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This is William Weld’s Punxsutawney Phil week.
The former governor of Massachusetts has finally emerged from the subterranean seclusion into which he’d fallen after announcing he “might” primary President Trump. He’s wearing out the shoe leather in New Hampshire, where pride in the lead-off presidential primary will land “First in the Nation” on license plates if the Revolution-inspired “Live Free or Die” ever loses cachet.
Weld’s schedule includes schmoozing with (pro-Trump) Gov. Chris Sununu, addressing voters at the home of the state’s former GOP chairman and shaking hands on the streets of Concord under escort by the state’s (officially neutral) Republican national committeeman. He also let drop that he’s leaning towards making the race and will decide next month.
That’s music to the ears of we Never-Trump Republicans. We hoped the famously marches-to-his-own-drummer Weld — who once plunged into the Charles River fully clothed to prove it was sewage-free — hadn’t been spooked by Donald Trump’s near-90 percent approval rating among the party’s rank-and-file. We wanted him to read polling that suggests 43 percent of Republicans favor a primary challenge to Trump.
The mathematical inconsistency between the polls apparently reflects the fact that even some Republicans in Trump’s corner wouldn’t mind a contest to spice things up. Perhaps they’re moved by photo lineups of the 2020 candidates in which the 17 Democrats running for their party’s nomination sprawl like a two-page spread in a football program; by contrast, Trump and Weld look like a humble double-photo frame on a family mantelpiece.
Other potential GOP challengers — Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, ex-Ohio Gov. John Kasich — might be stronger candidates, but so far, only Weld has had the guts to take the field. Skeptics on both left and right would replace “guts” with “nuts,” saying he’s on a kamikaze dive out of which he can’t parachute fast enough. They miss the point.
The goal, despite Weld’s insistence he’d run to win, is not depriving Trump of the nomination, glorious as that would be. Rather, the hope is to soften him up so that the Democrats can finish off this embarrassment of a president come November 2020. That might take fewer Weld votes than the skeptics think.
43 percent of Republicans favor a primary challenge to Trump
In the last intra-party revolt against a sitting president, Pat Buchanan won just a quarter of GOP primary votes overall, en route to losing every contest to President George H.W. Bush. New Hampshire, Buchanan’s high-water mark, delivered him 37 percent of its vote. Yet the hole in the support from Bush’s base was enough to topple the president that fall, just as stronger challenges to incumbents in 1976 and ’80 produced the same result.
Weld has two other things going for him. First, his stated strategy, should he run, would be to focus on states, including New Hampshire, that allow independents to vote in party primaries. Trump narrowly won independents in 2016, so Weld’s challenge could be a referendum on whether the president’s appalling tenure had alienated them.
Second, while Weld is not always sage (I disagree with his support for Trump’s tax cuts and their shared antipathy to Obamacare), his I-don’t-give-a-damn attitude might make him just the man to turn our famously bullying president into a human pincushion on the campaign trail.
No one doubts Weld’s smarts; no one believes Trump has any. (The former governor reportedly could play three games of chess simultaneously, blindfolded, as a Harvard student.) No one has accused Weld of sexual harassment or assault; Trump has 23 accusers. No one considers Weld a racist; as for Trump — are you kidding?
The obligatory caveats: No incumbent president has lost re-nomination since 1884. And by his own admission, Weld’s armory is short on the artillery shells of hard cash necessary to run a serious campaign, the only kind that might dent Trump’s armor.
Then there are also the Bay Stater’s various apostasies: his pointed refusal to pledge support for the eventual GOP nominee in 2020, his Libertarian vice presidential candidacy in 2016, the kind words he had for Hillary Clinton that year.
Those gripes matter with many Republicans, even though they are hypocritical. The party’s faithful are also supposedly not troubled by Trump’s years of hopscotching among parties, not to mention his years of ideological cross-dressing: pro-choice, pro-life, for Medicare for All, against health care for all — the list goes on.
Trumpers don’t care, because their primal motivation is shared racial animosity or fear with the president. Which is precisely why Weld’s refusal to pledge support is the only principled option and a breath of fresh air against the supine sellouts to Trump who are warming GOP seats in Congress.
Those enablers validate the suggestion that Republicans could do their party a favor by finding a few down-ballot primary challengers as well.
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