A political dynamic that features a restive Republican base and aggressive House and Senate freshman classes with tea party roots could present Congressional Republicans with unique challenges as the party’s presidential candidates become more vocal.
Some Republicans on the Hill are wary the GOP’s 2012 hopefuls may create a sense of false expectation among the party’s base regarding what they can accomplish given that the Democrats still control the Senate and the White House.
Not all in the party are concerned, arguing that political posturing to show leadership is typical presidential campaign behavior that will have little influence on how the GOP operates on Capitol Hill. But others, particularly House and Senate leaders, concede that public advice from the hopefuls on how to handle key issues could prove politically problematic.
Senate Republican Policy Committee Chairman John Thune — who contemplated a 2012 bid before declining to run — said GOP White House candidates’ assertions on how to address government spending, health care and other contentious policy issues might put unwarranted pressure on Congressional Republicans to deliver unachievable results.
“People’s expectations, I think, have to be realistic about what’s achievable,” the South Dakotan said. “There’s going to have to be on our end a recognition — and hopefully a recognition by people and our supporters out there [that] yes, we also share the same goals. ... We just have to figure out, how do you do that in a place which literally, for the most part, is still run by Democrats?”
Since Republicans assumed control of the House in January, the GOP has worked to minimize expectations of what it can accomplish, emphasizing that Democrats still run the Senate and that President Barack Obama sits poised to veto conservative-minded legislation. That isn’t necessarily the message Republican activists are likely to hear from Republican presidential candidates over the next year.
House Chief Deputy Majority Whip Peter Roskam said GOP presidential candidates could be most useful to Congressional Republicans by focusing their attention on Obama and Senate Democrats.
“It’s helpful if they’re able to focus on areas that are realistic and make sense,” the Illinois Republican said.
Last week, during an interview with conservative talk radio host Hugh Hewitt, likely presidential candidate and former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) said House Republicans have been too timid in negotiations on the federal budget and other matters.
Gingrich, who is scheduled to speak to a private gathering of House Republican freshmen on Thursday, went on to recommend that Congressional Republicans insist that Obama agree to repeal the health care reform law in exchange for GOP support to raise the debt ceiling.
“I always appreciate an idea from Newt, and the others. But sometimes they may be out on the hustings and not be aware of internal negotiations or procedures or time constraints or something like that,” Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) said. “I’m always happy to get ideas, but sometimes they may not be directly relevant to how we’re trying to solve a problem.”
More such hard-nosed suggestions are likely forthcoming from a field of Republican candidates that is light on well-known, established frontrunners and heavy on individuals looking to differentiate themselves from the pack and elevate their name identification with voters.
Gingrich is strongly considering a bid but has stopped short of launching an exploratory committee. Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour is actively preparing to run; former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty opened an exploratory committee last week and is expected to formally kick off his candidacy at some point; former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, a 2008 candidate, also is expected to run. A handful of others are in the mix, including former Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.), billionaire businessman and television personality Donald Trump, and Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.), a tea party favorite.
Ron Bonjean, a public relations adviser who formerly worked as a Republican leadership aide, noted that it is “standard operating procedure” for GOP presidential candidates to speak out on matters pertaining to Congress but contended that the tea party movement could complicate matters.
“If the tea party picks up on an issue or recommendation that a candidate is proposing, then it could create extra pressure on Congressional Republicans,” Bonjean said. “If the tea party gets involved, that’s where it could become problematic.”
Others are less concerned.
Senate Republican Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), who ran for president in 1996 and 2000 and has been on both sides of the equation, said there is a “natural tension” between Members and their party’s presidential candidates. But he also said it could help unify the party around and engender public support for important policy proposals.
Sen. Mike Johanns said Members and voters understand that GOP presidential candidates might have a different agenda than Republicans in Congress and that ultimately, campaign trail rhetoric will have little influence over what happens on Capitol Hill.
“Everybody recognizes it’s the campaign season,” the Nebraska Republican said. “You’re going to run into that ... in any election cycle. There are Senate candidates out there — I was one of them — saying, ‘Well, they should be doing this and they shouldn’t be doing that.’ I don’t really see that as a huge problem.”