Within large swaths of the Republican Party, there is a gathering sense of doom driven by the emergence of Donald Trump and the possibility that he will be the GOP nominee. This is an understandable reaction. Trump’s nomination could lead to the destruction of the Republican Party as we know it. This doom preoccupies former supporters of Gov. Jeb Bush and Sen. Marco Rubio especially, many of whom have found it difficult to gravitate to either Sen. Cruz or Gov. Kasich as an alternative. We see this impulse play out in the longing for a “white knight” — someone (Speaker Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney, etc.) who will step up and assume the mantle of leadership when the GOP meets in Cleveland, and decides not to choose one of the three men still in the race, or who runs as a third-party candidate in the event Trump gains the nomination.
One of the names that keeps rising in these conversations is retired Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis, and while I sit front and center in the audience of those who consider him a great American, I wonder if those pushing his candidacy are not asking him to leap over a bar lowered by Trump and his insurgency.
I spent an afternoon recently watching videos posted on a website calling for Mattis to run, and I spent much of the past 15 years basking in the radiant glow of his distinctly quotable public persona. I am a huge fan of the man. I would love to have served with him. I would buy him dinner if he gave me the chance. I can imagine numerous places in government where his national security expertise and judgment would be valuable, and I judge him to be a man with a deeply held and lived sense of honor. To the extent that I know him by his quotes and videos, I believe that he has the personality, wisdom, and temperament required of someone who might make a good president.
But you know what I do not know about Mattis? I do not know how he views the relationship between the government and the governed. I do not know whether he believes there is a deleterious link among the easy availability of student loans, steadily rising tuition, and increased student debt loads. I do not know whether he considers Obamacare to be wise or effective legislation or to what extent he believes the government should be involved in such a large portion of our economy. I do not know his plan to rein in entitlement spending or whether he believes one is necessary. I have no clue what he thinks about taxation, let alone flat taxes, or whether our corporate tax rate makes us globally uncompetitive. Simply put, I have a great deal of confidence in Mattis’ ability to carry out the commander-in-chief role, but I have not a clue how he would seek to govern our country at home as president.
This is not Mattis’ fault, of course. I’ve seen little to make me believe he is behind, or even involved in, the effort to put his name forward. To the contrary, it is not hard to find evidence that he does not wish to be president. As such, it is unsurprising that he has not publicly articulated detailed plans nor views on these domestic policy issues.
But — and this is where my Mattis-loving establishment Republican homies will defenestrate me — the plain truth is that he has even fewer articulated plans for addressing weighty problems than does Donald Trump. Let’s face it, fellow Republicans, we slammed Trump (and continue to) for speaking in platitudes without any policy substance because we know (or think we know) what the job of president entails, and because we believe an informed electorate has a right to know what those hoping for the office would do to address these problems. And while Mattis appears to present us with a photographic negative of Trump the moral and ethical man, we are left utterly bereft of any sense of what Mattis believes as a political man.
I had this very chat with a friend of mine on Facebook recently, and his view was that because he had such admiration for Mattis, it did not matter what the general’s political views were. And besides, how could a man he admired as much as Mattis possibly have political views antithetical to his own?
Putting aside the fallacy of assuming that someone’s political views are correlated with one’s character, this conversation revealed the vacuity of many in the pro-Mattis movement. To be precise, Trump’s supporters are just as enthusiastic about his character as Mattis’ are about his, and neither man has put forward a set of plans to address the hard problems we face. So while I respect Mattis and have no respect for Trump, I am equally at a loss to discern what it is Mattis would do if elected. The “Mattis for President” crowd is replicating behavior they find execrable in Trump supporters (cult of personality, lack of policy substance) and it is lost upon them.
Maybe Gen. Jim Mattis would make a wonderful president. Maybe he would turn out to possess a governing philosophy consistent with my policy preferences. But I’m not prepared to bet on that, and I urge my GOP friends to put aside their quixotic hope for a political savior, and instead, work to nominate a Republican with well-developed policy ideas.
Bryan McGrath is the Managing Director of The FerryBridge Group LLC. He was the Navy and Marine Corps Policy Team Lead for the Rubio Presidential Campaign, and is now supporting the Ted Cruz campaign.
Photo credit: U.S. Embassy Kabul Afghanistan