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Trump? Biden? How about neither. Why Justin Amash's 2020 presidential bid is so valuable

I personally would have preferred Amash either defend his House seat or run against Trump as a Republican. But I respect his decision to go it alone.
Rep. Amash Meets Constituents
Rep. Justin Amash (I-Mich.) speaks with constituents at Common Ground, a coffee shop in Grand Rapids, Mich. on Aug. 21, 2019.Evan Cobb / The Washington Post via Getty Images file

Believe it or not, some Americans are not excited about choosing between two septuagenarian supporters of $1 trillion deficits and rabid partisan politics this November. But instead of picking the lesser of two evils, they may now have a third option: 40-year-old Michigan congressman Justin Amash, a Republican turned independent turned Libertarian Party candidate. Republicans say they want fiscal responsibility, Democrats frequently promise peace and protection of civil liberties. Amash’s voting record actually reflects these commitments. He even reads the bills beforehand!

Republicans say they want fiscal responsibility, Democrats frequently promise peace and protection of civil liberties. Amash’s voting record actually reflects these commitments.

Amash likes to quote the Founding Fathers, especially President George Washington, and free-market economists, particularly F.A. Hayek and Frédéric Bastiat. But his nascent campaign for the White House might best be summed up by Popeye the Sailor Man: “I am what I am.”

Since Amash was elected to Congress, he has always been associated with other figures and movements. He was supposed to be the “next Ron Paul,” a tribute to the last libertarian legend on Capitol Hill. He came to Washington as part of the tea party. He was a founding member of the archconservative Freedom Caucus. When he broke with President Donald Trump, he was cheered by members of the so-called “Resistance.” Never-Trumpers loyal to Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who once dismissed Amash as a “wacko bird,” swooped in to help him win re-election as an independent foe of the president.

While some of those labels fit better than others, none of them are quite right. Amash never completely embraced the populism that defined the Tea Party, at least as much as its constitutionalism and soi-disant libertarianism. He was more conservative than his liberal cheerleaders but also more liberal than most of his Freedom Caucus colleagues — in the classical sense. He was never properly defined by his opposition to Trump or President Barack Obama.

His inbetween-ness has won him plenty of allies, but he disappoints many of those allies when he fails to fit snugly in the box they put him in. John Weaver, the former McCain campaign manager who argued in a December op-ed that “Washington needs more Justin Amashes,” fired off several angry tweets this week once Amash announced he was exploring a Libertarian run. Amash has a “massive ego,” Weaver wrote and while once admirable had become “a Jill Stein for the coward set.“

Aside from a core group of libertarian true believers, Amash’s overlapping fanbases tend to turn on him when he cannot be controlled. Now, much of the debate over Amash’s candidacy hinges on whether he helps Trump or Biden and what will happen to Michigan’s electoral votes.

The truth is, barring a war or alien invasion, the 2020 presidential election will be about the coronavirus and Trump. Biden will have to work overtime to make his platform a distant third priority, though he may choose not to since an anti-Trump referendum is his safest path to the presidency. Amash's fellow Republican-in-exile Gary Johnson won 1.2 million votes as the Libertarian nominee in 2012, nearly 4.5 million in 2016, both records for the party at the time and respectable totals that nevertheless didn’t really alter the outcome of either race.

Contrary to what Weaver may tweet, Amash is likely more like Johnson than Stein, the Green Party’s alleged Hillary Cilnton spoiler, as he has demonstrated that there is a universe of voters who probably aren’t available to Trump or Biden, period. For everyone else, the election will be a Hatfields and McCoys affair.

Amash declared his independence July 4, 2019, when he announced he was leaving the GOP in The Washington Post. A presidential run will be even more freeing for a man who has repeatedly sought office on his own terms, as his own man. And a few million people who don’t find Trump versus Biden an inspiring choice will have another one.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t negatives. Amash’s candidacy will make things awkward for allies like Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., who cannot afford to cross Trump again, and Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky. It will shrink the “liberty caucus” in Congress. What began as a promising rebellion inside the Republican Party against Bush-era big government conservatism will end with a major combatant surrendering to the Trump-era version, slinking off to a small third party with no political power. Ron Paul got more like-minded people involved in politics and elected to office, in addition to a far wider airing of his ideas, twice losing the GOP nomination than he did winning the Libertarian Party nod once in 1988.

I personally would have preferred Amash either defend his House seat or run against Trump as a Republican. Conservatives who are rethinking their more libertarian assumptions in the Trump era also have much of value to say, though libertarians and populists need each other to change the GOP’s foreign policy. But I respect his decision to go it alone because it gives dissatisfied voters another choice, potentially forces Trump and Biden to compete for the support of those who might otherwise hold their noses, and maybe gives small-government activists in politics something to look forward to and work for in a difficult election cycle.

Amash is clearly fed up with these kinds of strategic considerations and partisan politics in general. If he continues his campaign past the exploratory phase and the famously fractious Libertarian Party actually nominates him, he will finally get his chance to run as a man without a tribe.