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Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld delivers a campaign speech at the Des Moines Register Political Soapbox at the Iowa State Fair on August 11, 2019, in Des Moines. | Alex Wong/Getty Images

And why he says he’s a “normal Republican.”

Former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld is running for president. But perhaps more importantly, he’s running to primary Donald Trump.

Weld is an unusual Republican, at least in 2019. He supports abortion rights, for one. And while the GOP has largely ignored the increasing size of the federal budget deficit and followed Trump in his embrace of protectionist economic policies, Weld wants to radically cut federal spending and balance the budget, and he is extremely proud of the work he did to help NAFTA get off the ground in the 1990s.

And he is deeply opposed to Donald Trump. He worries that Trump is going to drag America into autocracy “if people don’t raise their hands and don’t think straight and think for themselves.”

Trump is extremely popular with Republicans, boasting an 88 percent approval rating with GOP voters and successfully pushing out critics (even occasional ones) like Paul Ryan and Jeff Flake. But Weld doesn’t particularly care, telling me that when he goes to events in New Hampshire, “I don’t sense approval of Trump.” (Among Republicans, Trump has 82 percent approval in New Hampshire, but is underwater with the majority of voters.)

Weld has a long and colorful political history. He served as the Republican governor of Massachusetts from 1991 to 1997 — a popular tenure for a moderate Republican in a blue state, though with some controversy among conservatives who decried the expansion of government that took place under his watch.

He helped George W. Bush prepare to debate John Kerry in 2004, but endorsed Barack Obama in 2008 after Mitt Romney, himself a former Massachusetts governor, dropped out of the race (Weld was a co-chair of Romney’s campaign efforts in New York).

In 2016, Weld ran for the vice presidency as Gary Johnson’s running mate on the Libertarian Party ticket. But in 2020, Weld wants a shot at the White House — and at Trump. His fundraising efforts have been less than spectacular, but he told me he thinks he has a shot, particularly with Democrats whom he hopes will cross party lines to vote against Trump twice.

So far, his campaign isn’t getting much attention — as of July, he was his campaign’s biggest funder, and his media appearances have been relatively few. He currently sits at 9.3 percent support from GOP voters. But as more Republicans enter the race to primary Trump, Weld is hopeful that their efforts will make a difference.

In a phone conversation earlier this month, Weld described himself as a “real Republican” who finds himself aghast at Trump’s policies, specifically on foreign affairs, where he thinks Trump, who has “no use for soft power or diplomacy,” is posing a real danger to national security. During our talk, Weld told me why he’s trying to primary Trump, why he thinks a “normal Republican” can win with today’s GOP, and why he’s surprised more Republicans aren’t speaking out against the president.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Jane Coaston

I wanted to start out with a very basic question: Why are you trying to primary Donald Trump?

Bill Weld

I think Donald Trump deserves to be primaried for any number of reasons, and the presidency is an office I’ve had my eye on for 20 years, so there’s no time like the present.

Jane Coaston

What was the moment that made it clear it was time to primary Trump?

Bill Weld

I would not be making this race if it was January of ’17. Bad as that was, that would not have led me to raise my hand. I think it was around February and March of this year when I had that exploratory period. I felt then, and I still do, that America is at a tipping point. If people don’t raise their hands and don’t think straight and think for themselves, we run a real risk of slipping into autocracy.

Jane Coaston

You ran as Gary Johnson’s running mate in 2016. Why have you decided to run as a Republican in 2020?

Bill Weld

Well, I wanted a direct shot at Mr. Trump, frankly. I think I can make more trouble for him within the Republican Party, which is my aim, as a Republican than I could as a Libertarian. My strategy is not a secret. It’s to enlarge the electorate of people who will be voting in the Republican primaries.

I’m not above saying to Democrats, “If you’re not satisfied with the fella in the White House, you can vote against him twice.” Whether or not you’re in one of the 19 crossover states, you can vote in the Republican primary. You may have to change your registration a couple of weeks in advance and vote for me in the primary and then take a long, hot shower and go back to being a Democrat, and I’m getting substantial traction with that argument. People say, “Vote against Trump twice. I never thought of that.”

Jane Coaston

What is your affirmative message why people should vote for you, and not just against Trump?

Bill Weld

I’m a real Republican. I believe in balancing the budget and then some. I was ranked the most fiscally conservative governor in the United States when I was in office, and that’s following Michael S. Dukakis in the state of Massachusetts. That took some doing, but it’s true. My issues, I think, play to millennials.

Millennials are smart enough to know they’re never going to see Social Security if we keep running a $1 trillion deficit. Similarly, if all we say about global warming and the polar ice cap between now and 2040 [is that it’s a] hoax, Mr. Trump knows the millennials will reap the whirlwind there.

We are required to plan for a 7-foot storm surge right now in the city of Boston for any waterfront development. In another few years, that’s going to be 14 feet. This is going to be a lot of property that’s going to be shorefront property in 2040 that’s not shorefront property now. That’ll be the world of the current millennials.

Jane Coaston

Do you think the message of focusing on the deficit and focusing on debt is still an effective message? Trump is extremely popular with Republicans who appear to be less concerned about the deficit, from the base to Republicans in Congress.

Bill Weld

I’m not willing to concede your premise. I will concede that I’m a normal Republican, and the implication of that is that Mr. Trump is a Republican in name only. I would include issues like free trade and a robust engagement in foreign policy and robust use of soft power and diplomacy. Mr. Trump doesn’t do any of that because he thinks he’s the only person that knows anything. He has no use for soft power or diplomacy or, indeed, planning ahead. He likes to have a summit on no notice and with no preparation. There’s a reason why over the years, people thought that successful diplomacy required careful preparation and debriefing of the people who are going to conduct the negotiation.

I’ve been told by very senior people who are still in the administration, in the military and national security area, that briefing Trump on a matter of national security is the most terrifying thing they’ve ever done, because after two minutes, a light goes off in his eyes, and he picks up a copy of last week’s People magazine with himself on the cover and begins riffling through it. He’ll say, “No, no. Keep talking. I’m listening. I’m listening.” He’s clearly not listening.

Jane Coaston

There was a BuzzFeed piece that talked about [your visit to] Iowa, and it noted how you’re not the first Republican to challenge a sitting president [from] your own party, but you’re doing so while your strain of Republicanism is on the wane. That what you look like as a Republican is in decline, whereas what Trump’s idea of a Republican, as you put it, a Republican in name only, is more popular with the Republican base. Do you think that’s at all true? How would you challenge that? How do you convince not just Democrats into crossing over but Republican voters who aren’t happy with Trump to vote for you?

Bill Weld

There’s a lot of those in New Hampshire, and it may be just that New Hampshire Republicans like me, but when I talk to them, people in diners, at meet-and-greets, or at old home weeks, city fairs, as they’re called, I don’t sense approval of Trump. I get a lot of eye-rolling, and maybe two or three voters out of 100 would say, “No, no, Trump’s my guy.” But I can remember not so long ago shaking over 200 hands in three diners in New Hampshire and not encountering a single Trump supporter. The party is 100 percent behind him, but that’s because the party in every one of the 50 states is the Trump organization.

My audience is elsewhere. It’s not the state parties. I’m not going to try to charm them. But the people I talk to in the field are very reasonable, and I think they’ve already come to their senses. I won’t say I’m waiting for people to come to their senses. I personally think the president seems a little more extreme by the week. Maybe unhinged is too strong a word, but maybe it’s not.

Jane Coaston

What do you think is the thing about Trump that you think can be the most effective weapon against Trump?

Bill Weld

I don’t know that it’s the one that topples him, but I think his most outrageous performance has been not domestic, but international, going out of his way to insult our allies, conducting a mock bromance with a cold-blooded murderer in North Korea, saying that, “I, Donald Trump, have fallen in love with the kid. What a strong kid. He [Kim Jong Un] iced his own uncle. Hell, he iced his brother. What a strong guy,” and cozying up to dictators and calling our allies weak and stupid.

The North American Free Trade Agreement, I worked on with Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich in the White House rounding up votes, and the treaty that he [Trump] ripped up is almost identical to the new agreement that was negotiated to replace it. The treaty with Iran that was joined by our European allies as well as the United States, I thought it was a huge blunder to rip up that treaty because we sacrificed 10 years during which Iran was obligated not to advance its nuclear weapons program. Why cancel that treaty at a time when the evidence showed that Iran was in compliance? I don’t get it. It’s just an act of pure petulance.

Jane Coaston

There are Republican leaders who would be interested in either voting for a primary opponent or being a primary opponent to Trump themselves, but there’s the sense like they’re afraid to do so. Do you think that Republican voters are as afraid to challenge Trump as Republican leaders are?

Bill Weld

I must say I’ve been surprised that there’s not more people in Washington, really, who would say, “The emperor has no clothes.” The man has no preparation for the office he holds, and it shows. The people in Washington should know that, but I guess they’re petrified of not getting reelected, so they don’t want to rock the boat. I think the president’s hold over Washington officeholders who enjoy their perks is probably stronger than his hold over rank-and-file voters.

My sense is that rank-and-file voters are beginning to get wise.

Jane Coaston

What do you think appeals to voters about Trump?

Bill Weld

Well, I think he has a certain amount of charisma. I think he has a certain amount of animal cunning.

Jane Coaston

What do you want voters to know about you that has nothing to do with Trump?

Bill Weld

I want them to know that I care a lot about individual rights and liberties, and I think they’re under threat from… I won’t say this government, but this man, because he’s a one-man government. All the power that’s lost when you have only acting secretaries and acting assistant secretaries, that goes back to him in the Oval Office, which is where he wants it.

I’d want them to know that I’m a serious student of history. I’ve studied how democracies fail. I know a lot about the colonial period and the period around the adoption of the Constitution. I’ve read every word of Farrand’s debates on the adoption of the Constitution, all four volumes, and so I know that the Founding Fathers did not want a king. Mr. Trump wants to be a king. I understand that, and I understand why that’s wrong. That should not be the case in America.

Jane Coaston

What do you think is something that you would bring to the White House that another Republican would not be able to? I keep thinking back to the [2016] debates, how the Republican National Committee was talking about, “There are 17 candidates, it’s the most diverse field in history.” And it ended with Donald Trump. What do you think separates you from the Republicans who couldn’t beat him in 2016?

Bill Weld

I’m probably a more experienced debater, and I have a good sense of humor about everything. Even though I’d take politics very seriously, I’m relaxed about it and completely comfortable in my own skin because of that. I don’t mind taking risks, which includes reaching across the aisle. Obviously, I had to do that as a Republican governor of a Democratic state, but it works marvelously. I got all my tax cuts through, and I tried to unleash everybody’s energy.

I actually buy the idea that you have to give everyone a seat at the table and a feeling that they’re part of the effort to provide for the family, which is the citizens of the place where you govern. [In 1990,] I was elected with barely 50 percent of votes, and we were reelected with 71 percent in Massachusetts. There had not been a Republican governor for 20, 25 years before I was elected. Now, after my election, there were [three] Republican governors in a row. People liked what they saw.

Jane Coaston

How do you feel about the rise of populism within conservatism, and how do you attempt to confront that?

Bill Weld

I’m a supply-sider on economics. I believe in dynamic scoring of tax cuts. I thought the 2017 tax cut was pretty good. Maybe it made the rich a little bit too rich and didn’t do enough for the bottom 25 percent, the bottom quartile, but it had some things in it I’ve been contending for for years, like accelerated depreciation. That has a direct impact on job creation. Repatriation of profits being held overseas was another one I had been contending for years that should be brought back for a fee, so to speak, of 10 percent. it just didn’t make any sense having all that money parked offshore.

Having said all that, and being one who focuses with laser-like intensity on how much money is in taxpayers’ pockets, all taxpayers, I do think we need to take some measures to improve the situation of the working poor. We need to make sure that the door to the middle class is not slammed in their face.

When I was in office, I spent a lot of time thinking about that poor wage earner making $29,000 to $32,000 a year with no prospects for an increase, with a family of four or five to feed. I don’t think there should be a lot of such people in the United States, and the fact is we have [12 percent] of the country living in poverty. One thing I did do as governor in Massachusetts was to greatly increase the earned income tax credit, which helps the working poor. I probably would do more of that because we don’t need to have people making $29,000 a year who have a family. If that sounds like attacking income inequality, that’s because it is.

By the way, you said some conservatives think we need a bigger government. Those aren’t conservatives. I consider myself a person of some compassion, but I never saw any layer of government, federal, state, or local, that couldn’t be pruned 10 percent or 20 percent without any loss in delivery of government services whatsoever.

Jane Coaston

Has it been strange for you to kind of watch that message go from being standard conservative dictum to being something that seems to be a relatively unpopular statement among a lot of people who think of themselves as being conservative?

Bill Weld

I don’t know. I get good reactions out on the stump. I tell people that I summarize my political philosophy at the Republican National Convention in Houston in 1992 in one sentence: I want the government out of your pocketbook and out of your bedroom, which is true. My slogan in office was, “There’s no such thing as government money. There’s only taxpayers’ money.” Well, they have well and truly forgotten that lesson in Washington, DC, because there’s nobody sticking up for the taxpayer in Washington.

Author: Jane Coaston

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