Is this the era on Capitol Hill of the show horse rather than the workhorse?

Yelling on cable gets attention

WASHINGTON D.C. - Strippers who wanted to stand out in the old musical "Gypsy" understood they had to do something more than take their clothes off.

"You gotta get a gimmick," they sang, whether that meant blowing a horn, speaking with refined diction or wearing nothing but Christmas lights.

Now, probably no one would compare senators with strippers, but several members of Congress in recent years have gained prominence by performing what might be described as stunts, as opposed to doing the nuts- and-bolts work of crafting and passing legislation.

Tom Cotton is the most recent case. Elected last November, he gained instant political celebrity this month by convincing 46 of his 53 fellow GOP senators to sign a letter advising Iran it could call President Obama's bluff when it came to nuclear negotiations.

The move was controversial, to say the least. Still, Cotton's stock rose so sharply that, back home in Arkansas, the state Senate couldn't wait to give its official blessing for him to run both for the presidency and his U.S. Senate seat in -- get this -- 2020. And the Arkansas House followed suit on Monday.

Who knows if Cotton has given the first thought to the White House, but the path from first-term senator to presidential aspirant is already well paved, mostly by politicians who attract attention through skill at self-promotion rather than any particular accomplishment.

Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul catapulted himself into the big time a couple of years back with a 13-hour filibuster against a CIA nomination. His talkathon was soon outdone by Texan Ted Cruz, who held the floor for 21 hours, although his torrent of words against Obamacare didn't draw as much notice as the sight of him reading Dr. Seuss on the Senate floor.

There was a time when junior senators were seen but rarely heard. "Years would go by sometimes before a senator would make his or her first speech," says Donald Ritchie, the Senate's in-house historian. "There's a lot more tolerance now for fresh senators jumping into the fray."

Novelty is part of the appeal. No profile of Cotton over the past month left unmentioned his tender age of 37. Dudes twice his age, like John McCain and Orrin Hatch, will never again enjoy that kind of new kid cachet.

Their generation made its way up through the ranks as "work horses" devoted to issues before their committees. Today, there seems to be a lot more upside in being a "show horse."

"In a period of recurring legislative stalemate, it might be easier to steal the limelight as a freshman senator," says Sarah Binder, a congressional expert at the Brookings Institution.

Even though it's a highly partisan era, this is not a time of strong party discipline. There's plenty of room for free agents to find their own way. GOP Senate leader Mitch McConnell lent his blessing and signature to Cotton's Iran letter, but he didn't, well, lead on it.

Also entering into this equation is the changed media landscape. We're long past the days when the national news agenda was set by a handful of papers and three nightly TV broadcasts.

A social media hashtag like #StandWithRand not only prompted other Republican senators to join Paul on the floor, but drew more attention to his speech than he would have found through the typical late-night audience watching C-Span.

Today's insatiable media both facilitate and drive the effort to stand out from the crowd. Political scientists from Harvard and Stanford have found that "partisan taunting," while it may be bad for Congress, pays dividends for individual politicians. Plenty are now much better known for their ability to yell on cable than for writing bills.

Everyone plays this game, whether it's President Obama reading "mean tweets" on Jimmy Kimmel or Cotton taking a victory lap on every channel that would have him.

Talking themselves up, after all, may be the best attention-seeking strategy available to politicians.

[Also on DecodeDC: Cruz preaches to the Tea Party choir]

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