The democratic cliché has never been truer: We get the candidates we deserve. But what about the candidates we need?
This much is certain today: Donald Trump is finally starting to slip. The Republican front-runner won’t secure his party’s nomination for president on the first ballot. His rivals will not roll over and accept his claim that the candidate with a plurality of delegates should win. Republicans are divided. What a fine mess.
Maybe the only thing worse than being a disaffected conservative is being a disappointed liberal. Sure, the Republicans are self-immolating, but have you seen the Democratic frontrunner? Rest assured, the plutocrats will be well taken care of.
The great weakness of our politics today is the longing for a savior. Trump resonates because Americans feel something is deeply and fundamentally wrong with their country. Conditions are ripe for a demagogue like Trump to rise.
What we’re missing are the statesmen.
They are rare and not easy to spot. The difference between a statesman and a mere politician often boils down to the ability to make the right decision at the right time. Sometimes, the best statesmen are the most reluctant politicians.
Frontrunner anxiety has led to some creative thinking – “wishful thinking” may be more like it – about 11th-hour alternatives. Suddenly, we’re seeing articles with headlines like: “This Man Can Save Us from Trump – and Clinton.”
That was the headline the other day at The Daily Beast. The man in question is retired Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis, former commander of U.S. Central Command.
He left the Marines in 2013, ushered out over disagreements with the Obama administration’s muddled efforts in the Middle East. He reportedly ruled out a presidential run last year. But that was before the Summer of Trump turned into the Political Freak Show of 2016.
Mattis is a warrior monk, an American of rare distinction. He’s an intellectual and a man of the people, a commander lauded by his peers, beloved by his Marines, respected and feared by his enemies. He exemplifies the critical difference between words and deeds. Trump is all bluster. He switches his positions every 15 minutes. When Mattis talks, you can believe he means what he says.
When Mattis led the 1st Marine Division into Iraq in 2003, he carried a rifle and a copy of the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. Upon meeting Iraqi military commanders who had just surrendered, Mattis said: “I come in peace. I didn’t bring artillery. But I’m pleading with you, with tears in my eyes: If you (mess) with me, I’ll kill you all.”
No wonder some people would like to see him in the Oval Office someday.
We lament all the ways our candidates are unworthy of the office they seek and unworthy of our votes. But are we worthy of anyone who is worthy of the office?
Clifford Angell Bates, a political scientist who teaches at the American Studies Center at the University of Warsaw, posted on Facebook last week that men like Mattis don’t seek the presidency “because there is something dishonorable required with the expectations of a democratic political process, and the media system that one would have to engage if one would seek nomination and election.”
In other words: Why run for office when the New York Times and the National Enquirer will tear your life apart?
I don’t know if Mattis would be a good president; we’ve had mixed success with former generals in our history. I imagine many readers would object to my characterization of him as a worthy candidate. His role as a commander in a disastrous war would likely disqualify him for some. So be it. He would nevertheless be an excellent candidate in a field of mediocrities.
That’s precisely why a “Draft Mattis” movement makes sense – and is almost certain to fail. We need a candidate like Mattis this year of all years. But we don’t deserve him.
Ben Boychuk is associate editor of the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.