Quixotic William Weld tilts at Donald Trump in Republican primaries
Bill Weld trails Donald Trump by 70 percentage points or more in many opinion polls. His fundraising scarcely bares mentioning alongside Mr Trump’s $100m-plus war chest. In some states he will not even have the opportunity to challenge the US president because local Republican parties have cancelled their primaries.
Still, Mr Weld is convinced he has Mr Trump just where he wants him as he mounts a very long-shot attempt to claim the Republican nomination for the presidency. Or at least help to deprive Mr Trump of a second term.
The plan goes like this: surprise Mr Trump in next month’s New Hampshire primary by appealing to the state’s independent-minded voters and capitalising on his own popularity in neighbouring Massachusetts, where Mr Weld was a two-term Republican governor in the 1990s.
Even if he does not win, a closer than expected race in New Hampshire might wound Mr Trump for the general election — as another sitting Republican president, George HW Bush, was bled by Pat Buchanan in 1992. “Pat got 37 per cent of the vote and that was the beginning of the end for Bush. He never really recovered,” Mr Weld recalled.
Fast on the heels of New Hampshire come the Super Tuesday primaries that include states such as Massachusetts, Vermont, Colorado and California, where Mr Weld believes there is an audience for his pro-environment, low-tax, pro-gay marriage message. By then it would be too late for anyone else to enter the race should Mr Trump be tripped up by the ongoing impeachment hearings or some other scandal.
“If he should decide he’d rather negotiate a deal for a glorious exit — with medals and flyovers and tanks and immunity from prosecution — if that should happen then I would be the only Republican candidate,” Mr Weld predicted, adding: “If Billy Weld were a stock, you should not sell that stock right now because there’s a not illusory path to being in the post position within the next couple of months.”
As he sketched out this “not illusory” path, Mr Weld, 74, was sipping black coffee in the lobby of the Algonquin Hotel in Manhattan, where his entourage consisted of his wife, Leslie Marshall, who also doubles as a press secretary. He was unmolested by well-wishers or selfie-seekers, perhaps because he went unrecognised.
Mr Weld is no stranger to hopeless campaigns. In his first run for public office he garnered just 21 per cent of the vote. “The next time out I won all the marbles — the governorship,” he recalled. “So you never know.”
Four years ago Mr Weld joined former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson on the Libertarian party ticket and ended up winning 4.5m votes — some 58m fewer than Mr Trump.
Mr Weld began his political career working on the House of Representatives judiciary committee’s legal staff during the Nixon impeachment hearings in the 1970s. He can speak at length on the origins of the US constitution’s “removal clause”. He went on to become US attorney for Massachusetts in 1981 on a recommendation from a young Reagan Department of Justice official, Rudy Giuliani.
“He gave me my start,” Mr Weld said, remaining studiously polite about the president’s personal lawyer, whose recent dealings in Ukraine are now central to the impeachment hearings. “We’ve been friends for a long time. I will say that in the Reagan justice department Rudy had a rattrap mind and was probably the most disciplined person.”
These days a genteel centrist — with a classics education and Harvard and Oxford degrees — seems like an exotic species of Republican that has almost gone extinct in an age of populist politics fuelled by resentment more than fact. Mr Weld recognises Mr Trump’s political talent, albeit in an oblique way.
“I think a lot of the president’s supporters identified with him during the campaign in 2016 because they felt somewhat on the receiving end of history and he spoke for them. And he did it in a politically skilful manner that cleaved them to him and they haven’t let go,” Mr Weld said.
Such loyalists will probably never waver, he guessed, regardless of what transpires at next week’s impeachment hearings. But others might. Mr Weld is convinced there are plenty of potential voters who feel overlooked — particularly women and younger people.
“Younger voters understand that both the trillion-dollar deficits and the idea that climate change is a hoax are both guns aimed at their head,” he said. “They are going to reap the whirlwind on those two issues.”
To engage them, Mr Weld will have to do an end-run around a Republican party hierarchy that has become dominated by the president. “They’re all in fealty to Mr Trump. And that’s the puzzle: why are they being silent when it’s evident that the emperor does not have a fancy new suit of clothes?” he asked.
Mr Weld believes the party’s future hinges on how quickly Mr Trump can be forced from office. “If he’s gone early enough — like this year — then I think the party recovers and says, ‘That was a bad dream. Did that really happen?’ And we go back to the way things were before Trump.”
But what if Mr Trump wins another term? In that case, Mr Weld predicts one of America’s two great political parties is headed for a break-up. “Can a mean-spirited party that seeks to divide the country survive as a ruling party? I don’t think so,” he said.
He cited the Whigs of the 1850s. They split into a proslavery, anti-immigrant Know Nothing party that was given to violent rallies and conspiracy theories, and the Republicans, who would go on to elect Abraham Lincoln president.
Given the stakes, Mr Weld does not mind fighting an uphill campaign. “I’m a happy warrior,” he smiled. “Always have been.”