Politics

Welcome, Speaker Johnson, to the Worst Job in Politics

Congratulations are due to Representative Mike Johnson of Louisiana, who as the new speaker of the House has inherited the worst job in politics.

Mr. Johnson was a decidedly unlikely choice at the beginning of this process. For many in Washington, he is a cipher. Unlike well-known leaders like his fellow Louisianian Steve Scalise, the majority leader; Tom Emmer of Minnesota, the House G.O.P.’s No. 3 leader; or Jim Jordan of Ohio, the Judiciary chairman; Mr. Johnson’s reputation is less marked by ambition than by a deep personal faith.

This makes him less controversial inside the Republican conference, but it may render him more controversial outside the halls of Congress. As speaker, he now inherits a dramatic, not to mention unwieldy, series of political challenges for the House itself, as well as for the fortunes of his Republican caucus.

Before his work in Congress, Mr. Johnson was known as a litigator for the conservative free speech group Alliance Defending Freedom (previously known as the Alliance Defense Fund). Conservative lawyers in Congress are a dime a dozen, but not all of them come from the typically teetotaling branch of fellowship-hall Christianity familiar to many Republican voters but sometimes absent from Washington’s top ranks.

In his announcement celebrating Mr. Johnson’s ascendance, Mr. Scalise noted he holds to a “faith that drives him so deeply, that some actually mock him.” No G.O.P. leader since George W. Bush has been so closely associated with the religious wing of the Republican Party, and Mr. Bush himself was an adult convert, not a lifelong believer.

Mr. Johnson’s speakership breaks with recent conventions of G.O.P. leadership. He is not a member of the House Freedom Caucus, nor is he known as a glad-handing pro-business representative. Lobbyists were scrambling in the past week to find the best avenue to connect with his small staff. Instead of the knee-jerk fiscal conservatism that has been the north star for House Republicans for more than a decade, some members privately compare Mr. Johnson to the former senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania — marked more by pro-family priorities than by histograms about federal spending and deficits.

The House Republican agenda has been set back by a month or more. Their oversight work attacking President Biden’s administration has to be reset, and they have a daunting undertaking to move legislation that will avoid just ceding all the power to the Senate.

Politically, they have taken a severe blow when it comes to their ability to raise money for the critical 2024 elections. Throughout his career, Mr. McCarthy always had the air of the fraternity social chair — not the life of the party, but the guy who raises the money to make sure the party happens, and who makes sure everyone’s red Solo cup stays filled. He and his affiliated groups raised and spent nearly half a billion dollars on the 2022 elections, including electing several of the members who shivved him in the chest.

Mr. Johnson is likely to struggle to reproduce this Scrooge McDuck-size pile of gold — which presents a real problem for Republicans, especially when their likeliest presidential nominee is spending a staggering amount of his fund-raising dollars on lawyers.

In Congress, Mr. McCarthy’s leadership was marked by the same chipper team-building personality that led him to give iPods to colleagues in the California Legislature, keep track of anniversaries and birthdays, and generally bring a nice-guy attitude to a House used to more domineering speakers. It was no surprise to see headlines like “All Carrots and No Sticks” when he won the gavel after 15 rounds of votes, finding ways to keep both moderates and hard-line conservatives happy.

The wide range of ideological support was not enough to save Mr. McCarthy, whose fall instead becomes part of the story of our political transformation as a country.

In the not-too-distant past, political parties contained a wide range of ideologies united by a party machine, which kept them together despite regional interests and wildly different priorities. As the post-World War II cultural homogeneity of America crumbled, these machines declined in power. The great cultural sort of the past several decades, which saw the hunt to extinction of conservative Democrats and progressive Republicans, supplanted party operations as the glue that holds coalitions together.

Now the big sort is ending — but there is no replacement for the party machinery to maintain coherence. This is far more true of the right than the left, but it’s happening on both sides. Fund-raising operations gave party establishments some power, but they no longer had the ability to dictate outcomes automatically. And members like Nancy Mace of South Carolina have discovered a televangelist alternative: just go on TV and appeal directly to the true believers.

I’ve argued for years that Republican leaders needed to learn a basic lesson about how to work with what was once a far-right flank that now represents a massive amount of their party’s base. The lesson was and is to understand the value of bringing these populists onto the team, instead of trying to crush and sideline them. I’m reminded of something I wrote in 2017 that still applies today: In the closing scene of Tony Gilroy’s 2007 film “Michael Clayton,” the titular character played by George Clooney confronts a crooked executive played by Tilda Swinton about her failed attempt to murder him. “I’m not the guy that you kill. I’m the guy that you buy!” Mr. Clooney says. “I’m the easiest part of your whole goddamn problem, and you’re gonna kill me?”

For almost a decade, Republican leadership really did try to car bomb these populist miscreants, beginning with their opposition to Tea Party candidates in 2010 and followed by their attempts to deny the rise of Trumpian imitators in 2018. But those efforts largely failed, sometimes at great expense to their donors.

So too did the attempt to condense policymaking in the hands of a select few, and control the House rules process from the top down. Mr. McCarthy agreed to bring the hard-core conservatives into the room — with the understanding that once they were part of the deal-making process, they’d also be invested in its success.

This was a correction, but it still proved insufficient. Just because there are guys you buy doesn’t mean that there aren’t guys you still need to destroy — politically speaking, of course. For Mr. Gaetz, an entirely postmodern figure in politics, legislating is irrelevant to his actual job, which is the production of content, performing for an audience that funds his increasingly outrageous antics.

Speaker Johnson needs to understand that there should be consequences for this. Since Mr. Gaetz has decided to behave as a member of the Democratic conference, he should have to go to them for his seats on committees like Armed Services and Judiciary, where he has made hay by aggressively attacking members of the Biden administration. The G.O.P. conference iced out Representative Steve King of Iowa just four years ago for the damage of his racist comments. Mr. Gaetz has already proven more damaging to House Republicans than Mr. King, and he deserves the same fate.

If Speaker Johnson and Republican leadership are unwilling to do this, they are only increasing the likelihood that their slim majority will be hampered by discharge petitions and the potential of motions to vacate.

Perhaps instead of trying to keep everyone pleased, Mr. Johnson, a Southern Baptist, should take more of a lesson from a Catholic depiction in Paolo Sorrentino’s “The Young Pope,” and the titular character’s iconic speech to the College of Cardinals: “I don’t want any more part-time believers.”

Benjamin Domenech (@bdomenech) is an editor at large for The Spectator and writes the newsletter “The Transom.”

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