Justin Amash, Republican (For Now) Unicorn
Who is this guy, Democrats want to know this week. Are there more like him in the Republican Party? Could he help us win back Michigan?
Rep. Justin Amash (R–Mich.) threw a turd in the punchbowl of predictable two-party politics Saturday when he became the first of the GOP’s 197-member caucus to declare that “President Trump has engaged in impeachable conduct.” Now the Grand Rapids libertarian is getting the “strange new respect” treatment from the likes of Mark Hamill, while journalists puzzle over how an alleged former “gadfly” could suddenly seem so resistance-y and the Libertarian Party damn near begs for him to switch teams.
But the first thing to know about Amash is that, whether or not you agree with his conclusions on impeachment or authorizations of military force, he takes his job with a seriousness that has almost vanished from the legislative branch. He holds the modern day congressional record for most consecutive votes not missed, 4,289 over six-plus years, and reportedly wept when he accidentally missed one.
“Few members of Congress even read Mueller’s report; their minds were made up based on partisan affiliation—and it showed,” Amash tweeted during his Saturday thread, and even fewer serious people in Washington would disagree. (Note: Donald Trump is not a serious person.)
Amash is that nerd who insists on reading entire bills before voting on them, then explaining every vote on social media. And as an honest-to-goodness “constitutional conservative”—remember them?—he gets stubborn when his own team violates its stated principles, or when Congress willingly abdicates its role as a co-equal branch of government.
“When one party has full control of government,” he told me in 2017, “that party starts to go on a spending spree and stops worrying about the debt and deficits.” You will recall that the one party in question back then was the GOP.
Indeed, this latest impeachment jag is hardly the first time Amash has gone out on a limb to oppose the president. He condemned Trump’s initial travel ban of residents from predominantly Muslim countries, helped scotch Republican efforts to repeal/replace Obamacare (drawing a call from Trump’s social media director to “defeat” Amash in a primary).
He also opposed the president’s emergency declaration along the southern border, called Trump’s comments about murdered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi “repugnant,” and was one of the only Republicans on Capitol Hill to support setting up a special counsel investigation after the firing of FBI Director James B. Comey.
So is House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R–Bakersfield) right when he says that Amash “votes more with Nancy Pelosi than he ever votes with me”? Er, no. As New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait points out, Amash has “an 88 percent score from the American Conservative Union, [and] a 100 percent score from FreedomWorks.” He’s anti-abortion, more anti-interventionist than the average Democrat, and when bills add to the federal government’s vast ocean of red ink, he votes no.
In other words, Amash sounds a lot like…a Libertarian (abortion stance notwithstanding). He has been publicly mulling a third-party run at the White House all year; the Libertarian presidential field thus far has failed to impress, and even two years ago Amash was saying things like, “Hopefully, over time, these two parties start to fall apart.”
Michigan’s straight-ticket voting system, whereby voters can choose a party’s entire slate of candidates by checking just one box, has until now dampened any Amashian urge to jump ship. But now that he has a new primary challenger, and the very House Freedom Caucus that he co-founded has voted unanimously to condemn him, the temptation to abandon Congress entirely and run for president as a Libertarian may prove irresistible.
If Amash were to seek and win the Libertarian nomination—which isn’t decided until May 2020—he almost certainly wouldn’t become president, but it’s possible he’d affect the outcome by throwing up a Michigan-sized roadblock to the president’s reelection. In a state Trump won by just 10,704 votes, Amash in 2016 received 203,545, or more in just one district than Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson won statewide.
Unlike Johnson, Amash is all too familiar with the pronunciation of the word “Aleppo,” what with his mother being a Syrian immigrant and his father a Palestinian refugee. And unlike Trump, Joe Biden or Bernie Sanders, Amash is not a septuagenarian shaking his fist at clouds, but a 39-year-old fitness enthusiast who actually grasps basic technology and market economics.
You won’t go broke betting against independent and third-party candidates in American politics, particularly in these polarized and fearful times. But even if Amash merely serves out his term and then steps aside, he will have done us a favor. Sometimes those on the outside of the two major political tribes can show us things about ourselves we can’t otherwise see.
This article originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.
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