Mike Johnson is the dog that didn’t bark

[Previous: The Christian nationalism is coming from inside the House]

After months of agonizing delay, help is coming for Ukraine.

American military aid ran out late last year, and Europe couldn’t fill the gap. With supplies dwindling, the Ukrainian military was being forced to ration ammunition in the face of Russian advances, and couldn’t shoot down Russian missiles aimed at apartment buildings and power plants.

The only hope was for America to send more ammo. But the Republican-controlled House had to vote for that, and Donald Trump runs the GOP. Trump, plus other conservative lickspittles like Marjorie Taylor Green, were against more aid because they admire Vladimir Putin’s brand of tyranny and believe he should be allowed to invade and conquer whoever he wants.

The decision was all up to House Speaker Mike Johnson, who has a reputation as a hard-right Christian nationalist. For months, Johnson dragged his feet while Ukrainians fought and died defending their country.

But then, unexpectedly, something changed Johnson’s mind. He abruptly decided to put a new foreign aid package up for a vote after all.

The first obstacle was the powerful House Rules Committee, which controls which bills come to the floor to be voted on. Ex-speaker Kevin McCarthy gave the most fanatical members of his caucus an outsize voice on this committee.

But once Johnson uncorked the stopper on Ukraine aid, Democrats on the Rules Committee joined with moderate Republicans to outvote the extremists and put it on the floor. Multiple House members described this as unprecedented and said they couldn’t remember a previous occasion when such a crossover happened.

Once the bill was on the floor, it passed with overwhelming Democratic support, while slightly more than half of Republicans voted against it. As Andrew Solender put it for Axios, “the GOP’s fractured and tiny House majority has effectively yielded to something resembling a bipartisan coalition”.

Just a few months ago, Biden and the Democrats were prepared to swallow a draconian Republican border bill in exchange for Ukraine aid. But Trump gave orders to scrap the border bill, because he didn’t want to do anything about immigration; he wanted it to continue being perceived as a problem so he can blame Democrats for it.

Johnson went along with this strategy. He obediently killed his own party’s bill – and then ended up passing Ukraine aid anyway, giving Democrats what they wanted and getting nothing in return. It’s a spectacular feat of political incompetence.

This continues a pattern for Mike Johnson’s tenure as Speaker of the House. Time and time again, he’s relied on help from Democrats to pass vital bills over the objections of his own party.

In November 2023, he needed Democratic votes to pass a stopgap funding bill that kept the government open. Then he needed their help again in January 2024 for the same reason. Then again in March.

All the while, the House’s extreme conservatives groused bitterly about Johnson allowing fairly “clean” funding bills to come up for a vote. He didn’t try to use the threat of a shutdown as leverage to force massive spending cuts or policy concessions, like they wanted:

The House Freedom Caucus, which contains dozens of the GOP’s most conservative members, urged Republicans to vote against the first spending package and oppose the second one being negotiated.

“Despite giving Democrats higher spending levels, the omnibus text released so far punts on nearly every single Republican policy priority,” the group said.

So, what gives?

Mike Johnson, the radical, election-denying Christian nationalist, turned out to be a wet noodle. He’s repeatedly failed to win Republican policy goals. He’s worked with Democrats more often than with his own party. He’s kept the government open for business even when his own caucus was screaming at him to shut it down.

What happened? Is he less of a fanatic and more open to compromise than he seemed? Or is he just incompetent, such that he wanted to burn the country down, but keeps getting outmaneuvered?

One possible explanation is that the Speaker of the House doesn’t have the liberty to vote his own beliefs. He has to think of members in swing districts, who’d pay the price if he advocated bills that were drastically out of step with the electorate. Ukraine is still a popular cause, regardless of what Donald Trump says, and it may be that Johnson felt he had no choice.

Another explanation, not mutually exclusive with the first, is that House Republicans are ungovernable. Their demands are so untethered from political reality, and their egos are so out of control, that no one could unite them. If that’s true, Johnson failed not because he lacked the skills, but because the job was impossible. His failure was foreordained from day one.


  1. billseymour says

    Both explanations in your last two paragraphs strike me as entirely plausible.  Indeed, the second,

    [Far right House members’] demands are so untethered from political reality, and their egos are so out of control, …

    seems to be just what we observe.

  2. Katydid says

    I agree with billseymour. Mike Johnson is not a hero or even a particularly good man, but he’s at least attempting to do the job he was given, and the cult on his team is rebelling against him.

  3. raven says

    Their demands are so untethered from political reality, and their egos are so out of control, that no one could unite them.

    That is true.
    The GOP far right wing doesn’t want to govern the USA.
    They want to burn it down.
    Which they say so often.

    “I’m a Leninist,” Bannon once told the Daily Beast. “Lenin wanted to destroy the state, and that’s my goal too. I want to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment.”

    Steven Bannon, the former White House Chief of Staff sums it up.
    He wants to destroy the administrative state.

    The problem goes a lot deeper than just GOP Representatives who want to wreck the USA.
    It is the people who elected them and will probably reelect them.

  4. JM says

    I agree that both of what you mention are true. I think there are also two other things playing into it right now that are election related.
    Trump’s approval is more important then the fringe right. The fringe right don’t really work together, they just have similar opinions a lot and their natural reflex is oppose anything Biden supports. Right now Trump’s approval is more important then getting them to agree. If Trump wins Johnson will be as well placed as he can be and if Trump loses who knows how his position plays out.
    Second, Johnson likely has more backing then it appears because a lot of Republicans don’t want to go through changing leadership again. It was hard to do, looked bad in the press, looks worse every time they do it, and ate up their time. They don’t want to go through it again but right in the middle of election year campaigning is the worst possible time.

  5. M Currie says

    I know it is a symptom of our crazy times that we feel we must congratulate people whom we would once have disparaged for good reason, (e.g. the integrity of Liz Cheney?) like complimenting a 30 year old for not throwing food and wetting the bed, but it does seem that Mike Johnson, for all his faults, has actually given some thought to the possibility that the purpose of his job is not to leave the Federal government a smoking ruin, which, this being the crazy time we are in, will likely be his downfall.

  6. billseymour says

    JM makes a good point:  Trump’s ridiculous popularity is the real problem now.  Keeping him out of the White House should be our highest priority at present.  If he’s still on the sidelines and destroys the current Republican Party, that would probably be a good thing.  Maybe we’d get some basic human decency in the loyal opposition.

  7. Dr Sarah says

    I think it’s a combination of your last paragraph plus him not having the cojones to stand up to them (the GOP are such a mess that there are very much limits to what anyone could have managed, but he also really hasn’t pushed those limits). However, the Ukraine bill does fit the rather low bar of being his finest hour; very late in the day, he finally found the gonads to stand up to them and do the right thing. Which, rather satisfyingly, also ended up calling their bluff, since it turned out that even the dysfunctional mess that is the current GOP apparently realised they actually couldn’t get away with kicking out yet another Speaker seven months before an election just for passing a bill that the majority of their constituents wanted passed.

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