On Thursday evening, in front of a standing room only crowd of 300 people at Jacksonville University, Libertarian Vice-Presidential candidate William Weld expounded the message of fiscal conservatism and social liberalism.
For those looking for an alternative to the two major parties, the Libertarian message – and Mr. Weld himself – provided it.
Weld told the story of how he got into the race at the town hall.
Presidential nominee Gary Johnson, like Weld a former libertarian Republican governor, called Weld earlier this year with a straightforward proposition: “what about running together?”
Johnson was about to go into an extended pitch, but it wasn’t needed.
The candidates met in Las Vegas.
They had a four hour conversation.
Then, Weld related, they “agreed” to run together, “shook on the deal, and had a steak dinner.”
That straightforward approach is a world away from the calculated nature of the major party tickets; two candidates who like each other, who align ideologically, and who saw an opening for their “true blue fiscal conservative” brand.
As governors, they walked the walk, moving their respective states to the right on fiscal and tax policy.
But they did so, Weld said, as “Jeffersonian liberals” who “don’t bully people” in the way of Donald Trump or, Weld added, the post-1994 GOP.
Much of the coverage of this ticket, thus far in the campaign, has been of a few varieties.
Some reporters have treated the Johnson/Weld ticket as a novelty act – a perception embellished by Johnson’s “what is Aleppo” gaffe.
And some others have reminded voters that presidential elections in America are binary choices.
In making those decisions in framing stories, media avoids the actual policy positions that drive Johnson and Weld to run.
Those positions were on offer, writ large, during Weld’s hour-long town hall in Jacksonville.
On immigration, for example, the Libertarian ticket deviates from the bipartisan consensus.
“Gary Johnson and I think the current amount is too low,” Weld said.
Weld believes that work visas should be “dramatically increased,” and he estimates that 60 percent of the current illegal immigrants in the country simply overstayed their visas.
The Johnson/Weld solution?
Not a great, big, beautiful wall, but something more prosaic: a Canadian style guest worker program, with safeguards such as background checks built in, so this population is not “living in the shadows.”
On trade, as well, the Libertarians deviate.
“We support the Trans Pacific Partnership vigorously,” Weld said, adding that while there might be a loss of “low wage jobs at the margin,” that attrition would be made up for in high wage jobs and taking advantage of America having the highest per-capita worker productivity in the world.
The Weld/Johnson affinity for the TPP is driven by pragmatic geopolitical concerns – bilateral relations with eleven Asian nations, none of them being China.
“Trump didn’t know China wasn’t a member of the TPP,” Weld said, drawing raucous laughter from throughout the room.
Weld had a rejoinder for Hillary Clinton as well.
“I’m disappointed in Mrs. Clinton,” Weld said, as she “turned her back on TPP and NAFTA,” deviating from her husband’s legacy, and forsaking the opportunity for an economic “beachhead in Asia.”
It’s that kind of optimistic pragmatism that distinguishes the Libertarian ticket from the two major parties in this cycle, Weld believes.
The “negativity out of both parties,” Weld believes, is designed to make voters “feel terrible about the U.S. now.”
In contrast, Weld says, he and his running mate are “professionally optimistic … happy warriors.”
On NATO, Weld hewed to an internationalism befitting his longtime status as a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.
Weld took particular issue with Trump’s willingness to sacrifice Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.
“We have to keep our word,” Weld said.
“I can’t tell you how many alarm bells it sets off” around the world, Weld said, when Trump threatens to “abrogate treaty obligations.”
And on military spending, Weld broke with Libertarian orthodoxy, saying that the U.S. has to be engaged globally.
If America were to abandon the Arab world, it would be “left to the tender mercies of Iran.”
And the Pacific presence, likewise, is non-negotiable.
“If one carrier group moved its anchors ten feet, it would be a topic in every cabinet meeting” in the capitals of our Asian allies.
“Military supremacy,” especially in the air and on the waters, is essential to America maintaining its position. As is the ability to demonstrate “crushing force.”
However, there are limits: Weld believes that land wars in Africa and Asia are bad for America. As is a regime change policy.
And regarding Afghanistan, Weld believes that American troops should be brought home.
There is, Weld contended, “some woolyheadedness in our desire to be the world’s policeman.”
On domestic policy, Weld likewise espouses the politics of reasonable expectation.
Regarding Social Security, Weld believes the retirement age should be increased, and a means test should be applied to benefits.
The worry that millennials have, Weld said, is that the program won’t be there when they retire.
And that, Weld said, is “dangerous.”
Also dangerous: Clinton and Trump vowing to not adjust entitlements.
These are “political statements to avoid exposure to the question,” Weld said.
Likewise disingenuous, said Weld: Republicans that run on the platform of repealing Obamacare.
In perhaps the most surprising moment of the town hall event, Weld lampooned young conservatives, given talking points by the RNC, who say “I will repeat Obamacare.”
The moment was surprising not because of the sentiment … but because Weld mocked them using a falsetto voice, a few octaves up from his whisky-weathered Brahmin baritone.
The Johnson/Weld administration would support the individual mandate, while allowing for common sense solutions like being able to import pharmaceuticals from Canada (an indication of the ticket not getting Pfizer money).
As well, they would likely move toward mandating only catastrophic insurance, “not cradle to grave” healthcare.
Weld also had strong words regarding Black Lives Matter, which he said was a resounding “yes,” rejecting the Trumpian “dog whistle” politics of “all lives matter.”
The “all lives matter” canard, Weld said, was part of a pattern from Trump, who he alleged “retweeted a picture of George Lincoln Rockwell – the founder of the American Nazi Party.”
If meaningful moves aren’t made to redress the inequities – mass incarceration, police shootings, awful schools – visited on African American men, Weld predicted the emergence of a “gunpowder class of young black males.”
The treatment imposed on African-American young men, Weld said, is a “national disgrace.”
Also a national disgrace: the debt crisis.
“We can’t go on the way we’ve been going,” Weld said, adding that if Clinton wins, ¾ of the new debt would be from her administration.
“She’s adopted much of Sen. Sanders’ platform,” one that Weld said was undergirded with the false premise that “everything is free.”
Weld believes, contra to that, the budget must be balanced.
“The debt crisis hits us in the solar plexus of jobs and the economy,” Weld said.
Before this event started, FloridaPolitics.com was able to conduct an extended interview with Weld: a function of a lack of other media showing up to ask questions much deeper than “what do you think of Jacksonville.”
Some of the more interesting bits included Weld expressing the belief that if the ticket’s name ID moves up from 30 to 50 percent, there would be a commensurate rise in “ballot preference,” perhaps into the 25 percent range.
As well, when we noted that Weld wasn’t exactly the first choice of the party regulars, he said that was an “understatement.”
“I don’t know if I’m winning over the party regulars,” Weld said, but they “probably like being at 10 t0 13 percent in the polls instead of 1 percent.”
As well, despite the theatrics seen by many at the Libertarian Party convention, Weld believes that the “hardcore” members are “20 percent max.”
“My internationalist view doesn’t offend everybody,” Weld said.
Of course, there was expectation in some quarters that Weld’s inclusion on the ticket would build a bridge, perhaps, to endorsements from Mitt Romney and Jeb Bush.
Those aren’t happening.
Weld believes that they had their “fingers singed” and “had enough of the presidential race.”
“Gary and I have to do this by ourselves,” Weld said.
“We want to send a friendly message, not a hateful one.”
When asked if the ticket had underperformed hopeful expectations in some quarters that Weld would offer a conduit to the donor class, the candidate got defensive, noting that between the campaign and the “victory fund,” over $10 million had been raised.
“It’s still September,” Weld said, and in the last cycle, the campaign raised “between two and three million in total.”
Much of that money, Weld added, was on the web – in modest increments, such as $7, $15, and $35.
That money adds up.
And maybe it does. But we wondered why the Koch Brothers hadn’t come through for the Johnson/Weld ticket.
Weld, at first, was evasive, saying euphemistically that the deep pocketed donors were “sticking to the Senate” and “not everybody can do everything.”
Then Weld got real.
“Nobody could be friendlier to the Koch Brothers’ economic interest than we are … I know David quite well,” Weld said, but “Charles is making most of the decisions.”
Weld, vis a vis the GOP that historically was his home, is in a position analogous to Ronald Reagan, who famously said of the Democrats that he didn’t move away from the Democratic Party, but the party moved away from him.
“I didn’t change. I was always a social liberal,” Weld said, “but the Republican Party did move to the right” and “in Cleveland,” the platform became more “mean spirited.”
“I would have stayed happily in the tent,” Weld said, “but I got a call from Gary.”
And, speaking of Johnson, there are some that have suggested the ticket would work better with the polished Weld on top.
Weld rejects that proposition.
“I heard that from a lot of people, and all of them live in Massachusetts and New York,” Weld said.
“West of the Mississippi,” Weld said, Johnson gets “mobbed at airports.”
“Gary has a rat trap mind,” Weld said, with deep “analytical ability” and unlimited stamina … a proposition which might be news to the folks at Morning Joe, but we let it stand.
Of course, for this campaign, the big enchilada is getting into at least one debate.
Weld recited the litany of campaign propaganda: they were at 13 percent in two recent polls, and the polls in which they do worst are only calling landlines, and are excluding millennials, setting up “math that hurts the poll results.”
With independents, Weld said, the ticket is at 31 percent – and, he adds, independents are 42 percent of the electorate.
And, Weld added, the ticket is running first with military voters, both active and veteran.
“This is a year when voters have to think for themselves,” Weld said.
If by thinking for themselves, that means being receptive to the Libertarian message, then there are positive auguries.
Drawing hundreds of people to a room on the Jacksonville University campus – in fact, exceeding turnout for the Congressional District 4 and Congressional District 5 primary debates – is a strong indicator that the Johnson/Weld message is getting traction.
Will it be enough to where the campaign is at 25 percent by the end of October? History indicates that’s a tremendous longshot.
But history has, not since the Bull Moose Party, encountered a ticket with this kind of resonance … a ticket running against the two most unpopular major party candidates since the advent of universal suffrage.