Bret Stephens: Can anyone save the Republicans from Trumpism?

(Charles Krupa | AP) Republican presidential candidate former Massachusetts Gov. William Weld, right, files to have his name listed on the New Hampshire primary ballot, Wednesday, Nov. 13, 2019, in Concord, N.H. At left is New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner.

Bill Weld, the former Massachusetts governor and current long-shot — make that, loooooooong-shot — candidate for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination, is a keen student of New Hampshire politics. In an interview with me this week, he noted the following fact: Every time an incumbent president of either party faced a significant primary challenge in the Granite State, he failed in his bid for reelection.

It happened to George H.W. Bush in 1992 after Patrick Buchanan took 38% of the New Hampshire vote.

It happened to Jimmy Carter in 1980 after Teddy Kennedy took 39%.

It happened to Gerald Ford in 1976 after Ronald Reagan took 48%.

It happened to Lyndon Johnson in 1968 after Eugene McCarthy took 42%.

It happened to Harry Truman in 1952 when Estes Kefauver beat him outright, 55% to 44%.

So, Weld reasons, why not try to make it happen to Donald Trump, too?

That’s the hopeful thought in what otherwise seems to be Weld’s hopeless bid to derail a president whose support among Republicans was 89% last month, according to Gallup. Weld is too much a politician to admit publicly that he sees no shot for himself of winning — a Messiah complex lies at the root of many monumental ambitions.

But he’s also wise enough to know that losing well can achieve great things, like bringing down a president who, he said, “regards the law as something to be evaded.” Can that be done between now and Feb. 11, the date of the New Hampshire primary? Weld rests his hopes on two things: New England Republicanism, which remains alive and well despite reports of its demise; and Trump’s trial in the Senate, whose result may not yet be a forgone conclusion.

On the former, note that Vermont, Massachusetts and New Hampshire all have Republican governors, who, like Weld, are relative moderates compared to the rest of the party. New England Republicans can also be fickle in their loyalties, and late to make up their minds: Buchanan was also seen as a nonstarter against Bush Sr. just weeks before the 1992 primary.

On the latter, Weld knows a lot about the impeachment process, having worked on the House Judiciary Committee’s staff as a young lawyer in 1974 as it considered articles against Richard Nixon. Nixon, Weld recalled, “was essentially forced to withdraw from the presidency because he had been caught lying on television to the American people on one topic” — a foothill of a deception compared to Trump’s Karakoram range.

Weld also knows how quickly things can turn in the course of a trial. “Cases don’t look the same at the end as they do at the beginning,” he noted, recalling his prosecutions of public corruption in the 1980s as U.S. attorney for the District of Massachusetts, where he won 109 convictions in 111 corruption cases. He believes that if four Republican senators join Democrats in voting to call witnesses — Ohio’s Rob Portman could provide the decisive vote — then anything is possible.

“The one sport where the unthinkable can become the inevitable in a matter of weeks or even days,” Weld said, “is national politics, not the National Football League.”

Maybe that’s right, assuming devastating testimony from John Bolton, the former national security adviser; former Rudy Giuliani associate Lev Parnas; and who knows who (or what) else. Not that any kind of testimony is likely to sway the 67 senators needed for a conviction. But it’s not quite out of the question that it might, in the coming weeks, sway a large fraction of New Hampshire Republicans to vote against the president, thereby setting into motion forces that could bring him down.

That’s the hope, at any rate. The odds against? I’d say 20-to-1 — which is to say, still worth a shot. If it fails, Weld said he would not run as an independent. Unlike in 2016, when he ran with Gary Johnson on the Libertarian ticket (and won 4.5 million votes) he has no interest in playing the spoiler to anyone in the race except Trump.

The larger question if it fails is what becomes of the GOP. Weld compared the party to the late-stage Whigs of the early 1850s, which were riven between the nativist Know Nothing faction and the antislavery wing that would become the Republican Party of Abraham Lincoln. Fortunately, the good side won that time.

And this time? The best conservative case for rooting for a Democrat to win this fall — any Democrat, including Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren — is that it might be the only way to save the Republican Party from itself. That could happen if a critical mass of conservatives repudiates Trumpism or forms a new party on the Lincoln model. Weld calls it the Liberty Party.

Alternatively a Sanders or Warren victory could send the GOP to even further extremes. In politics, as in nature, forces always come in pairs. Democrats who want to see Republicans recover their center need to protect their own. In the meantime, wish Bill Weld well in his Granite State carom shot.

Bret Stephens | The New York Times, (Tony Cenicola/The New York Times)

Bret Stephens is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.