Sen. Tom Coburn doesn't look like a man on his way out of town.
The Oklahoma Republican just released a proposal to repeal and replace Obamacare, and he continues to filibuster spending bills as a part of his career mission to shrink government and rein in the national debt.
Coburn recently announced that he would resign from the Senate at year's end, two years before his second term expires. In a conversation with a Washington Examiner reporter, Coburn said his decision was consistent with the faith-based “calling” that led him to leave his career as an obstetrician for a life in politics. Now, at age 65, after six years in the House and nearly 10 in the Senate, he said it was time for him to apply his talents elsewhere.
“I want to spend my waning years doing something that’s going to make a difference," the senator said. “ And, maybe I’m going to make a difference in individuals’ lives, smaller group number, but it’s certainly going to be something that has more impact than what I’m doing now.”
Examiner: Can you explain why you think what you’re supposed to be doing no longer fits with being a U.S. senator?
Coburn: I see me internally: my reactions, my tolerance, my patience. And then you start saying: "Am I supposed to still be here?"
Examiner: Would you be leaving if you believed Congress and the administration were making real progress on fixing the debt?
Coburn: I’d put it a different way. The leadership that we have today in our country is not being honest with the American people about the severity and depth of our problems. And I’ve raised all the issues I can raise, I’ve written books about it — I’ve done all the stuff — and so there’s got to be a different way to fix it.
Examiner: Are you disappointed that the president didn’t decide to prioritize this issue in the way you felt was important?
Coburn: I think he's made three big mistakes. One is, he's surrounded himself with people that think just like he does, rather than get a real difference of opinion, [of] input, so that he could have a broader perspective. Two, I think his approach on health care went the exact wrong way. I don't blame him for wanting to fix it -- I just think he went the wrong way. And No. 3, I think not embracing Bowles-Simpson [deficit-reduction recommendation] was his chance to go down in history as a guy who actually fixed our country.
Examiner: The two of you struck up a friendship during his brief Senate tenure. Has your relationship changed?
Coburn: Oh, it’s a little cooler because I’ve been a little harsher. But I still write him notes and talk to him occasionally.
Examiner: What’s it like?
Coburn: It’s cordial, friendly. I actually really like the guy — I mean, as a person. I don’t like his policies, but I like him as a person.
Examiner: Did you hope Obama would be a different kind of Democrat?
Coburn: My hope was, I honestly thought, I was really proud, even though we lost the election, that we had Barack Obama as president. Because if you really did change the way politics operated, really did work with guys, really said, "I’m not going to pay attention to short-term political answers regardless of what my party was. I’m going to govern for the best interest of the country, not the best interest of the Democrat[ic] Party" — I really had hopes that he would do that. And he hasn’t. And I understand how hard that is.
Examiner: You just said that the Senate is functioning more like the House. Democrats blame Republican obstruction.
Coburn: That's absolutely garbage. [Senate Majority Leader] Harry Reid has become a senator that wants the Senate to be very much like the House and be based on responding to populist demand even if, in the long run, it might hurt the country. And, he's run the Senate, especially in the last four years, for election cycles, rather than for the country. That's my assessment. That doesn't mean he's a bad man.
Examiner: What’s the state of conservatism?
Coburn: We pay way too much attention to what outside groups think, and we ought to think about what we think and what we think is in the best interest of the country.
Examiner: Is it important for conservatives to understand that not everyone in America is inclined to agree with them and that they have to do a better job of explaining their positions?
Coburn: Sure, that’s what we don’t do a good job of ... We have to get better at our language. But the first thing we’ve got to do is talk about what we’re for, not what we’re against.
Examiner: Did conservatives learn something from the government shutdown?
Coburn: I think we got rid of some excess energy and created some judgment. I think in retrospect, it was very good for us to go through that. One, it markedly raised awareness on Obamacare. It markedly did; you've got to give [Texas Sen.] Ted Cruz credit. They raised the temperature, there's no question. No. 2 is, it taught judgment, and it's going to force more unity -- and that's what people want to see.