william weld

William Weld and the Strange Allure of No-Hope Primary Challenges

Guess what: William Weld is not going to scare Donald Trump in 2020. Photo: George Frey/Getty Images

Maybe it was just a news hole that had to be filled on a morning when the entire political world was awaiting the president’s press conference announcing his national “emergency” declaration on his cooked-up border crisis. But it’s still strange how this story wound up so widely and prominently reported (this is from the New York Times’ account):

William F. Weld, the maverick former governor of Massachusetts, announced on Friday that he would form an exploratory committee to challenge President Trump for the Republican Party’s 2020 nomination, presenting himself as a dissident voice in a political party that has abandoned its mainstream roots.

Presumably no one is under the illusion this represents an actual threat to Trump’s renomination. The Times put Weld’s electoral irrelevance diplomatically:

Mr. Weld is unlikely to pose a major threat to Mr. Trump and he is in some ways an incongruous figure to leap into the Republican presidential fray. A moderate who ran for vice president in 2016 on the Libertarian ticket, Mr. Weld’s candidacy might be more of an act of protest than a conventional national campaign.

At National Review, Ramesh Ponnuru was blunter about it:

The point of a primary run against President Trump can’t be to actually win. I know that 2016 should make all of us leery of saying that some political development “will never happen” — but c’mon.

So is the point instead to set an alternative course for the future of the Republican party should Trump prove a failure in 2020 or in his second term? That doesn’t make sense, either, unless you believe that the GOP has a future as a party that favors abortion and gun control and is unconcerned about religious liberty and judicial conservatism.

Aside from being a has-been and all (he last held public office in 1997), Weld is far, far out of step with the former party he now says he wants to lead. Even if said party was not firmly in the grip of a president whom Weld basically described as a Nazi in 2016 (“I can hear the glass crunching on Kristallnacht in the ghettos of Warsaw and Vienna when I hear [Trump’s immigration plan”]), Weld as GOP leader would make about as much sense as Joe Lieberman leaving his comfortable lobbying haunts to take charge of the Democrats.

So why is Weld getting attention? I’d say there are two reasons. First, presidential politics abhors a vacuum. It’s been largely forgotten now, but there was a remarkable level of interest heading towards the 2012 presidential election in the entirely phantasmagoric possibility of a Democratic primary challenge to Barack Obama (indeed, I had a duel with the estimable Glenn Greenwald on the subject back then in which I mocked the very idea to his displeasure). So anybody running against a sitting president will be welcomed to the fray by horse-race loving journalists and intraparty malcontents alike.

Second, and this was part of the reason some progressives looked high and low for an Obama challenger as well, an awful lot of observers think Trump should have a primary challenge, so the banners are already half unfurled even if the purported champion, like Weld, looks a bit underwhelming. It’s the same phenomenon that led to the regular and rather amazing over-coverage of the steadily shrinking band of #NeverTrump Republicans.

It’s true that Trump’s conquest of the GOP is sometimes hard to completely digest. This very morning, as he expressed his deep love for tariffs in rambling comments about his trade war with China, you had to figure some of the loyal men and women in his retinue were inwardly cringing. But it doesn’t matter: they will back him nonetheless, even if it requires them to repudiate important things they once believed.

Barring something coming out that is somehow even more distasteful than all the things Republicans have already had to swallow about Trump, it’s totally his party now. But that won’t keep his detractors from hoping against hope that someone will arise from the ranks of his own party and lead a revolt.

Perhaps someone who is at least remotely feasible as an actual candidate–say, former Ohio governor John Kasich–will keep flirting with a 2020 challenge to Trump in the sure knowledge that its viability will be exaggerated until such time as voters vote. But for now, William Weld will have to do.

William Weld and the Allure of No-Hope Primary Challenges