Republican bigwigs hope the 2014 elections will be just like the 2010 midterms, except without the great unwashed masses of the Tea Party mucking things up. This time, the Republican establishment is launching a few primary challenges of its own.
Sitting atop the target list is Justin Amash, the second-term congressman from Michigan. Dubbed the “most liberal Republican” by Karl Rove, Amash is a favorite of the Club for Growth, Heritage Action, FreedomWorks, and other Tea Party groups. But GOP moderates hope Gerald Ford’s former district isn’t an ideal base for the most influential Ron Paul Republican outside of libertarianism’s first family.
Brian Ellis is Amash’s business-backed challenger and he is opting for a horseshoes strategy against the incumbent; he wants to hit Amash from both the left and the right. When it comes to defunding Obamacare and shutting down the government, Ellis will portray Amash as an uncompromising ideologue. On foreign policy and other issues, Ellis will say Amash isn’t enough of a Republican team player.
For example, Amash has emerged as a leader in the bipartisan coalition to rein in the federal government’s data-gathering and surveillance practices. Ellis emphasizes that he thinks Edward Snowden is a “flat-out traitor.”
So according to Ellis, Amash is too much like Ted Cruz and Ted Kennedy. But he’s careful not to take the critique too far. He says he is just as gung ho against Obamacare. And he is also willing to rein in the National Security Agency.
Ellis dislikes it when Amash votes against seemingly conservative bills based on constitutional technicalities. But some of his complaints against Amash sound awfully technical themselves.
In an interview with the Weekly Standard, Ellis attacked his opponent’s constitutional scruples in terms that belong in every Amash ad from here until the primary. Amash should stop voting against bills because he thinks they violate the Constitution, he suggested. “If something is unconstitutional, we have a court system that looks at that,” Ellis said.
As the television pop psychologist Dr. Phil might ask, “How’s that workin’ for ya?” A Supreme Court dominated by Republican appointees upheld Obamacare, with Chief Justice John Roberts joining the majority that pretended the individual mandate was constitutional.
Ellis, who promises to “protect the rights of the unborn” and “vote 100% pro-life,” might recall that a Supreme Court with a Republican majority also reaffirmed Roe v. Wade. That would be the same Roe decision pro-choice Yale legal scholar John Hart Ely memorably argued is “not constitutional law and gives almost no sense of an obligation to try to be.” Edward Lazarus, a former clerk to Roe author Justice Harry Blackmun, wrote the decision “borders on the indefensible.”
Congress (thanks in large part to Amash) may end up doing more to rein in the NSA, as Ellis says needs to be done, than the courts. Federal judges have so far issued contradictory decisions on the program. If you believe, as most conservatives claim to, that the federal government is limited to its constitutionally enumerated powers, the courts have given precious little relief in the last eighty years.
Instead of punting constitutional judgments to the courts, the congressional oath of office has members swear to uphold and defend the Constitution. Ellis himself has a section of his campaign website with the heading “Defend our Constitution,” in which he proclaims, “The Constitution and Declaration of Independence are the frameworks that secure life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for each of us blessed to be Americans.”
How do they secure these rights if these frameworks mean whatever five Supreme Court justices say they mean?
The Tea Party, for all its faults, came into existence because many Republicans ceased to govern according to the conservative principles on which they campaigned. George W. Bush and a Republican-controlled Congress outspent Bill Clinton. Even conservatives succumbed to situational constitutionalism at best -- or crony capitalism at worst.
Enter lawmakers like Amash, who are sticklers for constitutional detail and who use social media to explain their votes to the public. However uncomfortable some Republicans might be with this new way of doing business, there doesn’t seem to be a very good argument for returning to the bad old days.
“I don’t think Justin Amash cares if Bank of America gives to him or not,” a bewildered lobbyist was quoted as saying in article about Wall Street’s distaste for the Tea Party. What would you rather your congressman care about: Bank of America or the Constitution?
Image: Flickr/Gage Skidmore.