Biden gets a Democratic challenger (again)

The Briefing, Vol. XI, Issue 43

This Week:

  • ‘Mike Who?’ A new Speaker takes the gavel
  • Biden draws a challenger,  chickens out in N.H.
  • N.C. Republicans reclaim their state’s map


Speaker’s race: In 1998, Newt Gingrich, facing a rebellion by House Republicans and revelations of an affair with a staffer, stepped down as Speaker of the House. The affair was a more serious problem than it might have been otherwise because at that moment Republicans were moving to impeach President Bill Clinton for perjuring himself in connection with an affair with an intern several decades his junior.

Republicans had to choose a new Speaker, and this was the first time in four decades their party had faced a genuinely wide open Speaker’s race.

At first, they were poised to go with Rep. Bob Livingston (R-La.), But then pornographer Larry Flint managed to dig up dirt on his own infidelity in what would become a successful effort to save Clinton’s skin. 

Ultimately, Republicans came up with an unexpected choice — Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), an obscure and seemingly inoffensive member of Congress from rural Illinois. For the next 16 years or so, political science professors would look at Hastert’s election as an example of what could happen when you are nobody’s favorite but everyone’s second or third choice. But in more recent years, the dark side to this choice (it emerged in 2015 that Hastert was secretly a child molester) also made it a cautionary tale that everyone’s “inoffensive” second choice might not be vetted quite thoroughly enough to be just two heartbeats away from the presidency.

Mike Johnson: Not that we have anything bad to say about Rep. Mike Johnson (R.-La.) — quite the contrary. For now, his selection seems to have united the Republican caucus in a way nothing else could. But like Hastert, he really did come out of nowhere in his surprise victory in the race for Speaker last week. 

As one of almost a dozen hopefuls, he had been no one’s favorite for the job until after the ouster of McCarthy and the subsequent failure of multiple more powerful and high-profile members, who already rank high in leadership or the committee structure, to find the votes they needed (or would have needed) inside the Republican conference to be elected Speaker on the House floor — that is, Majority Leader Steve Scalise (R-La.), House Judiciary Chairman Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), and Majority Whip Tom Emmer (R-Minn.). Johnson was elected to the House in 2016, which means he is only in his fourth term.

There is one thing Johnson has not done historically that Speakers usually do for their parties. Unlike McCarthy, who raised millions for House Republicans while occupying the chair, he does not have a history of being a prolific fundraiser.

Johnson’s brand of politics, although more Evangelical-Religious Right than it is Trumpist or establishment Republican, is mainstream within the Republican conference, and most members of the party are comfortable with it. At first blush, he appears to live by the motto that Mike Huckabee and Mike Pence both made popular in the first decade of this century: “I’m conservative, but I’m not angry about it.”

He’s going to have to keep that equanimity in order to succeed. When McCarthy was seeking the speakership in January, we discussed at some length the decision about whether to allow just one member to move to vacate the Speaker’s chair. Although that decision was not the reason for McCarthy’s downfall — it took several Republicans to vote to remove him, along with all Democrats — the narrow margin in the House highlights the fact that all it takes is a small handful of Republicans to rebel in order to create big problems for the Speaker and the entire conference. Johnson’s job, therefore, will be as much like herding cats as McCarthy’s was. 

Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) and his companions have been widely reviled, including by many conservatives, for helping Democrats to oust McCarthy and create chaos in the House. However, something good may come of this if the Speaker’s chair is made a bit less powerful by it. 

Johnson’s approach to his position will have to be one of humility, as he cannot afford not to listen to his constituents as Speaker — namely, the members of his conference. He is, for example, more likely to allow free votes on clean bills and amendments on such topics that divide Republicans as Ukraine aid and Israel aid (he has already promised a clean vote on the latter), as he cannot afford not to give his members reasons for resentment. 

In short, there will be no more forcing everyone to eat the proverbial “crap sandwich” that former Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) once talked about, nor can he simply impose his will by putting key issues inside of a “Christmas tree” bill that everybody has to vote for unless they want a politically dangerous government shutdown. 

If Johnson can make such concessions without becoming a pushover, and also without over-exercising his authority against recalcitrant members, then his speakership can be a rousing success. The most important challenge he faces initially is to get a spending package through the House in time to avoid a shutdown, then to restore regular order in the House and pass the individual spending bills by department that the House failed to move under McCarthy. 

President 2024

Nikki Haley: The latest Des Moines Register survey shows the former South Carolina governor has reached a tie in Iowa with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) for the only prize currently available — second place to Donald Trump. Haley and DeSantis each have 16 percent, with the rest of the field in single digits. This poll was taken before Mike Pence dropped out of the race, but he received only 2 percent in this poll anyway.

Given that Iowa is DeSantis’s only hope for breaking Trump’s stranglehold on the nomination — Donald Trump has 43 percent in Iowa, which is a big lead but still under 50 percent — things are not looking great for his campaign. On the other hand, Haley looks much better as the potential Trump-killer, Although it seems very doubtful that she or anyone else can stop the former president.

Dean Phillips: RFK, Jr. is out of the Democratic primary and running as an independent, but Joe Biden has a Democratic challenger once again. Although he is the longest of longshots, third-term Rep. Dean Phillips (D-Minn.) represents the moderate “Biden can’t win” wing of the Democratic Party, and has cited the possibility for former President Trump winning again as the reason for his candidacy.

Phillips filed to run in New Hamphsire on Friday. Joe Biden, however, will not be on the ballot because of the Granite State’s refusal to move its primary back to a later date in obedience the Democratic National Committee’s diktat. There will, however, be a write-in campaign for Biden. He might live to regret this decision if his disrespect for New Hampshire’s primary process causes an embarrassing result when the primary takes place Jan. 23 next year.

House 2024

North Carolina: The state Senate passage of the new congressional map restores the GOP advantage that the courts had taken away. This puts Republicans on a likely course of gaining three additional House seats at Democrats’ expense, and of gaining a fourth seat in a good election year. 

This was made possible by the election of a 5-2 Republican majority to the state Supreme Court last year, which flipped from a 4-3 Democratic majority. This highlights the importance of state-level elections that some people consider obscure or less noteworthy.

State 2023

As we have noted here previously, governorships in Kentucky and Mississippi, as well as state legislatures in Virginia and New Jersey, will be on the ballot next Tuesday. It should be noted, however, that local and municipal elections are occurring all over the U.S. If recent controversies over school boards are any indication, all of these races matter, and we highly encourage all of our readers to get out and vote.