Al Gore and Dan Quayle don't agree on much. But in the last week, the current and former vice presidents -- each a candidate for his party's presidential nomination -- have teed off on the record being written by the 106th Congress.
Gore told a group of Democratic women yesterday that House Republicans were trying to stymie everything from gun legislation to HMO reform. Quayle told a television interviewer earlier in the week that Congress was in cowardly retreat on issues vital to a Republican victory.
Congress is always a tempting target. When President Clinton ran for reelection, he used the government shutdown in the winter of 1995-96 to demonstrate the "irresponsibility" of the GOP-led Congress while grabbing credit for welfare reform and a minimum wage increase that same Congress enacted.
Now, as a new Congress struggles with contentious issues from gun control to the budget to Social Security and China policy, many of those seeking the presidency -- Republicans and Democrats -- are storming Capitol Hill. Much of the criticism from both flanks seeks to link the GOP congressional leadership to Texas Gov. George W. Bush, the presidential candidate who has been endorsed by a majority of House Republicans and a large contingent of GOP senators.
Roy Romer, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, told reporters Thursday that Democrats will hold Bush accountable for "his Texas buddies," House Majority Leader Richard K. Armey and Majority Whip Tom DeLay -- and, by association, with the entire GOP Congress. "You cannot get elected president by totally separating yourself from your party and its record," Romer argued.
Republicans were quick to point out that Clinton had attempted, with some success, to do just that when he was a first-time candidate in 1992. Clinton said then that he was a "New Democrat" and not like the liberals who predominated in congressional ranks.
Bush spokesman David Beckwith said yesterday, "It's obvious the Democrats would rather run against various other people, but they'll have to face George Bush." And he added: "You won't see George Bush doing what Clinton did in 1992. Exactly the opposite. He has several members of Congress on his exploratory committee and he is not going to run away from the congressional party."
One of those Bush allies, Rep. J.C. Watts (Okla.), chairman of the House Republican Conference, said that Bush, or whoever the nominee is, will have no reason to run away from the GOP Congress. "We've got a track record," Watts said, "because we've done what we promised to do." He said that since 1995, Republicans have balanced the budget, cut taxes and reformed welfare, and are taking steps to bolster defense, put a "lockbox" around Social Security surpluses, send more federal education dollars back to local communities and cut taxes again.
But many of the candidates on the conservative side of the Republican presidential field are finding fault with that congressional record -- as they characterize or caricature it.
Quayle told CNBC: "This is a Republican Congress increasing the minimum wage to $6 an hour, busting the spending caps, backing down on tax cuts, more regulations for health care. Come on! This has now become the status quo Congress. That is not the way Republicans win elections."
Gary Bauer, another contender, said in an interview that Republican audiences in North Carolina and Georgia have gasped in dismay "when I tell them chances are a Republican Congress will vote again to give China most-favored-nation trade status, despite its abuse of human rights and its record of stealing our nuclear secrets."
On that issue, as on guns and abortion, Bauer said, "we've been on the defensive."
"Some members of Congress are spending too much time looking at public opinion polls rather than leading opinion, as Ronald Reagan and Abraham Lincoln did," he said.
Patrick J. Buchanan said in an interview that his campaign travels convince him that "the disconnect between the Republican Party in Congress and the grass roots has never been greater."
"They praise their individual member of Congress, but they say, `The party is not standing up to Clinton or representing our values and views,' " Buchanan said. "Everywhere I go people say disparaging things about Congress and ask why they should continue to vote Republican."
Bill Dal Col, manager of Malcolm S. "Steve" Forbes's campaign, said, "It's pretty evident that nothing has moved on the Hill. There's been a lack of consistency, and the leadership hasn't been able to pull it together. Steve says, `They're in a preemptive crouch.' "
Sen. Robert C. Smith (R-N.H.) spoke at the National Press Club of his dismay "standing on the floor of the Senate about two weeks ago and [watching] on vote after vote Republicans cave in on the Second Amendment and punish law-abiding gun owners."
As might be expected, candidates with closer ties to Congress are less critical of its performance. Ari Fleischer, spokesman for Elizabeth Dole, whose husband was the Senate Republican leader, said, "She is not dwelling on what is happening in Congress, but she places more of the burden [for the impasse on key issues] on the Democrats and the White House."
Rep. John R. Kasich (R-Ohio), a presidential contender who chairs the House Budget Committee, said that when Democrats such as Romer condemn the "unconscionable" spending caps in the budget, they want people to forget that Clinton signed on to those caps as part of the 1997 budget agreement. "There's nothing unconscionable about saving the Social Security surplus for Social Security," Kasich said.
And then there is Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). His spokesman, Howard Opinsky, said criticism of congressional leaders hardly applied to McCain, "because he certainly has not been one to go along with the leadership all the time."
Researcher Ben White contributed to this report.