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The Bill Weld Phenomenon
After the 2016 presidential election, the reform wing of the Libertarian Party immediately began grooming former Massachusetts Republican governor Bill Weld to be the 2020 L.P. presidential nominee. The reformers were featuring Weld in a constant stream of interviews, profiles, L.P. fund-raising drives, and L.P. events.
Today, virtually all of the L.P. reformers — or “pragmatists,” as they call themselves — downplay their ardent and enthusiastic support of Weld and their efforts to make him the 2020 L.P. presidential nominee. But at the time, it made perfect sense, in the minds of the reformers, to make Weld the next L.P. presidential nominee.
After all, Weld had served as the L.P.’s vice-presidential candidate in the 2016 presidential race. That was the race in which former New Mexico Republican governor Gary Johnson was the L.P.’s presidential nominee. Johnson had initially competed in the Republican presidential primaries in the 2012 presidential race but then decided to come over to the Libertarian Party in a successful effort to garner the L.P.’s presidential nomination in 2012 and then again in 2016.
What’s not to like? Two former Republican governors! Count them — two! Two successful politicians, both with big fundraising bases with lots of donors! Moreover, “Publicity, Jacob! Publicity!”
There was just one big problem, which actually though was not a problem for the pragmatists: Both Johnson and Weld adhered to Republican reform-oriented philosophy, programs, and principles.
Why was that not a problem for the pragmatists? Because they adhered to the same reform-oriented philosophy, programs, and principles to which Johnson and Weld adhered! In fact, in the minds of the pragmatists, the Republican “free-market,” reform-oriented philosophy, programs, and principles to which Johnson and Weld adhered were “libertarian” and, therefore, fit perfectly within the Libertarian Party.
“Privatize” or “save” Social Security? Check!
Health-savings accounts? Check!
School “choice,” including vouchers? Check!
Tax reform? Check!
Regulatory reform? Check!
Rein in the Federal Reserve? Check!
Welfare reform? Check!
Smaller government? Check!
Selective foreign interventionism? Check!
A “strong national defense”? Check!
A national-security state? Check!
Decriminalize marijuana? Check!
Free-trade agreements? Check!
A “secure border” and immigration reform? Check!
Libertarian-leaning conservatives appointed to regulatory commissions? Check!
By the time that Johnson and Weld garnered the L.P. presidential/vice-presidential nominations, the transformation of the Libertarian brand to a reform-oriented, Republicanesque brand was complete. Although the pragmatists, for whatever reason, had retained the label “The Party of Principle” to describe the L.P., in reality the party had become “The Party of Reform” or “The Party of Practicality and Pragmatism” or “The Party of Vote-Getting” or “The Party of Republican-Lite.”
One of the fascinating aspects of this phenomenon is that the reform wing of the Libertarian Party convinced themselves and many party members that Republicanesque reform-oriented principles and programs were actually libertarian principles and programs. They maintained that libertarianism was a “spectrum” and that people who favored Republican reform-oriented programs and principles were simply at the lower end of the libertarian spectrum.
Nothing, of course, could be further from the truth. Libertarianism is a philosophy of liberty, which necessarily entails the removal of infringements on liberty. Reform necessarily entails leaving infringements intact, albeit in a reformed or improved fashion. (See my article “Slavery Reform or Serfdom Reform?”)
In 2019 and 2020 I was speaking at many state L.P. conventions (partly in my unsuccessful quest for the 2020 L.P. presidential nomination). Many, if not most, of the L.P. members I addressed had come into the party in the last 10-15 years or so. One of my most fascinating experiences was seeing the shocked reaction of some of them when they heard me deliver the principled, uncompromising case for the libertarian philosophy. All that they had ever heard was the case for Republicanesque reform and, in their minds, that was libertarianism. Now, here they were hearing, for the first time, the case for genuine libertarianism. From the wide-eyed reaction I was getting, it was clear that many of them didn’t know what to make of it. How could what I was saying be libertarianism when they were convinced that reform was libertarianism? Nonetheless, I could tell from the looks on the faces of many of them that I was touching some deep libertarian chords within them.
As the reform wing of the party was grooming Bill Weld to be the 2020 presidential nominee, the Washington Post published an op-ed that pretty much summarized what had happened to the Libertarian Party. The op-ed was published on June 20, 2018, when the move to make Weld the 2020 L.P. presidential nominee was in full swing. It was written by Post columnist George Will, who could easily be called “Mr. Conservative.” The title of the op-ed was, “Can This Libertarian Save Conservatism?”
Will’s op-ed, of course, was referring to Bill Weld. Will’s idea was that by Weld’s becoming the L.P.’s 2020 presidential nominee and then being elected president, “this Libertarian” could save the conservative philosophy and the conservative movement.
Weld’s op-ed pretty much summarized what had happened to the Libertarian Party and why the L.P. is often described today as “conservative” or “right-wing” or why the libertarian philosophy is considered by some to be just a subset of the conservative philosophy. Libertarianism within the L.P. had not just melded with conservatism, it had, in some respects, been subsumed by conservatism. Indeed, as Will observed, libertarianism and the Libertarian Party were now viewed as just a way to save conservatism. No wonder Republicans felt comfortable using the revolving door that had been established with the Libertarian Party.
To my knowledge, there was no pushback from the reform wing of the Libertarian Party to Will’s op-ed. If Will had written a column like that about me, I would have considered suing him for libel! But why should there have been an adverse reaction among L.P. reformers and pragmatists? In their minds, Will’s op-ed was a tremendous honor and a huge compliment. And it would clearly help to make Weld the 2020 L.P. presidential nominee and later help him to garner lots of votes in the presidential election. Moreover, the fact that the op-ed had been published in the Washington Post, well … “Publicity, Jacob! Publicity!”
Ultimately, Weld dissed the L.P., walked back through the revolving door, and returned home to the Republican Party, deciding to run for president in the Republican primaries instead of as the L.P. presidential nominee. When Weld returned home, his conservative, reform-oriented principles and programs, of course, did not change. They fit as comfortably within the Republican Party as they had within the Libertarian Party. The only difference was that he was now using the Republican Party, rather than the Libertarian Party, as the way to save conservatism.
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