Mike Johnson stays composed: Queries linger on managing a small and rowdy GOP caucus

The ongoing struggle for control⁤ within⁤ the‍ House GOP continues as ⁢Speaker​ Mike Johnson⁤ faces ⁢challenges navigating⁢ the party’s diverse demands,​ from fiscal ⁣responsibility to foreign aid. ‍Amid⁢ ideological divides and ‌strategic disagreements, Johnson remains ‌focused​ on articulating a ‌conservative vision⁣ and ​fostering unity⁤ to address the nation’s pressing ⁣issues. Amidst the internal‌ strife in the House GOP, Speaker ​Mike Johnson grapples ‍with a range​ of party ‍demands,⁤ from ‍fiscal ⁣responsibility to⁤ foreign aid. Despite ideological contrasts and strategic discord, Johnson ⁤maintains his⁢ commitment to outlining a conservative vision and promoting​ cohesion to ‌tackle ⁣critical national concerns.

“Like Saturn,” wrote the Genevan journalist Jacques Mallet du Pan, “the Revolution devours its own children.” For a few fateful weeks, House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-LA) looked like he was the next entree on the menu.

The House Republican majority was hanging by a thread. Johnson’s grasp on the speaker’s gavel looked just as tenuous. Republican lawmakers were clamoring for the 52–year-old’s ouster. “This is not personal against Mike Johnson,” Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) told reporters in March. “He’s a very good man. And I have respect for him as a person. But he is not doing the job.”

Although there was little indication that this was the majority sentiment within the House Republican Conference, it didn’t need to be. It took just eight Republicans to bring down the last speaker, paving the way for Johnson’s improbable ascent. But then, just as improbably, Johnson survived.

(Illustration by Dean MacAdam)

When the Washington Examiner met with Johnson in his office in mid-May, he was already looking to put the failed motion to vacate in the rearview mirror. “The first six months of my speakership, we had very difficult things to do, very complicated things, sometimes controversial things. But we had to get them done,” Johnson said. “We did. And now we turn the page, and in the next six months is a much easier agenda for us.”

“As is always the case in an election year, especially in a presidential election year, you move more into more legislation that does not have a good chance to become law, you know is referred to as messaging bills,” he continued. “There will be a lot of that. There will be issues that help show the contrast between our side and the other side. Those are things that unify our side and often divide the other.”

Johnson was quick to enumerate several examples of what he prefers to call “vision casting” rather than messaging. “There will be lots of votes on securing the border,” he said. “There will be lots of votes on confronting China. We’ll be dealing with this antisemitism scourge that has overtaken the land and pushing the White House to be more resolute with regard to foreign affairs.”

The speaker even allowed himself to look past November, contemplating a federal government under Republican control and headed by former — and, in his projection, future — President Donald Trump.

“We, of course, would like to tackle all the challenges from rising crime to rising cost of living to energy policy and all the rest,” Johnson said. “But we won’t have an opportunity until January, and I’m absolutely convinced that we will at that point. So, the remainder of the six months here will be preparing to govern. [For] when we do have unified government, and we have Trump in the White House, a Republican-led Senate, and a larger majority of the House.”

Johnson nevertheless realizes it will take more than “vision casting” to convince the electorate Republicans deserve this opportunity.

“But we have big challenges facing the country,” he told the Washington Examiner. “And you can make an argument we have the greatest collection of challenges of the modern era, maybe since World War II. Or maybe since the Civil War. Maybe they’re right. But we have to try breaking into the middle of that and showing the American people that we can be trusted to solve those problems.”

Some contentious battles do still lie ahead. The 2025 federal budget will test the bipartisan alliance that tabled the motion to vacate against Johnson, derided by critics as “the uniparty.” Democrats will want more spending and to find ways to hamstring a possible Trump administration in case the election doesn’t go their way. The more hawkish Republicans will want additional money for Ukraine and their other priorities.

Johnson is a soft-spoken, bespectacled man. The teetotaling Southern Baptist seems unfazed by the chaos around him, more than enough to drive anyone to drink. But occasionally, it is clear that he feels the weight of the moment. Johnson pointed to an op-ed by one of his predecessors, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. “He said Johnson has the most challenging speakership since the Civil War 160 years ago,” the current speaker said. Johnson said Gingrich told him in a telephone call he was “doing an excellent job, but the job is nearly impossible.”

“He made the point that he had 16 years to prepare to be speaker, to build the team, the agenda, the plan, and all that,” Johnson said. “He said I had about 15 minutes.”

Gingrich fought his way from the back benches, where he was a frequent thorn in the side of House leadership, to become minority whip. Even in that position, he led the conservative resistance to then-President George H.W. Bush’s promise-breaking tax increase in 1990. Gingrich leapfrogged the long-suffering House Minority Leader Bob Michel, who had labored in the minority since the 1950s, to become the first Republican speaker in 40 years.

John Boehner was part of the initial leadership team after the 1994 “Republican Revolution,” becoming conference chairman. He was soon booted in favor of JC Watts, a charismatic black Republican congressman from Oklahoma. Boehner had to climb all the way back up the ranks to become minority leader and then speaker.

Paul Ryan was a policy wonk much beloved by conservative magazines and think tanks. As chairman of the House Budget Committee, his “roadmaps,” later rebranded the Path to Prosperity, were thought to be the future of Republican entitlement reform. He won his dream job at the helm of the House Ways and Means Committee before he was pressed into a run for speaker.

Kevin McCarthy presided over unlikely House Republican gains in the 2020 elections that set the party up for a majority in the first midterm elections under President Joe Biden. While the anticipated “red wave” never fully materialized, McCarthy was a prodigious fundraiser who helped Republicans make gains in California that put them over the top. He fought through 15 ballots to become speaker.

For every one of them, it ended badly. Gingrich was eased out of the office after the 1998 midterm elections went poorly amid an unpopular impeachment drive. Boehner and Ryan both clashed with the Freedom Caucus, ultimately opting to leave Washington entirely. McCarthy was toppled as speaker after only eight months, in the first motion to vacate since 1910 and, at this writing, the only successful one.

Only Dennis Hastert managed to survive eight years as speaker and go out entirely on his own terms, though even under his watch, conservative discontent with high federal spending simmered. He later went to prison for reasons unrelated to his speakership. It was the “Hastert rule,” a requirement that only legislation with majority support from the GOP conference would be brought to the floor, that looked like it might be Johnson’s undoing. “If you start to rely on the minority to get the majority of your votes, then all of a sudden, you’re not running the shop anymore,” Hastert said in 2013.

The revolt against McCarthy was sparked by legislation that attracted substantial Republican opposition and more Democratic than Republican votes but still had the backing of most of the GOP conference. Johnson passed two bills — one to fund the government, the other to aid Ukraine in addition to Israel and Taiwan — that violated the “majority of the majority” standard. In both cases, an identical 101 Republicans voted for the measures, and 112 voted against.

The Ukraine aid was especially explosive. Greene and the “America First” faction of the House GOP had pledged not one more dime of funding for Kyiv in its war with Russia. The Republican Party is in the midst of an ideological and demographic transition, but Ukraine was a matter in which many lawmakers wanted to resist the populist tide. Johnson was seen as a leader who could thread the needle, a bridge between Ronald Reagan and Trump, but by passing the aid, Republican critics thought he had picked a side.

Johnson had voted against Ukraine aid previously. He explained that he wanted to press the White House on unanswered questions about transparency and the endgame for the war. By the time of this spring’s aid vote, he said some of those questions had been answered to his satisfaction, and Ukraine was running out of ammunition.

Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY) and Greene spearheaded the motion to vacate resolution. But Republicans were weary after the protracted fight to replace McCarthy. None of the likeliest replacement options had been able to win a majority previously, and most were not unambiguously more conservative than Johnson.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Tom Cole (R-OK) told the Washington Examiner Johnson was “navigating a tricky situation well.” He believed even before the vacate vote that most Republicans did not want to go through the experience of replacing the speaker again based on the whims of a minority of the conference.

“They lived through that three-week period. They saw how damaging it was,” Cole said.

Trump also threw Johnson a lifeline. “Well, look, we have a majority of one, OK?” he told reporters. “It’s not like he can go and do whatever he wants to do. I think he’s a very good person. You know, he stood very strongly with me on NATO. … I think he’s trying very hard.”

“I think he has strong support amongst most of the rank and file. Trump helps,” Republican strategist John Feehery, a former Hastert aide, said of Johnson. “That being said, you don’t want a majority of the majority to vote against you too often. It looks bad.”

Many of the conditions that allowed Johnson to become speaker in the first place, when the fourth-term congressman calmly waited out three other more prominent candidates, helped him keep it. He maintained his composure throughout the ordeal. But this time, House Democrats weren’t willing to abet the chaos, either. The House voted 359 to 43 to table the motion to vacate.

To Johnson’s critics, the vote signaled the Democrats held sway over the House.

“Vacating Kevin McCarthy was a huge mistake. Every Democrat voted to vacate him because he fought them tooth and nail,” Massie wrote on social media afterward. “Keeping Mike Johnson is an even bigger mistake. An overwhelming majority of [D]emocrats voted to keep him because he’s given them everything they want.”

The Blaze’s Christopher Bedford wrote that “after the foreign aid bill, [Johnson] is now effectively the head of a center-left coalition — one that’s promised to protect him from being ousted by his own colleagues.”

But the outcome also raised questions about the House conservatives’ strategy of trying to govern not just as the majority of the majority but as a minority faction extracting concessions from the majority by derailing legislation and threatening to turn the speaker’s chamber into a “revolving door.”

“Some of our members do want to use a government shutdown to force things,” Cole said. “I am not in that camp. I don’t think that ever works.”

Johnson, in his typically understated way, unloads a bit more.

“Some of my colleagues were adamant that we should just shut down the government, right?” he said. “That was the alternative. We had a binary choice. I inherited a budget deal from my predecessor that had a certain number, and there were sidecars or side deals. … When it came to the proverbial four corners negotiation, they said that was binding on me, too. I fought [Biden] on that for five months, and I lost the battle.”

“So, at the end of the day, we came down to the deadline, and we either shut the government down or we fight for the most conservative policy provisions and wins that we could get and move forward,” he continued. “I chose that latter course because this is a very pragmatic calculation.”

Johnson argued that a shutdown “never works in favor of the party that brings it about.” Biden, whose Washington tenure dates back to the shutdowns that former President Bill Clinton exploited to return from the political dead and secure a second term in 1996, would likely view this scenario as an escape hatch for himself, too.

“The president holds all the cards for how painful a shutdown can be,” Johnson said. “With Joe Biden being underwater as he is, being under 38% approval, he would have made it extremely painful immediately for the American people.” The Louisiana Republican floated unpaid TSA agents leading to canceled flights, stopped payments to military personnel or Border Patrol agents, and “then the blame for the open border is somehow shifted to House Republicans.”

“Some of my colleagues who gave me the most grief for not shutting the government down privately acknowledged to me that that scenario I just painted was true, but it simply wasn’t their personal problem,” he told the Washington Examiner. “Shutting down the government was a surefire way for us to lose the House majority and therefore not be in a position to save the republic.”

“Then, what you have to consider is that at some point, we would have to relent and reopen the government, but I have to get a vote to do that,” Johnson said. “Now, I had a subset of Republicans who conceded to me, ‘I will never vote with you to reopen the government because there is nothing pure enough for me that will justify my vote.’ So I know going in if I shut the government down, I’m gonna have to get probably a large number of Democrats to agree to reopen. Now, what price do you think we would have to pay to get Democrats to come alone to reopen the government and take the pain off of us?”

In some cases, it comes down to strategic disagreements about what is possible with a razor-thin House majority and Democrats in control of both the Senate and the White House. But Johnson indicates that this isn’t the only problem.

“One of the problems that we have in the modern Congress, as I call it, is that there is a perverse incentive for people to get attention, and there’s an increasing ability to do so,” Johnson said. “Because of the advent of social media. You know, not that long ago, most of the rank and file did not have their own communications shops. You were lucky if you got a mention in your local paper. Those days are long since gone. With social media, everyone can have their own media operation and can go online every minute of every day to say the things that they’re disgruntled about.”

“If you want 100% of what you demand every single day, and you can’t get it, you have an automatic platform to go and complain about it,” he said. “It creates a perverse incentive for people to cause problems … regardless of what it does for the team or the cause or the agenda.”

Johnson said most people run for Congress “for the right reasons,” because they feel called to government service and want to solve the country’s problems. “There is a small subset of people, however, who come to Congress to be famous,” he added. “They see this as a means to that end in order to build a personal brand and monetize it.”

Whether these fights exhausted the reservoir of goodwill that made Johnson speaker remains to be seen. Cole said Johnson was “the only one” who could have gotten the necessary votes at the time. The Oklahoman said he and the straitlaced speaker were different, noting his own penchant for bourbon and cigars while quipping Johnson “probably doesn’t know which end of the cigar to light,” but reiterating his strong support.

“I personally like the speaker. He is a true conservative in an impossible position,” Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI), no relation, told the Washington Examiner. “I don’t agree with anyone 100% of the time.”

“We have a broad spectrum of opinion in our party,” the senator said. “Anyone in that position would find it difficult to govern.”

The Wisconsin Republican praised the speaker’s efforts to work and communicate with Senate Republicans. “We need to have far more collaboration,” he said, adding that GOP senators should be mindful of the small House majority. “We need to understand the challenges they face.” He additionally said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) bore more blame for Republicans’ suboptimal choices on the border and Ukraine than did the House speaker, contending McConnell undercut Johnson.

It is now likely up to the voters to decide whether Republicans get to keep wielding the gavel.

“The approval rating of Congress overall is abysmally low because people see dysfunction,” the speaker said. “They see the partisan bickering, and they see division.” Johnson added there were things more philosophical than leadership fights that ought to be a priority.

“I think the solution to that is to be able to articulate, with the right tone, not just what we’re against, but what we’re for,” he said. “We have to present a vision. You know, there’s a passage of Scripture that says, ‘Where there is no vision, the people perish.’”

Johnson outlines what he calls “the seven core principles of American conservatism.” The list is a familiar one. “It’s individual freedom, limited government, the rule of law, peace through strength, fiscal responsibility, free markets, and human dignity,” he said. “There’s subcategories under each of those. But I think those are sort of the fixed points on the horizon, so to speak.” He said that would be helpful in a time when people “feel as though we’re adrift at sea, and the rudders are broken and the seas are high and choppy.”

“You have to know where the moorings are,” Johnson said. “And so, I often think about what Reagan reminded us in his farewell address. He said, ‘They call me the Great Communicator, but I really wasn’t.’ He said, I paraphrase him, I was communicating the same great things that have guided our nation since the founding.”

“The challenge we have right now, really at its essence, it’s not policy skirmishes,” he said. “We’re in an actual competition between two competing visions for America. Those of us who reverse those founding principles and want to preserve them and another group, a rising number of people who have disdain for America’s founding principles.”

Johnson said any future speaker will likely confront the same challenges he has.

“I don’t foresee anytime soon here where you have a 30- or 35-seat majority,” Johnson said. “Because of gerrymandering and redistricting, the number of actual swing seats in the country has dwindled to a small number. It is anticipated for the days ahead that whomever is in the majority, it will be a small majority.”

“I optimistically think that we could grow our majority maybe to 10 to 15 seats this next cycle in a good scenario,” he said. “But that may be about as large as it will be.”

“I think that Donald Trump will have significant coattails in most of the states,” Johnson predicted. “Currently, as you know, he is leading in five of the key swing states. If that trajectory continues, and I hope it will, we will have a great election.”

“Our fate really comes down to the presidential election,” Cole said of the House majority.

If Republicans win the trifecta, Johnson can pitch himself as a Republican leader with a much better relationship with Trump than either Ryan or McConnell. He has visited Trump at Mar-a-Lago and attended his New York hush money trial. Johnson stresses what Reagan and Trump have in common, including the “Make America Great Again” catchphrase.


“I told President Trump recently, ‘Sir, your next term, which I’m convinced you will have, you could be the most consequential president in the modern era because we have so many things to fix,” Johnson said.

For now, the House is a fixer-upper, too.

W. James Antle III is executive editor of the Washington Examiner magazine.

" Conservative News Daily does not always share or support the views and opinions expressed here; they are just those of the writer."


  1. “No-Johnson” Johnson fueling the Illegitimate Regime and screaming BETRAYAL with every FAILURE.
    Resign cowardly punk.

  2. Trump goes pro abortion and pro gay AND HAS THE NERVE TO ASK ME FOR MONEY! This AFTER he nets 3 billion on the Truth Social IPO. F O Donald Trump.

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