Metro

Weld wants to debate Trump ‘as one large, orange man to another.’ But even GOP dissidents have their doubts

Rindge, NH, 02/21/2019 -- Former Massachusetts Governor William F. Weld waits to be announced at Pizza and Politics at Franklin Pierce University. (Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff) Topic: 25weld Reporter:
Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff
Former Massachusetts Governor William F. Weld waited to be announced at Pizza and Politics at Franklin Pierce University.

If William F. Weld stands any chance of weakening President Trump in the 2020 primary, it will be with the support of Republicans like him who are appalled by the president’s temperament and disregard for political norms.

Yet few sound ready to help Weld storm the castle, at least not yet.

In interviews, Republicans who have criticized Trump offered more polite praise for Weld’s courage than enthusiasm for his exploratory campaign.

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A few were openly critical of his bid.

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Together, the comments point to the monumental challenge Weld is facing as he tries to be taken seriously as a credible alternative for Republicans unhappy with Trump, particularly after he left the party three years ago to run as the Libertarian vice presidential candidate and then all but endorsed Hillary Clinton in the closing days of the 2016 race.

“It’s sort of a quixotic quest,” said Judd Gregg, the former Republican governor and senator from New Hampshire, who has refused to say if he voted for Trump but has been critical of the president’s foreign and trade policies and his attack-mode politics.

“If he wants to tilt at windmills, I don’t know, why not?” Gregg said. “But if somebody is going to challenge President Trump, it has to be someone who has a viable status in the party. And Governor Weld, having run as a Libertarian vice presidential candidate, has sort of left that lane.”

Bill Kristol, the former editor at large of the Weekly Standard and a leading voice in the “Never Trump” movement, was more encouraging, but said he still hopes Governor Larry Hogan of Maryland, former governor John Kasich of Ohio, or former senator Bob Corker of Tennessee will follow Weld into the primary.

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All three are considered more formidable figures than Weld, the former Republican governor of Massachusetts who was last elected to office 25 years ago.

“I admire him for doing it — for jumping in and breaking the ice,” Kristol said. “He could cause more trouble for Trump than people expect, and give way to a first wave and a second wave. I’d like to see several people run and the more competition, the better.”

The reluctance of these Republican critics of Trump to fully embrace Weld’s exploratory campaign is striking given that they share some of Weld’s concerns that Trump is “unstable” and a threat to national security and international stability.

Gregg, for example, has accused the president of “incoherence and inconsistency,” said his tweets are “often uniquely and arbitrarily insulting to many,” and has fretted that Trump “hurt us as a country” when he endorsed Vladimir Putin’s view that Russia did not meddle in the 2016 election.

Under Kristol, the Weekly Standard, before it closed in December, became a prominent home for conservative critics of Trump, publishing pieces like the one headlined, “Donald Trump is crazy, and so is the GOP for embracing him.”

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Weld, 73, has urged such Republicans to join him in trying to thwart Trump from a second term, saying, “We cannot sit passively as our precious democracy slips quietly into darkness.”

‘It’s probably unlikely that he could pose a serious threat to the president . . . However, we live in highly unpredictable times.’

Carlos Curbelo, former Florida representative  

But Weld himself may have a hard time making the case that he can carry the mantle for Republican dissidents after a long and peripatetic journey in the political wilderness.

In the 1990s, he was a prominent Republican moderate, celebrated by the party for breaking 15 years of Democratic rule in liberal Massachusetts. As governor from 1991 to 1997, he cut taxes, supported abortion and gay rights, and created tougher educational standards and charter schools.

Then he resigned from office when he was chosen by President Bill Clinton to be ambassador to Mexico, a nomination that was blocked in the Senate. That seemed to set Weld off in search of a comeback. In 2006, he ran for governor of New York. In 2008, he endorsed Barack Obama for president. In 2016, he left the GOP, declaring himself a “Libertarian for life” and ran on the Libertarian presidential ticket. In the final days of the race, he went on TV and praised the Democratic nominee, declaring, “I’m here vouching for Mrs. Clinton.”

Now, even Republicans who dislike Trump say they are not sure how much stock to put into Weld’s latest electoral adventure.

Former representative Carlos Curbelo, a Miami Republican who did not vote for Trump and lost his seat in November, pointed out that most Republican voters support the president.

“There could be some value to campaigning around the country and reminding people that we do need a limited-government, free-enterprise, inclusive party in this country, and every day it seems like that’s the case less and less,” Curbelo said. “It’s probably unlikely that he could pose a serious threat to the president in the primary. However, we live in highly unpredictable times.”

Christine Todd Whitman, the former Republican governor of New Jersey who voted for Clinton in 2016, said she is glad someone is challenging Trump.

“Bill would be a credible candidate, and it’s probably a good idea anyway just to keep Trump honest and be in the debates and force some issues to the fore,” Whitman said.

Still, Whitman said she is hoping for another option in 2020: a bipartisan ticket that would run independently and bypass the primaries.

Weld insists that, despite some “hate mail,” he has gotten a positive response to his potential run.

“The dug-in, extreme, right-wing Republicans are never going to be with me,” but independents and Republicans who can vote in the Republican primary in New Hampshire have been overwhelmingly encouraging, he said.

“Everybody says, ‘If you’re running as an ‘R,’ I’m in. Count me in. Where do I send the check? Can I give a party?’ ” Weld said during a stop last week at Franklin Pierce University in Rindge, N.H., where he spoke to about 100 students over pizza.

Rather than winning the White House, he indicated he might be content just to hurt Trump in the primary, much the way Pat Buchanan wounded President George H.W. Bush in the 1992 Republican primary in New Hampshire, paving the way for Bush’s eventual loss to Bill Clinton.

Weld seemed to be having fun with the idea of a face-off with Trump, saying he can’t wait for the first debate when he can say to the president, “Well, let me tell you something, sir, as one large, orange man to another!”

Weld pointed out that the last four incumbent presidents who lost reelection all faced challengers in the primary. “If you look at the historical record,” he said, “there’s every reason to think such a move could be productive.”

Michael Levenson can be reached at mlevenson@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mlevenson.