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Analysis: What William Weld Really Wants

The White House? More attention? A new party?

By R. Morris Barrett/AllPolitics


BOSTON (Aug. 6) -- When it comes to the William Weld-Jesse Helms spat over the Mexican ambassadorship, everybody seems to have a theory about "what Weld really wants."

After all, the talking heads opine, no one would ever fight for an ambassadorship, especially to Mexico.

Aha, say some, what he's doing is ... running for president! By quitting the Massachusetts statehouse and firing verbal barrages at Helms -- North Carolina's conservative bete noire senator -- Weld is kicking off Campaign 2000, positioning himself as the leading voice of GOP moderation.

(And spontaneity, too. Remember when the aspiring-for-a-second-term governor dove headlong into Boston's Charles River? Now that was good TV!)


Then there's the "Weld-is-a-flake" theory, which holds that the maverick millionaire is merely continuing a well-established propensity for aggressive, and frequent, job surfing.

Flake theorists remind us that, after pledging in 1994 "to serve out my term," as a second-term Massachusetts governor, Weld has relentlessly poured his energies into just about anything else.

By 1995, he was plotting a run for president. He bagged that idea and immersed himself in fastest flame-out of Campaign '96, California Gov. Pete Wilson's campaign. Then it was on to his own failed Senate bid, and, after that, heavy lobbying for a Clinton Cabinet post.

Weld just can't settle down, the flake theory concludes. A quote from Weld in The New York Times sums it up: "I love to stir up the pot." Hmmmm.

Party pooper


The cleverest idea of all came this week from "The Weekly Standard," a Beltway conservative journal, which said that Weld is just gearing up to ... SWITCH PARTIES!

According to the Standard, Weld, who put himself on the map battling Democratic largesse in Massachusetts (remember in 1995 he also called himself Newt Gingrich's "ideological soulmate"), wants to be Al Gore's running mate.

Uh, OK.

Adding fuel to the Standard's fire, no doubt, was Tuesday's revelation that Susan Roosevelt Weld, the former governor's wife, donated a whopping $199 to Helms' 1996 Democratic opponent, Harvey Gantt. But having supported Michael Dukakis over George Bush in 1988, Susan has embarrassed Bill before.

Deader than dead?


Meanwhile, we've been assured that Weld's nomination is hopeless, dead, kaput! If Jesse wants to tank a president's choice of ambassadors, he can cuz he's just that powerful (and stubborn, too).

While Helms is often depicted as intransigent, he is also credited for astute tactics and an understanding of how far his power extends. The Chemical Weapons Convention, passed last spring, may be a useful, if imperfect, analogy. Strongly opposed, Helms thought the treaty would harm U.S. interests, but his initial saber-rattling won him other concessions from the administration. That might have been his intent all along.

Is the Weld nomination really dead? At least two senators don't think so.

On Sunday, Sen. Richard Lugar, a Republican backer of Weld's nomination, and Sen. James Inhofe, a Republican foe of Weld's nomination, unhesitatingly predicted the former governor would, in fact, get a hearing.

Those assessments seemed based on the simple fact that most members of Helms' Senate Foreign Relations Committee want a hearing. And though Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott has advised Weld to "look for work," could it be that the same political calculus will work to bring about a vote of the full Senate?

After all, most observers believe Weld would win a Senate vote easily. The chamber's 45 Democrats have been gushing Weld's praises (Ted Kennedy's nephew wants to be Massachusetts' next governor, see), and eight Republicans have signed a petition to Helms in support of Weld.

So what if Weld accused Helms of "ideological extortion" (Helms certainly has shrugged off worse). In order for Helms, or any senator, to block him, they might have to make it a point of personal pride.

Those sorts of tactics haven't exactly worked well for congressional Republicans. Remember the ridicule Newt Gingrich brought on when he let it be known that a personal slight aboard Air Force One might affect public policy?

Imagine the soundbites!

"I think it's grossly unfair for a small group of senators with extreme views" to block Weld, Sen. Kennedy said last week, no doubt just warming up.

Maybe Weld wants the job


Could it just be that Weld actually wants to be ambassador, and has embarked on a defensible confirmation strategy?

By all accounts, Helms vehemently opposes Weld's nomination on substantive grounds -- most notably Weld's support for medicinal use of marijuana. The North Carolinian is not alone in believing that stance is incompatible with a zero-tolerance drug policy.

Weld's tango with Helms didn't begin with his "ideological extortion" jab. Running for Senate in 1996, Weld said publicly he wouldn't vote for Helms as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee if elected.

How else might Weld hope to win against Helms, except with a vocal public offensive that might succeed in making Helms the main issue?

Any parliamentary tricks Helms could employ to delay, or effectively kill, action on Weld will be harder to maintain if the public starts to pay attention.

Defying conventional wisdom, perhaps Weld has done what he needed most -- fire a cannonball into Helms' reflecting pool. So far, the strategy has gotten him more than quiet diplomacy would have -- public attention to his nomination and a discourse on his record.

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