McCarthy Was Never the Problem

Speaker of the House Mike Johnson reads a statement to members of the press at the U.S. Capitol on January 12, 2024 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Kent Nishimura/Getty Images)

I’ve started to talk myself into thinking that new House Speaker Mike Johnson should quit.

Or threaten to quit, at least.

Granted, he’s been on the job less than three months. But that’s ample time for all interested parties to have discovered what any close observer of Congress already knew: The House Republican majority is ungovernable.

A certain sort of grassroots populist Republican insists on believing that all impediments to the right advancing its priorities flow from weak leadership on their own side. If spending isn’t being cut or the border isn’t being sealed, the fault ultimately lies with powerful RINOs too squeamish to practice cutthroat brinkmanship. Fundamentally, they view the world the way a child does: If they’re not getting what they want, it must be because cruel family elders don’t want them to have it.

And so if Kevin McCarthy lets them down in negotiations with Democrats, the problem—and thus, the solution—is obvious.

The fact that this reductionist fantasy is so widespread among the activist right forces populist Republicans in Congress to mirror it, to the party’s detriment. Whether or not the average member of the House Freedom Caucus truly believes that Johnson can bend Joe Biden and Chuck Schumer to his will through sheer determination, there are enough voters back home who believe it to ensure that their next House primaries will be white-knuckle affairs if they don’t pantomime that conviction.

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