October 25, 2023 | Reading Time: 3 minutes

‘It was not worth rolling the dice’

Mike Johnson is set to be the next speaker. Was the Democrats’ gamble worth it? The politics editor of the Washington Monthly says no.

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Yesterday, as I was interviewing Bill Scher, the news came of the House Republicans’ nominee to be the next speaker dropping out. I had barely finished asking the politics editor of the Washington Monthly a second question when Tom Emmer, the No. 3 Republican, ended his run after a pressure campaign by Donald Trump. Louisiana’s Mike Johnson is now the nominee. He has more polish than Jim Jordan but he’s just as bad. 

The House is expected to vote today, and Johnson, who was deeply involved in the J6 insurrection, is expected to win the speakership on the first ballot. So I’m going to rush out this interview with Bill. My focus was on the Democratic side of the speaker fiasco. As you will see, Bill thought the Democrats were taking a risk in deciding to push out former Speaker Kevin McCarthy. Bill has a knack for being right.

JS: Greg Sargent wrote Tuesday that Hakeem Jeffries’ strategy is working — that allowing the Republicans to feel the consequences of their bad behavior is pushing them toward some kind of bipartisan arrangement of the House. What are your thoughts on that?

BS: It’s premature to declare that Jeffries’ move paid off until we know who the next speaker is and whether that person will be a source of stability or chaos. Joining the Gaetz 8 to vacate the speaker was a gamble I would not have taken. All Democrats can hope for out of this Republican majority is to avert a debt default and keep the government open. While the initial politics of either would be bad for Republicans, anything that’s a drag on GDP could hurt Joe Biden’s reelection. 

The fear that Democrats have had is a nihilistic Republican conference that was willing to burn everything down in order to thwart the president. Since Kevin McCarthy struck a debt-limit deal and passed a bipartisan bill to keep the government open, those fears were being assuaged. From my perspective, he was meeting expectations, and it was not worth rolling the dice on an unknown successor. 

Sometimes gambles pay off. We could get a speaker unwilling to instigate a protracted shutdown (also support aid to Ukraine and validate the next presidential election). We could even get someone installed with bipartisan support, if relative GOP moderates get fed up with the antics of the far right. But that has yet to be determined.

JS: There is some utility to allowing the House Republicans to feel the consequences of their bad behavior, no? The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee seems to think that public exposure of the chaos is the path to reclaiming the majority.

BS: Sure, it’s politically useful to Democrats for the Republican Party to be a dumpster fire, but only up until the point when regular voters get burned, because presidents tend to get blamed for everything. If we have a months-long shutdown because the GOP tail wags the dog, or because the House can’t even open for business, that can take a big chunk out of GDP. And if Biden’s response is, “don’t blame me,” some voters may say, but you told me you were going to restore bipartisanship and end chaos. So it’s perversely fun now to watch Republicans-in-Disarray, but it still could get out of hand.

JS: Breaking news: Tom Emmer is out. Now what? The Democrats seem to remain open to revisiting whether to empower Temporary Speaker Patrick McHenry, a McCarthyite? That might bring us back to your original point about the need to leave Kevin McCarthy alone.

BS: Empowering McHenry would likely be a win for Democrats. And if that offer comes from the Republicans, the Democrats should take it. Moreover, I do not think Democrats should get hung up on winning “concessions.” Because what really do they need? Burying the impeachment inquiry? There’s zero evidence of 218 votes for impeachment (and even if there was, zero chance of conviction in the Senate.) If McHenry will keep the government open, adhere to the debt limit deal, and move Biden’s foreign aid package, that’s all they need. They don’t need more committee seats or other legislation to have a good 2024. They need stability and a good trajectory for the economy.


John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.

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