Bill Weld Prepares For Primary Challenge To Trump
Former Massachusetts Governor Bill Weld is preparing for a primary challenge against Donald Trump. He won't win, but he could still have an impact.
Former Massachusetts Governor Bill Weld, who was the Libertarian Party’s nominee for Vice-President in 2016, announced the formation of a Presidential Exploratory Committee today in preparation for an intra-party challenge to President Trump in 2020:
William F. Weld, the maverick former governor of Massachusetts, announced on Friday that he would form an exploratory committee to challenge President Trump for the Republican Party’s 2020 nomination, presenting himself as a dissident voice in a political party that has abandoned its mainstream roots.
Mr. Weld, 73, is the first Republican to announce he will run against the president. But Mr. Weld is unlikely to pose a major threat to Mr. Trump and he is in some ways an incongruous figure to leap into the presidential fray. Mr. Weld is a moderate Republican who ran for vice president in 2016 on the Libertarian ticket. His candidacy might be more of an act of protest than a conventional national campaign.
But appearing in New Hampshire, Mr. Weld called it a moral duty to stand against “the hard heart, closed mind and clenched fist of nativism and nationalism.”
“I hope to see the Republican Party assume once again the mantle of being the party of Lincoln,” Mr. Weld said, according to video posted by the news station WCVB. “It upsets me that our energies as a society are being sapped by the president’s culture of divisiveness of Washington.”
He continued: “We cannot sit passively as our precious democracy slips quietly into darkness.”
Mr. Weld had made little secret in recent months of his interest in challenging Mr. Trump in 2020, either by running for the Libertarian Party’s nomination or by contesting the Republican presidential primaries. He met repeatedly with Republicans organizing opposition to the president, and earlier this month he was reported to have changed his voter registration back to Republican.
Several other Republicans are contemplating challenges to Mr. Trump in the primaries, including Gov. Larry Hogan of Maryland and former Gov. John Kasich of Ohio. Mr. Trump’s aides have taken the threat of a primary challenge seriously enough to undertake a close review of the rules for the Republican nominating convention and to begin scrutinizing state party chairs and potential convention delegates for political loyalty.
But Mr. Trump and his allies have largely declined to go after potential primary rivals in public, trusting that his solid approval ratings with Republicans will insulate him and declining to issue vocal attacks that could have the effect of elevating a challenger.
Mr. Weld, a former federal prosecutor from a prominent Boston family, has spent most of his career as the kind of Republican that used to dominate politics across the Northeast. A fiscal conservative who has long supported gay rights and abortion rights, Mr. Weld could have some appeal to moderate Republicans who feel alienated from their party as it continues to swing far to the right.
But partisan Republicans also have ample reason to regard Mr. Weld with suspicion. He endorsed Barack Obama for president in 2008 over John McCain, before flipping back to the Republican side in 2012 when his friend and longtime ally, Mitt Romney, was the G.O.P. nominee.
Mr. Weld then backed Jeb Bush in the 2016 Republican primaries, before defecting to the Libertarian Party to become the running mate of Gary Johnson, the former governor of New Mexico. The two won a little over 3 percent of the vote.
Mr. Weld explained his decision to run that year as a function of his horror over Mr. Trump’s candidacy, comparing Mr. Trump’s rhetoric about immigration to “the glass crunching on Kristallnacht in the ghettos of Warsaw and Vienna.”
Writing for Reason Matt Welch summarizes Weld’s opening pitch:
The speech was a dry policy sandwich jammed between two juicy slabs of Trump-bashing. “I’m here because I think our country is in grave peril, and I cannot sit quietly on the sidelines any longer,” Weld began. And then, near the close: “I encourage those of you who are watching the current administration nervously but saying nothing to stand up and speak out when lines are crossed in dangerous ways. We cannot sit passively as our precious democracy slips quietly into darkness.”
If that pitch sounds eerily reminiscent of a Trump-era newspaper slogan, it’s no coincidence. Weld shares with his friends in the Acela-corridor journalism world a visceral sense of revulsion at the president’s boorish flouting of behavioral and policy norms. In an opening bill of particulars that wouldn’t look out of place on CNN or MSNBC, the former Massachusetts governor and 2016 Libertarian Party vice presidential nominee eviscerated the president for praising “despotic and authoritarian leaders abroad,” failing to adequately “call out and denounce appalling instances of racism,” and railing against “the very idea of the rule of law.” Then came the editorial board-pleasing kicker:
“He acts like a schoolyard bully, except of course when he’s around other bullies, like Mr. Putin,” Weld charged. “And then he turns ingratiating, all smiles, kicks the American press out of the Oval Office, and has his summit meeting with Mr. Putin with no news media present except TASS—the state organ in Russia. For what possible reason?” (Later, when asked to cite one particularly egregious and motivational Trump outrage, Weld repeated the anecdote.)
Sticking up for the American press corps has not, to put it mildly, been a winning strategy in modern Republican politics. Yet it could help earn Weld a lot of free media and non-Howard Schultzian goodwill, particularly during this man-bites-dog phase of being the only Republican candidate daring and/or foolish enough to take on Donald Trump.
Leaning into that potential role as Trump’s foil, Weld took evident delight this morning reiterating what he told the Manchester Union-Leader yesterday: “My favorite stat on this score is the last nine times a first-term president has sought reelection, the four who had a primary challenge lost, while the five who didn’t have a primary fight won another four-year term….I think 2020 could very well make it five to zero.” If it sounds strange for a political-primary sales pitch to include a gleeful reference to the party in question losing the general election, well, welcome to Weld’s odd world.
But what of Weld’s substantive policy ideas? There, his rap called to mind the 1990s generation of moderate conservative reformers from which he sprang. There was talk of a 19 percent flat tax, Social Security opt-outs, health savings accounts, free trade agreements, job retraining, putting social services out to private bids, letting health care consumers cross state lines, encouraging school choice, abolishing the Department of Education, and so on. The main new 21st century wrinkles to these Mitch Daniels/Steve Forbes-style prescriptions were nods toward criminal justice reform and the legalization of cannabis-related pain relievers.
Like Howard Schultz but unlike virtually all other modern Republicans and Democrats, Weld called for “bold action now” on the “completely crazy” national debt, “before it’s too late.” Here he took a rare swipe at progressives: “Unfortunately, especially in the left wing of the Democratic Party, socialism seems to have replaced any notion of spending restraint,” he said. “We need the opposite of socialism. In the federal budget, the two most important tasks are to cut spending and to cut taxes, and cutting spending comes first.”
Weld also broke with Democrat/media tendencies in calling for the end of the “death tax” and for a reduction of the capital gains tax to 10 percent. He surely will alienate some Republicans, on the other hand, with his desire to get back into the Paris Climate Accord and deliver on “the pressing need to act on climate.” (“It’s not a stretch to say that if climate change is not addressed, our coastlines and those of all other countries will, over time, be obliterated by storm surge and the melting of the polar ice cap. Yet climate skeptics claim that they aren’t concerned!”) And he’s aligned more with Trump than the establishment when it comes to opposing “regime change in foreign countries at the whim of the U.S. government, even in the absence of any substantial threat to the United States.”
Realistically speaking, of course, Weld stands no chance of actually winning the Republican nomination over Trump absent some truly extraordinary circumstances. As I’ve pointed out before, no primary challenge to a sitting President has been successful in the modern era, Ronald Reagan came close in his bid against Gerald Ford in 1976, and Ted Kennedy put up a strong challenge against Jimmy Carter in 1980, but neither one managed to deny an incumbent the nomination. Pat Buchanan also challenged George H.W. Bush in 1992, but at least in terms of votes didn’t really come as close as Reagan or Kennedy did. The closest example of that we have is the 1968 election when Lyndon Johnson decided not to run for re-election after a disappointing, albeit still victorious, performance against Eugene McCarthy in the New Hampshire primary that year. There is no reason to believe that the outcome will be any different this year.
The unlikelihood of an intra-party challenge to Trump being successful is made even more apparent when one looks at the current state of the Republican Party. As I’ve noted many times since 2016, most especially here and here, the Republican Party is basically now Trump’s party and, outside of a handful of members of the House and Senate and some political leaders outside Washington, there is very little dissent from the President’s agenda and almost nobody speaking out when the President does or says something outrageous. Additionally, while Trump’s job approval with the general public remains historically low, his support among Republicans generally stands at 88% approve and higher. Add to this the fact that the Republican National Committee has effectively become a branch of the Trump 2020 campaign to the point where one member of committee has suggested that the party should ban primaries altogether for the 2020 election and the odds of any candidate, least of all Weld, being able to pick much momentum is fairly low.
Notwithstanding this, political strategist Liz Mair argues that Weld could make a mark in at least one state in a manner that would at the very least leave a mark on the President:
Weld was the governor of Massachusetts between 1991 and 1997. What state neighbors Massachusetts, sits within the Boston media market, and over the last 20 to 30 years happens to have become home to a huge number of moderate-conservative types who normally vote Republican and have exiled themselves from “Taxachusetts”—but many of whom still commute in to Boston for work every day?
That’s right, it’s New Hampshire, home to the first-in-the-nation primary, a virtually non-existent tax regime, and a propensity for the weird-like a protest that occurred in front of the state capitol there about 10 years ago featuring yoga practitioners doing “down dog” while exercising their Second Amendment rights, fully armed with big guns.
New Hampshire has been the migration point for the “Free State Movement,” which seeks to get libertarian-minded people to move more firmly entrench its standing as a home for individuals who favor free markets and free thinking.
Weld is well-known in the state whose motto is “Live Free or Die,” and he undoubtedly has better currency there, because of all these factors plus one more: He was the 2016 Libertarian vice presidential nominee in a year when the Libertarian ticket got about 3.3 percent of the vote nationwide and 4.2 percent in the Granite State itself. Tack on some aggrieved #NeverTrumpers who voted for Clinton in 2016 but will play in a GOP primary contest in 2020, plus independents and moderate-to-libertarian Republicans who have fond memories of Weld, and it’s pretty conceivable that Weld could get to 10 percent or higher.
That is especially so since during 2016, Weld arguably had higher visibility than the actual presidential nominee, Gary Johnson—a trend he’d likely continue in 2020, because Weld handles himself well on TV. He’s clever and funny, a good recipe for a cable news interview.
This last point is a good one, and one of the reasons why Weld got nearly as much media attention in 2016 as Gary Johnson did, with the advantage that Weld came across as far more comfortable with the cable news “talking head” format than Johnson did. Weld also has going for him the fact that he is a Republican with a respectable political resume challenging a sitting President who is insanely popular in his own party. Because of this, Weld could get more media attention than you might otherwise expect in an election cycle like this one is another reason why Weld will likely get some decent media attention at least from CNN and MSNBC (don’t expect Fox News Channel to have anyone critical of the President other than their resident Democratic toadies like Juan Williams.) Additionally, Mair is correct in her assessment that Weld’s brand of moderate libertarian-oriented Republicanism could resonate well among the libertarian element that seems to be fairly strong in the Granite State. In the General Election four years ago, the Johnson/Weld ticket got just over 4% of the vote, better than the national average and roughly in the middle of the pack on the list of states where the duo was on the ballot.
Nathaniel Rakich at FiveThirtyEight makes similar arguments:
I’m skeptical that Weld will make any kind of splash in the Republican presidential primary. But if he does, it will probably be in New Hampshire. Eighty-four percent of New Hampshire residents live in the Boston media market, as Weld has for most of his life. And candidates from neighboring states tend to do well in the New Hampshire primary — just ask former winners Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Mitt Romney, John Kerry and Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts. Moderate Republicans or “mavericks” have also historically found support in New Hampshire, where independent voters (who might identify more with Weld’s party-switching) often make up more than 40 percent of the GOP primary electorate. By contrast, the GOP contests in Iowa and South Carolina are more dominated by evangelicals — definitely not Weld’s speed.
But Trump is also pretty mavericky, and his support among New Hampshire Republicans remains strong according to both polls and activists on the ground. The smart bet is still that he wins New Hampshire again.
Weld’s performance in the Granite State, however — does he win 10 percent of the vote there? 30 percent? — will provide a hint about the feelings of a group of voters that Trump will need behind him in the 2020 general election: independent voters who previously cast a ballot for him. Trump carried independent voters by 4 percentage points in 2016, helping him to eke out an Electoral College victory. If Weld finds a foothold in New Hampshire, that could suggest that Trump is struggling with those voters. That might not hand Bill Weld the GOP nomination, but it could foreshadow trouble for Trump in the general. Remember: All three incumbent presidents to face serious primary challenges during the modern primary era went on to lose in the fall.
Leaving aside the analysis, I will say that Weld is a candidate I could see myself supporting if he were on the ballot by the time the primary rolled around and assuming I didn’t decide to vote in the Democratic primary instead to back a preferred candidate there as I did in 2008 when I voted for Barack Obama, who of course won the Virginia primary that year. I’ve admittedly been a fan of Weld’s since his time of Governor of Massachusetts and he was one of the few prominent libertarian-leaning Republicans that I was able to identify with during the time I still considered myself to be even losely affiliated with that party. I was also among those who hoped for many years that he would switch parties and run for President as a Libertarian, something that came partly true in 2016 when he ran as Gary Johnson’s running mate. Of course, I could also be inclined to vote for John Kasich or Larry Hogan in a primary if that was the best means of sending a message to the President outside of the General Election.
On a final note, it’s worth noting that while intra-party challenges have not been successful against incumbent Presidents, they have had one interesting impact. In each of the example I cited above — Reagan v. Ford in 1976, Kennedy v. Carter in 1980, and Buchanan v. Bush in 1992 — the incumbent President ended up going ahead to win the nomination of their party only to lose in the General Election. While one should always be careful about falling into the correlation/causation trap, this consistency over the course of fifty years suggests its more than just a coincidence. The most likely explanation is that is that the intra-party challenge accomplishes one of two things. Either it weakens the incumbent to some significant degree among regular party voters, which was arguably the case for Ford in 1976 and Carter in 1980, or it pushes the party too far in one ideological direction or the other, which is arguably what happened in 1992 when Buchanan topped off his quixotic campaign with a fire and brimstone culture war speech that gave a stark preview of what the new Republican Party that began to emerge in 1994 would look like. In the case of challenges from candidates like Weld, Kasich, or Hogan the impact is more likely to be of the Reagan/Kennedy variety than the Buchanan variety, or they could have no impact at all. Whichever it is, it would at least be interesting to see Republicans have an opportunity to use a candidate like one or all of these three to send a message that not all Republicans or Republican-leaning independents buy into the Trumpidian Gospel that the GOP has so eagerly adopted.