The Bill Weld Phenomenon, Part 1: A "Libertarian-Leaning" Conservative Disses the Libertarian Party
Bill Weld's experience with the Libertarian Party is one of the most fascinating phenomena in the 48-year history of the party, one that raises critically important questions for every member of the Libertarian Party and, to a larger extent, everyone in the libertarian movement.
A lifelong conservative who had served as Republican governor of Massachusetts, Weld was persuaded to leave the Republican Party to serve as Gary Johnson's running mate in the 2016 presidential race. After securing the LP presidential nomination for a second time, Johnson, himself a former Republican governor of New Mexico, insisted on having Weld as his running mate even though Weld was a conservative and had only recently joined the LP at Johnson's urging in order to serve as his LP running mate.
The argument was that with two former Republican governors running as the LP's presidential and vice-presidential nominees, the LP would finally have the dream presidential ticket for which some LP members had long yearned. Political experience. National name recognition. Massive fund-raising capability, especially within the Republican Party. Credibility by the mainstream press. And two "libertarian-leaning" conservatives who, some believed, could possibly even win the presidential election, especially given that they would be running against two of the most unpopular and unattractive candidates that the two major parties had ever nominated.
To assure skeptics of his libertarian credentials, Weld told the delegates at the 2016 national nominating convention that he had actually been a philosophical libertarian for a long time, albeit as a member of the Republican Party. He emphasized that he was a big advocate of the libertarian Nobel Prize-winning economist Friedrich Hayek, who authored a book that was renowned in both conservative and libertarian circles, The Road to Serfdom. Weld assured LP delegates that he had left the Republican Party for good and would remain with the Libertarian Party for the rest of his life.
Johnson and Weld did not end up winning the election but they did garner 6 percent of the vote, which set the record for LP presidential candidates.
After the election and for the next two years, Weld signaled that he was going to seek the 2020 LP presidential nomination. He began traveling to state conventions and endorsing LP candidates. He helped with LP fundraising efforts, including signing his name to at least one national LP fundraising letter. He would respond coyly whenever LP members asked him if he was, in fact, seeking the LP presidential nomination in 2020, but most everyone within the LP had no doubts that Weld would be seeking the nomination in 2020.
Equally important, there were LP members who were obviously actively wooing Weld to be the 2020 LP presidential candidate. While not formally and openly endorsing his likely candidacy, they were doing everything they could to highlight him and his credentials, his background, his positions, and his newly prominent role in the party. Bill Weld was being feted, interviewed, honored, celebrated, and glorified by certain members of the LP. With his national name recognition and his storied fundraising capability, he would stand a good chance, his LP supporters felt, of carrying the LP to the next level in the 2020 presidential race, perhaps even winning the presidency as a LP candidate. Sometimes the adulation was so gushing that it almost became embarrassing,
And then one day, suddenly, without saying a word to the LP, Bill Weld quietly packed his bags and returned home, abandoning the Libertarian Party and rejoining the Republican Party in order to run against President Trump as a Republican.
The experience had the feel of a elderly man who leaves his wife for a vivacious, dynamic, attractive young woman, who he showers with attention, a nice apartment, a new car, jewelry, and fine restaurants, promising her that he is going to divorce his wife and spend the rest of his life with his new partner. After the glow of the affair has ended, however, the man, without saying anything to his mistress, packs his bags, abandons her, and returns to his wife.
Interesting enough, the reaction of some of Weld's supporters within the LP was exactly that of a spurned mistress. Feeling betrayed, they lashed out at Weld in anger over being dissed by the lifelong "libertarian-leaning" conservative who had promised to stay with the LP forever and never return home to the Republican Party and who, in the process, had clearly raised hopes among some LP members that he would be the 2020 LP presidential nominee.
When Weld quietly did return home, some of his Republican Party supporters who had followed him into the LP returned with him. At the time, I wondered whether those LP members who were courting him and wooing him to seek the 2020 LP presidential nomination would also follow him home and join up with his Republican effort to unseat Trump. After all, it was obvious that they passionately shared his overall "libertarian-leaning" conservative philosophy and ideas, which was why they were so excited about his potential 2020 LP presidential candidacy.
In the end, however, Weld's LP acolytes, feeling angry and betrayed, decided to remain with the LP, perhaps hoping to find another "libertarian-leaning" conservative who was disgruntled with the Republican Party and who would be willing to come over to the LP and take Weld's place as their 2020 presidential nominee.
Of course, the question obviously arises: If Trump defeats Weld for the GOP presidential nomination, which appears likely, will he then return to the LP to seek the party's presidential nomination in order to continue running against Trump? While Weld has disavowed an intent to do so, the possibility cannot be eliminated, especially given his penchant for breaking vows. If he does rejoin the LP, he could argue that he now has even more national name recognition than before and an even bigger fundraising capability and that his taking on Trump, who he has converted into a personal nemesis, was clearly an act of great bravery. In fact, one cannot eliminate the possibility that this has been Weld's political strategy the entire time.
The more interesting question, however, is whether his former supporters and acolytes within the LP — those who were wooing and feting him before he abandoned them — would rejoin his renewed effort to become the 2020 LP presidential nominee. After a period of profuse apology and remorse and a renewed vow to remain faithful to the LP on the part of Weld, my hunch is that his LP supporters would return to the Weld fold. Why? Because they still passionately believe in what "libertarian-leaning" conservative Bill Weld stands for.
The Bill Weld phenomenon, however, is about much more than the battle for the 2020 LP presidential nomination. Much more important, the Weld phenomenon reflects a war for the soul of the Libertarian Party and, more generally, the libertarian movement. It is a war in which every member of the libertarian movement and every member of the Libertarian Party who yearns to be free has a critically important stake.
One year ago, the Washington Post published a column by its conservative columnist George Will entitled "Can This Libertarian Restore Conservatism?" In his column, Will endorsed Weld's obvious bid to be the 2020 LP presidential candidate. Dismissing Gary Johnson as someone who was "too interested in marijuana" and unable to state what Aleppo was, Will wrote that ex-Republican Governor Weld, on the other hand, "is ready for prime time."
Weld explained his reasoning: Like Margaret Thatcher, the former leader of the conservative movement in England, Weld believes in Friedrich Hayek's book The Constitution of Liberty, which, Will stated, "is why he aspires to be the Libertarian Party's 2020 presidential candidate." Weld also, he said, stands for "limited government, fiscal responsibility, free trade, the rule of law, [and] entitlement realism." Weld took philosophy classes from Robert Nozick, the author of Anarchy, State, and Utopia, which, Will emphasized, is "a canonical text of libertarianism."
Will also burnished Weld's credentials for the LP presidential nomination by pointing out that Weld had served in the Reagan administration as a U.S. attorney, even though, for some reason, Will decided to omit Weld's criminal prosecutions in the drug war, a long-favorite program of conservatives. He quoted Weld as saying that throughout the 2016 presidential race, he carried a copy of the 10th Amendment with him and reminded people that as president, he would be an "anti-Federalist." He told Will that when he was governor of Massachusetts, he cut taxes 21 times and favored "capitalist acts between consenting adults." He also refused to grant automatic increases in funding for governmental agencies. Weld's most gratifying achievement, he told Will, was "cutting the 6 percent tax on long-term capital gains by 1 percent for each year that the asset is held." Like Johnson, Weld often informed people that libertarian means being "socially liberal and economically conservative."
Do you see why George Will, a lifelong conservative, would be excited about having Weld become the LP presidential nominee? What's not to like, at least from the standpoint of a conservative?
Equally important, can you see why some LP members were as excited about Bill Weld as George Will was? What's not to like? Weld was a "libertarian-leaning" conservative, one who had received high freedom-oriented ratings as governor from the Cato Institute, one who quoted Hayek, one who cut taxes and spending, and one who embraced the old, standard conservative mantra "free enterprise, private property, and limited government."
As far as I know, there was never any pushback to George Will's column within the circle of LP members who were supporting Weld's obvious pursuit of the 2020 LP presidential nomination, and there certainly was no pushback from Weld himself. That's because both Weld and his LP supporters considered Will's piece to be a glorious compliment, one that shed a positive light in the mainstream press on both Weld and the Libertarian Party, one that raised the national profiles of both Weld and the LP, not only in conservative circles but also among progressives who read the Washington Post.
As for me, when I read George Will's piece, I considered it to be an enormous insult. As far as I was concerned, any self-respecting Libertarian (or libertarian) would have responded to Will by saying, "George, let's get something straight. I am a libertarian, not a conservative. Contrary to your suggestion, I am not interested in restoring conservatism. I'm interested in burying conservatism because it is a morally bankrupt philosophy, as morally bankrupt as progressivism is."
But it didn't surprise me that other libertarians would not feel that same way. For the past 29 years that I have been running The Future of Freedom Foundation, whose mission has always been to present the principled, uncompromising case for libertarianism, there has been an ever-growing number of people both in the libertarian movement and in the Libertarian Party who have been firmly committed to conflating conservatism and libertarianism, to the point where the libertarian brand has, over time, been severely damaged, in some ways almost beyond recognition.
As a result of that conflation of conservatism and libertarianism, there are many people today who view libertarianism as nothing more than a subset of conservatism. There are also people who view the Libertarian Party as essentially a wing of the Republican Party, especially given the ease by which Republicans cross back and forth between the two parties and feel totally comfortable in doing so. The damage has been so severe that the mainstream press even now refers to some libertarian think tanks as "right wing" or "libertarian-leaning" conservative.
The situation has been especially aggravated within the LP by many LP candidates running for office based on a Republican-lite platform, one that essentially mirrors the one that Weld ran in 2016 and that he would run again if he returns to the LP and succeeds in securing the 2020 LP presidential nomination.
There is one overarching feature of these Republican-lite Libertarian Party campaigns: their calls for reforming the welfare-warfare state way of life under which we live. That is the distinguishing characteristic of conservatism, a philosophy that seeks to conserve and reform the status quo, albeit in a "free-enterprise" fashion. Therefore, it shouldn't surprise anyone that "libertarian-leaning" conservative candidates in the LP, like Bill Weld, would make reform the central feature in their LP political campaigns.
But there is one important thing that every libertarian and every member of the Libertarian Party needs to recognize: Reform of the welfare-warfare state is not freedom, not when it's advocated by conservatives and not when it's advocated by libertarians. Reform is nothing more than an effort to improve the the welfare-warfare-state way of life under which modern-day Americans live.
Every member of the Libertarian Party needs to ask himself some critically important questions. Why am I in the LP? Why am I devoting my time, energy, and hard-earned money to the party? Why do I attend party conventions? Why do I participate in the many hours of business sessions within the party?
In a larger sense, similar questions should be addressed by every member of the libertarian movement.
If your answer is because you want to be free, then two follow-up questions naturally arise: Can I achieve freedom by running and supporting political campaigns, proposals, and programs based on conservatism, or "libertarian-leaning" conservatism, or Republican, or Republican-lite? Or in order to achieve freedom, is it necessary for us libertarians to fight as libertarians?
These two questions — and the answers to them — go to the heart of the battle for the very soul of both the Libertarian Party and the libertarian movement and, to a larger extent, to the battle for liberty in America.
COMING SOON: The Bill Weld Phenomenon, Part 2: The Battle for the Soul of the Libertarian Party and the Libertarian Movement