WASHINGTON ― Rep. Justin Amash isn’t trying to run a spoiler campaign for president ― but he may end up doing so anyway.
Amash told HuffPost in a phone interview that he’s running to win, not to help or hurt another candidate, or to deny President Donald Trump or presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden a majority of electoral votes and throw the election to the House of Representatives, where Amash has served for five terms.
Having covered Amash closely for his entire time in Congress, I can tell you he almost always believes what he says ― a rare characteristic in members of Congress.
But that may be one of the most alarming aspects of Amash’s long-shot Libertarian campaign for the White House; he’s truly unconcerned about the effects of his candidacy on the presidential election.
“There’s no way to know how a campaign goes until you run it, and there’s no way to know where votes come from,” Amash said, seeming to ignore early polling that suggests he would draw more votes from Biden in Michigan than from Trump, as well as his firsthand knowledge of the fealty that most Republicans show to the president.
But as Amash usually is, he’s technically correct ― his favorite kind of being correct.
A poll from June 2019 can’t determine how his candidacy will affect the 2020 race, and the way Amash campaigns will shape which voters he appeals to. Millions of Republicans would vote for Trump if he’s the only alternative to Biden, Amash pointed out, but they might consider someone else if there’s a better option. Some Democrats feel the same way about Biden, allowing him to steal votes from those reluctant supporters.
“I anticipate running a campaign that harms both candidates’ chances,” Amash said. “I mean, that’s the point.”
When you press Amash on his own preference between Trump and Biden, he tries to avoid the question.
“It depends on how you define ‘preference,’” Amash said. “I think Trump is a train wreck. And in the short run, we can all see the kind of devastation wrought by Trump.”
“But,” Amash continued, “beneath the surface, what created Trump is still there, whether Trump’s in office or not at all. And Joe Biden is not going to address that problem.”
If you try asking the same question a few different ways ― “Is it not clear that you have a preference between these two?” “Are you really that divided?” “But are you more concerned about Biden than Trump?” ― you’ll get expositions about how Trump and Biden are probably more closely aligned on policy than Amash is with either Trump or Biden, or about how a Biden presidency produces the same partisan tension as a Trump presidency, or about how Washington is broken.
The best answer I got was when I brought up a quote from former Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho), one of Amash’s old close allies. Labrador recently told Politico he thought Amash didn’t see much of a difference between Trump and Biden. “People must be surprised to realize that Justin would rather see a Trump presidency than a Biden presidency, even it’s a 51/49 proposition,” Labrador said.
That’s just “Raul’s opinion,” Amash said. “I don’t think that’s right. I don’t have a preference for either one of them.”
If you believe Amash is this equally torn between Trump and Biden, you may be able to understand the concern he’s brought to Democrats.
Former Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) summed it up this way: “Every single anti-Trump vote needs to be on the viable candidate for president” ― meaning Biden ― and Democrats clearly worry that Republicans will fall more in line with Trump than Democrats will with the former vice president.
“They dropped balloons from the sky in the West Wing when Justin Amash announced that he was running for president,” McCaskill said.
Trump’s actual reaction was to tweet that Amash would make a “wonderful candidate,” further heightening the Democratic concern.
But Amash interpreted that as “reverse psychology.” Basically, he said, it was an attempt to rile up Democrats and try to sink his Libertarian nomination.
“I’ll put it this way,” Amash said. “As much as I dislike the president’s tone, demeanor, and many of his policies, I think he understands how to campaign. And he’s one of the best trolls on Twitter that you’re going to find.”
Amash has argued that no candidate is entitled to the presidency or the presumption of victory, and that the partisan attacks he’s faced since announcing his candidacy are precisely the reason he wants to run ― to challenge that mindset.
“It’s pretty strange to me to argue that a candidate who might get a lot of traction shouldn’t be on the ballot because the American people might prefer that candidate,” Amash said during our interview.
That backlash may end up as a key argument in favor of Amash, as he seeks the Libertarian nomination in two weeks.
Amash left the Republican Party in July to become an independent and is now changing his affiliation again to become Congress’ first capital-L Libertarian. Much of his argument for the party’s presidential nomination, which he’s expected to get, is that he’s the candidate best positioned to blow up the two-party system.
And if you have any doubt about that, just check his Twitter mentions.
Amash, who tweets for himself and closely monitors his Twitter interactions, has been treated to a constant online thrashing since announcing his candidacy. While he said he said he expected the backlash, he blamed certain “Never Trump” Republicans for stoking it.
“There are a few prominent former Republicans who prefer Joe Biden, and I guess have a plan in mind about how they want this election to go,” Amash said. “It creates a lot of problems for them and their approach.”
Part of the concern from Democrats and Never Trump Republicans is that Amash may, indeed, be relevant.
He’s savvier than most politicians give him credit. When he speaks from the heart about his beliefs, voters can actually tell. He has a voting record that shows ideology over partisanship. And his campaign experience has taught him that many of his voters appreciate that, even when they disagree with him, they know where he stands and why. (Amash posts explanations of his votes on major bills on Facebook.)
Of course, some of his votes are more difficult to explain.
Amash has perhaps the most fiscally conservative record in Congress over the last decade. He hasn’t voted for a single budget during his time in Congress ― an act of defiance that led former Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) to kick him off the Budget Committee in 2012 ― and he rarely votes in favor of spending bills.
He’s also voted for controversial Republican priorities. He was the last member to vote for the GOP health care bill in 2017, and he has developed a reputation as a lone dissenter. If there’s ever a vote with only one member voting no, there’s a good chance it’s Amash.
Those positions may make it difficult for Democrats to embrace Amash. But his position on Trump’s impeachment may make it impossible for many Republicans to back him.
Amash gained considerable notoriety in May 2019 as the first congressional Republican to support impeaching Trump. Shortly after that, Amash left the Republican Party to become an independent. And for the conservative Republicans who loved Amash even through his Trump criticism, his embrace of impeachment was the last straw.
That seemed to be okay with Amash. For all the supporters he lost on the right, he seemed to gain even more on the left. But that honeymoon may have ended in February, when Amash was one of four House members to vote against an anti-lynching bill that now awaits Trump’s signature.
He vehemently defends that vote, arguing that explanations of the bill claiming it makes lynching a federal crime are plain wrong. (What the bill actually did was criminalize conspiracies to violate certain existing laws. Amash argued that, at best, it codifies existing lynching provisions, and at worst, equates unrelated crimes with lynching and gives police and prosecutors more power to charge people with hate crimes.)
Still, the vote gave Amash a considerable amount of heartburn. And it’s a classic example of him rejecting an obvious political truth ― don’t vote against a bill called the “Emmett Till Anti-lynching Act” ― in favor of being legally, technically, sort of right.
If you’re the type of voter attracted to a candidate who’s able to argue legal minutia and recite the Constitution from memory, Amash may be your guy. (Another contrast with Trump, and a potential overlap with Biden, who, like Amash, went to law school and has written legislation in Congress.)
But Democrats may be more concerned that Amash will highlight Biden’s similarities with Trump.
Amash is a baby-faced 40-year-old whose parents were born in Syria and the Palestinian territories. Biden is 77-year-old white guy who sometimes fumbles his words. Trump is a 73-year-old white guy who sometimes speaks in complete sentences.
If you accept the idea that Trump supporters are going to vote for Trump no matter what ― because, after everything, they’re still standing with the president ― then Amash constantly going on cable news and saying that both major candidates are roughly the same could be a problem.
And make no mistake: Amash plans to be on cable news.
He has toyed with the idea of running for president for years, and has thought seriously about it for several months. He planned to come to a final decision at the end of February, but the coronavirus outbreak delayed his decision. Ultimately, he concluded the shutdown of public campaign events could be an advantage for him, as the action shifts to cable news and Twitter.
“It’s mostly a digital or technological race,” Amash said of campaigning during stay-at-home orders. “You know, it’s who can be on the media and on social media, and who can get the message out there electronically while people are at home?”
While Amash was clear that he’s aiming to actually win the presidency as the Libertarian candidate, a more realistic result could be immensely consequential to the outcome. The 2016 Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson drew 3.27% of the national vote (4.4 million votes), and election analysts theorized that Johnson and Green Party candidate Jill Stein may have cost Hillary Clinton the presidency.
In 2020, Amash may not even have to steal votes from Biden to tip the election; he may only need to convince a few thousand voters ― perhaps only in his home state of Michigan ― that there isn’t enough of a difference between the GOP and Democratic nominees to warrant standing in line for hours to vote, particularly if the coronavirus is still a threat in November.
It’s certainly a looming possibility ― one made even more profound by the fact that Amash genuinely seems to think there is no lesser of two evils.
This, however, may be a rare situation in which Amash is engaging in political gamesmanship.
Ironically, if Amash were to state a preference for Biden over Trump ― who he voted to impeach, left the Republican Party over, and called “amoral and self-serving” ― it may actually hurt Biden more than his “no preference” stance. And if he goes harder on Trump than on Biden, it would be a direct appeal to voters leaning toward Biden.
If you were looking for an indication of how Amash might affect the race, you can look at how he’s been campaigning.
To this point, Amash has tried to run on his record of limited government, Constitutional conservatism, a better criminal justice system, and a less interventionist foreign policy ― arguments that may naturally appeal to Libertarian-minded Republicans. But he’s also targeted partisanship as an enemy of his campaign, and he says he’s running because hyperpartisanship has made government dysfunctional. Score one for the “no preference” approach.
Perhaps the biggest tell has been what Amash hasn’t talked about.
He’s largely sidestepped what may be the most damaging shot at Biden: that Amash is the one candidate not accused of sexual assault.
Trump’s supporters don’t seem to care that 25 women have accused their candidate of sexual misconduct. Some of Biden’s supporters might care that their candidate now faces a serious allegation. At the very least, leaning into Tara Reade’s claims against Biden might help insulate Amash from some of the online criticism he’s faced since announcing his candidacy.
When HuffPost raised the topic, Amash dismissed it.
“Who wants to run a campaign like that?” he said. “I mean, maybe some people do. You know me, like, it’s not my thing. It’s, like, it’s not the thing I decided to run for president to talk about.”
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