The Quayle problem returns

Published May 10, 1991|Updated Oct. 13, 2005

At 4:20 p.m. on Saturday, May 4, 1991, a new issue was injected into the 1992 presidential campaign. That's when President Bush experienced shortness of breath and an irregular heartbeat during his daily jogging routine and had to be rushed from Camp David to Bethesda Naval Medical Center. And that's when the country was forced to think about the unthinkable _ that Dan Quayle could become president of the United States.

Bush's health problem does not appear to be serious. But it gives the Democrats an opening. They can remind voters that if they re-elect Bush, they might actually be voting for Quayle. In 1992, when Bush will be 68 years old, the "Quayle factor" could be far more damaging to the Republican Party than it was in 1988. And that's especially true now that the economic recession is clearly dragging Bush down.

The possibility of a scandal is another wild card for 1992. If there is any credible evidence that the Reagan-Bush campaign made a deal with the Iranians in 1980 to delay the release of American hostages until after the election, the issue could destroy the Bush presidency.

Quayle is a growing liability for the Republicans. His image has not improved very much in the two and a half years he has served as vice president.

When Quayle was named to the Republican ticket in August 1988, 40 percent of the public felt that he was not qualified to serve as president, according to a Gallup survey that year. That number rose to 52 percent in May 1989 and to 59 percent last November.

Quayle's poll numbers improved slightly at the end of the Persian Gulf war, when 49 percent told the ABC News-Washington Post poll that Quayle would not be qualified to take over as president. But in an ABC-Post poll the day after Bush became ill, 57 percent called Quayle not qualified.

Doubts about Quayle as president are spilling over to the vice presidency. In three polls taken this year, majorities have said that Bush should drop Quayle from the ticket in 1992 and replace him with someone else. Only 31-38 percent said they favor keeping him on the Republican ticket.

Bush's increase in popularity since becoming president doesn't seem to have helped Quayle very much. It may have had the opposite effect: Quayle has seemed less and less credible as a president, and the stature gap between Bush and Quayle has gotten larger. A CNN-Time magazine poll taken in April asked, "If Dan Quayle were the Republican nominee for president in 1996, would you consider voting for him?" Two-thirds of the public said no.

Bush will have to make two calculations in 1992. One is whether the election is getting tight enough so that Quayle's presence on the ticket could make the difference between winning and losing. Second, the president will have to weigh the consequences of getting rid of Quayle against the consequences of keeping him on the ticket. Dumping Quayle means admitting an error of judgment. Would Bush be willing to do that, and how much damage would it cause? Would conservatives go along?

In March, a Republican operative told the Washington Post, "The only reasons Bush would replace Quayle is (a) he needs the couple of points a new vice president might bring or (b) he wants to have a clear successor in place." The party operative argued that neither was the case at that time. The fact that both reasons now seem much more compelling is testimony to how much has changed since the end of the gulf war.

National Journal