Backbiting! Backstabbing! Skullduggery! Sniping! Fun and Games in the McCain Campaign

07/18/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

As I've previously written, it's not the cost of campaigns that's out of control, it's the mark-up. The greed and egotism of political consultants can be a drag on democracy, and a distraction from the business of winning elections. There's something wrong when a campaign's consultants and strategists get their names in the paper as often as the candidate.

Consider what's been happening in the last few days in the McCain campaign. The news has been dominated with "process" stories -- inside baseball about how inept McCain is as a candidate (see: teleprompters), how off-message the campaign has been (see: foreign trip) and how many slogans and re-launches the campaign has burned through. Now, a year after the last staff shake-up to end all staff shake-ups, the knives are out again.

First, Karl Rove's disciple Steve Schmidt was brought in to stop the campaign's internal bleeding and make the trains run on time--but the candidate couldn't quite bring himself to say he'd demoted his current campaign manager.

Then, a trial balloon the size of the Moon was floated suggesting that McCain's longtime advisor Mike Murphy would be brought in as top dog, but in the few hours since Bill Kristol gave this suggestion national prominence in his New York Times column, Murphy's enemies succeeded in shooting it down. A campaign staff already known for temper tantrums must have boiled over again in the last few days, leading Murphy to tell the Times today,

"I'm not expecting to join the campaign. I'm trying to kill and end all this stuff."
"I think this staff speculation is not helpful to the campaign," he said. "I don't want to be controversial and I don't want to be distracting from the senator's message."

Of course, this is what's known in the trade as a "non-denial denial," paving the way for a future reversal. There's a big gulf between a firm "no" and a vague "I'm not expecting to," and no one would be surprised to see Murphy in and Rick Davis out, perhaps by the time you read this. McCain clearly trusts Murphy and wants him on board, but since he can't bring himself to fire people he may have to settle for Murphy playing the role Dick Morris had in Bill Clinton's 1996 campaign -- the shadowy unofficial campaign guru who gives back-channel advice to the candidate and drives the staff crazy. Watch for more disarray and feuding and a growing chorus among Republicans of "can't anyone here play this game?"