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The Trailer: The best option Never Trumpers have so far

Original article published in The Washington Post by David Weigel available here

Bill Weld speaks at Salisbury University

Weld speaks at Salisbury University in Maryland on Tuesday.

Photo Credit: Chris Harr/Salibury University

SALISBURY, Md. – It was supposed to be the hardest question Bill Weld got all day. The former governor of Massachusetts, who’s also the only Republican running against President Trump in the primary, was at Salisbury University, talking to 50 or so voters during a sleepy summer vacation. What, exactly, was his path? 

“Well, we start with New Hampshire, and all of the six New England states, then the Mid-Atlantic states,” Weld explained. “I like my prospects in California; Trump and California don’t get on at all, on any topic. Oregon and Washington have some libertarian leanings. And then there’s Utah, where I spent some time in 2016; the president got 14 percent in the last Republican primary, so there are some prospects there.”

It was an unlikely plan, but no other anti-Trump Republican had a better one. A few days earlier, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan announced that he would not run for president, after more than six months of courting by the remnants of the #NeverTrump movement. Former Ohio governor John Kasich seemed to rule himself out, too, telling CNN he saw “no path” to beating Trump, then revising his remarks to say that, maybe, later, there could be a path. (Kasich is a CNN contributor and the author of the book “Two Paths.”)

That has left the 73-year-old Weld, who was the Libertarian Party’s candidate for vice president three years ago, carrying the torch of moderate, globalist Republicanism through the primaries. The effort to draft alternative candidates remains underway, but Trump critics have warmed to Weld. Bill Kristol, the Weekly Standard co-founder who successfully urged a third-party challenger to enter the 2016 race and who less successfully urged Hogan to challenge Trump, is co-hosting a D.C. fundraiser for Weld later this month.

“All honor to Bill Weld for jumping in the pool first,” Kristol said in a text message. “He’d be a much better president than Trump. But there are others who’ve quietly been exploring a race, and one or two is likely to take the plunge.”

This is still a come-down from what Trump opponents were hoping for. Hogan had repeatedly suggested that the two-year probe of Russian interference in the 2016 election might end with information that changed the race and opened the lane to challenge Trump. The probe ended, the Mueller report was published, and the president, somewhat accurately, continued to boast that upward of 90 percent of Republicans still supported him. 

Weld was running before the report concluded and tells audiences that it was devastating. He joined 1,000 other former federal prosecutors on a letter accusing the president of obstructing justice, and he stood by it. He matter-of-factly says that “the House should begin impeachment proceedings,” something that catches in the throat of the Democrats who run that chamber.

“Mr. Trump is so far out on obstruction of justice, compared to anything Richard Nixon ever did,” Weld said in his Salisbury remarks. “This is a man who believes that the Justice Department should be completely political and should be in the business of protecting the president’s political skirts.”

Most Republican voters have decided that the president hasn’t done anything wrong, which, ironically, left more space for Weld.Sarah Longwell, one of the freelance Republicans working to draft Trump challengers into the primary, pointed out that many Republican voters, citing 2016, didn’t believe that Trump could lose. A truly devastating Mueller report, one that seemed to end Trump’s presidency, would have started a scramble for the nomination, not a welcome-home party for Never Trumpers.

“If it had been a knockout blow, we’d have a whole different ballgame,” Longwell said. “Nikki Haley would be running. Marco Rubio would be running. Instead, I think the people who consider doing this right now are the people who want to invent an alternative vision for what the Republican Party can be.”

Weld’s vision, sketched out in speeches and town halls, is like nothing the party has run on nationwide; it’s a lot like what he used to run on in Massachusetts, or what Hogan won with in Maryland. Government should be small. The progressive tax code is a mistake. (“We beat it twice in Massachusetts.”) Climate change is real. Gun ownership should be protected, but regulated. Health care should be about competition, not universal coverage. Abortion should be legal, and the bills being passed to ban it amount to “chattel treatment of women.” 

Weld is also worried about the world at large, a point he makes by describing his membership in a group of international statesmen that he was added to “because they needed an American to kick around.”

“Year after year, the number one topic is nuclear nonproliferation,” Weld said. “Number two is sectarianism, which is kind of a euphemism for Sunni versus Shia Islam. Number three is access to water; number four is access to food. So, that’s what the CEOs of nations around the world think we should be focused on.”

The audience for this talk, on a Tuesday afternoon, was small and polite. Some in the crowd had come to support the school and its program; a few, like 60-year-old teacher Karl Smith, said that they came to hear Weld.

“I left the Republican Party about a year and a half ago,” Smith said. “Every day, Trump says something that reminds me why I did.”

After he finished speaking, a number of voters went up to Weld to thank him for running; one said he was just happy to hear “something different.” All were sick of Trump, and Weld had cheered them up by explaining how a primary challenge could rattle and weaken him.

“When you look at presidents who didn’t do well in New Hampshire, it’s five-for-five: They lost,” Weld said. “I think there’s exhaustion with this president. I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that he’s a very insecure person with a manic need to be praised at all times.”

Weld very much wanted him gone and was open to several ways of doing that, even if most of them did not end with himself as president. For example, even while running for president, he had been encouraging other Trump critics to jump into the primary.

“It would make this feel more like a real primary,” he said. “You never know when someone’s going to catch fire. Who would have predicted Pete Buttigieg, coming out of nowhere?”

He was also encouraged to see Rep. Justin Amash (Mich.), the only Republican who had called for Trump’s impeachment, refusing to rule out a possible Libertarian Party run for president.

“That could work,” Weld said. “You know, I like to point out that any Libertarian vote is going to come right out of Trump’s hide.”

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