Mike Murphy is one of the most high profile – and longest serving – Republican political consultants in the country. He’s also long been a Never Trump-er – dating back to his work for Jeb Bush’s 2016 presidential campaign. In the wake of Trump’s botched response to the violence in Charlottesville, I reached out to Murphy to talk about the where his party goes from here. Our conversation, conducted via email and lightly edited for flow, is below.
Cillizza: You’ve been openly critical of Trump for years. Why have so few Republican elected officials followed your lead?
Murphy: They have a lot more Republican primary voters to worry about than I do, I’m not the ballot!
That said, I am amazed after 30-plus years in this racket to see how many pols think being easily re-elected is the highest purpose they have in politics. It’s not like we are asking these folks to land on Anzio beach or hold Pork Chop Hill … all that is required is to show some guts against a blatant demagogue who is massively unprepared by temperament, knowledge or character to be President of the United States.
The threat, and now the problem, of somebody like that running amok in the Oval Office seems, at least to me, like something worth risking your re-election over. Yet our politics have become so careerist and tribal that way too many people seem to swallow their principles all too easily. It’s very disappointing.
And I cannot image it’s much fun to spend all of your time figuring out how to make yourself slide under a closed door to show you are both pro the “good” Trump and against the “bad” Trump at the same time. Of course after Trump is eventually driven from office, DC will be full of stories about the quiet yet brave patriots who courageously worked against Trump albeit from behind the scenes. Still, I have to applaud the exceptions; Lindsey Graham, Jeb Bush, Jeff Flake, Ben Sasse, John Kasich and a few more. The rest ought to study up on Vichy France.
Cillizza: Charlottesville. Is Trump’s handling of what happened a real moment. As in, will Republicans look back and define his presidency as before Charlottesville and after it? If so, why? If not, why not?
Murphy: Yes, I think it was a true boiling-over point. I’m sure it did very little damage to Trump’s hard core, but those folks are only enough to half-fill third-tier arenas in base GOP states, not hold the White House. And the energy of the anti-Trump forces is much higher now. Out here in California, they are beating their dreamcatchers into stabbing sticks. While there have been other Trump failures, it was this sad episode that truly revealed how Trump sees the world. He failed the big test of a President. He should have defended American values. Instead he proved he doesn’t really understand what those values are. That has lit a very big political fuse.
Cillizza: What should Republican leaders – in Congress and in the states – do about Trump? Condemn? Censure? More?
Murphy: To their credit many did condemn Charlottesville, but it should have been far wider and it should have mentioned the President by name. On this issue subtlety is cowardice.
Cillizza: How much danger, in the long term, does Trump pose to the GOP if things continue as they have?
Murphy: Trump’s numbers are horrible – no surprise there after the seven months he’s had – and I don’t know a single highly experienced GOP operative who is not deeply concerned about 2018 and the damage Trump is doing to our party.
That said, the future is unknown so I guess we’ll have to wait and see. But if this isn’t a complete smoldering train wreck, I don’t know what one looks like. There remains a whiff of mystical faith in DC around Trump having the power to magically win after he proved the “experts,” including me, wrong in 2016.
(But) the numbers show his win in 2016 was quite fluke-ish. He lost the popular vote by millions and only pulled his inside straight in the electoral college by a wafer-thin 78,000 or so votes out of nearly 14 million cast across Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. So his win was a bit of a card trick to begin with and his political strength today is much less than it was on election day in 2016. And demography is still marching against him.
So my best guess is that President Trump’s future is going to be about the return of normal political gravity. I still think we beaten-down mathematicians will be right in the end. [For much more on Murphy’s “priests vs mathematicians” theory of the Republican party, read this.]
Cillizza: Finish this sentence: “Donald Trump will be president until __________.” Now, explain.
Murphy: Again, my crystal ball on Trump is 100% certified as badly cracked. But I’ll try. “Donald Trump will be President until early 2019.”
Here’s why: First, he won’t get better. There will be more Trump outrages, despite whatever staff shuffling occurs in the White House. Trump is the atomic clock of Trump craziness; he cannot change.
Second, I fear the GOP will have a very rough midterm election, particularly in the House. Although I want the GOP to win despite Trump, I’m pessimistic. I think (especially after Charlottesville and the next Trump Charlottesville-esque mess whatever that will be) that voting against Trump/the GOP will become a big social value for a lot of young, marginal voters in 2018. If these Democratic-leaning, presidential year voters show up to protest Trump in the midterms, we Republicans will face our worst turnout nightmare and we will lose the House.
If that happens, post-election Donald Trump will be alone, despised by his own party, a failure rebuked by the nation, and politically neutered even more than he is today. He’ll channel-surf between reports of various D’s and R’s setting up to run against him for president in 2020. At that point I think President Trump will pine for the Tower. A resignation is far from impossible, if for no other reason than nothing is impossible with Trump. There is also the Mueller factor and whatever legal jeopardy his family could face. All unknown, but all potentially huge problems for him.
So, if anything, the timetable of trouble could speed up into a deal to leave office in 2018. But I think he’ll want to fight out the midterms. If they go badly, I think he cuts his losses.
But this is all a wild guess and I’ve been wrong before.