Veteran campaign consultants Bob Shrum and Mike Murphy talk politics
Robert Shrum and Mike Murphy have spent decades working for the Democratic and Republican parties, respectively, yet they remain fast friends. (Image Source: iStock/traffic_analyzer.)

Veteran campaign consultants Bob Shrum and Mike Murphy talk politics

The long-time friends and now leaders of the USC Dornsife Center for the Political Future still argue about affairs of state 30 years after forming an unlikely friendship across the ideological aisle. But they do agree on one thing. [8½ min read]
ByLance Ignon

Bob Shrum and Mike Murphy were rising political consultants when they met in the late ’80s (maybe it was the early ’90s; they can’t remember) and embarked on what would become a lifelong friendship. Today, Shrum is director and Murphy is co-director of the USC Dornsife Center for the Political Future, which encourages civil, fact-based political dialogue to break today’s partisan gridlock.

Shrum is a lifelong Democrat who has consulted for some of the party’s biggest names: Joe Biden, Al Gore, John Kerry and Ted Kennedy, among many others. Murphy has been a Republican since he was old enough to vote and has advised the likes of John McCain, Jeb Bush, Mitt Romney and Arnold Schwarzenegger. But Murphy, like Shrum, is also a critic of Donald Trump and is a strategic advisor to Republican Voters Against Trump.

Murphy and Biden are particularly busy these days helping students and the public, through their many media appearances, sort out the forthcoming presidential election. Part of that task includes parsing the results from the widely cited USC Dornsife Daybreak Poll, which pointed toward a Trump victory in 2016 but which shows Biden ahead this time.

They took some time out of their schedules to answer a few questions about today’s politics. Their political views are their own and do not necessarily reflect those of the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. Their answers have been edited for length and clarity.

As a country are we really that much more partisan than we used to be when you started in this business?

Portrait of Robert Shrum wearing a gray sport coat over a light blue collared shirt

Bob Shrum. (Photo: Matt Meindl.)

Murphy: Yes.

Shrum: Yes.


Murphy: “Well, we choose to be. Now you can say the system oppressed us with it, but the fact is the voters have kind of rewarded polarization while at the same time saying they hate it.”

Shrum: “I think it may get better, maybe because Trump has taken it to such a point that I think that a majority of the country is actually tired of it and would like to see people get together and make some progress. That doesn’t mean there won’t be disagreements on policy. There will be. And sometimes you’re going to compromise.”

Do you have any advice for people on how to safely discuss politics?

Shrum: “You’re not going to be absolutely right about everything all the time. Reagan was not my cup of tea … [but] he was a very significant president and, in many ways, a very good president. … He restored the dignity and authority of the presidency at a time when people were very uncertain about where we were going to go.”

Murphy: “My wife [a Democrat] and I, we disagree, but we don’t argue about it. My wife, who thinks A.O.C., I assume, is kind of cool and happening, doesn’t bring it up because she’s just bored with my eyes rolling up and all that. And I don’t go into reminiscing about the fun I used to have with Mitch McConnell. You just learn to be kind of considerate.”

Is that how your friendship works?

Murphy: “No, we disagree on everything.”

Shrum: “We talk about politics all the time. We’re happy to disagree.”

How do we lower the political temperature in this country and mend the political divide?

Portrait of Mike Murphy wearing glasses, a dark blue suit coat, a light blue dress shirt and a gray tie with blue dots

Mike Murphy. (Photo: Michael Calas.)

Murphy: “Well, my plan is to move to Singapore, where they seem to run things just to my temperament, which is a thoughtful dictatorship. We’ll find out. This will either rotate and there will be a reformist urge because people don’t like what they have and they get tired of it. Or they’ll just settle into the warmth of living in a bubble and condemning the other side. Now, if you believe that that is inevitable, you should be worried as a Republican because the demography in the double-bubble theory does not favor us because grumpy old white guys are declining, and it’s why I think Trump will lose.”

Shrum: I’d say three things. First of all, Mike’s right. The Republicans are in a demographic cul-de-sac and it gets worse with each passing year. Secondly, I do believe that there is a civil majority in this country that wants government to function and wants a restoration of a kind of common decency and a sense of commitment to values. And third, we can’t do this ourselves, but the Center for the Political Future can model and advance the politics where we respect each other, we respect the truth and [agree that] we’re not going to find common ground on everything.

Mike, as a lifelong Republican, has it been difficult for you to speak out against Trump?

Murphy: “It’s been on one level quite easy because it’s such an obvious choice. I’ve been anti-Trump since ’92. I don’t know where all the Johnny-come-latelies came from. Now, economically, it’s not been great because I blew up my career. I had an agency in D.C. that used to have over a dozen people and we don’t anymore. We had to lay them all off and that’s hard to do. It’s not like I’m getting calls from A.O.C.”

What about today’s politics troubles you?

Murphy: “In authoritarian regimes or the transition to them, the first target is always to destroy the idea of facts because without common-agreed facts, you don’t have democracy because you’ve got nothing to talk about. … My biggest worry about Trumpism is it’ll catch on, on the left. I look at some of the rhetoric coming out of the heart of the progressive left and the war on facts there, and it troubles me. I’m hoping they’re not tested the way the Republicans are, because the Republicans failed. And that has been a horrible thing for our democracy.”

Shrum: “I think if he [Biden] has a successful presidency, then I think the Democratic party is unlikely to move in that direction. But Mike’s right; I see tweets every once in a while: ‘Why can’t the Democrats be like the Trumpers.’”

The latest USC Dornsife Daybreak Poll shows Trump with a 4-point advantage when it comes to jobs and the economy, whereas Biden leads on eight other categories including uniting the country, response to COVID-19, health care and even law enforcement. But if elections are about the economy, doesn’t this mean Trump is actually leading?

Murphy: “It doesn’t. But it means that the election becomes exclusively focused on the economy, and more than anything else, Trump will move up in the polls vis-à-vis Biden. It doesn’t mean he’ll move up enough to win, but the race will tighten, and it is the scenario Trump is hoping for. That’s why he keeps trying to declare the COVID-19 pandemic over.”

Shrum: “Trump is steadily losing his advantage on the economy. And this is not a normal election because he is a profoundly abnormal President. The country wants to tell him, ‘You’re fired.’ It’s now up to Biden to make the case in the debates. Biden is likely to win, but it’s not certain. And Trump will do anything to stop the process if he’s losing. Our democracy is on the line.”

How are students different today than when you were in college?

Shrum: “I think students are politically engaged in a way that we haven’t seen since the late ’60s. I think that is a byproduct of Trump to some extent, but I also think it’s the rise of issues like climate change, income inequality and racial tension that has driven that.

“I would say that a majority of the students probably in Dornsife tend … tend to be liberals, which would be very different from the USC of 20 or 30 years ago. But when I teach the course on great [presidential] races … two of the people they really, really like and relate to and say, ‘I wish we had someone like that around now,’ are JFK and Ronald Reagan. Reagan’s not a bad guy to them because he was a conservative.”

Murphy: “I’ve been struck by the spirit of activism and kind of an idealistic faith in government. I think that’s all good. If I had a critique, it would be that I’d love to see a little more critical thinking. When I was on campus in the ’80s, we had spirited debates with the college Democrats. And now there’s, I think, kind of a social pressure that you’ve got to be on one catechism and there’s virtue [in] signaling [being] attached to it. You’re evil if you’re not onboard. I’d like to see them sharpening their minds with more argument.”

From the Mouth of Murphy to Your Ears

When it comes to tossing off memorable zingers, Mike Murphy can be downright Churchillian. Here are a few that surfaced during the conversation with Murphy and Robert Shrum, the co-director and director, respectively, of the USC Dornsife Center for the Political Future, plus a few from a website that tracks bon motaficionados.

From the conversation:

Political consultants “used to be a pretty small group of people that were doing the major statewide campaigns. So, it was kind of the ear lobe surgeon.”

“I grew up in a Democratic family. Well, my father was an eccentric voter who hated Texans. He actually voted for Goldwater against LBJ.”

“I have never, with maybe one exception, ever met anybody in the U.S. Senate who tells me, ‘You know what I’m dying to do? Make a few principled stands and lose.”’

“I’m like a pseudo-Democrat right now because I’m for Biden. I like to say, ‘I’m going to rent, not buy.’ I’m a conservative.”

From QuotePark:

“My story is very boring. Mostly about hair loss.”

“We’ve got to break this equation of ‘I’m right, you’re evil. So everything you do is suspect, everything you say is a lie, your facts are fake news.’ Because that is an acid on politics. We’ve got to get rid of that.”

“Any good demagogue is very courageously telling people exactly what they want to hear.”

“I’m too pretty to go to jail.”

“The only mark-to-market thing in politics is Election Day; everything else is hot air.”

“My father likes to talk about the stroller accident that resulted in me becoming a Republican.”