This article appeared in the July/August 2007 issue of The American Spectator. To subscribe to our monthly print edition, click here.
TOM COBURN RECALLS a confrontation on Capitol Hill shortly after last November’s GOP bloodbath. He ran into his fellow Republican Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska, the then powerful chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee and chief Senate sponsor of the Alaska Bridge to Nowhere. “He strolled up to me and said: ‘Well, Tom, I hope you’re satisfied for helping us lose the election.'” Stevens was evidently still infuriated by Coburn’s nationally publicized crusade against runaway pork-barrel spending over the past two years. To that, Coburn, never the shrinking violet, replied: “No, Ted, you lost us the election.”
The story speaks volumes about the sad state of affairs inside the Republican Party and the Gulf of Mexico-sized disconnect between the party powerbrokers in Washington and a thoroughly disgusted conservative base. The party regulars still blame the November defeat on the fiscal whistleblowers like Coburn, not the fake Republicans who grew a $1.9 trillion budget by an additional trillion dollars in five years. But Coburn feels about pork spending the way liberal environmentalists do about greenhouse gases. And so for the past two and a half years that he’s been in the Senate, Coburn has led the lonely fight against this spending avalanche. At the start of this crusade he was losing and losing badly. When he tried to cease the funding for Stevens’s infamous bridge, 80 of his colleagues voted against him in the then-Republican controlled Senate.
But the culture of spending on Capitol Hill may be shifting. In January, Coburn strong-armed the new Democratic majority into passing the leanest federal budget in five years, and, more remarkably, one that withholds funding for thousands of Teapot museums and Wild Turkey Federations. Coburn and his constant but lower-profile senatorial sidekick, Jim DeMint of South Carolina, teamed up to save the nation about $15 to $20 billion. “We actually shamed them into ending the pork,” Coburn tells me. Further evidence that the politics of pork may be turning is that leading presidential contenders, Senators John McCain and Barack Obama, are often first in line to co-sponsor Coburn’s anti-earmark missiles.
Coburn refused to exult in the budget victory. “Are you kidding, we still wasted billions of tax dollars in that budget,” he fumes. But others have taken notice of Coburn’s fiscal tactics. “Tom may not be well liked among his Republican colleagues on Capitol Hill, but he is beloved by our members and in fact the entire Reagan coalition voter base,” says Mallory Factor, president of the Free Enterprise Fund. Ironically, the man in Congress with the least attraction to the Senate cameras and the one rarely seen in the Washington, D.C. social orbit or a PAC fundraiser was featured flatteringly last February in GQ as “the straight arrow guy who… doesn’t want your vote.”
In his self-appointed role as pork buster in chief, Coburn has about as sunny a disposition as Eeyore the Donkey — which is probably what people like about Coburn. Every time he throws a tirade against government waste, or picks a fight with a Ted Stevens or Robert C. Byrd, or sponsors an amendment to defund honey bee research, his legend expands and he galvanizes more of the voting forces of the Republican field troops behind him. “He’s like a young Jesse Helms, the North Carolina Republican who managed to single-handedly tie the Senate into knots with irksome amendments on issues, like excessive welfare spending, UN dues, and the Panama Canal Treaty,” says David Keene of the American Conservative Union. Coburn forces the world’s most deliberative body to deliberate on issues it would much prefer not to. “It’s amazing how much you can accomplish in the Senate, if you don’t mind being a pain in the rear end with your Senate brethren,” says one of Coburn’s GOP Senate colleagues.
COBURN ALSO TALKS LIKE — well, no other politician dares to. When I asked him recently about his reputation as “a renegade,” he stormed from his seat and boomed: “Congress is a renegade to the American ideal of limited government. We waste $200 billion a year here, at least.” Then he calms down and adds: “Someone has to call Congress on the carpet and shame this institution into doing the right thing for the future generations.” He calls earmarks “the gateway drug to overspending.” As he explains, “If I have a $3 million project for Oklahoma, I have to vote for the multi-billion dollar [spending] bill to get the pork. You end up voting for bills you would never have voted for. And that’s how appropriators buy votes and bloat the budget.”
With these unorthodox views, Coburn has never lost an election and that undefeated record puts the lie to the claim that bringing home the bacon is the formula for winning elections. When he ran for the Senate in 2004 after three terms in the House, his opponents in the Republican primary and the general election spent $24 million warning Oklahomans that Coburn wouldn’t lure tax dollars back to the state for courthouses, museums, and the like. Coburn made no bones about the fact that he wouldn’t — and his voter appeal only grew. In the history of modern American politics, you could probably count on one hand the number of successful politicians who have pandered to voters less than Tom Coburn has.
By the same token, Coburn’s gloomy outlook makes him sound at times a lot more like Lou Dobbs than Ronald Reagan. He warns that if we don’t change our course on federal debt and spending that the consequences will be “hyper-inflation and higher interest rates…. We’re headed for a 1930s-style economic revelation if we don’t get this government and deficit under control and the $70 trillion of unfunded liabilities.” That’s highly doubtful. We issued $2 trillion of debt in the 1980s but interest rates shrank, inflation was tamed, and the value of U.S. assets almost tripled. The same is true in the 2000s. He is so exercised about deficit spending that he even says: “I could vote for a tax increase if it was necessary.” Then he quickly adds: “But until the spending is under control, and the waste is gone, I won’t vote for a tax hike.” So don’t expect Coburn to be signing on to a Nancy Pelosi tax plan anytime soon.
His latest fiscal crusade is called “Good Government A to Z, “a plan to rewrite the entire budget act. Why? “Half the federal agencies don’t even report on improper payments. FEMA claims none. They can’t pass a basic audit. Twenty-five percent of government programs don’t even have a goal,” he complains. He is so miserly when it comes to spending taxpayer dollars that last year he returned $200,000 of unspent money from his personal Senate office expense account to the government. Yet, Coburn, with virtually the smallest budget of any senator, is arguably the most effective legislator on Capitol Hill. Jeff Flake, who is Coburn’s anti-spending pit bull in the House, says that he and the small band of small government conservatives in the House often say: “Thank God for Tom, he makes our life at least tolerable over here in the House, where earmarking is an even bigger problem.”
Coburn is also flinging flaming arrows now at the Democratic leadership for stuffing larger slabs of pork in this year’s spending bills than occurred even under the Republican Congress. “Overspending is a bipartisan disease,” he notes. A Senate Democrat fumes that “Coburn has made himself a royal pain in the ass around here, and we’re all getting sick of his holier than thou attitude.” So the other thing that is bipartisan on Capitol Hill is animus toward Coburn’s antics.
WHAT’S FRESH AND ATTRACTIVE about Coburn is not that he’s always right — I myself disagree with him on the perils of illegal immigration and government debt-but rather that in an era when Republican positions seem to twist in the political wind, Coburn’s principles are steel girders. He’s the one you’d pick first to derail Hillary Clinton on government-run health care or combat Robert Byrd’s latest ploy to build another courthouse or moving sidewalk in West Virginia. When I asked him what he thought about being called “Coburn the Barbarian” by a Wall Street Journal editorial, he quipped, “The difference is that I don’t have a food tester.”
“I have one advantage in these fights,” he says. “I don’t care if I get re-elected.” Ninety-eight percent of politicians who say that kind of thing are lying. Coburn almost certainly isn’t — as evidenced by the fact that once the last role vote is taken in the Senate afternoon, Coburn is like Secretariat racing to the airport to get home so he can practice medicine (this year he will deliver 20 babies — all for free) back in his hometown, Muskogee. He much prefers to be called Dr. Coburn than Senator Coburn.
David Keene says that Coburn “is one of the few conservatives who could electrify each faction of the Reagan coalition. He is beloved by social conservatives and economic libertarians. That’s rare to find these days.” True. He’s one of the leading foes of abortion in the Senate and has authored several anti-abortion amendments to bills in ways that have tied liberals into knots. If the great challenge for the Republicans is to stitch the Reagan coalition back together again, Coburn has the bona fides to make that happen.
So what about a presidential run for Coburn? The latest hot rumor is that big money conservatives are willing to put as much as $10 million to jumpstart a Coburn for President campaign. Conservative activists who aren’t particularly enthralled with any of the GOP’s candidates are wondering whether Coburn might be the conservative dark-horse candidate they’ve been searching for.
I ask him if he would consider running. “Steve, you’re not listening. I don’t want to be president.” That’s exactly why he might be a great one.