May 28, 2024

They should let the Republican caucus clean up its Marjorie Taylor Greene mess.

House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) talks to reporters after surviving a vote to remove him from the Speaker’s position in Washington, D.C., on May 8, 2024.

(Photo by Allison Bailey / Middle East Images / Middle East Images via AFP)

Mike Johnson, the most conservative speaker in the history of the US House of Representatives, faced down a challenge to his leadership role last week from members of his own caucus who don’t think the Louisiana Republican is sufficiently extreme.

Johnson got on the wrong side of Georgia Republican Marjorie Taylor Greene and a handful of GOP dissidents when he decided it might be a good idea to maintain the US commitment to support Ukraine in its fight against the invading forces of Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

So the Greene team made a ham-handed move to “vacate” the speaker’s position.

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Johnson survived with what he celebrated as an overwhelming “show of confidence.” He ran up his numbers by cobbling together a coalition of Republicans who are desperate to avoid another implosion of their caucus and, for reasons that didn’t make a whole lot of sense, the vast majority of Democrats.

Three hundred and fifty-nine members of the chamber, including 196 Republicans and 163 Democrats, supported Johnson, while just 43 members backed the effort to remove him.

Why did the vast majority of Democrats join in Johnson’s “show of confidence”? House minority leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) said Greene’s move “threatened to throw Congress further into chaos, crisis and confusion.”

True enough. But that doesn’t explain why the Democrats went all in to bail out the Republican speaker of the House. Why give the hyper-partisan speaker a bipartisan stamp of approval when they could have simply stood aside and let the Republican caucus clean up its Marjorie Taylor Greene mess?

Jeffries argued that the Democrats would be rewarded in the long run for keeping the House functioning. “As long as House Republicans continue to peddle chaos, dysfunction, and extremism, and as long as House Democrats continue to solve problems for everyday Americans and deliver real results,” he said, “then the American people are going to vacate the extreme MAGA Republican majority in November.”

Perhaps. But, even if that is the case, it wasn’t necessary for Democrats to boost Johnson. Only 11 Republicans voted against tabling Greene’s motion, and even Donald Trump argued that backing Johnson was beneficial to the GOP. The former president and GOP front-runner, who has often counted on Johnson to do his political dirty work, posted on Truth Social, “If we show DISUNITY, which will be portrayed as CHAOS, it will negatively affect everything! Mike Johnson is a good man who is trying very hard.”

Had House Democrats left it to the Republicans, Johnson would have been able to carry on, with a 196-11 “show of confidence” from his own party. Instead, as Greene declared after the vote, “the Democrats validated him.” Johnson offered the Democrats who sided with him nothing in return for the favor. Instead, he announced, “I am a lifelong, movement conservative Republican and I intend to continue to govern in accordance with those core principles.” And his top lieutenant, House majority leader Steve Scalise (R-La.) cheered on a vote that meant Republicans could “keep all of our focus on fighting President Biden’s radical agenda, electing President Trump, and expanding our House Republican majority.”

As it happened, 32 Democrats, by and large progressives, voted to let the anti-Johnson move go forward. They weren’t about to show confidence in a Republican who, as Texas Democrat Greg Casar notes, “supported overturning the [2020 presidential] election and has been an apologist for crazy right-wing ideas in the country.”

Most House Democrats, fearing utter chaos and perhaps some media blame-laying, weren’t prepared to cast a conscientious “no” vote. But there was another principled option.

Seven Democrats, including progressives such as Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Jan Schakowsky of Illinois, and Mark Pocan of Wisconsin voted “present.”

Pocan, the former cochair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, explained his “present” vote as a rejection of both Greene and Johnson.

“Did I vote with the extremist White Christian Nationalist who called a motion to vacate the Speakership or did I vote to save the extremist homophobic Christian Nationalist Speaker to keep him in office? Neither,” Pocan said. “I voted ‘present’ on this sideshow.”

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John Nichols

John Nichols is a national affairs correspondent for The Nation. He has written, cowritten, or edited over a dozen books on topics ranging from histories of American socialism and the Democratic Party to analyses of US and global media systems. His latest, cowritten with Senator Bernie Sanders, is the New York Times bestseller It’s OK to Be Angry About Capitalism.