Senator Tom Coburn’s (R-OK) editorial today in the Wall Street Journal, echoing much the same message Congressman Sensenbrenner delivered to Wisconsin Republicans at our state convention earlier this month, furthers the conservative belief that Republicans did not lose their majority because liberalism suddenly became popular, but rather due to the fact voters could not tell the difference between the two political parties.
Many Republicans are waiting for a consultant or party elder to come down from the mountain and, in Moses-like fashion, deliver an agenda and talking points on stone tablets. But the burning bush, so to speak, is delivering a blindingly simple message: Behave like Republicans.
Unfortunately, too many in our party are not yet ready to return to the path of limited government. Instead, we are being told our message must be deficient because, after all, we should be winning in certain areas just by being Republicans. Yet being a Republican isn’t good enough anymore. Voters are tired of buying a GOP package and finding a big-government liberal agenda inside. What we need is not new advertising, but truth in advertising.
Who is Tom Coburn? Well, he’s a first-term senator from Oklahoma, elected in a political comeback in 2004 after adhering to his self-imposed term limits pledge and leaving Congress after serving three terms, from 1994-2000. While in office the first time around, he aggravated Republican leadership to no end by expecting Republicans to act conservatively, and even led the coup against then-Speaker Newt Gingrich. A Bob Novak column during the 2004 race delivers the details:
Coburn’s problem is that he takes seriously the professed Republican agenda: limited government, entitlement reform and anti- abortion advocacy. He was a rare sincere GOP supporter of term limits, leaving the House after three terms as he promised to do. The result is scant support for Coburn from the Republican establishment, in the nation’s capital as well as Oklahoma. If elected to the Senate, he will do it largely on his own.
The Oklahoma Senate seat was safely Republican until Sen. Don Nickles surprised everybody by not seeking re-election. Nickles, Sen. James Inhofe and the state party apparatus got behind former Oklahoma City Mayor Kirk Humphreys, popular with the insiders but not much of a candidate. Conservative Republican Rep. Ernest Istook wanted to run but was squeezed out. The only problem was that Humphreys looked like a loser against Rep. Brad Carson, a clever Democrat who votes with the liberals in the House two-thirds of the time but sounds like a moderate in Oklahoma.
All this dates back a decade when Dr. Coburn came to Washington as a foot soldier in the Gingrich Revolution. By July 1997, Coburn had concluded that Speaker Newt Gingrich was no revolutionary. He was a leader in the unsuccessful coup attempt to replace Gingrich with then Rep. Bill Paxon, now the only big- time Washington lobbyist who supports Coburn.
Coburn in the Senate can be expected to act much as he did in the House, when he constantly harassed the appropriators for spending the budget surplus. He would not follow the accepted freshman senator’s model of spending his first two years listening and waiting. From day one, he would join John McCain in upbraiding colleagues over their insatiable appetite for pork. He would push immediately for Social Security and Medicare reform. He would make clear his unhappiness over the way the Department of Health and Human Services has been run under Republican management led by Secretary Tommy Thompson.
So in 2004, Republican leadership would rather have lost a reliable seat, than have to deal with a senator with a conscience who expects his colleagues who campaign as conservatives, to vote that way once in office. Though he had virtually no establishment support and was the victim of a smear campaign by his Democratic opponent, Coburn won easily in both the primary and general elections and has been a conservative reform during his first term.
Coburn also takes direct aim at President Bush’s ‘compassionate conservative’ agenda:
While the K Street Project decimated our brand as the party of reform and limited government, compassionate conservatism convinced the American people to elect the party that was truly skilled at activist government: the Democrats.
Compassionate conservatism’s starting point had merit. The essential argument that Republicans should orient policy around how our ideas will affect the poor, the widow, the orphan, the forgotten and the “other” is indisputable – particularly for those who claim, as I do, to submit to an authority higher than government. Yet conservatives are conservatives because our policies promote deliverance from poverty rather than dependence on government.
Compassionate conservatism’s next step – its implicit claim that charity or compassion translates into a particular style of activist government involving massive spending increases and entitlement expansion – was its undoing. Common sense and the Scriptures show that true giving and compassion require sacrifice by the giver. This is why Jesus told the rich young ruler to sell his possessions, not his neighbor’s possessions. Spending other people’s money is not compassionate.
When he endorsed McCain’s presidential run, I must admit I was surprised since McCain was to the left of Coburn on so many issues; his editorial explains his reason:
John McCain, for all his faults, is the one Republican candidate who can lead us through our wilderness. Mr. McCain is not running on a messianic platform or as a great healer of dysfunctional Republicans who refuse to help themselves. His humility is one of his great strengths. In his heart, he’s a soldier who sees one more hill to charge, one more mission to complete.
What are the odds Republican legislators give up their addiction to pork? I’m generally an optimist, but probably not so much in this case. Our friends over at FreedomWorks, have organized a No Earmarks Pledge for candidates and elected officials, to “personally support spending reform in Congress by refusing to seek, support, or enact earmarks…” Should be standard fare for Republicans, though I did not expect any Democrats to sign it, and wondered if even a majority of Republicans would sign on to the pledge.
In the Senate, a grand total of two have signed the pledge…TWO!? Of course, Coburn is one of them, and South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint is the other. In the House, a whopping sum of 14 have sworn off the pork flavored kool-aid and committed to doing what their constituents expect of them. Fortunately, our state has two of the 14 that list, Jim Sensenbrenner and Paul Ryan, so those of us in Southeastern Wisconsin can be proud.
If anyone in Tom Petri’s district would like to contact him and inquire as to why he has turned his back on fiscal conservatism, please visit his website and let him know your thoughts here. Interestingly, on his website it lists the results of a recent constituent survey from WI-6, and one of the questions asked whether it would be a good idea to abolish earmarks. Almost all (88%) of the respondents replied ‘yes’ to completely getting rid of earmarks. I hope some of the 88% will encourage him to sign the pledge…