Republican Sen. Dan Quayle, clashing with Sen. Lloyd Bentsen on Wednesday in a vice presidential debate that focused on Quayle’s qualifications to be President, compared himself to former President John F. Kennedy and insisted that, if necessary, he would be prepared to assume the presidency.
The 41-year-old Quayle said age alone was not the only measure of fitness for the Oval Office. Stressing his four years in the House and eight years in the Senate, he maintained that he had “as much experience in the Congress as Jack Kennedy did when he sought the presidency,” a comparison that led to the most dramatic moment in the 90-minute debate.
‘Served With Kennedy’
“Senator,” the 67-year-old Bentsen shot back, glaring at Quayle, “I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.”
Quayle, tight-lipped and chafing, interjected: “That was really uncalled for, senator.”
The Bentsen-Quayle confrontation, televised nationwide from Omaha Civic Auditorium, about Kennedy could prove crucial to the election between the presidential candidates, Vice President George Bush and Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis.
From the Republican standpoint, the relatively young Quayle avoided any major gaffes. Instead of attacking Bentsen, Quayle took frequent shots at Dukakis, the Democratic presidential nominee, calling him “out of the mainstream” and “the most liberal national Democrat to seek the office of presidency since George McGovern.”
From the Democratic viewpoint, however, the debate’s focus on whether Quayle was qualified to become President played to an issue that, according to public opinion polls, is one of the Democrats’ strongest.
Question on Presidency
Quayle repeatedly cited his experience in dealing with three pressing issues--job creation, the budget deficit and relations with the Soviet Union. Pressed about what he would do if he suddenly found himself commander-in-chief, he said:
“First, I’d say a prayer for myself and for the country I’m about to lead. And then I would assemble his people (the Cabinet and other aides) and talk.” Then he returned to his background in Congress, and suggested later that it was not proper to “get into the specifics of a hypothetical question like that.”
After the debate, both vice presidential candidates claimed victory.
“Between baseball we had this little debate,” said Quayle, referring to the playoff games that were played before and after the debate. “I can’t tell you which way the playoffs are going to go, but I can tell you: Today the team from Massachusetts (the Boston Red Sox) lost and tonight the man from Massachusetts got beat.”
Bentsen, speaking to several hundred supporters at a rally at his hotel, declared: “I stood up there for 90 minutes listening to Sen. Quayle saying what he was going to do if he was President of the United States, and I still didn’t know.”
Bush, who watched the debate in Ft. Worth, exclaimed as Quayle answered the first question: “Right out of the ballpark. Canseco! The Canseco of American politics"--a reference to Oakland A’s slugger Jose Canseco.
Dukakis, speaking to a crowd of cheering supporters at a downtown Boston hotel ballroom, said he had talked with Bentsen on the phone and told him: “I couldn’t be prouder of him as my running mate. . . . He’s going to be a great vice president.”
An ABC poll of 637 registered voters who watched the debate showed 51% thought Bentsen won, 27% thought Quayle won and 22% thought it was a tie. The polling sample had a margin of error of 4.5 percentage points.
Asked if Bentsen was qualified for the presidency, 87% said yes and 12% no. When the same question was asked of Quayle, 48% responded yes and an equal percentage said no.
When Quayle was asked the third time by the panel of four journalists what he would do if he became President, he reiterated that he would call a meeting with Cabinet members and presidential advisers. He said he would know them on a first-name basis because, as vice president, he would be a member of the National Security Council, the Administration’s drug czar and director of the Administration’s space council.
“I will be prepared not only because of my service in the Congress, but because of my ability to communicate and to lead,” he said. “It is not just age, it’s accomplishments, it’s experience. I have far more experience than many others that sought the office of vice president of this country. I have as much experience in the Congress as Jack Kennedy did when he sought the presidency.”
It was that line that set up Bentsen’s hard response. When Quayle objected, Bentsen said:
“You’re the one that was making the comparison, senator, and I’m one who knew him well. And frankly, I think you’re so far apart in the objectives you choose for your country that I did not think the comparison was well taken.”
Bentsen, emphasizing his edge over Quayle in experience, said that he had met with such foreign leaders as Japanese Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita, whom he pressed to increase his spending on defense and to open Japanese markets to American goods.
The Democratic nominee also sought to contrast his approach to the vice presidency with that of Bush, who acknowledges that he attended meetings on the Reagan Administration’s arms-for-hostages swaps with Iran but did not stop them. Echoing the Democrats’ chant of “Where was George?” Bentsen said if he had been in those meetings, “you would certainly hear from him, and no one would be asking, ‘Where is Lloyd?’ ”
Focuses on Dukakis
As expected, Quayle focused his attack not on Bentsen but on Dukakis, whom he portrayed as a left winger who would raise taxes, institute big new government programs, weaken the national defenses and allow criminals to go free.
“The governor of Massachusetts is simply out of step with mainstream America,” he said. ". . . Michael Dukakis is the most liberal national Democrat to see the office of the presidency since George McGovern.”
He accused Bentsen of refusing to discuss the Dukakis record in Massachusetts.
“I don’t blame Sen. Bentsen for not talking about Gov. Michael Dukakis . . . ,” he said. “If I had to defend the liberal policies of Gov. Michael Dukakis, I wouldn’t talk about it either.”
Quayle accused Dukakis of raising taxes in Massachusetts five times. “That’s why a lot of people refer to him as ‘Tax-Hike Mike,’ ” he said. “That’s why they refer to the state of Massachusetts as Taxachusetts.”
On environmental issues, he blamed Dukakis for allowing Boston Harbor to become “the dirtiest waterway in America.” He alleged that the Democratic nominee had applied for a license to dump Massachusetts sewage off the coast of New Jersey.
Receives No Response
On defense, he said former Defense Secretary James R. Schlesinger got no response when he asked Dukakis in an open letter in Time magazine: “Are you viscerally anti-military?” He noted Dukakis has opposed a variety of weapons systems, including the MX missile.
Quayle scored debating points by playing on audience reaction. Hammering the theme of patriotism, he said in a discussion of the national debt that “we are the envy of the world.” When that provoked laughter in the audience, Quayle shot back:
“Some of Sen. Bentsen’s supporters laugh at that . . . because they don’t believe that the United States of America is the envy of the world. Well, I can tell you the American people think the United States of America is the envy of the world.”
At another point, he used his description of his grandmother’s advice--"You can do anything you want to if you just set your mind to it and go to work"--to make a similar point:
“Now the Dukakis supporters sneer at that, because it’s common sense. They sneer at common sense advice . . . Midwestern advice from a grandmother to a grandson.”
Avoid Deficit Specifics
On the pressing issue of reducing the federal deficit, neither vice presidential candidate made much effort to explain where he would make substantive cuts in the deficit, which has been running at about $150 billion a year for the past two years.
Repeating his call for a tougher trade policy, Bentsen said opening foreign markets to U.S. farm products would help reduce farm subsidies, which soared to a record $25 billion last year.
Quayle vowed to “stick to the Gramm-Rudman (deficit reduction) targets,” which call for annual reductions in the deficit to achieve a balanced budget within five years, and repeated Reagan’s frequent call for giving the President authority to veto individual line items without rejecting entire spending bills.
Bentsen used the Administration’s record budget deficits to brush aside a suggestion that the Reagan Administration had brought low interest rates, lower unemployment and lower inflation.
“You know,” he said, referring to the annual budget deficit, “if you let me write $200 billion worth of hot checks every year, I could give you an illusion of prosperity, too.”
Bentsen hammered at the Republicans repeatedly for not having a “tough” enough trade policy, asserting that the Reagan Administration’s neglect of the trade situation had resulted in a costly loss of markets for American farmers and manufacturers.
Neither candidate outlined a future trade policy, however. Bentsen said only that a Dukakis-Bentsen Administration would “make trade a No. 1 priority” and “stand up for” American exporters.
Accuses Quayle on Votes
Bentsen, saying that “we have a contract with the American people on Social Security,” accused Quayle of voting eight times to cut Social Security benefits. “Now when you talk about Social Security, the people that are going to protect it are the Democrats who brought forth that program,” Bentsen said.
Quayle denied that he had voted eight times to cut Social Security benefits, and sought to turn the issue on Bentsen by pointing out that both he and Dukakis had supported delays in cost-of-living adjustments for Social Security beneficiaries. He accused the Democrats of trying to exploit the issue for political advantage. “What they try to do time and time again is to scare the old people of this country,” Quayle said.
Bentsen appeared embarrassed when a questioner asked about a plan to charge lobbyists $10,000 apiece to attend weekly breakfasts with him shortly after he became chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee. Quayle attacked Bentsen on the issue, quipping: “I’m sure they weren’t paying to have corn flakes.”
Although Bentsen defended the legality of the “breakfast club,” which was canceled after its existence was disclosed in newspaper reports, he added: “I don’t make many mistakes, but that one was a real doozy.”
Bentsen said he supported reform of campaign financing laws and accused Quayle of voting against proposals to change the current system.
Won’t Repeat Mistake
Answering one of the few questions touching on foreign policy, Bentsen said he would not repeat the Reagan Administration’s mistake and seek freedom for American hostages by selling arms to Iran.
“When you try to do that,” he asserted, “there’s no question but what you just encourage more taking of hostages and that’s been the result of this dumb idea that was cooked up in the White House basement.
“All you can do,” Bentsen said, “is to put as much diplomatic pressure as you can, what you can do in the way of economic pressures as you can.”
Quayle, conceding that the arms-for-hostages swap was a mistake, said: “How do you do it? No one has the answer. If we did, we’d certainly do it. But we’ll keep trying. We’ll keep the doors open and, hopefully some day, Iran and others who control those hostages will want to return to (the) civilized international community, and they can do that starting now by releasing those hostages that are held illegally.”
Contributing to this story were staff writers Douglas Jehl, Karen Tumulty, Bob Drogin and Bob Scheer in Omaha, David Lauter in Boston and Cathleen Decker in Ft. Worth.