Many observers understand that Biden’s selection could prove to be more important than usual because he may serve only one term, and whomever he picks will have a huge leg up to succeed him should he win. But vice presidential picks rarely affect the final outcome — even when you screw it up. For example, take President George H.W. Bush.
After the Democratic convention in July 1988, Bush trailed his opponent, Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, by 17 points. After two terms as vice president to Ronald Reagan, he needed to step out of the Gipper’s shadow and establish a clear political identity of his own, and the vice presidential selection offered his best opportunity to do so. Bush planned to announce his pick at the Republican convention to interject excitement and drama.
Shortly before the gathering, Gerald Boyd of the New York Times reported the campaign’s vice presidential short list, which was largely composed of traditional GOP heavyweights such as Sen. Bob Dole (Kan.), the Senate minority leader, and Rep. Jack Kemp (N.Y.), the former NFL quarterback who had been instrumental in popularizing supply-side economics during the 1970s and ’80s. Also mentioned was Indiana’s far lesser-known junior senator, Dan Quayle, who was seen as a “dark horse” who would excite conservatives.
Bush largely kept his thinking to himself, but as the process moved forward, Dole and Kemp fell by the wayside because of his lack of chemistry with them, and the vetting of Quayle intensified — including directly asking him whether he had used connections to get into the National Guard in 1969 to avoid being drafted (President Lyndon B. Johnson refused to call the Guard up to prevent greater debate over the Vietnam War). Quayle responded no.
As he left for the convention, Bush decided to select the 41-year-old Quayle, probably believing that the pick would expand the generational reach of his campaign. When he told his staff, who were still expecting one of the better-known candidates, they were caught completely off guard. Bush’s lead pollster “would tell friends later that he had nearly fallen out of his chair.”
The campaign decided to announce the selection immediately at a hastily put-together event. Quayle, the first baby boomer to serve on a national ticket, appeared a bit too youthful as he bounded onto the stage with tremendous enthusiasm, leading some observers to compare his behavior to a game show contestant — not the best start.
Many questioned Bush’s decision at the time, and it has gone down as a historical mistake because of how poorly Quayle performed during the fall campaign and the repeated gaffes he made during his four years in office. With the hindsight of three decades of additional vice presidential nominees, however, Quayle seems like a fairly reasonable selection. He had served in the House for four years and then defeated liberal icon Birch Bayh in 1980 to move up to the Senate. He certainly was more prepared than 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin, and had spent more time in federal office than 2004 Democratic vice presidential nominee John Edwards. And his age and congressional experience were very similar to that of Rep. Paul D. Ryan (Wis.), Mitt Romney’s choice in 2012, although he lacked Ryan’s reputation as a policy wonk.
His choice excited conservatives wary of Bush, and initial media assessments of his abilities were fairly positive. In The Washington Post, Helen Dewar and David Broder wrote: “Colleagues say Quayle is bright but no intellectual. He has demonstrated an ability to master complex issues and muster arguments in debate, which he approaches with vigor and passion that has sometimes led to heated and biting exchanges in the Senate.”
But there were already warning signs that Quayle might not be up to the job. After the selection, an anonymous Democratic colleague remarked: “He is not in the same league with Bob Dole or Pete Domenici or Dick Lugar [Indiana Republican colleague Sen. Richard G. Lugar] in terms of being a heavyweight,” adding that many thought he was not ready for a national ticket.
Another hiccup emerged during his initial news conference with Bush. When asked whether his National Guard service was a problem given his hawkish voting record, Quayle responded with a long answer about growing up in Huntington, Ind., eventually confessing that he did not know in 1969 “that I would be in this room today.”
That answer triggered an enormous controversy about whether Quayle — who came from a wealthy publishing family — had used connections to gain his spot. The kerfuffle dominated media coverage of the convention, forcing the senator to focus on explaining his behavior during the late 1960s rather than promoting the agenda he and Bush had for the country in the late 1980s.
While no bombshell that would sink Quayle ever emerged, he left the convention damaged goods and his image never recovered from the campaign’s botched rollout and his early missteps. Nonetheless, the Bush-Quayle ticket got the traditional convention bounce and seized the lead in the race anyway.
Things got only worse for Quayle. His performance in the vice presidential debate against Dukakis’s running mate, Sen. Lloyd Bentsen (Tex.), was disastrous. Entering the faceoff, media expectations focused on Quayle’s qualifications for office, and throughout the campaign season, the Indiana senator had compared his experience favorably to that of John F. Kennedy when he became president in 1960.
Though advisers warned him against making this comparison during the nationally televised debate, Quayle returned to the analogy anyway. In the most famous moment in the rather unexciting history of vice presidential debates, Bentsen, who had served in the House with Kennedy, declared: “Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.” The crowd cheered in approval and Bentsen emerged as the clear winner of the debate.
The Dukakis campaign seized on the issue of Quayle’s fitness for the highest office. In the first presidential debate, Dukakis commented that “for most people the notion of President Quayle” is “very, very troubling.” His campaign ran ads against Quayle, and the Bush campaign sought to hide his running mate by having him only travel to states safely in their column.
But these attacks did little to dent Bush’s lead in the polls. Quayle himself understood why: “If they wanted to go after the vice presidential candidate and put all the energy into going after the vice president, fine, because then they’d be giving more of a free ride to the president, and people really don’t vote for the vice presidential candidate.”
Quayle’s analysis proved prescient, as Bush won an overwhelming victory. The fact that the electorate probably preferred Bentsen to Quayle was largely irrelevant. Though the vice presidency remains of tremendous constitutional importance, given that the person chosen is next in line to the presidency and several have had to assume the top job over the years, it didn’t seem to matter much to voters in 1988. Will it matter to them today?