John Edwards Is No Dan Quayle

In the midst of the media frenzy greeting the selection of John Edwards as John Kerry’s running mate, it’s worth taking a quick trip back in time. As rapturous praise from Democratic partisans and respectful assessments from the major media fill the air, it’s impossible not to contrast the reception that U.S. Senator Dan Quayle received when he was chosen as George H.W. Bush’s running mate back in 1988.

Back then, Americans were treated to lengthy media discourses on Quayle’s inexperience and unfitness for office. Well, it’s safe to bet that no one will be hearing that tune from the Democrats — now that their putative nominee’s vice-presidential candidate is a first-term senator. In contrast, when Quayle was chosen, he was in his seventh year of Senate service, after having spent two terms in the House of Representatives.

John Edwards defeated a fairly weak though worthy first-term incumbent with 51% of the vote to become a senator. Dan Quayle beat a liberal legend, Senator Birch Bayh (father of current Indiana Senator Evan Bayh) — who had authored the 25th amendment on presidential succession, the 26th amendment offering 18-year-olds the right to vote, and the Equal Rights Amendment. And Quayle won with 54% of the vote.

Edwards resigned his Senate seat as it became clear that he had little chance of winning a second term. But Dan Quayle went on to be reelected with a whopping 61% of the vote — the first senator in Indiana history to pass the 60% mark in a Senate election. And that was in 1986, when many other Republican members of the Senate class of 1980 went down to defeat.

But Quayle doesn’t best Edwards merely in political terms. Unlike Edwards, Quayle actually had a record of substantial accomplishment as a senator. He served as chairman of the Defense Acquisition Subcommittee, investigating Defense Department procurement, and later worked with Sam Nunn and Robert Byrd on defense issues. Quayle was chosen by his Republican colleagues to chair a special committee in 1984 to study committee ratios and procedural matters in the Senate — a matter of vital importance to Republicans seeking to retain control. And working with Ted Kennedy, Quayle was instrumental in the creation and implementation of a program to place formerly disadvantaged and dislocated workers in jobs. According to an evaluation of the Jobs Training Partnership Act, over 70% of four million adults found real private-sector jobs after completing the training program.

As for Edwards, the Los Angeles Times, no bastion of right-wing thinking, put it delicately, describing the senator as one who “has made his mark in the Senate more by talking than doing.” He has virtually no significant legislation to his name, and his voting record is undistinguished. Edwards’ shining moments have come through his often unfair attacks on judicial nominees — and his defense of Bill Clinton during the ex-president’s impeachment trial. And as an erstwhile member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, it might be interesting to ask Edwards — now a vociferous critic of American foreign policy — what, if any, guidance he offered when the policy was being formulated.

The selection of Dan Quayle has gone down in history as a “mistake” on the part of President George H.W. Bush, indicative of a lack of judgment. More than anything, it was, perhaps, Quayle’s initial ebullience, coupled with implacable media hostility, that doomed a once promising career and public image. John Edwards has none of Quayle’s substance — but he does have the glibness that Dan Quayle lacked. It’s worth wondering if that will be enough to get him the kind of favorable press coverage that Vice President Quayle could only have dreamed of.