Ballot Box

Murphy’s Flaw

Political consultants always do the same thing when the campaign is over. If their horse wins, they take full credit. If they lose, they blame it on the lousy candidate or on his other, inept advisers. But even by the normal standards of the political-consulting profession, which ranks ethically somewhere between personal-injury law and loan-sharking, Mike Murphy’s behavior is stunning. 

It took Murphy all of three days after his candidate, John McCain, suspended his campaign to be on the front page of the Washington Post dishing out a self-serving account of the race. The story is the fruit of a deal Murphy struck with Howard Kurtz of the Post. In exchange for his waiting until McCain was out of the race to publish his story, Kurtz got exclusive access to Murphy. Murphy got an opportunity to blame colleagues for mistakes, to boast about behavior that any normal person would be ashamed of, and to introduce generally a posthumous element of rancor into what was at the time an unusually pleasant campaign. 

Here are some of the ways Murphy spins the story his own favor:

1. Shifting blame

Murphy doesn’t go so far as to suggest that he objected to McCain’s Virginia Beach speech, in which he attacked the religious right, and which is now widely seen as having been a big political miscalculation. But Murphy does let it be known that the idea for the speech came from Rick Davis, McCain’s campaign manager and someone Murphy is known not to get along with. Murphy, according to Murphy, “softened” the speech. 

2. Claiming credit he doesn’t deserve

Murphy makes himself out to be the genius behind McCain’s press-friendly campaign. In fact, McCain was the genius behind McCain’s press-friendly campaign. The candidate was granting unprecedented access to reporters from the beginning of his announcement tour, long before Murphy signed on. And indeed, Murphy inadvertently let Kurtz know that he didn’t particularly like this approach, or at least that he was prepared to blame it on somebody else if it ended up being viewed as unhelpful. “Murphy cringed when McCain began holding forth for reporters on the campaign bus, convinced that he would foul things up,” Kurtz writes. “It was a tactic born of necessity, for they desperately needed free coverage.” Eight paragraphs earlier, Murphy was taking credit for the brilliant notion of “exploiting” the media. 

3. Settling scores

Murphy blames his rival Rick Davis for defying the candidate’s decision to not air a counterattack ad against George W. Bush in New Hampshire. According to Murphy’s version, Davis went behind Murphy’s back and convinced McCain to change his mind and run the ad after the candidate first decided against airing it. Murphy tells Kurtz that he didn’t tell McCain the full story of Davis’ sneaky behavior for fear it would damage the campaign’s team spirit. “However dumb the maneuver, it was not worth blowing up the campaign,” Kurtz relates. I have my doubts about this account, both because Murphy loves negative advertising more than just about anyone alive and because Davis is no match for Murphy in the sneakiness department. But in any case, the only real significance of the anecdote is that Murphy wants to make Davis look bad. Later in the article, Murphy raps Davis again for slashing the amount of airtime devoted to negative advertising without informing him. This is another personal vendetta with no larger significance.

4. Diminishing the candidate

Murphy refers to his candidate as “The Meat” (as in the consultant’s admonition “Don’t fall in love with the meat”). But worse than this disrespect is the way the consultant portrays his candidate as someone who is too eager to please audiences and not firm enough in his principles–until Murphy rides in and stiffens his spine. He lets us know that McCain didn’t want to stand firm in his opposition to ethanol and wasn’t inclined to be as tough as he needed to be with Bush. Murphy also tries to claim credit for decisions that were portrayed as coming from McCain’s gut, like McCain’s challenge to Bush in South Carolina to take down all negative ads. In fact, the evidence in Kurtz’s article suggests that Murphy’s real role was to persuade McCain to go negative in a way that troubled the candidate. It was Murphy who wrote the script for the ad that said Bush “twists the truth like Clinton” and Murphy who persuaded McCain to air it. This may have been the single biggest blunder in the entire campaign–something Murphy never owns up to.

More generally, Murphy exhibits a consultant-centric view of the world, placing McCain in the passenger seat and himself at the wheel of the car. “They had made McCain the most popular politician in America, one who could undoubtedly win the White House in the fall, but they couldn’t burst through the narrow arteries of the Republican Party and deliver the nomination,” Kurtz writes of the candidate’s consultants, summarizing Murphy’s thinking. A more detached observer might say that McCain became the most popular politician in America on the strength of his own personal appeal.

Kurtz, who as a media reporter sometimes takes other journalists to task for being too uncritical of their sources, plays mostly into Murphy’s hands. “Given little more to stop the Bush juggernaut than a charismatic candidate, a comfortable bus and a talent for working the media, Murphy kept driving the jerry-built contraption until the wheels came off,” Kurtz writes. How little Murphy had to work with! How brilliant of him to hire McCain as his presidential vehicle!

5. Boasting about misdeeds

Kurtz’s story begins with an anecdote about Election Day in Michigan. Ron Fournier, an Associated Press reporter, calls Murphy to confirm the existence of McCain’s sleazy “Catholic Voter Alert” phone calls in Michigan. Murphy, who, Kurtz informs us, had written the script for the calls, faced a choice: He could lie or tell the truth. He chose to lie by saying that he had to check out the facts. (Kurtz does bust Murphy on this, calling it “a moment of less than straight talk.”) Murphy also lied to other reporters on the “Straight Talk Express” in much the same way when he said he didn’t know whether the calls mentioned Bob Jones University. He also left Howard Opinksy, the campaign spokesman, “out of the loop” on the calls, which was another way of communicating a lie to the press and public, as well as harming Opinsky’s professional reputation. (Click here for the story in which I incorrectly blame Davis for hanging Opinsky out to dry.) Murphy seems quite pleased with himself for all of these slimeball maneuvers.

There is also the small matter of Murphy’s working for two presidential candidates at the same time. Kurtz: “Murphy had quietly been advising both Alexander and McCain, but when Alexander finished sixth in the straw poll, the senator asked Murphy to join his staff.” So Murphy was not only ignoring a clear conflict of interest in advising two candidates running against each other but also waiting to see which one had the better chance before he made his choice.

What a creep.

Illustrations by Robert Neubecker.