How Mike Johnson won an impossible job

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Mike Johnson’s anonymity in Washington was a driving force in his election as speaker, making him perhaps the only Republican to escape the House’s widespread feuding.

His novice status won’t help with the burden of actually governing.

The Louisianan with a distinct drawl on Wednesday became the unlikely leader to an unruly group of House Republicans that will now rely on him to run their side of the Capitol. He was next to no one’s first pick, but the onetime No. 7 Republican was shielded from much of the intraparty political drama that tanked speaker picks before him — from Kevin McCarthy to Jim Jordan to Tom Emmer.

“Politics is like the fight business. The longer you’re in it, the more you get beat up,” said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), explaining Johnson’s survival.

Other than his conservative reputation and leading role in challenging the 2020 election, most senators have had little or no personal contact with Johnson. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said he’s never met the Louisianan and Majority Leader Chuck Schumer does not know him at all, according to the New Yorker’s office.

Instead of a powerhouse fundraiser like McCarthy or pugnacious wrestler like Jordan, the House’s first evangelical speaker takes the job as a policy-minded, ideological purist. He’s known to carry a copy of the Constitution and harbors big dreams on spending cuts and social issues that don’t stand a chance in the Democratic-controlled Senate.

Now, Johnson — miraculously unscathed from the 22-day battle — must figure out how to achieve what McCarthy couldn’t: compromise that doesn’t prompt a mutiny.

The ex-speaker’s ouster may have somewhat sated conservatives’ anger, but Johnson still faces steep challenges. First, and most immediately, will be avoiding a government shutdown on Nov. 17. Then he’ll quickly have to find some middle ground with the Senate on aid for Ukraine, Israel, Taiwan and the Southern border.

Most senators could not pick the bespectacled Republican out of a line-up on Wednesday: “That’s an apt question, but no, I couldn’t,” said Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.).

That may not bode well for Johnson’s negotiating ability, as he faces a crush of deadlines, a thin majority and the ever-present threat of being ousted himself. Not to mention, Johnson will be going up against two Senate leaders who have now worked together for nearly seven years atop their chamber.

Being such a cypher could be an advantage for Johnson — who could be the “tabula Rasa speaker,” as Sen. Todd Young (R-Ind.) put it.

“I could give you a narrative about anyone being a good choice at this point. We just need a warm body at this point, right? And I think he qualifies,” Young said as he dipped into a subway train.

Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), after hearing that assessment, commented dryly as Young stood beside her: “A high standard.”

Many of Johnson’s colleagues aren’t surprised he stumbled into the top perch, though some acknowledge he might have preferred the far easier role of Judiciary chair under a theoretical Speaker Jordan. If there’s any quirkiness to his personality, it’s in the spot-on impressions of his colleagues that Johnson sometimes does in private meetings.

Internally, though, Johnson is cautious and strategic about his intraparty alliances. After leading the conservative, highly ideological Republican Study Committee — the largest caucus in the Capitol— he leapfrogged to the low-key role of House GOP vice chair. The jobs allowed Johnson to largely remain unnoticed compared to higher-ranking GOP leaders, avoiding clashes with various, often warring factions of his party.

He’s also intentionally laid low when it comes to intra-leadership races: When an earlier speakership vote pitted Majority Leader Steve Scalise (R-La.), a member of his own delegation, against the grassroots’ beloved Jordan, Johnson side-stepped any endorsement altogether.

“It looks to me like it helped him over there,” said Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.), of Johnson’s relative fresh political slate. “The real work begins now … to pass anything, you have to go get Democratic votes. You don’t have to be Einstein’s cousin to figure that out.”

That necessity will remain a sticking point, as Johnson’s party recovers from the deep wounds inflicted by the debilitating speakership fight. The House GOP is still reeling from McCarthy’s abrupt dismissal three weeks ago, as open animosity against the so-called “Gaetz eight” refuses to dissipate. And Johnson may have to make up ground in both factions of the party.

He’s drawn praise from at least one of those defectors: Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) said Johnson’s promise to the party that he’ll move spending bills on the floor “gives us a lot of hope.”

Calling Johnson a “good, godly man,” Gaetz also — so far — seemed unbothered by how Johnson might handle the upcoming Nov. 17 funding deadline, after he used the previous spending drama to trigger McCarthy’s firing: “Whether or not we have to have any sort of stopgap government bridge, I’m sure that’s something we’ll address in the coming days.”

Johnson is proposing a temporary funding patch lasting at least until Jan. 15, with little specifics on whether it will contain the blunt spending cuts that McCarthy pushed to appease conservatives. Such a stopgap would help to appease centrists, but it’s not the only area where that faction plans to pressure their new speaker.

Some centrists privately begrudge Johnson for spearheading an argument that there was a constitutional basis for not certifying President Joe Biden’s electoral win in 2020. As a former lawyer for a Christian legal advocacy group, many of his colleagues embraced his reasoning that it was unconstitutional for states to change their voting procedures during the pandemic.

Emmer’s speakership bid went down in part over his vote to certify the election, which became a bigger obstacle as Donald Trump got involved and attacked Emmer relentlessly. Johnson doesn’t have that problem, but he still will face scrutiny: On Tuesday night, Republicans literally booed an ABC reporter for broaching the subject of the 2020 election.

“It would be my preference to have someone [as speaker] who stood by the reality that President Biden won,” said Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah). “They know it was not stolen. But they don’t want to have to say it because if they do, then Donald Trump comes after them.”

Still, Johnson remains in better standing with GOP hardliners than virtually anyone else in leadership. Those members see him as more “purely conservative,” in the words of one GOP aide, than others in leadership — his vote against the stopgap spending bill last month is considered a point in his favor.

Part of Johnson’s appeal, his colleagues say, comes down to their trust in his character. As a practicing Southern Baptist, he comes from the northern chunk of Louisiana that’s more Bible Belt than Mardi Gras (some Lousianans refer to it as “Southern Arkansas.”). He even founded the “Civility Caucus,” drafting a pledge with former Rep. Charlie Crist (D-Fla.) that states that “our political rivals in Congress are not our enemies.”

Perhaps that’s the mindset that allowed Johnson to do what more than a dozen of his colleagues could not: Win the gavel.

“For all the things that Kevin McCarthy did — both good or bad — there’s always baggage there,” said Rep. Wesley Hunt (R-Texas). “You know what they say in Batman: Either you die the hero or you live long enough to become the villain.”

Jordain Carney and Daniella Diaz contributed to this report.

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