For the past eight years, Republicans have looked for a political outsider to save them at the national level. They keep coming up empty.
When Barack Obama stunned them by beating Hillary Clinton for the 2008 Democratic nomination, coming from Senate-backbench obscurity to become the left's political savior, the right began looking for his analog. Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin initially fit the bill, but did not pursue elective office in 2012. In her absence, the GOP went through a series of outsider candidates as supposed game-changers: Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, and even former Sen. Rick Santorum, before finally settling on the ultimate insider for the 2012 nomination, Mitt Romney. Now the lust for an outsider has returned with a vengeance, leading to the meteoric rise of Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential nomination race and Ted Cruz as his main opponent.
To keep Trump and Cruz out of the White House, some GOP insiders are now hunting for a "white knight" candidate of their own. The impulse centers on having a contested convention in Cleveland in which no candidate gets to 1,237 delegates on the first ballot, and other candidates get nominated. John Boehner endorsed his successor as House speaker, Paul Ryan, who quickly un-endorsed himself. John Noonan, a defense adviser to the Jeb Bush campaign (and a friend of mine), offered an endorsement last week of another outsider: General James Mattis, USMC (retired), if not as a convention candidate, then as a real outsider in an independent bid for the White House.
"The candidate would need to convey strength in a year teeming with voter concerns about ISIS, cybersecurity, a rising Russia, and Chinese shield-thumping in the Far East," Noonan wrote at The Daily Beast. "So who better than retired Marine General James Mattis?" Noonan equates this with the rise of Dwight Eisenhower as a draft candidate, a movement that began in 1951 when neither party seemed to offer answers to a questionable war in a remote area of the world and an economy that seemed moribund. "Americans were hungry for an outsider then, and are hungry for an outsider now," Noonan reminds us. "[W]ith voters on both sides of the aisle thirsty for a non-politician, who better than the reluctant General Mattis…?"
Let's not forget that the "hungry for an outsider" impulse was how the GOP wound up with Trump in the first place. Also, while Gen. Mattis has served his country with valor and distinction, he's not Eisenhower. Ike was a household name by 1951, having quarterbacked the Allied effort that conquered the Nazis six years prior to his candidacy. The most famous military leader of our time is not Mattis but David Petraeus, the general who saved the U.S. from a humiliating collapse in the Iraq War and who later left the CIA in disgrace over his mishandling of classified information.
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.