Burgess Everett reported this week, Cotton had graduated from his House habit of wearing earbuds to blot out reporter questions to simply declining the questions and accepting TV interviews. Unlike Texas Senator Ted Cruz, who took a similar (but more randomly media-friendly) approach to his first year in Congress, Cotton has a military background that can be used to shut down critics.
"Tom Cotton's criticism was very calm, very rational," offered Christians United for Israel executive director David Brog in an interview. "It seems to me he knew what he was getting into. And he’s someone who knows how to make a wave, which seems to be important. All of a sudden this freshman senator has positioned himself in front of an important policy."