Return of the maverick

Posted: May 27, 2004 12:00 AM

 WASHINGTON -- Dr. Tom Coburn, the plainspoken obstetrician from Muskogee, Okla., was back in Washington briefly last week. Republican senators greeted him with mixed emotions. He is their best hope for keeping an Oklahoma seat Republican in the closely divided Senate. The bad news is, he would be as prickly in the Senate as he was during his six years in the House (1995-2000).

 Coburn's problem is that he takes seriously the professed Republican agenda: limited government, entitlement reform and anti-abortion advocacy. He was a rare sincere GOP supporter of term limits, leaving the House after three terms as he promised to do. The result is scant support for Coburn from the Republican establishment, in the nation's capital as well as Oklahoma. If elected to the Senate, he will do it largely on his own.

 That situation suggests the current realignment cycle in American politics is nearing an end after 36 years, with the Republican Party displaying symptoms of a nervous breakdown. The party's leadership, from President Bush on down, went out of its way to push the undependable Republican Sen. Arlen Specter to victory against a staunch conservative in the Pennsylvania primary because he was considered a stronger general election candidate. In contrast, dependably conservative Coburn gets no establishment support in the contested Oklahoma primary though he is the best bet in November.

 The Oklahoma Senate seat was safely Republican until Sen. Don Nickles surprised everybody by not seeking re-election. Nickles, Sen. James Inhofe and the state party apparatus got behind former Oklahoma City Mayor Kirk Humphreys, popular with the insiders but not much of a candidate. Conservative Republican Rep. Ernest Istook wanted to run but was squeezed out. The only problem was that Humphreys looked like a loser against Rep. Brad Carson, a clever Democrat who votes with the liberals in the House two-thirds of the time but sounds like a moderate in Oklahoma.

 With a Democratic victory in sight, Coburn on March 1 ended his retirement from politics. Without financing or endorsements, he had a 12-point lead over Humphreys and was running even with Carson, according to the Tulsa World's poll (taken March 26-April 5). Instead of generating support, those numbers only intensified the establishment's determination to keep Coburn in Muskogee. Instead of raising money for him, the Republican lobbyist community whispered that Coburn was not solidly for Bush.

 All this dates back a decade when Dr. Coburn came to Washington as a foot soldier in the Gingrich Revolution. By July 1997, Coburn had concluded that Speaker Newt Gingrich was no revolutionary. He was a leader in the unsuccessful coup attempt to replace Gingrich with then Rep. Bill Paxon, now the only big-time Washington lobbyist who supports Coburn.

 Coburn in the Senate can be expected to act much as he did in the House, when he constantly harassed the appropriators for spending the budget surplus. He would not follow the accepted freshman senator's model of spending his first two years listening and waiting. From day one, he would join John McCain in upbraiding colleagues over their insatiable appetite for pork. He would push immediately for Social Security and Medicare reform. He would make clear his unhappiness over the way the Department of Health and Human Services has been run under Republican management led by Secretary Tommy Thompson.

 Coburn was so uncongenial to the go-along, get-along mood that characterized the Republican majority in the House that a conflict-of-interest complaint was filed against him because he went back to Muskogee every week to deliver babies. If he had to choose, he declared, he would give up Congress -- and the complaint was dropped. In his current campaign, Coburn spends two days a week practicing medicine.

 In announcing his candidacy, Coburn took dead aim at the professional politicians who dominate the Republican-controlled Congress: "I believe we have a deficit of moral courage in the United States Congress. We have many learned individuals who know what is right but have not the courage to stand against the moral corruption that is now attempting to undermine our republic." Tom Coburn is not running to be the most popular senator.