WASHINGTON. — Washington -- Gee, you would have thought the vice president had come out against motherhood itself and not Murphy Brown the way he was treated at the Democratic Convention. Mario Cuomo didn't even wait until the opening gavel to say he would try not to use big words Dan Quayle didn't understand in his speech.
Mayor David Dinkins got in his own shot about spelling. So did Gov. Zell Miller of Georgia. And at the corner of Seventh Avenue and 34th Street, hawkers peddled ''Mr. Potato Head'' T-shirts with the vice president's likeness on front.
All this got lots of laughs inside Madison Square Garden, and that's the point: The contemptuous dismissal of the vice president's attempt to debate values exposes more about the social standing of those telling the jokes than about Dan Quayle. Even the phenomenon of a billionaire populist could not impress upon Democrats that class distinctions in America are not primarily about money. They are about values.
Voters may think that George Bush is somewhat indifferent to their interests because he was born rich, and they're probably right. But they think that the Democrats are hostile to their interests. And they're right about that, too.
Indeed, for all the hoopla about change, Bill and Hillary Clinton embody values that will likely cost Democrats the presidency well into the 21st century. He is a governor who favors removing restrictions that would keep daughter Chelsea out of combat but bent all the rules to keep himself safe in Oxford rather than serve in Vietnam.
She is a Yale law grad and apparently not a Tammy Wynette fan, for whom progress means a legal system where kids might sue Mom and Dad. Although hailed in public as a great asset by Democratic pooh-bahs, it's hard not to notice that they've been keeping her out of sight the past few weeks.
Of course, the Clintons don't come from nowhere: They are more or less representative of those who choose presidential candidates for the Democrats. According to a Washington Post survey, this year's crop of convention delegates is ''wealthier, more educated and more liberal than the general population and rank-and-file Democrats.''
The largest chunk works for government, more than two-thirds have incomes greater than $50,000 and, although this does not quite put them in the Rockefeller bracket, it does suggest that ''cultural elite'' is not an unfair designation. The same survey shows them most dramatically out of whack with the American public on the hot-button issues that move voters -- abortion, taxes, defense, civil rights and school choice.
Even the choice of Al Gore as the vice presidential candidate serves to highlight the party's gap with the general public rather than bridge it. Press coverage of their first day campaigning as a team, in Mr. Gore's home state of Tennessee, noted that both men ''invoked the name of God in their speeches'' and that Mr. Gore ''even led a prayer.''
This is news when Democrats do it, because it is out of character. In the end, Mr. Gore will end up being forced by the party to move to left far more than he pushes the party to the center, as witness his continuing slide on abortion all the way to support for the Freedom of Choice Act.
Dan Quayle may not have said it right, but he certainly had it right. And for all the jokes about him you will doubtless hear between now and the end of the convention, the lines the vice president is drawing will probably help return him for a second term. And that makes Dan Quayle a lot smarter than all these people calling him dumb.
William McGurn is Washington bureau chief of the National Review.