Semafor: How Tom Cotton’s hard line on crime took over the Republican Party

When prison reform was in vogue, Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark. was against it. In 2018, he led the GOP opposition to the First Step Act, a bipartisan effort to reduce some sentences and let some criminals out of prison. Just 11 other Republicans sided with him against the Trump administration, which celebrated the bill’s passage as something Democrats never could have pulled off. Four years later, Cotton said in an interview, plenty of his colleagues wish they could take that vote back.

AMERICANA: You’ve talked about ideas that are popular in “the faculty lounge,” and you spent some time in the Ivy League yourself. When did you first encounter the idea that it was ipso facto a problem to have too many people in prison?

COTTON: The first time I remember this being at the forefront, as a political issue, was in my first year in the Senate in 2015. The Senate Judiciary Committee passed a bill that would substantially decrease prison sentences – would let thousands, if not tens of thousands, of convicts out of jail.

I did not know that the Republican Party stood for such a thing. On the Columbus Day recess I was on a co-del with Mitch McConnell, and I asked him: What the hell? When did the Republican Party become the party of letting felons – hardened, serious felons – out of prison? McConnell said, “Well, I have a lot of Republican members who voted for that bill and are very passionate about it. And I don’t have any Republican members at the moment who are outspoken opponents to it.” And I said, “I think I found your man.”