GOP White House Hopefuls Play Armchair Quarterback

Tension between the campaign and the Capitol, as presidential candidates criticize party leaders from a distance

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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.

(RELATED: Norquist's Proposal, Not What You Might Expect)

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.

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Beth Reinhard is a political correspondent for National Journal.

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