Moderate Republican Weld sets presidential ambitions aside for now


BOSTON -- Former Gov. Bill Weld, asked the other day how old he was, thought for a second and pronounced that he was 52. Then he added, wryly: "My wife says I'm playing with a full deck for the first time."

There are many in the political world who would agree that when Mr. Weld abruptly quit as governor of Massachusetts and then fought a predictably losing fight with Sen. Jesse Helms to become U.S. Ambassador to Mexico last summer, he wasn't playing with a full deck.

False moves

Indeed, his actions were widely construed to be quixotic and his motivations just as widely questioned and guessed at. The ambassadorial job itself, in a Democratic administration no less, did not seem to be a very promising path to a Republican presidential nomination in 2000, as it was generally assumed Mr. Weld was after.

Now, with all that behind him as well as his earlier loss in a bid for the U.S. Senate, Mr. Weld seems comfortably settled in a small office at a prestigious Boston law firm, saying he's happy to be back in the private sector, focusing on trade issues, after 13 years in the public sector.

While other Republicans already are salivating after the GOP's 2000 nomination, Mr. Weld has flatly declared he won't run, and probably not in 2004 either, and that his political activity will be limited to possibly backing some other Republican for the nomination.

Considering that the Republican Party continues to stand on the conservative side of the political spectrum, this posture is evidence that the moderate Mr. Weld is indeed playing with a full deck these days. It does not mean, however, that he has abandoned the hope that the party can be brought to a more moderate course under a more moderate nominee other than himself.

He continues to argue that economic and trade issues can be the glue to hold the party together, and that if it can get over the litmus test of abortion, the field can be open to a moderate. "I don't think that the whole question of whether there can be a moderate Republicanism should be reduced in every instance to what someone's position is on the abortion issue," he said.

As a defender of abortion rights, Mr. Weld joined California Gov. Pete Wilson at the 1996 Republican National Convention in a futile effort to water down or eliminate the party's anti-abortion plank. He did so, he says now, "to show the country that the Republican Party was not monolithic about the issue just as this summer I thought the party should not project a monolithic isolationist aspect (in his fight with Mr. Helms). Not everybody's pleased with everything I've done," he says, "but in every instance it's been to promote what I believe is in the best interest of the party of Lincoln."

Mr. Weld's current concept of what constitutes a moderate Republican may not square, however, with that of others. "I think of people like George W. Bush and John Kasich as being moderate people," he said. "Yes, they're pro-life but they're moderate about it, and we can talk about it. There's a certain amount of common ground.

"Both the pro-lifers and the pro-choicers would like to reduce the number of abortions performed in the country every year. It's a question of who's going to make the decision. I happen to think that vesting that decision in the government is a glaring inconsistency in an otherwise uniform view of conservatives that individuals are better trusted to make decisions for themselves than having the government make it for them."

A matter of choice

In any event, he argues, a pro-choice Republican can be nominated, but to do so "they've got to get out and run in the primaries, and the way you do that is winning in Iowa, winning in New Hampshire and in California." And he indicates he has not given up hope his old abortion-rights sidekick, Pete Wilson, will seek the presidential nomination again in 2000.

"One reason I was comfortable not running in '96," he said, "was Pete was there to run." That candidacy quickly crumbled for, among other things, a lack of money. This time around, he says, "I think he's going to check his California finance base. I think he's certainly up for it psychologically," Mr. Weld says, from what he heard in a recent lunch with Mr. Wilson.

From all this, it is clear that Citizen Weld is not abandoning his quest to put his party into a more moderate mainstream, though not through a presidential candidacy of his own -- not yet, anyway. At only 52 and playing with a full deck, he still has time.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 12/15/97

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