The Unclubbable Republican

Like lots of fanatics, Tom Coburn, the former Republican senator from Oklahoma, was at bottom a moralist.

About the author: Andrew Ferguson is a staff writer at The Atlantic. He is the author of Fools’ Names, Fools’ Faces; Land of Lincoln; and Crazy U: One Dad’s Crash Course on Getting His Kid Into College.

Tom Coburn
CM / CQ Roll Call / Getty

Updated at 2:15 p.m. ET on April 1, 2020.

Tom Coburn, the former Republican senator from Oklahoma, was a fanatic, and I mean that in the very best sense of the word. In 2003, when a reporter for his local newspaper said he wanted to write about the politician’s recent bout with cancer, Coburn scolded him: “You should be writing about Medicaid and Medicare instead of my health.”

Coburn finally succumbed to cancer last week; meanwhile, the object of his grandest obsession—the parlous financial condition of the federal government’s finances, including the funding of Medicaid and Medicare—survives him. Some of the send-offs in the press read more like character assassination than obituary. Fanatics are generally unloved and, for that reason, rare in mainstream politics, where a need to be admired is the entry-level qualification. The closest comparison to Coburn on the scene today is probably Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Just as a reporter who asked Coburn about his health would get an earful about Medicare-funding formulas, so a question about the price of coffee might provoke one of AOC’s fusillades on income inequality. For fanatics, it’s always first things first.

The monomania made Coburn famously unclubbable, even in the supposedly collegial Senate, even among his fellow Republicans. He came to politics after two successful careers, one as a business owner, meeting payrolls and negotiating union contracts, and then, after graduating from medical school at age 35, as an obstetrician in his hometown of Muskogee. He estimated that he delivered more than 4,000 babies. He kept doing it, on weekends home, after he was elected to the House of Representatives and later the Senate.

Both houses of our national legislature are overrun by a certain human type: men and women whose careers began in the second grade with their first campaign for hall monitor and who have stayed the course ever since, not counting the occasional detour to law school. Not Coburn. “In any election,” he said, “you should vote for the candidate who will give up the most if they win.” Better, he meant, to send to Congress people whose work had given them some success in the tug and tussle of ordinary commercial life and who were willing to make a sacrifice in comfort and convenience. The ideal public servant would see a tour in the Washington sausage factory as a demotion.

Such an officeholder is less likely to serve parochial interests—and thereby, endless reelection—at the expense of the national interest. The conflict could be most clearly seen in his exfoliation of budget “earmarks,” a word and a practice that Coburn did more than anyone to make notorious. Earmarks, often inserted surreptitiously into unrelated bills, directed government money to pet projects that were otherwise unlikely to receive majority support.

The sneakiness of earmarks, their lack of accountability and transparency, was enough to make them objectionable. But in federal budgets where a little less than 25 percent of expenditures had already had to be borrowed—red ink by the barrel—the practice was a symptom of ill-discipline unbecoming a self-governing people. The classic of the genre was the “bridge to nowhere,” a pork-barrel project connecting one sparsely inhabited spit of Alaska to another, at a cost of $223 million.* The bridge, a simple line item in a large appropriations bill, was one of Coburn’s great discoveries. He and his staff had a rare gift for sifting through the agate type of budget documents without losing their eyesight or their minds. The shaming worked, the funding was removed—and then restored several years later. There’s a lesson in there somewhere.

Coburn redoubled his unpopularity with colleagues by becoming a master of legislative procedure. As a member of the House, he managed to grind the chamber to a halt by threatening to file 130 separate amendments to an agriculture bill, effectively inventing a one-man filibuster in a legislative body that forbids filibusters. (He said the bill was a sop to wealthy farmers and agribusiness.) After he was elected to the Senate, he kept a copy of Riddick’s Senate Procedure, a book of government rules, on his nightstand. Eventually his repeated raids on appropriations bills forced the Senate leadership to declare a moratorium on earmarks, after the Tea Party election of 2010 seemed to validate Coburn’s distaste for deficit spending.

In truth, as Coburn knew, earmarks have never amounted to more than a few percentage points of the federal budget. The drivers of the debt are the “entitlement” programs that alarmed him even more. Year after year he proposed reforms to slow their rate of growth, by raising the age at which people qualify for them or barring the well-to-do from collecting them. Yet earmarks, he said, were the “gateway drug” to a larger irresponsibility, a kind of self-dealing that would in the end corrode the discipline and good faith essential to representative government. Earmarks offended him especially when they were used to redistribute income in the wrong direction. One of his books is called Subsidies of the Rich and Famous, a comprehensive list of tax loopholes that amounted to “welfare for the well-off … paid for with the taxes of the less fortunate, many who are working two jobs to make ends meet, and IOUs to be paid off by future generations.”

His campaign against the tax loopholes pleased his fellow Republicans no more than they pleased Democrats. Both sides said he wanted to raise taxes. He drew the scorn of Washington’s professional conservatives, the veterans of the recently deceased conservative movement, who had come to town, as the phrase goes, to do good and stayed to do well.

The scorn was mutual. Most of the activists, he wrote in a memoir, “had no real-world experience. Their practical knowledge … was limited to deciding who spoke when at lunches and where to hold conferences.” He called himself the “opposition within the opposition.” Long experience, he said, had taught him that the “only thing more dangerous than negotiating with Democrats [is] negotiating with Republicans.” Establishment Republicans were especially scandalized when Barack Obama, asked to contribute to Time’s list of the world’s 100 most influential people, chose Coburn, his friend and friendly adversary, as his subject. “Each of us still hopes the other will see the light,” Obama wrote.

Like lots of fanatics, Tom Coburn was at bottom a moralist. He was called “Dr. No,” and the nickname amused him, but the constant contrarianism of his “no” reflected an affirmative view of the proper relationship between the governed and their government. As a think-tank fellow and an author, he was still working on this ideal when he died, trying to imagine a future for the Republican Party when Donald Trump is no longer around.

“He wasn’t so much a Never Trumper as an After Trumper,” a friend says. When that day arrives, Republicans will miss Tom Coburn.

* An earlier version of this article misstated the cost of the "bridge to nowhere." It was $223 million, not $227 million.