THE VIEW FROM THE HILL
WHAT DO WE say about J. Danforth Quayle? That he is handsome enough to compare (favorably) to Robert Redford? That he is young enough to excite a new generation of voters? That he is conservative enough to be regarded as one of Ronald Reagan’s staunchest allies in Congress? That he is qualified enough–albeit just–to be the next Vice President of the United States?
Or that he is a photogenic featherhead with good grooming habits and a knack for hiring clever staff? That he is the quintessential WASP, arguably one of the few people in the business next to whom George Bush looks ethnic? That he is a political naif who remains untested by the hurly-burly of national campaigning?
Actually, all of these things are true. And they all point to the underlying strengths and weaknesses of Quayle’s presence on the ticket.
Forget for the moment the flap over Quayle’s Vietnam-era service in the National Guard. At this writing, the Bush campaign seems determined to weather that storm, having decided that Quayle is as much of a straight-arrow as one is going to find in the Sixties generation. Besides, a considerable constituency of National Guard alumni is closing ranks behind Quayle, if only to protest the insinuation that wartime enlistment in the Guard does not constitute honorable service to one’s country.
Forget, too, Quayle’s mediocre academic record. Neither Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy, nor Ronald Reagan was precisely a scholar of the first rank. Jimmy Carter, on the other hand, was a top-flight student.
And, above all, don’t try to argue that Quayle hasn’t been in politics long enough to be Vice President. When Ronald Reagan tapped George Bush, Bush had waged two victorious campaigns for the House and a losing one for the Senate. Quayle, on the other hand, has conducted two House and two Senate campaigns, all of them victorious. Walter Mondale’s Washington experience prior to the Vice Presidency consisted of 12 years in the Senate. Spiro Agnew had served a single term as Maryland’s governor. Richard Nixon had spent two terms in the House and part of one in the Senate.
Instead, look to two factors, the first pointing to the strength of Quayle’s presence on the ticket, the second suggesting its fundamental weakness.
The attractions of Quayle-the-candidate are many. His can-do exuberance, good looks, and charming manner have made him something of a political phenom in Indiana, where women and Reagan Democrats–the very groups the Bush campaign needs to woo–gave him the largest re-election victory in the history of that state’s Senate races. Moreover, there is a certain chemistry between Quayle and Bush. When Quayle is standing beside Bush, his irrepressible bombast, so grating on the Senate floor, suggests a Kennedyesque vigor; when Bush is standing beside Quayle, his fidgety manner deepens into something suggesting real statesmanship.
The attractions of Quayle as a possible Vice President are less clear. True, he has grown a lot during his 12 years in Congress–but that has been rather easy to do, given how much growth was required. In fairness, one must add that Quayle never asked to go into politics. Instead he was drafted to run for Congress in 1976 by local Republican Party operatives looking to replace a GOP contender who suddenly dropped out of the race.
But Quayle did spend the ensuing eight years mostly in congressional anonymity. He established himself as a clear conservative, but was careful to distance himself from the firebrands of the New Right. Swept into the Senate on Ronald Reagan’s coattails in 1980, he did not really begin to make his mark there until 1984, when he chaired a special committee studying the procedural chaos threatening to engulf the Senate. Quayle also bagged a spot on the Senate Armed Services Committee, and set about establishing himself as a Republican counterpart to Sam Nunn of Georgia.
In the last few years, he has succeeded–sort of. He has become a prominent advocate of a muscular defense policy, and has hired a bevy of smart young aides to help him out. But he has become prominent in such a way that, for better or worse, he is not completely respected by the defense intellectuals and not entirely trusted by the Reagan Administration. He led the fight, for example, against the defense authorization bill that Reagan ultimtely vetoed. But he also led the Republican opposition to the INF treaty and probably would have actually voted against ratifying it had not so few senators joined him in opposition.
Moreover, there are some rather goofy aspects to Quayle’s recent Senate career. There’s the special tax break for professional golfers that Quayle–who is reputed to have spent much time on the golf links during his college years–tucked into this year’s tax-corrections bill. There’s his chairmanship of the Armed Services procurement subcommittee–at the very time the shenanigans that led to the current Pentagon-procurement investigation were getting under way.
Then there are his odd statements on the Senate floor. One Capitol Hill favorite concerns the time last fall when the Democrats proposed a moratorium on anti-satellite-weapon testing. Quayle argued that that was a mistake, especially seeing as how anti-satellite weapons had been critical to the U.S. defense against a Soviet attack in Tom Clancy’s best-seling novel, Red Storm Rising.
If you agree that a presidential race is about personalities, not issues, maybe all these minutiae don’t matter. That chemistry between Quayle and Bush may impress the voters far more than all the anti-Quayle factoids. Still, the GOP has sought to make this first and foremost a campaign of issues. If it succeeds in that effort, it may wish it had chosen someone other than Quayle to fill out the ticket.