If only there had been a thought balloon over Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s head on Tuesday, when presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich summarily trashed his proposal to avoid a fiscal meltdown. “Who asked you?” the balloon above McConnell would have read.
In another case of “If I had wanted your advice, I would have asked for it,” presidential hopeful Tim Pawlenty declared in April that the deal between House Speaker John Boehner and the White House to avoid a government shutdown should be rejected. Although Pawlenty’s remarks may have pleased the tea party activists he is courting in Iowa, they did not thrill Boehner’s office, according to a knowledgeable Republican source.
The armchair quarterbacking by Gingrich and Pawlenty during the increasingly tense talks over raising the debt ceiling, cutting spending, and curbing tax breaks reflects a tradition of presidential candidates trying to score political points off the news dominating Washington. From the safe distance of the campaign trail, candidates play to their political base, complicating life for officeholders in their own party.
The perennial tension between the campaign and the Capitol reflects the first rule of public office: Serving is a lot more complicated than working the stump. Delivering red meat is a lot easier than delivering results.
“When you’re not in office, you can afford to be extraordinarily irresponsible because you don’t have the burden of running the place,” said Republican consultant John Feehery, who has worked for ex-congressional leaders Dennis Hastert and Tom DeLay. “The peanut gallery weighing in all the time can be very unhelpful.”
Feehery recalled that in 1999, when DeLay wanted to defer payment of the Earned Income Tax Credit to low-income workers, the Republican front-runner for president decried the proposal by saying, “I don’t think they ought to balance their budget on the backs of the poor.”
Thanks a lot, George W. Bush.
“We were trying to cut spending and bring reform, and Bush just whacked us like we were Neanderthals,” Feehery said. “It was really annoying.”
That Bush was hammering members of his own party from the left shows how much more conservative the Republican Party has become in the past decade. In the era of Obama and the tea party movement, the criticism of Republicans in Congress by candidates is far more likely to come from the right.
In the latest example, just hours after McConnell revealed his plan to provide cover to congressional Republicans by allowing the president to single-handedly raise the debt limit, Gingrich ripped the idea on Twitter. “McConnell’s plan is an irresponsible surrender to Big Government, big deficits, and continues overspending. I oppose it,” declared Gingrich, who was roundly criticized in May for weighing in on Rep. Paul Ryan’s proposed Medicare overhaul. (A chastened Gingrich promptly apologized.)
Sarah Palin also disparaged the McConnell proposal. "We will not hand over more power, which I believe is unconstitutional, to President Obama to further manipulate our economy," she said Wednesday on Fox News.
Gingrich’s Twitter blast and Palin's broadside aren't enough to derail McConnell’s proposal, but they sure don't help.
At a time of increasingly polarized politicking, candidates have little incentive to advocate moderation and compromise. Those principles conflict with the main goals of campaigning: rousing grassroots activists and donors. Few 2012 candidates are doing that better than the surging Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., who looks straight into the camera and spells out her position, slowly and clearly, in a television ad airing in Iowa: “I will not vote to increase the debt ceiling.”
Bachmann is one of the few major 2012 contenders actually serving in Congress, giving her position on the debt talks additional weight. Unlike in 2004 and 2008, when a number of major candidates for president hailed from the Senate, the current Republican field is packed with ex-governors who think they know best. At the same time, one of the most restrained candidates during the debt negotiations has been the front-runner, Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, who is doggedly focusing on President Obama’s larger economic record.
Examples of the crosscurrents between presidential candidates and the Washington establishment abound on the Democratic side as well. Think of Howard Dean pillorying his presidential rivals in Congress during the 2004 primaries for having voted for the Iraq war. Or Bill Bradley lashing out at Vice President Al Gore in the 2000 primaries for failing to achieve a deal with Congress on universal health care.
Gore came up with a comeback—“Stay and fight”—to remind voters that he remained on the frontlines, unlike the ex-senator from New Jersey.
“It was a very effective way to marginalize Bradley and shut down his bomb-throwing candidacy,” recalled one of Gore’s top advisers, Mike Feldman. “Iowa caucus-goers understood that it was about paying your dues and being in there, day in and day out.”
In perhaps the best example of the consequences of pressure from the campaign trail, then-Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole didn’t halt a government shutdown spearheaded by then-House Speaker Gingrich in 1995 despite harboring strong reservations about the action. Dole was seeking his party’s nomination in 1996, and he was vulnerable to criticism from a more conservative rival, Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas.
“Dole was constantly looking over his right shoulder,” said Republican consultant Scott Reed, who ran the Kansan’s campaign. “Dole kept asking the House Republicans in the negotiations about the endgame, and they didn’t have one. But he didn’t want to put too much daylight between him and the Republicans on the Hill.”
Reed, who is not aligned with any of the 2012 candidates, said he’s looking for the one whose campaign commentary reflects a governing philosophy. “The smart candidate acts like he’s already sitting in the Oval Office,” Reed said.
To be sure, it’s a lot easier to say “never surrender” when you don’t have to sit across the negotiating table.
This article appears in the July 16, 2011 edition of National Journal Magazine.