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.