Justin Amash

Justin Amash: Meet the New Ron Paul, Same as the Old Ron Paul?

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Politico profiled Michigan Rep. Justin Amash last night as the "new Ron Paul," and focusing on his forthcoming decision to seek–or not seek–a Senate seat in 2014. (I am quoted in the story.)

Amash understands he could cut a more impressive national figure in the Senate; but that counting on a statewide win in a state that went for Obama by 9 percentage points is a bit of a risk.

Amash likes to rhetorically call himself a "moderate" compared to what he paints as the country-destroying madness of endless debt and civil liberties violations, but surely deep down he understands that his libertarian leanings scare lots of voters. He'd certainly be painted by the Democrats as the candidate out to destroy Medicare, Social Security, the safety net, clean food and air, and our national security if the Democratic Party had to fight him for a precious Senate seat.

Some excerpts from the profile:

Amash is chairman of the House Liberty Caucus. There's no formal membership list, and Amash said about a dozen regular meetings are held in his office. He hopes the group gets big enough someday that they need to move to a bigger space.

"Ron Paul was an educational figure. He was out there really presenting things that others had not been talking about," he said. "This next generation of liberty Republicans, like Rand Paul and Mike Lee and Thomas Massie and Raul Labrador, we're interested in making sure that … we re-brand the Republican Party as a place that is welcoming to people from across the political spectrum and follows the founding principles of our country: limited government, economic freedom, individual liberty."

Ron Paul still digs the congressman he endorsed, with his customary modesty:

Ron Paul praises Amash for being "very, very principled." He doesn't believe they've spoken directly since he left Congress, but he continues to monitor what's going on in the Capitol.

"I'm sort of pleased with what's happening in the sense that it's not just one person," Paul said in a phone interview. "There's a group. I think they will have more influence than I ever had."……

"Some will deal mainly legislatively. Some will deal in a sense of trying to educate and change people's minds," Paul said. "I tried to do both, but I put more emphasis on trying to change people's opinions. … The group that's in Washington now is going to have tremendous opportunities because there's a lot more disenchantment."

Amash is cautiously optimistic about his Party's future:

"When I say things are moving in the right direction, I wouldn't say that it's legislatively moving in the right direction necessarily," he said. "But the makeup of the Republican conference is changing in such a way that in five or 10 years, I think you'll see a very different emphasis from Republicans when it comes to the legislation they present and very different for the party. And I can see that starting. It's very clear with the people who are getting elected."

Amash said he thinks about pursuing a spot in House leadership if he stays.

"I often take sort of a mini-leadership role on the House floor," he said. "I represent an important Republican perspective, and there are a lot of members who come to me on the House floor and maybe even rely on me to provide an alternative perspective to what they're hearing from leadership. And 10 years from now, you never know what that translates into."

Reporter James Hohmann quotes me–accurately–supporting the notion that Amash is the closest thing to a next Ron Paul in Congress:

"He has a super stellar record of not pissing off the purists," said Doherty. "He really does seem to have that possibility of really being a genuine next Ron Paul. … From a libertarian perspective, he feels like the real deal in a way that almost no one else does."

Is Amash really the next Ron Paul? I think he's come closest to toeing the full Ron Paul line in Congress. Amash likes to emphasize civil liberties as well as more general "limited government" talk, which is great, and his away-from-the-pack votes on many budget and leadership issues show he's marking himself as more serious on debt and spending than most of his Party.

There is a key issue I neglected to parse out with Politico, and which the story doesn't emphasize: foreign policy. It is certainly true Amash has a less expansive set of beliefs about where and how to use U.S. power abroad, and is also quick to say that a more limited foreign policy is an important issue for his Party.

But his rhetoric about sanctions and the threat of Iran (as expressed in the video interview with Nick Gillespie below) leave more room for the possibility of U.S. belligerence in Iran than most Ron Paul fans are comfortable with. That is, he's for certain sanctions, though he thinks they should be crafted as best as possible merely to keep dangerous things out of the regime's hands, not the stuff of life from Iranian citizens hands. And he does seem to think Iran is seeking a nuclear bomb, something many non-interventionists of a Paulian bent think is likely not true, and to boot believe that saying it is plays into the hands of those spoiling for a war with Iran.

I don't think either statement proves he'll be unreliable on making sensible decisions about when and where to wage war. But as one vote out of 435 in a world where the President isn't even likely to seek Congressional approval for any war that might begin, lots of the Paul faithful find voting right on these things less important than being a firm, loud, and consistent voice that questions and tries to obstruct the presumptions and behavior of the expansive American "national security" state anywhere and everywhere.

But certainly in overarching vision of government and a seeming absence of any desire to go along to get along with his Party to seem a team player, Amash is building a good record, and the more reputational juice like this story he gets, the more he will be influential with colleagues who might be inclined to lean where the wind blows. As I discussed with Hohmann, a point that didn't make it into the finished story, true libertarian victories in Washington can't just come from having more Murray Rothbard fans in Congress: it has to come from having people who never heard of Rothbard and would run from him if they had deciding that their political future would be well served by voting along with people like Amash, because that's where the Party's energy and enthusiasm seems to be coming from.

I wrote a book about Ron Paul and the movement he inspired, Ron Paul's Revolution: The Man and the Movement He Inspired.

I interviewed Amash for Reason's March package on liberty-leaning congressmen post-Ron Paul. I also interviewed Amash for my February Sunday New York Times essay on libertarian trends in the Republican Party.

Nick Gillespie did a video interview for him for Reason.TV, excerpts of which will appear in our June print issue. Here's the video: