This week, Republicans for the Rule of Law, a project launched by Defending Democracy Together, the anti-Trump, center-right 501(c)(4) headed up by veteran Washington commentator/schemer Bill Kristol, has been running a commercial on Fox in the D.C. media market pointedly reminding congressional Republicans such as Ted Cruz and Lindsey Graham of their vanishing opposition to executive branch overreach. "It's a pretty grim day for those of us trying to keep hope alive for the GOP," Kristol tweeted yesterday, after only a handful of Republicans voted against President Donald Trump's declaration of a national emergency at the southern border.
Meanwhile in The Bulwark, which Kristol founded, Publisher Sarah Longwell defended the site's preoccupation with finding a GOP challenger to the incumbent president. "I want the Republican party to have a future after Trump," Longwell wrote, "and I think that the best way to achieve that is for a serious conservative to lay the foundation for a post-Trump GOP that preserves conservatism and can compete electorally now, as part of a primary campaign."
Yet just 475 miles north, a living, breathing Republican challenger to Donald Trump continued his rule of law-focused campaign in small-town New Hampshire in the absence of anything like warmth from D.C.'s #NeverTrump plotters. The president "is a great demander of people being loyal to him…sometimes at the expense of being loyal to the truth," Bill Weld lamented to a town hall audience of 50 at New England College in Henniker. "Never Trumpers want a candidate, but Bill Weld is not the guy," ran the Washington Examiner headline hours before.
The objections to Weld are familiar. As object-of-#NeverTrump-affection Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan put it to CBS News last week, "I don't know how seriously most people are taking his candidacy, quite frankly. I mean, he's been out of politics for quite a while….He's switched parties back and forth a couple times. And not sure he's the right guy." Added (to the Examiner) Niskanen Center President Jerry Taylor, who has been reportedly hosting a regular "meeting of the concerned" for Washington's Trump-averse: "As far as what I'm looking for? I'm looking for someone who can draw blood in the primaries. Whether [Weld] can draw blood in the primaries remains to be seen."
I asked Weld about the #NeverTrump reticence after last night's town hall. "Well, all I can do is keep plotting straight ahead, so that's what I will do," he said affably. "So far the response has been good, and not just here." His final decision on whether to run should come "somewhere between a month and two months," and the lean at the moment appears to be toward doing it.
"The time is now. The game is afoot," wrote Tim Miller in The Bulwark five weeks ago. "This primary will be an opportunity to chart a future course for conservatism; to become a hero to those who aren't represented by President Trump's crude transactionalism; to remind the country that our politics don't have to be so base, and so selfish, and so unpatriotic, and so damn short of what we are capable."
And yet the two names most often invoked by the #NeverTrump organizers—Larry Hogan and CNN contributor John Kasich—are acting anything but heroic in the campaign thus far. Hogan in an Associated Press interview last week suggested that he's waiting to see how much damage will be inflicted by Special Counsel Robert Mueller's final report. "I don't have the inside scoop on what it's going to say," Hogan told the AP. "But if there was damaging information, if…some serious charges come out or it becomes worse than it is today, and he took a hit in the polls, then I think all bets are off." Courage!
As for Kasich, the former Ohio governor's keeping-all-options-open shtick has mostly been a make-work scheme for adviser John Weaver, as this scabrous (and well-documented) Hot Air piece by Jason Hart makes plain.
"I'm not waiting to see what happens with the Mueller investigation, because I know all I need to know about the rule of law," Weld told me. "Bob Mueller and I used to be prosecutors together, however many years ago it was. And…we know a lot more about how Mr. Trump will handle things now than we did two years ago; we don't have to guess anymore."
(Fun fact, care of The Center for Public Integrity: "Special Counsel Robert Mueller's sole federal contribution on record went to Weld. Mueller wrote Weld two checks totalling $450 during Massachusetts' 1996 U.S. Senate race, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.")
So how is Weld being received in New Hampshire? There has only been one poll so far, a Feb. 21-22 Emerson College Survey of 328 likely primary voters show Trump trouncing his potential competitor, 82 to 18 percent. (Keep in mind that the incumbent-primarying example Weld doesn't want to follow, liberal Republican congressman Pete McCloskey in 1972, dropped out of the race after receiving a disappointing 20 percent in the Granite State.)
At the Henniker town hall, the audience was appreciative, and also not noticeably conservative. One questioner described herself as "an ACLU voter," a second worked with the American Civil Liberties Union on criminal justice issues, and a third wanted to know what Weld would do about "anti-choice" (meaning abortion) "insanity." (Weld, while noting his pro-choice credentials, emphasized that he respects people and arguments on all sides of the issue.) There was discussion on Native American issues, LGTBQ rights, sexual assault, and who might play Weld on Saturday Night Live.
"I expected some hostile questions," the maybe-candidate enthused after, "and those were accommodating!"