The power of fallacy



Dan Quayle...It's been nearly 11 years since I last featured that name. Back in the summer of 1999, when he was seeking the Republican presidential nomination, I trailed him in Iowa as he trudged from one evangelical church to another in the hopes of finding a friendly crowd - and maybe 30 people would show up, with typically half of them pledged to a rival. That August he finished eighth in the Iowa GOP straw poll, which was no surprise, since most Iowa Republicans viewed his lightweight image as a deal-breaker, and a month later Quayle declared himself kaput.

But no ex-politician can resist the temptation to weigh in on the weighty issues of the day - not even a guy who is mostly remembered as a one-term vice president who misspelled potato at a spelling bee (Quayle later wrote, "It was a defining moment of the worst kind imaginable"). So it was a kick to see George H. W. Bush's understudy resurface on Sunday, as a guest columnist in The Washington Post, where he sought to counsel his fellow Republicans on the importance of wooing the tea-party crowd.

The highlight of the column was a passage that flunked the most basic facts of '90s political history - the equivalent of misspelling potato. It's worth a brief examination, if only to demonstrate how lightweights bow so easily to the power of fallacy.

Quayle's basic argument Sunday was that Republicans' political prospects hinge on persuading the tea-party movement not to run its own candidates - because if the movement does run its own candidates, it would split the anti-Democratic turnout and make life easier for President Obama and his congressional allies. Quayle then attempted this analogy:

"Many remember the Reform Party of the 1990s, which formed around the candidacy of Ross Perot. I sure do, because it eliminated any chance that President George H.W. Bush and I would prevail over Bill Clinton and Al Gore in 1992. What started as a grass-roots phenomenon ended with 19 percent support at the ballot box - and a majority of those voters would probably have gone Republican in a two-party race. Speaking on behalf of the Bush-Quayle campaign, to this day we firmly believe that Perot cost the Republican Party the White House."

A majority of those voters would probably have gone Republican in a two-party race...There it is again: the durable canard - long embraced by many Republicans, and repeated ad nauseum over the past 18 years - that independent candidate Perot delivered the White House to Clinton in '92 by snatching a pivotal share of GOP voters and thus splitting the anti-Democratic turnout.

Thank you, Dan Quayle, but the last thing we need in public life is another fact-challenged Republican.

Let's first dispense with the simplest errors. He writes, "Many remember the Reform Party of the 1990s, which formed around the candidacy of Ross Perot. I sure do, because it eliminated any chance that President George H.W. Bush and I would prevail..." Memo to Quayle: The Reform Party wasn't even created until 1995 - three years after your losing race. (Doesn't The Post have editors who can fact-check stuff like that?)

Far more importantly, there is no empirical evidence whatsoever that Clinton won in '92 only because of Perot's presence. Zip, nada.

The exit polls, conducted by Voter Research & Surveys, reported that, if Perot had not been in the race, 38 percent of his voters would have cast ballots for Clinton-Gore, and 37 percent would have supported Bush-Quayle. The rest would have found another third-party candidate, or would not have voted at all. VRS concluded that Bush might have theoretically picked up enough Perotistas to wrest Ohio away from Clinton, but Clinton still would've won the election by a margin of 160 electoral votes.

Quayle, like other nurturers of the myth, seems also to have forgotten about Perot's drop-out phase. Perot actually quit the race in July, on the eve of Clinton's Democratic convention, only to change his mind in October and leap back in. For nearly three months, in other words, incumbent Bush and challenger Clinton had a two-man race. Therefore, under the Quayle theory of history, he and Bush should have been scoring solidly in the polls; after all, with Perot absent, all those Republican voters would have returned home to boost the Bush numbers.

But that's not what actually happened. During those three months of two-man competition, Bush trailed Clinton in every poll, usually by double digits. It takes maybe 30 seconds of Googling to find the New York Times-CBS poll results for September 1992; in both polls that month, Clinton was on top by roughly a dozen percentage points. And on the eve of Perot's October re-entry, CBS had Clinton ahead by 13.

Fast forward to election day. Clinton's winning margin over Bush was only five points. In other words, the actual math suggests that Perot, by resurfacing in the race, actually took votes away from Clinton.

So, despite all this fact-based evidence, why does Quayle cling to the baseless myth that Perot gave the White House to Bill Clinton?

Take a wild guess: Because it's a handy way to dispute the legitimacy of Clinton's presidency. That should not come as a surprise, of course, since so many Republicans today dispute the legitimacy of Barack Obama's presidency - as evidenced by the new Harris poll, in which 45 percent of Republican rank-and-filers say they believe Obama is foreign-born and thus ineligible for the job.

It wouldn't be fair to blame this mentality solely on Quayle; he'll soon be back on the golf course, his punch line status forever secured. But his cameo appearance this weekend was a reminder that, with respect to the empirical facts, his party all too often prefers to misspell potato.