Political Hay

Understanding Bill Weld

The former Massachusetts governor and current New York hopeful is a more interesting moderate than Republicans might suspect.

By 8.25.05

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Move over, Sam Houston. In announcing a run for the Republican gubernatorial nomination in New York, former Massachusetts Gov. William F. Weld seeks to follow in the Raven's footsteps by being elected governor of two different states.

The New York Times editorial page, a source few Republicans would consult when searching for conservative leadership, gave Weld a warm welcome: "He's moderate, he's available and heaven knows the Republican Party isn't overstuffed with name-brand candidates eager to get on the ballot next year."

In the Gray Lady's news pages, GOP consultant Nelson Warfield was quoted comparing the Bay State refugee to famous New York liberal Republicans like Jacob Javits and Nelson Rockefeller. "Weld is a unique and endangered species: the migratory liberal Republican,'' Warfield said. ''His habitat is limited to the extreme Northeast, and he is an extremely rare bird.''

What can New Yorkers expect from Bill Weld? Allow a former Weld constituent (and, in the interest of full disclosure, supporter of his Massachusetts gubernatorial bids) to offer some insights.

The constant description of Weld as a "moderate" Republican is not inaccurate, but it is misleading. Moderates like Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter, Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe and the second- and third-term New York Gov. George Pataki are not just the left of the Republican platform on social issues. They are also usually to its left on economics. Moderate Republicans tend to be less eager to cut taxes, more generous with social spending, and generally cautious about deregulation.

Bill Weld, on the other hand, truly mixes fiscal conservatism with social liberalism. As governor of Massachusetts he cut taxes sixteen times, balanced the budget annually, pursued privatization, vetoed minimum wage increases, and even rejected higher levies on cigarettes to pay for health care for children. (Let's repeat that last one: He vetoed a cigarette-tax hike that would have paid for children's health care -- in Massachusetts.)

Although he grew progressively slacker on spending as his tenure wore on, Weld's first budget actually reduced expenditures below the previous year's level. Hardly a Rockefeller Republican, he instituted work requirements for welfare recipients before the 1996 federal reform legislation and boasted that on taxes he was "a filthy supply-sider."

Yet Weld does live up his socially liberal reputation in spades. Many moderate Republicans -- think California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger or former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge -- are pro-choice but willing to ban partial-birth abortions. Not Bill Weld. He agreed with Sen. John Kerry's votes on partial-birth abortion and in 1992 called even ninth-month abortions "a price I would pay in order to have government stay out of the thicket."

In Massachusetts, Weld created the Governor's Commission on Gay and Lesbian Youth and was generally in the vanguard of gay-rights causes. As recently as 2004, he delivered the homily at two former staffers' same-sex wedding and endorsed the Goodridge v. Department of Health decision before a Log Cabin Club conclave during the Republican National Convention. He has since told the New York Post that he opposes same-sex marriage beyond Massachusetts.

DOES THIS STRANGE COMBINATION of thorough economic conservatism and social liberalism make Weld a libertarian? Not unless libertarians also support expansive environmental regulations, gun control, and affirmative action. Although he has favored medical marijuana and needle-exchange programs, he does not, as is occasionally assumed, support drug legalization and has bragged about prosecuting "drug thugs" while serving in the Reagan Justice Department.

If New Yorkers elect Big Red governor, they shouldn't expect him to stick around as long as Pataki or Mario Cuomo. Weld bores easily. He famously said of the Massachusetts governorship, "I used to go on vacation a week at a time and I wouldn't even call in." His loss of interest grew with time. Although Weld expressed to reporters his desire to run for a third term just so he could "kick [Joseph Kennedy's] ass," he seemed to get tired of the office shortly into his second term.

Weld ran an unfocused race against Sen. John Kerry in 1996, losing by seven points as Bill Clinton carried Massachusetts in a landslide. In less than a year, he resigned as governor to mount a quixotic fight to become Clinton's ambassador to Mexico, only to have his nomination killed by Jesse Helms. (Helms' official reason for blocking Weld was that he was "soft on drugs," but a more probable motive was Weld's suggestion during a debate with Kerry that as senator he might not vote to retain Helms as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.)

This political equivalent of attention-deficit disorder would be amusing if it weren't for its implications for a Weld governorship. New Yorkers shouldn't expect Weld's tenure to improve with age.

When he took office in Massachusetts, Weld was tough on spending. Over time, he reversed his tightwad ways and signed budgets that grew 50 percent above inflation. Far from continuing Weld's early practice of net spending cuts, by 1997 the commonwealth was spending $5 billion more than when he was sworn in.

Fifteen years ago, Weld rode into the Massachusetts State House as a sworn enemy of the Beacon Hill Democratic establishment. By 1994, he was campaigning with the symbol of that establishment, then Senate President Billy Bulger, and joking about being his campaign manager. He helped install Bulger as president of the University of Massachusetts, a post the Democratic pol was eventually forced out of by Mitt Romney.

One of Weld's first acts after being elected to a second term with 71 percent of the vote -- carrying a plurality of Massachusetts' registered Democrats -- was to sign into law a 55 percent pay raise for the state legislature.

Voters in the land of the Yankees may take this Red Sox fan's advice with a grain of salt. But based on this Bay Stater's experience, Bill Weld is a lot like the month of March. He roars in like a lion and saunters out like a lamb.

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About the Author

W. James Antle III, author of the new book Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped?, is editor of the Daily Caller News Foundation and a senior editor of The American Spectator. You can follow him on Twitter @jimantle.