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In Praise of Bill Weld, a Decent Republican

The former Massachusetts governor, who's challenging Trump in 2020, is one of the last of his species.

AP/Charles Krupa

Last week’s release of the redacted Mueller report, which has jump-started talk of impeachment among congressional Democrats, represents the greatest peril the Trump presidency has faced thus far. But its publication obscured a much subtler threat that also made its debut last week: the primary challenge of Bill Weld.

The former Massachusetts governor declared his candidacy on Monday as a Republican, though he served as the Libertarian Party’s nominee for vice president in 2016. John Kasich, Larry Hogan, and Jeff Flake have all muttered about launching anti-Trump campaigns of their own, like so many nerds vowing to confront their high school bully after one more drink, but Weld has the field to himself for now.

To call his bid quixotic is something of an understatement; his political persona is almost literally that of a modern-day Don Quixote, an aristocrat pursuing hopeless quests throughout the land in service of ideals that few besides him share. (He made a carpetbagging stab at becoming the governor of New York in 2006.) It’s possible that more voters will end up Googling the fisher—the savage weasel that Weld has impishly chosen as his campaign mascot—than his own record as a successful and popular governor of a major state.

If they did, however, they’d find that the Weld candidacy isn’t a joke, either on its own terms or as a response to Trump. No, he won’t win the nomination. But he is a politician of some principle, and he has spent most of his public life pushing back against the hard-right politics that reached its zenith in the current president.

Weld is a particular kind of Boston patrician, cut from the same cloth as the Saltonstalls, Peabodys, and Lodges who used to run local politics as a kind of white-gloved trust. Though his family line runs as deeply as any through the rocky New England soil, boasting generations of shipping magnates and Civil War heroes, he carries some meritocratic credentials as well. Not content merely to accept the family slot at Harvard, he went on to read economics at Oxford and graduate cum laude from Harvard Law.

His rise began at the Reagan Justice Department, where he served as the assistant attorney general heading the department’s criminal division. That gig tends to launch starry careers in politics and civil service: Future Pennsylvania Governor and U.S. Attorney General Dick Thornburgh held the job in the 1970s, and none other than Robert Mueller took the helm a few years after Weld. But he didn’t last long. As scandals began to consume Reagan’s second term, Weld joined a high-profile exodus from the agency in protest of then–Attorney General Ed Meese. His stance as a whistleblower against official corruption gave him a strong profile to run for governor in Massachusetts, which hadn’t elected a Republican in 20 years.

After Weld won in 1990, voters there wouldn’t elect a Democratic governor again until Deval Patrick in 2006. Weld created a template for both campaigning and governance that would be followed by every savvy Massachusetts Republican thereafter: Paul Cellucci, Mitt Romney, and ludicrously popular current Governor Charlie Baker, who began his career as a wunderkind bureaucrat in Weld’s administration.

Weld managed to run substantially to the left of his Democratic opponent—John Silber, the union-busting president of Boston University who was known mostly for clashing with Howard Zinn and threatening to cut mothers off of welfare—and he won a massive reelection victory after breaking the hearts of conservatives who expected him to cut spending. Nearly three decades later, his tenure is mostly remembered as a time of balanced budgets and bipartisan education reforms that have made Massachusetts schools the envy of the nation.

But that turned out to be the zenith of Weld’s political career. Ahead of the 1996 presidential election, conservative pundits like William Safire shot him come-hither glances—only to worry that he was pro-choice and “soft on gays.” Weld opted for a lateral move instead, contesting John Kerry’s Senate seat that year, but he didn’t have the stomach for cutthroat politics. When, in a last-chance gambit to rally conservatives, Weld demanded that Kerry explain his opposition to the death penalty to the mother of a murdered police officer, the senator masterfully shot back with a reference to his own time in Vietnam.

If you’ve made John Kerry look like Cicero on the debate stage, you should probably take a moment to reconsider your strategy. Weld lost to Kerry by eight points. Soon thereafter, the two made nice by quaffing beers like old buddies after the Harvard-Yale game.

The lesson was clear: Massachusetts liberals are willing to vote for local Republicans because it makes them feel open-minded and fiscally responsible. But those same politicians find it impossible to move up in the world because of the state of the broader GOP. Observe the cases of Rudy Giuliani, who first recommended Weld for a job in the Reagan administration, and Romney, who succeeded him as governor. Both performed reasonably well as blue-state Republicans, only to contort themselves unrecognizably in a failed attempt to win right-wing support at the national level.

Along with Weld, Hogan, and a few others, they make up what is left of the moderate Republican breed. But unlike the recently deceased George H. W. Bush, who was able to gradually shift to a harder-edged partisanship, their careers have unfolded entirely after the party’s conservative takeover. Weld refused to budge further right, and in the end, he couldn’t even finagle an appointment as President Bill Clinton’s ambassador to Mexico; arch-conservative Senator Jesse Helms blocked his nomination, reportedly disgusted with Weld’s progressive stances on gay rights and abortion.

Weld hasn’t held office since 1997. What once could have been written off as maverick inclinations have morphed into outright heresies, such as his endorsement of Barack Obama for president in 2008 after initially stumping for Romney. His taste for a doomed fight is still evident. He will not be elected president, or likely even give Trump a scare in New Hampshire.

But that doesn’t make this presidential run pointless. For Weld, it’s a chance to tilt at one more windmill as the Last Rockefeller Republican. For Trump, it may be portent of inter-partisan conflict, even as he enjoys sky-high approval among conservatives. Sitting presidents who have attracted primary challengers, from Harry Truman in 1952 to Bush in 1992, have gone on to either retire or lose their reelection campaigns. If Weld draws any blood, his candidacy will amount to much more than a late-career lark. And even if it proves spectacularly ineffective, history will look kindly on it.