May 1, 2024 | Reading Time: 3 minutes

Mike Johnson is still the speaker because Hakeem Jeffries allows it

Don't confuse a demonstration of power with theater. Marjorie Taylor Greene was never a threat to Johnson, not without Jeffries’ say so.

Images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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Georgia Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene took the next step today in removing Mike Johnson as House speaker. This play is part of a small story in a larger narrative about the politics of revolt inside the Republican Party. While that tale is worth telling fully, this one isn’t. 

We can spend our limited time talking about why Greene is pissed about Johnson’s leadership in the passage last week of military aide to Ukraine, contrary to the interests of Donald Trump and the Russian despot whom he openly serves. Or we can talk about brass tacks. 

Greene has power when Hakeem Jeffries says she does. 

Jeffries is, of course, the House minority leader. In his short tenure, he has already shown potential for rivaling the greatest speaker of the 21st century, Democrat Nancy Pelosi, who was also his mentor. He has held his caucus together, providing calm and steady leadership in the storm of chaos brought by the Republicans and their presumptive nominee.

We can spend our limited time talking about why Greene is pissed about Johnson’s leadership in the passage last week of military aide to Ukraine, contrary to the interests of Donald Trump and the Russian despot whom he openly serves. Or we can talk about brass tacks. 

Yesterday, he said his caucus would vote to table a motion to vacate the chair. It takes only one member to start that process, but it takes a majority to finish the job of ousting the speaker. The Republicans are shattered. Without the Democrats, they get nothing. “At this moment, upon completion of our national security work, the time has come to turn the page on this chapter of Pro-Putin Republican obstruction,” Jeffries said. “If [Greene] invokes the motion, it will not succeed.” 

That word – “if” – is doing work that’s worth spelling it out.

He knew Greene would. Everyone knew. Jeffries said his caucus would save Johnson a full day before she invoked the motion. This is a break from the norm, according to Roll Call. It “marks a departure from the wait-and-see approach that Democratic leaders have been taking.” Jeffries didn’t wait this time. He neutralized her before she acted. 

That’s shade, though subtle – as if the Democratic leader were making a statement without being heavy-handed about it. The Republicans say they’re in charge. Johnson says he’s running the House. But, though he’s speaker, he can’t restore regular order. Only Hakeem Jeffries can.

To be sure, Greene is going to make a stink. Stinks are what make her an effective Republican fundraiser. “Next week, I am going to be calling this motion to vacate,” she said. “Absolutely calling it!” She went on: “If the Democrats want to elect him speaker (and some Republicans want to support the Democrats’ chosen speaker), I’ll give them the chance to do it … Americans deserve to see the uniparty on full display.” 

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But let’s not confuse the demonstration of power with theater. Greene was never a threat to Mike Johnson, not without Jeffries’ say so first. 

The irony is that while Greene makes a stink about the speaker being the pocket of the Democrats, no one is noticing that she’s kinda sorta right. “Mike Johnson is officially the Democrat speaker of the House,” she wrote. “Here is their official endorsement of his speakership. What slimy backroom deal did Johnson make for the Democrats’ support?”

Johnson isn’t a Democrat. There was no “backroom deal,” as far as anyone knows. Otherwise, there’s truth in that. Johnson doesn’t control his fate. Jeffries does. He made possible the ouster of Kevin McCarthy, Johnson’s predecessor. He could greenlight Johnson’s, too, given the right conditions. If Greene were smart, she’d stop giving Jeffries so much power. She’s not, so Johnson is serving at Jeffries’ pleasure.

You could say Johnson didn’t need Jeffries to save his speakership, because he was already outmaneuvering Greene among Republicans. Axios reported that “a sizable number of GOP lawmakers cast doubt on the odds of Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) pulling the trigger on her motion to vacate Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.), with some arguing her efforts lost momentum after members went home for recess.” And:

Greene told reporters she felt members would hear from constituents back home in support of her motion shortly before House lawmakers left town. But multiple members said GOP voters have largely been against another speaker ouster attempt this Congress. “Even trolls online have said they don’t want it,” a GOP member told Axios.

All this overlooks brass tacks. 

It didn’t take a majority of the majority to remove McCarthy. All it took was a handful of Republican cranks to join all the Democrats. And all the Democrats voted with the cranks because Jeffries said to. If Trump were to call for Johnson’s head, it wouldn’t matter. The Republicans are shattered. The Democrats are united. What Jeffries says goes.

You could say Jeffries, by saving Johnson’s speakership, helped Greene continue to act terribly. But you could also say that, by helping her to continue acting terribly, he’s letting her say the quiet part out loud. Neither she nor Johnson, not even Trump, is really in charge. She’s saying what Jeffries wouldn’t allow himself to say, because he’s a leader who understands how to use power, not an insurgent who doesn’t. 

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

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