Bill Weld is defying what it means to be a Republican politician in 2019.
The former governor of Massachusetts jumped into the Republican primary in April to challenge President Donald Trump, who he has called “a clear and present danger to our country.” But what makes Weld stand out are his comments in support of abortion rights while running for president as a GOP candidate.
Weld has been a vocal proponent of abortion rights since he first ran for governor in the late 1980s.
While leading Massachusetts, he introduced a bill that, if it had passed, would have repealed a law criminalizing abortion that dates back to 1845. He also unsuccessfully fought to remove anti-abortion language from the Republican Party’s official platform in 1996.
A few decades ago, pro-choice Republicans from the Northeast “in the mold of Bill Weld” were common, Mary Ziegler, a Florida State University law professor who studies abortion laws, told Rewire.News. For example, Republican Gov. Nelson Rockefeller of New York vetoed a law aiming to reinstate an abortion ban in the 1970s. And Maine’s Republican senators, from Olympia Snowe to Susan Collins, have long supported abortion rights in Congress. But today, Weld remains a “symbol of the old way,” as Ziegler put it.
“Part of what’s driving his campaign to unseat Trump is the sense that he’s going to do what he thinks is right regardless of what other people think about it,” Ziegler said. “There’s institutional pressure on Republicans not to be pro-choice. Within the Republican Party, that’s certainly true. There are lots of PACs and interest groups that put [on] pressure, too.”
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Weld had a complicated relationship with the Republican Party well before he decided to challenge the president in the primary election.
In the 1980s, he served as the U.S. attorney for the District of Massachusetts and later as assistant U.S. attorney general for the criminal division under President Ronald Reagan. During his second term as a moderate Republican governor in 1997, he resigned to focus on his nomination by President Bill Clinton to serve as U.S. ambassador to Mexico, only for his nomination to be blocked by conservative senators. After this setback, he continued to practice law, resigned as CEO of a Kentucky vocational college that later closed in bankruptcy, and unsuccessfully ran for governor of New York in 2006.
Weld then switched parties and became the Libertarian Party’s vice presidential nominee in 2016. After flipping back to the Republican Party in January 2019, he formed a presidential exploratory committee the following month. Identifying as a “fiscal conservative,” he not only strays from the GOP on abortion issues but also on LGBTQ rights and legalizing marijuana.
Weld has been most vocal in denouncing recent abortion bans since launching his presidential campaign, though. Republican-controlled legislatures have passed early abortion bans in nine states so far in 2019, while the Trump administration has blocked federal family planning funds for health-care providers that refer patients for abortion care.
“In addition to running roughshod over every woman’s basic human right to govern her own body, the new laws actively promote a sinister culture of fear, persecution, stigmatization, secrecy, and hiding,” Weld wrote in a May USA Today op-ed about the bans.
He later reiterated his point that whether someone decides to terminate a pregnancy is “not the business of a bunch of fat old white guys in Washington, D.C.” while speaking in August at the National Association of Black Journalists’ presidential forum.
Weld’s views on the use of Medicaid funding for abortion have shifted over the years. The Boston Globe reported that Weld described himself as “modified pro-choice” in 1989, noting that he objected to spending tax money on Medicaid-funded abortions. Later that same year, his campaign manager in the Massachusetts governor’s race told the Globe that “though Weld would prefer to find private funding for abortions for poor women, he did not oppose Medicaid funding.”
When asked in May about repealing the Hyde Amendment, which bars the use of federal funds for abortion, Weld indicated he would commit to lifting government bans on insurance coverage of abortion if elected.
Some abortion-rights organizers are encouraged by Weld’s platform and hope him challenging the party’s stance on abortion from within its ranks will shed light on the party’s “cruelty.”
“People are starting to wake up … They realize that the GOP has been operating from this anti-choice perspective of cruelty and control and harm to people,” said Heidi Sieck, co-founder of the abortion rights organization #VOTEPROCHOICE. “I’m hoping that even Weld will ignite that conversation.”
Weld has gone so far as to claim he’s “the most pro-choice person you’re ever going to meet,” the Associated Press (AP) reported. But while he does stand out within his own party, Weld hasn’t vowed to have an abortion litmus test for U.S. Supreme Court nominees. The AP reported that Weld said his standard would be “pretty close.” And he has yet to publicly outline a plan for how he would protect and expand reproductive rights as president. Weld did not respond to Rewire.News’ request for comment.
“It certainly gets people’s attention because it violates that expectation that we have about all Republicans having the same set of policy views,” Erin Cassese, an associate professor of political science at the University of Delaware, said. “Because that expectancy violation is there, it really draws people’s attention to his campaign.” However, Cassese added that it’s not necessarily drawing Republicans’ attention in a good way.
Although political analysts don’t expect Weld’s candidacy to pose a serious threat to Trump’s re-election campaign, the former governor’s campaign has focused on how the president’s actions run counter to Weld’s view of conservatism. At the same time, Weld’s platform sheds light on how polarized the abortion debate has become within the two major political parties.
A June NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll suggests that the U.S. public hasn’t lost the middle ground on abortion rights. While 77 percent of people polled said the Supreme Court should uphold Roe v. Wade, 26 percent of those people want to keep Roe but with added restrictions. Another 16 percent want the decision to remain as is; 14 percent want to reduce some of the restrictions allowed under Roe, and 21 percent want to allow abortion under any circumstances.
“But then when you look at what the parties have done,” Ziegler said, “I think things are moving very much in the direction of that middle ground being gone.”