Bill Weld

Bill Weld: Libertarianism Is Not Centrism

Former L.P. veep pick says 2016 emphasis on the "six-lane highway" down the middle of the road "might have been a fundamental error."


Bill Weld speaks, Caryn Ann Harlos listens. ||| Matt Welch
Matt Welch

Bill Weld has become such a prominent fixture at Libertarian Party events over the past year, while also doing the party-building work of endorsing candidates and raising money, that most of the drama has been drained from the former Massachusetts governor's interactions with activists still miffed at his November 2016 pre-election character-vouching for Hillary Clinton.

So it came as little surprise Saturday at the Massachusetts state Libertarian Party convention in Springfield that Weld's lunchtime talk did not include any mea culpas about his campaign conduct. But what did come in the sharpest focus I've seen yet from the possible 2020 presidential candidate is an admission of fault, not on behavior but on strategy and messaging.

"When Gary Johnson and I ran," Weld said, "I think we may have overestimated how easy it was going to be to make our case. I can remember Gary saying on day one, 'Well, you know, we're socially welcoming and we're fiscally responsible, and one of the other two parties is not socially welcoming and the other one is not fiscally responsible, so we've got a six-lane highway right up the middle!'…I think that might have been a fundamental error."

This, mind you, from the candidate who told me a year ago that he had no regrets about the comportment of his campaign, not even the late-breaking Clinton business. (He did say in July 2016 that "there are a couple of answers [about Clinton] I have given in the media appearances that we've done that I would like to have back.")

But the six-lane repudiation is part of an ongoing messaging evolution and/or belated ideological realization that the Libertarian idea is not moderate, not pragmatic, but instead its own distinct, sometimes radical ideology that nonetheless has the best practical policy answers to the problems people care about.

"I think the mistake that Gary and I may have made is we would say, 'OK, here is red on the right, here is blue on the left, and we're purple.' Well, the truth is, we're not purple," he said. "In the eyes of other people, if they looked at our positions, my positions certainly, they would say I was a right-winger on fiscal issues and a soft-hearted super-liberal on social issues. But if you break it down issue by issue, I think our positions are more than defensible against either of the other parties."

Weld since 2016 has been tacking noticeably more libertarian—on guns ("I think that anyone who says, 'We have to do something about gun ownership, including AR-15s,' is just going to be dead meat, because their position doesn't make any sense," he said Saturday), non-interventionist foreign policy ("I'm there with bells on"), and drug legalization. But he also seems to be groping his way toward a group identity that's more self-confident, less reactive to where Democrats and Republicans stand.

"I'm suggesting that we should never say, 'You have to vote for us because we're in the middle, you have to vote for us because these two parties are awful,'" he said. "We should say, 'Well, a third way might be a handy way to go if you're not absolutely satisfied with the status quo in Washington.' Nobody is satisfied with the status quo in Washington, so that's an easy entry point."

Weld has been up-front in trying to organize Libertarian thinking around a serious 2020 presidential run, whether by him or some other higher-wattage contender. So far the only candidates to officially announce are radical Adam Kokesh, controversialist Arvin Vohra (currently running the 17th best campaign among 17 Libertarian candidates for U.S. Senate), and perennial stunt candidate Vermin Supreme. (You can watch Kokesh interview Supreme at this link.) The widespread presumption/hope is that soon after next month's midterms some prominent pols and business tycoons will start sniffing around the nomination.

You can listen to the Reason Podcast interview with Weld from July right here: