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Madison Cawthorn
Republican candidate Madison Cawthorn participates in a debate at the Haywood County Courthouse in Waynesville, N.C.Stephen Smith / via AP file

New Republican congressman prioritizes punditry over policy

Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-N.C.) has built his congressional team with communications, not governing, in mind. It's exactly what Mike Pence recommended.


Following Sen. Rob Portman's (R-Ohio) unexpected retirement announcement this week, National Journal spoke to one of the Republican senator's longtime advisers about the state of the GOP.

"If you want to spend all your time going on Fox and be[ing] an a**hole, there's never been a better time to serve," Republican strategist Corry Bliss said. "But if you want to spend all your time being thoughtful and getting s**t done, there's never been a worse time to serve."

Keep that quote in mind when reading this interesting Time magazine profile on Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-N.C.), a newly elected 25-year-old Trump acolyte.

Cawthorn's outsized focus on messaging isn't incidental to his rise to power; it is central to his success. As a new legislator, he is not working on churning out new bills. He is, instead, presenting himself as a useful messaging megaphone for the legislators that do. "I have built my staff around comms rather than legislation," he wrote to Republican colleagues in a Jan. 19 email obtained by TIME.

For those unfamiliar with Capitol Hill terminology, to focus on "comms" means to focus on communications -- media appearances, talking points, online presence, etc.

As a rule, members of Congress, at least publicly, emphasize the legislation they hope to pass. It is, after all, the point of the job: Americans elect lawmakers to make laws.

But Cawthorn, with almost refreshing candor, isn't bothering with the pretense: the young and inexperienced North Carolinian has built his team with communications, not governing, in mind.

Or put another way, Cawthorn is positioning himself to be a pundit, not a policymaker, who happens to occasionally vote on federal legislation.

If this sounds at all familiar, it's not your imagination. As I wrote about in my book, at this point 12 years ago, with voters electing a Democratic White House and a Democratic Congress, Republicans en masse shifted their focus from hiring policy staffers to hiring media flaks. The idea was simple: selling a conservative vision to the public took priority over undergirding a conservative vision with serious legislative proposals that worked.

In early 2009, for example, the House GOP conference chairman went so far as to advise his colleagues to start getting rid of legislative staff -- aides responsible for writing and scrutinizing policy proposals, giving the party its capacity to govern -- and start hiring aides who would focus exclusively on media.

The conference chairman at the time was a congressman from Indiana. His name was Mike Pence.

Six years later, with Republicans in a stronger position, Paul Ryan became the Speaker of the House, and as Politico reported at the time, the Wisconsin congressman got right to work -- beefing up his communications team.

Ryan's priority was "a large-scale press shop," with roughly "a dozen communications hands." He did not, however, expand his policymaking team.

Madison Cawthorn's approach is unfortunate, but it has a pedigree in his post-policy party.