The Minority Leader

Is Sen. Tom Coburn an extreme social conservative, a libertarian hero, or both?

When Tom Coburn entered the Senate chamber on October 20, 2005, he was girded for battle and ready to lose. The Oklahoma Republican had been sworn into office only 10 months earlier. He was about to take on the Alaska Republican Ted Stevens, who had been in the Senate since the Nixon years and ascended to the top of the omnipotent Appropriations Committee. In Washington, there is no drama about how showdowns between junior and senior senators will end.

Coburn was going to challenge two earmarks, specific expenditures requested by representatives or senators, in the 2006 transportation appropriations bill. One item marked $223 million for a bridge connecting the town of Ketchikan, Alaska, population 8,900, to Gravina Island, home to an airport, 50 Alaskans, and not a whole lot else. The other item allotted $231 million for a bridge in Anchorage to be renamed for Rep. Don Young, another Alaska Republican, who ran the Appropriations Committee in the House of Representatives.

Before adjusting for inflation, each of those provisions represented more money than Gerald Ford requested from Congress in 1975 to fund the drowning government of South Vietnam. The Senate had denied Ford, but it wasn't about to deny Ted Stevens. Coburn intended to try, introducing amendments that would strip the funding from those projects and apply it instead to reconstruction efforts in New Orleans, which Hurricane Katrina had devastated only two months before.

When it was Coburn's turn to speak, he patiently explained why he chose this battle. "All change starts with a distant rumble," Coburn said, "a rumble at the grassroots level, and if you stop and listen today, you will hear such a rumble right now." He stood, swiveling slightly right and left, continuing in his prairie twang. "That rumble is the sound of hard-working Americans who are getting increasingly angry with out-of-control government spending, waste, fraud, and abuse. It is the sound of the growing disillusionment and frustration of the American people."

Senators have a habit of trying to link their newest bills on carbon taxes or soybean subsidies or anything else to "grassroots" support. But Coburn wasn't bluffing. The Alaska bridges had been roundly mocked by the media in the lower 48 states. The beleaguered staffs of senators and representatives were fed up with responding to angry calls and emails about the bridge.

"This thing had taken a life of its own, much apart from anything we'd said about it," says Coburn's longtime communications director John Hart. Frank Luntz, the Republican pollster, claimed after the 2006 elections that the bridge had more name identification among voters than their own congressmen.

After four years of complete control of the federal government, Republicans were having trouble explaining away the fact that their party was passing pork that would have made Tip O'Neill turn an even deeper shade of red. In 1994, the last year of the old Democratic majority, Congress signed off on 4,155 earmarks worth $39 billion in today's dollars. In 2004 the numbers were 14,211 earmarks and (again adjusted for inflation) $56 billion. Coburn was taking a public stand against this turnaround. Colleagues from both parties made him their punching bag.

"If the senator from Oklahoma wants to look for a culprit for the fiscal situation in this country," said Sen. Patty Murray, the liberal Democrat from Washington, "he should look into the billions and billions of dollars in tax cuts that have been granted to multimillionaires in this country. We are not going to watch the senator pick out one project and make it into a whipping boy."

"This amendment and the others like it," averred conservative Republican Sen. Kit Bond of Missouri, "will be welcomed by some newspaper editorials, some talk radio show hosts, but it would be a better headline if the senator were actually attacking a project in his state." In fact, Coburn had a history of actually blocking grants-not all, but some-that would have benefited his state. Never mind that.

And Stevens himself? Coburn had telegraphed this move in advance, but it prompted a reaction from the Alaska senator that shocked reporters. Debating an amendment that he knew he had the votes to kill, Stevens exploded like a gusher on the Northern Slope oil field. "I come to warn the Senate," Stevens raged. "If you want a wounded bull on the floor of the Senate, pass this amendment." He yelled; he threatened repeatedly to resign.

"I wasn't worried about what he was doing at that time," Coburn told me last December as we sat in his office in Washington, D.C. He placed his Blackberry on a coffee table, next to a volume of C. S. Lewis essays, and continued calmly as the machine levitated from a constant stream of incoming calls. "I think I was more worried about his blood pressure, and whether I would have to resuscitate him on the floor of the Senate."

When the vote came, Coburn's amendment failed. It got 15 votes, from 12 Republicans and three Democrats. This was on the high end of expectations.

But what had happened during the debate was more important than the result. Coburn had kept his cool and fought a high-profile battle supported by hundreds of activists and who knew how many regular voters. Stevens had embodied the elements that those activists and voters loathed about Congress. In the coming months The Daily Show used footage of Stevens shouting "No!" during the debate in a "Coot-Off" to determine the identity of the oldest, most out-of-touch senator. (Democratic Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia carried the day.)

The Bridge to Nowhere battle raised Coburn to heroic stature for plenty of libertarians. This is odd, because in many important ways Coburn represents the Republican Party's decade-long lunge away from libertarian rhetoric. He is a firm social conservative, a man absolutely opposed to, say, the "gay agenda," which he defines as "a cultural thing that has nothing to do with gay people who want to live their lives; a product of the culture of the sexual freedom revolution." Coburn is also a dependable vote for the Iraq war, for PATRIOT Act renewal, for most measures in the "war on terror." He has regretted that the United States didn't respond to the outbreak of AIDS with some of the coercive tactics Cuba used.

But in the economic realm, Coburn is one of the most outspoken, principled, and, increasingly, influential advocates for smaller government that either house of Congress has seen in years. He has thrown more monkey wrenches into the machine of congressional spending than any national politician. And he has done this without losing an election.

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