Here's the tricky thing about being a provocateur: Whatever is in the pot being stirred can slosh out, making for an accidental mess that has to be cleaned up later.
Or maybe not so accidental. Some people enjoy making a mess as they whip up something.
When Tom Cotton opens his mouth, as he so often does for a national audience these days, it's very often clear he's trying to provoke a reaction, or at least media coverage. It's sometimes a little less clear whether the response he inspires is exactly what he wants or unintended fallout.
There's no question, though, that Tom Cotton likes to be in the kitchen stirring that pot. Vigorously.
What comes out of the mouth of the first-term junior senator from Arkansas emerges with jarring force many people, particularly Southerners, devote considerable energy to avoid. Why be caustic and confrontational when a simple "bless their hearts" might drive home the point with a dose of gentility?
Let's take, for example, last week's suggestion by President Trump for a possible, and unprecedented, delay of the Nov. 3 election. Reporters asked Arkansas' congressional delegation for their thoughts. Cotton couldn't evaluate the president's suggestion for the ludicrous and undemocratic comment it was. As with almost everything in Cotton's political life, it's about the enemy. Delaying the election, Cotton said, is a bad idea because it would mean prolonging the Democrats' control of the U.S. House of Representatives.
"Election Day isn't moving," Cotton said. "I want it to get here as fast as it can so we can get rid of Nancy Pelosi."
Compare that to this fiery, sensational reaction from senior Sen. John Boozman's office: "We will not be changing the date of the election." Then again, Boozman isn't much of a headline hunter.
Cotton, though, was where he wanted to be (in the news) last week mostly for comments he made -- and didn't make -- about slavery. Here's what he did say, to a Democrat-Gazette reporter: "We have to study the history of slavery and its role and impact on the development of our country because otherwise we can't understand our country. As the Founding Fathers said, it was the necessary evil on which the union was built. But the Union was built in a way, as Lincoln said, to put slavery on the course to its ultimate extinction. Unfortunately, that was not done in a peaceful fashion, that our citizens took up arms against their government on behalf of human bondage."
In our tempestuous social media-driven atmosphere, a sitting U.S. senator with apparent aspirations for higher office using the term "necessary evil" about slavery was fuel on an ever-burning fire of political outrage.
"This, my friends, is today's GOP," said Bill Clinton's former U.S. Labor Secretary Robert Reich. "Make sure they lose control of the Senate on Nov. 3. In fact, make sure they lose control of everything. They've lost the right to govern."
Hmm. Is this really about Tom Cotton's comment, or is it what Democrats trot out for any comment they can turn into political points?
Oh, we know. The Republicans do it, too. We're just recognizing it for the political folderol it is.
Cotton didn't endorse slavery. He's not suggesting it was ever OK. It appears to us he was recognizing a reality that among the nation's founders were some abolition-minded souls who nonetheless compromised at times as they worked to forge a nation. There were some, too, who chose a clearly evil path of protecting slavery as an economic tool for the South.
The senator made the not-uncommon mistake of speaking as though the "Founding Fathers" describes a group of entirely like-minded individuals. In truth, these men fought like cats and dogs, nonetheless (and miraculously) hashing out the foundations of a nation whose hope and promise far exceeded the reality in which they lived.
What brought all this up was Cotton's attack on the New York Times' 1619 Project focused on reinterpreting American history "by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative." The effort has birthed curriculum for use in schools. Cotton introduced legislation to prevent federal funds from being used to teach the 1619 Project curriculum.
"Of course, slavery is an evil institution, in all its forms, at all times, in America's past or around the world today," Cotton told Fox & Friends Monday. "But the fundamental moral principle of America is right there in the Declaration [of Independence.] 'All men are created equal.' And the history of America is the long and sometimes difficult struggle to live up to that principle. That's a history we ought to be proud of. Not the historical revisionism of the 1619 Project, which wants to indoctrinate America's kids and teach them to hate America, to believe that America was founded not on human freedom, but on racism, to think that slavery was not an aberration but the true heart of America."
See what we mean when we say Republicans do it, too?
In short, Tom Cotton is providing red meat for folks on both sides of the political spectrum.
Are we feeling sorry for Cotton? No. He invites this kind of attention and scrutiny. And whatever misinterpretations arise from his sometimes over-the-top aggression, his absolute certainty that his viewpoint is infallible, are abetted by his clear desire to play the role of Republican firebrand. Some will view his style as strength; others as narrow-mindedness and arrogance.
The vast majority of reactions to Cotton's comments about the Founding Fathers and slavery were rooted in political gamesmanship. But when one devotes such time and energy to being provocative, he's got to be prepared to do a lot of explaining.
What’s the point?
Sen. Tom Cotton spent time explaining himself this week, but what’s important for him is he was in the national conversation.