It’s been said with some good reason that Donald Trump will either win the Republican nomination on the first convention ballot, or none at all. How many ballots will Ted Cruz have before he runs out of gas? If that has a limit, then expect all sorts of proposals to find a candidate who can “unite the clans,” including more outsiders rather than insiders. The effort to draft retired Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis is one that has already been floated as a compromise, and the Daily Beast’s Tim Mak reports that it has surprisingly strong backing and a serious, if still nascent, organization behind it:
Mattis, who declined to speak with The Daily Beast, has previously suggested that he could not endure the political correctness required to be a contender for the White House. But given Trump’s myriad controversies, this may not be a problem this year.
“I’ve lived a very colorful life and I’ve said some things,” Mattis told an audience last year, according to the Marine Corps Times. “But not once have I taken them back, and I’ve never apologized for them—and I won’t. I like the enemy knowing there are a few guys like me around.”
The pro-Mattis donors, who want to stay anonymous for the time being, have assembled a core group of seven political operatives, led by Joel Searby, a Republican consultant based in Florida. The group of strategists also includes lead attorney Mohammad Jazil; ballot access specialist Matthew Sawyer; and former George W. Bush pollster Jan Lohuizen, along with a finance team and a “top firm” that has been secured to lead the ballot access petition gathering, members of the team tell The Daily Beast.
In other words, this isn’t just the product of a spitballing session. That does raise the question of just how much of an outsider one could consider Mattis to be. One of the bêtes noires of the grassroots would be just this kind of scenario, in which a few billionaires come together to take the nomination away from Trump or Cruz to anoint someone else as the candidate for November. Mattis’ status as a military hero might soothe that anxiety a bit, but it’s not going to go away — even if it just means displacing another billionaire.
Why all this effort for a man not known for having a taste for politics in the first place? Wouldn’t this effort be better applied to looking for a more consensus-style candidate, such as Scott Walker or perhaps even Nikki Haley, who have track records of success in key states or regions? The memo Mak got explains why this group likes Mattis in particular:
Wilson and [former Jeb Bush campaign adviser John] Noonan co-authored a memo on how Mattis might capitalize on the current media environment, arguing that Trump’s “fake-macho act falls apart” before a bona fide American hero like Mattis. The general’s overall bearing “immediately blows a hole into the central narrative of Trump: his toughness,” they argue in a memo obtained by The Daily Beast. “[A]nd the drama of watching it fall apart under fire would be amazing television.”
Comparing him to President Dwight Eisenhower, the memo concludes that Mattis has “all the iconoclastic, authentic style of non-politician Trump—and all the serious government service credibility of Hillary Clinton.”
The latter sounds more like an insult than a supporting argument. Hillary has near-record lows for favorability and credibility. It’s also an odd argument to make in an anti-establishment, populist election cycle where “government service credibility” is a negative indicator of success. If that was a key value, then Trump would have been a 90-day novelty-act wonder, and Bernie Sanders would have long ago returned to the Senate back bench.
Mak’s report also makes clear that this effort isn’t just for a draft at the convention, but for a third-party run. That’s an effort doomed to failure, although Mattis backers’ goal is to throw the election into the House of Representatives. But that’s almost a zero-chance outcome; Mattis won’t do better than Ross Perot in 1992, and Perot started earlier with more resources. The only outcome of a third-party run would be to elect Hillary Clinton, just as Perot did with Bill.
As I wrote at the time, the outsider fallacy is just that — a fantasy:
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. …
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.
Republicans should spend more time looking at their current alternatives and planning for victory rather than fantasy candidates and planning for defeat.