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Vilifying Tom Coburn for a moment of civility

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By Ruth Marcus
Wednesday, April 14, 2010

There is something weird going on in the Republican Party when Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn is the voice of reason.

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There is something dangerous going on in the Republican Party when he is vilified for it.

Coburn has said he favors the death penalty for "abortionists." He opposes "any and all efforts to mandate gun control on law-abiding citizens." During the debate over health-care reform, Coburn said that "what the American people ought to pray is that somebody can't make the vote tonight." He is the Senate's "Dr. No," leading the charge this week against extending unemployment benefits.

I could go on -- but Coburn doesn't need me to vouch for his conservative bona fides.

Except for these alleged transgressions: At a recent town hall meeting, Coburn called House Speaker Nancy Pelosi "a nice lady" -- in the course of criticizing the speaker for telling him she did not want to set a "precedent" by paying for the extension of unemployment benefits.

In my world, "nice lady" borders on dismissive with a slight, if unintended, tinge of sexism. In Conservative World, that description of Pelosi apparently is heretical. Coburn's comment was greeted with jeers and hisses, but he stuck to his, well, guns.

"Come on now. She is a nice -- how many of you all have met her? She's a nice person," Coburn said. "Let me give you a little lesson here. I hope you will listen to me. Just because somebody disagrees with you doesn't mean they're not a good person."

When a woman said she worried about the health-reform law because the Internal Revenue Service would be empowered to put people in jail, Coburn politely -- and accurately -- disagreed. "The intention is not to put anybody in jail," he said. "That makes for good TV news on Fox, but that isn't the intention."

Coburn went on: "What we have to have is make sure we have a debate in this country so that you can see what's going on and make a determination yourself. So don't catch yourself being biased by Fox News that somebody is no good. The people in Washington are good. They just don't know what they don't know."

The howling was swift.

Rush Limbaugh: "Well, who cares if she's nice? . . . Al Capone was a nice guy. Hitler had friends, for crying out loud. . . . So Coburn says, 'There's no intention of putting anybody in jail.' No, no, no. . . . Somebody tell Tom Coburn she was specifically asked about possible jail time, and she said 'the legislation is very fair in this respect.' " Glenn Beck: "The Republican that I'm supposed to defend because he's so unlike Nancy Pelosi was defending Nancy Pelosi."

Mark Levin, who manages to make Limbaugh and Beck sound like calm voices of reason: "We don't need you hack, detestable politicians telling us a damn thing. Most of you are a bunch of pathetic, unethical morons. And so, no, Mr. Coburn, we won't be told to sit down and be quiet. We won't be told by you to watch CNN to balance off Fox. You got that, pal? Who the hell do you think you are? You sound like a jerk, to be perfectly honest about it. You, the jerk, who backed John McCain."

No surprise that Coburn's Oklahoma twin, James Inhofe, was distancing himself from the remarks. "There's nothing nice about Nancy," Inhofe told a local radio show. "She disagrees with everything we believe."

Impressively, Coburn managed, the same week, to be Keith Olbermann's "Worst Person in the World" for blocking unemployment benefits.

The late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan liked to say that everyone is entitled to his own opinions but not his own facts. In the modern update, no one would be entitled to either: Dissenting opinions are not tolerated. Facts that clash with preconceived ideas must be ignored if not outright denied.

Certainly, Republicans hold no monopoly on inflammatory rhetoric or self-defeating demands for ideological purity. Remember when Howard Dean and company declared the Senate health-care bill not worth passing?

In the angry age of the Tea Party, however, Republicans appear particularly inclined in this direction. It's up to Republicans whether they want to be a big tent or a pup tent. The latter does not strike me as a particularly smart political strategy. More worrisome, it augurs a continued politics of vilification and polarization that is as unhealthy for the country as it is unpleasant to participate in.

marcusr@washpost.com


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