At any rate, Palin is self-evidently not of the caliber of a Muskie (who stepped into the role of secretary of state in 1979) or a Dole. According to an ABC News poll, only 38 percent of Americans consider her to be qualified to serve as president, and 60 percent consider her unqualified. (A CNN poll puts the qualified figure at 28 percent.) While many in the media made the mistake of underestimating her in the immediate aftermath of her selection as John McCain's running mate—she proved to have good political instincts and talent as a political performer—they are now overestimating her.
Indeed, the losing vice presidential candidate Palin most resembles is none other than Dan Quayle. Handsome, young, popular with the right-wing base, self-styled champion of family values, scourge of the "liberal media" and embodiment of Heartland America, Quayle likewise confounded observers in 1988 when Bush Sr. tapped him as his No. 2. (Only after Americans' prolonged exposure to George W. Bush did it become clear what Poppy Bush saw in Quayle.) Moreover, both Palin and Quayle, perhaps not coincidentally, enjoyed critical support from the journalist-operative Bill Kristol, whom Jacob Weisberg dubbed "Quayle's Brain" when he served as the vice president's chief of staff, and who helped push Palin onto the McCain team's radar screen. Quayle, too, we should recall, hit the best-seller list with his 1994 memoir, Standing Firm. And like Quayle, Palin seems destined—if she even seeks the presidency in 2012—to bow out early on, perhaps after the 2011 Iowa straw poll.
Losing in a vice presidential run can hamper aspirants for the top office in several ways. In the first place, running mates are usually chosen in calculations that are at least partly expedient—shoring up the lead candidates' weaknesses or otherwise enhancing their images. Those same calculations probably won't be relevant four years later. Up-and-coming politicians thrust into the spotlight also get subjected to intense media scrutiny that can expose unseen flaws. At the same time, as Kennedy appreciated, they might get saddled unfairly with the blame for losing. Worst of all, their vice presidential bids use up all the excitement associated with their novelty—a vital source of political capital in our day.
All of which suggests to me that if we are really concerned with whom the Republicans will nominate in 2012, we are focusing on the wrong vice presidential nominee. Unlike Palin, Dick Cheney speaks with confidence and knowledge about national and international affairs, even as he also commands a loyal following among the Republican base. And while his appeal doesn't extend much beyond that base, it has been rising since he left office. Cheney himself, of course, has forsworn any presidential aspirations. But his daughter Liz—who has emerged in the last year as a leading conservative talking head, defender of the Bush-Cheney record, and "red state rock star"—has done no such thing. It was, after all, the scion of another former vice president who put an end to Quayle's career.
Sarah Palin, watch your back.