The news on Tuesday that Representative Justin Amash, the independent congressman from Michigan, had formed a committee to explore running for president as a Libertarian was, if nothing else, impeccably timed. Just as the presidential race enters that dead zone between becoming and being, as the incumbent threatens public health through his death-by-a-thousand-cuts briefings, and as his challenger sequesters himself from public scrutiny and personal controversies, a new player has swanned onto the stage to make things interesting for a moment. Every homebound consumer of the 2020 election must welcome this week’s Tiger King.
We needn’t belabor the prognostication: Amash will not be elected president. But the man who melodramatically declared his independence from the Republican Party on July 4, 2019, is likely to cause grievous psychological consternation throughout Washington. As with previous third-party candidates who were alleged to have helped “spoil” a major-party candidate’s electoral hopes—Ross Perot in 1992, Ralph Nader in 2000, Jill Stein in 2016—the untold story will be that candidate’s failure to offer the American people a truly compelling reason to vote for them. And in 2020, that applies to both of the leading candidates for president.
With Donald Trump and Joe Biden hell-bent on keeping policy ideas of any kind out of the discussion, Amash isn’t so much entering a presidential race as he is leaping into a primate dominance ritual. His most immediate role, however, is that of Beltway Democrat bedeviler. Amash is from Michigan, a state that Hillary Clinton lost by just shy of 11,000 votes. That year’s Libertarian candidate, Gary Johnson, won more than 170,000 votes in the Great Lakes State en route to the most successful Libertarian Party campaign in its four-decade history. Psychologically, the failure to secure Michigan’s electoral votes in 2016 looms large for Democrats, so much so that its popular Democratic governor, Gretchen Whitmer, finds herself deeply embedded on speculative shortlists for Biden’s running mate.
There has been scant polling in Michigan accounting for the possibility of an Amash candidacy, but what little there is likely sends a shiver through the heart of Biden’s most doughty institutional supporters. As The Washington Post’s Dave Weigel reports, “In 2019, a Detroit News poll found Biden leading Trump in Michigan, a state that has grown more uncertain for the president, by 12 points. With Amash as an option, Biden’s lead shrunk to six points, with some independents and Republicans moving away from the Democrat.”
Nevertheless, Amash’s announcement was immediately received with disdain from that upper tier of “never Trump” celebrities. Joe Walsh, a former congressman, anti-Trump Republican, and one-time presidential candidate for the MSNBC Green Room Party, glided frictionlessly onto the pages of The Washington Post within hours of the news breaking to offer his singular political analysis that Amash could “siphon enough votes from the Democratic nominee, Joe Biden, to hand the election to Trump.” Walsh’s warning earned predictable Twitter endorsements from fellow travelers Bill Kristol and Rick Wilson, which I believe is all you need to have Never Trump Yahtzee on a social media platform. As op-eds go, it is a wild ride. One moment Walsh is extolling Amash’s libertarian principles, the next he’s declaring that the “best and surest way to beat Trump is to have only one alternative to him.”
On the whole, Walsh’s essay and Wilson and Kristol’s reactions to it serve as a tacit admission that they don’t have any actual influence over conservative voters who might have buyer’s remorse over Trump, even though this troika’s overexposure in mainstream opinion pages is premised on the idea that they represent such a constituency (to the extent that it even exists as a consequential force). The larger problem, though, is that this particular subset of voters plays an outsize role in the Democratic Party’s imagination, too.
The tidy consensus among the pundit class as the field narrowed to Biden and Bernie Sanders was that Biden was the clearly superior and electable candidate because he didn’t offer anything that might spook those fabled Republicans who either didn’t vote for Trump or who have come to regret doing so. It is impossible to imagine, however, that Amash might attract the support of any other type of voter. Trump doesn’t care about courting them, as the Republican base has proven to be fanatically devoted to him. Democratic voters, meanwhile, should not have any difficulty understanding that Amash’s ideological project offers few points of intersection with their own. That Amash’s announcement prompted the immediate fear that Biden might lose only demonstrates the extent to which Democrats fetishize obtaining the support of Amash’s base.
The simplest way to allay these fears would be to field a candidate with a clear and unrelenting commitment to the liberal project. Such a candidate might be able to expand the size of the Democratic base on the strength of their ideas. Alas, the 2020 general election is shaping up as a battle of competing visions for just the Republican Party. Trump will advocate for the continuation of the party’s slide into nativist authoritarianism; Biden will run on a platform of restoring the Republican Party to a place for respectable statesmen to compromise in ways that primarily benefit industry. Into this mix, Amash will assert a third vision of a conservative party: uncompromising in its ideological commitments but free of corruption.
He is destined to get very little from his effort: the opportunity to be an important historical footnote in a losing candidate’s book of grievances. It is nevertheless remarkable that we’ve reached the point where a third-party campaign by the person who co-founded and chaired the House of Representatives’ right-wing Liberty Caucus might shift votes away from the Democratic presidential candidate—or, at least, that the Democratic establishment is concerned that he might. Such a phenomenon should call for a prolonged period of soul-searching. Democrats might get precisely that.