In fact, with all due respect to the esteemed General James Mattis (USMC, retired) and my friend John Noonan, yet another “white knight” campaign to rescue the GOP from itself will only make matters worse. John wrote, rightly, that Mattis commands great respect from those who know him, and that he’d make a perfect candidate as either a convention compromise or for principled conservatives to back in an independent bid. Allahpundit cast some cold water on the idea of an independent bid — the time has long since passed for anyone to successfully get an organization in the field for that purpose — but left open the idea of Republicans rallying behind Mattis at the end of a lengthy convention deadlock.
In my column today for The Week, I argue that this impulse of looking for political saviors is what brought the Republican Party to its present state, and that pursuing Mattis — who has given no hint of his politics or his desire to pursue them as an electoral candidate — is nothing more than the hair of the dog that bit the Right in the first place. The parallels to Eisenhower don’t hold up, but even if they did, being an outsider isn’t the panacea that people assume. Part of this desire comes from a fundamental misunderstanding of what happened in 2008:
Besides, the assumption that Barack Obama won the presidency through some kind of “outsider” magic is mostly a fallacy. True, Obama did inspire voters, both through his potential for making history as the nation’s first African-American president and his gauzy pledge to heal partisan divisions. But inspiration only got Obama part of the way there. Obama won the nomination, and later the presidency, through superior ground organizing and voter targeting, as I learned in researching my upcoming book Going Red (Crown Forum, April 12). The Obama campaign used innovative methods of voter identification and messaging that emphasized local issues. They didn’t run the kind of national campaign Republicans did in both 2008 and 2012; in essence, they ran 435 Congressional campaigns for the presidency and revolutionized turnout models.
Republicans didn’t learn that lesson after 2008 and are still playing catch-up. George W. Bush won re-election in 2004 with 62 million votes, but John McCain lost almost four million votes from that total in 2008. Romney did better than McCain by almost 2.5 million votes while Obama dropped 1.4 million in 2012, but Romney still came up 1.3 million shy of Bush’s 2004 numbers and nearly five million votes behind Obama. By that time, Obama was a much-less popular insider but still rang up the second-highest popular vote total of all time.
The takeaway from the 2012 election was that Romney wasn’t a good enough candidate to win. Well, obviously that’s true — Romney didn’t — but that had to do with the resources and strategies applied to the campaign, not the fact that he’d been a governor for a term or even that he’d backed RomneyCare during that term. It also has to do with the emotional connections Obama still had with voters four years after 2008 and the organization he still had in the field, which shaped the voter turnout model to his advantage while Romney and the GOP largely relied on national messaging.
Even so, Republicans have flirted with a series of what would normally be considered “stunt” candidacies in the belief that general-election voters will rush to support an outsider. This time around, it seems likely that Republican will get their wish, either with Donald Trump or Ted Cruz, or perhaps a contested-convention dark horse like Mattis or someone similar. If so, they should prepare for disappointment:
Outsiders do not carry a magic elixir for winning elections. General Mattis can cite chapter and verse on winning a military campaign, and it wouldn’t be much different than a political campaign in concept. One has to be well prepared, know the ground on which the battles will be won, seek the best intelligence and contacts to prepare those fields, and most importantly, understand what victory will take and apply the necessary resources to achieve it.
In constantly seeking an outsider who will provide some momentary and elusive unity on the basis of personality, Republicans are avoiding the reasons for their failures — and setting themselves up for disaster in 2016, and beyond.
One final observation: Cruz actually has the possibility of doing both — providing the outsider, anti-Establishment perspective and using superior organizing skills to make it stick. So far, he seems to be the only one in the GOP field who has that potential. The big question will be whether Cruz can use it to expand the party’s electoral reach far enough to carry back the swing states the GOP lost in 2008 and 2012.
Note: I am on vacation this week to deal with a death in the family, so my contributions will be limited until April 5th. John Sexton is also out until April 4th.