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Pass the Mike

The Democrats Are Making a Risky Mike Johnson Gambit

The party had a hand in aiding the rise of a more extreme speaker. That may help with election-year messaging—but it could make things much worse.

Tom Williams/Getty Images
House Speaker Mike Johnson

Even by its own dismal recent standards, this has been a chaotic week in Congress. On Tuesday, the chamber nearly saw an outbreak of physical violence on not one but two occasions. As usual, it’s Republicans who are demonstrating that they’re as toxically malcontented as ever, with the unresolved intraparty conflicts of the recent speakership battles taking GOP lawmakers to their unhappy places.

Ousted Speaker Kevin McCarthy is one of the lawmakers who seems to be lusting for a punch-up. This week, he allegedly elbowed his colleague, Tim Burchett, in full view of the public. “Why’d you elbow me in the back, Kevin? Hey, Kevin, you got any guts? Jerk,” Burchett can be heard saying after McCarthy does the deed. Later, Burchett would claim that McCarthy viciously struck him in the kidneys, in a “cheap shot.” McCarthy denies doing anything intentionally, claiming to have merely bumped into Burchett—who had voted to oust him as speaker last month—while walking down the hall. (To make matters even messier, Burchett went on to accuse McCarthy of vague inappropriate behavior relating to a third Republican, Nancy Mace.)

Not long after McCarthy and Burchett’s dustup, another near bout of fisticuffs occurred. During a hearing of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, Republican senator (and former MMA fighter) Markwayne Mullin asked Teamsters president Sean O’Brien if he wanted to fight in the hearing room. After reading a tweet from O’Brien offering to fight the Oklahoma senator “any time, any place,” Mullin said, “Sir, this is a time; this is a place. You want to run your mouth? We can be two consenting adults. We can finish it here.” O’Brien expressed eagerness to do so. “Then stand your butt up then,” said Mullin. “You stand your butt up,” O’Brien replied. It fell to Bernie Sanders to hammer the gavel and remind Mullin that he is a “United States senator,” in the style of an assistant principal disciplining a particularly unruly tween.

In short, Congress is as crazy as ever. But in one significant break with the chaos of the past month, some work is finally getting done. Mike Johnson, the new speaker of the House, surmounted his first challenge, successfully passing a government funding bill that would prevent a shutdown until the new year. In so doing, he bought himself some time to figure out how to get his caucus to fund the government—and get the Senate to go along with a plan that would likely require the votes of several far-right members. Johnson is as MAGA as they come—a devoted supply-sider with a predilection for theocratic extremists. But even he may fail in the same way as McCarthy. For now, however, he is firmly in control of the House.

For Democrats, it may be time to start asking if Johnson is who they imagined might end up with the gavel, and—having provided the votes to fell McCarthy—whether it was all worth it. There was undoubtedly some short-term benefit in pushing the GOP to show their true, dysfunctional colors: Republicans spent a month in humiliating disarray. This week’s outburst between McCarthy and Burchett suggests that the fissures that emerged during that long interregnum are still very much present and threaten to break out at any time.

There may be long-term benefits as well. Johnson is, as Matt Gaetz pointed out shortly after he took the gavel in late October, a Donald Trump loyalist; he is, among many disreputable things, the architect of part of the former president’s legal strategy to overturn the 2020 election. When he became speaker, Gaetz observed that the new speaker was more MAGA than the old one. “The swamp is on the run, MAGA is ascendant, and if you don’t think that moving from Kevin McCarthy to MAGA Mike Johnson shows the ascendance of this movement, and where the power of the Republican Party truly lies, then you’re not paying attention,” Gaetz said on Trump ally Steve Bannon’s podcast.

Democrats have arguably helped Johnson twice. First, by voting to remove McCarthy, which subsequently brought this obscure backbencher to the apex of the House GOP’s command structure. Johnson won more or less by default: He possessed neither any celebrated parliamentary skills nor a Rolodex of preexisting connections, but he was someone with whom no Republican had significant problems. For Democrats, this was a win-win. McCarthy couldn’t deal with them—Democrats had the votes to save him, but if he made any deal with them it would have sunk his speakership anyway. Voting to remove McCarthy entered House Republicans into a period of chaos that they have yet to fully reemerge from. And yet it also risked replacing him with someone worse: which is what happened.

Now Democrats have done the GOP speaker another solid, by voting to advance Johnson’s own strategy for keeping the government open, a so-called “laddered continuing resolution.” This funds parts of the government, including the departments of Agriculture, Transportation, and Veterans Affairs, through January 19 and others, most notably the Defense Department, through February 2. Democrats did this largely because it was the only way to fund the government—even if it does set up a showdown with Johnson and House Republicans shortly after the New Year.

Democrats didn’t get anything out of supporting the laddered C.R., aside from keeping the government open a little longer. It’s possible that there will be ancillary benefits in having voted for a bill that Republicans also don’t particularly like—the bill that passed the House on Thursday contains no funding cuts—and that could help up the pressure on Johnson, perhaps so much so that the GOP will return to the chaotic misrule of the past month.

But elevating and enabling Johnson is a risky strategy, one that’s somewhat reminiscent of their midterm election strategy, which saw Democrats working whatever angles were available to facilitate the rise of extreme GOP candidates over their more moderate primary opponents. Those candidates often lost—but before they did, they helped Democrats make the case that Republicans are weird, out-of-touch extremists. But the extremists don’t always lose—and what works in a midterm primary doesn’t always work in another context. Perhaps Johnson’s emergence as the new face of a Republican Party that’s struggling to get along with one another might help fence-sitters in the electorate swing toward Democrats. Alternatively, Johnson could use the next month to further cement his hold on power, bring his caucus together—and advance a number of more dangerous bills. Sure, Johnson might only be marginally worse than Kevin McCarthy. But marginally worse might end up mattering a great deal.