Coburn Draws National Attention With Remarks

Image of Tom Coburn

Is U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn really a shooter-in-waiting racist who wants to do away with Medicare and Medicaid because, as he argues, the federal programs are unconstitutional?

That’s the way Oklahoma’s ultra-conservative junior senator has been depicted in the media in recent days after comments he made about packing heat on the Senate floor, President Barack Obama and social programs for the elderly.

Last Tuesday, according to Politico, Coburn told a group in Oklahoma, "It's just a good thing I can't pack a gun on the Senate floor.” The implication here, of course, is that some U.S. Senators should be shot. Coburn wasn’t specific about who he thinks should be targeted. A U.S. Representative from New York called his remarks “outrageous and unconscionable.”

Last Wednesday, according to The Tulsa World, in remarks supposedly in defense of Obama, Coburn said the president’s "intent is not to destroy, his intent is to create dependency because it worked so well for him.” Salon.com editor Joan Walsh described the remarks this way in a piece titled “The racial idiocy of Obama's GOP ‘friend’”: “He didn't exactly call Obama a ‘welfare queen,’ I guess, but it's not too far off.”

Also, last week, according to ThinkProgress, Coburn responded to a question about Medicare and Medicaid facilities this way, “The first question I have for you is if you look in the Constitution, where is it the federal government’s role to do that? That’s number one. Number two is the way I was brought up that’s a family responsibility, not a government responsibility.” ThinkProgress cited the U.S. Constitution’s Article 1, Second 8, which provides for the “general welfare” of the country, and argued, “ . . . his second question betrays his utter disconnect from the reality ordinary American families face. “

Here’s my take on the latest Coburnspeak, which is often lauded by the local corporate media, primarily the editorial page of The Oklahoman, as both blunt and brilliant.

(1) The gun comment is inappropriate even though Coburn insisted he was joking and that people should just “get over it.” We can concede that Coburn is not likely to go on a mass killing spree on the Senate floor, but the use of violent language condones the use of violent language. What if a high school student had made a similar comment about the need to pack heat at an assembly or in a classroom? Wouldn’t that be just as appropriate as Coburn’s comment as long as the student later said she/he was joking? Is it ever okay for a public figure to threaten armed violence against a particular group of innocent American citizens? Doesn’t that encourage other people to make similar remarks or jokes?

(2) I agree that Coburn’s remarks about Obama are at least borderline racist. Obama’s mother received food assistance for a brief period when the president was young, and Obama took advantage of student loans to go to college. I’m unsure how that translates into the intent “to create dependency.” As Walsh argues, “ . . . it's clear the Oklahoma doctor can't see Obama for who he is: a bright, successful middle-class black man who grew up in an economically stable extended family, not a poor black kid from a welfare-plagued ghetto.” Coburn is relying on racial stereotypes to win over his Oklahoma constituents, and it’s ugly and self-perpetuating. I have long argued that the anti-Obama hysteria here is fueled, in part, by racism. Coburn’s remarks help make my point.

(3) Coburn’s idea that we should just apparently ditch Medicare and Medicaid because they’re unconstitutional is ludicrous. The constitution, as it was pointed out, clearly argues that the general welfare of the nation is an important founding value. Coburn also suggests that families should take care of their elderly relatives, but everyone knows that can’t always happen in our contemporary culture. What about dysfunctional families? What if an elderly person outlives her children? What if an elderly person has dementia and needs 24-hour care, and her child doesn’t have the financial means to pay for it? I could go on here. The point is Coburn’s rhetoric shows just how out of touch he is with modern society.

Unfortunately, Coburn’s gun-loving, racist anti-government rhetoric only increases his popularity here. That’s why he talks the way he does.

Coburn -

I attended his Town Hall @ the South Tulsa TCC PACE center last week. (My family and friends thought I was crazy, but it was a learning experience.) The vast majority praised him. One man railed against illegal immigrants getting state health care; others talked about the economy, blaming the poor; some blamed corporations and of course the evil liberals. Coburn criticized TriCare and Tri-Care for life , although he did not mention anything about the benefits congress receives for life. One mother of 2 soldiers questioned his and D.C.'s lack of action when servicemen didn't receive their pay on time due to the debt debacle - and he did not directly answer her. He was in favor of reform (i.e. Cuts) to medicare/social security and what was interesting is that the majority were older, white, obviously middle class and lower income, many seniors and they applauded. He is in favor of reducing payments to nursing homes saying family should be responsible (has anyone told him it is no longer the 1940's??). I wanted to take a sign up sheet for those who wanted the cuts so he could start there but knew that would not go well with his staffers (young conservatives)
Prior to this, in the lobby, a discussion with a Tulsa office staffer occurred with a member of Moveon regarding nursing care for her mother, high health insurance costs, etc. As she became more visibly upset over the lack of assistance, the staffer with furrowed brown nodded in sympathy I interjected and told him there was no need for us to tell him, they had the same access to the Kaiser Foundation, PAF, CDC, advocacy groups that we did - the problem was that they did not care.

He did say one thing which in addition to the attacks on nursing home and tri-care which led to me walking out...that the Tea Party was the best thing to happen to this country.