U.S.

Tom Coburn, the Senate's Oddball, Surprises Washington Again

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08/30/13
In the Magazine
Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

The receptionist answers the phone “Dr. Coburn” when you call the senator’s office, underscoring the importance he attaches to his hometown identity. A gynecologist who has delivered 4,000 babies, Tom Coburn prides himself on his outsider status in Washington—a distinction that cemented his bond with Barack Obama when they arrived in the Senate at the same time in 2005.

In the years since, it’s become well known in Washington that Coburn, despite being a conservative Republican, is one of Obama’s closest friends in the Senate. And so it caught people’s attention when Coburn opined recently at a town-hall meeting, in Muskogee, Oklahoma, that there’s “some intended violation of the law in this administration,” mostly with regard to Obamacare, which Coburn opposes. “I don’t have the legal background to know if that rises to high crimes and misdemeanors,” the senator told his audience, “but I think they’re getting perilously close.”

Coburn may be an Obama friend, but the truth is that any remark coming from him shouldn’t be all that surprising. Quirky is the adjective that best suits Coburn: from his distinctive hairstyle and intermittent goatee to his policy pronouncements, he seems to take special pleasure in confounding the conventions of Washington. “The strange thing about Coburn is half the time he’s extremely perceptive and constructive, but every so often he takes a long weekend in crazy land,” says Jack Pitney, a government professor at Claremont McKenna College and expert on congressional politics.

Though the senator voted for the Simpson-Bowles deficit-reduction plan, which called for raising taxes, he’s otherwise pretty much a down-the-line fiscal and social conservative. Recently he’s been getting heat for declining to join fellow conservatives in wanting to shut down the government in order to defund Obamacare—and that may have been what prompted him to raise the prospect of impeachment when talking to a hometown crowd.

Coburn’s words fueled the cable shows for days; meanwhile, the senator has since gone to ground, and his press secretary didn’t answer repeated inquiries. He is now caught in a vise familiar to too many Republicans: the emboldened Tea Party wants all-out defiance of Obamacare, but more mainstream GOP lawmakers remember that the last time they shut down the government and impeached a president, in the 1990s, it ended up hurting them politically.

As for Coburn, he may cherish his personal friendship with the president, but this is business. “I love the man. I think he’s a neat man,” he told Bloomberg TV before last year’s election. “I don’t want him to be president, but I still love him. He is our president. He’s my president. And I disagree with him adamantly on 95 percent of the issues, but that doesn’t mean I can’t have a great relationship. And that’s a model people ought to follow.”

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