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“An attack made on television must be responded to on television.”
– Ed Rollins, “Rollin’s Rules of Campaign Combat,” from his book, Bare Knuckles and Back Rooms
I’m not a big fan of Ed Rollins. While I shared his love and admiration for Ronald Reagan, I could never condone the active role he has played on behalf of Donald Trump, whose racism, anti-intellectualism, and disregard for the rule of law I find to be abhorrent.
Yet unquestionably, Ed Rollins for the last half century has been the nation’s foremost GOP political strategist and tactician. His above propounded concept regarding campaigns and television is most relevant as to why Governor Phil Murphy is winning his power struggle against South Jersey Democratic leader George Norcross. Murphy is on television with his message, while George Norcross is not, whether in person or through a surrogate.
Let us not mince words: The Murphy-Norcross power struggle IS the equivalent of a political campaign, whose outcome will determine the ultimate future political and policy viability of the Murphy administration.
One can measure who is prevailing in the campaign by observing both 1) the polls (where Murphy continues to lead, with a more than satisfactory approval rating among all voters and a massive positive approval rating among Democrats); and 2) the quality of message.
The outcome of the current budget and millionaire’s tax legislative battle is hardly determinative of the likely final outcome of the Murphy – Norcross Democratic championship bout – one that is not fought under Marquis of Queensbury rules. In fact, the budget/millionaire’s tax battle is one that Murphy is winning by losing. It is reminiscent of Harry Truman’s 1948 excoriation of the Republican-controlled Congress, which had rejected since the November, 1946 midterm elections virtually all of Truman’s legislative initiatives.
In the 1948 presidential contest, Truman acted as if his presidential Republican opponent, New York Governor Thomas E. Dewey was not even on the ballot. Instead, he aimed his fire at the Republican controlled “do nothing Congress.” Dewey, who in the words of Alice Roosevelt Longworth, resembled “the groom on the wedding cake,” stood by helplessly, as Truman’s attacks on the GOP Congress enabled him to win reelection with the greatest comeback in modern presidential campaign history.
This feat was duplicated in the sports world three years later when baseball’s then New York Giants overcame a 13.5 game Brooklyn Dodger lead to win the National League pennant on Bobby Thomson’s home run in the playoffs. Giants manager Leo Durocher must have been a Harry Truman fan – he certainly cursed like him!
Phil Murphy has been absolutely Trumanesque in the past few days, with his unequivocal repudiation of the Democratic – controlled legislature. This attack is an essential component of the Murphy message, as follows:
The governor has made a long-term commitment to continue to push for tax fairness and a pro -middle class agenda which message he will take directly to the people. Murphy is on the side of the people versus self-serving elected officials (legislature) who answer to a political boss (Norcross).
Murphy’s adversaries on both sides of the political aisle may attack the credibility and accuracy of his message. Yet nobody can question the fact that it is supremely compelling. He looks like a non-naive Jefferson Smith (Jimmy Stewart) in the Trenton version of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, with George Norcross playing the role of Boss Taylor (Edward Arnold). He is brilliantly painting an image of himself as an outsider reformer versus a special interest boss, Norcross and his subservient puppets in the Legislature. You can’t get better political imaging than that.
And the mode of deliverance of the Murphy message, featuring a major use of television, has been critical to its success. In my InsiderNJ column of Monday, June 17, 2019, “Murphy’s Key to Survival – Nobody’s Watching ‘The Trenton Show’”, I set forth the tactical context of the Murphy-Norcross political war: Nobody is watching the “Trenton Show,” due to 1) the usual Garden State apathy towards state government; and 2) the huge viewership ratings of the competitive “Trump Show.”
In such a context, the effective use of television is essential to “get the message out.” Phil Murphy has done that, with the magnificent “New Direction New Jersey” commercial produced by the Martin Scorsese of New Jersey political media, Brad Lawrence. Phil Murphy was reputed to have done some fine acting as a student-actor at campus shows at Harvard. It is abundantly clear that the best acting of Murphy’s life has been performed in the Brad Lawrence commercials.
Norcross has eschewed the use of television in his political duel to the death with Phil Murphy, and that is most mystifying to me. No New Jersey political leader over the last three decades has made more effective use of television than George Norcross. He made history in New Jersey in 1991 when he became the first Garden State political leader to use television commercials in a New Jersey legislative campaign. These commercials enabled the late John Adler to score a major upset victory over the then incumbent GOP 6th District Senator Lee Laskin.
The famed philosopher, Georges Santayana was famous for saying, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” In the case of George Norcross, it can be said that in the world of politics, one who forgets the reason for his prior success is not likely to duplicate it.
Below the political radar screen, and separate and apart from his conflict with Norcross, Murphy is, in his official capacity as governor, making maximal effective use of digital media. Virtually every New Jersey governmental website is carrying a well-crafted video of Murphy or one his high-level appointees in action. If you then go to platforms like Facebook or Twitter, you will see that these videos are well distributed. The Murphy governmental video operation is destined to enhance his popularity.
One week ago, I was mocking Phil Murphy for what I perceived as his lack of political instincts and acumen. He proved me wrong. I am not an advocate of Phil Murphy. He is a progressive Democrat, while I am a centrist conservative independent. As a journalist however, I have to credit him with displaying excellent strategy, tactics, and communication skills in his battle for political survival against George Norcross and his subservient army of nondescript legislative leaders and back benchers. He has also shown political courage – “onions,” in the words of Dick Codey.
It wouldn’t be a Steinberg column without a boxing analogy, so here goes.
Phil Murphy grew up in suburban Boston. The Boston area is renowned for gritty pugilists, including Rocky Marciano, Marvin Hagler, Tony DeMarco, and Paul Pender.
A week ago, I thought that in boxing terms, Phil Murphy resembled Tom McNeeley, a less than impressive Boston area heavyweight. Today, he reminds me of “Irish” Micky Ward, the welterweight who served as the subject of the movie, “The Fighter,” starring Mark Wahlberg. In taking on George Norcross and his machine, Phil Murphy displayed the courage and fighting heart of a Micky Ward!
In short, Phil Murphy is winning. Big time.
Alan J. Steinberg served as Regional Administrator of Region 2 EPA during the administration of former President George W. Bush and as Executive Director of the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission under former New Jersey Governor Christie Whitman.