By William Kristol
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“Murphy” is Mike Murphy, the 46-year-old G.O.P. strategist who masterminded John McCain’s 2000 primary race against George Bush, helping McCain come close to pulling off an amazing upset. Murphy was then chief strategist for Mitt Romney’s successful Massachusetts governor run in 2002.
Murphy remained close to both men, and as a result sat out the G.O.P. nominating contest this past year, not wishing to work against either of them. It was widely assumed, though, that if either McCain or Romney won the nomination, the winner would bring Murphy on board for the general election. So far it hasn’t happened. I believe it soon will.
I hasten to disclose that Murphy is a friend. I should also disclose that when I called to say I had heard he might well be signing on with McCain, he went Sergeant Schultz on me, saying nothing.
But here’s what I gather from acquaintances and sources in and around the McCain campaign.
McCain is frustrated. He thinks he can beat Obama (politicians are pretty confident in their own abilities). But he isn’t convinced his campaign can beat Obama’s campaign. He knows that his three-month general election head start was largely frittered away. He understands that his campaign has failed to develop an overarching message. Above all, McCain is painfully aware that he is being diminished by his own campaign.
This last point is galling. McCain has been a major figure in American public life for quite a while. And yet his campaign has made him seem somehow smaller. Obama is a first-term senator with no legislative achievements to speak of. His campaign has helped him seem bigger, more presidential.
Even Obama’s adjustments for the general election — his flip-flops — have served in an odd way to enhance his stature. Some of them suggest, after all, that he is at least trying to think seriously about what he would do if he were actually president. So Obama has achieved the important feat, as the campaign has moved on, of seeming an increasingly plausible president. McCain seems a less plausible president today than he did when he clinched the nomination.
So McCain decided it was time for a campaign shake-up. Last week he moved lobbyist Rick Davis aside. He seemed to put Bush-Rove alum Steve Schmidt more or less in charge. But the full plan, as I understand it, was — and is — to have Schmidt, a good operative and tactician, take over day-to-day operations at headquarters, while bringing Murphy on both to travel with McCain and as chief strategist.
But McCain hesitated to carry out both steps of the plan at once, worried about an overload of turmoil. And Murphy’s arrival would mean a fair amount of turmoil. The current McCain campaign is chock full of G.O.P. establishment types, many of whom aren’t great fans of the irreverent Murphy. Murphy’s also made no secret of his low opinion of the Bush-Rove political machine that has produced many of these operatives. And Murphy hasn’t made his possible entry into the campaign smoother by telling a New York Times reporter the other day that “the depressingly self-absorbed McCain campaign machine needs to get out of the way” of its candidate.
Still, Jeb Bush — whose winning Florida gubernatorial campaigns Murphy guided — was with McCain in Mexico City last week. I’m told he argued that the time to bring on Murphy is now. McCain didn’t disagree. And so I expect that in the next couple of weeks we’ll learn that Murphy is coming on board as chief strategist, with Schmidt running operations at the headquarters. This would be a structure very much like the Obama campaign, led by the combination of strategist David Axelrod and campaign manager David Plouffe.
Why Murphy? As observers of the 2000 effort know, he has a deep rapport with McCain — including an ability to tell him when he’s made a mistake. He’s a creative campaign tactician and an imaginative ad maker — but his great skill has always been an ability to find a clear theme for his candidates, as he did for McCain in 2000, who ran then as a conservative reformer and champion of national greatness.
The McCain campaign this year desperately needs a message and a narrative that is both appropriate for the candidate and for the times. Thinking such a complex challenge through, and executing it, is Murphy’s strength. And he’s run victorious statewide campaigns in states like Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa — where it’s not enough simply to mobilize the Republican base.
With Murphy in charge, McCain will have the campaign team he wants. Then all they’ll have to do is come from behind to win against a superior organization, more money, a gifted candidate and a Democratic-tilting electorate. Oh well: no challenge, no glory.