Bill Weld, as expected, announced this morning in New Hampshire that he has launched an exploratory committee that will likely discover a desire to mount a primary challenge to President Donald Trump. You can watch Weld's whole address at Saint Anselms College's "Politics & Eggs" breakfast, plus some follow-up questions and answers, below:
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.
The former Barack Obama and John Kasich supporter's slippery loyalty to political parties generated his most awkward moments, both inside and outside the New Bedford Village Inn. "That's a poser, that's an issue; people are entitled to take that into account," he said, haltingly, when asked in a post-event press gaggle about backing out of his pledge of lifetime loyalty to the Libertarian Party. "It's just, stakes have gotten higher since then." The first two questions after his speech had to do with his 32-month fling inside the Libertarian Party; Weld just sidestepped the second to tout his record as a Republican governor.
"Weld is the same ex-Republican who deserted Massachusetts for New York; who endorsed President Barack Obama over Senator John McCain for President; who renounced the GOP for the Libertarian Party; who ran against the Trump-Pence Republican ticket in 2016, while cozying up to Democrat Hillary Clinton," a gleeful Massachusetts GOP Chair Jim Lyons shot out today in a press release. "After abandoning Republicans, Democrats, and Libertarians, Weld demands that faithful Republicans consider him as their standard bearer. Even Benedict Arnold switched allegiances less often!"
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."
But it isn't on a policy level where Weld is ultimately aiming to connect. The point of his run is as a wake-up call for GOP voters to admit that in their hearts they know Trump is wrong. "Republicans in Washington, many of them, exhibit all the symptoms of Stockholm Syndrome, identifying with their captor," he charged. "The truth is that we've wasted an enormous amount of time by humoring this president, indulging him and his narcissism, and his compulsive, irrational behaviors….The situation is not yet hopeless, but we do need a mid-course correction. We don't need six more years of the antics we have seen."
Where to from now? Weld says that he'll make it official after testing the waters, unless he receives "a virtually unanimous Who-do-you-think-you're-kidding?" There are New Hampshire appearances scheduled for February 26 and March 4, and even though he has a natural home-field advantage in the northeast, he swears that any real primary run would be a "national campaign."
"In every country," his remarks concluded, "there comes a time when patriotic men and women must stand up and speak out to protect their own individual rights and the overall health of the nation. In our country, this is such a time." Or so Bill Weld is banking on.