McCain’s Dan Quayle?
Wednesday, September 03, 2008 at 7:13 pm
Democrats have been relishing every minute since Sen. John McCain announced that Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin would be his vice presidential running mate. The attacks have been fast and furious. Palin lacks experience; she has ties to the far right; she has scandals lurking in her personal background. Palin, Democrats say, is McCain’s Dan Quayle.
This is among the most stinging comparisons in contemporary politics — bringing back memories of the running mate of Vice President George H.W. Bush in 1988. One Republican at the Democratic National Convention in Denver last week, surprised by the pick, predicted, “Democrats will have a field day typecasting her as Quayle in a pantsuit.”
The comparison has some merit. It is easy to look back at the media coverage of Quayle in August of 1988 and to find language that closely resembles today’s talk about Palin.
But the Democrats are forgetting the important point: Quayle was on the winning ticket. The candidate with the far more seasoned running mate, Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis with Texas Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, was trounced that year.
When Bush picked Quayle, he wanted to shake up the race by bringing a charismatic conservative and younger face onto the ticket. Bush chose Quayle over more established finalists like Sens. Robert Dole, Pete Domenici, Alan Simpson or Rep. Jack Kemp and former Transportation Sec. Elizabeth Dole. Bush knew that conservative activists did not trust him, perceiving him to be part of the “white shoe” Northeastern Republican establishment, far more comfortable with compromise and bipartisanship than the younger renegades of the Reagan Revolution.
Quayle seemed the perfect antidote. He was part of the up-and-coming cohort of congressional Republicans who maintained close ties to the conservative movement. Quayle made a name for himself in 1988 by attacking President Ronald Reagan for holding arms negotiations with the Soviet Union and betraying the conservative cause.
“Perestroika is nothing more than refined Stalinism,” Quayle said, talking about the reforms then underway in the Soviet Union. Conservatives were initially excited about the choice. The right-wing activist Phyllis Schlafly said that Quayle brought “youth, attractiveness, conservative image . . . all the elements of a great and winning ticket.”
But things quickly started to go wrong. One problem was the sharp contrast of the team’s age and appearance. Bush made Quayle look too young for the job. Democrats played on this, attacking Quayle’s inexperience. Dukakis, after all, had selected Bentsen, an experienced elder statesman.
There were also revelations about Quayle’s connections to Paula Parkinson, a stunning female lobbyist at the center of a 1980 scandal, who had revealed that she had used heavy-handed techniques to sway legislators. Parkinson, who later posed nude in Playboy, was the focus of a Justice Dept. investigation into whether politicians had traded favors for sex.
The investigation did not turn up evidence of wrongdoing. But it was discovered that Quayle was one of the representatives who attended a golf trip with Parkinson in Florida. Quayle insisted that he had done nothing wrong and had gone to “play golf.”
The senator looked ever more like a deer in the headlights as he faced questions about how he got a spot in the National Guard as a result of his privileged upbringing.
Republicans were frustrated at their convention, just days after the announcement, when all the media attention in New Orleans was on Quayle rather than the Republican message. GOP strategist Ed Rollins lamented that the carefully planned out convention “got stomped on” by the Quayle selection.
Quayle also made mistakes after the convention. The most infamous occurred at a photo-op at a school in Trenton, N.J., where Quayle mistakenly corrected a student who had spelled potato correctly. He said the young boy had left an “e” off the end.
During the vice presidential debate, Quayle compared himself to John F. Kennedy, responding to a question about whether his lack of experience mattered. Obviously prepared for this, Bentsen jumped on the comparison, and said “I served with Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator you’re no Jack Kennedy.” Bentsen was widely regarded as the winner that night.
Democrats did not stop. One of their favorite sayings was “Quayle: Just a heartbeat away.”
But the Bush team came back. Even as Democrats attacked Quayle and his candidacy deteriorated, the GOP strategist Lee Atwater and his team kept their guns focused on Dukakis. They painted him as weak on defense, in favor of high taxes and out of touch with mainstream values as a “card-carrying member of the ACLU.”
In the end, this was what mattered most to voters. The strategy worked. The Republicans trounced the Democrats. Bush won 53.4 percent of the popular vote and a whopping 426 electoral votes—all with Quayle on the ticket.
There have been other races where controversial picks did not sidetrack a presidential candidacy. During the 1952 presidential campaign, for example, Dwight D. Eisenhower’s pick, Sen. Richard M. Nixon, came under fire from press revelations that he maintained a secret slush fund filled by California supporters. The story broke just days after Eisenhower had announced his selection.
Eisenhower was prepared to drop Nixon, but the senator went on television. Nixon made a speech, arguing that he and his wife, Pat, were common Americans without wealth, and he mocked the accusations against him. He said, most notably, that he would not return a cocker spaniel, Checkers, that a supporter had given his two little daughters. He spoke of his wife’s “respectable Republican cloth coat” and asked supporters to write directly to the Republican National Committee to show their backing. The polls were in Nixon’s favor — and the Eisenhower-Nixon ticket sailed to victory.
In the past few days, Democrats have been focusing on one aspect of the 1988 campaign — Quayle’s many problems — while forgetting the overall story: Bush and Quayle won.
Democrats could certainly point to the weaknesses and dangers in the Palin selection, but they should be cautious. If they allow Palin to distract them from their main target — McCain and his support for the unpopular economic and military policies of President George W. Bush — they might just find themselves like Dukakis and Bentsen in 1988, on the losing end.
Julian E. Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School. He is the co-editor of “Rightward Bound: Making America Conservative in the 1970s” (Harvard University Press) and is completing a book on the history of national security politics since World War II.
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