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In 2012, Will It Be McCain Vs. Palin?

If Sen. John McCain and Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin manage to win this election for the Republicans, will they be fighting over the White House in four years’ time? That’s the question that occurred to me again and again as I thumbed through Kaylene Johnson’s slender biography, “Sarah: How a Hockey Mom Turned the Political Establishment Upside Down.”

Its portrait of Palin is quite flattering. Most controversies are dispatched with a few thin strokes. The final sentence has shades of that old George Washington cherry tree tall tale, thrown in for good measure. The young Palin, writes Johnson, “learned to work hard, stand up for herself and never tell a lie.”

However, it isn’t all flattering. Savvy readers might find cause for concern in Palin’s burning ambition, her ruthlessness or her complete lack of loyalty to political patrons. One sensible reason for Sen. Barack Obama's not choosing rival Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton as his running mate was the real worry that she would undermine and run against him. Palin has already done that to her patrons — twice.

Palin was encouraged to run for a  City Council seat in Wasilla, Alaska, in 1992 by council member Nick Carney and was warmly welcomed into office by then-Mayor John Stein. Within months of taking office, she had voted against a pay hike for Stein and against a mandatory garbage collection ordinance that would have greatly enriched Carney. Four years later, Palin unseated Stein.

The new mayor found herself in protracted battle with Carney and much of the city government. She demanded resignations from all department heads and threatened to fill vacancies on the city council herself if the council couldn’t come to agreement. Regarding that last item, Johnson gingerly adds, “[I]t was questionable whether the city code allowed for such [mayoral] appointments. …”

The McCain campaign has made much of the fact that Palin opposed corrupt Alaska politicians. It’s undeniably true, but only part of the picture. Palin ran for lieutenant governor in 2002 at the urging of then-U.S. Sen. Frank Murkowski. He won the Republican gubernatorial nomination and the general election. She was the first runner up in the Republican lieutenant governor primary, because her campaign lacked the funds to compete.

Murkowski offered Palin two consolation appointments, as head of the state Department of Commerce and state parks director. She turned those down as not substantial enough, so he made a third offer: a seat on the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. She accepted that one and proceeded to help undo his administration.

Palin was supposed to sign periodic statements saying that she had observed no ethics violations on the commission. It was essentially a pro forma measure, but she eventually refused to give her Jane Hancock because of questionable activities of fellow member and Republican Party Chairman Randy Ruedrich — who had extensive ties with oil companies and seemed to be mixing party work with his commission work.

She reported him to the governor’s office, kept pushing the issue and very possibly leaked it to the press. Johnson writes, “The [Juneau] Daily News reported that … [Palin] made more than a dozen contacts up the chain of command. …” Finally, she took the matter to Attorney General Gregg Renkes, whose office forced Ruedrich to resign. (He later agreed to pay a fine of $12,000.)

Palin didn't let the matter drop. She pushed for a formal investigation. When she couldn’t get a response out of the attorney general, she sent a letter to the governor threatening to “handle this issue the way I deem most appropriate.” The reason she gave for this threat was telling: “[T]o protect my reputation. …”

The stonewalling continued, so Palin resigned from the commission. She complained, “They thought ’d be a good soldier and try to climb the political ladder.” She later agreed to sign an independent complaint against the attorney general, authored by Democratic state Rep. Eric Croft.

The scandals Palin helped prod along badly damaged the Murkowski administration. She ran against the governor in the 2006 GOP primary, easily finishing him off.

Palin had her reasons but the pattern is clear. She is invited in by well-established pols, doesn’t get her way and ends up running against the “good old boys” and defeating them handily. Would she do the same against McCain four years from now if he decides to run for reelection?

These days, the notion that a sitting vice president might challenge the president is a distant memory. It hasn’t been attempted since John Nance Garner’s halfhearted efforts against FDR for the 1940 Democratic nomination. My guess is that wouldn’t deter an ambitious Vice President Palin. She posed the rhetorical question during her inaugural gubernatorial address, “Why not Alaska leading the world?”

Jeremy Lott is author of “The Warm Bucket Brigade: The Story of the American Vice Presidency.”