The winner of the game of House Speaker musical chairs is ... Rep. Mike Johnson (R-LA), who won the job Wednesday with unanimous GOP support.
After a 22-day struggle among Republicans to agree on Kevin McCarthy’s replacement, the right-wingers and the mainstream members in the conference decided to settle on Johnson, despite — or perhaps because of — his limited experience in leadership and lack of a national profile.
As in all good face-saving compromises, there’s some ambiguity over which side has caved — but overall, the right-wingers appear to have emerged triumphant.
We know little about how Johnson would tackle the seemingly intractable governing problems that took down McCarthy, such as how he’d keep the government funded and avoid a shutdown. (He has distributed a plan that would allow for a short-term funding bill to avert a government shutdown, but the best-laid plans ...)
Overall, though, Johnson is a movement conservative close to the Christian right. He’s also a stalwart Trump ally who actively worked to help the former president try to overturn Joe Biden’s victories in key 2020 swing states — making Trump, who helped torch the chances of Johnson’s leading rival Tom Emmer on Tuesday, another winner.
The losers include the existing slate of House GOP leaders, all of whom took embarrassing public L’s over the past few weeks. And while a bloc of mainstream Republicans got some satisfaction in taking down Jim Jordan, they decided to stop there rather than flexing their muscles further — meaning that the party leadership has ultimately gotten further away from them.
Winner (for now): Mike Johnson
When this saga started 22 days ago, no one would have predicted that it would end with Speaker of the House Mike Johnson. And yet it has.
Johnson was first elected to the House in 2016, which would make him the least experienced speaker since the 1880s. Yet for close House watchers, Johnson didn’t totally come out of nowhere. Since 2021, he’s been the fifth-ranking member of the House GOP leadership’s team, serving as vice chair of the conference. Before that, Johnson chaired the Republican Study Committee — an organizing body of House conservatives who are mostly not far-right enough to be in the Freedom Caucus.
But now he’s suddenly speaker, in large part because all the other contenders who were more prominent than him — McCarthy, Steve Scalise (R-LA), Jim Jordan (R-OH), and Tom Emmer (R-MN) — had made too many enemies. Since it currently takes a mere five Republican defections to sink a GOP speaker nominee on the House floor, having few haters in the party is actually more important than having passionate supporters.
Hence Speaker Johnson. But is the speakership a poisoned chalice, destined to result in the demise of anyone who drinks from it? The core problem that has bedeviled GOP speakers since John Boehner is that there is a faction of hardliners on the right who seem fundamentally unsuited to the reality of governance and especially to the compromises necessary when Democrats control the White House and Senate.
Speaker Johnson has no secret plan to force President Biden and 60 senators to bend the knee and accept massive cuts to government spending. He may be talking a big game about passing 12 separate appropriations bills with Republican votes, but McCarthy made that same promise in January and found it impossible to fulfill. And inevitably, a spending deal has to be cut with Democrats, or the government shuts down and Republicans get blamed, imperiling their chances of holding the chamber in 2024.
Johnson’s best hope is that he can convince the hardliners to chill out for a bit and give him more leeway to cut those deals than they gave McCarthy. But the longer he remains in the speaker job, the more he’ll inevitably disappoint some Republicans. And it is worth noting that he has never done this job before. Can he do it?
Winner: GOP hardliners
Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL), who started this whole ball rolling by moving to oust McCarthy, summed up his takeaway on Steve Bannon’s podcast Wednesday: “If you don’t think that moving from Kevin McCarthy to MAGA Mike Johnson shows the ascendance of this movement and where the power in the Republican Party truly lies, then you’re not paying attention.”
Indeed, Republican hardliners didn’t get the Speaker Jim Jordan that they dreamed of. But they firmly established the principle that the hard right is entitled to veto any speaker nominee the conference produces — and they torched the careers of all of the top three “establishment” party leaders. Not a bad month’s work.
Johnson’s surprising ascendance is also a win for the Christian right. While Boehner, Ryan, and McCarthy all supported conservative policies and viewed the religious right as an essential part of the GOP coalition, Johnson is of that movement: Before entering elected office, he was a top lawyer for a Christian legal advocacy group and has long opposed abortion rights and LGBTQ rights. (In contrast, Emmer was sunk in part because he had voted in favor of marriage equality — one holdout House Republican told him Tuesday that he needed to “get right with Jesus.”)
The practical impact of Johnson’s conservatism will be limited so long as Democrats control the Senate and the White House. A more conservative speaker does not necessarily translate to more conservative laws. But the right-wing hardliners have proven that while they may not yet fully control the party, they’re now the most powerful force inside it.
Losers: The House Republican leadership slate
McCarthy, Scalise, and Emmer were the first-, second-, and third-ranking members of the leadership team the House GOP elected less than a year ago. But in the past few weeks, they’ve all been publicly humiliated as their speakership dreams were dashed by right-wing hardliners — even though each was clearly preferred by a majority of the GOP conference.
McCarthy was tossed out of his job by just eight defecting Republicans (who joined with all Democrats to oust him as speaker). Then Scalise, after winning an internal GOP conference vote, lasted barely more than a day as speaker nominee before quitting. And this week, Emmer exceeded even that — he was the speaker nominee for just four hours before dropping out.
Now, the top three ranking Republicans all have egg on their face, with their political futures uncertain. The party is moving on to new leaders and may no longer have room for them.
Winner: Donald Trump
Trump was mostly a minor player in the House speaker race — the GOP hardliners don’t need his encouragement to make trouble for party leaders. But while he didn’t end up with Speaker Jordan (his initial endorsement), he may have ended up with the next best thing.
“Johnson was deeply involved in efforts to keep Trump in power starting immediately after 2020 election,” the Washington Post’s Robert Costa tweeted. “Johnson — then all but unknown — worked with allied Trump groups and conservative leaders in a coordinated way to make sure that whole orbit was working together to help Trump.”
Early on, Johnson publicly made false claims that voting machines were “rigged.” In December, he used his constitutional law expertise to put together a legalistic justification for throwing out Biden’s wins in key swing states — he claimed that state voting policy changes implemented during the pandemic were illegal unless they went through state legislatures, and got more than 100 House Republicans to sign on to the argument. He stuck by that argument up to January 6 itself, and even when Congress reconvened after the attacks, he voted to throw out Biden’s wins.
Trump also played a role in the denouement of the crisis. Emmer had initially defeated Johnson for the speaker nomination midday Tuesday, but he’s long had a tense relationship with Trump. And while Emmer was struggling to win over hardliner holdouts, Trump publicly blasted Emmer as a “Globalist RINO,” in what may have been the nail in the coffin for his bid. Now, he has a true loyalist in the speaker’s chair rather than someone backing him through gritted teeth.
Loser: Anyone dreaming about bipartisanship
As Republicans struggled for so long to achieve near-unanimity to elect a speaker, many observers asked an obvious question: Why couldn’t some Republicans cut a deal with some Democrats to pick a speaker, and govern the House from the center?
Various ideas to this effect were batted around — the one that gained the most steam was for an “empowerment” of temporary speaker Patrick McHenry for a set period of time. But it proved to be toxic among Republicans. It drew fury from conservative media, and GOP leaders distanced themselves from any idea of a “coalition government.”
A Washington Post editorial blamed Democrats for failing to throw a reasonable Republican their votes. But that argument missed the point — the relatively more “reasonable” Republican options, Scalise and Emmer, never actually went to the House floor, instead quitting beforehand. For Emmer in particular, there had been chatter that some Democrats might throw him their votes or vote present. But he evidently didn’t want to be elected as a speaker with Democratic votes, since that would forever mark him as a party traitor. Partisanship and polarization remain ascendant.
This is also why the mainstream bloc of Republican holdouts ultimately lost their staring contest with the hardliners. The ultimate leverage the mainstreamers could have deployed would have been a threat to deal with Democrats. But they all have Republican primaries they want to win, Republican donors they want to woo, and Republican social worlds they inhabit. A deal with Democrats would likely have meant the end of their own political careers, and evidently no one wanted to take that risk.
Loser: The stability of the US electoral system
After Johnson won the GOP conference’s speaker nomination Tuesday night, one reporter asked him about having led Trump’s challenges to the 2020 election results. The assembled GOP leadership team booed, with one member yelling “shut up!” Johnson demurred: “Next question.”
In January 2021, when Trump was trying to stay in power, the House of Representatives was under Democratic control, so the actions of House Republicans didn’t matter all too much. Most of them could vote to throw out Biden’s wins in key states, but they didn’t have a majority, so they couldn’t actually do that.
January 2025 could be different. The House that meets to certify the presidential election results that month will be newly elected, but Johnson could well still be speaker. If so — and if there’s a similar dispute where Trump is denying a Biden victory — it’s far from clear what Johnson will do.
Generally, from November 2020 through January 2021, the Republican Party behaved terribly irresponsibly, but just enough Republicans in positions of power did the right thing — certifying the results at some political cost. Since then, critics of Trump’s attempt to seize power have largely been purged from the party, and election denial has been increasingly normalized. For instance, Rep. Ken Buck (R-CO), an idiosyncratic conservative, said he initially wouldn’t support a speaker candidate who denied the election results — but he backed Johnson anyway.
Would a GOP-controlled House certify a Democratic victory in the 2024 presidential election? With Johnson in charge, that may have grown less likely — and that has ominous implications for the state of American democracy.