When Sarah Palin disagrees with John McCain, it means something. Or does it?

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Oct. 20 2008 7:22 PM

Palin's Campaign vs. McCain's

When Sarah Palin disagrees with John McCain, it means something. Or does it?

Sarah Palin. Click image to expand.
Sarah Palin

Has Sarah Palin "gone rogue"? For the last few weeks, Republicans inside and outside the McCain campaign have speculated about those moments when Palin and John McCain have appeared to disagree: Palin pressed to have the campaign compete for Michigan voters when strategists had given up on the state. She disagreed with McCain's opposition to a marriage amendment. She disagreed with McCain's opposition to removing North Korea from the list of terrorist nations. She thinks the campaign should talk about Barack Obama's ties to his former pastor Jeremiah Wright.

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

Even on Team Maverick, a vice-presidential candidate's job is to agree with the candidate at the top of the ticket. The only exception is when campaign strategists carefully orchestrate a schism—and we know when these moments are coming because everyone in the press is invited to watch. 

But Palin's disagreements don't appear to be a part of a larger strategy. So, political insiders have started asking whether Palin is simply undisciplined or is intentionally ignoring the playbook. And if it's intentional, the question becomes: Is she putting her own political self-interest ahead of her running mate's? 

As Obama's fortunes have improved, these questions have grown only more intense. I am sorry to report that I do not know the answers. But that's OK: Neither does anyone else. In fact, any answers you hear will almost certainly speak less to Palin's motivations than to those of the people talking about her.

Sunday, Palin appeared to call another audible. While McCain was defending his campaign's robo-calls attacking Barack Obama, Palin was knocking them. She said they were irritating voters and represented the "old conventional ways of campaigning." Palin appeared to be joining with Sen. Susan Collins of Maine and other Republicans who oppose the tactic. Plus, she used the word conventional to describe the McCain tactics. That's a word Obama uses to attack.

What was Palin up to? The question came up in my political conversations Monday morning. Several Republican veterans thought she was trying to distance herself from campaign strategy, which has been roundly criticized in GOP circles, to maintain her political viability for the future. The transcript, however, shows that Palin doesn't seem to be criticizing the tactic so much as bemoaning the fact that the campaign is stuck in a place where it has to use it. She's not making a moral argument that might burnish her credentials for the future as a reasonable person. She's just off-message.

Two weeks before, I was hearing the exact opposite spin: not that Palin was distancing herself from the campaign, but that the campaign was distancing itself from her. When Palin picked up her attacks on Obama, McCain loyalists, and even some inside his campaign, suggested that she'd done so on her own accord. Dressed in camouflage and night-vision goggles, she'd snuck out to hold rallies suggesting Obama palled around with terrorist William Ayers. She'd also told William Kristol that Obama's former pastor Jeremiah Wright was an appropriate topic of discussion, even though McCain had once said it was not.

This spin, the Palin-as-a-lone-wolf story, had the advantage of allowing McCain himself to remain above the fray while his campaign reaped the benefits of Palin's attacks. But if Palin-as-rogue was the strategy—and there's some evidence it was—it was a failure. Polls have shown that voters have a dimmer view of McCain because of these attacks. Obama's stature seems only to have grown.

Others argued that Palin's motives for picking up the attacks were not strategic but self-interested. By taking a tougher approach with Obama, she was aligning herself with conservative thinkers who have urged McCain to fight harder. If the McCain campaign is unsuccessful, she could say she was trying to do the right thing but was held back. A similar strategy was supposedly behind her opposition to the campaign's retreat from Michigan. If McCain loses, Palin will have proved that she was in favor of a more vigorous campaign—a useful position to cite if she hopes to run for national office again. And by supporting the gay-marriage-ban amendment, she keeps her ties strong to evangelical voters.

Part of this speculation is normal for any vice-presidential candidate. We've forgotten, during the Cheney years, that competing agendas always accompany any political partnership. Cheney had no future political ambitions (sadly), so no one speculated about how he might be positioning himself politically in the last eight years.

Also fueling the discussion about Palin's motivations is the brewing conversation that attends any campaign that appears to be on the ropes with two weeks to go. Democrats want to push the idea she's out for herself because it suggests that if the No. 2 on the ticket is looking out for her future, the race must really be over. Aides inside the campaign want to retain their political viability, so they blame Palin for the loss. The "going rogue" story line contributes to the idea that she sunk the effort. If they advocated for Palin in the first place, they can try to say (implausibly) that they never thought she'd be as bad as she's turned out to be.

Palin and her behavior have become a part of the crucial postmortem (pre-mortem?) for those hoping to affect the next generation of conservative thinking. McCain could still win. But as his fortunes appear to dim, those with the first explanations for his failure stand the best chance of shaping the post-McCain party.

Those outside the campaign who were against the Palin pick, meanwhile, want to characterize her as a purely self-interested politician—it's final proof of their prescience. Those who want to blame the campaign strategists paint Palin as a political natural damaged by a ham-handed campaign. One Republican veteran said that when Palin was asked to link Obama to Ayers, she resisted. It was McCain aides who pushed her to pick up the attack. A McCain aide tells me the exact opposite is true. Palin was regularly asking to be more aggressive.

With so many permutations and mixed motivations, the Palin saga is starting to feel like a Restoration play. (I hope in the end all the characters come onstage and all is revealed.) What does Sarah actually think? Who knows? Unlike previous vice-presidential candidates and most other politically ambitious people, she doesn't have a political hack who has been at her side for years, protecting her political portfolio and spinning the press to preserve her reputation. If she really wants to have a national political future, now may be the time for her to go out and get herself one.

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