Bill Weld

Bill Weld: The Next Gene McCarthy or the Next Pete McCloskey?

Richard Nixon faced a primary challenger in 1972...and he squashed him like a bug.


Wikimedia Commons

Since announcing a possible GOP presidential primary run last Friday, Bill Weld has been making the national media rounds: ABC's This Week ("I think the Republicans in Washington want to have no election, basically"), CNN's New Day ("I'm trying to get us back in the Republican Party of Abraham Lincoln rather than the Know-Nothing, anti-Catholic zealots of the 1850s"), MSNBC's Morning Joe ("Look back to to 2016: The unthinkable became the inevitable twice"), Bloomberg TV, and so on.

In most public appearances, the former Massachusetts governor and 2016 Libertarian vice-presidential nominee has referenced his "favorite stat," which is that "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."

Given Weld's bedrock antipathy to President Donald Trump—"I'm not going to be backing him in 2020, no matter what," he told WMUR—it would seem the best model for his improbable run would be the 1968 anti-war candidacy of Sen. Eugene McCarthy, whose shocking 42 percent second-place finish against President Lyndon Johnson in New Hampshire prompted Bobby Kennedy to get in the race four days later, and LBJ to drop out of the race two weeks after that. Weld has expressed a come-on-in, the-water's-warm attitude toward possible primary competitors John Kasich and Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, and has stressed, as he put it to ABC, that "it is part of my thinking to make sure [Trump] doesn't repeat, because "we don't have six more years of the antics, frankly."

But there is another historical comp that haunts Weld's possible bid. As Brian Jencunas put it in Commonwealth magazine, "The question isn't whether he wins in New Hampshire, but whether he loses like Eugene McCarthy or Pete McCloskey."

Pete who? Yes, that's kind of the point.

||| East Bay Times
East Bay Times

"McCloskey's 1972 anti-war primary challenge against President Nixon went nowhere, winning [20] percent of the vote in New Hampshire," Jencunas wrote. McCloskey, a square-jawed liberal California congressman and Marine vet, dropped out days later, saying he did know who he'd vote for in November.

Nixon, unlike LBJ, did not drop out, nor did he suffer the general-election fate of primary-challenged presidents Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and George H.W. Bush. Instead, after dispatching both McCloskey and conservative Ohio Rep. John Ashbrook (who received 10 percent in New Hampshire), and despite campaigning under a growing legal cloud, Tricky Dick romped to a 49-state, 23-percentage-point shellacking of a Democratic candidate considered to be much further left than the American mainstream.

It's not hard to imagine a less one-sided version of that history repeating, particularly given that, as MSNBC's Steve Kornacki reminds us, Trump's approval rating right now among GOP voters beats Nixon's at the time of McCloskey's entrance into the race, 89 percent to 82 percent. This cruel math helps explain why some in #MAGA-land are actively rooting for a primary challenge: A little competition might sharpen the campaign reflexes of a politician who relishes a good political brawl. "At this point," the Washington Post's Ed Rogers wrote this week, "it looks as if Weld et al. are more likely to serve as useful foils for the president rather than serious threats."

Like any historical political analogy, the McCloskey-Weld comparison breaks down in some key areas. On one hand, Bill (unlike Pete) hasn't won an election in a quarter century; on the other, New Hampshire is his literal back yard. He isn't single-issuing the incumbent on war—in fact, pulling troops home from Afghanistan, Syria, and elsewhere is one of Weld's main areas of agreement with Trump. But he does share with McCloskey (who was one of the first Republican congressmen to call for Nixon's impeachment) a sense of revulsion at the president's careless approach to the truth and disregard for separation of powers.

||| Ron Wade political buttons
Ron Wade political buttons

But if Weld does follow McCloskey in becoming a bug on the president's windshield, it's worth remembering that primary challenges can be intra-party referenda on the issues raised by the challenger. After McCloskey's drubbing, the antiwar tradition on the American right went into hiding for the remainder of the Cold War; meanwhile, conservatives tacked not toward executive restraint but toward a robust new definition of expanded presidential power. You can't lay these trends at the feet of a vanquished and largely forgotten primary challenger, but you can observe that a political party becomes more like its president—and less like his critics—over time.

#NeverTrump's "motley collection of neoconservatives, libertarians, moderate Republicans and social conservatives who couldn't stomach Mr. Trump's personal behavior" (in the words this week of glum-sounding Weld fan Liz Mair) might find at the end of primary season that their small ranks within the contemporary GOP have vanished, or at least gone underground.

Bonus Roger Stone angle, courtesy of Jesse Walker:

In 1972, when Pete McCloskey challenged Nixon in the Republican primaries, a young conservative named Roger Stone made a donation to the insurgent's campaign in the name of the Young Socialist Alliance. (The original plan was to use the Gay Liberation Front, but Stone felt that would be an affront to his masculinity.) According to the Senate Watergate Report, Stone and his confederate Herbert Porter then "drafted an anonymous letter to the Manchester Union Leader and enclosed a photocopy of the receipt."

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  1. Let’s go back and take a look at Bill’s stats:
    1992: Bush the elder. From Buchanan. But that had absolutely nothing to do with Bush losing the election. Remember Perot? And “Read my lips!”
    1980: Carter. Is he arguing that because Ted Kennedy was an idiot, that had ANY effect on the 1980 election?? FFS it was a landslide. 489 to 49 EC and over 8M more votes for Reagan than Carter.
    1976 Ford was challenged by Reagan. Ford was NEVER even elected in the first place!
    1968 Johnson? VIET NAM?????? There is absolutely no single issue like that right now.

    But hey, whatever floats Bill’s boat.

    1. And to add to that, Ford losing was a foregone conclusion. The ONLY chance the Republican party had was to distance itself from the Nixon administration completely. But, even then, it would have been well nigh impossible.

      1. Actually Ford almost won in 76. Had he not pardoned Nixon, a lot of people think he could have won.

        1. I stand corrected. I didn’t realize it was so close.

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        2. Don’t forget John Bayard Anderson’s independent run in 1980. He and his unity campaign were able to secure far more votes than Johnson / Weld.

          If memory serves me right, Anderson was a 10 term GOP congressman from the Rockford, Illinois area who actually won the 1980 Massachusetts GOP primary.

          1. Anderson won close to 10% I think. He was an old school Rockafeller Republican who thought Reagan was too conservative.

            1. Anderson may have been more liberal than Carter.

            2. IIRC, he became a Rockafeller Republican as he was pretty conservative in his younger days.

              1. But, no doubt, he thought Reagan was too conservative and Isaac’s point is well taken as he was more liberal, by 1980, than Carter on some issues.

              2. They all are. Once they get in and get comfortable they’re very happy to be spending other peoples money.

  2. Eugene McCarthy was something Weld is not; a loyal member of his party. No one is going to take Weld seriously.

    1. Weld is a Brahmin Bozo.

    2. And John reveals what is most important to him: loyalty to party above all else. Well, at least you are consistent, so there’s that. How does it feel to have all your opinions be reducible to one bit of information?

      1. And John reveals what is most important to him: loyalty to party above all else.

        Please. Weld had a great opportunity to run as a Republican–in 2016, along with the 20 other candidates.

        Weld’s running strictly as a vanity exercise at this point. If he was serious about winning a Presidential election, he never would have run on a Libertarian ticket in the first place.

      2. Goddamn, baculum, you are a stupid bitch.
        Why haven’t you killed yourself yet?
        No one will ever love you, or laugh at one of your stupid posts.

    3. Bill Weld is clown shoes, politically speaking, and perhaps literally. I haven’t checked.

  3. I just have so little trust for Weld. He’s proved to be a pure opportunist. Regardless of whatever his politics may be at this moment, I cannot take him as anything but whatever he feels to be at this moment.

    And no, I’m not implying any feeling towards Trump on this.

    1. If you were around Massachusetts in 1990, you would have been treated to quite the spirited gubernatorial contest between Weld and John Silber, the ling-time, hard-ass, conservative president of Boston University. Weld won in a very tight race.

      1. I guess technically I was, but was 1 years old at the time.

        1. You’re a millenial? My heart is broken.

    2. I almost did not vote for Gary Johnson because of his being on the ticket. Not sure Trump is not more libertarian than Weld. Tax and regulation cuts and judicial nominees are at least in Trump’s favor even when he makes me cringe on other issues. Weld appears to be no more than an establishment lackey.

  4. Not only is Trump gonna kick Bill Weld’s ass in a GOP Primary but he will get more Electoral College votes than election 2016, 304 to 227.

  5. We’re awfully quick to assume Weld’s primary opponent would be Trump and not Mike Pence.

    1. No. No, I don’t think so.

      Folks like you are the reason LC1789 is so sure Trump’ll get more EC votes than in ’16 though.

      Because you’re so clearly insane.

    2. You could well be correct, DEPENDING on whom the Democrats nominate. I think the Libertarians — having received nothing but scorn for running Bill Weld — probably asked him not to run on their ticket.

  6. Hey Welchie Boy, have you started the process of relocating from Brooklyn to Florida now that your SALT deduction is capped at just 10 grand like all the rest of your fellow New York 1 percenters are doing?

  7. What if Weld challenged Bernie to a national debate?
    It would be a whole lot more stimulating than Trump vs Warren.
    Would Bernie accept the challenge?

  8. How quick we forget our history. The All-time All star of Presidential hopefuls was Harold Stassen, who as a young governor of Minnesota sought the Presidency in the Republican Party for 1948. He didn’t get the nomination, but he continued to throw his hat into a ring that looked suspiciously like a trash can every election for years.

    Eventually he became a joke and his fruitless quests became the standard obloquy for losers.

    If Hillary Clinton makes one more unsuccessful run for the Presidency, she too will become a political joke.

  9. Welch

    Your girl lost.

    Get over it.

  10. And a few yrs. later, McCloskey sponsored legisl’n for mandatory national service.

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