But he won't dump Quayle


RUMORS, which always seem to start on Wall Street, have been bouncing around Washington like popcorn in a microwave. Quayle is about to be dumped. The president is secretly ill. (That was a stroke in Japan, not indigestion.) He won't seek a second term. Jim Baker is on the verge of resigning his post as secretary of state to take command of the campaign.

Rumor-mongering is a parlor game in Washington. It permits pundits to move pieces on the chessboard -- how about Colin Powell for v.p. and Dick Cheney for White House chief of staff? -- and keeps things interesting during the listless summer before the campaign revs up in the autumn.

Most of the rumors are preposterous, but not all. It is true that James Baker will shortly take over the re-election effort of his old tennis partner. That's a sign of life at the White House -- evidence that George Bush has awakened to the political trouble he's in. Whether Mr. Baker will prove the magician he's alleged to be is another matter.

Linked to the Baker story is the "dump Quayle" rumor. Mr. Baker is said to have disapproved of Mr. Quayle's selection from the beginning (Mr. Baker is a master at distancing himself from mistakes), and tongues are wagging now that he'll dump the veep at the first opportunity. (Tommy Thomas, a prominent Florida Republican, purchased a full-page ad in yesterday's Washington Post urging Mr. Quayle to "step aside for America.")

But it's exceedingly unlikely. George Bush values loyalty -- up and down -- far too much. It would be out of character for President Bush to be disloyal (down) to the man he appointed. And he appreciates the loyalty (up) that Mr. Quayle has offered during his term.

So it won't happen. Nor should it. Mr. Bush would be shooting himself in the foot with a double-barreled shotgun.

In the first place, there is the matter of interpretation. The talking heads are now speculating about how replacing the vice president might help the president, but the minute he actually did it, the story would change dramatically. Overnight, Mr. Quayle's image would be transformed from drag-on-the-ticket to scapegoat-for-the president's-troubles. Suddenly, everyone would discover how sound Mr. Quayle has been on policy questions, and note the irony that if Mr. Bush had followed Mr. Quayle's political advice in 1990 and 1991, he wouldn't have been in so much hot water in 1992.

Mr. Bush's personal image (still intact) as a decent man who plays fair would be overturned. So would his image as calm steward of the nation. Dumping the vice president would signal panic -- the kind horses are said to smell.

The vice president has a constituency among conservatives. While he was nobody's first choice in 1988, conservatives appreciate the good work Mr. Quayle has done in the intervening years. He has carried water for conservatives at every critical juncture of the Bush presidency -- and his recent fights with the "cultural elite" have cemented his image as a conservative stalwart. If Mr. Quayle were dropped from the ticket, conservatives, whom George Bush cannot afford to alienate in this close race, would be outraged.

To blunt conservative fury, Mr. Bush would have to select someone with impeccable conservative credentials to replace his vice president. Most of the speculation puts Dick Cheney on the ticket. (The chin-scratchers know that Mr. Bush wouldn't pick Jack Kemp; he gets under the president's skin.)

But choosing Mr. Cheney damages another part of the president's image: that of foreign policy guru. How would it look for the president, who prides himself on foreign policy mastery, to sacrifice both his secretary of state and his secretary of defense to help him with his campaign?

Above all, the truth is that Dan Quayle has been a fine, if gaffe-prone, vice president. Where it mattered, on policy, his instincts have been better than his boss'. And he has borne the unjustified ridicule of the media with grace and strength. vTC Besides, people do not vote for second fiddle. If George Bush is going to salvage this election, he will have to do it by persuading voters that he is serious about changing direction (toward economic growth and social repair) in his second term.

Suggesting, even by implication, that his troubles are anyone's fault but his own would backfire.

Mona Charen is a syndicated columnist.

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