POLITICS

Dreaded ‘I’ surfaces again in political rhetoric

 

Mcarlson3@bloomberg.net

Has the world gone mad?

The question came to mind upon reading that one of the more staid — and conservative — Republicans, Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, deliverer of 4,000 babies, decrier of waste and joiner of multiple bipartisan gangs, had said at a town-hall meeting that his friend, President Obama, was “perilously close” to impeachment.

Town halls have turned into cauldrons of activism almost guaranteed to drive a member of Congress crazy. Happy people don’t spend their summer evenings in drab rooms under fluorescent lights with sketchy air conditioning. The people who come don’t want to be calmed. They want to be heard, no matter how wrong they might be. You correct them at your peril.

When I caught up by telephone with Coburn, he was the judicious, calm, non-lectern-pounding member I know. In his first post-brouhaha interview, he recalled what happened in Muskogee, his fifth town hall of the day on Aug. 21, when an answer he gave to a question about impeachment at the end of the day, one of many over an hour-plus session, got overblown. He didn’t say Obama should be impeached, as have some attention-hungry House members, but was explaining how such an event could come about.

“I didn’t express myself very well,” he said, “Yes, I’m unhappy with a lot of what they’re doing expanding executive power, but I also explained that I don’t know what constitutes high crimes and misdemeanors.”

He answered, he said, “not very appropriately.”

So a constituent made him do it. Senators, as a rule, even ones like Coburn not running for reelection, aren’t in the business of offending voters. Restraint is one more casualty of the rhetoric in Washington, which has raised the level of what people back home expect to hear from their representatives. If you don’t want to defund the healthcare law (Coburn doesn’t, because it won’t work) you aren’t a true conservative such as Sens. Ted Cruz and Rand Paul. Second-termers are suspect for having gone Washington. You have to prove yourself constantly.

While Coburn uttered the “I” word, he also called out another of his friends, Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, who has written a letter calling for defunding Obamacare that he wants Coburn to sign, a demand that Coburn called “ridiculous” at the same town hall (and he shares a house with this particular friend on Capitol Hill). He also said that the move by conservatives to shut down the government was “childish” and that Republicans shouldn’t blame everything they don’t like about government on Obama.

“There were uncontrolled bureaucracies under Bush, too,” he said.

Coburn tried to keep the conversation on his subjects: a smaller, less wasteful government run by non-lifetime representatives. He has never voted for a continuing resolution to keep automatically funding government, because he sees it as a dereliction of duty not to know what you are budgeting for.

No one has introduced more amendments to stop waste than he has, he tells the hall. He’s always hard on the Pentagon, which he calls the “Department of Everything,” with $68 billion over 10 years going to indispensable programs such as beef jerky development and a mobile application to let you know when it’s time for a coffee break. He points out that sequestration was not the best way to cut spending, but in the absence of real governing, the only way.

Coburn is consistent. When he was elected to the Senate in 2004, he risked offending his constituents by promising he would never bring pork to Oklahoma. He won easily, and won reelection even more easily, exceeding 70 percent of the vote.

He succeeded even though he called liberals such as Sens. Dick Durbin and Chuck Schumer, and even members of the press, his friends. Obama, however, should recall the aphorism about having a friend in the capital. It’s good the president just got a second dog.

© 2013, Bloomberg News

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