Mike Murphy is both one of the most talented, and without a doubt, one of the most excitable men in politics. I had the good fortune to work with him on John McCain’s 2000 presidential campaign and watched as he helped McCain weave a populist message that took the Arizona Senator within shouting distance of the Republican nomination. More recently, of course, he swooped into Arnold Schwarzenegger’s campaign as it sputtered out of the starting gate during the 2003 recall election and helped the rookie candidate develop his own version of the reformer persona that has served McCain so well.
But in recent months, it has appeared from the outside that Murphy has not been as fully involved in Schwarzenegger’s political activities as he had been during the recall or the governor’s first year in office. In addition to advising McCain, Murphy is the top strategist for Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, another likely candidate for the 2008 GOP presidential nomination, as well as Florida Governor Jeb Bush, who has been on the receiving end of growing pressure to enter the race as well.
So with at least three other leading national political figures to guide, in addition to a successful consulting business and a developing career in the entertainment industry, it wouldn’t be at all surprising if Murphy was devoting less time and attention to California politics. At the same time, it had become clear that the rest of Schwarzenegger’s external political operation (with the clear exception of his fundraising team) was not clicking. While the governor’s administration staff was holding down their end inside the Capitol, his campaign advisors had allowed the opposition to seize control of the debate surrounding this year’s special election. As a result, Schwarzenegger has spent most of the year under assault, without much help from his political consultants in either mounting a defense or developing a counter-offensive. Murphy’s full attention, coupled with the temporary deployment of chief of staff Pat Clarey to bring order to the campaign operation, represent the governor’s best bets to set things straight.
As Schwarzenegger has geared up for the last several weeks of the special election campaign, much has been made of the fact that Murphy will be relocating to a Sacramento hotel for the duration. Normally, it would be easy to dismiss this as spin from a political operation without a great deal of good news to sell. But the end of this year’s legislative session late last week provided an excellent example of what Murphy brings to the governor’s team.
In the days before leaving town, the Democratic-controlled legislature passed a number of bills that positioned themselves well to the left of the state’s political mainstream. Most attention focused on a measure that would legalize same-sex marriage in California, but the decision to approve a measure that would provide drivers’ licenses to illegal immigrants was even more puzzling. Not only have public opinion polls consistently demonstrated strong opposition to the idea, but it was a promise to repeal similar legislation signed by Gray Davis in the final desperate days of his governorship that helped fuel Schwarzenegger’s victory in the recall campaign.
By the next morning, Murphy had bounded into the news media in order to point out that the legislature’s leftward drift had provided Schwarzenegger with an opening to reclaim the political center. By Monday morning, Schwarzenegger had sharpened his message by drawing parallel lines between the recall campaign and this year’s special election.
Throughout the spring and summer, Murphy’s interactions with the press corps had come across as somewhat perfunctory and more than a little detached. But last week, it seemed that his customary energy and fervor were again in evidence. Convincing voters that the governor’s reform package will protect the state against same-sex marriages and drivers’ licenses for illegal immigrants will be a tall order. But it indicates a welcome, broader world view than that offered by Team Schwarzenegger for most of the year.
Schwarzenegger faces an uphill fight to convince the voters to pass his ballot initiative package, and his own skills as a campaigner will play a much bigger role in deciding the outcome than the abilities of any consultant. But a fully engaged Murphy represents a valuable asset for the governor that is arriving not a moment too soon.