Another Coburn strength was his skill at practicing politics, without being political. He knew every arcane rule in the Senate and was willing to use them to force a clarifying moment. When he first arrived in Washington, some accused him of grandstanding—until they realized his interest was in shining a light on everyone but himself. The pity is that history rarely hands out awards to those who stop bad things. Tom Coburn blocked more bad ideas and lousy legislation in Congress than most Americans will ever know.
He understood power structures, and public outrage, and the long game. Despite his reputation as “antiestablishment”—cast as a precursor to today’s Ted Cruzes or Rand Pauls —he was anything but. He had an old-fashioned belief in the true power of the Senate—of convening, of finding answers—and co-wrote legislation with nearly every Democrat in office. And he was savvy. It took him a decade of floor speeches and amendments—and the phrase “Bridge to Nowhere”—to get the GOP to swear off earmarks, but he got it done. He played off Barack Obama ’s stated interest in transparency to create USAspending.gov, designed to inform the public on federal outlays.Yet it wasn’t about his image.
He wasn’t cute or coy, and he didn’t engage in fool’s errands. In a recent conversation I asked Mr. Coburn about the limits of standing on principle. “There are all kinds of tactics that the right can use, but they only work if you have the leadership, courage and vision to hold until you win,” he says. He doesn’t think the GOP is there, and it is why he opposed last year’s government shutdown.
Coburn was one of the few members of congress I truly respected. A crusader for liberty and the Constitutional principles. He’ll be sorely missed.