early and often

The Nice Guy Who Finished First

Mike Johnson made it to Speaker mostly by not making enemies.

The savior and his flock. Photo: Jose Luis Magana/AP
The savior and his flock. Photo: Jose Luis Magana/AP

At 12:17 p.m. on Tuesday, Tom Emmer became the Republican nominee for House Speaker. At 4:27 p.m. that same day, the No. 3 Republican in the House dropped out because of yet another internal rebellion.

He was the third such candidate privately selected by Republicans to lead the House since a group of rebels ousted Kevin McCarthy at the beginning of the month. Once again, Republicans were forced to start the search for a new Speaker from scratch. By 8 p.m., the party convened behind closed doors in the Capitol to find someone self-confident enough to run into the same buzzsaw of opposition that chewed up Emmer and, before him, Jim Jordan and Steve Scalise. “You have to find somebody who’s smart enough to get to 217,” said Ronny Jackson of Texas, “but stupid enough to want the job.” With a four-vote majority in the chamber, it would take only a few Republicans to block one of their own from becoming Speaker, though dozens had come out to oppose all of the candidates offered up so far. The next time didn’t look like it would be different.

By 10:30 p.m., though, something seemed to have changed. Maybe it was pure exhaustion, but when the doors opened and reporters flowed into a committee room, Republicans were beaming. Standing in the middle of the room was Mike Johnson, who had lost on his first try earlier in the day against Emmer, surrounded by a thick semicircle of his gleeful colleagues, some of whom were well lubricated as they sought to keep their spirits up throughout the second long, tedious internal election of the day. Once the cameras were in place, he shared brief clichés pledging to “restore trust in what we do here” and “stand with our allies” to raucous cheers from colleagues.

Still needing to win the public vote on the floor, Johnson was a cipher on what he would actually do as Speaker. When a reporter asked about his efforts to overturn the 2020 election, she was booed down by Republicans, including members who voted to certify the election. Johnson answered a follow-up question about Ukraine aid by saying, “We are not doing policy tonight.”

It was the beginning of the end of an anarchic, absurd process that only hours before had left Republicans mired in despair. The three weeks of chaos, kicked off by McCarthy’s ouster on October 3, rendered Congress totally paralyzed at a time of global crisis since, without a speaker, the House can not move legislation. Instead, Republicans became consumed with plotting and infighting as they elected three different candidates to be Speaker, starting with Majority Leader Scalise, who lasted less than two days before accepting that he faced too much internal opposition. He was followed by Jordan, a conservative icon who was made the designated Speaker for over a week before a moderate rebellion doomed his chances. Then Emmer enjoyed his brief afternoon of glory before Johnson finally emerged.

When asked by reporters if the situation had become absurd after Emmer’s defeat, Steve Womack of Arkansas said it hadn’t become absurd: “It was absurd last week, maybe the week before.” Max Miller of Ohio called the process “a merry-go-round” and warned that “we haven’t hit rock bottom yet.” Stephanie Bice of Oklahoma explained that there were no female Speaker candidates because “this is a really a no-win situation. So why would any of the women want to put ourselves out there only for it to fail? It just doesn’t make any sense.”

At least that had been the case until Wednesday, when Johnson officially became Speaker. It was the 19th ballot this year, after it took McCarthy 15 different votes to even be elected in January. In between, 14 Republicans offered themselves as candidates, with McCarthy even making a brief comeback as runner-up to Johnson on Tuesday even though he was not formally a candidate.

Taking the gavel, Johnson gave a low-key speech that struck a pastoral tone. “We have learned a lot of lessons,” he said, “but through adversity it makes you stronger, and we want our allies around the world to know that this body of lawmakers is reporting again to our duty stations.”

An ardent social conservative who was an attorney for Christian legal-advocacy group Alliance for Defending Freedom before entering the House in 2016, Johnson was one of the key figures behind the legal effort from congressional Republicans to overturn the results of the 2020 election and keep Donald Trump in power. “If you don’t think that moving from Kevin McCarthy to MAGA Mike Johnson shows the ascendance of this movement and where the power in the Republican Party truly lies, then you’re not paying attention,” Matt Gaetz said on Steve Bannon’s podcast, reveling in the Speaker he helped mint by leading the charge to throw out McCarthy.

Conservative credentials were not enough for other candidates, though. What Johnson had — or more precisely didn’t have — was a lack of enemies. “He’s a goober, but I dig that about him,” said Tim Burchett of Tennessee, describing him as sincere, honest, and as “clean as a hound’s tooth.” Marc Molinaro, a moderate from New York, said Johnson “confronts challenges with earnestness and humility. Perhaps America needs to see a little bit of that common decency.”

The question is whether being a nice guy is sufficient to manage a Republican caucus that has been consumed with fighting each other. The government will shut down in just over three weeks, and Congress is being asked to authorize billions of dollars’ worth of aid for Israel and Ukraine and billions more to secure the southern border. Johnson will have to manage it all with a scant track record, a slim majority, and no relationships with any of the other key figures in the government. Even if he can pull off this near-impossible task, keeping the House majority intact next year will not be easy either for a politician with little national profile and lackluster fundraising.

But it could always be worse. As John Duarte of California reflected on Tuesday amid the ongoing dysfunction, “The fact that we can work through our absurdities in this way is still better than not having a constitutional democracy. As inefficient and as many missed opportunities as there seem to be, we’re still blessed to have what we have.”

Mike Johnson, the Nice Guy Who Finished First