Tom Coburn Self-Corrects for Using the ‘I’ Word

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Aug. 28 (Bloomberg) -- Has the world gone mad?

The question came to mind upon reading that one of the more staid -- and conservative -- Republicans, Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, deliverer of 4,000 babies, decrier of waste and joiner of multiple bipartisan gangs, had said at a town-hall meeting that his friend, President Barack Obama, was “perilously close” to impeachment.

Town halls have turned into cauldrons of activism almost guaranteed to drive a member of Congress crazy. Happy people don’t spend their summer evenings in drab rooms under fluorescent lights with sketchy air conditioning. The people who come don’t want to be calmed. They want to be heard, no matter how wrong they might be. You correct them at your peril.

When I caught up by telephone with Coburn, he was the judicious, calm, non-lectern-pounding member I know. In his first post-brouhaha interview, he recalled what happened in Muskogee, his fifth town hall of the day on Aug. 21, when an answer he gave to a question about impeachment at the end of the day, one of many over an hour-plus session, got overblown. He didn’t say Obama should be impeached, as have some attention-hungry House members, but was explaining how such an event could come about.

“I didn’t express myself very well,” he said, “Yes, I’m unhappy with a lot of what they’re doing expanding executive power, but I also explained that I don’t know what constitutes high crimes and misdemeanors.”

He answered, he said, “not very appropriately.”

Rhetorical Frenzy

So a constituent made him do it. Senators, as a rule, even ones like Coburn not running for re-election, aren’t in the business of offending voters. Restraint is one more casualty of the rhetoric in Washington, which has raised the level of what people back home expect to hear from their representatives. If you don’t want to defund the health-care law (Coburn doesn’t, because it won’t work) you aren’t a true conservative such as Senators Ted Cruz and Rand Paul. Second-termers are suspect for having gone Washington. You have to prove yourself constantly.

While Coburn uttered the “I” word, he also called out another of his friends, Senator Mike Lee of Utah, who has written a letter calling for defunding Obamacare that he wants Coburn to sign, a demand that Coburn called “ridiculous” at the same town hall (and he shares a house with this particular friend on Capitol Hill).

He also said that the move by conservatives to shut down the government was “childish” and that Republicans shouldn’t blame everything they don’t like about government on Obama.

“There were uncontrolled bureaucracies under Bush, too,” he said.

Although the atmosphere at town halls this August is still decidedly anti-Obama, it’s not as vicious as in previous years, especially the period right after the Affordable Care Act was passed. To see Obama Derangement Syndrome in full flower, revisit Romulus, Michigan, in August 2009, when the oldest serving member of Congress, John Dingell, frail and on crutches, was confronted by a raw and angry crowd that never quieted down. On one side, a large sign depicting Obama as Hitler waved as a man wheeled his son up to Dingell and accused him and Obama of trying to kill the disabled boy. No matter what Dingell said, he was greeted with boos and cries of “liar, liar.” The far-outnumbered Dingell supporters formed a wall around the podium to protect the now 87-year-old congressman.

When Senator John McCain was shouted down at a town hall by Obama-haters when he was running for president in 2008, he decided not to take it anymore. He urged the audience to tamp down the personal denunciations. He took on a woman who said she couldn’t trust Obama because he was “an Arab.” “No, ma’am,” McCain admonished her. “He’s a decent family man, citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues and that’s what this campaign’s all about. He’s not” an Arab.

Health Care

It helps that the 2,700-page health-care bill delivered in the dead of night, as it’s often referred to, hasn’t killed anyone yet. And defending deadbeats wailing about being forced to buy insurance when they prefer to ride motorcycles without helmets and have the rest of us pay for the consequences isn’t an attractive position to have to take. They’re still out there, of course, and to make sure they don’t go soft, groups such as ForAmerica and FreedomWorks’s DemandATownHall.org are organizing them (into the special interests Tea Party groups decry), supplying information about where and when their representative will be home, and providing scripts for meetings.

If you’ve heard the questions at one town-hall meeting, you’ve just about heard them all.

Coburn tried to keep the conversation on his subjects: a smaller, less wasteful government run by non-lifetime representatives. He patiently explained the difference between mandatory and discretionary spending. He has never voted for a continuing resolution to keep automatically funding government, because he sees it as a dereliction of duty not to know what you are budgeting for. No one has introduced more amendments to stop waste than he has, he tells the hall. He’s always hard on the Pentagon, which he calls the “Department of Everything,” with $68 billion over 10 years going to indispensable programs such as beef jerky development and a mobile application to let you know when it’s time for a coffee break. He points out that sequestration was not the best way to cut spending, but in the absence of real governing, the only way.

Coburn is consistent. When he was elected to the Senate in 2004, he risked offending his constituents by promising he would never bring pork to Oklahoma. He won easily, and won re-election even more easily, exceeding 70 percent of the vote.

He succeeded even though he called liberals such as Senators Dick Durbin of Illinois and Chuck Schumer of New York, and even members of the press, his friends. Obama, however, should recall the aphorism about having a friend in the capital. It’s good the president just got a second dog.

(Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist.)

To contact the writer of this article: Margaret Carlson at mcarlson3@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net.