If only Jim Mattis ran for president

Many Americans don’t appear to be terribly enamored by the prospect of choosing between former President Donald Trump and President Joe Biden come November. The polls show both men are broadly unpopular, with Biden holding a 39% approval rating (56% disapproval) and Trump holding a 43% favorability rating (52% unfavorable). Could a third-party candidate competitively enter the race? If so, who?

I suspect that he would be loath to return to Washington, but as the world burns fiercer each passing day, I can think of few better prospective candidates than former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. A retired four-star Marine Corps general, Mattis has dedicated his life to the country and its values. He has earned the right to a happy retirement and, since the summer of 2022, to enjoy his marriage. Still, it is at least an interesting thought exercise to consider how better a President Mattis might be than either Trump or Biden.

Mattis appears to be politically moderate. But he has three key traits that would make him very well placed to manage the responsibilities of the presidency during a period of great and rising international tension: intellect, moral courage, and decisiveness. Those traits would be well-matched to Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong Un, and Ayatollah Khamenei.

Mattis is poorly understood by many, seen primarily through the prism of his Marine Corps nickname, “Mad Dog Mattis.” Few note that Mattis was also known as the “warrior monk.” Far from a mad dog, Mattis is a scholar first and warrior practitioner second. He has made clear that books and history are as important tools for a military or civilian leader as are the rifle for a Marine and charisma for a politician. Any cursory study of Mattis’s speeches will show that he prioritizes alliances and deterrence over the resort of military force. But so also does Mattis recognize the exigent importance of taking decisive action when conflict arrives.

His ability to balance the art of diplomacy and the art of war was perhaps best crystalized by his nonemotional handling of a February 2018 crisis with Russia. That crisis came when mercenaries acting under the Russian GRU intelligence service attacked a U.S. military position in Syria. Americans were about to die. Mattis responded in a manner that the Russians respected and understood: While he sought to avoid conflict, Mattis did not blink in the face of Moscow’s attempt to kill Americans in the grey zone. He annihilated the mercenary forces. Such effective crisis management would be of great value in today’s increasingly unstable world. It would also be of great value to the Central Intelligence Agency.

Moreover, there are clear differences between Mattis and the two men most likely to compete to take the oath of office on Jan. 20, 2025.

Unlike the incumbent president and his predecessor, Mattis has a strong relationship with truth and reality. Mattis spent 44 years defending the nation with the Marine Corps. Unlike the incumbent president, Mattis has never presented himself as the last redoubt of American democracy or portrayed a large swathe of his fellow countrymen as traitors. Neither would Mattis ever employ enlisted Marines as partisan props. Unlike Trump, Mattis does not appear to view himself as a living messiah. Unlike Trump (and Mattis’s far less impressive Army counterpart, David Petraeus), Mattis has protected nuclear weapons secrets. Unlike Trump, Mattis does not view the mirror on the wall as his one and only daily guide to the national interest.


Unlike Trump and Biden, Mattis treasures Marines active and retired (see a stellar example of leadership in the video at the end of this article). I know this personally. Mattis once took the time to call my now nearly 99-year-old Pacific Marine veteran grandfather on his birthday.

So yes, Mattis is highly unlikely to run for president. But there’s good reason to wish that he would.