John Noonan’s feeling draft-y:
Mattis is a battle hardened warrior, renowned for his humble leadership style and aggressive pursuit of America’s enemies. Nicknamed the “Warrior Monk,” Mattis is something of a cult figure in the Marines. One such tale had the general relieving a young Marine captain of sentry duty on Christmas Day, taking up the post himself so the young officer could be with his family. He’s known for his excellence in both the arts of combat and diplomacy alike. Mattis led the First Marine Division in an aggressive thrust into the Euphrates River Valley in 2003, but also skillfully managed the kaleidoscope of conflicting diplomatic relationships as Commander of U.S. Central Command.
Mattis is a student of both history and economics, known for quoting Greek sophists but unafraid to dabble in some occasional profanity—though his famous blunt talk, famously known as Mattisisms, would seem mild in a year laced with Trump’s vulgarities.
He neuters both party frontrunners’ perceived strengths. Trump’s faux-tough guy act would crumble when met with an actual warrior, and Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy chops would seem like an 100-level International Relations course next to Mattis’s experience and expertise…
He’s a man who has always answered the trumpet’s blast of flag and freedom. He knows, as do many voters, the ugly prospect of a Trump presidency and what it would mean for the rule of law, the sacredness of the office, and the integrity of the Constitution. He also knows how tough things have grown oversees, with America’s special role in the world slipping away each day.
That makes enough sense that you can imagine how well David Petraeus, who’s far better known than Mattis, might be polling right now against Trump and Hillary in an alternate reality where he never had that sex scandal and got in trouble for sharing classified information with his mistress. (Although, as we’ll soon find out, mishandling classified info is no bar to becoming president.) As it is, if your goal is purely to take out Trump, you could scarcely do better than Noonan’s choice here. Trump trying to pull his alpha-male insult shtick on a Marine general would be equal parts ridiculous and infuriating. As a respected authority figure, not a tinpot authoritarian, Mattis’s mere presence in the race would be a mortal threat to Trump’s claim to be the “strong man.” And Mattis is even more of an outsider to the political system than Trump, the wheeler-dealer, is. Make him a third-party candidate, which is how Noonan imagines him, and he’d probably consolidate #NeverTrumpers while pulling in some of Trump’s anti-Washington, Jacksonian base. What’s Trump’s ceiling with Mattis running as an independent? Twenty-five percent?
But wait, back up. Like I say, Mattis is a master stroke if all you want to do is block Trump from the White House. Noonan wants more than that, though. He sees Mattis being cajoled into the race as an independent, then pulling 35 percent or so in enough states to deny Trump and Hillary Clinton the 270 electoral votes they’d need. With no candidate having received a majority of EVs, the election would be settled by the Republican House of Representatives. And voila — Mattis is elected president when a majority of Trump-hating House GOPers decide to pass over their own party’s nominee. Easy peasy. Just tell me one thing: Which blue states is Hillary Clinton losing in a three-way race with Trump and Mattis? How does Florida, say, go to either Trump or Mattis with the two of them reliably splitting 55 percent or so of the overall electorate while Hillary cleans up with the other 45 percent? A third-party candidate can’t win unless he can pull votes from both parties; without winning a few red states and blue states, there’s no way to hold both of the major-party nominees under 270. That was sufficiently difficult even for an ostentatious centrist with limitless resources like Mike Bloomberg that he decided in the end not to bother trying. Why would it be any easier for Mattis? Sure, fine, his foreign-policy record is more impressive than Hillary’s, but so what? Which Democrats are voting for him over her for that reason? Even if Mattis holds Clinton to a ceiling of 40 percent of the national electorate, that’s probably enough for her to win a three-way race. Until there’s reason to think the center-left would break for the Marine over Hillary, Mattis’s best-case scenario in the election is as a spoiler to Trump.
Even if he thought he had a chance to win, how would Mattis pull off a third-party candidacy? Noonan cites the example of Eisenhower as a reluctant politician who ultimately agreed to fill a leadership void in Washington, but there’s a huge difference between the two. Eisenhower had the resources and national infrastructure of the Republican Party behind him as the GOP nominee. Mattis, a political newbie, would need to go his own way and build something from scratch. He’d have help from #NeverTrumpers, sure, but cobbling together a third party on the fly is daunting even for an experienced, practiced professional politician. He’d need to raise a lot of money. He’d need to do endless campaign events and media appearances in order to land on, and remain on, voters’ radar. He would, in other words, need to go all-in, likely for nothing more than being able to say in November that he stopped Trump and helped elect Hillary Clinton president. Does that sound like a fun way to spend seven months if you’re a man who’s spent his entire life feeling allergic to politics?
If you want Mattis, I think it’s Cleveland or bust. If the convention deadlocks between Trump and Cruz, of which there’s a nonzero chance, and the delegates decide that there’s no politician within the party whom they could nominate without fracturing the GOP, an outside-the-box but highly respected choice like Mattis is a natural alternative. As Republican nominee, he’d have the institutional infrastructure in place to handle the minutiae of campaigning. Donors would line up with cash. Some Trump fans would balk, but I bet you’d have a better shot of holding on to others with a figure like Mattis than you would with Cruz, who’s now stuck in an increasingly bitter standoff with Trump. In fact, given the antipathy to Trump and Cruz in the GOP’s corridors of power, I expect you’ll start hearing more chatter about potential white-knight nominees like Mattis over the next few months as a way to convince delegates not to hand Trump the nomination on the first ballot. Get enough unbound delegates excited about the idea of choosing someone who’s not running at the convention and they have an incentive to resist Trump’s overtures to give him the 1,237 he needs. It may take a statement from Mattis, though, confirming that he’d be open to being nominated that way in order to persuade the delegates that that’s a credible option. Would he be willing to do that?