A sphinx without a riddle

Leslie H. Gelb

May 09, 1991|By Leslie H. Gelb

A SPHINX without a riddle" is how Bismarck described Napoleon III. As much could be said about Dan Quayle, ever awkwardly posed with a plastered, slight smile.

No instant laundry lists of unheralded accomplishments as vice president, dutifully leaked by his staff, will make Quayle more than a nice and competent guy.

No mere testimonials will alter public perceptions of him. No opportunity short of actual succession will likely permit him to prove himself a political heavyweight.

Dan Quayle is no buffoon, as many in the media unfairly portray him. He is an average American and an average politician who, though he carries an argument well, strikes people as a kid. Even when his words are nicely manicured, he does not inspire confidence.

If the profound uneasiness about Quayle endures, President Bush will face a tough dilemma: To dump his veep is to ignite stories that Bush is worrying about his health and re-election prospects. To keep his veep is to hand the Democrats a club that could do damage in a close election.

Bet on George Bush, loyal and stubborn, to stick with Dan Quayle in 1992. Bet on it even if the Democrats miraculously pull within a few percentage points of victory.

There was something primal that caused Bush to select Quayle against almost all advice in the first place. The powerful thrusts of election politics will bind him even more tightly to his running mate.

Deep, deep down, the Quayle candidacy serves the none-too-disguised interests of Democrats, many Republicans, neoconservatives and, in ways still not fully understood by onlookers, of Bush himself.

The Democrats need Dan Quayle. He is right up there with Air Sununu and taxing the rich as one of their brightest issues. The party of Carter and Dukakis may not be able to agree on civil rights, trade or war, but it rallies as one to the cry of "President Quayle."

What's more, the Democrats know that the more they lambast Quayle, the more Bush and the Republicans will have to cling to him. Republicans have already been rallying around their beleaguered colleague, though many privately whisper their wish be relieved of this duty.

As for Republican hopefuls looking far ahead to 1996, they would rather contend with a weak vice president like Quayle than a strong one like Jack Kemp, James Baker or Dick Cheney.

Neoconservatives, neoliberals and unipolarists also will fight hard keep Quayle on the ticket. They have co-opted him and remade him in their own image.

He is their eyes and ears inside the White House. He distrusts Mikhail Gorbachev and is more pro-Israel than Yitzhak Shamir. This, for them, makes an ideal president.

Neither Bush nor Quayle can draw much comfort from the public opinion polls, but the results are not all bad for the dynamic duo. In a USA Today poll taken on Monday, 51 percent say they would like the president to name a new running mate, and 46 percent say that Quayle is not qualified to be president.

But 43 percent say he is qualified to sit in the Oval Office. That represents a huge jump from 19 percent only a month ago and shows that some large number of the American people are prepared to rally around the existing team.

More important from Bush's standpoint, the polls on Quayle's personal standing do not matter much. Polling studies show that even very weak vice presidential candidates like Spiro Agnew or Geraldine Ferraro don't cost the front man more than about 2 percentage points.

All the calculations, then, end where they began -- with George Bush. It is hard to believe that Bush thought in 1990 that Dan Quayle, whatever his virtues, was the best man for the job. Thus, political psychoanalysts fell back on other explanations: his need to assert independence from his handlers and his passion to finally enjoy the spotlight without competition.

Now, having earned his own place and having experienced an irregular heartbeat, George Bush owes it to the country to review his judgment. If he truly feels that Dan Quayle is the best Republican to succeed him, no amount of hoopla will change his mind or is likely to defeat a Bush-Quayle ticket in 1992. If he harbors doubts, he has the sacred duty to think of America first.

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