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Political Wire logo Mike Johnson Is Actually in the GOP Mainstream
Can Mike Johnson Be a Rainmaker?
Gaza’s Tunnels Loom Large for Israel’s Ground Forces
Religion Is Front and Center for Mike Johnson
Asa Hutchinson Loses His Campaign Manager
Bill Barr Says Trump Has ‘Limited’ Verbal Skills

Johnson's Carriage May Soon Turn into a Pumpkin

The paint is barely dry on his new door plaque, and yet Speaker of the House Mike Johnson (R-LA) has hit the ground running, and gotten his very first bill passed by the House. The vote was 210-199, with exactly one person crossing the aisle (Rep. Ken Buck, R-CO). The bill isn't about some trivial matter, like renaming a post office or changing House members' parking assignments. It is a broad-ranging plan for energy-related issues.

It is entirely possible that Johnson is feeling pretty good about shepherding a bill through the House so quickly. Maybe he's even telling himself: "Hey, this isn't so hard!" But the honeymoon isn't going to last. At some point soon, the clock will strike 12, the fantasy will be over, and the rubber (or, maybe, the glass slipper) will hit the road. Because, of course, this bill is never, ever going to become law.

Even if you don't know the contents of the bill, you could probably figure out that it's dead on arrival. First of all, comprehensive energy plans don't fall out of the sky. This bill was cued up and ready to go, to give the new speaker (whoever they turned out to be) a "victory" and some momentum. Further, you don't put together a near-unanimous Republican vote in just 24 hours, with virtually no whipping. Only an extremely partisan bill could possibly glide through so quickly.

And extremely partisan is exactly what the bill is. Not only does it incorporate no Democratic priorities (except, perhaps, a slight increase in funding for the Department of Energy), it actually reverses previous Democratic legislation. Most obviously, the bill would slash funding for green technology and for global warming mitigation. And so, it's never, ever going to pass the Senate and it's never, ever going to get a presidential signature. Put another way, this wasn't actually governing or legislation, even if it was dressed up that way. No, it was just posturing. We already knew Johnson would be perfectly capable at that; that's the easy part of the job.

Yesterday, Johnson also dipped his toes into the deeper part of the swimming pool, meeting with Joe Biden to discuss funding for Ukraine and Israel. After the meeting, the Speaker said that he wants to split funding for Israel and Ukraine into two bills, but that he definitely wants to send money to both. Let's see, that's one idea that many Democrats don't like (splitting the money) and one that many Republicans don't like (sending money to both, since "both" includes Ukraine). This does not seem a promising start.

Johnson's got some other troubles lurking beneath the surface. To start, the Speaker may be far-far-right, but for some Republicans, he's not far-far-right enough. In particular, Johnson is father to a(n adopted) Black son. And after the George Floyd murder, he told the press:

I was outraged. I don't think anyone can view the video and objectively come to any other conclusion but that it was an act of murder. And I felt that initially, as everyone did and it's so disturbing. And, you know, the underlying issues beneath that are something that the country is now struggling with. And I think it's something we have to look at very soberly and with a lot of empathy. And I'm glad to see that's happening around the country.

To some (maybe many) on the right, the notion that the U.S. might still have a racism problem does not sit right. And so, Johnson is being excoriated by many right-wingers, who accuse him of either "internalizing" the left's narrative on race, or just being an out-and-out pawn of the left. You know you're a very special kind of person when you look at Mike Johnson and say "liberal snowflake!"

Meanwhile, the Democrats think they have a political bonanza on their hands, what with the Republican Party having just made a theocratic fascist and insurrection enabler the highest-ranking member of the party. And they are already running an ad in New York, trying to handcuff various swing-district representatives to the Speaker:

We don't really know who is behind Courage for America (the PAC that paid for the ad), but it's pretty impressive that they pulled this together so rapidly. Were they also working on ads about Tom Emmer, Byron Donalds and all the other candidates, just so they could be prepared for anything?

So, there are plenty of folks who already have their knives out when it comes to Johnson. Meanwhile, when it comes to his GOP colleagues, well, the contentious speaker fight may be in the past, but the lingering resentments are not. The non-crazy Republicans fell into line behind Johnson so as to keep the Party from further embarrassment. But there are plenty of members who are still furious with the Freedom Caucus, and in particular with Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL). In addition, all of the wannabe speakers—Steve Scalise (R-LA), Jim Jordan (R-OH), Tom Emmer (R-MN)—upset colleagues, including some who were previously supportive, with their actions during the whole fiasco. Cat herding is hard enough, but when the cats hate each other? And Johnson is stuck with the same narrow margin of error that McCarthy was, not to mention the same reluctance to reach across the aisle.

Finally, and more broadly, the fundamental operating dynamic of the House has changed radically from where it was just a month ago. For a fairly long time, the "Republican Party" has really been a coalition of two distinct factions: (1) the group that wants to govern, but in a very conservative way, and (2) the group that cares little for governing and values only bomb throwing and power for power's sake. Basically, it's the neo-Reaganites and the Trumpers. And the deal, such as it is, has been that the neo-Reaganites got nearly all of the trappings of power (leadership posts, committee chairs) while the Trumpers got to set most of the party's agenda. This is why little gets done when Republicans are in power, even when they have the trifecta.

The equilibrium was destroyed when the Trumpers began to push back at letting the neo-Reaganites monopolize the trappings of power, while the neo-Reaganites (in the person of Kevin McCarthy) decided that maybe it didn't work to let the Trumpers set the agenda all the time. Now that the dust has settled, the Trumpers have the trappings of power (even though they don't really want them) AND they are setting the agenda (at least, in the House). How will this work out? Who knows, but it's the extremely inexperienced Johnson who gets to figure it out.

It is very plausible that some, or many, House Republicans do things that put their majority in danger. In fact, at the moment, we'd say it's considerably more likely that the Democrats reclaim the majority in 2024 than it is that the Republicans hold it. The fact is, given that the modern-day GOP's core competency is opposing things, they are better off in the minority.

It is also plausible that the neo-Reaganites reach the breaking point, and decide they are no longer willing to dance the dance with the Trumpers. If so, the consequences would be... profound. Whatever happens will certainly be interesting to watch, as Johnson has been handed the sort of challenge faced by another Johnson, namely Lyndon, circa Nov. 1963, and he'll tackle it with the sort of skill set owned by a different Johnson, namely Andrew, circa Nov. 1863. This could get ugly. (Z)

Maine Site of Latest Mass Shooting

As you have undoubtedly heard by now, there was yet another mass shooting, this one in Lewiston, ME—a smallish town about 40 miles north of Portland, and about 40 miles east of New Hampshire. The incident left at least 18 people dead, and that number is expected to grow. By contrast, Maine had 29 homicides in all of 2022. The alleged shooter, Robert Card, is still at large and is the target of an intensive manhunt.

There have been two politics-related developments connected with this news. First, Rep. Jared Golden (D-ME), perhaps the most centrist Democrat in the House, announced that he has changed positions on assault weapons, and now supports a ban. On one hand, this was close to home, so it's not surprising that this has opened Golden's eyes. On the other hand, is this substantively different from what happened in Uvalde or Las Vegas or Buffalo? Why was Golden able to look the other way so easily when it was Texans, Nevadans and New Yorkers being slaughtered?

Second, Mike Johnson might be a rookie when it comes to some aspects of his new job, but he showed himself to be a veteran when it comes to mass shooting responses. Appearing on Sean Hannity's show, Johnson said: "Our prayers have been with the families of that tragedy. Everyone in the House was dialed in on that all day, and it's really something. So, just to address that at the front end. We'd be remiss if we didn't mention it." He also added: "At the end of the day, the problem is the human heart. It's not guns, it's not the weapons. At the end of the day, we have to protect the right of the citizens to protect themselves and that's the Second Amendment. And that's why our party stands so strongly for that." So, that's: (1) thoughts and prayers, and (2) blaming something other than the guns.

Now, the part of the write-up where we talk about what might plausibly change as a result of this latest tragedy, or what good might plausibly come out of it:

This space intentionally left blank.


One Zombie Presidential Campaign Ends, Another Begins

We're getting close to the third Republican candidates' debate—which, it was announced yesterday, will be moderated by Kristen Welker (very good), Lester Holt (good) and Hugh Hewitt (less than worthless). Apparently, the fellows who have no hope of making the cut don't want another round of embarrassing "well, he didn't make it, didn't come close" notes in debate previews. We say that because Perry Johnson bailed out earlier this week and yesterday, Larry Elder did the same.

There is absolutely no way Elder thought he was actually going to win this thing. He's a reactionary and a blowhard but he's not stupid. He is also a confirmed Trumper (and, in his withdrawal announcement, endorsed the former president). So, in contrast to the campaign of Chris Christie, the point of Elder '24 was not to try to drag the party into the post-Trump era. Presumably, Elder wanted a little free publicity for his podcast and his various other grifts... er, projects. However, that plan was foiled when the RNC decided that they weren't going to allow every minor candidate to make the stage. So, the right-wing talker got virtually nothing out of his presidential "bid," and now he's done. The tens and tens of voters who planned to cast their ballots for Elder will now have to find another candidate.

At almost exactly the same time Elder was pushing the eject button, Rep. Dean Phillips (D-MN) officially filed to run for the Democratic presidential nomination. So, Joe Biden now has two "opponents" who are not total unknowns: Marianne Williamson and Phillips.

We do not believe that Phillips thinks he has a path to victory. Even if a meteorite falls out of the sky and lands on top of Biden and Kamala Harris, the Democrats are not going to nominate the Representative as their 2024 candidate. Similarly, we do not believe that Phillips has some "good of the party" agenda in mind here—say, to help the Biden campaign work on its messaging/discipline, or to convince Biden to drop out by showing there's a lot of "anybody but Biden" voters out there.

No, the only thing that makes sense is that Phillips is running the Rep. Austin Scott (R-GA) playbook: step into the (partial) vacuum created by a lack of candidates for a high-profile position, get some publicity from that, and then leverage that publicity into... some future benefit. In Phillips' case, we would guess he is trying to get some headlines in advance of running for the U.S. Senate seat currently held by Tina Smith (DFL-MN). She'll be up for reelection in 2026, she'd be 69 at the start of a new term, and she's never been wildly enthusiastic about being in the Senate anyhow. So it could very well be an open seat in 2026, and if it's not, well, Phillips can cross that bridge when he comes to it. (Z)

House 2024: It Is About Time to Put up or Shut Up

Primary season is around the corner, and before that is the holiday season, when it takes a lot more time to get things done. So, we're getting close to the point of no return when it comes to the 2024 House elections.

We actually mean that in two ways. First, if there's going to be monkeying with the various district maps, that needs to be wrapped up fairly soon so that candidates can decide where they will run, or if they will run at all. And there were two bits of news on the district map front yesterday. The story that will gladden Democrats' hearts is that Georgia's district maps have been struck down as racial gerrymanders by U.S. District Judge Steve Jones. He decreed that the state must redraw the maps by Dec. 8, and that the new maps must have an additional majority-Black congressional district in the western part of the Atlanta metro, along with two more majority-Black state Senate districts and five more majority-Black state House districts.

Georgia officials are still deciding whether or not to appeal the order. Presumably they will, although if they do, the situation in Georgia bears much resemblance to the one in Alabama. The state is very clearly gerrymandered, and the number of Black-majority political districts hasn't changed since 2010, despite the fact that all of the population growth has been among Black Georgians. In other words, as in Alabama, it's clear that something fishy—and racially based—is going on here. So, we would expect any appeals to fail.

On the other side of that particular coin, the North Carolina legislature has officially approved the maps that could give the GOP up to four more seats in the U.S. House. Keep in mind that the legal issue here involves state, and not federal, law, and that what changed is that conservatives got control of the North Carolina Supreme Court. So, just as the Georgia ruling is likely to stand, the North Carolina maps are likely to remain in place, too. There is a pending federal case, and it could wend its way through the courts AND lead to the North Carolina maps being struck down. But that's a lot of maybes, and the odds of a resolution before the 2024 maps have to be locked are pretty low.

And that leads directly into our second meaning of "put up or shut up." The time has also come for individual candidates to decide if they are running or not. Taking a look at the North Carolina situation, and reaching the same conclusion we did, Rep. Jeff Jackson (D-NC) decided that he's in trouble, thanks to the new maps. So, he'll be retiring from the House, and instead will run for Attorney General in his home state. The Tar Heel State hasn't elected a Republican AG since the 19th century, and Jackson is far and away the best-known candidate in the AG race (current AG Josh Stein is running for governor). Consequently, people who know North Carolina politics far better than we do say Jackson is a near shoo-in for the job.

Also announcing his retirement yesterday was Rep. John Sarbanes (D-MD). Representing the D+10 MD-03, and a member of a dynastic Maryland political family, he was not in danger of losing his reelection bid. Having served 9 terms, he's just tired of the ongoing circus that is the current House of Representatives. So, he's done, and some other Democrat will take his place in Jan. 2025.

And finally, former wannabe senator Blake Masters is now wannabe representative Blake Masters. The Arizona Republican decided that another run for the Senate was not right for him, especially given how crowded that race is, and so will try for the seat Rep. Debbie Lesko (R) is vacating in the R+10 AZ-08. We presume, by virtue of his name recognition and his Peter Thiel-funded PAC, Masters will be the favorite. Whatever happens, however, that district will be represented by a Trumper. And Kari Lake's life just got a little easier, as next year's U.S. Senate primary just got a little less tough. (Z)

I Read the News Today, Oh Boy: Witch Hunt

Last week's puzzle was apparently pretty doable, as many people did it successfully. If you didn't quite figure it out yet, here are a few comments we got in e-mails:

K.H. in Golden, CO: Whether you decide to include me as a "winner" please: I don't expect some kind of Spanish Inquisition.

J.D.F. in San Francisco, CA: Beautiful plumage!

J.H. in Lake Forest, CA: Not really sure of this week's theme, but I'm wondering, "Do you have any albatross?"

D.D. in Carversville, PA: See, this contest is not dead yet.

A.C. in Columbus, OH: The answer exploded in my head like the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch once I saw "parrot" in the last headline.

P.L in Skövde, Sweden: I tried to ask ChatGPT whether a certain British comedy group had any connection to piranhas and got this answer: "I'm not aware of any specific connection or recurring theme related to piranhas in their work." So much for AI's understanding of comedy...

In case you still don't have it, here's the full rundown from F.Y. in Ann Arbor, MI, who has applied to be our Staff Assistant, Mood-Lightening (seemingly forgetting that the Staff Mathematician already has a pretty good handle on strategies for lightening the mood):

There's a reference to a Monty Python sketch in each headline:
  • Piranhas in House Turn on Each Other — "Piranha Brothers"
  • Biden Tries to Nudge Congress — "Nudge, Nudge, [Wink Wink]"
  • Trump Legal News: The Cheese Stands Alone — "Cheese Shop"
  • Butler Walks Away — "The Ministry of Silly Walks"
  • Spam Maps — "Spam"
  • Parrot Lincoln? We Think Not — "Dead Parrot"
The Spam piece immediately brought that particular classic to mind, and after the next clue, well, what could I say, but "I'm a lumberjack and I'm OK. I sleep all night and I work all day."

This theme certainly helped raise the mood, giving me an excuse to revisit the library of Monty Python gems. My all-time favorite is "Argument Clinic." Oh wait, no it isn't...

Thanks, yet again, F.Y.! Note that the excised headline we mentioned last week, "To Tweet, or to Twit?", would have added "Upper Class Twit of The Year" to the list. The headline for this item, meanwhile, is a little bit of a cheat, since it refers to a scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail rather than a sketch from the show.

Here are the first 10 readers to get it correct:

  1. J.W. in Bergisch Gladbach, Germany
  2. J.O. in Cleveland, OH
  3. K.H. in Golden
  4. F.W. in Franklin, WV
  5. L.B. in Veldhoven, Netherlands
  6. P.F. in Las Vegas, NV
  7. J.N. in Zionsville, IN
  8. J.M. in New York City, NY
  9. A.W. in Pittsburgh, PA
  10. D.C. in Teaneck, NJ

Congrats, all! To celebrate, you might want to go see the aforementioned Monty Python and the Holy Grail in the theater; after all, next month is its 48½th anniversary.

As to this week's theme, we'll tell you four things. First, the Maine headline is not part of this week's puzzle. We are not going to turn a mass shooting into a game. Second, readers are considerably more likely to get the general idea than they are to get the precise answer (though the general idea is good enough to get credit). Third, and this is the hint, even if you figure out the general idea, it's very, very hard to figure out how one of the six non-Maine headlines fits with the theme (but It does!). Fourth, and finally, this theme fits in the category of Sports & Leisure.

Send your guesses here. (Z)

This Week in Schadenfreude: Biden Is a Real Joker

Or, at least, someone working for his campaign is. The campaign has created a unit called Biden-Harris HQ, which is dedicated to "digital rapid response." This often means pushing back against falsehoods, or highlighting bad behavior from the opposition, but it also means a fair bit of snarkiness, which is right up our alley.

As part of the effort to snarkify the world of politics, Biden-Harris HQ created an account on the platform formerly known as Twitter. And, since they'd already ventured onto a social media platform that is overrun by lies, hatred and right-wing propaganda, they figured they would do it again. So, they created an account on... Truth Social. The very first message was: "Well. Let's see how this goes. Converts welcome!"

And the answer to that implied question, at least thus far, is: "Pretty good!" The fact that the social media platform owned by Donald Trump is now being used to promote the Biden campaign would be schadenfreude enough. But now, Biden-Harris HQ actually has more followers on Truth Social than... Trump '24. That's pretty damn funny.

As the Biden campaign explained in a statement: "There's very little 'truth' happening on Truth Social, but at least now it'll be a little fun." We find nothing about that assertion that we can object to. (Z)

This Week in Freudenfreude: The Student Becomes the Teacher

This June, the school board in Hanover, VA, adopted stringent new Moms-for-Liberty-backed rules that made it much harder to add, and much easier to remove, books to the district's libraries. Then, they turned around and ordered these 19 books be removed:

  • A Court of Mist and Fury by Sarah Maas
  • A Court of Silver Flames by Sarah Maas
  • All Boys Aren't Blue by George M. Johnson
  • Choke by Chuck Palahniuk
  • Flamer by Mike Curato
  • Haunted by Chuck Palahniuk
  • Identical by Ellen Hopkins
  • Infandous by Elena Arnold
  • Let's Talk About It: The Teen's Guide to Sex, Relationships and Being Human by Erika Moen and Matthew Nolan
  • Looking for Alaska by John Green
  • Lucky by Alice Seabold
  • Me and Earl and the Dying Girl by Jesse Andrews
  • Red Hood by Elena Arnold
  • Sold by Patrica McCormick
  • The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
  • This Book is Gay by Juno Dawon
  • Tilt by Ellen Hopkins
  • Tricks by Ellen Hopkins
  • Water For Elephants by Sarah Gruen

We are not familiar with most of these books, but we have a pretty good idea as to what got, say, Flamer banned. That said, we do know what Toni Morrison wrote about, and it wasn't LGBTQ issues.

Of course, one of the primary effects of book bans is to dramatically increase interest in the banned books. That was certainly the impact on a Hanover Girl Scout named Kate (whose last name is being kept secret because the type of people who terrorize school boards are also the type of people who might well threaten a 14-year-old). And so, Kate tracked down some number of the banned books, read them, and found them enlightening. "It's really important in education to understand things from other perspectives," she explains.

Being something of a go-getter, Kate then did some networking with local businesses and community leaders and created a "banned book nook." You can see the website here, if you'd like; basically, local students can access e-copies of the banned books, or they can visit one of two local businesses to check out a hard copy, free of charge.

In short, thanks to the efforts of a young lady who decided that the status quo wasn't going to get it done, a bunch of banned books are now getting vastly more readers than would otherwise have been the case. That's one way to fight back against Klanned Karenhood, a pretty darn good one.

Have a good weekend, all! (Z)

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---The Votemaster and Zenger
Oct26 Now Comes the Hard Part
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Oct25 Biden Tells Granite State to Kick Rocks
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Oct25 The War in Israel, Part IV: He Who Controls (Mis)information...
Oct25 The War in Israel, Part V: Readers Weigh In, Again
Oct24 Eight Men Out
Oct24 Trump Legal News: A Saucerful of Secrets
Oct24 Presidential Field Is Minus One Johnson...
Oct24 ...Meanwhile, Pence, Scott Go Where Campaigns Go to Die
Oct24 The War in Israel, Part I: The Future of the World Is in the Hands of 8 or 10 People
Oct24 The War in Israel, Part II: The Buck Stops Here
Oct24 The War in Israel, Part III: Readers Weigh In
Oct23 Here Are the Nine Contestants
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Oct23 Case about Disqualifying Trump Can Go Forward in Colorado
Oct23 Sen. Scott Is Toast
Oct23 Supreme Court Wades into Social Media Disinformation
Oct23 Dean Phillips May Challenge Biden in the Primaries
Oct22 Jordan Gets Rivered
Oct22 Trump Gets Cheesed
Oct22 Sunday Mailbag
Oct20 Piranhas in House Turn on Each Other
Oct20 Biden Tries to Nudge Congress
Oct20 Trump Legal News: The Cheese Stands Alone
Oct20 Butler Walks Away
Oct20 I Read the News Today, Oh Boy: Spam Maps
Oct20 This Week in Freudenfreude: Parrot Lincoln? We Think Not
Oct19 If at First You Don't Succeed, Fail, Fail Again
Oct19 Speaker Mess Produces Its First Bit of Fallout
Oct19 Biden Goes to Israel
Oct19 Crematoria of Democracy?
Oct19 Scavenger Hunt, Part VII: Pithy Quotes
Oct18 Error, Jordan
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Oct18 Biden Will Take a Pass on Jordan