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Mike Johnson Should Grow a Spine or Leave

by John Jefferson
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What’s the point of Mike Johnson?

The House GOP decided Kevin McCarthy needed to go. Fine. There were plenty of good arguments for that decision, including the very fundamental point that McCarthy’s mouth wrote checks to the party that Frank Luntz’s body couldn’t cash. That’s no way to run a railroad. Sayonara, Mac. 

Who could forget the tragicomedy of the efforts to replace him? The placeholder speaker, Patrick McHenry, a little man in bowties and a really heartrending victim of tailoring malpractice, waving the gavel around like a kid at the carnival high-striker. The parade of proposed replacements: Steve Scalise, sort of the presumptive next in line save for the facts that he’s a moron and has got blood cancer. Doug Emmer. Jim Jordan. Mike Johnson was picked after Jordan lost his third round of votes. He was a perfect unity candidate: He had never said or done anything of note. (To quote some wise men discussing another political tabula rasa: “We have no inkling of his past!” “Correct, and that is an asset. A man’s past can cripple him.”)

Johnson seems like a nice man. (A difference from the visibly cretinous McCarthy.) He seems like one of the handful of national politicos who actually takes something approaching orthodox Christianity seriously, which has earned him plenty of ire (much of it very weird) in the stream press. He has borne up gracefully under all that, and, for that, we’re cheering him. 

Unfortunately, while the absence of a past can be an asset, the absence of the present and future is not so good. As you might infer from the conditions of his elevation, things are a little contentious in Congress right now. A sizable portion of the Republican caucus has noticed that we’re spending rather a lot of money, and thinks maybe we should spend less, and is (for the first time in quite a while) willing to kick up a ruckus about it. Our southern border has undergone Aufhebung. The Fourth Amendment, which underwent Aufhebung quite some time ago, is up for grabs again with FISA renewal. Through our clients abroad, we are running a couple of wars of decreasing popularity and unclear value. 

In the face of crisis, division, and uncertainty, you need a leader of men who can articulate a forceful program—or at least can mollify everyone a little by looking like he knows what he’s doing. Has that been Johnson? Well, not really.

Take his stance on military aid, the item at the top of everyone’s mind this week. Johnson is anxious to get the money out there to our foreign clients. In this, he is hardly alone—but also hardly unopposed. We’re a little leery of rubber-stamping anything touching the fisc, but might excuse it in cases where an expenditure is completely uncontroversial. (So far as we can tell, not much of the country is clamoring to stop funding military salaries or highway tenance.) As of February, roughly half of his own party’s voters thought the U.S. was sending too much aid to Ukraine in particular. 

Are there perhaps deep principles behind Johnson’s position? Does he, statesmanlike, think he’s doing the right thing, and damn the torpedoes? If he is, he’s doing a very good job of keeping it quiet. Johnson took the gavel last October. His congressional office has issued, by my count, 17 press releases since then, including the announcement of his speakership; the speaker’s office has issued 111 press releases. Not a single one has laid out the speaker’s case for sending military aid to other supposedly sovereign nations: not a good argument, not a bad argument, not even a pro forma argument; not for Taiwan, not for Israel, not for Ukraine. (There is, however, a precis of a fact sheet justifying his recent flip-flop on FISA—a real polishing-the-turd exercise for his comms staff, to whom we extend our real sympathies.) Hiding behind the fiction of “loans” is no remedy. In fact, it makes it worse: It shows embarrassment and the attendant desire to pull a quick one. Do you call this leadership? 

The point of a party system is to give voters a choice—not necessarily a very large set of choices, but at least the bare binary of “X” versus “Not X.” When a speaker uses opposition support to pass through legislation against half his own party’s wishes—and against his own promises—something has gone badly wrong in the system. When he does it without even articulating his position, well, that’s something worse than badly wrong. 

In Britain’s 1972 push to join the European Economic Community, which was in short order transmogrified into the European Union, a sinister compact developed between the leadership of the Conservative government and the Labour opposition to move through the membership vote outside the courses of debate appropriate for such a weighty and controversial decision. (This effort was opposed primarily by two members, the Tories’ Enoch Powell and Labour’s Michael Foot, an unlikely combination on the face of it.) The European Communities Bill affair left a bad taste in the voters’ mouths, and they punished the Tories for it (among other sins). The consequences of that skulduggery have bedeviled British governments for the 50 years since. Johnson is inviting a similar dysfunction into our own public life, and without even making his case to the American people.

Government by men with bad ideas and even bad morals we can endure; government by invertebrates is intolerable. So again we ask: What’s the point of this guy?

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