Members Only | May 20, 2019 | Reading Time: 3 minutes

Justin Amash Is Not ‘a Watershed’

He's not doomed either.

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Justin Amash is now the first sitting Republican member of the United States Congress to say it’s obvious the president has done things that are impeachable.

In a series of tweets* over the weekend, the Michigan representative said that Donald Trump “engaged in impeachable conduct,” that partisanship has eroded federal checks and balances, and that most of his conference has not read the Robert Mueller report.

No, it’s not a watershed moment.

No, his career isn’t doomed.

Let’s talk about what this really means.

First, remember that Justin Amash is a conservative’s conservative. He’s someone who really means it when he says the United States Constitution has the first and last word in American politics. That means, as he did, voting against something popular like a bipartisan bill to fund a suicide prevention hotline. He was the only House member to vote it down last summer. The bill, he said, did not have a “constitutional basis.”

But the appearance of a bipartisan consensus, if not the fact of it, gives impeachment greater legitimacy.

If the Constitution doesn’t call for it, don’t do it. That’s his modus operandi, which puts Amash squarely among libertarian types. It’s no surprise, or shouldn’t be, that he opposes pot laws, supported gay marriage, voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act, approves of curtailing Pentagon spending, and thinks gerrymandering is un-American. His one steady party-line position appears to be on abortion. Otherwise, Amash is one of those libertarian figures who gladdens and annoys in equal and bipartisan fashion.  

Amash has also been consistent with respect to Trump. He endorsed Rand Paul in 2016, then Ted Cruz. He never reversed himself after Trump secured the nomination. (He was reportedly the first Republican to say he’d vote for impeachment if the president pardoned himself.) Unless the Trump’s positions align with Amash’s principles, which is rare, Amash opposes him. That puts him at odds with his conference and much of his party. Yet Amash won reelection last year by 10 points.  

So I’m skeptical of critics who say he doomed himself. His thinking isn’t new. This is who he is. His constituents know it. Yes, he irritated the House Republican leadership. (Kevin McCarthy belittled him.) Yes, he inspired a primary challenger within a day of tweeting his remarks. Will that doom him? Maybe. As likely, Amash will be fine. Sure, he’s a man of principle but he’s not an idiot. I’m sure his Twitter thread was the result of ideals as well as prudence. If he can survive a wave election, he can survive 2020.

Were Amash’s remarks “a watershed”? That’s what Democratic Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal said. (She sits on the House Judiciary Committee, which is charged with conducting any future impeachment inquiry.) That’s possible but I don’t see it yet. One Republican does not make a bipartisan consensus. This is not to say that the Democrats shouldn’t exploit the appearance of a bipartisan consensus. Any excuse to claim legitimacy should be taken. I’m saying the Democrats should not believe wholly their own rhetoric. Amash is one man. His remarks may launch a tipping point but I don’t think they are one on their own. His remarks are meaningful, though.

For one thing, they signal to Republican voters that the party is divided on the question of impeachment. (Yes, he’s just one guy, but the press corps will play the story as one of division; so Republican voters will see it that way if they are not in the Fox News bubble.) Amash will have a similar effect on public opinion that former US Senators Bob Corker and Jeff Flake had, which is partly why the president has never been popular. (Remember that the lower Trump’s approval ratings are, the more likely he will be impeached.) Division, or the appearance of division, suggests that the party line is not built on stuff sterner than GOP loyalty. A sitting Republican needs a good reason to break from the pack. To idle observers, it appears Amash has found one.

The appearance of a bipartisan consensus, if not the fact of it, gives impeachment greater legitimacy. That may fuel greater unity among Democrats who’d rather not talk about impeachment. If you are a Democrat who won last year in Trumpland, Amash is your new best friend. Critics will demand to know why you oppose Trump, but now you’re not opposed to anything except a growing (yet fictional) bipartisan consensus. The Democrats should exploit the appearance of bipartisanship, but they shouldn’t delude themselves into thinking it’s real. It’s not. Not yet. But it could be.

—John Stoehr

*Justin Amash’s thread on Twitter

John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.

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