July 26, 2011
by Michael Horowitz
The electoral prospects of the current list of Republican candidates remain dim. Able as some may be, none have projected the qualities that allowed Ronald Reagan to shatter conservative caricatures and gain the country's trust. Some even seek to exploit the Republican Party's pattern of rewarding seniority and prior, failed candidacies – a next-in-line practice that fatally pitted Bob Dole against Bill Clinton and John McCain against Barak Obama. None have generated great excitement outside their immediate circle of supporters. Despite broad and growing voter dissatisfaction with the Obama administration, none appears likely to stand a better than even chance, if that, of defeating the President.
Last week's Politico report of the Gang of Six debt ceiling plan identifies a potential Republican candidate with the leadership skills to win the Presidency and powerfully advance the conservative cause. In a political community at war with itself and generally incapable of moving off a dime, the Politico piece is as remarkable a recognition of one man's capacity to move the political system as Washington has seen in a long time. The story also reveals the work of someone who found a way out for his party from the kamikaze mode into which it had been casting itself during a two week period in which it increasingly lost leverage, opportunity and broad public support:
"I'm back," he said in dramatic fashion to a bipartisan group of nearly 50 senators, prompting a loud round of applause.
The decision by Coburn … significantly changed the outlook for a bipartisan deficit deal at a time when the two parties' squabbles have left the country on the brink of a disastrous economic default…
Coburn's support can't be underestimated; without it, Crapo and Chambliss wouldn't have signed on — and neither would virtually any other Senate Republican.
The Gang of Six initiative that Tom Coburn made possible will not be the one that Congress enacts. But the White House and bipartisan support it was able to quickly gain broke the logjam, and moved political leverage away from the President. It has made a debt ceiling agreement focused on real spending reductions far more likely.
Tom Coburn is the Republican who best exemplifies the qualities that made Ronald Reagan both an appealing candidate and a popular and transformative President. And while it will take an effort to persuade Coburn to run, those who know him well are confident that he can be moved to do so with a broadly voiced appeal to his sense of duty.
He is a fiercely independent man who, as the Gang of Six saga again reveals, is respected by policy allies and adversaries alike. The ranks of the latter famously include the President, whose public admiration of Coburn's integrity dates from the first days of the President's Senate service. A non-politician politician, Coburn is the conservative least likely to be tarred by Presidential claims that his heart lies with the wealthy and privileged, and a Coburn-Obama race is more likely than any to be focused on issues rather than personal attacks. This will be as healthy for Republican prospects as it will for the country.
A phone call to his office makes clear that Coburn's identity has been shaped by experiences other than the Beltway's seductive and distorting "realities." Alone among his colleagues he is not identified as a Senator, and but for having been barred from continuing to practice medicine by a preposterous Senate ethics ruling, "Doctor Coburn" would have added to the more than 4000 babies he delivered and surgeries he performed as an Oklahoma practitioner. No Republican candidate would be as remotely persuasive in debates over the Obamacare initiative -- and a lifetime of direct experience with patients would allow Coburn to make clear to the country that the President's bureaucratized, top-down policies will trigger runaway costs, dispirited care providers and diminished life and health for all.
Coburn will also be the strongest possible candidate on the issue he knows most fateful – runaway deficits that cause the Federal government to borrow 40 cents for every dollar it spends. No Member of Congress more forcefully opposed the President's failed $900 billion stimulus initiative, and none has sought spending cuts with greater force or conviction – or, as the ethanol, earmark, military health care and other special interest lobbies will attest, with greater independence or effect.
As with the Gang of Six development, Coburn's standing would also be greatly enhanced by his unifying role as a member of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform. That service puts him in an ideal position to make the case that a President who appointed and then ignored the recommendations of the bipartisan Simpson-Bowles commission is captive of special interest spenders. By far, he would be the Republican candidate best able to puncture the President's newly found and would-be standing as a deficit fighter and big spending opponent.
Coburn's reluctant willingness to accept the tax increase element of the Commission's recommendations, and the tax reform element of the Gang of Six agreement will reinforce his Reagan-like character as a man willing to take heat for toughly negotiated bipartisan compromises that advance fundamental conservative positions. In an age of red-blue hostility that Americans abhor and the President promised to end but has made worse, it certifies Coburn as a man willing to take on the establishment of his own party and reach across party lines when circumstances call for it.
Coburn is a social conservative who engages in discussion rather than condemnation when dealing with those who disagree with him on such deeply felt issues as abortion. His public career has also involved another Reagan pursuit – the search to define what conservatism stands affirmatively for, based on the knowledge that a conservatism rightly obliged to often say no will never succeed if it does only that. He has great appeal to moderates and independents; when elected to the House, Coburn was the first Republican from his district to do so since 1920. Further: Attacks on Coburn by conservative true believers who define all tax subsidies as tax increases will further strengthen his broad appeal without seriously diminishing his standing with most conservatives. Were he to become a serious Republican candidate, Coburn would have far greater leverage to further move the debate towards the greater spending reductions and the systemic tax reforms identified by his recently introduced nine trillion dollar deficit reduction plan.
A Coburn nomination would reveal a man for whom 24/7 camera scrutiny will be exceedingly kind, and Americans would see him as a good man whom they would trust as they did Reagan. They would sense that a Coburn Presidency would be civil, principled, conservative and potentially historic.
If for reasons that make him so appealing, Coburn would be the last to put his name forward in response to a "Why Not the Best" question, the time has come for his party to do so -- not least because he'd win.
Michael Horowitz was a Senior Fellow at Hudson Institute until 2012.
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