Former Massachusetts governor Bill Weld told an audience in New Hampshire on Friday that he will try to take on President Trump in the 2020 Republican presidential primary, offering the first high-profile challenge to the president’s reelection effort.
Weld, 73, was blunt about the challenges his effort would face, and said he would seek to determine over the coming months if he can raise enough money to continue. He said he would run on a traditional Republican agenda of fiscal responsibility and provide a stylistic contrast to Trump.
“It is time for all people of good will — and our country is filled with people of good will — to take a stand and plant a flag,” Weld said during a speech Friday at a Politics & Eggs breakfast in Bedford, N.H.
“In every country, there comes a time when patriotic men and women must stand up and speak out,” he said. “In our country, this is such a time.”
Weld opened his remarks in the first primary state with an unflinching denunciation of the president — “he acts like a schoolyard bully” — and Republicans in Washington who “exhibit all the symptoms of Stockholm syndrome.”
“We don’t need six more years of the antics we have seen,” he said.
Weld’s path to the nomination is difficult; Trump has successfully remade the Republican Party in his image in recent years and he remains popular with Republican voters. In an interview this week, Weld noted that even if he does not succeed, a potential side benefit, from his perspective, would be weakening Trump for the general election.
Recent history has demonstrated the effect of such challenges: In 1992, President George H.W. Bush faced a troublesome challenge from the right from commentator Patrick J. Buchanan, who embarrassed the incumbent by winning 37 percent of the vote in the New Hampshire primary and fighting Bush until the national convention. The weakened president lost to Democrat Bill Clinton.
Similarly, President Gerald Ford had to fend off a Republican challenge from Ronald Reagan in 1976 before losing in the general election to Democrat Jimmy Carter.
Weld, who last won an election in 1994, said that he felt compelled to act after observing the tumult of the Trump campaign and administration.
“I’m here because I think our country is in grave peril, and I cannot sit quietly on the sidelines any longer,” he said.
Weld outlined an agenda that was far more specific than that laid out by other presidential candidates so far. He advocated simplifying the tax code and reducing taxes across the board. He favored lowering trade barriers and shrinking the government overall, including eliminating the Education Department.
While those elements are well within Republican orthodoxy, he also departed from it. He said climate change represented a dire threat to the nation and the United States should reenter the Paris climate agreement. Trump has mocked the notion of climate change and announced that the country was withdrawing from the multinational accord. Weld also backed the use of medical marijuana for veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
But he was most animated when discussing the flaws of the current president.
“We have a president whose priorities are skewed toward promotion of himself rather than toward the good of the country,” Weld said. “He may have great energy and considerable raw talent, but he does not use them in ways that promote democracy, truth, justice and equal opportunity for all.”
When asked if he would endorse Trump should he lose the primary, Weld deflected. “I find the current president a difficult act to swallow,” Weld said, and he suggested that he might support a different Republican or an independent candidate.
Weld was elected governor of Massachusetts as a Republican twice, first in 1990, after serving as U.S. attorney for Massachusetts and in the Justice Department in Washington. He ran his first campaign as a reformer who supported gay rights and abortion rights.
He was an erudite and quirky governor; at one news conference, held so he could sign a water-quality bill into law, he jumped into the Charles River wearing long pants and a T-shirt.
Weld was reelected in 1994 with more than 70 percent of the vote, despite Massachusetts’s status as an overwhelmingly Democratic state. Shortly after, he set his eyes on Washington and decided to run for the U.S. Senate, challenging John F. Kerry in 1996.
But Weld lost that race and, in 1997, resigned the governorship after being offered the role of ambassador to Mexico by President Bill Clinton. The nomination stalled and eventually was withdrawn due to Republican objections over his moderate positions.
He moved to New York and in 2005 announced his candidacy for governor there in the 2006 elections. But he made it only halfway through election year before bowing out with little support.
Weld left the Republican Party in 2016 to join former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson on the Libertarian Party ticket. Weld received a rough welcome, winning the vice-presidential nomination on the second ballot at the party’s convention only after Johnson suggested that he could not continue as the presidential nominee without him.
“The Libertarian platform is my platform, and neither of the other parties’ is,” Weld said in an interview with Slate. Weld described his new party as “a six-lane highway going right up the middle between the two parties.”
He made news for defending Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton over the controversy surrounding her use of a private email server. In the final days of the election, he suggested that voters in swing states cast strategic ballots to stop Trump, even if that meant supporting the Democrat.
“I’m here vouching for Mrs. Clinton, and I think it’s high time somebody did,” Weld told MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow.
After the election, Johnson announced his retirement from presidential politics, while Weld traveled the country to assess support for a Libertarian run.
“I can almost feel myself sinking more deeply into the Libertarian Party,” he told the libertarian magazine Reason in 2017. “I feel myself broadening and, as I say, even deepening politically.”
But the party lost ground in 2018, losing some state offices it had gained during the Obama presidency. Weld announced this month that he was switching back to the Republican Party.
Weld traces his roots in the country back to the 1600s when an ancestor, Joseph Weld, arrived in Boston. He graduated summa cum laude from Harvard College and earned a law degree from Harvard University.
He has five children from his first marriage, which ended in divorce. His second wife, Leslie Marshall, is a novelist and magazine writer.