SLANG, apparently, can be prophecy. The term ``veepstakes,'' coined by journalists as a shorthand for the calculus of choosing a vice-president, was never more appropriate than this year as GOP election fortunes teeter on the embarrassment surrounding George Bush's selection of youthful Indiana Sen. J. Danforth Quayle. Mr. Bush seems to have underestimated opinion molders' demands for serious credentials in his running mate. That could be dangerous. Much of this new vice-presidential importance is a product of the television age. One pre-World War II occupant described the vice-presidency as ``not worth a pitcher of warm spit.'' No one could say that today. Besides being just a heartbeat away from the Oval Office, the vice-presidency has become the major intra-party launching pad for subsequently obtaining a presidential nomination: Just consider the selections of Vice-Presidents Richard Nixon, Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale, and now George Bush.
It's this backdrop against which Senator Quayle's qualifications - or lack thereof - are being so intensely scrutinized. Politicians and journalists alike have begun paying legitimate attention to what vice-presidential nominations tell us about a party ticket - or about a presidential candidate's decisionmaking criteria. It's here that comparisons with other recent nominees augur poorly for Bush.
Let me begin with the most important caveat. A close look at the vice-presidential nominees of the last three decades suggests a correlation between strong tickets and selection of strong, obviously qualified running mates. Weak presidential nominees, conversely, have tended to pick the weak or dubious running mates.
Of the TV-age presidential races beginning in 1960, three had at least one weak, dubiously qualified vice-presidential nominee. In 1964, for example, the ringer was Rep. William E. Miller of New York, chosen by Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater because he knew Miller drove Democratic President Lyndon Johnson ``nuts.'' No more substantial qualifications were involved. In 1972, it was the Democrats who goofed when George McGovern anointed Missouri Sen. Thomas Eagleton and then had to take him off the ticket when it turned out Senator Eagleton had undergone shock treatments for depression. Poor Mr. Eagleton became a symbol - just one among many - of Mr. McGovern's managerial inexperience. In 1984, the Democrats fumbled again when Walter Mondale picked Rep. Geraldine Ferraro of New York, whose family finances promptly became an embarrassment. Almost simultaneously, the drawn-out interest-group pandering and the lack of broader criteria in Mr. Mondale's vice-presidential selection process turned into a second embarrassment.
It's probably no coincidence that these tickets, with their weak or unqualified vice-presidential nominees, suffered some of the most striking defeats of modern United States political history. A fourth ticket with a mediocre vice-presidential nominee may also be worth quick mention: Richard Nixon's 1968 pairing with Maryland Gov. Spiro Agnew. It was only mildly controversial at the time (Mr. Agnew's financial misdealings as governor would only come to light five years later), but Mr. Nixon barely won in 1968. The Democrats almost closed the campaign gap with the help of a ticket including a strong and appealing vice-presidential candidate - Sen. Edmund Muskie of Maine.
So vice-presidential nominees do matter. And George Bush should have been familiar with the precedents. It's ironic that men who've held the vice-presidency themselves have often picked some of the least qualified and most embarrassing nominees - Nixon's selection of Agnew comes to mind, along with Mondale's selection of Ms. Ferraro, and now Bush's selection of Mr. Quayle.
With Bush, it's impossible to avoid a harsh verdict. The Quayle selection was not only Bush's first big presidential-level decision, but the candidate himself put a three- to four-week spotlight on his drawn-out deliberations. If this was one of George Bush's careful, considered, well-thought-out decisions, it's depressing to contemplate the results of a Bush snap judgment.
Capital speculation about Quayle suggests Bush picked him as something of a son figure likely to be subservient and unchallenging. Indeed, there is a widespread sense in Washington that Bush would have been uncomfortable with a big-name, high-profile, experienced vice-president.
With Quayle, that's not a problem. Bush is comfortable with the young senator culturally and personally - and Quayle is anything but politically or intellectually threatening. The evidence beginning to pile up suggests that Quayle has not only the looks but perhaps also the depth of a game-show host. His record in college was a disaster. Former professors have popped up to describe him as vapid or inadequate, and even a few of his fellow Republicans in Congress have let themselves be quoted characterizing Quayle as a lightweight. And what could be the ultimate put-down came out the other day with the revelation that would-be Vice-President Quayle - in his late 20s - scored 20 points below average on a series of National Guard aptitude tests for enlisted men.
Four years ago, when Mondale chose Ferraro as his running mate, the first public reaction to the overall Democratic convention was favorable. People forget that. They forget that polls briefly showed the Mondale-Ferraro ticket closing to within two to three points of the Gipper himself. But then the unfolding negatives on Ferraro started taking hold, along with other Democratic problems, and President Reagan's lead started widening again. This year, observers - journalists especially - were surprised to see the Bush ticket leading in polls taken right after the GOP convention. Their assumption was that the Quayle embarrassment precluded any such developments. While there's growing evidence, however, that Middle America is angry at the behavior of Quayle's media critics, it's also possible that we're watching a partial repeat of what happened back in 1984 - the slow unraveling of a vice-presidential candidate's credibility in a way that could maximize problems for the party ticket. The next week or two will be critical.
If J. Danforth Quayle does wind up as an inadequacy symbol, George Bush may wish he had paid more attention to the history books.
Kevin Phillips is an author, commentator, and publisher of The American Political Report.