It always had to be Mike Johnson.
The Louisiana Republican has come out of nowhere to ascend to the speaker of the House, a job that people spend their entire adult lives aspiring to, but that Johnson picked up like a stray nickel.
Chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee is usually the stepping-stone to, well, some other lower-rung of the House leadership, yet Johnson has somehow leveraged the position to become second in the line of succession to the president of the United States.
Not since Gerald Ford dined alone has there been a member of the House who experienced such happened-to-be-in-the-right-place-at the-right-time good fortune, assuming becoming speaker of the Republican House is considered a blessing rather than a curse.
Johnson is a talented man, and perhaps will prove an adept speaker, despite his lack of experience with a political, legislative and fundraising challenge at this level. Regardless, the dirty secret of the GOP speaker fight was that the stakes were always fairly low, since there are limits to what any leader can do with a slender majority in one chamber of Congress when a Democrat occupies the White House.
What ultimately elevated Johnson, and what could make his tenure rocky after a honeymoon, is that the Republican majority is not very comfortable being a majority. That requires a cohesiveness and realism that clash with the impulse of an element of the party to build its own brand at the expense of everything else.
There are costs to being in the House minority, such as watching the majority — within limits, depending on its size — do and pass whatever it wants. Otherwise, life is easy. There are no real responsibilities except voting “no” and giving speeches.
Being in the majority, on the other hand, requires constant choices. Which priorities are most important? How far can the party push on any given issue? What’s the balance between achieving important policy goals and minimizing political risk? How to hold together the various factions that are inevitably part of a majority coalition?
This isn’t easy, and gets much harder if members care more about their primetime cable hit than making any responsible contribution, even in opposition to the leadership.
Some within the party’s right flank have developed a mode of operating that is almost hostile to affecting legislative outputs as a matter of principle. Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz and his compatriots didn’t help Rep. Kevin McCarthy pass a Republican-supported spending bill as a shutdown loomed, then slammed him for — what else was he supposed to do? — going to Democrats.
This didn’t make sense, but at least the McCarthy critics kept their hands clean. This approach to legislating creates a pantomime of powerlessness, wherein probity is measured by sheer lack of influence.
Another factor is the rise of the cult of the outsider. This is a phenomenon in the culture more broadly; people tend to be shaped by institutions less than they once were and be most comfortable in a posture of opposition and defiance. In Republican politics, Donald Trump is the prime example — he was president of the United States but still often sounded like a powerless critic of his own administration.
By the same token, Gaetz could serve in Congress for the next 30 years, ascend to the chairmanship of the House Financial Services Committee and still regard himself as the speak-truth-to-power outsider.
The speaker fight that he set off bore all the hallmarks of this kind of politics — taking down McCarthy was an act of destruction that lacked any reliable connection to a better outcome. Gaetz may prefer Johnson to McCarthy, but surely, this isn’t how he envisioned the drama ending.
It dragged on for so long because Gaetz and his band of small Republican compatriots broke the norm of supporting the party’s speaker or speaker-designee on the floor, creating an incentive for everyone else to do the same. The weeks-long deadlock with shifting factions blocking each new speaker candidate was the logical consequence of what Gaetz had started.
It tells you all you need to know that some of the ringleaders of this circus preferred an unworkable majority to a robust one.
Gaetz comrade-in-arms Rep. Matt Rosendale has said so explicitly. The Messenger reported that he told donors, in a call that included Gaetz, “Look, we have shown, OK, with a very small handful of people, six at times, five at times, that we can have tremendous impact in that body and when a lot of people, unfortunately, were voting to have a 270, 280 Republican House, I was praying each evening for a small majority.”
His prayers were answered, thanks, in part, to the party nominating too many Trumpy candidates like Rosendale himself. According to a Wall Street Journal profile, after the disappointing midterms, Gaetz, too, “recognized that the thin GOP majority that resulted worked to his advantage.”
No one who has the interests of his or her party at heart ever wishes for fewer members. If you want your majority to be so narrow that it is vulnerable to disruption and blackmail, maybe you don’t really want a majority at all. If that’s true of Gaetz and his friends, the chaos of the last few weeks may make it a little more likely that they are eventually relieved of the burden of being part of a majority next November.