Why @kattimpf is Wrong about @justinamash

N.B. — Sometime between when I accessed Timpf’s referenced story, and after I posted mine, the story at NRO updated. The content didn’t shift much, but some of the stridency of tone amped down and the H2 subhead changed. There was no editor’s note indicating a change from the version as published the day before, however.

Edit — the paragraph after “two complexifying factors” was modified to change verb tense throughout, to better represent Amash’s stance as a now-former Republican.


 

In a January 17 piece published on NationalReview.com, NRO reporter Kat Timpf claims that major funders of U.S. Rep. Justin Amash (I, MI-3) have backed away from Amash, and that this behavior proves that “there is no place for an independent in politics” and that because “Amash makes his political decisions based only on his principles,” the fact that he’s being de-funded is proof that “the people in power over us are not interested in searching for the truth.”

I disagree.

Myriad substantive questions about politics, ideology and pragmatism weave through The Annals of Amash MMXIX—indeed, throughout the man’s entire Washington career. I suspect a book-length treatment might actually make for compelling reading, but even in the short-opinion-journalism realm of NR and NRO, readers deserve a more intellectually honest treatment of Amash’s complicated story than what Timpf’s piece provides.

I’m a fan of Timpf and, on the whole, I enjoy her work. It distresses me, though, that with this Amash story, she saw fit to focus on FreedomWorks, Club for Growth and the DeVos family without any recourse whatsoever to the people who actually cast ballots in the Third District. Did it not occur to her that other stakeholders matter and might therefore create a feedback loop to FreedomWorks, Club for Growth or the DeVos family? Did she not realize that the Chamber has long opposed Amash? Perhaps, despite her Detroit heritage, she didn’t enjoy access to boots-on-the-ground Republicans in West Michigan through whom she might have done some on-the-record reporting. Maybe Jay Nordlinger could have lent his Rolodex.

So contra the hints that Amash is some wise, noble leader “guided by something greater than the thoughtless partisan hackery” that suddenly infested FreedomWorks, Club for Growth and the DeVos family starting the day before yesterday, I’d like to lay out a series of reasons why Amash has never been an effective steward of the interests of the Third Congressional District.

My comments follow from the perspective of a lifelong resident of the Grand Rapids metro area and as a person who’s repeatedly won election as a precinct delegate, state convention delegate and even (two terms) a member of the Kent County Republican Executive Committee. In other words, as Amash’s constituent. These comments are my own and do not reflect the opinions of local Republican leaders or the county party as a whole.

Contra Amash

So, five specific arguments. Buckle up.

Background: Amash has never been especially popular with local Republicans.

In the 2010 race to succeed retiring Rep. Vern Ehlers, Amash earned 40.4 percent of the vote in a five-way primary. That result was good for first place, but the conventional wisdom at the time was that the next two figures (Bill Hardiman and Steve Heacock) were stronger candidates; they ended up splitting the “business establishment” vote roughly evenly.

One reason Amash succeeded in 2010 stems from a nexus between the Kent County Republicans and the College Republicans at Grand Valley State University, who’ve consistently taken a more libertarian worldview than rank-and-file precinct delegates across the district. Those CRs, in turn, tended to be the people door-to-door canvassing and even working as interns or paid employees of the county and state party. Amash didn’t enter 2010 with incumbency (although he was a state representative at the time), but he came from substantial family money, early DeVos support and the support of a swath of ideologically committed quasi-libertarian door-knockers full of youthful enthusiasm. And all this, at the dawn of the Tea Party era, which would have elected a ham sandwich if it promised to cut the deficit. What’s surprising isn’t that Amash won a five-way race in those circumstances; what’s surprising is that he only earned 40.4 percent despite these structural advantages. Had either Hardiman or Heacock withdrawn and all of his votes transferred to the other, Amash would have lost the primary in a landslide, because together, Hardiman and Heacock drew 51 percent of the vote. (Of course, elections don’t work that cleanly, but if there had been only one conventional-wisdom candidate, it’s easy to see pathways by which Amash never made it to Washington.)

The Gentleman from the Third District of Michigan didn’t face a primary opponent in the presidential election year of 2012. In 2014, he beat businessman Brian Ellis, 57-43. Ellis was backed by several national groups frustrated with Amash’s role in the Freedom Caucus and his public undermining of Speaker John Boehner. That primary was nasty enough that Amash famously refused to take Ellis’s concession call. In part because of the Amash-Ellis grudge match and the outside money that flooded it, no one wanted to primary him in 2016 or 2018 despite several people expressing lukewarm interest. Yet despite all of his structural advantages including incumbency and big outside money and a litany of puff pieces from libertarian journalists inflating his national stature, Amash only netted 57 percent of the Republican vote in the Ellis primary.

Other considerations matter, too. Local Republicans aren’t as sensitive about what the national groups are doing, but some local dignitaries exercise considerable sway. Not just the DeVos family, but also people like Peter Secchia—the U.S. Ambassador to Italy for Bush 41—and members of the Meijer family. And Ellis himself allegedly played a will-I-or-won’t-I game with an eye toward a rematch that foreclosed realistic alternatives over the next two cycles. (He never put his hat in again, though.)

Timpf: “[T]he people in power over us are not interested in searching for the truth.”

A clue about why Amash isn’t quite as loved relates to his imperfect ideological fit for the district. Amash doesn’t shy away from touting himself as a constitutional conservative who exercises fiscal restraint and believes in the separation of powers. Fine and well; on paper, I’m all in. But he also says and does other things that are inconsistent with the principles of the Republican base in his district.

For example, he voted present on bills defunding Planned Parenthood because he claimed that they were unconstitutional bills of attainder. Forget how obscure—and how subjective—his assertion landed. He told the displeased Michigan Right to Life that despite its revocation of his endorsement, he’s the most pro-life member of Congress and that his votes were policy whereas their preferences were merely politics. It’s like Sheldon Cooper Goes To Washington. Amash enjoys a rich history of well-actuallyism in lecturing the rubes on Facebook about hyper-technical aspects of the Constitution that justify him ignoring local priorities. If gaslighting RTL about being the most pro-life member of Congress represents searching for the truth, I dread to contemplate what a dishonest Amash might say or do.

(Relatedly, one is tempted to ask why, if he believed the defunding bills were unconstitutional, he voted present instead of nay as the Founders intended. Surely it wasn’t political cowardice thwarting him searching for the truth?)

West Michigan is a deeply pragmatic place. Observers including Timothy P. Carney in his Alienated America: Why Some Places Thrive While Others Collapse and Salena Zito and Brian Todd in their The Great Revolt: Inside the Populist Coalition Reshaping American Politics have visited, inter alia, various West Michigan communities. They attest, as do others, that the region embodies a salt-of-the-earth Protestant Principle valuing hard work and straight talk. We’re the home of Gerald R. Ford, for cryin’ out loud. Our conservatism has always bent an ear toward justice, and our love of the Constitution is second to none.

We also expect that stuff gets done without needless drama, and we understand that the Constitution is a governing framework and not a part of the Dungeon Master’s Guide. On one hand, most of us nod and smile when we’re lectured about bills of attainder, as long as things get done. On the other hand, we don’t welcome virtue-signaling over Constitutional arcana when the alternative is more dead babies (had his protest vote not been, as usual, utterly irrelevant, he’d have incurred a lot more back-home wrath over that situation). Amash’s balancing act is more tolerated than loved.

Combine this incongruence with two complexifying factors.

First, he wasn’t often present among the rank-and-file Republicans. As in, you never saw the guy. He rarely attended county executive-committee meetings. At state conventions, he mostly hid in the corner. When I was a College Republican at Western Michigan University, I saw Fred Upton all the time. When I volunteered on the youth committee in Ottawa County, I saw Pete Hoekstra all the time. As a member of the Kent County executive committee, I almost never saw Justin Amash—in fact, I see Bill Huizinga, whose district includes a nibble out of the side of Kent County, an order of magnitude more often than I saw Justin Amash. Maybe I’m not important enough to warrant the Congressman’s attention. And that’s fine and probably true. But when a broad swathe of precinct delegates thinks that your congressman thinks that you’re not important enough—well. It’s not clear why groups like FreedomWorks and Club for Growth should fund a candidate whose support among the rank-and-file local activists has always been softer than it looks. Especially now that Amash’s reputation among stalwarts has been deeply poisoned by his blithely leaving the party that sacrificed so much for its long-absentee landlord.

Second, the considerable and uncritical fluffing he gets from libertarian-leaning journalists distorts a reasonable assessment of Amash’s legacy. The running joke among some conservatives in Kent County is that we don’t have a member of Congress, but rather we host the member representing the editorial board of Reason magazine. Timpf is on the record that she’s a libertarian. She’s also a journalist, with the NRO byline of reporter instead of columnist. Her suggesting that the libertarian-leaning Amash is “searching for the truth” comes off, tonally, like Sean Hannity “reporting” that Rudy Giuliani is “searching for the truth” in Ukraine.

Timpf: “Although Amash remains the most fiscally conservative member of Congress, his departure from the Republican party and support of impeachment have apparently made him a leper in the eyes of the exact same groups who claim to want to fight for fiscal responsibility.”

Like it or not—and I very strongly don’t like it—today’s GOP structurally aligns with Trump-style populism that treats deficits with as much seriousness as Elizabeth Warren’s Medicare For All plan does. Relatively few people care about the deficit and budgetary restraint in the current economic environment. It’s surely to Amash’s credit that he does, but it’s not obvious why fiscal conservatism is the only lens that matters. Timpf surely understands that complex situations arise from, and result in, complex causal relationships. Distilling Amash’s fall from grace as a sign that Club for Growth and FreedomWorks don’t care about fiscal restraint is Vox-level concern trolling.

One thing that bugs people at home: Amash is perfectly willing to forego nine-tenths of a loaf if he can’t have the whole thing. For example, he voted against Paul Ryan’s budget program because he didn’t think it went far enough. Regardless of one’s sympathy for Amash’s instinct on the matter, he was quite willing to be part of a cadre of House Republicans whose resistance to John Boehner and Paul Ryan forced the House to incorporate more Democratic demands to pass the House. In other words, active opposition led to a more strongly adverse outcome than merely accepting a partial victory would have. It’s not clear why ideological inflexibility leading to worse fiscal outcomes is truly the mark of a fiscal conservative.

Timpf: “Like him or not, you really should respect the fact that Justin Amash makes his political decisions based only on his principles — which is truly refreshing in our hyper-partisan era.”

If Justin Amash were truly the One Honest Man In Washington™, as he’s so often deified by libertarian-leaning journalists, he wouldn’t have voted present on the Planned Parenthood bills. Period. If he were a man of deep political integrity, he would have resigned his office before he resigned the party that sent him into office, freelancing against our will. I totally understand that he’s come to an anti-Trump space. I don’t own a #MAGA hat, so I get it. But surely Amash understands that for all practical purposes, he’s deprived the people of the district with effective representation. It’s not obvious which principles support a member of Congress undermining the voice of his district because he lacks the grace to resign when his own beliefs meaningfully evolve to contradict the beliefs of the people who elected you.

A principles-based approach to leadership aims to get the best possible result in light of your ideological lens. Amash has proven, time and again, that he’d rather be pure than effective. I understand why, tempermentally, some members of the libertarian-leaning commentariat would rather rhetorically liquidate the kulaks than nibble on half a loaf of bread. Ultimately—as Amash’s own implosion has shown—inflexible ideology inevitably leads to the loss of even that half a loaf. If given the choice, I think most people in the district would rather eat something than gloat about nothing.

Timpf calls this rigidity principle. I think she and I entertain very different understandings of what that word entails.

Timpf: “[t]here is no place for an independent in politics.”

Surely a political reporter has heard of a dude from the People’s Republic of Vermont named Bernie Sanders. (She may have heard of Joe Lieberman, too. Or Ross Perot. Or Ralph Nader. Or Teddy Roosevelt’s second go-around. Or even that one guy with the wooden dentures named George Washington.) I know what she meant, but what she meant, she didn’t write.

Rhetorical precision matters.

Amash, In Perspective

The foregoing suggests, correctly, that I won’t be at the head of the parade celebrating the legislative career of Justin Amash. Yet I’m not anti-Amash. I think he’s done a better-than-average job and really does take his role seriously. I don’t think he habitually lies about his beliefs, and he has the courage to stand up for his perspectives. These are all admirable yet rare traits for a congresscritter.

However, he’s never been well-aligned to the zeitgeist of the district. Some of us back home have grown weary of the self-important thorn-in-the-side shtick so loudly trumpeted by Reason editors and their fellow travelers. Some of us back home have eaten our fill of arcane lectures about constitutional provisions that long since crumbled under the moss of desuetude. Some of us back home would rather see our political beliefs supported by our representative than to be told that our politics is subordinate to his policy.

Justin Amash left the Republican party and he abandoned the president that his district did—and still does—support. If he were truly the man of virtue that he and his disciples position him to be, he’d have resigned his office and simply stood again this November on the Libertarian ballot. 

But power corrupts, and it corrupts most viciously those most convinced of their own far-seeing rectitude.

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