Senator Tom Coburn is getting widely pilloried this morning over a report in the Tulsa World claiming that Coburn said Obama wants to “create dependency” because it “worked so well for him” as an “African American male.” The quote seemed to be a reference to Obama’s efforts to preserve the safety net.
In one typical reaction, Salon’s Joan Walsh Tweeted: “Why is Tom Coburn going full-tilt racist against the president right at this moment?”
I asked the reporter who wrote the Tulsa World story, Randy Krehbiel, to send over a full transcript of what Coburn said, which he graciously did. Krehbiel taped the episode. Asked if he thinks Obama’s policies show he wants to destroy the country, Coburn said:
“No, I don’t... He’s a very bright man. But think about his life. And think about what he was exposed to and what he saw in America. He’s only relating what his experience in life was...
“His intent isn’t to destroy. It’s to create dependency because it worked so well for him. I don’t say that critically. Look at people for what they are. Don’t assume ulterior motives. I don’t think he doesn’t love our country. I think he does.
“As an African American male, coming through the progress of everything he experienced, he got tremendous benefit through a lot of these programs. So he believes in them. I just don’t believe they work overall and in the long run they don’t help our country. But he doesn’t know that because his life experience is something different. So it’s very important not to get mad at the man. And I understand, his philosophy — there’s nothing wrong with his philosophy other than it’s goofy and wrong [laughter] — but that doesn’t make him a bad person.”
I think what Coburn means here is that African Americans are more likely to need such programs than whites are, and by his own lights, Coburn actually thinks he’s being charitable to Obama here. He’s essentially saying that Obama’s life experience quite naturally dictated that he would view the safety net as a good thing, because it helped poor African Americans.
As Adam Serwer notes, the problem with Coburn’s remarks as they were originally reported is that he seemed to be saying that blacks get unfair advantages, thanks to the welare state — an implication that’s central to the conservative case against it.
I think the full transcript shows that this isn’t quite what Coburn was saying, but his use of the phrase “create dependence” is still highly questionable. Because as Serwer also notes, Coburn is also implicitly conceding that these programs succeed in their objective of helping people who lack the means to protect themselves.
What’s funny to me about this whole episode is that it reveals how challenging it is for the saner variety of Republicans to reason with some of their constituents about the President. Coburn is struggling to talk a constituent out of his anxiety that Obama actively wants to destroy the country. He needs to find a way of defending Obama’s motives that a constituent inclined to believe the worst about Obama might be able to listen to and even tolerate. So Coburn hit on this way of defending Obama while still keeping his argument confined within a world view that this constituent might find acceptable. It’s not easy being a Republican official these days.