"Goodness," said Kim Ruff, one of the leading declared contenders for the Libertarian Party presidential nomination. "I feel like I talk about Justin Amash more than I do about myself."
It was Saturday night just outside of Boston, at one of the first L.P. presidential debates this cycle, hosted by the Massachusetts chapter of the country's third-place political party. I was moderating, and had just asked the assembled candidates—Ruff, Arvin Vohra, Adam Kokesh, New Hampshire State Rep. Max Abramson, and Dan "Taxation Is Theft" Behrman—whether they would support Amash over their assembled fellow opponents.
To my surprise, Vohra, then Kokesh, then Behrman, each said that they would support everyone on stage before the newly independent libertarian congressman. And even the two other comparative moderates were critical of his potential candidacy.
"We aren't Republican light; we're not Democrat light," said Ruff, an Arizona-based manufacturer who would go on to win that evening's informal post-debate straw poll, eight to five (Vohra) to four (Kokesh) to one apiece for Abramson and Behrman. "We're advocates of full, unencumbered liberty. And that means taking positions that make the public squeamish. I would never do black tar heroin, but I'm not going to stop you from doing it, because what you do with your life is your business."
Ruff continued: "I don't see somebody who is personally conservative being comfortable saying, 'Yeah, I think we should legalize all narcotics. I think sex work is work. I think that you should have body autonomy. And if that means you want to end your life or ask a friend to do it for you, you should have that right.' So no, I don't think he would be a great candidate for us. He's got a lot to learn."
Vohra, who is campaigning on abolishing the welfare state, and for whom stridency is a conscious (and consciously off-putting) tactic, dismissed the idea that Amash's defection from the GOP represents any kind of bravery.
"It does not take courage to speak out against a president that is unpopular with more than half the population," said Vohra, a two-term Libertarian National Committee (LNC) vice-chairman who was nearly booted off the LNC twice over controversial statements before decisively losing re-election one year ago. "We don't need somebody who's really good at playing political charades and pretending to be bold when he's just pandering to a large group of people who believe that the orange man is bad. That is not political boldness….I would support any of the people sitting here in a second—in a second—over Justin Amash, because they have shown real boldness, not just pandering. They have been willing to say things that are true, honest, and unpopular, and that to me is the true measure of leadership."
Kokesh, who is running on a platform to dissolve the federal government, and who initially characterized the prospect of an Amash run as "amazing," portrayed it as a referendum on institutional self-confidence.
"We cannot elect or nominate a former Republican…for the fourth cycle in a row. I just think that would set the party back so far," Kokesh said. "And it's hard….Gary Johnson was better than [2008 nominee] Bob Barr, and Justin Amash might be that much better than Gary Johnson even. It's the worst temptation we've ever seen from this vector. But it's the most important time to resist it. I would really, enthusiastically, welcome Amash to the race, but I would be more thrilled to support and see anybody on this stage beating him."
Even Abramson, the only elected official of the bunch (and he was elected as a Republican, to boot, before, he says*, only recently switching back to the party he ran for governor in 2016 with), lamented the "Republican savior" complex.
"I love Gary Johnson; he's a soft Libertarian," Abramson said. "I like Bill Weld, he's very affable. But when they said 'fiscally conservative, socially liberal,' it was just clear that they just didn't understand it. So far off from what we are. It's not anywhere near correct. We're fiscally libertarian, we're socially libertarian. We're Libertarian!…We have our own message. We're a different party. We're not Republican light, we're not cheap Democrats, we're something completely different. We want a free society."
Lurking not far underneath the candidates' Amash reticence was frustration that his name recognition absolutely dwarfs theirs, that the LNC would clearly be delighted if he ran, and that—due to the party's idiosyncratic nominating process—the congressman could conceivably announce his presidential candidacy on May 20, 2020, and still win.
"We need to be doing this now," said Behrman, who wears a big, floppy yellow hat, and has sited his campaign headquarters in Cancun, Mexico. "And if Justin Amash is busy doing something else that he can't commit to this—hey, I've got a full-time job, I work 40 hours a week not related to politics. I still have time to put into this. If he can't make up his mind and make that decision now, what's he waiting for? Let him stay where he is, do what he's doing; let him choose his own path. But we need to put our support behind myself and these other great candidates so we can start getting this message out and start getting people to see our faces."
Several candidates, during and after the debate, expressed concern that the nomination is ripe for outsider shenanigans abetted by insider dealing.
"The reason that I encourage these debates to start early is that I know—just as, if Justin Amash decides to run, just as I know he's going to wait until the last minute—[that] the LNC is going to try to make sure that this debate and other debates like it are not broadcast until the very last minute," Vohra asserted. "So that it's easy for an outsider, whether it's Justin or somebody else, so it's easy for an outsider to take over."
In fact, newly hired LNC Executive Director Dan Fishman was in attendance Saturday, and attempted to capture shareable video of the debate, but the results were pockmarked by technical glitches. The next debate event that candidates are trying to put together is slated for November 2 in South Carolina.
The decision by potential contenders to go negative on Amash, just like the undisguised enthusiasm some LNC types have for media chatter about his potential candidacy, makes all the sense in the world from an incentives point of view. They're running to win, and there is pent-up grassroots Libertarian frustration at the tendency for their presidential nominations to be handed to temporary Libertarians like Bob Barr rather than longtime activists such as Mary Ruwart. (Indeed, Ruwart was singled out for praise by three of the five candidates on stage.)
As for Amash, he has little incentive to make any premature declaration about running for president. The first major-party primaries are seven months away, and God only knows what American politics will look like then.
(* There is a dispute over whether Abramson has in fact changed parties, and so I edited the above sentence to include "he says.")