Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) spoke recently to New Hampshire Republicans and displayed humor and wit in the presentation. Yes, politicians can be entertaining and maybe it would be better for the nation if they all laughed more and legislated less. That aside, Oklahomans respect Dr. Coburn for reasons including his long demonstrated honor, nonpartisan approach and repeated demands for Federal fiscal responsibility.
This is a long missive, but on this day after Thanksgiving for those on a break from shopping or watching football, Senator Coburn’s words are a reasoned, honest, humble and candid consideration of the challenges our nation faces. Coburn said:
Thank you for that kind introduction. It’s an honor to be with you tonight.
It’s especially an honor to be here because tonight, from the great state of New Hampshire, I am formally announcing my intention to not run for president. That’s right. I’m not running for president. If that isn’t clear, I’m also announcing my decision to not form a presidential exploratory committee. Not only will I not run for president, I will not form a committee to cloak any ambition I might have with feigned indecision.
But if you’ve followed the news you know I’m not qualified to run for higher office. I tend to get myself into trouble – not as often as Joe Biden (he was right about Obamacare by the way – it was a big bleeping deal) – but I’ve made my share of mistakes.
The other reason I’m not going to run for president is I don’t want to give up my post on the Senate Intelligence Committee, which has oversight of the highly-controversial NSA.
My post gives me a lot of insight into what the other candidates are thinking. I read their emails on a regular basis, especially the ones they haven’t sent to me. Here’s a snippet of one exchange:
Ted Cruz told Rand Paul he was upset he was fifth in the latest New Hampshire poll. So Rand said, “That’s okay Ted. If you tank in New Hampshire you can run for president anyway … in Canada. You can take on the Establishment in Ottawa and make them listen to the people of Saskatchewan. Because, after all, nothing demonstrates listening quite like 21 hours of nonstop talking.”
Rand was a little tough on Ted. But Ted wasn’t being fair. One part of government is very good at listening. It’s called the NSA.
But, in all seriousness, isn’t the focus on presidential politics three years from the next election a little bit silly? Don’t you think so?
As a party, we need to be investing in ideas, not Iowa.
In politics, nothing matters more than ideas. Ideas matter. Ideas have consequences.
Look at what’s happening with Obamacare. It’s a failure not just of a law, but of an idea, and a set of assumptions about government’s ability to solve problems. No matter how many times this idea has been discredited it always re-emerges, and crawls out of the ash heap of history.
What we are seeing today is the timeless struggle between freedom and tyranny. This is the same struggle out of which our nation was born. At our founding we rejected the idea that the King or the State could micromanage our lives. Today, we’re seeing the consequences of the idea that the State and the central planners in Washington can control the health care economy for 300 million Americans.
As we celebrate the 160 anniversary of the founding of the Republican Party in Exeter, you all are familiar with this struggle. New Hampshire has long been at the front lines of this battle. You should be very proud of what you’ve done to defend this idea called America. Now, more than ever, the country needs your wisdom, judgment and discernment as we face the challenges and opportunities ahead.
I’m optimistic about our prospects because the unraveling of not just Obamacare, but decades of left-wing Big Government ideology is going to give us, as Republicans, a historic opening to make our case to the American people.
Tonight I want to spend a few minutes talking about what that the case might look like.
I believe there are three things we need to do in order to win.
First, we need an inspiring vision and purpose. People need to know what we are for, not just what we oppose.
Second, we need courageous and principled leadership – leadership that puts political self-interest behind the interest of the nation. We need a politics of unity, not division. In politics, it is easy to divide. Real leadership unites Americans with a common vision and purpose.
Third, and finally, we need smart strategies and tactics.
In order to articulate a vision and purpose, we need to reapply the wisdom of our founders to the challenges of today.
In 1788, Thomas Jefferson said, “The natural progress of things is for liberty to yield, and government to gain ground.”
That was true in the centuries before Jefferson and it has been true in the two centuries since Jefferson. The party that aligns itself with that reality – which is the reality of the human condition in a fallen world – will be the party that succeeds in this century.
What’s brilliant about Jefferson’s statement is it works in reverse. As government yields, you – We the People – gain ground.
In the Senate, I’m known as a budget hawk and Dr. No – and sometimes worse names – but my mission has never been just about numbers. It’s been about freedom and individuals – my grandchildren and yours. I believe that limited government liberates individuals.
We also have to understand that while politics is about ideas, it’s also about choices and competition. On the left, they play to win. Too often we play to not lose. And, sometimes, we tackle the wrong team.
The reality is, the left is more disciplined and often more united. They approach political battles with a religious devotion I would call progressive fundamentalism. If you question their dogma they will call you evil and come after you with the IRS. We shouldn’t respond in kind, but we do need to be equally focused and determined.
On the right, our goal is to limit government and liberate individuals. We want to seize power so we can limit power, and set people free. Our faith isn’t in government but in free individuals and the rights endowed to them by their Creator. Our agenda is a freedom agenda and a belief that when people are free to make the most of their talents and opportunities we all prosper.
So, while the left’s big idea is government, our big idea is freedom. If we’re going to succeed we’re going to have to oppose with all of our strength the relentless assault against individual liberty from Washington, and offer a positive and compelling vision of our own.
This is a battle we should invite and welcome. Freedom and liberty are the high ground in the timeless fight about the proper scope of government.
Our advantage is that our ideas work. Theirs don’t.
In every area of our economy we see this principle at work: The best way to make something expensive is for government to make it affordable. That’s especially true in health care and education.
Since 1976, education spending has doubled but test scores have stagnated. We’ve spent $2.4 trillion but we’re not better off.
In health care, we’ve spent trillions on government programs that produce worse outcomes than the free market. Plus, one in every three dollars – or $750 billion – doesn’t help anyone get well or prevent them from getting sick.
And in spite of “investing” hundreds of billions of dollars in so-called economic stimulus, wages for the middle class are less than what they were 1989. As a columnist for the Washington Post said, “that isn’t a lost decade for economic gains for Americans. It is a lost generation.”
So, our first goal is to persistently and persuasively articulate a freedom agenda to counter the left’s government agenda. The second and third goals are connected. We desperately need sacrificial leaders who have the wisdom and courage to pursue strategies that serve the country rather than themselves. We need political leaders who would rather lose an election than lose a generation. As leaders in this process, those are the people you should elevate.
As you all know better than most, in politics, it’s very easy to tell people what they want to hear. It’s much harder to show them the benefits of freedom and then to build a coalition to get them there.
That’s why I wasn’t a fan of the strategy to shut down the government in order to try to defund Obamacare. I warned my Senate colleagues months in advance their strategy wouldn’t work. I told them we didn’t have the power to force the president to defund his signature achievement. We only had the power to shut down the government. And I told them that even if we shut down the government we would not shutdown Obamacare – it would still be funded during a government shutdown, and it was. I also warned that the fight itself would be a divisive distraction, and it was. We took the nation’s focus off of the disastrous Obamacare launch and shined a spotlight on our own disastrous tactics.
I want to applaud Senator Ayotte for publicly opposing this strategy. Her position was the best way to stand for freedom and against Obamacare.
New Hampshire is lucky to have her in the Senate and it’s an honor to serve with her. She’s not only brilliant; she has common sense – a rare commodity in Washington – and character. She has a deep rudder. She approaches the nation’s business with courage, humility and good judgment. She’s highly respected by her peers and also doesn’t apologize for being willing to compromise when she can’t get 100 percent of what she wants. In that sense, she’s a true constitutional conservative. Our constitution, after all, was a brilliant and principled compromise. If our nation is going to survive, we can’t be afraid to employ the very form of compromise that created our nation in order to save our nation.
If the freedom agenda is going to succeed we can’t be divided by strategy and tactics. Too much is at stake. Spirited debates are healthy, but political opportunism is not. Any strategy that begins with the assumption that people like me, Paul Ryan, Scott Walker and Kelly Ayotte are for Obamacare because we opposed a flawed strategy is ludicrous and gives the media the story about infighting they love to write. Make no mistake. The shutdown was not a battle between the true opponents of Obamacare and the so-called Establishment. It was a fight between a handful of DC interest groups and a few politicians and the rest of the conservative movement. It was an episode we should never repeat.
Fortunately, there are good examples of strategic success to draw from that unifies reform-minded Republicans.
The first example is earmarks. A few years ago members of Congress, including far too many Republicans, were spending billions of dollars and an inordinate amount of time chasing earmarks – special projects for their districts and states. As recently as 2010, members of Congress requested nearly 40,000 earmarks estimated to cost $131 billion. At that time, I had been fighting against earmarks – which I called the gateway drug to Congress’ spending addiction – for more than a decade. I was told I would never succeed and I was tilting at windmills. But guess what? Thanks to an outpouring of voter disgust and smart tactics we won. The windmill fell over. We’re now living under an earmark ban and the number of earmarks has gone from 16,000 a year to almost zero.
Tactically, we did a few things correctly. First, we picked our targets wisely and understood that in any struggle, victory is usually gradual and incremental. In World War II, for instance, our generals didn’t invade Japan. Instead, they used an island hopping strategy. In Europe, we didn’t mount a paratroop drop over Berlin. Instead, we secured a beachhead at Normandy.
On earmarks, we didn’t promise to defund or end earmarks at once. Instead, we picked vulnerable targets like the Bridge to Nowhere in Alaska that represented Washington’s excess. Even though we lost a 2005 vote to defund the Bridge to Nowhere in the Senate by 82-15, we won the argument decisively in the public square.
Second, we used persuasion and facts with our colleagues rather than demagoguery and deception. We didn’t attack individual politicians – we attacked projects. We persuaded our colleagues that earmarks weren’t consistent with our values as public servants, and weren’t consistent with an agenda that promotes freedom and liberty.
Again, for me, that fight wasn’t about numbers. It was people and their freedom. As Republicans we should reject the notion that politicians know best where to spend taxpayer funds, regardless of which party they represent. It’s simple. We don’t know best. You know best. The effective legislator isn’t the one who sends money back to the state; it’s the one who keeps money from leaving the state, and the pockets of free people.
The fight also wasn’t just about getting rid of earmarks – the gateway drug – it was about limiting government in other areas as well. I would argue getting rid of earmarks led to another success story.
After the 2010 elections, conservatives demanded spending cuts in exchange for a debt limit increase. We made a simple and clear argument that it was foolish to simply increase the debt limit without dealing with the underlying problem of overspending. We won that debate. Even though the Budget Control Act gave us sequestration – we should be making targeted, not across-the-board cuts – we have cut spending two years in a row for the first time since the end of the Korean War.
The end of earmarks and the spending caps are two great success stories and unlikely reversals in the course of government. We didn’t just talk about cutting spending. We did it. We made government yield and allowed freedom to reclaim a little more of its rightful place in our society.
The challenge before us now is to keep on winning by picking the right targets, and by having a positive vision that restores confidence in our country.
Fortunately, there are a lot of islands to take, and poorly-defended hills to conquer. On spending, we’ve barely scratched the surface. My office has been waging a permanent campaign against Big Government since I came to the Senate. We’ve found more than $250 billion in annual duplication, waste and mismanagement.
I could spend an hour detailing waste alone. But here are few examples:
- We waste $3 billion on duplicative data centers. I just introduced a bill with Senator Ayotte to close and consolidate 40 percent of these centers.
- We spend $30 billion a year for more than 47 job training programs, administered by nine different federal agencies across the federal bureaucracy.
- Meanwhile, we provide unemployment benefits for millionaires.
- We spend $30 million for 15 financial literacy programs at 15 different agencies. Since when was the federal government qualified to teach anyone about financial literacy?
- We also spend $3 billion on 209 Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math programs at 13 different federal agencies and have done so for years.
- And we even spent $325,000 to help the National Science Foundation see how a rattlesnake responds to robotic squirrels.
If you want to know more – and become permanently depressed – I would encourage to go to my website www.coburn.senate.gov and read through the 35 oversight reports my office has produced, all of which are an indictment against the idea that Washington can fix our problems, or can spend money wisely, and with common sense.
Our spending decisions remind me of a great line from Will Rogers – a famous Oklahoman: “I don’t tell jokes. I just watch the government and report the facts.”
On that note, stay tuned later this year for another edition of my annual “Wastebook” report that will document this year’s idiocy from Washington.
The point is, as Republicans, making the case for smart spending cuts in the discretionary budget should be easy. But we also need to be making the case for entitlement reform. Doing nothing to fix our safety net programs, which is the default position of the left, is the worst possible option for the people who rely on these services. When it comes to entitlements, the progressive fundamentalists are not just anti-reform but anti-math. They cling to a superstitious belief that these programs, which are going bankrupt, will fix themselves and they continue to demagogue and demonize anyone who questions their dogma.
Fortunately, some Democrats are willing to listen to reason and break with the extreme, anti-reform elements of the left.
I recently released a report with Democratic Carl Levin documenting fraud in the Social Security disability system, which was featured on 60 Minutes. Social Security Disability could be bankrupt by 2016. That means millions of truly disabled Americans will face benefit cuts or middle-income Americans will face an increase in their payroll taxes. As Republicans we should be leading the charge for reform and siding with the millions of Americans who will be hurt by the indifference and ideological rigidity of the left.
Medicare and Medicaid are equally wasteful on a much larger scale. We throw away between $60-100 billion a year on waste and fraud in these programs. Both of these programs are also going bankrupt and often produce worse outcomes than the private sector. The best reform ideas are on the Republican side of the aisle.
Obamacare is the fourth largest entitlement program, but the administration’s campaign of mass deception gives us a historic opportunity to compete and gain ground in the battle of ideas.
When Obamacare was being debated in the Senate I was vilified for warning that patients would die sooner because of the law even though, in my own practice, I had seen real-life cases of patients who would have gone undiagnosed and untreated had Obamacare been in effect. I also warned that the entire law was designed to destroy the private health insurance market and herd everyone into government-run health care.
Guess what? It turns out for many if you like your plan and your doctor you can’t keep them, even though the law was sold on that promise. The Wall Street Journal recently published a column from a patient with stage-4 gallbladder cancer named Edie Littlefield Sundby, who is having her health insurance cancelled. Her case has become a rallying point for the millions of Americans who are about to lose their health insurance because their plans aren’t good enough according to bureaucrats in Washington who often have zero real world experience in health care.
Meanwhile, millions of others are going to see their premiums skyrocket because there is no incentive for young, healthy people to enroll. It’s basic math. If young and healthy people don’t enroll and offset the costs of older, sicker people the system collapses, which was the design. Even Harry Reid admitted that Obamacare was designed to transition the nation single payer government-run health care.
Thomas Jefferson would understand our predicament well. He and many of our founders devoted themselves to creating safeguards against tyranny. As Jefferson said, “I have sworn upon the altar of God, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.”
The tyranny today is the fervor of progressive fundamentalism and its misplaced faith in government. Like our founders, we need to be equally vigilant, and smart, about opposing tyranny in our time.
I believe the tyranny we’re seeing in Washington can be reversed. History tells us republics don’t last and they collapse over loose fiscal policy, but I believe we can cheat history. What we are seeing with Obamacare, and across the federal government, are the consequences of putting too much faith in government and too little faith in freedom. People want an alternative. They’re ready. They want real change and real hope. Millions of Americans know, like never before, that the compassion of the left is counterfeit.
I know from my own life – and I suspect you all do as well – that the ideas I’ve talked about tonight are not mere abstractions. They can be the difference between having a job and not having a job, and even life and death.
As some of you may know I was recently diagnosed with a recurrence of prostate cancer. This is the fourth time I’ve been diagnosed with cancer and I expect to beat this one as well. But, the truth is, I’m here not because of my own strength but by the grace of God, the power of prayer, and also the power of freedom and innovation that is unleashed when a society allows free people to use their creativity and God-given talents to produce miraculous cures and treatments.
The answer to our challenges is not going to be found in legislatures but labs. And as the wise first lady Barbara Bush once said, the wisdom to correct our course isn’t going to come from the White House, but your house. As Republicans, this is what we should be about – describing the material and immaterial wealth that is produced when free people are allowed to meet local challenges in the context of loving families and their communities. I think of people in my own state like Jason Price who developed a program to honor the dignity of disabled Oklahomans by getting 650 people off of disability and into productive jobs. We need to celebrate these examples and talk about what Arthur Brooks describes as “the happiness that comes from earned success” and contrast that vision with the limited potential that comes from learned dependency.
As Republicans, we have the ideas and solutions to confront and overcome the tyranny of Big Government. Our agenda should begin with freedom and end with acts of sacrificial leadership that puts results ahead of rhetoric. This is a fight we can, and must, win. It’s time for government yield and for freedom to gain ground.
Thank you, God bless you, and may God continue to bless this great idea called America.