Staff Columnist

Trump challenger is part of great American party-switching tradition

Our most memorable political figures - including Donald Trump - recognized that partisanship should be flexible

A sign shows the location of the Republican caucus precinct site at The Gathering Place in Oxford Junction on Monday, February 1, 2016.

(KC McGinnis / The Gazette)
A sign shows the location of the Republican caucus precinct site at The Gathering Place in Oxford Junction on Monday, February 1, 2016. (KC McGinnis / The Gazette)

The latest candidate to announce 2020 presidential ambitions is poised to test the limits of partisanship.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld announced last week he’s forming an exploratory committee to challenge President Donald Trump for the Republican presidential nomination.

Weld has won two statewide elections in Massachusetts, including a record margin in his 1994 gubernatorial campaign, an impressive feat for a blue-state Republican. He had been appointed U.S. attorney by Republican President Ronald Reagan, and later nominated for an ambassadorship by Democratic President Bill Clinton, although the nomination was blocked by fellow Republicans concerned with his moderate positions on social issues.

The segment of Americans who are addicted to parties are disappointed with Weld after he left the Republicans to run as a Libertarian for vice president in 2016.

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To most normal people, Weld is the rare and admirable political figure who is not blinded by partisanship. However, the segment of Americans who are addicted to parties are disappointed with Weld after he left the Republicans to run as a Libertarian for vice president in 2016.

Jim Lyons, chairman of the Massachusetts GOP, issued a blistering statement in opposition to Weld’s candidacy: “After abandoning Republicans, Democrats, and Libertarians, Weld demands that faithful Republicans consider him as their standard-bearer. Even Benedict Arnold switched allegiances less often!”

Similarly, Libertarian Party of Iowa organizers are discouraging members from switching over to caucus as Republicans next year. They wrote in a Facebook post, “Political opportunism is no virtue. Our expectation is his campaign will be short lived and that he continues to stay in a dying wing of a dying party.”

Such rigid factionalism is ignorant of American history. Some of our most important political figures have firmly rejected the idea that party affiliation ought to be some sort of permanent condition.

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It’s difficult to square Libertarians’ newfound aversion to party switching with the record of Ron Paul, without whom there would be no contemporary libertarian movement to speak of. He served in Congress as a Republican, ran for president with the Libertarian Party in 1988, went back to Congress as a Republican and ran for president as a Republican in 2008 and 2012.

Much the same, Republicans must compartmentalize the facts in order to write off Weld as a party traitor, since Trump is famously fluid in his political allegiances. He has variously aligned with the Independence Party, the Reform Party and the Democratic Party. As recently as 2004, Trump said in an interview on CNN, “In many cases, I probably identify more as Democrat.”

Other examples of politically flexible influencers abound. Reagan was a Democrat until he was in his 50s. Hillary Clinton supported the arch-conservative Barry Goldwater. U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders is a staunch independent who has dabbled in third-party and Democratic politics.

Historically, recall that George Washington warned against party affiliation altogether, and Abraham Lincoln was the leader of a fledgling partisan startup.

Parties are tools, useful insofar as they can achieve policy success. I, for one, welcome Weld back to the party.

• Comments: (319) 339-3156; adam.sullivan@thegazette.com

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