Quayle's political insurance policy On Politics Today

Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

November 21, 1991|By Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

Washington - AS THE economy continues in the doldrums, Democrats who worry that they might wake up some morning to President Dan Quayle will be entertaining daydreams that President Bush may be persuaded to drop him as his 1992 running mate after all. They will be wise, though, not to bet the rent money on it.

These Democrats will argue that if the recession drags onor gets worse, a nervous president won't want to take chances on his own re-election by keeping a vice president whose continued presence on the Republican ticket could cost him votes.

That line of thinking, however, does not take two things into consideration.

The first is the very strong unlikelihood that Bush will bring him self to say, in effect, that he was wrong in selecting Quayle in the first place. A presidential nominee who says by his original decision on a running mate that the individual is qualified to take over the presidency without a day in the vice presidency is not going to acknowledge he's not qualified after four years in that job.

The second factor is the increasing pressure Bush is encountering from his party's right wing, from the likes of David Duke and Pat Buchanan. If either or both of them decides to challenge the president in the early Republican primaries, or if Duke runs as an independent in the general election, Bush will not want to take any action that will further alienate the right. And bouncing Quayle would clearly qualify as hostile action in that regard.

Although the White House professes to be unconcerned about the political plans of Duke and Buchanan, Bush's actions betray his sensitivity to the interests of his party's right wing. His most recent veto of the attempt to lift the gag rule on doctors' counseling pregnant patients on the abortion option underscores his continuing courtship of the pro-life constituency.

All this amounts to a political insurance policy for Quayle. Ironically, skeptics said at the time Bush picked Quayle in 1988, while Bush's role in the Iran-contra affair still hung over him, that in choosing the young Indiana senator he was writing himself an insurance policy against possible future impeachment. Now it is this pressure on the right that gives Quayle an added sense of security.

Quayle is no doubt helped as well by the furor over the current story line in the comic strip "Doonesbury," in which cartoonist Garry Trudeau has a reporter character investigating a Drug Enforcement Agency file in which a convicted drug dealer did allege selling drugs to Quayle.

But the DEA has said categorically that the charges were investigated and judged false, making Quayle look like a wronged party. A number of newspapers have suspended use of the strip during this particular story line.

The strip also questions whether the Bush-Quayle campaign sought to cover up the allegation in the last days of the 1988 campaign by getting jail authorities to put the accuser in solitary confinement until after the election. Trudeau says this is the important part of the story, but insiders in the Quayle campaign have denied knowledge of any contact with the prison authorities at the time.

Meanwhile, Quayle has been getting better press, or at least more mixed press.

His recent speech to a lawyers' convention, in which he questioned the growing penchant for litigation, got a good reaction among non-lawyers.

He has also been praised for his role heading up the President's Council on Competitiveness, but also criticism from Democrats in Congress who charge he has used it to ease regulation of business.

In either case, praise or criticism, he is painted as doing something, rather than as an empty suit.

All these reasons add up to the conclusion that the economic situation will have to become a great deal more threatening to Bush's re-election for Quayle's place on the ticket to be in any serious jeopardy.

Furthermore, the results of the 1988 election reinforced the record that voters nearly always cast their ballots on the basis of the top of the ticket, not the running mate.

That record will not stop some Democrats from wishful thinking of another sort -- that the best thing they can hope for is that Bush will keep Quayle on the ticket next year, and that the decision will hand their party the White House.

They will be wise not to bet the rent money on that one either.

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