Leave it to Mass to generate an anti-Trump Republican who whines about socialism
Elizabeth Warren won’t be the only candidate representing the Commonwealth in the 2020 presidential race, and Donald Trump won’t be the only one seeking the Republican nomination.
Former Mass Gov. Bill Weld announced last month his intention to challenge Trump in the GOP primary, marking the first time since 1992 that a sitting president has had to defend their presidency from within their own party.
“In every country, there comes a time when patriotic men and women must stand up and speak out,” Weld said at an event in New Hampshire, the first state to hold a presidential primary. “In our country, this is such a time.”
Considered a moderate in the traditional Massachusetts Republican mold—a free-market ideologue who supports socially liberal issues like abortion, LGBTQ rights, and cannabis legalization—Weld served as governor from 1991 to 1997. In 1994, he won reelection in the biggest landslide in state history.
With the announcement, Weld becomes Trump’s first legitimate challenger for the GOP nomination. Other more center-leaning Republicans like former Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake and former Mass Gov. Mitt Romney (now the senator from Utah) have been floated as potential candidates as well, but still haven’t thrown their hats in the ring.
Weld, like any Republican looking to unseat Trump, will face long odds. The president enjoys a nearly 90% approval rating among GOP voters, higher than any incumbent to face a challenge from within their own party. In 2018, Gov. Charlie Baker, who got his political start as undersecretary of Health and Human Services in the Weld administration, pulled less than 70 percent of the vote in his reelection primary against Scott Lively, an underfunded right-wing zealot who tied himself to Trump. All of this is compounded by the fact that a sitting president has not been successfully usurped by a member of his own party in modern history.
That doesn’t mean Weld can’t do damage. He refers to the prospect of another Trump term in the White House as a “political tragedy,” and he doesn’t shy away from the idea of his quixotic bid hurting the president in the general election.
“The last five primary challengers to a sitting president running for reelection, those presidents all lost,” Weld said. “When there’s no challengers, those presidents all won.”
Since the Richard Nixon administration, just three sitting presidents have faced serious challenges for their party’s nomination. Gerald Ford was challenged by Ronald Reagan in 1976, Jimmy Carter by Ted Kennedy in 1980, and George H.W. Bush by Pat Buchanan in 1992. All three presidents survived the primary but lost the general election.
But those challenges were different in nature to Weld’s. Reagan ran against Ford as a staunch supply-side economics advocate, Kennedy had challenged Carter from the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, and Buchanan took the hard-right populist position against the establishment-tied Bush.
Weld’s campaign, should it materialize, would be different. Whereas the aforementioned challengers took on their party’s president for a perceived move to the center, Weld’s bid will take on the populist right. But a fight for the soul of a political party, Weld says, isn’t without precedent.
“When the Whig Party broke in two in the 1850s over the issue of slavery, the southern half became the Know-Nothing Party, because they would say ‘I know nothing’ at their secret meetings,” Weld said in an interview with Yahoo News. “They were characterized by violent anti-immigrant fervor. They hated Catholics, they hated immigrants coming over from Germany and Italy. Also violent rallies and a devotion to conspiracy theories. Well that sounds awfully familiar to me, that’s the Trump campaign of 2016.”
That’s not to say that Weld doesn’t have any radically conservative ideas of his own; for starters, his platform includes further tax cuts and the elimination of the Department of Education. He’s also backed some of Trump’s most significant moves as president, including his policy toward Venezuela and the nominations of Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court.
But as the conservative movement, and the Republican Party, rapidly moves to the right, Weld’s business-minded libertarianism appears as moderation.
“We need the opposite of socialism,” Weld said, alluding to growing progressive and left-wing politics gaining salience in the Democratic primary.
While derailing Trump’s hope for another term is clearly on the former governor’s mind, he also claims to see a path for victory. The early phase of the campaign will focus heavily on New Hampshire, where he believes the independent nature of Granite State voters and the proximity to his home state could help make him competitive. The numbers look good for Trump, but some polling (which should be taken with a grain of salt, particularly at this early juncture) shows some glimmers of hope for Weld. A month ago, a poll showed that over a quarter of NH Republicans would be open to supporting Weld. More significantly, a poll from earlier this week showed Trump’s support among Republicans, which has been so reliable for so long, may be softening. And if he does well in the first primary, everything changes.
“New Hampshire can have a domino effect,” Weld said.
Weld’s candidacy represents the visceral disgust with Trump politics. Beyond some of the mainstream corruption charges and overt nods to white nationalism, policy critiques take a back seat among never-Trump conservatives. Weld, and the people he’s reaching out to, value the traditional concept of statesmanship over issues-based politics. In 2016, he spent a lot of his time as Libertarian VP nominee encouraging undecided voters in swing states to vote for Hillary Clinton, theoretically his opponent, to block Trump.
But for the Bay State’s former governor, this campaign is a culmination of the role he’s forged as a member of the conservative movement at war with the GOP’s right flank.
He left the corner office in 1997 to take a job as Bill Clinton’s ambassador to Mexico, only to have his nomination blocked by hardline conservatives in the Senate over his support for medical marijuana legalization. At the time, Sen. Jesse Helms said his opposition to Weld “has everything to do with the future of the Republican Party.”
“I’m going to rage against the dying light,” Weld told Rolling Stone.