Opinion: Why Mike Johnson is actually an inspired choice for speaker

Editor’s Note: Patrick T. Brown is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a conservative think tank and advocacy group based in Washington, DC. He is also a former senior policy adviser to Congress’ Joint Economic Committee. Follow him on Twitter. The views expressed in this piece are his own. View more opinion on CNN.

The MAGA wing of American conservatism often seems more unified by its enemies than what policies they share. They dislike globalists, a left wing they see as obsessed with race and gender, and Republicans who seem to care more about mainstream approval than “fighting” for conservative victories.

Patrick T. Brown - Courtesy Patrick T. Brown
Patrick T. Brown - Courtesy Patrick T. Brown

But which battles are worth fighting for can sometimes be nebulous. The right flank of the GOP applies its populist impulses in, at times, opposite directions — some want to protect entitlements, others to reform them. Some seek to dismantle the administrative state, others to use it to advance conservative principles. Some Republicans still talk about balancing the budget or ending the Fed, while others want to see investments in industrial policy or pro-family tax incentives.

This fluid swirl of priorities made the intense drama over replacing former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy largely about internal party dynamics rather than any meaningful policy disagreements.

But that doesn’t mean Rep. Mike Johnson’s elevation as speaker won’t have a significant impact on the priorities of the Republican caucus going forward. No one can question his bona fides as a conservative’s conservative — which may help different factions of the party feel like their concerns are being heard and keep the thin Republican majority in the House together.

Johnson, who represents the Shreveport, Louisiana, area was a relative unknown before this week, even to political insiders. But he has long been an ally of social conservative groups who see their mission as protecting the unborn from abortion and strengthening traditional family values.

His official website proclaims an appreciation for “free markets and free trade agreements,” and hits familiar notes around cutting spending and regulations, reducing the scope of government and ensuring America “remain[s] the strongest military power on earth.”

If McCarthy was willing to wear any number of new skins to position himself as leader of the Republican conference, Johnson can’t hide his spots even if he wanted to — a dyed-in-the-wool conservative who stands up for traditional Republican principles even if others in the party wish the GOP would evolve past them.

Just last month, former President Donald Trump was calling Florida’s six-week abortion ban, signed by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a “terrible thing” and suggesting he’d be willing to compromise on an issue many conservatives see as one of life and death.

National Review’s Noah Rothman reacted to news of Johnson’s selection by lamenting Republicans had nominated a speaker who “opposes same-sex marriage” (as do about two-thirds of self-described conservatives). Buckets of ink have been spilled about the party’s increasingly complicated relationship with free trade and limited-government economic policy.

Johnson’s selection — at a time when the relationship between social and religious conservatives, establishment-wing Republicans and the MAGA movement had shown signs of fraying — may prove to have long-lasting ramifications. He has introduced bills seeking to prevent public schools from teaching children under 10 about sexuality and “gender ideology,” to prevent minors from being taken across state lines to procure an abortion without a parent’s consent and to require men to pay child support during pregnancy.

Having someone with these principles leading the Republican caucus is a strong endorsement that social and religious conservatives are still an important part of the conservative coalition, and that their priorities will be heard.

As many politicians have, Johnson has made some statements that strike many today as tone-deaf. Like many Republicans, he played footsie with conspiracy theorists after the 2020 election and his policy stances on cutting government spending may not be popular with the median voter.

But his principled conservatism may help provide a dose of stability for a caucus that is often divided. (And some of his warnings aptly captured conservative fears, including the worry that the legalization of gay marriage could lead to a legal recognition of polygamy, which some see as increasingly plausible, though legal moves to do so remain on the fringes for now.)

Johnson’s long track record in the conservative movement suggests someone interested in using MAGA trappings to advance meaningful policy victories, rather than simply fighting for the sake of the fight.

Other candidates, like Rep. Tom Emmer, who voted for last year’s bill to codify gay marriage, or Rep. Jim Jordan, who has been a defender of social media companies, may have treated many causes dear to conservative activists with a benign neglect, no matter how Trump-y their rhetoric. It may be a mark of how many fissures run through the GOP caucus that a run-of-the-mill Republican may have been the best choice to lead them through the next few months.

Voters generally tune out most inside-the-beltway drama that doesn’t directly impact them, so the odds that McCarthy’s defenestration and the painful subsequent search for a Speaker candidate that could appeal to enough GOP members will matter next fall are low.

And Johnson, as a four-term Congressman with little in the way of leadership experience, still has a difficult road ahead of him. By the time his name came up, some Congressional Republicans were tired of the process and ready to vote for the lowest common denominator able to fill the Speaker’s chair. He will have a narrow margin for error. But his credibility with the more fractious elements who pushed McCarthy out may make his job a little easier, starting with the upcoming continuing resolution to avoid a government shutdown.

It’s tempting to see the last month of Washington drama as not much more than an own goal for Republicans. But Johnson’s rock-ribbed, if bland, conservatism might give him some space for some prudential deal-making and strengthen the GOP’s hand at the negotiating table. If so, many Republicans will feel like replacing McCarthy was a gamble that paid off.

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