“Republics last a limited amount of time,” says Tom Coburn, “and they start to fail on fiscal issues, so there’s no surprise where we are.” Legs crossed, hands resting on the edge of a small armchair, the Oklahoma senator looks perfectly ready for a difficult fight over government spending. “If we do nothing, the middle class will be decimated. We’ll have a large lower class with marginal incomes and a tiny wealthy elite,” he continues. “That’s what happens to all of the countries that go through what we’re going through, if you don’t fix it.” How calmly he states this is almost unnerving.
A large flat-panel television hangs in the lobby of Coburn’s office. Most senators have sets playing Fox News, CNN, or C-SPAN, hoping to catch a glimpse of themselves. Coburn’s is tuned to USDebtClock.org, a website with over 50 live metrics. National debt, average household debt, M2 money supply, interest on debt, debt held by foreign countries—the numbers zoom by. Over $13 trillion in United States debt. Nearly $800 billion in Medicare and Medicaid obligations every year. $690 billion for defense and wars. More than $77 trillion in total Medicare liabilities. The chart whirs like a fiscal doomsday machine.
Phones rang nonstop as I visited Coburn’s office. Sean, a junior staffer, patiently explained to one caller, “There has been some disinformation in the conservative media. The senator has never voted for a tax increase.” Ring! Another staffer, Laura: “Good afternoon, Dr. Coburn’s office. No this wasn’t a bill, and it won’t raise your taxes. But the senator is for closing some loopholes in the tax code.” Ring! “Good afternoon, Dr. Coburn’s office. I assure you, the senator agrees with you, it is unconstitutional.”
Dick Morris, the former Clinton political advisor who now gabs with Sean Hannity on Fox, had attacked Coburn that day because he voted for the recommendations of Obama’s deficit-reduction panel. The Simpson-Bowles plan contained a battery of spending limitations and cuts balanced with some new taxes. Coburn cast his vote acknowledging that some of these measures might be “intolerable,” but that it was a first step to averting a financial apocalypse. “The problem is so real, Tom Coburn can’t have what he wants,” he said. For this lack of partisanship, Morris screeched that Coburn “betrayed us.” He blasted the senator’s office number to newsletter subscribers. Republican supporters of the reform, Morris complained, “never said anything about endorsing big tax increases as soon as the ballots were cast. They hid their true intentions from us!”
It was once impossible to imagine Coburn being attacked from the right or building bridges with Democrats. He was considered a right-wing berserker himself. Bridges between the parties, bridges to the 21st century, bridges to nowhere—Coburn demolished them all. He characterized one of his campaigns as a battle of “good versus evil.” He has mused about Oklahoma schools “where lesbianism is rampant.” He has earned the same moniker as Ron Paul—“Dr. No”—for the stumbling block he presents to business as usual in the Senate.
Liberals have long found him unpalatable. Earlier this year, Coburn put a hold on funds for war-ravaged Uganda because senators had inserted pet projects into the bill. Progressives went apoplectic. “I totally get that Tom Coburn is a man of principle,” wrote commentator Matt Yglesias. “He thinks that minimizing federal spending is very important and preventing the rape, kidnap, and massacre of children is much less important.” Yglesias went on to call Coburn a “moral monster, guided by a poisonously misguided ethical compass and a callous disregard for human welfare”
But as the country’s fiscal outlook darkens, Coburn is coming into this own. “We’re not even willing to have a debate about having a debate,” he said after being blasted by Morris. The clock keeps ticking down, and one of the putative thought-leaders of the conservative movement was playing a phone prank on him—just the sort of “gotcha” Coburn had denounced on the Senate floor a day earlier. “Congratulations, somebody embarrassed somebody else. How does it feel? … Who cares who is in charge if there is no country left to be salvaged?”
How is it that arguably the most rigid conservative in the Senate is now threatening to transcend politics to save America from financial ruin?
Coburn has always been an odd figure. His biography shows almost no interest in politics until he began running for office. A son of Casper, Wyoming, Coburn attended business school in Oklahoma and married 1967’s Miss Oklahoma, Carolyn Denton. He became a deacon at his local Baptist Church, where he still serves. But his life hit a turning point when he was diagnosed with melanoma and told that the depth of the cancer was so serious he had only a 20 percent chance of survival. “Facing death put my priorities in perspective in a hurry,” he wrote in his book, Breach of Trust. He left his business ventures to attend medical school, where he specialized in obstetrics.
Coburn says his political passions were stirred during his years of private practice. “I had to hire extra assistants just to deal with the torrent of paperwork generated by government agencies and insurance companies,” he recalls. In 1994 his Democratic congressman, Mike Synar, talked about nationalizing healthcare. Coburn decided to challenge him. Thinking back to his doubts about running, he says, “I don’t have a coy bone in my body. I was too direct and bullheaded for the ‘go-along-get-along’ world of politics.” Coburn launched his political career in front of eight supporters, announcing that his campaign “pits the conservative people of the second district against a liberal Washington-based elite.” A humble beginning, but his sensibility proved right for the time, and he was swept into office with the Republican tide that November.
Congressman Coburn quickly gained a reputation as a fiery social conservative. He protested the airing of “Schindler’s List” in prime time on NBC, saying it was an “all-time low, with full-frontal nudity, violence and profanity.” (After an uproar, he clarified that he believed the film should have been shown at a later hour.) He remains an implacable foe of abortion who receives perfect scores from National Right to Life, and he has gone as far as to say, “I favor the death penalty for abortionists and other people who take life.”He opposes attempts to legalize same-sex marriage and is not afraid to sound alarmist when he is alarmed. He was widely quoted during his 2004 Senate campaign as saying, “The gay community has infiltrated the very centers of power in every area across this country, and they wield extreme power.”
He will give Christian testimony whenever asked, but Coburn leaves overtly religious language out of his political rhetoric. His focus instead has been on the woes that befall a nation that cannot reform its entitlements. Journalist John J. Miller remarked that Coburn’s stump speeches often consist of him having “dialogues with himself over exactly what year in the future Social Security will go belly-up.”
In the House, Coburn fit naturally with a group of staunch conservatives—including Steve Largent, Joe Scarborough, and Mark Sanford—who often clashed with Newt Gingrich. “We were told we were joining a fight to downsize the government,” he recalls, “but it be came evident after a few years that wasn’t where the ship was going. It had more to do with fighting the Democrats than solving problems.” Coburn took up the mantle of opposition from within the party in power and was credited by USA Today with shaving $1 billion from the 1999 federal budget “almost singlehandedly.” He kept to his promise to limit himself to three terms and left Congress in 2001.
After a second struggle for his life, this time with colon cancer, he heeded the calls of conservative activist groups like the Club for Growth and ran for the Senate. In the upper chamber, Coburn quickly made himself a nuisance to colleagues, even those in his own party. It was Coburn who shamed other Republicans over the $200 million “Bridge to Nowhere” in Alaska. The moment Coburn proposed eliminating the bridge, Ted Stevens came tearing through the chamber, huffing that his fellow legislators must protect this project or he would quit the Senate. “If you want a wounded bull on the floor of the Senate, pass this amendment,” Stevens dared. The Senate voted 82-15 for the bridge and the bull.
Coburn has made his war on pork something of a crusade. In the spring of 2006, as the Senate prepared to lard up a $92 billion emergency supplemental bill with an extra $14 billion in pet projects, Coburn offered an amendment to strip out 19 of the most indefensible items, then used a parliamentary maneuver to force his colleagues to debate each of them separately. Coburn called it the “Clay Pigeon” strategy. One of his targets was a $500 million bonus from Trent Lott to military contractor Northrop Grumman. Another was a $5 million giveaway from Richard Shelby to the Alabama seafood industry for “promotional materials.”
Asked if concentrating on pork-barrel spending is a mistake when the much larger budget drains are in entitlements and defense, Coburn leans forward. “It’s the same issue. We still use parochial projects to grease the skids to get things to pass.” He points to the upcoming omnibus bill that will be loaded with pork again. “We ought to be passing a bill that’s markedly reduced that would send the signal to the American people and to the international financial community that we are getting serious. … This is going to require sacrifice from everyone, including legislators”
Coburn knows something of that process already. He sacrificed some partisan credibility by voting to endorse Simpson-Bowles. But when asked what else he and his fellow conservatives might have to sacrifice, Coburn offers small cuts, returning to pork-barrel projects and adding, “we need to sacrifice our personal office budgets.”
This may be Coburn’s blind spot. His jeremiads are often about pennies lost in the couch cushions—pork-barrel spending accounts for around 1 percent of the federal budget—while larger outlays escape criticism. Some his colleagues have noticed. “In the case of [Coburn], who votes for very large expensive bills like the $700 billion bailout and then turns around and makes a big issue out of something that is very small, like a control tower for an advanced Air Force base, it’s just to me—it’s difficult to hear,” his fellow senator from Oklahoma, James Inhofe, told Politico. “That’s 1,000 times more than all earmarks that I would have attempted to get. .… [Coburn’s] clearly politically correct on this. And I’m clearly politically incorrect on this, but I’m right.”
Though he doesn’t articulate it, Coburn’s passion for fiscal matters cannot be explained by actuarial concerns alone. Americans would be happy to pay for his office budget—the federal government won’t make up its deficit by cutting people like Sean and Laura or the legislative assistants who give Coburn the issue expertise that would be otherwise be supplied by lobbyists. The real punch to America’s wallet is paying for Dick Morris’s Social Security and Medicare—not to mention his foreign policy. But for Coburn, financial rectitude and moral rectitude are roughly equivalent. Pork corrupts politicians. Office budgets are a personal excess. And Washington’s petty financial corruption has infected the rest of the country, debilitating the character of its people.
“We’ve gone from self-reliance to dependence,” he offers as a diagnosis. “It is cultural,” he says, “but where did they learn that? From us.” Coburn’s conviction that leaders must be moral is as fierce as St. Paul’s. Though he says Newt Gingrich is “probably the smartest man I’ll ever know,” he has said that Gingrich is “the last person I’d vote for for president of the United States. … His life indicates he does not have a commitment to the character traits necessary to be a great president.”
To his credit, Coburn does go after many big-ticket items in the budget, even in defense. And he makes some politically daring criticisms of the Pentagon. “When you can come out of the military after 20 years and get healthcare for you and your family for $486 a year, when everyone else is paying over $4,000, it has to stop; it’s going to stop.” He doesn’t agree with Secretary of Defense Robert Gates that the military should look for $100 billion in savings only to spend it elsewhere. “I want to take $100 billion away from them.”
He loathes the inefficiency of a procurement system that lets military contractors reap billions in profits without ever risking their own capital or facing pressure to deliver on time. And he goes further than his GOP colleagues in demanding that money sent overseas be accounted for. “The attitude of the Defense Department is that we can’t track the money in a foreign country. Well then you don’t give them the money. It’s easy.” He seems happy with the balance struck in the Simpson-Bowles proposals, where 50 percent of federal spending cuts come from defense. “That’s going to force that reassessment,” he says, “We have to take a look at all these bases in Germany.”
But Coburn subscribes to no discernable doctrine on foreign policy, beyond getting a return on investment. During his 2004 campaign, he defended Bush’s decision to go to Iraq. But in 2008 he said, “I will tell you personally that I think it was probably a mistake going to Iraq.” He denies himself the benefit of hindsight. “In all honesty, looking at what everyone made their decision on, I would have been with them,” he says. But now, “Every one of us wants it to wind down as fast as it can. I think Iraq is going to do well, but it’s not going to be without problems.”
His specialty remains a wonkish approach to fiscal matters. During his interview with TAC he began his own Socratic dialogue about the status of the dollar as the world’s reserve currency. “Have you seen what has happened to ten-year bond rates over the last three days? Since mid-October, you’ve seen a ten-year bill go from 9.4 percent to 10.8. Now extrapolate that on $14 billion.” He sees no solution coming from the Federal Reserve. “Bernanke is locked in a negative feedback loop over there. I don’t care who is at the Federal Reserve, they cannot fix this problem until we fix the cultural one over here,” he says, gesturing to the Capitol.
The urgency of America’s long-term fiscal problems has turned Coburn’s hard-headed style into a form of leadership that remains conservative but breaks away from movement groupthink. He has joined a small band of Republican lawmakers pushing for a consumption-based tax system. “Our tax code is based on a 1950s environment. And we’ve proven that no one understands it. Not even the IRS knows the ins and outs. The EU use a VAT tax that doesn’t apply to products they export, and so we’re no longer competitive with them. That has to change,” he says. Coburn has even supported capping the size of the big banks, in the hope that competition and diversity will protect the financial sector from systemic risk.
He believes that the nation’s long-term debt problems can be solved even now. “We can do it with this president,” he says, like a man indifferent to elections. He predicts that next year’s federal debt ceiling will not be raised without long-term cuts. is the watchword for the next few years,” he says. “We’re either going to make sacrifices voluntarily or financiers are going to dictate the sacrifices to us. If we want any choices we need to make them now. They know this.” From almost any vantage point on the ideological spectrum, he appears ready to offend. He remains calm and congenial, if difficult. But the times are difficult too.
Michael Brendan Dougherty is a TAC contributing editor and a contributor to Proud To Be Right: Voices of the Next Conservative Generation.