Their podcast is called "Hacks on Tap" for a reason. U.S. political strategists David Axelrod (the Democrat) and Michael Murphy (the Republican) are seasoned professionals who have run campaigns—successfully and unsuccessfully—at every level of the public service spectrum, all the way up to the White House.
They have wisdom, insight, and experience that only comes from a decades-long love of American politics. We felt there was no one better suited to tap this keg of political prowess than The Council’s own political guru, Joel Wood. Pull up a seat (and maybe grab a beer while you’re at it).
This interview was conducted in December. On January 6, less than 24 hours before we went to print, thousands of Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol, disrupting the certification of the Electoral College results. The views expressed here may, or may not, have changed. — Editor
Read the interview with Murphy’s Democratic counterpart David Axelrod.
Tired of reading? Listen to the entire conversation with Michael Murphy on our podcast.
It is true. I was a strategic advisor to Republican voters against Trump. We weren’t as flashy as the Lincoln Project but we focused purely on Trump. We spent about $40 million in states like Wisconsin, Michigan, Arizona, Pennsylvania and Florida. And I’m happy he lost. I like to say I’m renting, not buying, Democratic for one day. I voted for Joe Biden. I’ve sent him a couple 100 bucks. I was hoping he’d win. I have my ideological differences with them. I’m still a conservative Republican, but Donald Trump, in my view, was so unfit for office in so many ways that he had to go.
They won’t say it publicly because the Republican Party is totally in kind of a Don Knotts type quivering fear of its primary voters, but I had a Republican congressman senior member call me when Biden started rolling out his cabinet who said, “Yeah, I got my differences on issues, but this is a competent team. You know, this is nothing to worry about here.” It feels better not to worry. So I think privately there’s a sigh of relief and Biden is sending a signal with most of his cabinet that he’s choosing the more center left Democrats like he is.
He’s got a lot of energy on the progressive side. He’s going to have to deal with that. And we still haven’t heard if Bernie Sanders is going to be our labor secretary. I’d like to own the liquor store nearest the Fortune 500 on that day, because I think it’s gonna be a long day for American business. It could happen, because Biden has some coalition work. He’s got to respect the left.
The question is, as Trump is rolled up in a carpet and pulled out of the White House or duct-taped to a chair, whatever the preferred Secret Service rulebook says for crazy ex-presidents who won’t leave on the 20th, how does the party react? The Democrat theory, which I think has some confirmation bias in it but they all believe, is that Trump will be like Napoleon and Elba—he’ll be giving orders, you know, his loyal troops, so he’ll still be president of the Republican Party. I actually don’t believe that. I think it could happen. But I’m reminded of Sarah Palin, who for six months ran the Republican Party, and you know, I joke that now you can get her for $500 to open a carwash. I’m not sure the party will reward failure and crazy. Trump will have a powerful voice, but I’m not sure it’ll be the omni-voice.
I think there’s an interesting science experiment happening right now. I think the Trump tweet laser ray that everybody in the party was so terrified of a year ago may be more bluff than muscle now. We’re going to see. That’s what this year is going to show us. Does Trump really have the same grip? Or is Trump now America’s biggest loser? Having had more votes against him than anybody in the history of our country, will he start to lose that grip, not only as party regulars like me come back who want that fear of losing…and non-conservative activity to be over, but you got the young Trump imitators—the Josh Hawleys, the Tom Cottons—coming up and Trump’s in the way for 2024.
So more people in the Republican Party either quietly or increasingly, I believe semi-quietly, want Trump to fail than succeed as the president in exile. And then he’s got Southern District of New York looking at him on taxes. All the Trump good stuff is in the rearview mirror. And we’ll just see how long he can hang on. But right now most Republicans are still afraid of him. That is a fact.
Well, right now if you don’t raise your hand, you lose. But we have three years plus between now and the next primaries. In politics, that’s an absolute eternity. And a lot will change. New stars will be found.
The really war between Fox, OANN—One America’s News Network, a competitor to Fox—and Newsmax, which in streaming is beating Fox now. They’re doing a better job competing in the what we call “OTT” in advertising, basically the non-cable way to get streaming television. And they make Fox look like the Roman Senate. They’re unbelievable. So Fox is now in the weird position having an attack from the right. Trump’s going to pick one of those horses to be for. He’s very angry at Fox. Fox will be incentivized to create some new stars rather than be pounded on every day by the Trump call on Newsmax or wherever he winds up. So the conservative star-making machine, I think, is going to start promoting some new faces over three years, if they’re good, that could really change the environment in the next primaries.
In the Republican primary world, you know, you keep shrinking the electorate down. I don’t know, maybe there’ll be a reformation in why I joined the thing. Strong foreign policy back in my day, fight the Soviets, free trade, support the Atlantic Alliance, smaller government, actually care about fiscal conservatism, which we’ve thrown out the window totally in the GOP under Trump. You know, I think some of that stuff will come back.
Little bit of a pivot here. I wonder if you have any insights into Xavier Becerra as the HHS secretary. I think that was a little bit of an unusual choice. I mean, I think he checks a bunch of boxes. On the other hand, he was not really known as a significant player on healthcare-related issues. To the extent that he made any waves in healthcare was when he was trying to appeal to the Progressive Caucus, and he pissed off Nancy Pelosi by saying that she gave in too early on the public option; she had a press conference talking about the tire tracks on her back from Xavier Becerra.
That being said, though, he’s competent, he’s taken out after healthcare monopolies, and from a brokerage standpoint, some of our member firms might like to see some of that kind of activity. But without having a background in healthcare, what kind of expectations do you have on this? And the final health-related issue—well, not the final one, but the public option—Biden/Harris ran on it and with the kind of margins in the Senate, irrespective of those races, can they do it legislatively?
Becerra is kind of a weird pick for that job because you would think now in the era of COVID and all the challenges we have it’s kind of a technocratic job. There’s no Republican or Democratic case of COVID. You know, so he’s a bit of a partisan slugger. It felt a little discordant. I thought that’s where Biden might make the bipartisan technocrat move and try to lure a Mitch Daniels or some credible Republican. I mean, Daniels is a great governor of Indiana, great OMB director, and he ran a big pharmaceutical company. So you know, (he) would be the kind of super competent bipartisan technocrat signal. But he chose not to.
Becerra’s been a hot political commodity out here for a long time. He was a better than average pol in Congress. Now he’s liberal Democrat, so by better than average, I mean, effective at moving their agenda. And then he became attorney general here, which is often a good launching pad to be an activist politician—Kamala Harris did about 11 minutes in that job for that purpose. In fact, the talk here was he was one of the big contenders to get appointed to her seat because California Democratic politics is very much about identity now, like most Democratic politics and increasingly Republican politics. So you know, I think the balance sheet I might say at HHS is politically effective. Knows how to operate in Washington. Progressives will like him. He has a history particularly on the abortion or choice issue of being very aggressive. But that’ll galvanize Republicans against him. So it was weird.Healthcare in American domestic politics is like jumping into a swimming pool full of razor blades, because people don’t want changes; they want more for less. So if you’re the Democrats trying to do Hillarycare back when the Republicans can stand outside the pool and push you in and say death panels, there’s no responsibility in this argument, it’s all scare stuff. Or when in 2018, the Democrats cleaned our clock by saying those mean Republicans want to take away your pre-existing conditions. So the worst thing that can happen to an American politician on healthcare is owning it. And now poor Biden owns it. You know, Trump owned it; he didn’t know what to do. He didn’t have a plan. He just tried to bluff his way through. Meanwhile, as any actuary will tell you, we have the trend of people are living longer, consuming more healthcare, particularly at the end of their longer lives. And healthcare costs are going up. Obamacare did a lot for access. More people have it, but it didn’t do a lot for price controls. Because the politics of changing the incentives are impossible, nearly, I think Biden will do what is probably the political path of most likely success and least resistance, which is he’ll prop it up with more subsidies and more spending.
I did Mitt Romney’s race for governor. So I was around Romneycare. We all knew that you’ve got to spread the cost, like any insurance pool, among healthy people because the sick people can’t afford to pay for what it costs to be sick. So you had to have a mandate or something to make the numbers work. And you know, that is something the Republican Party has federally been pretty much totally against. It means the only way you prop up the increased access is you fight this hard war to control costs. Then you’ve got all the industries fighting each other. So Biden being a Dem is going to inject money into it, try to prop it up. That’s my guess. I mean, Biden, to his credit, ran against single payer, and I don’t see any move in that direction, although there will be noise in Congress about it for sure, because it has support.
What Biden’s going to try to do, I think, because all roads lead to this, is get 200 million vaccines administered by the summer and get the economy going again. So we have growth in the dollars, because if you look at what this horrible pandemic is costing us in real dollars, we’re fighting World War II cost-wise right now, with a massive deficit to begin with. If we can’t get some economic growth to bring in tax revenue, it’s going to compound itself. Luckily, we have ridiculously low interest rates, but that can’t last forever. So Biden needs a strong economy to pay for anything, including propping up the ACA.
Michael Murphy is one of the Republican Party’s most successful political media consultants. He’s been called a “media master” by Fortune magazine, the GOP’s “hottest media consultant” by Newsweek, and the leader of a “new breed” of campaign consultants by Congressional Quarterly. He also serves as co-director of the Center for the Political Future at the University of Southern California.