William Weld, the blue-blooded former two-term governor of Massachusetts, was controversial among Libertarians a good decade before becoming the most high-profile and numerically successful vice presidential nominee in the party's 45-year history. (The reticence is a long story; start here.)
Then came a highly contentious, razor-thin victory on the second ballot of the Libertarian Party National Convention; a deluge of national media attention, a hard stumble out of the gate on CNN where he referred to Hillary Clinton as an "old friend" and "nice kid" (which he later walked back), speculation (hotly denied) from Weld's friend Carl Bernstein that he was thinking about dropping out to support Clinton, a report from Weld's hometown newspaper (also denied) that the L.P. VP candidate "plans to focus exclusively on blasting Donald Trump over the next five weeks," a special message to non-third-party voters that they should vote against the "unhinged" Trump, and then—most controversially of all, by far—an appearance on MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show show, one week before Election Day, in which he said "I'm here vouching for Mrs. Clinton."
By that time, Libertarians and libertarians alike were fed up enough that the party chapter in Weld's neighboring state of Rhode Island chose to cancel a campaign event rather than deal with the fallout. To the end, and even beyond, Weld was not just a lightning rod, but a hotly disputed symbol: If you thought that the L.P. finally punched above its weight, he was proof that the party was now attracting impressive Normals. If you thought 2016 was a historic face-plant given the opportunity, he was the avatar for principles-free, ex-Republican centrism.
On Saturday night, Weld gave his first major political speech since the election, at a Students for Liberty (SFL) regional conference in New York. A week before, he had generated a headline or two by giving the Boston Globe a playful "Who knows?" when asked about whether he'd run again in 2020. "The most I've said is I'm still a Libertarian, and as the years roll by I'll probably want to be involved in the discussion leading up to 2020, and supportive of the Libertarian Party," he told the paper.
The L.P. right now is in a curious place vis-à-vis high-profile candidates: It is the third party in America, yet just about every major 2016-election figure not named Weld has stepped away from third-party politics. The 2012/2016 nominee has checked out (headline from David Weigel's interview last week: "Gary Johnson is back, and he's never running for office again"). Nomination runner-up Austin Petersen is running for U.S. Senate in Missouri as a #MAGA-curious Republican (and is a distant second so far in fundraising); third-place finisher John McAfee these days is mostly talking publicly about crypto-currencies.
Arguably the party's biggest national figure—who has been working the state-L.P.-convention circuit in a way that Weld decidedly has not, hyping a bottom-up, seven-year plan for the party's success—is 2016 V.P. runner-up Larry Sharpe, currently running for governor of New York. "He's a real good candidate," Weld tells me. "I told him I'm going to do whatever I can for him in New York." In 2018, anyway!
I caught up with Bill Weld just before his SFL speech Saturday, to talk about whether he was still as bullish on both the L.P.'s future and his role within the party as he was a year ago, and how he feels about various 2016-related controversies. The following is an edited and shortened transcript of our conversation:
Reason: So, the last time I saw you—correct me if I'm wrong—was about 45 minutes after we knew Donald Trump was going to win on election night…the world was sort of in shock at the moment. We'd had some idea that you guys had won around three percent, I don't know how much we knew the numbers, but we knew it wasn't going to be five. And you were walking to the elevators and I stuck that phone in front of your face, and you were—surprisingly, to me—very buoyant. You were like, "Great night, I fully expect," the quote was, "the Libertarian Party to be the biggest party in the country within 8 to 12 years." Perfectly set up. And you were not disappointed at all, at least that's how you expressed it at the time. So I guess the first question is—
Weld: I thought I didn't know that Trump was going to win until I got upstairs with Leslie. Did we know that downstairs? […]
[Note: Weld's memory was more right than mine; Trump had won Florida, and was looking solid, but the national race had not yet been called.]
Reason: Broader point was that you were upbeat in the moment, like you felt like that the results, the campaign, had gone well; the L.P. was well-suited, and you were, to take advantage of where American politics were going, and that you intended to be part of it in the next 8 to 12 years.
Weld: That's how it's panning out.
Reason: In what way is it panning out?
Weld: Well, I'll talk about it tonight, but I see the Libertarian Party as being perfectly positioned to fill what's a growing need in the country, which is either a third party or a different party. There are crevices in support for the duopoly;…more and more time has gone by where the two parties in Washington are simply trying to kill each other. And they have one thing in common: They want to perpetuate their duopoly, and that's not efficient. Monopolies are not efficient, they have no incentive to be. And duopolies are not really efficient, either.
It's the guild mentality of the Middle Ages: Let's exclude everyone who isn't already inside the clubhouse. It's an ugly picture, and I plan to make a certain amount of noise to try and persuade people that that's the case.
Reason: Now, you guys ran very much as a kind of, there's a six-lane highway in the center of the road kinda thing.
Reason: And you had, I think, a very plausible kind of executive-competence claim as well, that I thought would in fact do better than it did, or be more persuasive than it was. But looking at that concept that yes, people are tired of the duopoly and the bickering and all that—there's different clusters of different humans who are out there responding to that. Bill Kristol has a very similar response as you, but Bill Kristol is nobody's libertarian. Is the place to be then the center of the road? Or is looking at it ideologically, is that in itself kind of the wrong response to what has been more of a kind of populist cultural moment?
Weld: Well, one place to be is on the ballot in all 50 states.
Reason: There's that.
Weld: That's where the Libertarian Party will be. And people who want to start these third parties from scratch—I take my hat off to them, but it's simply a lot more trouble than going with one of the three parties. And there are three, not two, who are going to be on the ballot in all 50 states.
The Libertarian Party is more congenial to me, dogmatically, ideologically, than either of the other two parties, because the Democratic Party is not fiscally responsible and the Republican Party is not socially tolerant. So I'm one for two in each of the other two parties.
I hear a lot more conversation now than I did two years ago about, hey, maybe it would be a good idea if there was something a little different, a little bit different [kind of] party. And as you recall, I spent a lot of last year predicting that the Republican Party was going to split in half like the Whigs in the 1850s. And it didn't quite happen then, but you could argue that it's kind of happened with the Republican Party this year, in that you have the party of the president and those who follow him, and then you have many people who are Republicans who differ with the president, either on program or on style, for want of a better word.
Reason: One such person would be a Jeff Flake figure. Do you think the future of a Jeff Flake character, whether it's that person himself or the person who is like him, is in the Libertarian Party going forward?
Weld: I would hope so, I would hope so. I intend to have conversations with people: Really now, why not? Why not? Is being against the legalization of marijuana so important for you that you don't want to be in the Libertarian Party, given that A-B-C-D-E? Or tell me the one issue.
Reason: Not to go too far down that rabbit hole, but you used to be a prosecutor, you used to not be on the perfect Libertarian ground on the legalization of marijuana, and [then] you're running with a pothead, and I say that with affection, as you know.
Weld: I'm running with a cannabis executive.
Reason: Thank you. How did running as a Libertarian change your views on that issue in particular, if at all, and on any other issues?
Weld: Well, that one was a special issue because it was so important to Gary. It was the signature issue of his candidacy, so I wasn't about to pick a scab on that issue. I did support the ballot issue in Massachusetts last year to legalize marijuana, and my friends in the D.A.'s offices were not pleased with that, but I think it was the right thing to do. My argument is, get it out of the shadows. I just hope they don't put the tax too high or they're going to drive it right back in the shadows.
Reason: Sounds like you're kind of all-in here. If [Ohio Gov.] John Kasich and [Colorado Gov. John] Hickenlooper start some Third Way party tomorrow, are they going to compete for Bill Weld's affection with the Libertarian Party. or are you L.P. through and through?
Weld: Oh no, I'm going to stay L.P.
I've supported Governor Kasich for president either two or three times. I supported him back in 2000, the first time he ran, early on, and raised money for him. And did a lot with him in the mid-'90s when he was chair of the House Budget Committee. And I happened to be in his office on a work matter when Sheryl Stolberg from The New York Times was interviewing him about possibly running last time, and gave her a long interview about why he'd be great and how he could do it. So I was very interested in that Kasich-Hickenlooper hitch-up or matchup. I don't know that they're still doing it, but in 2008 I supported and was quite active in an organization called Unity 2008, whose premise was we needed a president of one party and a vice president of the other party. And I think that just systemically would make a difference.
Reason: Now, you're familiar enough with libertarians to know that they hate—especially in the party—they hate John Kasich with the fire of a thousand suns.
Weld: Oh, I know. And there's some Ohio politics in that, too.
Reason: Yeah, right. In fact, I was asking someone before, What's the one question you want me to ask Bill Weld? And he said, "Did he call Kasich about ballot access in Ohio?" So: Did you?
Weld: I called someone in Ohio. I'm not sure I reached Kasich, but I made a call. […]
Reason: Kasich also is kind of a classic Mitch Daniels-style fiscal conservative from the early '90s and early aughts, but his foreign policy is very promiscuously interventionist. He was talking about—
Weld: Yeah, I've really come off that. If I had to talk about an issue where the campaign changed my thinking, it probably would be interventionism. I do consider myself an internationalist, but that's different from being an interventionist. I don't like it when I see the body bags coming back. An air strike is maybe something a little different, to project U.S. military power, and Libertarians do believe in a very strong defense, so rattling the saber from time to time is not a bad thing. But U.S. land wars, it'll be a cold day in July before I could think of a U.S. land war that was worth starting. […]
And Afghanistan leaves me totally cold. We can't ever leave? Tell that to the British Empire and the Russian Soviet Union: It bled them both to death, and they both got out. […]
Reason: As you know, the last week in particular of the campaign, a lot of Libertarians were upset with your appearance on Rachel Maddow's show and some other things. Do you have any regrets about—
Weld: No, no. I chose the word "vouch" on purpose. I thought it was a soft word, but apparently many people interpreted it as an endorsement. […]
So, the previous month or two, everyone in the United States had been dumping all over Hillary Clinton in criminal terms—she's a felon, lock her up—and that's not the person I know. And I don't share her politics. […]
But I did not intend that as an endorsement. I intended it to—I think what I said is, I wish there was someone besides members of the Democratic National Committee who would vouch for Mrs. Clinton, even if only to say she's not so bad. That's what I was saying. […]
Reason: But the L.P. activists have a point when they say, "Look, it's a week before the election, and this is your competitor, and you're on Rachel Maddow of all places, that not only has a large audience but has a large audience of younger people who are probably going to lean more left than not, and you're telling them"—
Weld: Well, I did get the question the last week of the campaign, "Are you saying that people should vote for Mrs. Clinton?"—not from Rachel Maddow, but from a number of other people. And I said, "Hell no, vote for Johnson. I want us to get over five percent."
Reason: I'm sure you've run into this as well—I still don't have a good answer for it—but when people look back at your campaign, the words that you'll hear are, "it was a historical success" and "it was a historic failure." You will oftentimes hear that in the same sentence.
[You] tripled the size of the previous record for votes; it's pretty amazing to see that happen. You had candidates that were taken seriously by the media in a way that used to never happen. There's a lot of metrics—[ballot access in] all 50 states, beat the Green Party in every state, super successful. But! The two most reviled major party candidates in history, by a lot; polls right before Election Day were saying 4.8 percent, you get 3.4 [actually 3.3], and it feels like this was a squandered opportunity. So how do you look at it in terms of results, expectations and all that?
Weld: Well, you know, we had $15 million to spend, and they had billions. If we'd had $100 million I think we could have shown enough strength early on so we would have been in the debates. And if we'd been in the debates—you know, Gary was at 13 percent just a week or two before the Commission on Presidential Debates was going to make their decision and they had nailed their own fists to the planks saying that whoever was at 15 was going to get into the debates. And around that time, I believe, one of the major parties dumped a lot of negative advertising on us, and we went down to 5.
Reason: Yeah, that was the September when Tom Steyer and all of that was happening.
Weld: Unanswered negative advertising takes a toll. So, I think that's partly a money thing.
Reason: Do you have any kind of regrets? Do you look at any moments and think "Ah, we screwed that up," or "I screwed that up" or "Gary screwed that up"?
Weld: Not really. Gary and I served together as governors and really got along very well, and I was a self-identified libertarian even before I met Gary Johnson. But I remember we weren't particularly ideological at Republican governors meetings, we just had a good time, so there was never any friction. And we did all our [campaign] rallies together. We could have given each other's speeches by the end, and sometimes did.
Reason: Have you been in touch? Or is he still off skiing the Continental Divide?
Weld: No, no, I talked to Gary last week. He's in a very good frame of mind. […]
Reason: Briefly on the money thing: That was part of the attractiveness of Bill Weld, is not only that you have a resume, but you know how to talk to rich people. What did you learn rattling the tin cup for a third party as opposed to the Republican Party?
Weld: A lot of people just said "No way." And some people, particularly in New York, said yes who were not members of the Libertarian Party, but they were exactly in the same place as I was politically, and they said "OK, we'll give you a shake, here's a hundred grand or here's two-fifty. Your voice deserves to be heard." But that's a far cry from what the other parties were getting, even in their campaign committees, let alone their 501(c)(4)s and their Super PACs.
Reason: There's a lot of different kinds of heated debate in the party right now about how to go forward and take advantage of the moment and keep the momentum. Do you have a working theory of how the L.P. continues to grow going forward, or a thing it should do that it hasn't been doing? What's your sense?
Weld: Well, you want to get out more candidates like Larry Sharpe in New York. He's a real good candidate. He came very close to winning the VP nomination at the convention. I think if the motion to adjourn had been successful—I told Larry that today—he would have been the V.P. nominee. And that wouldn't have been so bad; he was strong then. And I told him I'm going to do whatever I can for him in New York. My friend Dan Fishman from Massachusetts is going to be a very strong candidate for auditor, and he's off to the races. And I will try to help within the limits of my time, given my law practice and business interests, to help the party raise money. Headlining events and making calls.
Reason: Do you have any interest in being a candidate again for anything?
Weld: That's too far off. I like the way things are right now.