LOOKING TOWARD 1992 : If Dan Quayle Is Dumped, GOP Starts a Game of Musical Chairs : Politics: Unable to imagine the vice president in the White House, and aware of growing voter doubts, many Republicans jockey to replace him.
“The Dumping of J. Danforth Quayle” sounds like a 1920s short-story title, but it may turn out to be a 1990s political tragedy--at least for its leading character. With the vultures already circling, from Secretary of State James A. Baker III on down, the chance that the vice president will be dropped from the 1992 Republican ticket is at once very real, probably necessary and maybe even a little unfair.
It’s hard to say Dan Quayle has been a bad vice president. He is probably as competent as a third of the previous vice presidents and at least the same percentage of current U.S. senators. The Quayle jokes so prominent on late-night TV target something else--his dubious qualifications to succeed to the presidency, the only vice-presidential task specified in the U.S. Constitution.
Imagining him in the White House is, of course, the problem. George Bush’s choice of Quayle was mind-boggling to most Republicans attending the 1988 convention in New Orleans. Many viewers were unimpressed with the young Indiana senator’s debate with his vice-presidential rival, Sen. Lloyd Bentsen of Texas--where Quayle displayed the acuity of a deer frozen in automobile headlights. Since then, voters’ doubts have festered. Recent Gallup polls show the percentage of Americans who believe Quayle qualified to become President has dropped from 46% in October, 1988, to 34% in May, 1989, and 31% this March; while the percentage who dismiss him as unqualified has increased from 42% to 52% this spring.
Politicians and observers in Washington share this grass-roots skepticism. No one event or foolishness stands out. But Quayle is always making some inept remark--like calling Samoans “happy campers” on a visit there--and nervousness is always high when he leaves on a foreign trip--after all, he returned from his recent Latin American visit with an anatomically correct doll. His inability to convey substance is beginning to shape a reluctant conclusion that there’s little substance to convey.
The dilemma now facing Bush and the GOP is: If the ’92 presidential election starts looking close, then Quayle’s potential role as a 1- or 2-point November drag becomes critical. If Bush seeks a second term, he’ll turn 70 halfway through it, a factor the Democrats could use to turn the spotlight on the man who would succeed him. But even if the 1992 election doesn’t look close, renominating Quayle poses a problem for the GOP.
Since the 1940s, the vice presidency has evolved from a backwater to a waiting-room for the White House party’s heir-presumptive. The big jump came when Dwight D. Eisenhower’s two-term vice president, Richard M. Nixon, became next-in-line in 1960, followed by the success of Hubert H. Humphrey, Lyndon B. Johnson’s vice president, in getting the 1968 Democratic nomination. Then Walter F. Mondale, Jimmy Carter’s vice president, won the 1984 nomination, and Bush carried on the tradition in 1988. Of the last nine U.S. Presidents, five previously served as vice presidents.
Thus if Quayle is renominated in 1992, because Bush looks like an easy winner and nobody wants to be divisive, he gets a big leg-up on the GOP nomination for 1996. That’s true for three reasons. First, if Bush keeps him in 1992, the President will have to burnish his running-mate’s marginal credentials. Second, anyone with eight years as vice president gets a patina of high-level experience, even if deep down he doesn’t have it. And third, a two-term vice president can bank an awful lot of chits with party organizations and officials. All of this, plus history, would tend to make Quayle the early nomination favorite for 1996--possibly even if a Bush alter-ego such as Baker decided on a last-minute challenge.
If Democrats enjoy this scenario, many Republicans don’t. Even a top-quality vice president has trouble bucking voter restlessness when his party has already had eight years in the White House. So selling a Quayle in 1996--even a more mature Quayle who’s graduated from Johnny Carson’s monologue--after Republicans have held the White House for 16 years could be impossible. For this reason, the argument goes, Quayle has to be kicked out of the training room in 1992 so that a GOP heavyweight--heck, even a light heavyweight--can take his place.
Dozens of elected and appointed Republican officials already palpitate every time they hear “Hail to the Chief"--and not a few hope to replace Quayle in 1992. Besides various senators and congressmen, five Cabinet members have been mentioned over the last 18 months--Baker, Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, Atty. Gen. Richard L. Thornburgh, Housing Secretary Jack Kemp and drug czar William J. Bennett. Three seem to be fading: Thornburgh--a weak Justice Department performance overshadows his credentials as governor of Pennsylvania; Bennett--his ambition exceeds his drug war gains, and Cheney--unless glasnost ends, the Pentagon is a crypt for Oval Office seekers. Two still seem strong, however. Baker is one of Bush’s closest friends and political allies. And Kemp, aside from his credible performance at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, has an ideological appeal that could placate conservatives.
Ideology could be a serious problem. Quayle may not be nudging Albert Einstein out of the record books intellectually, but he’s doing a good job of tactically imitating several prior GOP vice presidents by emphasizing his ties to the right. If Bush is still edging leftward next year--inviting gay activists into the White House, conservatives grumble, while avoiding “right-to-lifers"--then replacing Quayle with anyone but another conservative could be provocative.
Another difficulty could develop if Bush and Baker really do start conspiring to slate the secretary of state in as vice president in 1992 and move Quayle to the Pentagon morgue. Quayle might assent--it might even be at his ostensible request--but the White House could bank on dissent elsewhere within the GOP coalition. It is not that tactical problems would complicate having Bush and Baker on the same ticket--because Texas’ electoral votes could not legally be cast for both. Either man could simply shift his voting address after November but before the Electoral College met in December.
The real problem is the grandiosity of ambition such a move would signal--the creation of a “Texas Dynasty” to match the “Virginia Dynasty” of the early 19th Century. From Thomas Jefferson’s 1801 inauguration through the 1820s, the vice presidency was a dead-end. Secretaries of state moved on to become President--with one Virginian succeeding another. Finally, Andrew Jackson made his secretary of state shift to the vice presidency. Now if Bush wants fishing-buddy Baker to be his heir, he may have to do the same. The risk of a “Texas Dynasty” debate--of disgruntlement over the political equivalent of incest--could be considerable.
Exactly what is in Bush’s mind no one can say--probably not even Baker. Some cynics believe Bush actually picked Quayle in part as insurance against a remotely possible accusation or development in the Iran-Contra affair. The Senate, the reasoning went, would never impeach Bush and make Quayle President--as several senators privately said last year when declining to press too hard in questioning Bush’s former national security aide. But if that was a factor in Bush’s selection of Quayle, then its fading relevance today could increase Bush’s temptation to make a new choice for 1992.
If not, there are times when Presidents have to swallow pride and admit they picked badly. When Franklin D. Roosevelt was running for a fourth term in 1944, a year away from his death, he decided to dump Henry A. Wallace, the controversial vice president he had chosen in 1940. Harry S. Truman was picked instead, to the benefit of the Democratic Party. Bush might have to make the same choice in ’92--and one way or another, Quayle’s fate could be as important to the country and his party as Wallace’s was almost 50 years ago.