Strange Bedfellow

Give It Back to the Injuns

Oklahoma’s not OK.

Wednesday, House Republicans elected a genial mediocrity, Rep. J.C. Watts of Oklahoma, as Republican Conference chairman, the fourth most powerful position in the House. Rep. Steve Largent, also of Oklahoma, barely failed in his effort to unseat House Majority Leader Dick Armey. Two weeks ago, Largent and Rep. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma helped engineer the right-wing revolt that toppled House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Assistant Senate Majority Leader Don Nickles, R-Okla., who just decided not to challenge Sen. Trent Lott for majority leader, holds the second most powerful position in the Senate. Watts, Largent, and Nickles are all touted as possible vice presidential candidates in 2000, while Oklahoma’s Republican Gov. Frank Keating is planning a run for president.

What’s going on here? How has a state with barely 3 million people and more registered Democrats than Republicans become the driving force behind the Republican Congress? A few years ago, Mississippi owned the GOP: Lott and Sen. Thad Cochran held the second and third ranking positions in the Senate, and Haley Barbour controlled the Republican National Committee. Now it’s Oklahoma’s turn. The Mississippians who dominated the party were backslapping, compromising conservatives. The Oklahoma caucus presents a different and more repellent model. The Sooners are not only more conservative than the Mississippians, they are also aggressive, self-destructive, and dim–a top to bottom roster of kooks, losers, and terrors.

T he heart of Oklahoma’s eight member, all GOP delegation is its black helicopter caucus: Largent, Coburn, and Rep. Ernest Istook. These Christian conservatives anchor the party’s far right wing. Largent, the National Football League Hall of Fame wide receiver, is the most famous of the lot, telegenic and simple. He has spent his two terms preaching social conservatism; pushing hopeless, idiotic bills; and undermining his party from the right. (For more on Largent’s egregious career, click.) Coburn’s politics make Largent’s look flaccid. A self-styled “citizen-legislator” elected in the 1994 landslide, Coburn helped orchestrate the 1997 and 1998 coups against Gingrich. He is the unofficial liaison between Christian conservative titan James Dobson and House Republicans. Shortly after he was elected, Coburn announced that government should be run on Christian principles and that “the nation must stand for or against Christ.” (For more on Coburn’s peculiar views, click.) Of all Republican backbenchers, few are more loathed by Democrats than Istook. Istook has made a career out of futile but high-profile measures designed to enrage liberals. (For more on those measures, click.)

Watts is slightly less conservative than those three–he halfheartedly defends affirmative action–but no less unworthy of national influence. The lone black congressional Republican and a former football star, Watts offers little but a sunny temperament and bootstrapping Christian banalities. Issues stump him. Republicans studiously overlook his deficiencies because he’s such good press: He delivered a major speech to the 1996 Republican National Convention and the Republican response to the 1997 State of the Union address, two plums that no other two term congressman would ever get. Frank Lucas and Wes Watkins, the state’s other two representatives, are conservative and thoroughly undistinguished.

O klahoma’s Senate delegation does not improve matters. When Nickles was first elected in 1980, with immense Moral Majority backing, his platform was to “abolish DOE, HEW, HUD, EPA, and OSHA.” He has moderated a bit since then–compromise is required to climb the greasy Senate ladder–but not much. Like, he co-sponsored the Defense of Marriage Act. Nickles looks Churchillian in comparison to Sen. Jim Inhofe. Widely considered one of the dumbest members of Congress, Inhofe was elected in 1994 on a campaign that he described gleefully as “God, gays, and guns.” Inhofe blocked the 1997 nomination of James Hormel, the first openly gay ambassadorial nominee. Inhofe calls Environmental Protection Agency and Occupational Safety and Health Administration staffers “Gestapo bureaucrats.” In 1972, as an Oklahoma state senator, he recommended that Jane Fonda and George McGovern be hanged for treason. He does not tax himself with original thought: In 1996 (the last year for which I have seen figures), he always voted with the GOP, the only senator to compile such a perfect record.

The salient quality of all the Oklahomans–especially Largent, Coburn, Istook, and Inhofe–is this: They accomplish nothing. Except for the Defense of Marriage Act, their major bills hardly ever become law. Most of them don’t know how to compromise or draft legislation that others will vote for, and they are too “principled”–or too dumb–to learn how. In a Republican Party that valued practical accomplishment, this might be fatal. But in today’s disarrayed, fratricidal GOP, their ideological purity and troublemaking have made them power brokers.

How was Oklahoma hijacked by the ultras? Until 20 years ago, Oklahoma was a Democratic reliable. The state was the crossroads of West and South, of agrarian populists and migrating Dixie Democrats. The New Deal cemented their loyalty to the Democratic Party, which even today retains its historic advantage in voter registration. But once Republicans began making inroads in the South during the ‘60s, Oklahoma politics turned inside out. Today, the state combines the social conservatism of the South, the anti-government conservatism of the West, and a self-styled “frontier” philosophy.

The result: an electorate that is just as conservative as the men it elects. The forces that have driven the Republican resurgence are magnified in Oklahoma. It may be the most religious state: Half of Oklahomans identify themselves as born-again Christians, compared with one-third of all Americans. (In a recent poll, Oklahomans said the three best things about the state were: 1) “friendly people,” 2) “Christian values,” and 3) “football.”) Low taxes and little government regulation are gospel. The state is adamantly pro-gun. (“If you just say ‘gun control,’ you get a lot of folks in the outback digging up the bazooka from behind the barn and getting ready for the invasion,” says University of Oklahoma history Professor William Savage.) And the Daily Oklahoman, the state’s major paper, is one of the most conservative dailies in the country: When the Christian Coalition gave perfect ratings to the entire congressional delegation, an editorial hailed the representatives as America’s “Bravehearts.”

And Oklahoma Democrats have not done themselves any favors. Although they still, astonishingly, control both houses of the state legislature, Democrats can’t find credible candidates for higher office. In the 1998 Democratic Senate primary, for example, an air-conditioning contractor beat a dead woman in a runoff.

Oklahoma’s senators have safe seats, and so do most of the House members. (All won by at least 18 percent this year, most by 25 percent.) Secure at home, the Sooners can indulge their whims in Washington, making mischief for the party, galvanizing fellow conservatives, bidding for national office.

But Democrats can take heart. Mississippi’s power has not endured, and neither will Oklahoma’s. Largent lost his bid to become majority leader. Keating has neither the money nor the name recognition to compete in the presidential primaries. Watts is too unimpressive to be more than a mascot. Coburn, the nuttiest of the lot, has limited himself to three terms, and this will be his last. Oklahoma, the population of which is growing very slowly, will probably lose a House seat after the 2000 census, so someone will have to go.

And the mood of the country and the party is swinging against the Oklahomans. Largent, Coburn, and Istook are hysterics. They were superb at killing Gingrich and splintering House Republicans into factions. But holding an anorexic majority in the House, Republicans can’t afford the Oklahomans’ theatrics and intransigence. That’s why Largent lost the majority leader race to Armey: Most House Republicans dislike Armey, but at least he knows how to play with others.

So, perhaps the past few weeks of troublemaking by Largent and Co. are the Oklahomans’ last gasp. “We’re always late in Oklahoma,” says the Rev. Howard Plowman, the Democrat beaten by Largent in the 1998 election. “The recession came late here. Recovery came late. The rest of the country is turning against extremists, so maybe we’ll get that late, too.”

If you missed the summary of Largent’s politics, click. If you didn’t read about Coburn’s peculiar views, click. And if you missed the lowdown on Istook’s crusades, click.