House Speaker Johnson Is Off to a Great Start—Let’s Hope He Makes It Last

From a Washington Post column by Marc A. Thiessen headlined “Speaker Johnson is off to a great start. Let’s hope he makes it last.”:

For millions of Americans listening to Rep. Mike Johnson (R-La.) for the first time Wednesday, the new House speaker made a really good first impression. After he accepted the speaker’s gavel, Johnson’s first message was directed not to his fellow House Republicans, or conservative voters, but to his Democratic opposition.

“I know we see things from very different points of view,” he said, directly addressing House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.). “But I know that in your heart, you love and care about this country, and you want to do what’s right. And so, we’re going to find common ground.”

He went on to say: “We’re going to fight vigorously over our core principles because they’re at odds a lot of times,” but “we have to sacrifice, sometimes, our preferences because that’s what’s necessary in a legislative body.”

For a guy nicknamed “MAGA Mike Johnson,” it was a decidedly un-Trumpian start. Johnson exuded the kind of grace and magnanimity that many despaired had been irretrievably lost in American politics. It was what the country desperately wanted. And it was exactly what House Republicans — whose reputation has been shredded after three weeks of embarrassing dysfunction — desperately needed.

Now the question is: Will he be able — or allowed — to deliver? Or will Johnson’s pledge of bipartisanship be, like President Biden’s inaugural, just another broken promise to unite the country. Will Johnson be a leader who understands that he controls one half of one branch of government — and that the way to advance core principles to elect more people who share them? Or will he pushed into launching pointless kamikaze missions that fail to advance conservative principles?

Johnson is a full-spectrum conservative. But it was significant that the conservative hero he invoked was Ronald Reagan. “In his farewell address, President Reagan explained the secret of his rapport with people. … He said, ‘They call me the Great Communicator, but … I was just communicating great things.’”

The new speaker then defined those great things: “individual freedom, limited government, the rule of law, peace through strength, fiscal responsibility, free markets and human dignity.” Those, he said, “are the foundations that made us the extraordinary nation that we are. And you and I today are the stewards of those principles.”

This much is certain: Just as Reagan supported freedom fighters across the globe against Russian expansionism, the Gipper would have stood squarely with Ukraine. Johnson has voted four times against aid to Ukraine. But in his speech, he pointed out that “we stand at a very dangerous time … Turmoil and violence have rocked the Middle East and Eastern Europe. We all know it. And tensions continue to build in the Indo-Pacific. The country demands strong leadership of this body and we must not waver.” He further promised “this speaker’s office is going to be known for decentralizing the power here.”

If Johnson keeps that promise, the will of the majority — which supports Ukraine — will prevail.

He has just three weeks to pass a government funding bill. That means he’ll need to compromise right off the bat. What happens if he can’t get a deal done in that time? Eight House Republicans, intent on punishing Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) for passing a continuing resolution to keep the government open, joined with 208 Democrats to kick him out of the speaker’s chair. (And thank God that McCarthy did get the resolution passed. Can you imagine if we were in the midst of a government shutdown when Hamas attacked Israel?)

will happen if Johnson, as speaker, takes a similarly responsible approach? He seems to understand the gravity of his assignment. He talked about being the son of a firefighter, who was critically burned in the line of duty when Johnson was 12 years old. “He lived with pain all the rest of his life for decades more,” Johnson said. “And I lost my dad to cancer three days before I got elected to Congress. Three days. And he wanted to be there at my election night so badly. I’m the first college graduate in my family. This was a big deal to him.”

One night in 2017, a few weeks after joining Congress, Johnson said, he was presiding over the House, listening to Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tex.) “winding down one of her long, eloquent speeches.” There were peals of laughter from both sides of the aisle. And he looked up at the top of the chamber and “I saw the face of Moses staring down, and I just felt, in that moment, the weight of this place.” He said he had not been able to grieve his father’s death, and at that moment started to cry.

“It wasn’t Sheila’s speech, I’m sorry,” Johnson said, to more bipartisan laughter. “I just knew in that moment that my dad, my father, would be proud of me. … And I think all the American people, at one time, had great pride in this institution. But right now, that’s in jeopardy. And we have a challenge before us right now to rebuild and restore that trust.”

Let’s hope and pray he means it.

Marc Thiessen writes a column for The Post on foreign and domestic policy. He is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and the former chief speechwriter for President George W. Bush.

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