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Who is Gen. James Mattis, and why do some Republicans want to run him for president?

Gen. James Mattis Attends Confirmation Hearing To Head US Central Command (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

Have you heard of Marine Gen. James "Mad Dog" Mattis? Probably not, and that's okay — not that many people outside of military circles have.

But a small number of influential Republicans think he should become our next president.

For the past several weeks, a "Draft Mattis" campaign has been gearing up. The effort was first reported by the Daily Beast's Tim Mak in early April, who found that it had already gained some serious heft. "Close to a dozen influential donors — involving politically-involved billionaires with deep pockets and conservative leanings — are ready to put their resources behind Mattis," Mak reported.

"At their request, a small group of political operatives have taken the first steps in the strategic legwork needed for a bid: a package of six strategic memos outlining how Mattis could win the race, in hopes of coaxing him in."

Saying that this effort is wildly unlikely to succeed might be an understatement. But the fact that it exists at all — that literal billionaires are willing to pony up for an über-long shot — testifies to just how serious the collective freakout in the Republican party is getting.

And it's already been a crazy year.

Just this morning, Mattis gave a high-profile address on the Middle East at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, one of Washington's most famous think tanks.

Maybe the Draft Mattis campaign will go a little further than we think.

Who is James Mattis, anyway?

Gen. James Mattis Attends Confirmation Hearing To Head US Central Command (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Gen. James Mattis, known to his troops as "Mad Dog" because of his badass combat reputation, recently finished a celebrated 41-year career and is a legend in the Marine Corps. But the idea that he might someday be president arose during the Iraq War.

In November 2003, Mattis wrote a letter exhorting the benefits of reading for military officers, especially during an ongoing war. "Perhaps if you are in support functions waiting on the warfighters to spell out the specifics of what you are to do, you can avoid the consequences of not reading," Mattis wrote. "Those who must adapt to overcoming an independent enemy's will are not allowed that luxury."

The intellectually impressive email flew around Marine inboxes, essentially the 2003 equivalent of going viral. It established Mattis's reputation as the Marine Corps' "Warrior Monk" — a general who's equal parts scrapper and thinker.

During the Iraq War, he developed a reputation for strategic brilliance. Mattis commanded Marines through the first battle of Fallujah in early 2004, some of the bloodiest fighting in the war against al-Qaeda insurgents, and made major battlefield progress before being ordered by to pull out.

His Marines nearly worshipped him. According to one story, he volunteered for guard duty on Christmas Day so a young Marine could go spend time with his family.

Mattis is also famously blunt, for better or for worse. In 2005, for example, he spoke about how much he enjoyed killing Taliban fighters during a deployment to Afghanistan:

You go into Afghanistan, you got guys who slap women around for five years because they didn’t wear a veil. You know, guys like that ain’t got no manhood left anyway. So it’s a hell of a lot of fun to shoot them.

These qualities — smart, loyal, straight-talking — led Marines to start joking that Mattis should become president. It wasn't until years later, after he'd received several promotions and then eventually retired, that the joke would morph into something serious.

The guy who kicked it off is John Noonan, a longtime GOP foreign policy hand who worked for the Romney campaign in 2012 and Jeb Bush's abortive 2016 run. Noonan, who is ex-military, found himself unemployed after Bush suspended his campaign — and despondent at the thought of being forced to choose between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton in the general election.

So he did what any right-thinking political operative would do: He wrote an op-ed.

"This man can save us from Trump — and Hillary," blared the headline of Noonan's article, published in the Daily Beast on March 26. The piece argued for Mattis on grounds of intellectual fitness and character, sure, but also electability. Noonan believed that Mattis could gain enough traction to deny the nomination to both Clinton and Trump, or even outright win a majority in the Electoral College.

After Noonan's op-ed went actual-viral on Facebook, a number of Republicans approached Noonan, saying that they liked the idea of trying to draft Mattis. Thus, according to Noonan, the Draft Mattis movement was born.

"It got a hell of a lot of traffic, and the response to it was overwhelmingly positive," Noonan said. "Serious people, like the people who are involved with this effort, realized that there's a real appetite out there for another choice," he explained, and "that turned into conversations with a group led by [GOP consultants] Joel Searby and Rick Wilson."

It's grown since then, attracting the donor and operative infrastructure that Mak reported in his piece in the Daily Beast. There's no denying, at this point, that Draft Mattis is a real thing.

By all rights, the Draft Mattis campaign should be doomed

DIRECTV And Operation Gratitude Provide A Day Of Service At The Fifth Annual DIRECTV Dealer Revolution Conference (Bryan Steffy/Getty Images for DIRECTV)

But there's a big problem for the Draft Mattis campaign: Getting their guy in the White House will be virtually impossible.

First, they have to convince Mattis to run. It's not obvious that someone with Mattis's set of interests and checkered history of public comments would be the kind of person who would even want to be president. When the Daily Caller's Jamie Weinstein asked Mattis if he was interested after Noonan's op-ed, he didn't exactly sound enthused.

"Haven't seen the reports and I’m quite sure it's just idle talk," Mattis said. "I prefer not to discuss further, Jamie. I think it's merely idle chatter."

Since then, Noonan and the rest of the Draft Mattis team have sent the general a series of memos scouting out a path to victory. So it's possible he's changed his mind. But during his Friday appearance at CSIS, he suggested otherwise, saying "I haven't given any thought" to a presidential run.

Even if Mattis does enter, his pathway to victory — or to even having a meaningful impact on the race — would be very steep.

To win the Republican nomination, he'd need to hope like hell that Donald Trump doesn't secure enough delegates to win outright, and then somehow convince Republican delegates to throw the nomination to a little-known general (rather than, say, Ted Cruz or John Kasich) at the convention. This would be tough, since there's virtually no popular demand for Mattis: A March poll of 931 military personnel found only a single write-in vote for the general.

Of course, Mattis could run as an independent. But then he'd face the problem of getting on the ballot for the general election, which would be nigh-impossible given the deadlines. To get on the ballot in Texas, for example, Team Draft Mattis would need to get 79,939 signatures on a petition by May 9 — but those signatures can only come from voters who didn't vote in either party's primary.

Noonan told me that the Draft Mattis team may soon start getting ready to put together ballot petitions in various states, an effort that would include making legal challenges against more restrictive state rules like those in Texas. Experts, however, think it's too late in the game for any third-party candidate to get on, lawsuits or no.

"There's almost no way they can still get on the ballots," Elaine Kamarck, director of the Center for Effective Public Management at the Brookings Institution, told my colleague Jeff Stein. "I don't know what people are smoking. This is truly a pipe dream."

But let's say for the sake of argument that they do manage get on the ballot. They'd then need to win the actual election, or at least win enough states to deny a majority to either major party candidate (which would throw the election to the House of Representatives for a vote, where Mattis would have a decent shot with the GOP majority).

Noonan emailed me a map with a plan for how to do that. Here it is, with Mattis states in yellow:

(John Noonan/270ToWin)

Assuming that Republicans would abandon Trump in droves — a big if — the bigger problem here is that Mattis is a conservative. That would make him far more likely to split votes with Trump than to take votes from Clinton, which makes winning states like Virginia, Colorado, New Mexico, and Nevada — which Obama carried twice — seem very, very unlikely.

What's much more likely is that a Mattis candidacy would result in a Clinton landslide, as him sapping votes from Trump makes it easier for her to carry a plurality in swing states and even some red-leaning ones. This is the same dynamic we saw in 1992, when Ross Perot's independent candidacy helped her husband beat George H.W. Bush.

So yeah. It's a long shot.

Mostly, this shows how desperate things are for the GOP

Noonan and the other Draft Mattis people aren't stupid — they know exactly how steep of a hill they'd have to climb to make this work. They're banking on the already-absurd nature of this election to allow them to break the rules.

"Conventional wisdom tells you none of this is possible," Noonan says. Yet "there's been one iota of conventional wisdom that's been proven correct this election — it's that conventional wisdom doesn't mean a damn thing."

This is a striking thing to hear from someone with Noonan's establishment credentials. Usually, leading party operatives are very comfortable with the party's procedures and are horrified by anything that breaks with tradition.

Yet this time around, serious Republican operatives have been reduced to banking on a long shot to secure a candidate they can really get behind. This is how desperate Trump has made them.

So while Draft Mattis has little chance of succeeding — not zero chance, just very, very little chance — it is a valuable window into the mindset that's taken over the conservative political class. The Trump insurgency has driven some Republicans to plan a counter-insurgency against their own party. And who better to lead a counter-insurgency than a Marine general nicknamed "Mad Dog"?

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