Former Senator’s Mission to Shape the Future
“What’s important is that we continue the legacy of the founders, which is that we each have freedom not because our government gives us freedom but because we have freedom in our own right. The founders set up a system that would protect that freedom, and out of that freedom, came this great economic engine and this great progress. So, the legacy should be about restoring the legacy of the founders, which is economic freedom. It’s not about me, it’s about the future of our kids and grandkids,” says Dr. Thomas Allen Coburn, 70 – who loves country music that tells stories (of real life with a little bit of a kick) and says what makes him smile is “home” – as he is on a huge mission: to construct a new phase of America for a new age and a new generation.
Back in 1994, the American political landscape was quite different. Forty years of House of Representatives control by the Democrats had just come to an end during President Clinton’s mid-term elections. The Republican Revolution was upon us. After the dust settled, the Republicans had a net gain of 54 seats in the House and 8 in the Senate. A national campaign approach, new policies and a unified agenda in the form of the Contract with America set the tone for the sweeping victory in November.
One event, in particular, foreshadowed the results to come - incumbent congressman Mike Synar was narrowly defeated in the Democratic primary for Oklahoma’s 2nd District months before that fateful November. A retired high-school principal, Virgil Cooper, spent less than $20,000 and won by only 2,609 out of 92,987 votes cast. This set up a showdown between two political novices: Democrat Virgil Cooper vs. Republican Dr. Tom Coburn.
A new face with fresh ideas and a pledge to serve no more than three consecutive terms ultimately propelled Coburn to 52%-48% victory. He was motivated due to the fact that he thought citizens, not politicians, should have an effect on government as partisan politics had become commonplace.
A man of his word, Coburn upheld his campaign pledge and did not seek re-election in 2000. Yet, in 2004, he won election to the Senate, and after a successful re-election bid in 2010, pledged not to seek a third term. Feeling that the Senate was becoming too partisan and it inhibited him from truly representing the great people of Oklahoma effectively, he resigned in 2014.
“He's my president. And I disagree with him adamantly on 95% of the issues, but that doesn't mean I can't have a great relationship.”
While in Congress, Coburn had firm beliefs and often challenged the Republican leadership, claiming they were abandoning the conservative roadmap established within the Contract with America. He believed that it was that framework which enabled Republicans to take control and that any move to the political center could be interpreted as a bait-and-switch. Coburn stuck to his belief of keeping his word throughout his time in service, often ruffling feathers along the way.
Throughout his career as a public servant, he practiced political integrity but saw through ideological differences. He understood the importance of bipartisanship and collaborating across party lines regardless of one’s political stance. He worked closely with then-Democrat Senator Joe Lieberman on a bipartisan program to fix Medicare and Social Security but Majority Leader Harry Reid wouldn’t entertain it due to concerns regarding how it may impact the power structure in the next election cycle.
In addition to Senator Lieberman, Coburn maintained many friendships across the aisle including Barack Obama. Speaking about his friendship with Obama in 2011, he stated, “I love the man. I think he's a neat man. I don’t want him to be president, but I still love him. He is our president. He's my president. And I disagree with him adamantly on 95% of the issues, but that doesn't mean I can't have a great relationship. And that's a model people ought to follow.”
It was this approach that Coburn embraced while in Congress and that he continues to take in his post-Senate life. He has made it his life mission to fully support the millennial generation, as idealists, in order to focus on fixing the problems of the past. He has placed an emphasis on restoring accountability and educating millennials about the national debt with a specific focus on fixing the mess the baby boomers created. “I know I’m pushing a big rock uphill, I did it all the time in the Senate but it doesn’t matter. It needs to be pushed,” says Coburn of his approach with millennials.
In looking to restore accountability, Coburn established a non-profit entitled Pursuit, whose core belief is that the older generation owes a financially stable future to our children and grandchildren. The underpinnings of Pursuit include economic freedom, limited government, and virtue. That being said, Coburn maintains a strong desire to educate the masses and communicate how the debt will impact future generations while pointing out that the United States is currently ranked 17th in the world to both start and expand a business but for over 200 years, the United States was ranked number one in this area.
According to him, the debt is impacting millennials dramatically and will limit their future. “Is it virtuous for my generation to take money we know will have to be paid back by our children and grandkids? I reject that! I think that’s morally wrong,” he says. “I think it’s a form of theft, and what we’re saying is we know you’re going to have a lower standard of living, 1/3 of what we have today. And it is because we won’t do the hard work of limiting government, sacrificing ourselves personally, or at least have politicians do the jobs they were sent to Washington to do.”
Along with Pursuit, Coburn is focused on a set of common values that should unite all of us here in America. While he understands not everyone agrees on every issue, he believes we can unify around some basic principles that will help usher a new era of hope.
He aims to shift the dialogue and have young Americans lead the discussion on issues that affect our generation. “The polarization of our politics is dividing us along lines that leave millions of young Americans with nowhere to turn. 71 percent of millennials believe that neither party represents them. Both parties have placed our nation on an unsustainable fiscal course, and one generation of Americans is about to leave the next generation with an unbearable ﬁnancial burden,” Coburn explains. “The national debt is more than $20 trillion, with unfunded liabilities exceeding $100 trillion. Report after report warns of wasteful spending and unsustainable deficits, yet year after year, nothing is done to address them. If this continues, millennials and Generation Z will spend their peak earning years paying for the excesses and promises they had no knowledge of or say in.”
Data is key to his outreach strategy, and he’s focused on getting out his message with impactful information that will drive interest in Pursuit. “Here’s a number that should scare most millennials. If you take the infinity debt of Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and apply it as unfunded liabilities along with the debt we have now, that reaches over $145 trillion,” he elaborates. “Divide that over the next 75 years by 85 million millennials and you come up to nearly $20 thousand per year per millennial.”
As he continues to engage with millennials and amplifies the important message about the debt and accountability, he will reach his target audience and (unwillingly) turn into an influencer on this trending issue. Putting politics aside, he aims to build a platform to educate the public and provide for a better future. By supporting millennials to stand up at this crucial juncture, he will have a lasting impact on future generations – and his legacy will define itself.
Writer: Matt Anthes
Photographer: Udo Spreitzenbarth
Photographer Assistant: Carolin Hohberg
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