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Monday, June 17, 2024

Mr. Speaker

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Call it an October surprise. Seven months ago, Rep. Michael Johnson of Louisiana was elected Speaker of the House after an extremely rancorous Republican row. His immediate predecessor, long-time GOP powerbroker Kevin McCarthy, had been unceremoniously ousted. (Ironically, McCarthy’s contentious departure was a direct result of his having caved to the rule-changing demands of the lunatic wing of his caucus.)

Why would any sane Republican want to sit in the speaker’s chair after having witnessed what that party had done not only to McCarthy, but also to John Boehner and Paul Ryan? Indeed, at the time of Johnson’s ascension, one wondered whether it was too charitable to characterize his victory as pyrrhic. The previous three Republican leaders appeared to spend much more time fighting with their GOP colleagues than they did with Democrats.

Then again, the perks of being speaker are substantial, such as having a full security detail and doling out choice committee assignments. Plus, the only qualifications that Johnson needed for the role are 1) being a Trumper, 2) being hated less than better-known colleagues like fellow Louisianan Steve Scalise, and 3) having a pulse. (That last criterion might have been negotiable.)

No one outside of, well, insiders seemed to know much about Mr. Johnson, who had been in Congress for fewer than seven years prior to becoming Speaker. He is not an attention-grabbing, bomb-throwing charlatan à la Marjorie Taylor Greene or Matt Gaetz. Still, he has always been a reliable conservative vote, which would have been enough to satisfy his fellow Republicans in the not-too-distant past.

Of course, from the beginning of his tenure as speaker, pundits have wagered on how long he would last. I think it’s fair to say that his ability to survive — not to mention to advance a few pieces of controversial legislation — was unforeseen. Just last week, Johnson withstood a direct challenge to his leadership by Greene, who believes that he has relied too much on Democrats to secure votes. Johnson prevailed with the support of the vast majority of Republicans and Democrats.

Has Johnson been able to survive because of — or in spite of — himself? In other words, is he a brilliant and deft politician who wins over his opponents in closed-door sessions? Is he a pragmatist who understands the reality of his razor thin majority in the House? Or is he a bumbler who has merely benefited from the Peter principle?

Regardless of the answer, it is important to point out the fact that Johnson — the person who is second in line to the presidency — is not above kissing the, um, ring of former President Donald Trump. It was embarrassing and disheartening to watch Johnson stand outside the New York courtroom in which Trump is being tried for arranging secret payments to a porn star. Despicably, Johnson attacked the court system, calling the trial a “sham” and “political.” Such scurrilous and unfounded accusations from “the party of law and order.”

In some ways, Johnson reminds me of another Michael Johnson — the retired superstar sprinter. Track fans will recall that this Johnson had a very awkward running style. He moved very swiftly but appeared to do so almost mechanically. I remember watching him over and over again, wondering how he could be so fast with such an odd running posture.

Similarly, despite the fact that Speaker Johnson has gotten very few bills passed into law, his continued leadership, awkward and unconventional as it appears to be, must be considered a success given current circumstances. Unlike his athletic namesake, his odd movements aren’t about the ambulatory; it appears to be preambulatory — a leisurely (proverbial) walk down the halls of power.

Is Johnson’s grip of the speakership sustainable? Time will tell. In the meantime, I’m hopeful that he continues to work with Democrats to secure domestic and foreign legislation that reflects the values of the majority of Americans. For decades now, compromise has been a dirty word in our political milieu. Perhaps the continued likelihood of narrow majorities in both houses of Congress, as well as a White House that is up for grabs every four years will push pragmatism and compromise to the fore.

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