Back in January, Justin Amash—the Republican-turned-independent member of Congress representing Michigan’s 3rd District—was clearly considering a run for the presidency as a Libertarian. “I’ll say what I’ve said before, I haven’t ruled it out,” he told The Dispatch at the time, adding, “Is there any better time to have a president who might be not from either party?”
What has transpired in the three months since could reasonably be described as a limited-government, Freedom Caucus-founding libertarian’s worst nightmare.
A massive leadership vacuum has been created by the pandemic sweeping the globe, and governments and international organizations have rushed to fill it. Bloated bureaucracies and mountains of red tape within the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the FDA, and the CDC presented roadblock after roadblock in the race to establish an effective testing regimen. Congress has appropriated—with minimal debate—more than $2 trillion in relief not only for individuals, but businesses large and small. Some state and local officials are abusing their coronavirus-granted mandates, banning the purchase of gardening supplies and attempting to prevent would-be churchgoers from congregating in their cars for drive-in Easter services. Donald Trump himself on Monday argued that, “when somebody is president of the United States, the authority is total.”
And the 39-year-old Amash has been critical of it all.
“These regulations and many others have long presented administrative roadblocks, slowing government responses and keeping helpful private actors on the sidelines,” he said of the FDA.
“This is not at all how the legislative branch is supposed to work, in peace or in crisis,” he contended, criticizing Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s legislative dealing. “Congress must be a deliberative, representative body, not a body whose outcomes are dictated by four leaders without amendments, debates, or votes.”
“[Michigan Governor Gretchen] Whitmer’s latest order goes too far and will erode confidence in her leadership. She should immediately reassess it,” he argued.
“President Trump is flat-out wrong,” he asserted. “The president has no authority to ‘close down’ or ‘open up’ the states. He’s the one creating conflict and confusion. Put down the authoritarianism and read the Constitution.”
But between all this Twitter sniping, one theme has continued to surface on Amash’s feed. “Trump versus Biden is not the contest America deserves or the one it needs right now,” he tweeted last Wednesday. He followed up Monday night: “Americans who believe in limited government deserve another option.”
As of now, Amash is running—his first time as an independent—for a sixth term representing Michigan’s 3rd District in the House of Representatives. He drew a series of Republican challengers—Meijer grocery scion Peter Meijer most formidable among them—upon his formal resignation from the GOP last July, and Dave Wasserman of the Cook Political Report moved the race from “toss up” to “lean Republican” after Amash voted for both articles of impeachment facing President Trump. Yet in spite of all this upheaval—and more likely because of it—he recently wrapped up his best fundraising quarter ever, reporting more than $720,000 cash on hand.
The Libertarian party is on the ballot across the country, a major advantage for a candidate considering a third-party or independent bid for the presidency. But with the country turning to the government in the midst of the current crisis, and with Joe Biden as the presumptive Democratic nominee rather than an unapologetic socialist in Bernie Sanders, has the opening for a small-government candidate closed?
Even in a pandemic, with the economy in freefall, there are enough persistent questions about both major party candidates—most polls find a majority of the country still disapproves of Donald Trump, and Joe Biden is facing a massive enthusiasm gap—that mean there just may be an opening for a third-party candidate like Amash to outpace Gary Johnson and Bill Weld’s 3.27 percent of the popular vote in 2016.
Dan Fishman—the Libertarian Party’s executive director—acknowledged that fundraising for the party is going to dwindle as the COVID-19-stricken economy craters, but he added that “interest in the Libertarian party is very high … People are like, ‘I can’t believe how badly the government has screwed this up.”
The Libertarian Party National Convention is scheduled to kick off in Austin, Texas on May 21—but the coronavirus may have other plans. The hotel where it’s supposed to be held is tentatively set to reopen on May 8, but Fishman told The Dispatch that date “seems optimistic” to him. “Many of our delegates have already had flights canceled,” he said in a phone interview on Tuesday. “One way or another, I’m pretty sure that we’re going to not be allowed to have our convention in Austin.”
Although the party has already been conducting primaries and caucuses for months—with Jacob Hornberger, the founder of the Future of Freedom Foundation, winning a majority of them—delegates are not bound to any candidate. “In Libertarian world, everybody is free to vote their conscience,” Fishman explained. “I have no numbers to back this up, but if I were to make a guess, I would say 80 percent of the delegates going to Austin go there with an open mind to see who they’re going to vote for.”
So is it too late for Amash to get in? “No, definitely not,” Fishman said, referencing Judge Jim Gray’s joining the race just this Monday. “One libertarian said, ‘Well, it’s unfortunate that they got into the race because all these other candidates had been running for a year.’ And then somebody else responded, ‘Well, if they put the race away in the last year, I don’t think there would’ve been room for anybody else to jump in.’”
Jacob Hornberger hasn’t been running for a full year, but he has been in the race since November. And he wouldn’t mind Amash throwing his hat in the ring. “I think it’s great! I think it provides excitement for the party,” he told The Dispatch. “When these people come in from outside the party, it provides a prestige factor.”
Marcus Pulis—a spokesman for fellow Libertarian Adam Kokesh’s campaign—disagreed, arguing Amash entering the race now would be “disrespectful” to the Party’s candidates, activists, and voters. “If Amash truly wants to get involved in the party, he should … join it now as a sitting congressman,” and “endorse and support the [Libertarian] POTUS nominee,” he added.
“I’m sure Libertarians will tell you that … ‘[Amash] should’ve made up his mind already and it’d be very difficult at this point for him to win the nomination,’” Matt Welch—editor at large of the libertarian Reason magazine—said. “To which one can say, ‘Yeah, right.’”
“Amash is a nationally known guy and he’s good at politics,” Welch continued. “He wins elections with some frequency and can speak in front of a crowd, and there’d be a level of excitement associated with that that no one else could come close to … It would certainly be disrespectful to the people who’ve been running for president. But you know what? This ain’t beanbag, it’s politics.”
Hornberger did echo some of Pulis’ concerns, claiming Amash would have difficult questions to answer if he jumped in at this point. “Why did he wait this long?” for example. “Why did he go to the independent route? Why didn’t he come in as a Libertarian party member when he decided to leave the Republican party? And then now that his congressional race seems to be faltering, why not run for president as an independent? … Why has he successfully avoided all these debates?”
He predicted Amash—whose office declined an interview for this piece—would run a “Republican-lite” campaign that “preserves the welfare state, the warfare state that Democrats and Republicans have foisted upon our land, but reform them.” Hornberger contrasted that approach with his own “pure libertarian principles,” arguing the party would be better off “go[ing] down fighting as libertarians rather than people we’re not, which are Republican-lites or Democrat-lites.”
But ultimately, the current Libertarian frontrunner sees Amash’s entering the fray as a no-lose situation for Libertarians. “If he were to win the nomination, there’d be nationwide publicity,” Hornberger said. “If I’m able to beat this guy for the nomination, then I think that’s necessarily going to generate a lot of publicity.”
For now, this is all one big hypothetical exercise. Amash hasn’t declared anything yet. But some—including the executive director of the Libertarian party—are straining to read the tea leaves.
Asked about Amash’s cryptic tweet earlier this week, Fishman pointed out he responded to a Libertarian activist named Hannah Cox. “I don’t think that he does things accidentally, I think that he chose to respond to her as opposed to all the other people who respond to his tweets,” he said. “He’s not playing a game or anything like that. I believe he is seriously thinking about it, as he should.”
Update: A few hours after this article was published, Justin Amash’s congressional campaign released the following statement: “In mid-February, Justin Amash paused active campaigning for his congressional seat to carefully consider a presidential run. He has been discussing the potential campaign with his family, his friends, his team and others and a decision can be expected soon.”
Photograph of Justin Amash by Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call/Getty Images.