A Tea Party Turncoat

Article excerpt

Byline: Peter J. Boyer

A godfather of the fringe right, Sen. Tom Coburn is now paving the path to compromise. He may pay for it.

For a moment, the political warfare over the debt crisis seemed to pause, and standing there bearing the flag of compromise was a most surprising figure--Republican Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, whose reputation as a radical fiscal hawk and obstructionist had earned him the nickname "Dr. No."

Coburn, who has spent his political career happily unfazed by the prospect of unpopularity, suddenly found himself declared the man of the hour by those rooting for a deal when he rejoined the Senate's bipartisan Gang of Six, endorsing a blueprint for a potential way out of the debt impasse.

"The hard right says I'm a RINO now," Coburn says, referring to the term--Republican in Name Only--derisively applied to those who betray conservative orthodoxy. Indeed, the conservative reaction was swift, and fierce. Rush Limbaugh said that compromise such as Coburn's was a fool's game, practiced by Republicans with "spines of linguine."

Back home in Oklahoma, a local Tea Party group organized a protest against Coburn, and some national Tea Party leaders pronounced withering rebukes. "His reputation is as being pretty strong fiscally, but then when he joined the Gang of Six and this nonsense about adding a trillion dollars in the middle of either a depression or a recession--that is just lunacy," said Judson Phillips, founder of Tea Party Nation. Matt Kibbe, president of Freedom Works, declared himself baffled by Coburn's move. "I think Senator Coburn knows better," he said.

The Tea Party critique was almost amusing, given Coburn's history as a spiritual godfather of the movement.

In the autumn of 2005, before he'd been in the Senate a year, Coburn took to the floor of the chamber and did something that freshmen senators did not do--he delivered a speech roundly critical of a senior Republican colleague's pet project. The senator was Ted Stevens of Alaska, and the project was a $233 million earmark for "the bridge to nowhere"--the very symbol of wasteful pork spending.

That speech helped to galvanize anti-earmark sentiment inside Congress and beyond. Coburn supported the fledgling "Porkbusters" movement, popularized by University of Tennessee law professor Glenn Harlan Reynolds, the blogger known as Instapundit. Reynolds believed in the persuasive power of ridicule, and Coburn helped to provide the movement with the ideal weapon--a law pulling the curtain back on who was stuffing pork into which legislation. "Coburn was very involved in the embryo of the Tea Party movement, the Porkbusters movement," says Reynolds. "I would say that Coburn was Tea Party before there was a Tea Party."

Coburn says that he deeply admires the movement ("I think the Tea Party is one of the best things that ever happened to this country"), but he has not publicly associated himself with it, as some, such as Jim DeMint and Michele Bachmann, have. This is partly because Coburn believes that politicians tend to exploit such forces, but it is also because Coburn's natural role is as a dissident, rather than a move-ment leader.

Coburn arrived in Washington with a distinct political advantage--a willingness to leave. He'd survived a youthful encounter with cancer, which, he later said, drastically altered his perspective. He quit business to study medicine, and, in 1994, he put aside his medical practice in Muskogee, where he was a deacon in his Southern Baptist church, to join the Gingrich revolution. Gingrich promised an early vote on term limits if Republicans took the House, and when Republicans won, the vote was taken--but, to Coburn's dismay, the term-limit proposal was rigged to fail. …