For years I've been dining out on the story of the 1988 vice presidential debate, where Lloyd Bentsen literally cleaned Dan Quayle's clock — "You're no Jack Kennedy" — resulting in a huge increase in his own approval ratings and virtually no bump at all for the Dukakis-Bentsen ticket.
Quayle and Spiro T. Agnew have long been Exhibits A and B buttressing the conventional wisdom that people vote for president, not vice president; that having the better candidate for the No. 2 slot is all but irrelevant to winning the election; and that anytime you see one of those "who would you rather have a heartbeat away from the presidency" ads, it's an almost certain sign that the campaign running it is a heartbeat away from defeat.
Most of the time, the interest in the vice presidential nominee peaks in the hours leading up to the announcement. The minute we know who it is, we — the media, the country and especially the voters — lose interest.
So it was for Joe Biden. The run-up to Obama's vice presidential announcement had the media in a frenzy. Far-fetched rumors were flying. Then the announcement was made, and that was that. Sure, Biden. Right. Did anyone vote for Barack Obama because of Biden? Maybe not. Then again, did anyone vote against him because of the Delaware senator? Why would they? A perfect vice presidential selection.
Sarah Palin was another story. Her selection, and this election, may change forever the conventional wisdom about vice presidential nominees. Whether a good choice can help you remains to be established; my Bentsen story may still be controlling on that issue. But it should now be clear that a bad choice — and Palin was most certainly a bad choice — can do great harm to a presidential campaign.
The fact that McCain's top people are talking out of school about Palin's weaknesses is a sign of just how bad a choice she was. She hurt them. She should not escape unscathed. They are clearly angry.
Gov. Palin has denied that she demanded the fancy clothes. It doesn't matter. If she had proved herself to be up to the job, no one would care so much about her clothes. She has also denied that she was confused about whether Africa was a country or a continent, and about which countries were part of the North American Free Trade Agreement.
The fact that anyone could believe a candidate for vice president was capable of being that stupid is enough. But if Palin herself proved one thing, in her interview with Katie Couric, in her phone conversation with the Nicolas Sarkozy impersonator, even in her denunciation of her Republican critics as "jerks" and her effort to rehabilitate herself with Greta Van Susteren, it is that she had no business being on a national ticket.
I don't know whether she was just too arrogant to realize she needed help before facing Couric, as her critics allege. I don't know if the fact of the call with the Canadian comedian was a staff error. But it's her voice sounding like an idiot talking to the pseudo-French president. She was the one who couldn't name a Supreme Court case other than Roe, much less point to a single newspaper that she reads. The Palin who whines to Greta that she just doesn't know how the "top echelon" of campaigns work is best off not finding out. If she is the future of the Republican Party, then Democrats can rejoice because it means the Republicans have no future.
Ultimately, the denunciation of the Alaska governor by McCain's staffers calls into question McCain's judgment in choosing her, which is why he had to stop it. A 72-year-old candidate, especially a maverick who has spent his life fighting for principle, might have been expected to exercise greater care in selecting his No. 2. Behind in the polls at the time, McCain made a political decision instead of a principled one, a candidate's choice instead of a president's.
To be fair, he probably didn't know Palin well enough to grasp how hopelessly unqualified she was. She might have been a star in the rough, smarter than anyone could have known, able to rise to the occasion. But she wasn't. She isn't.
It may be that the economy was too big a hurdle for McCain to overcome, even with a more qualified running mate. But the fact that his choice of Palin almost certainly contributed to his defeat is, in the long run, an important lesson of this election. Vice presidents should matter. And the only way they will is if would-be presidents understand the limits of my old Bentsen story. Sarah Palin should ensure that.
To find out more about Susan Estrich and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.