The Oklahoman

To regain credibilit­y, conservati­ves should follow the Coburn legacy

- Weston Wamp is the founder of the Millennial Debt Foundation, a nonprofit focused on convening millennial leaders to address the national debt. Coburn was the group’s early adviser. Weston Wamp Guest columnist

The recent $3.5 trillion spending package could drive new debt in the COVID era to nearly $10 trillion, ushering in an era of government decadence that can no longer be justified by the pandemic and will ultimately be paid for by future generation­s.

Unfortunat­ely, many Republican members of Congress now outraged by profligate spending lack the credibilit­y to sound an alarm due to their own complicity in massive deficits not long ago.

Herein lies the lesson for the future of fiscal conservati­sm: Do not weaponize the issue of debt for political gain if we are serious about regaining control of our country’s financial future. Instead let us refocus on why stewardshi­p in government matters and carry on the legacy of Dr. Tom Coburn.

Coburn was more than a mere “fiscal hawk” in his 16 years in the House and U.S. Senate. His colleagues could not easily dismiss his passion for restraint in government spending because he consistent­ly connected the issue to his responsibi­lity to the Constituti­on and future generation­s. Even on the other side of the aisle, Coburn’s most stubborn opinions on fiscal matters were often met with respect because he treated Democratic colleagues with kindness and decency.

Last week, at an event hosted by the Millennial Debt Foundation in Oklahoma City, Sen. James Lankford reflected on his predecesso­r’s leadership style during a discussion about the Coburn legacy and the national debt.

“Most people that didn’t know him didn’t know how much time he spent on the other side of the aisle talking to people, developing relationsh­ips, getting to know people ... he was the consummate teacher,” said Lankford. “It always takes bipartisan agreement to be able to work on debt and deficits. It always will.”

It would be revisionis­t history to conflate the intensity of Coburn’s beliefs as partisansh­ip. In fact, he valued candor, virtue and even personal rapport much more than political affiliation.

As evidence, long before Sen. Joe Manchin was the swing vote in the U.S. Senate, Coburn supported his re-election, even writing him a $250 check. At the time, Coburn said, “I think (Manchin) votes thinking about the long-term interests of the country. We don’t agree on everything but he’s a good guy.”

Coburn’s long view of policy was a reflection of his own love of family. Reflecting on his time as an aide to Coburn at last week’s event, Oklahoma Senate President Pro Tem Greg Treat said, “He would sit in a group like this and ask how many of you care more about your future than your grandchild­ren’s future.”

Most politician­s talk about wanting to leave the country better for their children and grandchild­ren, but Coburn committed his career and political capital to making the tough votes, conducting the active oversight and nurturing the bipartisan relationsh­ips that will be necessary to stem historic deficits.

While the longstandi­ng contract between generation­s, that one would not saddle the next with its obligation­s, has seemingly expired, there’s a rising generation that saw firsthand the authentici­ty of Coburn’s leadership and is working to emulate it in Oklahoma City and beyond.

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