Over the holidays, President Donald J. Trump has taken to Twitter to respond to Defense Secretary James N. Mattis’s resignation letter. The retired general wrote that his “views on treating allies with respect and also being clear-eyed about both malign actors and strategic competitors are strongly held and informed by over four decades of immersion in these issues.” Trump tweeted that he gave Mattis “a second chance” even though “[s]ome thought I shouldn’t.” The president further countered that our allies are not important “when they take advantage of [the] U.S.” He then announced via Twitter that Mattis would leave office two months earlier than originally planned. The following day Trump tweeted that “countries take total advantage of the U.S.” and that “Mattis did not see this as a problem.”
Trump is a notorious and often successful counterpuncher. But attacking the legendary four-star general is unlikely to work. Mattis’s letter of resignation is a strong rebuke of Trumpism. It is the former Commander of the United States Central Command lecturing a national security novice.
It also shows how Democrats could expose some of Trump’s greatest weaknesses in 2020 by nominating a former high-ranking military officer.
A Democratic nominee with decades of military and national security experience would serve as a constant reminder to the voters that this is an area of which Trump is particularly ignorant.
In a decision that was criticized by Republicans and Democrats alike (and reportedly contributed to Mattis’s resignation), Trump decided to withdraw American troops from Syria without first consulting either his national security team or our allies.
The president tweeted that America is withdrawing because “[w]e have defeated ISIS in Syria.” But the very next day, he said we are actually leaving because we should not be “staying & killing ISIS” on Syria’s behalf.
A former military officer could also demonstrate how Trump on veterans issues so often is more talk than action. Trump has made his support for the military a central component of his political platform, and he has repeatedly declared his reverence for those who serve and sacrifice. Yet he did not even cross the river to Arlington National Cemetery to mark Veterans Day this past year. It took him close to two years to visit our troops in combat zones (President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaTo Build Back Better, improving Black women's health is a must Rahm Emanuel has earned M since leaving Chicago's city hall: report 60 years after the Peace Corps, service still brings Americans together MORE visited Iraq shortly after his 2009 inauguration). During the recent visit, Trump told the troops that he had given them a 10-percent pay raise (it is, in fact, 2.6 percent), and that they had not received a pay increase in 10 years (they have actually received one every year for at least a decade).
Trump’s administration said it would make it a top priority to reduce the suicide rate among veterans, but in fact the Department of Veterans Affairs has spent less than 1 percent of its $6.2 million media budget to advertise its crisis hotline; suicide prevention efforts have fallen sharply, and the number of young veterans who died by suicide has climbed.
Nominating a military officer may also be the best way for Democrats to disarm Trump’s bullying tactics on the campaign trail.
The best way to beat a bully is not to nominate one, but instead to choose a candidate who cannot easily be bullied. A candidate who has served as a high-ranking military officer would project strength without having to prove it. This is important, given that one of Trump’s foremost assets is that many view him as a “strong and decisive leader.” A high-ranking military officer would be in a better position than most to disarm Trump’s signature ad hominem attacks by, instead of fighting back, focusing on the pressing concerns of the voters.
The past midterm election is instructive. Veterans, especially female veterans, were unusually successful. They benefitted from the higher trust people place in the military and from a lower risk of being perceived as weak. The military enjoys greater public confidence than most other institutions, including organized religion, big business, Congress, organized labor, and the presidency. The American people today disagree on almost everything, but a vast majority still has confidence in the armed forces.
One potential Democratic candidate is General John R. Allen (Ret.), who delivered a forceful speech at the 2016 Democratic National Convention against Trumpism, emphasizing that international relations should “not be reduced to a business transaction.” Allen served as the commander of the NATO International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, and he is currently the president of the Brookings Institution.
Another person that the Democrats should consider is Admiral James G. Stavridis (Ret.), former Supreme Allied Commander Europe, who was vetted two years ago as Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonHeller won't say if Biden won election Whitmer trailing GOP challenger by 6 points in Michigan governor race: poll GOP political operatives indicted over illegal campaign contribution from Russian national in 2016 MORE’s running mate. Stavridis, who recently stepped down as the dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, has criticized Trump for wasting money and training time on sending active-duty troops to the southern border.
If his health permits, Admiral William H. McRaven (Ret.), who led the operation that killed Osama bin Laden and who has repeatedly criticized Trump’s attacks on the media as “the greatest threat to our democracy in my lifetime,” would be a stellar candidate, too. As would Mattis — if he could be persuaded to run as a Democrat.
Of course, whoever ends up as the Democratic nominee will systematically be mocked and denigrated by Trump.
In light of Trump’s ad hominem campaign style and his weaknesses on national security and veterans issues, it is hard to think of a stronger presidential contender to run against him than a nominee who has served in uniform for decades.
Simon Hedlin is a public policy researcher and writer. He served as a political advisor at the Prime Minister’s office in Sweden. He graduated Harvard University’s Kennedy School and has a masters in economics and statistics from Columbia University. Follow him on Twitter @simonhedlin.