I have previously written criticism about the usage of the term RINO (Republican in Name Only) and in short detail written about who I consider real RINOs, which has been so utterly abused that it can mean any Republican who pisses off another at any moment, anyone who isn’t 100% personally loyal to Trump (although that seems to be going out the door), or for a single real or perceived breach of conservatism. However, the term used to have genuine meaning…someone whose party affiliation was Republican but did not vote as a conservative. Today’s conservatives fail to appreciate how many of those types there were in the party 40-50 years ago. I intend to restore this term to its original meaning…people who really do not fit within the Republican Party because of lack of adherence to a moderate to conservative philosophy. That’s right, I don’t think that someone who is a party moderate should be regarded as a RINO, rather people who have major records against the party line and favoring the Democratic Party’s policies. The first I will cover was a bit of bête noire for conservatives during the Reagan years as he stood out the most as a critic of President Reagan and grew more liberal throughout his time in office: Lowell Palmer Weicker Jr. (1931- ) of Connecticut.
A lawyer by profession, Weicker became active in Connecticut Republican politics in the early 1960s, during which time he was a conservative. In 1962 he was elected to the Connecticut House of Representatives representing Greenwich, serving from 1963 to 1969. He simultaneously from 1964 to 1969 served as First Selectman of Greenwich. In 1968, Weicker sought an upgrade and defeated incumbent Donald Irwin for Connecticut’s 4th District by four points.
Representative Weicker voted as a moderate in his first term and was in quite the hurry to move up. In 1970, he set his sights on the Senate, and it was good timing too – Senator Thomas J. Dodd had been censured by the Senate for personal use of campaign funds in 1967 and had lost renomination to anti-Vietnam War activist Reverend Joseph Duffey over this scandal. However, Dodd wasn’t giving up and he was running for reelection as an Independent. This left the environment favorable for Weicker as the Democratic vote split between Duffey and Dodd. Although the Republicans didn’t win the Senate as President Nixon had hoped, they did gain seats and Weicker was one of them.
Senator Weicker – From Nixon Supporter to Opponent
Initially, Weicker was a supporter of Nixon and had happily campaigned with him in his first Senate bid. Nixon was to his right, but not dramatically enough for him to be a critic. Indeed, Weicker often supported during this time increased military spending (although far from always), sometimes supported fiscal conservatism, opposed public funding of presidential campaigns, and opposed postcard voter registration (this today would be called “voter suppression”). His more liberal areas included support for busing, opposing restoring a federal death penalty in 1974, support for foreign aid, and he was a supporter of a strong minimum wage. Although initially a supporter of President Nixon’s Vietnam approach, Weicker would before his administration was through become a critic. He would also go from supporting the importation of chrome from Rhodesia, which was under UN sanctions, in 1971 to supporting legislation to impose a ban in 1973. He then became a critic of Nixon overall after being placed on the Watergate Committee.
On August 12, 1973, Weicker publicly stated that all the tapes and documents regarding the Watergate break-in should be released, or the people would have no confidence in Nixon (The New York Times). He would even call for Nixon’s resignation before the release of the Watergate tapes, particularly irking the president. Nixon wasn’t alone in this feeling; as Weicker recounted, “People in Connecticut were very much behind President Nixon, as was the rest of the country. They thought he could do no wrong, and when I was in Connecticut, I would get flipped the bird all the time, whether it was on the streets or in the car, for the role that I was playing. After Watergate was over, then the needle goes all the way the other way, and I’ve got huge favorability ratings” (Bendici). Later in life, he would give a positive appraisal of Nixon. Weicker held that “Richard Nixon, aside from his shadier side, was actually a very good president. Why he had to go off on this other tangent is absolutely beyond me. He did, and he got caught” (Keating).
Moving to the Left
After the Nixon Administration, he grows friendlier to federal measures on issues like housing and social spending generally. Consistent with his pro-union politics, he supports the common site picketing bill, permitting the picketing of an entire construction site even if the union didn’t have complaints with all contractors working on the site. Weicker also supports the 1976 Clark Amendment for Angola, prohibiting aid to entities involved in military or paramilitary operations. Congress would repeal this amendment in 1985 (a move Weicker opposed) with the support of the Reagan Administration.
In 1976, Weicker wins reelection by 16 points and all counties. The last Republican to have won all counties in running for the Senate was Governor Raymond Baldwin in 1946, and no Republican would repeat Weicker’s feat. Weicker continued his independence during the Carter Administration and twice during the 1970s threatened to leave the party. He had a bit of an unfortunate tendency to be in the right and then blow it by being insulting. In one instance, he called out a baseless attack from Senator John Heinz (R-Penn.) who in response to Weicker proposing to stop aid to a Pennsylvania rail mill and another senator pointing out cutting this aid would harm a Colorado firm, he pondered aloud if the Colorado firm was a subsidiary of a Connecticut company. However, Weicker did so by saying he was “an idiot or devious”, a breach of Senate decorum (Wald). In another instance, he was the first senator to point out a shift in the Carter Administration foreign policy towards Egypt. However, Weicker proceeded to accuse President Carter’s national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski of scrapping a “balance of power” approach for a “world order” approach, and that American Jews were an obstacle to this, darkly warning that “We know from history that time and again, when national leaders ran into difficulties, they found it convenient to blame their problems on the Jews. And we know what were the results” (Wald). The common interpretation of this was that he was calling Brzezinski a Nazi. In 1979, Weicker announced his candidacy for president, but withdrew before the primaries as he wasn’t getting the national traction he needed.
The Rise of Reagan
Although many Republicans are jubilant over the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, Weicker is not. His politics have been growing more liberal in an increasingly conservative party. He fights many of the Republican Party’s social as well as economic positions during this time, although he does join the rest of the party in voting for the 1981 tax cuts. Weicker also in 1982 delivers a notable speech before the AFL-CIO convention in which former Vice President Walter Mondale and Senator Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) are present, denouncing “Reaganomics”, holding that the combination of tax and budget cuts on social welfare programs produced a “great human tragedy” (Richards). He then delivered a rather peculiar pitch for the attendees, to defeat Democrats who supported Reagan’s policies and to elect Republicans who were more critical, like himself. Weicker simply saw himself as upholding tradition within the GOP, stating, “I happen to believe that my party is the party of Lincoln and Eisenhower, not the party of Thurmond and Helms” (Richards). Conservatives in the Republican Party were quite unhappy with him and chose as their preferred candidate Prescott Bush Jr., Vice President Bush’s brother. Weicker fairly easily holds off this challenge and wins reelection in the 1982 midterms by four points over Congressman Toby Moffett. Had Bush Jr. won the nomination, the odds are he would have, like Jeffrey Bell in New Jersey in 1978, gone on to lose the election.
Weicker gets more and more liberal as the Reagan Administration progresses, in 1987 and 1988 respectively Americans for Democratic Action rates him 85% and 90%. The American Conservative Union rated him a 26% on his lifetime score, with 1987 and 1988 being 4%. He is also a strong critic of the Reagan Administration’s military spending, especially regarding the Strategic Defense Initiative (popularly called “Star Wars” by its critics). At this point, conservatives are seeing little difference between him and liberal Democrats. This is especially so after he made efforts to prevent the nomination of conservatives in the state Republican Party in 1986, which was blamed for poor performance in this election. As William F. Buckley Jr., whose National Review endorsed Joe Lieberman over Weicker in 1988, wrote in 2006 on him, “The all-time generator of negative conservative satisfactions was Lowell Weicker. He was first senator from Connecticut, then governor. He was the King of Schadenfreude: dispenser of the nectar of health & satisfaction when we conservatives had a chance to vote against him” (Buckley). However, conservatives were not his only problem. Andrew J. Bates (1988) of The Harvard Crimson, in an article in which he is otherwise supportive of him, described his approach as a “blustery, abrasive, and confrontational style” which put off colleagues on both sides of the aisle and a lack of interest in campaigning and local matters. Conservative voter defection on Election Day compromises Weicker’s Republican base support enough for him to lose reelection by less than a point. Although he is done in the Senate, he is not so with elected office.
Weicker and A Connecticut Party
Weicker’s career on the state level was reborn with a budget crisis, and he campaigned on his own created party, “A Connecticut Party”, proposing to resolve this crisis without imposing an income tax. The state of Connecticut’s voters had long resisted an income tax, and when one was imposed in 1971 by the state legislature, it was revoked in six weeks due to immense public backlash. He won a three-way race, with many Democrats choosing to vote for his third-party ticket over that of their own nominee, Congressman Bruce Morrison. However, upon being elected, Weicker reverses course and supports an income tax to resolve the budget crisis. Three bills that were sent to him without an income tax he vetoed, and his acts even brought partial government shutdown. An income tax is ultimately adopted along with certain spending cuts and reductions in the corporate and gas taxes. Although initially unpopular, after the state’s budget crisis was resolved he regains popularity but chooses not to run for reelection in 1994 to spend time with family. The state’s income tax has been controversial since its adoption, but it has never been repealed despite multiple governors running on that platform as the state has become overly reliant on it as a source of revenue (Fitch).
Although Weicker considers both a presidential run on the Reform Party ticket in 1996 as well as a Senate run in 2006, he ultimately opts to stay in retirement. He has since retirement been a critic of the Republican Party and has endorsed Democratic candidates for president. As of writing, he is the last surviving senator of the Watergate Committee and the last Republican to have represented Connecticut in the Senate.
Bates, A.J. (1988, November 14). The Elephant Bucks A Maverick. The Harvard Crimson.
Bendici, R. (2012, July 31). Final Say: Lowell Weicker. Connecticut Magazine.
Buckley, W.F. (2006, September 26). Vote for Lieberman? National Review.
Fitch, M.E. (2019, December 3). Temporary income tax “myth” has roots in Weicker’s pitch to lawmakers. Yankee Institute.
Keating, C. (2019, December 1). Lowell Weicker built his reputation challenging Richard Nixon during Watergate; he says
Republicans in Congress are afraid to do the same with Trump. Hartford Courant.
Release of Tapes. (1973, August 13). The New York Times.
Richards, C.F. (1982, April 7). Weicker unleashes attack on Reagan. UPI.
Wald, M.L. (1979, September 23). Weicker Still Jousting With All Comers. The New York Times.
One thought on “RINOs From American History #1: Lowell P. Weicker Jr.”
I Remember The National Review Article OR Cover Story, Does Lowell Weicker Make You Sick? STILL…Hated The South Too! A Gas Bag . Thanks For The Memories… Bring Back Uncle Jesse. Dave Is IN TEXAS. No Income TAX Here…Gun Control Means A Steady Aim.