Veteran Weld-watchers may have noticed a brief flicker of the old Bill Weld yesterday as he came out swinging against the striking New York transit workers. Does Big Red still have enough of the fire that won him the Massachusetts governorship in 1990 to make a difference in New York in 2006?
In an interview with the New York Sun, Weld challenged Democratic front-runner Eliot Spitzer to get tough on the strikers. "If he were governor, I don't think he would be as aggressive as I would be," said the Bay State turned Empire State Republican. "Mr. Spitzer should be asked whether if he were governor, would he fire the members of the executive board and any leaders publicly advocating a strike."
Weld told the paper he would fire the union leaders behind the strike in an effort to break the stalemate that has ground New York City public transportation to a halt and racked up an estimated cost of $400 million a day. This isn't quite the PATCO solution, but it is tiptoeing awfully close.
The move is vintage Weld, who was not your father's moderate Republican during his run on Beacon Hill. In his heyday, Weld was to bureaucracy and public-sector unions what Eliot Spitzer is to Wall Street -- and the taxpayers were his defrauded investors. He snatched highway maintenance away from the unions in eastern Massachusetts and repeatedly touted privatization. During his first gubernatorial campaign, Weld offered this description of his ideal budgetary process: "You assume no program is necessary...no bureaucrat's job is necessary...no line item in the budget is necessary."
The populist-libertarian rhetoric always outstripped the reality. But Weld knew how to tap voters' frustration with government workers, failed bureaucracies, and stultifying red tape in order to appeal to people who under ordinary circumstances wouldn't have pulled the lever for a WASP-y, squash-playing Republican.
But there was a second, less libertarian, part of Weld's appeal also briefly on display in the New York Sun story as he challenged an area of Spitzer's strength: "I was a U.S. attorney for five years and prosecuted 111 public corruption cases and got convictions in 109 of them. Has Mr. Spitzer prosecuted public corruption cases? I'm not really aware that he has."
Weld didn't just market himself as a wrecking ball who would tear down the accretions of big government and establishment corruption. He was also a law-and-order man who would get tough on the bad guys. This was the Bill Weld who pushed for the death penalty, talked up his Reagan-era experience as a federal prosecutor throwing the book at "drug thugs," who was going to "introduce convicts to the joys of breaking rocks."
This was the key to Weld's appeal in Massachusetts. He was a tough conservative Republican on issues like taxes and crime, where even blue-staters don't trust Democrats, but on social issues like abortion, he wouldn't say anything that would frighten the average resident of the Back Bay -- or the Upper East Side. Could that approach work in New York? Two words: Rudy Giuliani. (Perhaps not coincidentally, Giuliani is a Weld supporter.)
But, since declaring his candidacy, this hasn't been the figure Weld has been introducing to the voters of New York. In fact, he hasn't really introduced himself to New Yorkers at all, even though he has been talking about running for governor upon George Pataki's retirement since at least 2000. His run has had all the appearances of a vanity project rather than a serious bid.
As a result, New York voters have been equally offhand with him. In a December Strategic Vision poll, Weld (who received 71 percent of the vote when he ran for a second term in Massachusetts) draws just 25 percent to Eliot Spitzer's 58 percent. This is better than secretary of state Randy Daniels but worse than billionaire Tom Golisano. Weld is similarly situated among Republican primary voters. A Quinnipiac poll put him at 8 percent, ahead of Daniels but well behind Golisano and a single point behind former assembly minority leader John Faso.
Instead of playing to his strengths, Weld has been forced to talk about social issues in a probably futile attempt to secure the Conservative Party's ballot line. Consequently, he has obscured his culturally liberal image by veering to the right on abortion (he now favors banning partial-birth abortion and requiring minors to notify at least one parent) and same-sex marriage (although initially supportive of his former state's Goodridge v. Department of Health supreme judicial court decision, he currently says he opposes gay marriage outside of Massachusetts).
In the final analysis, it may just be that Weld's timing is off. He came on the scene in Massachusetts during the hangover from Michael Dukakis' economic miracle, when the budget was in disarray and the entrenched Democratic establishment was alienating independents with its excess. In New York, he is following a fellow Republican after an uninspiring third term in a cycle where the GOP's appeal is flagging. People looking for a decisive break from the status quo aren't likely to turn to Bill Weld instead of a popular Democrat.
And Eliot Spitzer is no John Silber, the irascible Boston University president who was Weld's Democratic opponent in 1990. Silber's brusque manner and social conservatism created an unlikely coalition of liberals and traditional Republicans that isn't likely to emerge in the New York gubernatorial race.
Despite the long odds, maybe if Weld continues to show signs of life he can make a race out of what is shaping up to be a rout. If not, then at least maybe he'll be able to make it interesting.
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