What Senators Should Be
The Founding Fathers intended senators to be guardians of state governments. The 17th Amendment gutted this purpose. The Founders also intended senators to be wise, thoughtful, and independent, with this purpose reflected in the higher constitutional age limit for senators compared to members of the House of Representatives, as well as the former's longer term of office. That second purpose seems today to have been almost completely lost as well -- but only almost completely.
Most senators are mere ciphers, like Harry Reid, pursuing sound bites and special interests. Some are quite literally comedians, like Al Franken. Among Democrats, it is hard to find anyone in the last twenty years who remotely resembles the sort of noble and honest senators envisioned in the Constitution. Zell Miller, who left the Senate, seems like such a Democrat, but who else could join him? Joe Lieberman, perhaps, but he was purged by his own party as a price of modest independence.
Much more common are Democrats, even presumably moderate Democrats like Ben "Cornhusker Kickback" Nelson or Mary "Louisiana Purchase" Landrieu, who try to buy even conservative voters in their states through the ladling of federal goodies to constituents. Republicans have been a bit better, but only just a bit. Many try to buy voters as blatantly as any Democrat (think Lisa Murkoswki) or behave badly in their personal lives (think Larry Craig) or have notorious tempers bordering on petulance (think John McCain).
It was not always so. Robert Taft, "Mr. Republican," was brilliant, principled, and courageous. Senator Taft was the conservative alternative to RINOs like Wilke, Dewey, and Eisenhower. He was an utterly principled conservative, which concept was completely out of step with Washington. Yet Senator Taft had the respect of every single member of the Senate, even those who disagreed with his conservatism.
After Taft, Barry Goldwater, "Mr. Conservative," was likewise willing to stand alone if his cause was right even if it cost him politically -- and it did. His acceptance speech in San Francisco, with its "extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice," sent leftist heads spinning like tops. Goldwater did not care. Both Taft and Goldwater may have lost a chance to be president rather than compromise on what they knew was right.
Is there anyone like Taft or Goldwater in the Senate today? Is there any senator who does not calculate his positions to suit what voters seem to want? The best example, surely, is the man who recently announced that he will be leaving the Senate before his term ends -- namely, Tom Coburn of Oklahoma. Nicknamed "Dr. No" because of his consistent opposition to special-interest spending, Senator Coburn has never had a vote for which he needs to apologize, and no one in the Senate can think of an unkind word about this good man.
While we may cringe at Coburn's friendship with Obama or his kind words about Pelosi (as a grandmother, not as a legislator), this attitude toward other politicians, including political enemies, is wholly consistent with Senator Coburn's life. Dr. Coburn -- a title that suits him better than "Senator Coburn" -- won election in 1994 in a congressional district that had never elected a Republican. Although an "extremist" -- and, indeed, he is emphatically an "extremist"! -- Coburn sees constitutional extremism as noble. His extremism comes out of deep religious faith, commitment to our Constitution, and fundamental decency.
When elected to the House in 1994, Coburn took a three-term pledge. He kept that pledge, leaving a now "safe" district to another man. When elected to the Senate in 2004, Coburn took a two-term pledge. He is keeping that pledge as well -- in fact, Coburn is leaving the Senate before his term ends. The surprise in the political career of Tom Coburn is the unblemished integrity and the absence of venality or lust for office. As Coburn has said on many occasions, he believes that the Constitution requires citizen-elected officials, not professional politicians enamored of their own imagined greatness.
Tom Coburn is precisely the sort of man the Founding Fathers had in mind when they created the Senate. There will be conservative senators after Coburn, just like there were conservative senators after Taft and Goldwater. It is harder, however, to find men who will so personify what our Founding Fathers intended that a senator should be.