As Sigmund Freud – a reliable but seldom acknowledged guide to American politics – might have asked but didn’t: When is a golf game just a golf game?
That question is emerging this summer as Senator Tom Cotton – whose political base is closer to Conway, Ark., than to Conway, N.H. – is planning a golf outing Aug. 16 here in the state that traditionally holds the first primary of the presidential campaign season. But it won’t only be golf, though the state Republican Party – in recent years solidly identified with former president Donald Trump – is offering local voters the opportunity to buy single player and foursome tickets as the 45-year-old lawmaker makes his way across the fairways.
But this golf game is, as Freud might tell us, far more than a golf game.
It is a proxy for a classic subconscious drama being played out in public in 2022 on a golf course designed in 1897. It pits youth versus age, the past against the future, loyalty against ambition – the latter being one of the signature attributes of the American political class, for even the outwardly laconic young Abraham Lincoln was, in the words of his Illinois law partner William Herndon, an ambitious “little engine that knew no rest.”
Or put another way: A passel of aspiring political figures increasingly are willing to go against Mr. Trump, and maybe to run against him as well.
Here in New Hampshire this summer, Republican voters are being invited to join Mr. Cotton for lunch and – you can bet on this – to hear some lunchtime remarks. These remarks very likely will not be confined to the senator’s reflections on the challenging 5-par 11th hole of the Scottish links golf course at the fabled Wentworth By The Sea Country Club.
But the significance of Mr. Cotton’s visit to New Hampshire goes beyond golf. He’s sending a brazen but unmistakable signal: He’s willing to take aim at the presidency that Mr. Trump – who owned 16 golf courses around the world when he was elected in 2016 – himself is eyeing.
He’s not alone. There are increasing signals that former vice-president Mike Pence – the object of Mr. Trump’s ire for not overturning the presidential election on Jan. 6, 2021 – will take on his onetime ally if Mr. Trump decides to mount a 2024 campaign.
Mr. Pence took an important step this month by endorsing Karrin Taylor Robson in Arizona’s Republican gubernatorial primary in defiance of Mr. Trump’s endorsement of Kari Lake for the vital position in an important swing state that Joe Biden won amid great contention and controversy. Mr. Pence and Mr. Trump gave duelling speeches in Arizona on Friday and are to give duelling speeches Tuesday in Washington – Mr. Pence at the Young Americas Foundation’s annual National Conservative Student Conference and Mr. Trump at an event sponsored by the America First Policy Institute.
For months, Mr. Trump dominated the Republican political conversation with his avowed intention to return to the White House after being denied a second term in the tumultuous 2020 presidential election and its violent coda on Capitol Hill. The conventional wisdom – always offered, seldom redeemed – was that Mr. Trump’s desires would keep the GOP presidential field clear, with his acolytes (and virtually everyone in the party was a Trump acolyte) demurring to his wishes and postponing their White House dreams for another four years.
That isn’t happening. Rather than putting off his own aspirations, Mr. Cotton will be demonstrating his putting skills at a storied New Hampshire resort that was the headquarters of the Russian and Japanese delegations that, under the guidance of president Theodore Roosevelt, negotiated the end of the 1905 Russo-Japanese War. He has come to this state before; he appeared at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at St. Anselm College in Goffstown last December, a venue that presidential candidates have used for decades. He’s also visited Iowa, traditionally the site of the first presidential caucuses.
All this activity follows two important markers in the road to the 2024 presidential election. The first is the series of eight televised congressional hearings about the storming of the Capitol in which Mr. Trump was portrayed not as a passive but pleased observer of the insurrection but as an avid and active instigator of it. The second was the findings in a startling New York Times/Siena College poll that found that almost half of Republicans would prefer someone other than Mr. Trump as their presidential candidate two years from now.
Those someone-others include former United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley, who visited Iowa this summer (“If it looks like there’s a place for me next year, I’ve never lost a race”), and two veterans of the 2016 Iowa caucuses, Senators Marco Rubio of Florida and Ted Cruz of Texas (who won the contest six years ago, though Mr. Trump said the result was fraudulent). At the top of the list is Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida, who, like Mr. Cotton and Mr. Pence, has said his plans won’t be affected by Mr. Trump’s hopes to return to the White House.
Right now the political figure who is dominating the GOP conversation here is Mr. Cotton, who – surprise! – turned up at Jethro’s BBQ outlet in West Des Moines, Iowa, earlier this month. All month the New Hampshire Republican Party has been issuing frequent e-mails to stoke interest in the golf event, the latest with this subject line: Don’t forget.
Mr. Cotton, with two Harvard degrees, already possesses one qualification for the White House: his golf game.
Horse racing may be the sport of kings, but golf is the sport of presidents; 16 of the last 19 presidents have played, with four of them under fire for putting golf ahead of governing: Woodrow Wilson (who whiled away afternoons on the links while the First World War raged), Dwight Eisenhower (known as “the Great Golfer” and remembered for installing a putting green on the White House lawn and waging war against invading squirrels), Barack Obama (criticized by Mr. Trump for playing “more golf than any human being in America”) and Mr. Trump himself (whose two golf games during Memorial Day, 2020, as the pandemic death toll neared 100,000 was noted by his political opponents).
Mr. Cotton is squarely in that tradition. Last month he weighed in on the controversy surrounding the newly established LIV Tour in Saudi Arabia. “The media,” he said in a tweet, “is wrong to attack golfers for participating in a tournament backed by Saudi Arabia, an important Gulf partner.” Perhaps that was a gambit to sow support among the fabled Trump base. The LIV Golf Invitational Series’ next event begins Friday. It’s at the Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, N.J.
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