Years from now, when someone writes a book about the 2020 presidential election, they may well have to start here in New Jersey with the election of Gov. Phil Murphy and the aftermath of his Trenton takeover.
Although we no longer have Theodore White to write this book the way he reflected on several presidential elections starting with 1960, someone may pick up the mantle in order to show how Murphy was magically transformed from Wall Street to the White House.
In fact, we are witnessing one of the great transformations of a candidate, a pattern we have not seen since President Ronald Reagan’s first term.
The more cynical among us might think we are seeing Murphy as a creation of a public relations promotion, with every move orchestrated to make him over into something much bigger than life – such as his use of the Kennedy Bible when sworn-in, and his appearances at high profile public events throughout the state.
Murphy is following the Reagan script almost to the letter on how to make a man over into a living myth, and this kind of PR is too rich to be wasted on just creating a governor. The ultimate aim appears to be to create a liberal icon that will emerge as the new leader of the Democratic Party in 2020, someone that has shed the baggage of Democratic campaigns of the past.
This is different from the hype that surrounded the rise of Barack Obama prior to his ascendency as the Democratic candidate in 2008. Murphy is being reshaped by professional PR handlers that are modeling the very successful march from the California governor’s mansion to the White House that Reagan accomplished in 1980.
While the Murphy campaign claims he does not have his eye on the White House (yet?), the program he is undertaking is so similar to one Reagan orchestrated in 1980 that to put it off as coincidence would be unwise.
Author Hedrick Smith, a long time reporter in Washington DC, may well have described the current movements of Murphy’s early days when he outlined Reagan’s early moves as president in 1981.
Like Reagan did, Murphy is moving very fast to take over and leave his mark on the governor’s office, making changes and other moves that will establish his agenda for the next four years and the tone of his administration.
Unlike President Donald Trump, who spent his first few months seeking to erase Obama’s legacy through symbolic gestures that are more hot air than reality, Murphy appears to be dismantling his predecessor’s decisions, dissecting every public policy Gov. Christopher Christie implemented during his eight years in office, calling for an audit on the $8.2 billion in corporate welfare handed out by the Christie Administration as incentives for businesses to move to New Jersey. He is also moving quickly to determine what is wrong with NJ Transit.
Clearly, Murphy has focused on particular things he sees a problematic and hasn’t wasted any time in dealing with them.
Like all top government executives, Murphy or his team is aware that he doesn’t have much time to get things done. The first 100 days are critical, and if he doesn’t get his agenda rolling within the first year, he might not get it rolling at all.
After a year, opposition mounts. This will be true in New Jersey despite the fact that Democrats control both the state assembly and senate.
Murphy’s problem, however, may be the opposite. He might fall into what some claim was the Jimmy Carter trap: trying to do too much all at once.
He will need to pick priorities, and a sequence of accomplishments – and in some cases, may have to actually abandon some of the issues he raised in his campaign or put them on the back burner to focus on those things that matter most.
Since nearly everything Murphy needs to do will require financing, you can expect him to focus first on those things that raise or waste money. So his audits make sense.
The campaign has started for president
But don’t expect Murphy to stop talking about other issues. We are witnessing the start of his campaign for president.
His handlers appear to have adopted the Reagan system in this as well, a modified version of a PR campaign actually developed first by the staff of President Richard Nixon in 1972.
As author Smith points out, pictures mean more than substance when it comes to campaigning.
So Murphy’s handlers have Murphy scrambling across the state to be caught on TV and other media at the center of action, such as a Women’s March in Morristown or in African-American churches in Jersey City and Hackensack.
Each of these events is like a mini-movie featuring the hero riding in to make his appearance as his handlers do everything possible to control what people see and how they perceive him.
In this regard, expect Murphy’s speeches to be very short, and all of his moves largely scripted out, featuring alternative narrative lines – such as his wife, Tammy Murphy’s talk at the women’s march or her visit to the Boys and Girls Club in Jersey City.
Each of these appearances of Murphy or his wife is thematic, saying something specific about the candidate, who he is, what he stands for, and what people should expect him to do while he is in office.
As with Murphy’s wife’s appearance in at the Boys and Girls Club of Hudson County earlier this month, members of the Murphy team usually arrive at the event ahead of Phil or Tammy to help set up the scene against which they are expected to pose.
So Murphy will be seen riding on the Hudson Bergen Light Rail to show his resolve at finding the truth about conditions, or in the midst of the Women’s March to show his support for their cause as well as to reinforce his executive order calling for equal pay for women.
Tammy’s talk to the women about her own life experiences at the Women’s March is also typical of helping to create a human face to the governorship that was lacking in the previous administration, life stories that Reagan in his time in office was able to use to create a human connection to his constituency.
Murphy’s trip to the top of the old historic tower in Passaic earlier this month may well be tied to his commitment to restore crumbling infrastructure or help rebuild the economies of the urban centers throughout the state. His visit to African-American churches may serve as symbolic gestures to rebuild lives of those who have been left out in the past.
If Murphy follows the Reagan script, you can expect him to make himself well-known throughout the state, each appearance set against a backdrop of a policy proposal, such as a trip to Cape May or Asbury Park to emphasize future support for programs to help victims of Superstorm Sandy, or a trip to Atlantic City to highlight some proposal for rebuilding that great seaside city.
Al Sullivan may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.