What Comes Next for Speaker Mike Johnson?
Thunderdome and the week in review
An incredibly busy week of news, both around the world and here at home. Overnight air strikes from the U.S. hit two Iranian-backed bases in Syria as Israeli forces entered Gaza for the second consecutive day. According to Gallup, President Biden’s approval rating has slipped to tie his lowest ever thanks to a dropoff in support from Democrats. U.S. GDP grew at a much better pace than expected. At The Spectator, The Thunderdome podcast on the new Speaker of the House is here. My New York Times column today is below.
Welcome to the Worst Job in America
Here’s my commentary on Mike Johnson’s task, in The New York Times:
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 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.”
Jake Sullivan’s Failure
Peering through the clouds of vapor emitting from U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan’s various profilers and character witnesses over the years, here is what we learn: Sullivan is a “once-in-a-generation intellect,” according to Joe Biden, and a “once-in-a-generation talent,” “a potential future president,” according to Hillary Clinton. “The sky’s the limit,” says former Deputy Secretary of State and Brookings Institution President Strobe Talbott. “He is somebody of extraordinary intelligence and temperament.” Sullivan has an admirable “habit of continually questioning his own assumptions” and a “methodical, hyperanalytical style.” He is “a genuinely nice guy” and “a good human being” with a “self-deprecating Midwestern modesty” who is a “really good listener” and “loved by everyone.”
Sullivan’s path to power is indeed impressive, from middle-class Minneapolis public school student to Yale graduate, Rhodes scholar, Supreme Court clerk, aide to the presidents of the Council on Foreign Relations and the Brookings Institution, chief counsel to the senior senator from Minnesota, adviser to the presidential campaigns of both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, deputy chief of staff to the secretary of state, director of policy planning, national security advisor to the vice president, and finally, United States national security advisor—all before his 45th birthday. Such a meteoric rise to power indeed begs explanation, even for a coxswain of the Yale lightweight crew team.
There are two revealing anecdotes, often repeated in the creation of the Sullivan legend, which are meant to illuminate his dizzying ascent. The first is from June 2009, when President Obama pushed for the ouster of a member of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s policy planning staff who had asked Jack Dorsey to delay scheduled maintenance of Twitter because members of Iran’s Green Movement depended on it for communication. In a meeting with Obama and White House and State Department officials, Clinton reportedly stood by her staffer and Iran’s anti-regime movement against the wishes of Obama, who claimed, implausibly, that he didn’t want to harm the protesters’ cause by appearing to interfere in Iran’s domestic politics.
One of the aides present at the meeting was Sullivan, then Clinton’s deputy chief of staff. In “one of the rare occasions when Sullivan and Clinton diverged,” according to a Vox profile, Sullivan supported Obama’s position over that of Clinton, his boss. Readers of the profile are meant to come away with an appreciation for Sullivan’s independence of spirit, which he apparently showed by taking the side of the president of the United States. The supposed risk he assumed in dissenting from Clinton’s support for the Iranian protesters was rewarded shortly thereafter, when Obama entrusted Sullivan with conducting secret meetings with the Iranian government, culminating in the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), otherwise known as the Iran nuclear deal.
Jack Smith’s Gag Order Overreach
Even the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), a leading critic of Trump, has come out against Smith's efforts as an attack on the First Amendment.
Undeterred, Smith now wants to reinstate and expand the gag on Trump, citing Trump’s comments about his former chief of staff, Mark Meadows, who reportedly has been given an immunity deal by Smith. (Meadows’ lawyer disputes those reports.)
Smith wants to bar Trump from criticizing any witnesses as well as the prosecution and the court. That would include criticisms of former Vice President Mike Pence, currently one of his opponents for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, on his allegations linked to the earlier election.
Of course, gagging Trump will not materially affect the jury pool in the case. The Smith prosecutions are one of the biggest issues in this election. Moreover, it will not protect potential witnesses from withering criticism in the middle of an election that could turn on the public view of these cases.
Indeed, Smith has insisted on trying Trump before the election but now also wants to prevent him from speaking fully about the case before the election. Trump alone would be gagged, even as other politicians and pundits debate the merits of the cases and the countervailing allegations of the weaponization of the criminal justice system.
Items of Interest
“When life hands you lemons, make lemonade? No. First you roll out a multi-media campaign to convince people lemons are incredibly scarce, which only works if you stockpile lemons, control the supply, then a media blitz. Lemon is the only way to say “I love you,” the must-have accessory for engagements or anniversaries. Roses are out, lemons are in. Billboards that say she won’t have sex with you unless you got lemons. You cut De Beers in on it. Limited edition lemon bracelets, yellow diamonds called lemon drops. You get Apple to call their new operating system OS-Lemón. A little accent over the “o.” You charge 40% more for organic lemons, 50% more for conflict-free lemons. You pack the Capitol with lemon lobbyists, you get a Kardashian to suck a lemon wedge in a leaked sex tape. Timotheé Chalamet wears lemon shoes at Cannes. Get a hashtag campaign. Something isn’t “cool” or “tight” or “awesome,” no, it’s “lemon.” “Did you see that movie? Did you see that concert? It was effing lemon.” Billie Eilish, “OMG, hashtag… lemon.” You get Dr. Oz to recommend four lemons a day and a lemon suppository supplement to get rid of toxins ‘cause there’s nothing scarier than toxins. Then you patent the seeds. You write a line of genetic code that makes the lemons look just a little more like tits… and you get a gene patent for the tit-lemon DNA sequence, you cross-pollinate… you get those seeds circulating in the wild, and then you sue the farmer for copyright infringement when that genetic code shows up on their land. Sit back, rake in the millions, and then, when you’re done, and you’ve sold your lem-pire for a few billion dollars, then, and only then, you make some fucking lemonade.”
— Roderick Usher