Justin Amash Has a Decision to Make
'Is there any better time to have a president who might be not from either party?'
|Jan 15, 2020||33||18|
Three weeks from the first votes of the 2020 election, the presidential race seems—finally—to be taking shape. Republicans, having blocked any serious attempts at a primary challenge, will field a candidate who brings passionate support from the hard-core GOP base, grudging acceptance from other Republicans, and intense opposition from everyone else. Democrats will likely field either a flawed candidate from the center—more accurately, the center-left—or an avowed leftist, maybe even an avowed socialist.
There are millions of moments, and billions of decisions, that will ultimately determine the next president and the next four years of the American experiment. But few will be as consequential as the decision now looming before a reserved, quirky, classical liberal from south central Michigan.
The 2016 presidential race between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump was decided by 77,744 votes, split between three states: Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. Rep. Justin Amash received nearly three times as many that year (203,545) running to continue on as the representative of Michigan’s 3rd Congressional District. After winning re-election in 2018, however, Amash’s frustration with the GOP and its current leader led him to leave the party he’d called home for more than a decade. And with his new independence came calls for him to make good on his criticism of both political parties with a third-party run for president.
Amash hasn’t committed to a run. But he hasn’t ruled one out, either. And with the incredible volatility in American politics over the past two decades, marked by the record-low faith in Washington and the institutions of the federal government, taking such a leap seems less crazy today than it might have just a few years ago.
As Amash himself put it last week: “Is there any better time to have a president who might be not from either party?”
Cementing an Independent Streak
The 39-year-old congressman had always had a bit (or more) of an independent streak. But since he emphatically left the GOP last summer, he’s truly been able to be himself.
“When you're in the Republican Party, like I was, there is a constant pressure to step carefully, to use your words more cautiously, when you are describing Republicans,” he said. “So, if you go onto TV and you're doing an interview, you don't necessarily want to throw the Republican leadership under the bus at every opportunity. Maybe you throw them under the bus, criticize them one time out of three times that you should. And most members of Congress will do it zero times out of three times. If there's three times they should, they'll do it zero times. Someone like me, I might do it once or twice, but really I'd like to do it three out of three.”
“As much as I would talk, and people thought, ‘Oh boy, Amash is so independent and he is really standing his ground, and he's making people on the left and the right upset about different things’ or whatever, I was actually holding my fire a lot on various things. And I did not like that.”
Few accused him of holding his fire then. No one does now.
Amash announced his newfound political independence in a Washington Post op-ed on, fittingly, the Fourth of July. “The two-party system has evolved into an existential threat to American principles and institutions,” he wrote. “Today, I am declaring my independence and leaving the Republican Party. No matter your circumstance, I’m asking you to join me in rejecting the partisan loyalties and rhetoric that divide and dehumanize us. I’m asking you to believe that we can do better than this two-party system—and to work toward it. If we continue to take America for granted, we will lose it.”
Allies will tell you Amash’s partisan metamorphosis was long in the making.
“I interviewed him in, what was it, 2018 maybe?” Matt Welch, editor at large of the libertarian Reason magazine, told us. “And said, ‘okay, so, you know, you're a libertarian-leaning Republican.’ He's like, ‘no, just libertarian is fine, please.’”
But he also hoped to send a signal. “I spoke to Congressman Amash in Las Vegas in July, after his leaving the Republican Party,” Dan Fishman, executive director of the Libertarian party said. “And he had a very deliberate statement where he said, ‘The important thing is that I have left the Republican Party. And if I do anything else right now, that message is lost.’”
Amash’s message was not lost.
“Great news for the Republican Party,” President Trump, the man who perhaps had the most to do with Amash’s switch, announced on his favorite communications platform. “One of the dumbest & most disloyal men in Congress is ‘quitting’ the Party.”
Amash is not dumb—far from it. The son of two immigrants, he graduated high school valedictorian of his class and earned his bachelor’s degree in economics from the University of Michigan, sticking around Ann Arbor long enough to nab a law degree as well.
But he is disloyal—at least in the Trumpian sense of the word. Amash has voted in line with Trump’s position just 63 percent of the time according to FiveThirtyEight, a lower “Trump score” than any Republican save Walter Jones, who passed away last February, and Jeff Van Drew, who was a Democrat until about four weeks ago. Amash spent his final few months in the GOP calling for the president to be impeached, much to the joy of Democrats and some of his constituents, but much to the chagrin of everyone in his own party.
The Fall of the Freedom Caucus
Amash isn’t any less libertarian now than he was when he rode the Tea Party wave to D.C. in 2010, just two years after being elected to the Michigan House of Representatives. He’d contend it’s those around him who’ve changed.
On January 26, 2015, Amash and a group of eight other Republican congressmen (all men) formed the House Freedom Caucus (HFC) to stand up to a House leadership—then helmed by Speaker John Boehner—that they believed wasn’t conservative enough. Amash wrote the mission statement.
“The House Freedom Caucus gives a voice to countless Americans who feel that Washington does not represent them. We support open, accountable and limited government, the Constitution and the rule of law, and policies that promote the liberty, safety, and prosperity of all Americans.”
On May 20, 2019, the bloc, now boasting more than 30 members, unanimously condemned their co-founder when Amash determined—after the release of the Mueller Report—that President Trump had “engaged in impeachable conduct.” Three-and-a-half weeks later, Amash quit the group of limited-government stalwarts he helped create.
They “sanctioned him for coming out in favor of impeachment in the same week that like, they increased the debt by another trillion dollars or something,” Welch said, referring to a two-year budget deal that was floated at the time, but ultimately never came to fruition. “It's like, what is the use of this group?”
“As soon as you had a Republican president, and especially one who is fairly charismatic and entertaining and can rally a lot of people,” Amash said, choosing his words very carefully, “Republicans totally mailed it in. They said, ‘Look, we're just going to go with this guy on everything.’ And when I started to see even my House Freedom Caucus colleagues do that, it was really disheartening.”
“This is a group that had formed,” he continued, “for the purpose of standing on principle, standing up for the American people, doing what was right, ensuring that all voices were heard. And now, the group had moved more toward Trump cheerleading and that's not why the group was formed. And that was really tough.”
Not everyone in Washington would agree with Amash’s assessment of the caucus, which, once it grew large enough, wielded its influence to hold Republican leaders hostage and otherwise wreak havoc on the legislative process.
“Previously, groups of members on the right flank of the House Republican Conference operated under a version of the ‘Buckley Rule’: they fought for the most conservative legislation that could pass,” said Michael Steel, former aide to Speaker John Boehner. “The self-described ‘Freedom Caucus’ often seemed more about the fight than the result, and—when they chose not to get to ‘yes’ on must-pass bills—the House Republican leadership had to go to Democrats for votes, leading to worse policies and higher spending.”
When Trump was first elected, many wondered if the House Freedom Caucus would even continue to serve a purpose. After all, the GOP center of gravity no longer revolved around the speaker of the House. But the HFC made its presence known early on in 2017, scuttling the White House’s first attempt to overhaul the Affordable Care Act.
“The Freedom Caucus will hurt the entire Republican agenda if they don’t get on the team, & fast,” Trump wrote at the time. “We must fight them, & Dems, in 2018!”
Now? One of the caucus’s founding members, Mick Mulvaney, serves as Trump’s chief of staff. Another, Mark Meadows, is one of the president’s most enthusiastic advocates, and is rumored to be Mulvaney’s replacement in waiting.
Amash believes the co-opting of the Freedom Caucus was no accident. “I think that was intentional,” he said. “Whether it was the president's calculation or someone else's, to try to take some of the House Freedom Caucus members and bring them into the fold … I think this was a concerted effort by leadership and perhaps White House officials to pick off House Freedom Caucus members, to bring them in, to make them a part of the Republican team, in some sense, and then get them to stop battling Republicans.”
While his old Freedom Caucus buddies may have finally stopped battling Republicans under Trump, Amash was just getting started. But he claims his newfound independence has actually improved his connections on the Hill.
“I have better relationships with Republicans and with Democrats. When you're a Republican and you break from the Republicans on a piece of legislation or you disagree with the president or whatever it might be, they tend to come down hard on you because it's like you're a family member who has betrayed the family,” he said. “Since becoming an independent, my colleagues are more trusting. They are friendlier, on both sides of the aisle, and it's certainly been an improvement on the Republican side.”
Efforts to talk to his peers about this bore little fruit. A spokeswoman for the House Freedom Caucus declined to comment for the story, and no individual members contacted responded to emails from The Dispatch.
“I think John Boehner is the best speaker that we've had since I've been here,” said Amash. “And I say that as someone who tried to oust him from the speakership!”
This sentiment doesn’t represent a newfound appreciation for the Republican establishment or hint at new moderation from Amash. Instead, it’s a reflection of his belief in having big, messy debates—not avoiding them.
“If I were to create, like, an ideal speaker in my imagination, it would not be John Boehner,” Amash said. But in retrospect, “his successors are not better than him.”
“Boehner would swear at me, he would curse me, he would criticize me in public,” Amash recounted with a grin, almost fondly. “But he also, in some sense, would listen. He didn't dismiss you totally. You could engage with him. You could have some back and forth. He might swear at you, but then also allow you to have an amendment vote.”
Amendment votes might just be—aside from his family, the Detroit Pistons, and Friedrich Hayek—Amash’s favorite thing. He grew notorious in his first few years in Congress for his attempts to attach riders to larger bills aimed at curtailing what he calls “the surveillance state,” prioritizing the deficit, and limiting the executive branch’s war powers. Most of them failed to gain majority support, but several passed. In the Michigan legislature, Amash once noticed a missing comma in a piece of legislation; he introduced an amendment to remedy the crisis. That one passed, too.
Sitting in his office in January 2019, Amash said he didn’t realize how good he had had it under Boehner, who, through a spokesman, declined to comment for this story. Paul Ryan—who finally gave in and took the speaker’s gavel from Boehner after weeks of telling colleagues he didn’t want it—“told us he was going to open up the process and then totally closed it down,” per Amash. “I was hopeful that the next speaker would be better. It looked like that might happen. But instead it's gone the other way.”
Ryan, he claimed, “was the worst in every respect. Worst on process. Worst on substance.” The typically understated Amash was growing more animated. “He didn't even like the president, disagreed with him on a whole bunch of things, but never stood up to him!”
Just a few minutes into our conversation, it was becoming clear: The seeds for Amash’s eventual GOP departure were planted in the fall of 2015, not with Trump’s victory one year later.
“When you get to Congress, your hope is not to enter Congress and then leave the party that you've been a part of your whole life. You try to change the party, and you try to improve it. And I tried that for a long time and I actually thought we did make progress in the first few years,” Amash said. “After a while you say, ‘Well, this is not the right approach.’ Trying to work within the party, and change the party, is not the right way to handle it. And I need to go out and change hearts and minds and change the way people look at representation altogether.”
The End of Partisanship
Since he became the House’s only independent member last July, Amash has thought a lot about the role of political parties.
“People aren't allowed to break,” he lamented. “Like, you literally have to stick with the party.”
Amash said he wasn’t surprised that none of his former House colleagues split from the president to vote for impeachment.
“Early on I thought someone would break, I thought maybe a few of them would break,” he said. “I thought the White House strategy and Republican leadership strategy was kind of effective, which was to mock and shame anyone who had a difference of opinion. In other words, just ridicule. And if they ridicule enough, it makes it very hard for anyone to step out of line.”
(Some Democrats have floated Amash’s name as a potential impeachment manager when the trial begins in the Senate: “I'm happy to discuss that with the speaker, but it's not something I've discussed with her, and not something I’d take a position on unless I had a discussion with her.”)
But Amash thinks the intense, partisan moment we’re in is a product of Washington, not America at large.
“Members of Congress have miscalculated,” he said. “I think they are making assumptions about how partisan their constituents are that are not correct. It is true that a small percentage of the population is very politically active and you know, will be either cheerleading for the president or opposed to the president on everything. But most people are pretty moderate.”
“If they could see themselves from my perspective,” Amash said, “as someone who's independent, and who has sort of had the ire of both sides at times and also the praise from both sides at times … they would see that there are actually a lot of similarities that they don't recognize.”
It’s unclear that polling and research bears that out. In October, Pew Research Center released a report finding “the level of [partisan] division and animosity … has only deepened”: 79 percent of Democrats and 83 percent of Republicans gave members of the opposite party a “cold rating” on Pew’s “feeling thermometer.” Also,63 percent of Republicans said Democrats are more unpatriotic than other Americans, and 75 percent of Democrats said Republicans were more close-minded. Supporters of President Trump have attended his rallies wearing shirts that say they’d “rather be a Russian than a Democrat.” Democrats and progressives held massive protests the day Trump was inaugurated.
But Amash may have a point when he says “people care more about the character issues than they do about the particular positions or ideology of the representative.” And while Donald Trump’s character issues are something that would’ve given many Republicans pause in years past, his willingness to pick fights, and to mock and ridicule his opponents relentlessly, played a key role in his election. Trump won the Republican primary in 2016 campaigning on trade protectionism, friendlier relations with Russia, leaving entitlements alone, and withdrawing from global engagement. It remains an open question whether these positions were ever truly popular with the GOP base, but voters’ policy views can prove remarkably malleable to conform with the worldview of a charismatic leader.
Asked if he prefers to think of ideology as four-dimensional rather than two—with policy running along the horizontal axis and tone and temperament along the vertical—Amash nearly leapt out of his chair: “Yes, that’s right!”
Amash Has a Decision to Make
All of this makes Justin Amash one of the most interesting elected officials in the country. Does it make him a presidential candidate?
Since his personal Declaration of Independence, Republicans and Democrats alike have watched Amash carefully for signs he’d run for president. They’re unmistakable.
“I'll say what I've said before, I haven't ruled it out,” Amash said, the closest he came to sounding like a traditional politician. “But I'm running for Congress as an independent in my district. I'm very excited about that. I feel very good about that.”
He wants to be clear that he’s not abandoning his re-election bid—yet. “Just to be clear, I am running for office as an independent for, you know, my congressional seat. And I've filed for that, and you know, we're, we're doing what it takes to, to win that race.”
One more time. He begins to speak more cautiously.
“At some point you'll be at, we'll be at the point where I have to rule out, you know, running for president. And I'm not at that point yet. But, you know, we're probably getting closer to that point now. If you're going to run a campaign for president, you need enough time to run a strong campaign and you need enough time to win the campaign. I'm not running for president unless I believe I can win.”
If Amash doesn’t like the questions, he has no one but himself to blame. He’s long played coy with the idea, repeatedly, as he mentioned, refusing to rule out the possibility. When asked to describe the ideal Libertarian party presidential candidate at Students for Liberty’s LibertyCon last spring, he said that candidate would be wearing Air Jordans—coincidentally the shoes he had on at the time.
The current crop of candidates for the Libertarian crown shouldn’t instill any fear if Amash does want to run. Kim Ruff, who, according to Dan Fishman, “was certainly seen as a frontrunner,” dropped out last weekend. Lincoln Chafee—the former Republican senator, independent governor, and Democratic presidential candidate—is trying on a fourth party affiliation for size. Jacob Hornberger—founder of the Future of Freedom Foundation—and Adam Kokesh—an Iraq war veteran who has called for an “orderly dissolution of the federal government”—have thrown their hats in the ring. Fan favorites Vermin Supreme—the guy who wears a boot on his head—and John McAfee—the anti-virus software guy who wants to have sex with whales—are back for more.
“I think he would get the Libertarian party nomination,” Welch said. “He's very revered in the Libertarian world generally. If you had to name one person who people within the party would want to see run for that office, I think the name is Justin Amash.”
That’s not all. “[The Libertarians] have this great prize, right?” Welch said. “They're going to be on 50 ballots probably, and nobody else is going to come close to that. And all you have to do is win a majority of delegates of a thousand votes in Austin, Texas in May, and you get to be on 50 ballots. Who wouldn't want that?”
The Libertarian party oversees state conventions and primaries to select delegates for the national convention, but anything can happen at that point. Austin—with its “Keep Austin Weird” mantra—should prove an apt host this year. “No delegates are ever bound,” Fishman explains. “So, every delegate that comes to Austin has the opportunity to vote their conscience or vote the way they feel like the people who elected them as delegate would like them to vote. It's entirely up to them to interpret how they would like to do that.”
“Technically speaking,” he continues when asked specifically about Amash, “you don’t have to win any of the state primaries. But it’s a good idea for candidates to go to the state primaries and at least talk to the delegates that are being elected.”
Fishman didn’t explicitly comment on the quality of any one candidate over another, but when he told us that Ruff—one of the race’s front runners—had dropped out, he knowingly added: “Maybe that’s an opportunity for some other candidate who is thinking of jumping in.”
Welch isn’t sure Amash will go through with it. “Justin's a very competitive dude,” he said. “Running for something at the prospect of getting 3 percent of the vote doesn't seem like a thing that really excites him.”
“He's got this crazy challenge at home,” Welch continued, referring to the prospect of re-winning his Congressional seat as an independent. “He loves to prove people wrong about how to win elections in his congressional district … if he's able to win as an incumbent independent then that's an incredible thing to show and to prove people.”
In the race that he has filed for, Amash has plenty of competition, including businessman Joel Langlois, Michigan state Rep. Lynn Afendoulis, and Peter Meijer, an Iraq war veteran and member of the Meijer Grocery family. Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball considers the race a toss-up. The Cook Political Report rating for the district recently changed from toss up to lean Republican, news Amash previously would have welcomed but these days does not.
“Amash is now his own island,” election analyst David Wasserman wrote. “It's doubtful there's a sufficient market for a pro-life/pro-impeachment independent in the district to allow him a path to a sixth term.”
If that’s true—and Wasserman is as smart an election analyst as there is—why not go bigger?
Amash has clearly entertained the idea of a presidential bid, and he makes the case without hesitation. “I'd say that most Americans probably do not feel very closely aligned to any of the candidates right now,” he said. “Any of the leading candidates on the Republican or Democratic side.”
“I definitely think that a strong candidate in the Libertarian party today can get more votes than any previous candidate,” Amash adds, building up steam before catching himself. “The best case right now for a Libertarian, no matter who it is, is that both of these parties have been disasters and have not really represented the American people well. Is there any better time to have a president who might be not from either party?”
The Gary Johnson and Bill Weld Libertarian ticket in 2016 received nearly 4.5 million votes, 3.27 percent of the popular vote. But veteran Republican political strategist Karl Rove doesn’t think that’s repeatable.
In 2016, Rove said over the phone, “one out of every six Americans, roughly, thought neither person was qualified to be president, neither Clinton nor Trump. So, there was a fertile field for third parties to fish in … I don’t think we’ll see anything close to the 18 percent who say both candidates are unqualified.”
But that doesn’t mean a Libertarian party candidate couldn’t play spoiler. “These things matter in close states,” Rove said. Ask Democrats what cost Al Gore the 2000 presidential race against Rove’s candidate, George W. Bush, and many will point to Ralph Nader’s near 100,000 votes in Florida —a state Bush won by 537 votes, delivering him the presidency.
A limited-government option might fare better in western states where “the vote for the Libertarian candidate in presidential election years traditionally is larger than the national average,” Rove said. “It's unclear whether or not Amash will specifically split the anti-Trump vote or whether he will have the ability to draw away people who might otherwise be inclined to vote for Trump. I think it's more likely that he would split the anti-Trump vote.”
Fishman, who himself ran for Congress in 2012 as a Libertarian, referenced his campaign’s internal polling in telling us that, depending who the nominees were, the split would likely be closer to 50-50. “We tend to pull evenly [from Republicans and Democrats],” he said. “But the other thing about it is that we find that we do a better job of activating the people who haven’t voted a lot … The apathetic voter is almost always the largest group.”
Trump campaign officials declined to comment on how they are thinking through third-party campaigns.
Rove is obviously a Republican through and through. But he doesn’t see a logical constituency for an Amash Libertarian Party candidacy. “What's his argument? Vote for me: I'm the guy who has no chance of getting elected, but I hate Trump? People are going to have a much better opportunity to vote for somebody who's anti-Trump than just Justin.”
Amash describes a “hypothetical” Libertarian campaign message as much more expansive than mere disdain for the president. America is “fundamentally within the classical liberal realm,” he said. “And you might call that constitutionally conservative or libertarian.”
But he thinks Libertarians are campaigning on their ideas in the wrong way. “This is a common mistake that a lot of Libertarian or Libertarian-leaning politicians make, in that they're under the impression that they have to persuade people of something that is a wholesale change to them,” Amash said, obviously having put some thought into the topic. “And that's not the case. When people ask me, ‘when has libertarianism ever been tried?’ I would say in the United States of America, this is the most libertarian country that has ever been known … Compared to countries throughout the world and throughout history, this is a very libertarian experiment, and most people are pretty comfortable with it.”
“I think most Americans are already there,” he adds. “It's not a matter of persuading them of the principles. It's persuading them that you are applying the principles they already believe in.”
On an Island
Whichever path Amash chooses, he won’t be able to rely on many of the deep-pocketed political organizations that have buoyed his various candidacies over the past decade. “He has access to national Libertarian network money that a lot of people don't,” Welch told us, “and he still will get some money within his district, but it's a real struggle.”
Were he to run for president, Amash could tap into a substantial network of Libertarians and disaffected Republicans. Fishman said “there are a lot of members who want to see the Libertarian party succeed,” adding that “the potential is there to raise more than what Gary [Johnson] and Bill [Weld, the Party’s presidential and vice presidential nominees in 2016] raised. It would have to be the right candidate. They would have to come in with a professional staff. But, the thing that Johnson/Weld showed is that the message does resonate and you can do a good job of fundraising among people who are concerned about the country.”
And there is little doubt that Amash, as an outspoken Trump critic and former Republican, would benefit from what campaign veterans call “earned media” coverage in the mainstream press.
But on the congressional side, the powerful Michigan DeVos family pulled the plug on their support for Amash after he called for Trump’s impeachment.
A spokeswoman for Americans for Prosperity—the Koch political network—said they “have nothing to announce at this time” regarding support for Amash.
The Dispatch reached a spokesman for the Club for Growth—a fiscally conservative advocacy group which itself spent millions in an attempt to defeat Donald Trump in the 2016 Republican primary—and asked if the group would be supporting Amash, who in 2018 was one of only three congressmen to receive a perfect 100 percent voting score from the organization. The response? An indignant “no.”
Welch had guessed in our conversation that Americans for Prosperity and Club for Growth would abandon ship, but believed that a third limited-government advocacy organization would stand by their man. “FreedomWorks, I think, will probably be with him,” he said. And there was good reason to reach this conclusion. Amash has been given the FreedomWorks “Freedom Fighter” award every year he’s been in Congress. The group named him “FreedomWorks Member of the Month” as recently as June 2018, writing, “We recognize his remarkable consistency on all issues and admire his dedication to his job and his constituents. We hope he continues to be a steadfast voice for liberty in and out of Congress and that his unassailable principles will serve as an example to all aspiring future members of Congress.”
Visiting his office earlier this month, we noticed Amash proudly displayed his “Freedom Fighter” award prominently on his desk, alongside a Champion of the Merit Shop plaque, Small Business Champion certificate, a book called The ABCs of School Choice, and a three-foot tall Darth Vader figurine. (We probably should have asked about that last one.)
Reached on the phone, Peter Vicenzi, a spokesman for FreedomWorks, told us that he knew the group had supported Amash in the past, and that he has a very high FreedomWorks score, but that he was not sure if the group would be backing the congressman again in 2020.
A few minutes later, we got an email. “Amash has a very high score with us, but we don't have any plans to get involved in MI-03 at this time, seeing as we're focused on some other key races to help regain the GOP's House majority.” The spokesman said the group’s main initiative, “Dirty Thirty,” is aimed at “flipping the 30 or so districts that went for Trump in 2016, but blue in 2018.”
“So, you are only putting money behind Republican challengers in those 30 districts?” we asked. “Or are you supporting some incumbent Republicans financially as well?”
His response: “We're going to support some incumbents as well, mainly HFC members.”
In his near-decade of congressional service, Amash has voted against FreedomWorks’ wishes only three times, earning a 99 percent lifetime score. The first was on a budget resolution in 2017.
The other two?
“Agreeing to Article I of the Articles of Impeachment” and “Agreeing to Article II of the Articles of Impeachment.”
Photograph of Justin Amash by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images.