Justin Amash to Trump and the GOP: Peace out

In case you missed it yesterday while you were enjoying the 4th, here’s a declaration of independence for Independence Day. I asked last month after he quit the Freedom Caucus whether he’d quit the GOP next. We have our answer.

In this hyperpartisan environment, congressional leaders use every tool to compel party members to stick with the team, dangling chairmanships, committee assignments, bill sponsorships, endorsements and campaign resources. As donors recognize the growing power of party leaders, they supply these officials with ever-increasing funds, which, in turn, further tightens their grip on power.

The founders envisioned Congress as a deliberative body in which outcomes are discovered. We are fast approaching the point, however, where Congress exists as little more than a formality to legitimize outcomes dictated by the president, the speaker of the House and the Senate majority leader.

With little genuine debate on policy happening in Congress, party leaders distract and divide the public by exploiting wedge issues and waging pointless messaging wars. These strategies fuel mistrust and anger, leading millions of people to take to social media to express contempt for their political opponents, with the media magnifying the most extreme voices. This all combines to reinforce the us-vs.-them, party-first mind-set of government officials.

Modern politics is trapped in a partisan death spiral, but there is an escape.

The word “Trump” doesn’t appear in the piece, which I’m sure was deliberate. Amash’s complaint is fundamentally about the stupidity and evils of partisanship, not the president, whose cultish following within the GOP is one symptom of the larger disease. Amash has always been a principled libertarian first and a Republican second. Yesterday he formalized it.

Reaction to his announcement among America’s most distracting and divisive political leaders was mixed:


AOC will change her mind once she’s old enough to run for president, rest assured. As for Trump, is he right that Amash’s decision to jump ship was driven by fear that he can’t win a primary? Last month a poll of Republicans in his district showed him trailing his Trump-friendly challenger, Jim Lower, by 16 points. A new poll suggests that the margin in a multi-candidate field would be a little tighter than that, but not much. And needless to say, it’s abysmal for an incumbent to be polling south of 20 percent no matter how many challengers he’s facing.

Last month I argued that he might have a marginally better chance of winning reelection as an independent, which is true insofar as a one percent chance is marginally better than zero. Amash fans had been hoping that if he remained in the party and drew a slew of primary challengers, they might split the anti-Amash vote a bunch of different ways and he’d end up squeaking through to the nomination with a small plurality of the vote. This poll makes that dream seem impossible, as he’s on the cusp of falling to third place, and in any case it’s a moot question now that he’s gone independent. As for running for his seat as an indie, were he to do so he could offer some sort of “principle over party” message aimed at centrists in both parties, hoping that a combo of small-government righties and hardcore anti-Trumpers on both sides who are eager to spite the president might give him a plurality victory. But that’s unlikely to succeed. In reality, most voters on both sides will stick with their “teams” in hopes of grabbing an open House seat. And Matt Welch informed me of something about Michigan that I didn’t know last month, which is that it allows straight-ticket party voting on its ballots. Amash himself has said that that quirk makes third-party runs “prohibitive.”

Combine all that with the fact he’s now likely to lose his GOP committee assignments and he’s all but unelectable. His decision to leave the party is effectively a decision to leave Congress.

Which means … he’s running for president, I guess? A showy departure from the GOP on July 4th in the name of nonpartisanship feels like a prelude to something bigger, not a whimper on his way out the door into retirement. I assume he’ll run for the Libertarian Party nomination and win it easily. Never Trumpers will be excited about that — some already are — but my guess is that Amash would win fewer votes than Gary Johnson did in 2016. That seems paradoxical since he has more national political buzz right now than Johnson ever did; a longshot candidate who’s made something of a name for himself should logically do better than one who hasn’t, right? In a vacuum, yes. But in 2020 we’ll have a Republican incumbent running on a roaring economy who’s just spent four years proving to doubters that his nuttiness on Twitter tends not to bleed over into his official actions. And we’ll have a Democrat running who’s all but certain to be more personally popular than Hillary Clinton. Trump’s record will give reluctant right-leaning swing voters a reason to stick with him this time and the Dem’s relative favorability will give left-leaning swing voters a reason to stick with him/her. And of course, the very polarization that Amash complained about in his op-ed will force even very reluctant supporters on both sides to hold their noses and vote strategically for their party’s nominee as the right screams that the Democrat is a socialist and the left screams that Trump is a fascist.

Here he is yesterday speaking at a July 4th celebration. Exit question: What would libertarians say would be a “successful” Amash presidential campaign? Is it successful if he qualifies for the debates, which is doubtful? Is it successful if he plays spoiler in Michigan or nationally, even though that would turn right-wingers even more hostile to libertarianism than they are now? Playing spoiler might at least convince the GOP that they need to pander a bit more to libertarian priorities going forward.