It might be a low bar but the maverick 2000 version of John McCain was the best version of John McCain and Mike Murphy was his chief strategist. Eight years later, Murphy was on the outside looking in (and often dropping bombs) when McCain adopted Sarah Palin as his sidekick and went down in flames. Now Murphy is offering advice through his substack to Tim Scott. In fact, he’s offering his overview of the entire Republican race for the 2024 presidential nomination.

He has a fun writing style and a good sense of humor which makes for easy reading. More importantly, he isn’t deluded or living in some right-wing cocoon and yet he still has a good grasp of what works and doesn’t work with the GOP electorate. His basic take is that Tim Scott has a better chance to win the nomination than many people believe, but he’s in danger of throwing his chance away by making two major mistakes.

To understand Scott’s potential errors, you have to understand his current strategy.

Scott is running with a plan; I’ve heard it played back several times from pols and big donors he’s pitched. First, unite the social conservative right and win Iowa, wounding Trump. Second, let somebody else win New Hampshire. Third, come home to South Carolina and win big there. Surge to a nomination victory.

As Murphy ably explains, in Republican politics, it’s extremely hard to win both Iowa and New Hampshire because the voters are so different. In election cycles without an incumbent Republican president going all the way back to 1988, the winner of the Hawkeye State has been an also-ran in the Granite State. Scott knows this and he’s not banking on bucking the trend. He is all-in on winning the Iowa caucuses, and he assumes that means he won’t be well positioned to follow it up until the contest moves to his home state of South Carolina. This is primarily because winning Iowa is all about winning the vote of conservative Christians, and that doesn’t sell well in the Boston suburbs.

Yet, conceding New Hampshire is likely a fatal mistake, according to Murphy, and he believes Scott should try a novel strategy in an effort to compete in both states. Instead of racing to the farthest fringes of the religious right, Scott should set some kind of limit in that respect to retain his viability both in New Hampshire and in a general election against Biden. Instead, he should try to take advantage of the fact that the Democrats won’t be voting in Iowa in January, and yet countless Democrats are in the habit of caucusing and can be persuaded to show up for the Republicans’ competition. How will he attract these Democrats?

Scott’s biggest advantage is his optimistic/Reaganesque vibe. Use it. Unlike the hard social conservative tact, it has appeal across the board, including NH and beyond…

…The caucus is culturally very important in civic-minded Iowa and it’s very easy to be a “Republican for a night”, showing up and participating. If even just 15-20% of the these [traditionally Democratic] voters opt do that, it will be a mathematically material change to the GOP caucus electorate. And hint: these are not conservative Christians, but an optimistic Republican who is not Donald J. Trump will really stand out.

Murphy understands this is a long shot strategy, but considers it better than Scott’s current strategy which isn’t good enough.

Speaking of which, the second mistake Murphy identifies is Scott’s unwillingness, so far, to play the role of an Alpha Dog. If he wants to lead the Republican Party, he has to act like the toughest hombre in the field, which is no easy task when going up against Trump. I really enjoyed how he incorporated a bear to make his point.

You have to be top Alpha, and right now Tim Scott is running as a hopeless beta vis a vis Trump. There is an old Russian proverb about “how does one wash the bear without getting his fur wet”, a sensible problem since who wants a really pissed off wet bear looking right at you and your empty water pail? That has been Chris Christie’s problem: his frontal water pail attacks, while useful in a catalytic way and completely entertaining, will do nothing to actually get him the nomination. Stepping up to Trump as an Alpha is tricky business, he is the tribal kingpin for a huge chunk of the party after all, so doing it right requires a perfect storm of standing, spotlight and timing.

At the debate this week, Tim Scott will have all three.

Obviously, Scott will have to go after Trump in the debate, which should be a little easier to do since Trump won’t be attending. Murphy offers the following suggestion:

Scott will be asked the big Trump question Wednesday night and he needs an answer that is honest and direct; neither hedgy, nor complicated. Donald Trump has all the right enemies. I know because I have most of them too. As a black conservative, they think I should not even exist. That I, and our ideas, are illegitimate. I applaud President Trump’s policy accomplishments, I helped many pass the Senate. Our party is strong, because we hold moral weight. We are trying to make America better and reverse our moral and economic decline. For us, character counts. It must. We now know, and it is painful, that Donald Trump lacks the character to lead us and our movement, or to lead our county, as President of the United States. That is the truth we must face together, and it must be said. For our party, and our cause and our county. We need a new leader, to beat Joe Biden and move America forward.

(By the way, after saying that you don’t have to say much more on the Trump topic. Just refer back to it. No need to play detail games with the media. Switch forward and stay there.)

This all seems like pretty good advice but I see some obvious problems. To begin with, it’s weird that Murphy simply doesn’t mention that Tim Scott is a black man running for the nomination from a White Nationalist party. Considering that Scott has been successful in South Carolina, his race might not be a fatal obstacle to success, but we shouldn’t act like it’s a non-factor. Beyond that, it’s not as if a nicely crafted debate response in August 2023 is going satisfy questions people have about Scott’s position on Trump as the campaign unfolds and the ex-president starts spending some time in court. If he wants to be the Alpha Dog, Scott will need to do more than sorrowfully point to Trump’s lack of character. At some point, he’ll have to take him by the throat, and that’s tricky for anyone running as a sunny optimist.

And I don’t know if sunny optimism will sell with the GOP base. A new New York Times/Siena College poll finds that “fifty-six percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents” think we’re at risk of failing as a nation. CNN polling from the spring described the GOP base as having “a malaise moment,” and argued “the Make America Great Again movement isn’t so sure that’s possible anymore.”

They’re angry and pessimistic, and maybe Scott is the perfect person to pull them out of their despondency and bitterness, but it’s easier to feed that beast than to fight it.

Still, Murphy is right about this: “If you are crazy enough to run against a (supposedly) cannot-be-politically-killed Rasputin like Trump, you should be crazy enough to try a more inventive strategy.”

I’d say that applies to all the other Republican candidates facing Trump, too. You’re almost definitely going to lose, so don’t play scared. Do something that defies expectations, and try leading your base back to the light.

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