There has been no shortage of pundits heaping opprobrium on John McCain's campaign, but of all McCain's critics in the press, the one who most stands out is Mike Murphy--if only because, according to some people in McCainland, Murphy was the guy McCain most wanted to be running his campaign.
This past summer, as the McCain campaign was in the midst of yet another meltdown, there were seemingly daily reports that Murphy--who'd worked on McCain's 2000 campaign but who'd stayed neutral in the 2008 race, owing to his ties to both McCain and Mitt Romney--was on the verge of taking the wheel of the Straight Talk Express. (Bill Kristol actually managed to get a whole column out of the speculation.) Indeed, as I reported last July, McCain evidently offered Murphy the job of chief strategist (or at least Murphy believed McCain offered him the job of chief strategist) before other McCain staffers objected, "chaos took over" (as one McCain friend put it to me at the time), and Steve Schmidt wound up in the chief strategist chair.
Whatever happened, Murphy wound up not joining the McCain campaign. When he didn't, he took his services to NBC News and Time, where, for the past several months, he's offered a running critique of all the ways the McCain campaign has been screwing things up. In July, he warned that McCain's decision to go negative on Obama was a "perilous" move. After McCain made headlines in September due to a testy encounter with the Des Moines Register's editorial board, Murphy blasted "the stunning lack of competence in the McCain operation"--arguing that McCain never should have met with the board in the first place, since he has no real shot of winning Iowa, much less the liberal paper's endorsement. And when Colin Powell endorsed Obama on Sunday, Murphy used it as an opportunity to catalogue "each of the the major fractures of the shaky McCain campaign; the Palin choice, the dark tone of the campaign, the Helter Skelter antics at the onset of the economic crisis." In Murphy, the McCain campaign has found its most persistent--and, oftentimes, astute--critic.
But what's been most riveting about Murphy's criticism of McCain has been the thread of regret that's run through it. Prior to the denouement this past summer, Murphy was presumably offering these criticisms to McCain in private; the two men were known to talk frequently (much to the consternation of some members of the McCain campaign). But, according to one Murphy friend, Murphy hasn't spoken with McCain since July--"either because McCain stopped calling him, or because Schmidt confiscated McCain's cell phone." So, instead, Murphy seems to be trying to communicate with McCain through his TV appearances and blog posts--which, as Murphy himself seems to recognize, is a doomed effort. "My advice, as usual," he wrote in a long blog post offering McCain some tips before the final debate, "is probably the opposite of what his people are advising him."
Of course, professionally speaking, Murphy's exclusion from the McCain campaign looks as if it will have worked to his advantage. He's proven to be an engaging pundit and his political reputation has only grown--as his criticisms have added up to create an alternative McCain campaign strategy that a number of McCain admirers, such as David Brooks, are now lamenting wasn't implemented. But reading and watching Murphy, you get the sense that he'd happily trade the professional accolades for the personal satisfaction of having worked for McCain this one last time. And you wonder whether, if he had, things might have turned out differently for both men.
Update: Murphy's latest is proposals for spinning the Palin shopping scandal, which are all pretty good. My favorite:
New ad slogan: “Clothes for Gov. Palin? $150,000. Time machine to go back two months to late August and ask what the Hell were Schmidt and Davis thinking when they cooked up this idea and sold it to McCain? Priceless.”
Tears of a clown, I tell you.