Former Libertarian Party Vice-Presidential nominee Bill Weld has announced the formation of an exploratory committee to seek the Republican nomination for President in 2020. This makes him the first Republican to challenge Donald Trump in the GOP primary. When news first broke that Weld had changed his voter registration back to Republican, the reaction among Libertarians was very negative. Many denounced Weld. Others cast blame on fellow Libertarians. One common argument, repeated throughout Libertarian Facebook, is that Bill Weld was driven out by purists who hold the party back with their unreasonable purity tests. To quote the man that Bill Weld wishes to unseat…
Bill Weld served as Governor of Massachusetts, a heavily blue state. No professional politician gets far with thin skin. What the anti-purists are really saying is the purists have an outsized amount of power in the party and are the ones really steering the ship. But if Weld really couldn’t take a little heckling, he wouldn’t have traveled to multiple state party conventions nor the national convention in New Orleans last summer. Which brings us to the next question…
Why did Weld stay in the LP for so long?
The fact that he had stayed in the party and traveled to multiple state conventions is often used as an argument that he wanted to be a Libertarian. He even said he wanted to help in 2020. On top of traveling to state conventions, he endorsed and supported a number of LP candidates in the midterms and served as Honorary Chairman of Our America Initiative, an organization devoted to fighting the two-party system. This leads to two questions: (1), “Why did he stay?” and (2) “Why did he leave?”
The first of these is relatively simple to answer. Weld, the shrewd politician that he is, was hedging his bets. He remained in the Libertarian Party to see if it was a viable vehicle to oppose Trump in 2020 and get him on the debate stage. The midterms served as something of a “try-out” for the party to impress Weld, and they failed to meet his expectations.
He likely left the LP because, more than anything, Bill Weld wants to challenge Donald Trump head-on. During the 2016 election, Mitt Romney declared that he would endorse the Johnson/Weld ticket if it were flipped to have Weld on top. Other establishment Republicans expressed the same sentiment. Weld has probably already sought the support and counsel of many moderate Republicans (like Romney, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and John Kasich), who would have supported him in 2016. Whether this constituency of elites is still willing to support him remains to be seen. Romney has said he is open to endorsing a primary challenger. But, there are other factors, or rather people, that are driving Weld to seek the Republican nomination.
The Schultz Factor
Historically speaking, there is only a single third-party/independent candidate who is able to draw any (often) meager media attention: John Anderson in 1980, Ross Perot in 1992/1996, Ralph Nader in 2000, and Gary Johnson in 2016. With former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz expressing interest in an independent bid for the White House, Weld’s calculus had to change for 2020. Schultz will take up all of the third-party oxygen in 2020, leading Weld to see the GOP as the most viable vehicle for his candidacy, rather than playing fourth fiddle to Trump, the Democratic nominee, and third-option Schultz.
Learning From the Past
What does Bill Weld hope to achieve in his longshot bid to knock off a sitting President in the primary?
In 1976, Ronald Reagan challenged Gerald Ford for the Republican nomination. Ford went on to lose the general election to Jimmy Carter.
In 1980, Ted Kennedy challenged Jimmy Carter for the Democratic nomination. Carter lost the general election to Ronald Reagan.
In 1992, Pat Buchanan challenged George H. W. Bush for the Republican nomination. Bush lost the general election to Bill Clinton.
Weld, a vocal Trump critic, wants to wound Trump. He has received a very icy reception from the GOP since his return. It’s possible that Weld is hoping to follow in the footsteps of Reagan, Kennedy, and Buchanan and weaken Trump going into the general election.
Weld is modeling his run on Eugene McCarthy’s Presidential campaign in 1968. In 1968, many anti-war Democrats wanted Robert Kennedy to challenge Lyndon Johnson for the party’s nomination, but Kennedy refused. Eugene McCarthy, a Senator from Minnesota, was one of those people. Seeing a serious need for a different voice in the primary, McCarthy challenged Johnson himself and shocked the world when he received 42% of the vote in New Hampshire to Johnson’s 50%. This led Johnson to drop out of the race and Kennedy to enter it. Is Bill Weld hoping to show that Trump is weak and draw a more conventional challenger (like Kasich) into the race? By February of next year, we’ll have our answer.
Until then, it seems that the LP lacks a frontrunner for their 2020 nomination. With Weld out, maybe there’s room for someone who isn’t a squishy Republican…