March 3, 2024

Need for Nice

Today’s Events in Historical Perspective                                                                     
America’s Longest-Running Column Founded 1932
The need for nice
By Douglas Cohn and Eleanor Clift         
          WASHINGTON — We wrote that new House Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., has a psychological need to be liked, and so he is, and so it is working.
          Expectations were low for him who has been in the job for less than a month, but he scored a big win when more than two-thirds of House members voted for his “laddered” approach to passing the appropriations bills to keep government open and funded.
          All but two Democrats supported the CR (continuing resolution) that he crafted to avoid a government shutdown and continue funding at the current level until mid-January, and then again in mid -February, two rungs on his ladder as Congress grapples with a raft of spending bills.
          Sure, it’s a gimmick, but it worked to get the House around its hard-right MAGA caucus. More than 90 Republicans voted against the measure, but their opposition was offset by the Democrats.
          The result was a healthy turnout for democracy and bipartisanship, and a victory for Johnson, whose even-keel demeanor dramatically dialed down the opposition to relying on Democratic votes to pass GOP-generated legislation.
          In other words, Mike Johnson did what Kevin McCarthy did – rely on Democratic votes – and Johnson is going to get away with it.
          When McCarthy sought Democratic votes to avert a government shutdown, the MAGA caucus demanded he face a recall vote and lose the speakership if he could not muster the required majority of those present and voting on the floor. The resulting impasse cost Congress three weeks and ended with McCarthy stepping down, and Johnson stepping into a job for which he had no experience.
          We noted at the time that the little-known Johnson had a reputation for being a nice guy and respectful of tradition even if he had helped then President Donald Trump find ways to cling to power despite losing the election. Asked about earlier remarks where he said Trump didn’t have the character and the demeanor to be president, Johnson amiably said he changed his mind after knowing Trump better, an explanation not entirely plausible but that reflects Johnson’s deep need to be liked, including by former President Trump.
          Judging by his actions and his demeanor, Johnson wants to get along well with the Democrats, and he gave them some bragging rights too in the continuing resolution he crafted. He didn’t include the additional spending cuts that his MAGA caucus wanted, and he didn’t include any “poison pills” about cultural issues that would make it impossible for Democrats to support the underlying bill.
          The fight isn’t over by any means. The real test comes after Thanksgiving and in the few weeks before Congress adjourns for the holidays when the House must pass aid for Israel and Ukraine, money to bolster border security and a package for Taiwan assistance. Some of these measures are more popular than others, and they’re packaged together to smooth their passage.
          Republicans are insistent on having each bill considered separately and carefully, and in theory there’s no harm in doing that. Except it takes time, a limited commodity in Congress as the Christmas and New Year’s holidays loom.
          A quick way for the new Speaker to make lots of enemies is to keep the House in session and force the cancellation of flights home by members eager to bring a contentious year to a close. Speaker Johnson has gotten off to a good start and won’t want to risk alienating lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.
          Turns out that being dignified and nice gives you a lot of leeway in a body where tempers are frayed, and verbal fights are on the edge of becoming physical altercations. He’s beat expectations and he’ll have to do it again and again as he keeps his own members in line and reaches across the aisle for the Democratic votes he needs.
          Eleanor Clift’s latest book Selecting a President, and Douglas Cohn’s latest books The President’s First Year: The Only School for Presidents Is the Presidency and World War 4: Nine Scenarios (endorsed by seven flag officers).
          Twitter:  @douglas_cohn
          © 2023 U.S. News Syndicate, Inc.
          Distributed by U.S. News Syndicate, Inc.

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