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How It Got This Bad for Mike Johnson and Mitch McConnell

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Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images

It’s not a great time to be Mitch McConnell. Fellow senators are sensing weakness in the 81-year-old Senate minority leader, who recently failed to keep his caucus together in support of a bill linking aid to Ukraine with a strict border policy (mostly thanks to Donald Trump’s opposition). But it’s an even worse time to be Mike Johnson. The House Speaker is struggling to get anything done at all and managed to botch an impeachment measure against Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, to boot. In this discombobulated state, Johnson will soon need to figure out how to wrangle a slim and unruly majority to keep the government funded after the first week in March — no easy task for a new Speaker who has yet to gain the confidence of a majority that recently removed its old leader.

To get a better sense of how the congressional GOP got this dysfunctional and where it goes from here, I spoke with political scientist Norman Ornstein, an American Enterprise Institute senior fellow emeritus. In 2012, Ornstein and Thomas E. Mann wrote the book It’s Even Worse Than It Looks, which pinned much of the blame for Congress’s dysfunction on Republicans. Since then, Ornstein’s criticism of the GOP has gotten louder, and Congress has only gotten less functional.

Let’s begin with Mike Johnson. How does a party get to such a state where, a few months after they canned the last Speaker, the new one is making huge unforced errors and accidentally tanking a show impeachment?
We could take this back a long time, but it’s the evolution of the Republican Party into a cult. Some of those members who were institutionalists or problem-solvers just decided it wasn’t worth staying anymore. Some of those members who tend to be more oriented toward problem-solving tend to come from districts that are more vulnerable. And the ones who move toward the extreme tend to come from safe districts, so you have a selection process that weeds out the problem-solvers.

But to be frank, it’s more than that. The vast majority of those who would have been problem-solvers are now intimidated, and they show a level of moral cowardice that is pretty astonishing. After voting to impeach Donald Trump, Liz Cheney said that a large number of her colleagues told her, “You’re absolutely right, but I just can’t do that.” That’s a reflection of changing times, when members are being challenged from the right. But you also have people who aren’t looking for another job because they’re independently well-to-do or they’re retiring. And still they don’t change their behavior. And that’s what happens when you no longer have a party, but you have a cult.

The next thing you have is an extremely close majority. Which means that there’s enormous leverage for any group of five to ten people. And I guess you can argue that that leverage should be there for the less radical ones, but the less radical ones never exercise that leverage. It’s partly temperament, it’s partly that they don’t have very much to gain. So you’ve given an enormous amount of clout to the most extreme, bomb-throwing members.

How does Johnson’s bind compare to those faced by Kevin McCarthy and other recent Speakers? 
Kevin McCarthy was never viewed by his colleagues, including the Freedom Caucus types, as one of their own. There was always a suspicion of what he was and what he would do. But it didn’t matter who was in that position. They were going to be whipsawed when they started to take their duties as Speaker seriously — the need to actually pass some things out and to find ways of doing it and to reach compromises in divided government. And they were always going to be on a short leash.

Let’s go back before McCarthy. So John Boehner leaves — he couldn’t handle it anymore and basically railed against the crazies. One of the arguments that had been used for why Boehner ran into trouble from the right was that he didn’t bring them into his council. So Paul Ryan makes his inner circle more inclusive and brings in the Freedom Caucus types. And does that make a difference? No. Instead of being drummed out, he basically says after a while, “I’ve had enough of this,” and he leaves.

After all this turmoil, you go from McCarthy, not trusted from the right as one of their own — someone seen as having no real ideology — to Mike Johnson. Now, I don’t think they’re going to be able to remove him. They really don’t have an alternative left. But it was almost inevitable that he would end up with the same kind of dilemma that McCarthy had. You have to do the basic function of the institution. You have to get spending bills through. You can’t just let everything collapse entirely. You can’t rely on the performative stuff of the impeachments or the censure resolutions. You then have to confront that reality with your narrow majority, and you’ve got a sizable number of people on the radical right who are simply not going to go along.

And there’s a very steep learning cure to being a Speaker. There are so many responsibilities you have to juggle, very tough decisions you have to make, that he’s going to be in way over his head. And that’s become clear as well. What’s also become clear, with this double embarrassment on the floor, is that he is in a complete box when it comes to his ability to maneuver. You combine that with his greenness about how the House works, and then combine that with his own messianic view of himself as Moses, and you have a formula for catastrophe. And we have the clock ticking with another impending government shutdown.

Let’s turn to McConnell, who is facing an even more interesting crisis of leadership.
For a very long time, Mitch McConnell was able to dominate the Republicans in the Senate. He had a strategy of obstruction when Obama was president, and he was able to keep Republicans onboard for all his filibusters. When Trump was president, he was able to keep all of his Republicans onboard for a set of Cabinet officers and judges and lower officials, many of whom were highly questionable, to say the least.

And now it’s a very different Mitch McConnell. It’s a very weakened McConnell. How much of this is coming from his own physical travails is unclear. But we’ve already seen enormous jockeying for position from John Thune and John Barrasso and John Cornyn over who’s going to replace him, with an expectation that he’s not going to be there for very long.

But it’s also a reflection of another reality, which is that the Senate itself has become an integral part of a cult where Trump remains the cult leader. You work out a clever opportunity to gain leverage over the Democrats — if you look at the tie between the border issue and aid to Ukraine, this was in some ways classic McConnell hardball: “I am holding aid to Ukraine hostage unless you cave to our demands on the border.” It worked, to a considerable degree. You pick somebody who is a hard-liner on a whole host of issues, James Lankford, to negotiate on a package that’s going to get enough support. Then Trump says jump, and they jump, and Lankford is forced to back off. And that shows a sign of weakness that we have not seen in the past when McConnell was on top. And once a leader shows that sign of weakness, it becomes clear that you’re not the one in charge anymore. It becomes clear that people no longer have the same level of either fear or respect. Then you have a big set of headaches.

A core aspect of McConnell’s role — as an obstructionist — may not be affected. But you’re saying he may not be able to play hardball anymore?
There’s another factor to keep in mind here. McConnell’s No. 1 objective has been and is to capture a majority in the Senate. Whether he’s planning on sticking around for several more years or not, it’s getting that majority in the Senate. And he has every reason to believe that it will happen again this time, because there are twice as many Democrats up as Republicans. And he’s going to inch a little bit closer with the certainty that they’re going to take the seat in West Virginia. But if the image out there is chaos, if he’s forced into having his own members taking difficult votes and if the narrative takes hold that it’s the Republicans who brought the government to a halt and created turmoil, his task becomes that much tougher. That means you’re going to try to keep things going well enough that you can begin to put the blame on Joe Biden and Democrats even more. He has to find a way of juggling obstructionism, making life difficult for Biden and Democrats, but not taking it to the point where the blame could fall on him.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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