They call him Dr. No, Senator Trainwreck, The One Man Gridlock Machine. But Oklahoma Republican Tom Coburn may be about to add one more title to his enumerated pseudonyms: Former Senator.
In Washington D.C., there is palpable concern among conservative leaders. As the 2010 midterms loom, Republicans are already beset by retirements in several key districts and states. But the loss of Coburn would present a massive loss for grassroots conservatives, even moreso than for the party as a whole. Coburn is one of the most outspoken opponents of pork barrel spending in the chamber, as well as one of the Senate’s most prominent pro-lifers.
While Coburn is friendly with many members of the right, he doesn’t generally confide with movement leaders about his intentions, making any attempt to assess his intentions all the more difficult. On the money side, it doesn’t look good: Coburn has less than $60,000 on hand in his campaign coffers, putting him worse than some GOP members, such as Sen. Jim Bunning (he’s wavering) or Sen. Sam Brownback, who have already announced they aren’t running for reelection.
While Coburn has demured from presenting a decision in his public comments, according to one longtime Coburn supporter, the Senator is strongly considering stepping down next year.
“Politics has never been Tom’s first love,” this supporter says. “He does it because he feels called to do it, not because he likes doing it. He’d much rather be back here delivering babies than dealing with his fellow Senators. And when he leaves D.C., which I really think he might next year, he’s going to leave without any regrets.”
Besides being one of the most outspokenly conservative members of the Senate and a hardened fighter on social issues, Coburn makes a habit of more than occasionally bucking the guidance of his party’s leadership. His 2003 book Breach of Trust is notable not just for Coburn’s disgust with career politicians, but the fact that he was perfectly willing to slam members of his own party who still held positions of power. He even tangled with leadership in both parties within months of his 2004 election, sparking an extended battle over whether he could continue to deliver babies in Oklahoma (for which he took no payment) as he stayed in the Senate.
Unlike some of his colleagues, it’s not the prospect of his time in the minority that likely drew Coburn to this point of indecision. In a 2007 profile in GQ magazine, Coburn famously said that his role after the midterm losses would be essentially unchanged: “It will be my first time in the minority party, but I’ve been in the minority the whole time I’ve been here.”
With a reputation for gliding toward controversy like a moth to flame, just this week Coburn engaged in the kind of passionate braggadocio that inspires his fans and earns the derision of his critics. In the wake of the announcement that President Obama intended to roll back the conscience exemption protecting federally funded nurses and doctors from being required to perform abortions in violation of their faith or conscience — a necessary first step before the anticipated piecemeal passage of FOCA — Coburn said he would absolutely violate the law before agreeing to participate in such procedures.
“I think a lot of us will go to jail,” Coburn told CNSNews. “Let’s see them prosecute the first one of us for not doing that.”
The bespectacled Oklahoma doctor may look like a mild-mannered figure, but these comments indicate the undercurrent of rogue crusaderism that inhabits his being. In many ways, Coburn’s motivations parallel the writings of German theologian and would-be Hitler assassin Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who urged the church to take on the government in defense of the weak and defenseless: “not just to bandage the victims under the wheel, but to jam a spoke in the wheel itself.”
Despite his occasionally overheated comments, Coburn remains one of the most popular elected officials in Oklahoma. He has no significant Democratic challenger at this time, and if he announced tomorrow that he was planning to run for reelection, he would likely receive only token opposition.
When introduced at a recent speech, Coburn was asked by an audience member whether or not he was going to run again.
“I feel like if you’re in this business, you have to feel like you’re called to do it,” Coburn responded. “I’m just not sure any more that this is the best way I can make a difference every day.”