Friday, March 18, 2016

Debriefing Mike Murphy

On a pleasant Super Tuesday afternoon — one of 10 or 11 Super Tuesdays we seem to be having this March — I am standing in the bloated carcass of that much-maligned beast known as The Establishment. In the unmarked suite of a generic mid-Wilshire office building (The Establishment can't be too careful, with all these populists sharpening pitchforks), I have come to Right to Rise, Jeb Bush's $118 million super-PAC, to watch Mike Murphy and his crew pack it in.

If you've been reading your Conventional Wisdom Herald, you know that Murphy, one of the most storied and furiously quick-witted political consultants of the last three decades, has lately been cast as the Titanic skipper who steered Jeb's nine-figure colossus smack into an iceberg. That donor loot helped buy Jeb all of four delegates before he dropped from the race, returning to a quiet life of low-energy contemplation. The Los Angeles Times called Right to Rise "one of the most expensive failures in American political history," which is among the more charitable assessments. (If you ever find yourself in Mike Murphy's position, never, ever look at Twitter.)

In his early career, profilers taking note of his long hair, leather jackets, and loud Hawaiian shirts made Murphy sound like a cross between the wild man of Borneo, Jimmy Buffett, and an unmade futon. These days, his hair is short, and there's a little less of it to account for. He looks more like a shambling film professor, in smart-guy faculty glasses, Lacoste half-zip, and khakis — his loud rainbow-striped socks being the only sartorial tell that he might still, as a Republican elder once told a reporter, be "in need of adult supervision." (...)

Murphy first cracked the political-consultant game back in 1982, cutting political ads from his dorm room and later dropping out of Georgetown's School of Foreign Service, figuring he dodged a career "stamping visas in Istanbul." Since then he's sold one political consultancy and his share of another, and is partner in a third (Revolution), for which he mostly does corporate work. He generally prefers this to campaigns these days, since even though there's accountability to corporate boards, "you don't have to face 22 people who have no experience, telling you how to do your job from their safe Twitter perch in journalism."

Murphy's clients have won around two dozen Senate and gubernatorial races (everyone from John Engler to Mitt Romney to Christie Todd Whitman to Arnold Schwarzenegger). If you notice a theme, it's that he often helps Republicans win in Democratic states. Likewise, he's played a major role in assisting three losing presidential candidates (McCain, Lamar! Alexander, and Jeb!). If you again notice a theme, it's that his presidential candidates sometimes seem more excited about their first names than the electorate does.

Like all hired guns in his trade, he's taken his share of mercenary money just for the check. But Murphy says when it comes to presidentials, he thinks it matters more and is a sucker for long shots. "I have friends I believe in who want to run. I'm a romantic, so I keep falling for that pitch." Jeb wasn't exactly a long shot, I remind him. Like hell he wasn't, says Murphy. It's a hard slog, not being a Grievance Candidate this year. "He was the guy who was handing out policy papers when Trump was handing out broken bottles."

Since a candidate is not permitted by law to discuss campaign specifics with his super-PAC once he declares, a law Murphy vows was strictly observed ("I'm too pretty to go to jail"), I ask him what he would've told Jeb during the campaign had he been allowed to. Over the years, Murphy has forged a reputation of telling his candidates the truth, no matter how bitter the medicine. (He once had to tell a congressional client that his toupee was unconvincing.) Though Murphy's tongue is usually on a hair-trigger, he stops and ponders this question for a beat. He then says he would've told Jeb, "What the f — were we thinking?"

Even pre-campaign, however, when they were allowed to coordinate as Right to Rise was amassing its unprecedented war chest, well before Trump's ascendancy, both knew that despite the media billing Bush the prohibitive favorite — a position they both detested — they were facing long odds. (The assumption was Ted Cruz would be occupying the anger-candidate slot that Trump has instead so ably filled.)

Murphy says Bush regarded this election as a necessary tussle between the politics of optimism and grievance. At a preseason dinner, Murphy gave Bush his best guess of their chances of winning — under 50 percent. "He grinned," Murphy says, "and named an even lower number. I remember leaving the dinner with a mix of great pride in Jeb's principled courage and with a sense of apprehension about the big headwinds we would face." And though he'd also have told his friend, if he'd been allowed to speak to him, that he was proud of Jeb "for fighting his corner," ultimately, Murphy admits, "there is no campaign trick or spending level or candidate whisperer that can prevent a party from committing political suicide if it wants to."

by Matt Labash, New Republic |  Read more:
Image: Gary Locke