After Donald Trump’s latest round of rants, a fourth-generation Minnesota Republican like Vin Weber tells me in an email, “The honest and truthful response is that I don’t know who I’ll vote for. Just that it won’t be Trump.” Asked if he will vote for Hillary Clinton, he won’t say yes; he won’t say no. It sounds like he is leaving the door open for Hillary.
How does it feel crossing over from being a top lieutenant in Newt Gingrich’s revolution to being seen as a pillar of the GOP establishment? That’s what I asked Weber, who served six terms in the House from 1981 to 1993 as the bombastic Gingrich’s mild-mannered sidekick. “I’m not entirely comfortable, but I get why you’re asking,” he replied. “Being part of the establishment is not necessarily where I want to be.”
Weber once reveled in defying party leaders and kicking open the doors of power. But two decades of lobbying for various business interests in the health field and banking industry tends to sand down those hard partisan edges. And then there is Trump. Weber concluded early on that he couldn’t support Trump, and as Election Day nears, he’s setting aside some of his “Minnesota nice” to unload on his party’s nominee.
“A party needs to think hard about putting somebody in the most powerful government position on the planet who has not one day’s experience in governing,” he said in a phone interview from his cabin in Walker, Minnesota. We spoke on the afternoon of Trump’s tweet storm about former Miss Universe Alicia Machado.
“You don’t need to go into all his personal characteristics, just look at his policies,” Weber urged. “Deporting 11 million people. If some Third World country did that, we would call it a human rights atrocity.” He also cites the things Trump has said to undermine NATO and how he has cast the GOP as more protectionist on trade than the Democrats, policy positions that kick away time-honored strongholds of Republican thinking.
I reminded Weber that he and Gingrich had stood up as leaders of a faction within the GOP in 1991 to oppose President George H.W. Bush’s proposed tax increase, a defiance that set the stage for Bush’s reelection defeat, and for the GOP’s subsequent takeover of the House. Visiting the White House with Gingrich, Weber asked the president what worried him the most about the two of them, and Bush replied, “I worry that sometimes your idealism may get in the way of what I think of as sound governing.”
“He was very nice,” Weber recalled. “He could have used much different words. He talked about our idealism instead of saying our utter irresponsibility. Breaking with him on the tax issue was painful—it’s still painful for me.”
Yet he defends his opposition on economic grounds—he’s a supply-sider, and didn’t think a tax increase was needed—and on political grounds. “Giving away the tax issue was ludicrous,” he says. “It was a huge political mistake, and he paid the ultimate price,” losing reelection.
Asked if there was anything else he did along the way during that turbulent time on Capitol Hill that he regretted, he singled out “targeting individual members for corruption.” He was referring to then-Democratic Speaker Jim Wright, whom Republicans essentially drummed out of office for profiting from bulk purchases of his book, Reflections of a Public Man.
Bringing ethics charges became a tool of partisan warfare. “I don’t want to defend his behavior, but we set out to win (the House) and we targeted individuals. It did poison the atmosphere. I’m sorry we did it,” says Weber.
What goes around comes around, and Weber himself chose not to run again in 1992 after becoming ensnared in what was known as the House banking scandal. The revelation that the House bank routinely covered overdrafts written by lawmakers angered the public and ended a number of careers.
It’s important to remember the mindset back then, Weber says. Ronald Reagan had won a 49-state landslide not long before, but even after that, he couldn’t pass a positive conservative agenda on domestic issues. Weber and Gingrich knew there was no way Republicans, who’d been out of power in the House for 40 years, could achieve a positive conservative agenda without controlling the House.
And that’s where their idealism came in, says Weber: “I can tell you we really believed that our policies would make the economy better for everybody. We may have been wrong, but I’m not sure today’s conservatives believe that. A lot of them believe that they need to stop something bad from happening, and that disaster will come if we don’t win.”
In this campaign, Weber started out backing Jeb Bush, whose optimistic vision was embodied in the name of his Super Pac, “Right to Rise,” and in his emphasis on economic growth and social mobility. “That’s what we used to believe in,” says Weber. “Nothing about that is anti-establishment, though, and the need to be discourteous is what appalls me so much.”
Weber serves on numerous boards, including the Council on Foreign Relations and the Aspen Institute, associations that widened his circle of associates and friends and broadened his outlook. “All of these things put me in the position of working with Democrats and liberals, and it’s made me realize all of life is not a competition for power between competing blocs,” he says.
In 1998, he worked with Democrats to try and tamp down the fever for impeachment among his former House colleagues. “There was no way it was in our national interest to remove the president,” he argued.
In August, Weber told CNBC, “I can’t imagine I’d remain a Republican if he (Trump) becomes president.” He’d like to amend that vow, and now says, “I will not abandon the fight, and there will be a fight regardless of whether he wins or loses. I can’t imagine being part of a Donald Trump party.
“It’s worse if he wins because he will be the president. He’s developed a faction in the Republican Party, and that’s bad enough. If he wins the presidency, there will be fights, but the president has the upper hand. It will be a very uphill fight.”
And if Trump loses? A man who won’t accept he lost the first debate is unlikely to go quietly, Weber says. He’s laid the groundwork to claim the result is rigged. To raise questions about the legitimacy of the election is dangerous in a democracy. But it’s when the establishment could have its finest hour. “I know Hillary only a little and I know some of her best friends very well,” he says. “And I know Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell, and there’s no reason they can’t sit down together because all these people want to get things done—and ditto Chuck Schumer” (likely Senate leader should the Democrats gain the majority).
Weber’s long journey from the partisan fringe of Congress to the center of power in a divided city and country could be a saving grace. Win or lose the White House, the GOP is at war with itself. And just as Weber as a young man helped define the GOP that came to power in the 1990s, he will now at age 64 be an elder statesmen wise enough to build bridges that he once helped burn down.
But he’s not saying whether he can go so far as to vote for Clinton. He has occasionally voted for Democrats in down-ballot races in Minnesota, he says, but he never went public about it. What he will do in the privacy of the voting booth will be left to the imagination of others.