Dem 51
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GOP 49
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Now Comes the Hard Part

As you probably already know, Rep. James "Mike" Johnson (R-LA) (who's that?) is now Speaker of the House. He was elected yesterday afternoon on a straight party line vote, 220-209, with no defections on either side among members voting. First off, congratulations, Mike, for wrangling the cats. And for your sake, we hope there isn't a motion to vacate in your first 24 hours, at least. We also hope you don't regret your decision to run for at least a week.

Johnson's key quality that got him over the finish line is that nobody in the Republican caucus knows him. He is a complete nonentity. As a direct consequence of that, although he has no firm friends, he also has no enemies. Given the infighting in the House and the desire of the Republicans to finally have a speaker, having no enemies turned out to be the key.

That said, having no personal enemies doesn't mean Johnson is some kind of milquetoasty guy who is a hail-fellow-well-met type. That was Rep. Tom Emmer (R-MN), and he lasted only 6 hours. Johnson is Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) but without the being a jerk part and without the sex scandal part. He is one of the most conservative members of the House, one of the most religious members of the House, and was one of the biggest players in the effort to deny Joe Biden the election he won. After he was elected as speaker, Johnson said: "The Bible is very clear that God is the one that raises up those in authority." In other words, he doesn't feel he won an election by 11 votes. He feels God ordained him for the job.

Johnson also exists at an interesting place on the Freedom Caucus spectrum, so much so we had to go back and rewrite part of yesterday's post. The Freedom Caucus is something of a secretive organization, like the Illuminati, or Skull and Bones, or The Black Hand, or the Royal Antediluvian Order of Buffaloes. They don't publish a list of members and they don't answer questions about who is and is not a member. They don't even meet at the Capitol, usually, so as to keep even their colleagues guessing. As a result, Johnson is listed as a Freedom Caucuser by some sources and not as a Freedom Caucuser by others. Our guess is that he likes to keep his status a little murky, though certainly he's on the same page as the FCers, politically. Anyhow, it seems he's "FC" enough to get the FCers' voters, but "not FC" enough that the moderates could swallow hard, vote for him, and say, "See! I held out for a non-FCer!"

Of course, the other thing that Johnson did well, besides toeing the FC/not FC line, is kiss up to Donald Trump. After Johnson's election, Rep. Pete Aguilar (D-CA) said the speaker's race had become all about who was best at appeasing Trump, which seems to be on the mark to us. When he said that, a bunch of Freedom Caucusers stood up and applauded.

Now comes the hard part: passing bills that can become law. Doing whatever the Freedom Caucus wants is not likely to get any bills passed. And any bills Johnson manages to pass somehow also have to pass the Democratic Senate. Getting anything done will require high-level negotiations that he has no experience with and may not be able to pull off. As one example, he strongly supports aid to Israel, but strongly opposes aid to Ukraine. However, the bill the Senate is going to send over contains both. Scrapping the Ukraine aid and sending it back is never going to fly over there and even if it did, Joe Biden would veto it. Sen. John Kennedy (R-LA) commented on Johnson, saying: "The real work begins now. To pass anything, you have to go get Democratic votes. You don't have to be Einstein's cousin to figure that out."

Nobody expects Johnson to go after Democratic votes. And given his track record of opposing all abortions, opposing same-sex marriage, opposing LGBT rights, opposing the common core educational standards, opposing marijuana, denying climate change, and opposing raising the minimum wage, he is not likely to get many of them of the Democrats' own volition. However, he is not all negative. He supports school prayer, blocking people from Muslim countries entering the U.S., cutting corporate taxes, and, again, is wild about Donald Trump. He is an evangelical Christian and is married to Kelly Lary, a licensed pastoral counselor.

As a backbencher from a second-tier state, Johnson has a small staff and few connections. He will now have to hire many new staffers quickly and lead a deeply fractured caucus against a unified opposition and hostile Senate. Maybe he will rise to meet the challenge. Volodymyr Zelenskyy did it. It can be done. But one House staffer said he got the job because "we have reached the 'any warm body' stage." That doesn't bode well for Johnson. When Paul Ryan suddenly became speaker, he discovered that he was totally unprepared for the job—and he had been in Congress for 15 years and had just run for vice president. A newbie he was not. It is highly possible that until Johnson figures out where the levers of power are and how to operate them, Majority Leader Steve Scalise, also from Louisiana, will actually run the show. Cajun style.

One thing Johnson is undoubtedly totally unprepared for is "member management." He knows little of the volume of member priorities, problems, rivalries, and interpersonal dynamics in his caucus. He will have to learn fast, while dealing with Ukraine, Israel, and funding the government. Success in a job where any one member can file an MTV often comes down to keeping all his fractious members happy. He will also have to learn about Turtle management, which won't be easy, especially when Turtle has been around for a while. And dealing with the media. While traveling around the country and raising gobs of money.

Speaking of money, Axios has a nice chart showing fundraising as of Sept. 30 for select members of the House. Here it is:

House fundraising for select members

As you can see, Johnson is not a powerhouse fundraiser and he doesn't have the contacts to become one quickly. Sure, he can ask Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) for his list of donors, but approaching a donor, introducing yourself, having the donor size you up, and making a pitch takes time and skill that we don't know if he has. Big donors sometimes want something in return for their donations. Making promises you can't keep is not a great way to start on a new job. The donors tend to keep track of promises politicians make to them in return for money. Johnson is also deeply religious and on the whole, billionaires tend to be more focused on this world rather than the next one. It will take some practice to get the pitch right.

What will make things more complicated is that Johnson is a blank slate. The donors don't know who he is and neither do the voters. The Democrats are preparing to help him out with the PR. Johnson was once a right-wing radio talk host. If the Democrats can get recordings of some of his old shows, full of fiery rhetoric, they will try real hard to define him as a loony religious zealot. Republicans will try to define him as a nice family man who goes to church. But audio clips of Johnson saying way-out things may make a bigger impression than audio or video clips of him kissing babies and petting puppies (or vice versa). So Johnson has to fight a battle about his public image while he is trying to keep peace in his caucus, raise gobs of money, and pass bills. It's asking a lot from him. Maybe he is a quick learner. We'll soon find out. Remember that Newt Gingrich, Dennis Hastert, John Boehner, Paul Ryan, and Kevin McCarthy didn't have what it takes, and they were all far more experienced than Johnson.

Some members of the GOP caucus have been pretty open about wanting a weak speaker, basically giving all the power to the committee chairs. They may have (unexpectedly) gotten their wish. But a decentralized caucus may end up being a dozen fiefdoms all fighting with the others. We shall see. (V)

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