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Thoughts from the Sick-ish Bed
On Mike Johnson and the next couple of months
Hello, lovely readers. It’s been a couple of weeks (well, almost) without any content, which is not what I had planned. To simplify the many small reasons that led to this, let me say that I have been the most annoying kind of indisposed—not so little I could shrug it off, not so much I could ever say “I’m sick”. Even the brain fog has been more of a mist! (And, no, it’s not Covid-THX1139 or whatever the variant is, which is also annoying; there’s a plague on and I just have … cold? RSV? Flu? Leaf allergies???)
But you all expect and deserve content. So let me offer a couple of thunks for you.
On Mike Johnson
You may have heard that the Republican conference in the House has united behind the dynamic, inspiring figure of … Mike Johnson, a backbencher possessed of a name so generic that one Bluesky political scientist claims to have used it for a literal generic Republican name several years ago.
Partisan reactions have been swift and clear. Republicans are pleased that they are no longer shooting themselves in the foot; Democrats are pleased that Republicans have apparently chosen to elect a real-world Ned Flanders (that is, a mild-mannered guy with extraordinarily conservative views and a record of saying things on his podcast that are ripe for talking points distribution).
Brookings expert Molly Reynolds offers a pretty sober take on what’s going on. I recommend the transcript. The conventional wisdom is that Johnson is weak on skills that are core to the modern Speakership, like fundraising and managing the agenda to avoid tough votes. Coupled with his views (somewhat to the right of the conference median), this has led many Democrats to assume that he’ll be a disaster.
As always, as a political scientist, my analysis begins with asking “Compared to what?” McCarthy was already a disaster for the House GOP, especially for members in tough (Biden-leaning) districts, because he kept forcing members to take tough votes and because he himself was not particularly adept at leveraging the weak card of control of the House into policy or electoral outcomes. (The House’s chief card to play is arguably in appropriations, and yet it’s appropriations that proved his downfall.) By the end of his brief reign, McCarthy was distrusted by his interlocutors and even further on the outs with rebels who had earlier made his advent into office as embarrassing as his exit. Despite having a large number of chits to call in for helping fundraise for other members, then, McCarthy was a weak Speaker who probably wasn’t helping the party’s collective electoral fortunes.
All Johnson has to do is be better than this. With the conference plainly unwilling to go through another set of leadership elections, and with Johnson being in the position to bargain from a clean balance sheet, it’s possible that he will be able to lead the conference more stably—that he’ll be better at the inside game than McCarthy was. He will still probably bungle the floor management, because he is a backbencher from Louisiana with little staff and experience in running a chamber in the face of relatively adversarial conditions, and it’s also clear that there’s factions in the House that will be out for their own interests—but again, for the next several weeks to a few months, he’ll likely be better than McCarthy.
When it comes to the outside game of messaging and fundraising, it’s doubtful that Johnson will be particularly good. On fundraising, of course, it’s not clear how good he has to be; we’re about to learn whether experience matters in fundraising or whether it’s just a question of having a sentient being dialing for dollars. (And McCarthy and others will probably want to help fundraise, since Johnson may be unlikely to be speaker very long if the Republicans return with a stronger majority any time soon.) On messaging, he’ll probably be lowkey and inoffensive—but that’s likely good enough, certainly compared to what Jordan or Scalise would have brought to the table. And any messaging failures by a House Speaker will likely be washed away by the holidays and then the return of the primary, that is the Trump Show, in 2024. (Plus the bonus webisodes of Dean Phillips Tries to Embarrass Joe Biden For Some Reason.) (Fun fact: before this week, Dean Phillips was probably better known than Mike Johnson!)
The real importance here is on policy. Johnson will be under pressure to stop more funding for Ukraine and to offer more funding for Israel—this is a House party in which at least one member cosplays as an IDF officer, after all. In many ways, we will soon be back in the standoff showdown we saw before McCarthy’s fall, with the Senate and White House seeking to provide more aid for Ukraine (and other priorities) and the House trying to jam Democrats with spending bills that exclude those priorities and include conservative sweeteners (or bitter-ers, depending on your persuasion).
Will Johnson ultimately fold? This will come down to a balance of wills: will Biden want to accept a shutdown, gambling that he can blame it on dysfunctional Republicans, or will Johnson credibly say he’s willing to accept one, gambling that Biden won’t want to inflict that harm? My intuition here is that Republicans’ smartest play will be to fully polarize the Ukraine intervention, making this Biden’s war, and extract some base-sweeteners (border security and so on) as the price for Ukraine support. And if they’re really clever about this, they could even jam some things (like cutting funding for asylum seekers and other migrants) that will make Biden’s activist base unhappy and blue-state governors and mayors very unhappy.
Short-term partisan objectives, in other words, will likely be Johnson’s goal for his conference. As, you know, they usually are for House leadership. That will continue to undermine the ability of the White House to act abroad, even down to requiring significant staff time to coordinate these talks and cutting into the president’s ability to do personal diplomacy. The tail risk here is that House rebels do it all again and wreck the Johnson speakership or its ability to deliver. In that case, we may well be back in the conditions of weak government coordination that could lead some to label the U.S. as “the sick man of North America”.
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