The limits of Justin Amash's independent streak
Be careful what you wish for. At a moment when Republicans are accusing House Democrats of acting in partisan lockstep for political gain against Donald Trump, they find themselves facing an independent voice on the same topic from within their own ranks. Rep. Justin Amash, the five-term Republican congressman from Michigan, argued in a series of tweets this past weekend that the president had committed several instances of obstruction of justice that "meet the threshold for impeachment."
On Saturday, Amash launched his tweetstorm with four "principal conclusions," followed by supporting arguments. The second, that "President Trump has engaged in impeachable conduct," was the biggest of the four arguments for obvious reasons. Amash also accused Attorney General William Barr of having "deliberately misrepresented [special counsel Robert] Mueller's report," and alleged that "few members of Congress have read the report."
But perhaps most significantly, Amash offered a prediction of how his conclusions would be received. His third conclusion was that "partisanship has eroded our system of checks and balances." Amash noted that legislators have flipped their views on the "importance of character" and the "principles of obstruction of justice" dependent on whether the president was a member of their own party, using Trump and Bill Clinton as the obvious examples.
It didn't take long for Republicans to provide Amash more fodder for that conclusion in particular. Does that make Amash correct, however? Or his critics wrong?
Within hours, Amash was inundated with GOP reactions to his assertions. A state representative in Michigan, Jim Lower, announced the launch of a primary challenge in Amash's reliably Republican district. Lower had planned to challenge Amash anyway, over frustrations about his independent libertarian bent, but Amash's remarks gave him a perfect opportunity to position himself as the MAGA candidate.
"I am a Pro-Trump, Pro-Life, Pro-Jobs, Pro-2nd Amendment, Pro-Family Values Republican," Lower wrote in his launch statement. Lower accused Amash of being "out of touch with the truth ... and the people he represents." Trump won Amash's district by ten points in 2016, so Lower could be correct about the latter.
Amash's colleagues on Capitol Hill also reacted with anger. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy ripped Amash repeatedly, telling Fox's Maria Bartiromo that Amash was "just looking for attention."
"He votes more with Nancy Pelosi than he ever votes with me," McCarthy lamented. "It's a question of whether he's even in our Republican Conference as a whole." By Tuesday, McCarthy had dialed down his furor to simply note that "Justin is one person with one opinion," which was "out of step with America."
The House Freedom Caucus, which had formed out of the Tea Party to challenge GOP leadership in Washington, D.C., and counts Amash as a member, also reacted with anger and frustration. The group closed ranks around Trump at a meeting Monday night, unanimously voting to condemn Amash. "It was every single person," fellow HFC member Jim Jordan said afterward, "who totally disagrees with what he said." Amash skipped the meeting but remains a member of the caucus after the group declined to hold a vote on continuing his membership.
The isolation is not an entirely unusual position for Amash, who doesn't vote with Pelosi as often as McCarthy suggested, but crosses up his conference enough for it to be an issue. NBC reports that Amash votes with the Trump administration only a little over half the time, and has voted against Trump's border wall funding and emergency declaration over the past six months alone.
That, however, is what makes Amash's partisan heresy much less consequential, too. CNN breathlessly suggested over the weekend that Amash's declarations could be the start of a Watergate-style flipping of the party against Trump. "After all," they wrote, "it was a rising tide of Republican disgust that eventually became the unstoppable force that led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon in 1974." In that scenario, though, it wasn't backbenchers and independents who drove the "unstoppable force"; it was GOP leadership in both the Senate and the House, and it only developed after the discovery of the infamous "smoking gun" tape in which Nixon approved using the CIA to obstruct the FBI.
Nor does Amash's easy call on partisanship make him correct overall. One can just as easily apply the same argument about poisonous partisanship to the Democrats' massive efforts to investigate the Trump administration into paralysis, even after Mueller's investigation provided no evidence of collusion with Russia. The launching of over 20 congressional probes — by Jerrold Nadler's own count — poses its own threat to the constitutional order and its checks and balances. If all sides acted with more independence and with institutional concerns prioritized over partisan advantage, much of what Democrats desire in subpoenas would likely be negotiated successfully — and the rest left to electoral opposition research where it belongs.
In the end, though, we get the elected officials we deserve. If Washington has become poisoned with partisanship and gridlocked over maximalist politics, it's because voters have rewarded partisanship over governance and triumphalism over reasonable compromise. Neither party has the angels on its side for that legitimate complaint from Amash.
Amash might end up proving his point by getting the boot from voters simply for being arguably wrong about the wrong person at the wrong time, a victim of party tribalism over governance. That would be a shame, because apart from the acute issue of Trump and impeachment, Congress could use more members from both parties willing to think for themselves — even if voters don't appreciate it.