Opinion: Why Mike Johnson winning the speakership is a loss for the country

Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer, a CNN political analyst, is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author and editor of 25 books, including the New York Times best-seller, “Myth America: Historians Take on the Biggest Lies and Legends About Our Past” (Basic Books). Follow him on Twitter @julianzelizer. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.

House Republicans finally picked a speaker of the House when GOP members coalesced around Louisiana Rep. Mike Johnson on Wednesday afternoon.

With this decision, MAGA wins again.

Julian Zelizer - Larry Levanti
Julian Zelizer - Larry Levanti

Johnson is no moderate. While free of any major known scandal and gentler in demeanor than Ohio’s Rep. Jim Jordan — the far-right choice of the House rebels who ousted Rep. Kevin McCarthy from the speakership who failed to win the office last week — that’s about it. Johnson might be a nice person, he carries himself in a reasonable way, but make no mistake about it: He is perfectly aligned with the new generation of Republicans who are replacing the generations of the upstart tea party and smash mouth partisan Newt Gingrich as they push their party even further to the right.

Indeed, the nomination speech that New York Rep. Elise Stefanik gave for Johnson was pure red meat for the party. She accused the left of wanting to stop paying for police, being weak on defense and undermining the values of the nation. She railed against President Joe Biden’s “radical, failed, far-left Democrat policies” on energy and warned that the government had been “illegally weaponized” against “we the people.”

For comparison, Speaker Tip O’Neill in 1984 condemned as the “lowest thing” he had seen in his career in Congress the attacks on the patriotism of Democrats leveled by then-Georgia Rep. Newt Gingrich and his allies on televised House proceedings when Democrats weren’t present to respond. That was child’s play compared to Stefanik’s words.

On almost every issue, Johnson is hard right. He has been a staunch opponent of same-sex marriage. He has been at the forefront of opposing reproductive rights. He opposed funding for Ukraine. He wants to deregulate the economy, cut taxes and deny the very real problems facing our climate. He supported “expunging” former President Donald Trump’s second impeachment and has questioned the Justice Department for how it has handled investigations into Hunter Biden.

Most importantly, Johnson was at the center of the effort to overturn the 2020 election, something that in other times would have been immediately disqualifying for holding office let alone being speaker. Within the House itself, he was one of the point persons working with the Trump administration to subvert the decision of American voters by standing against certifying the 2020 results and helping create the legal strategy that was the basis for Trump’s attempted overthrow. In particular, he helped to round up support for a legal brief behind a lawsuit in Texas that would have thrown out the election results in four battle ground states where Biden was victorious.

As Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz, who helped orchestrate McCarthy’s ouster, told Steve Bannon on a recent “War Room” podcast: “If you don’t think that moving from Kevin McCarthy to MAGA Mike Johnson shows the ascendance of this movement and where the power in the Republican Party lies, then you’re not paying attention.”

Taking one more step in the enshrinement of MAGA, Johnson on Wednesday won with the support of many so-called “moderate” Republicans who had been more comfortable with McCarthy at the top. These Republicans made a practical decision, no doubt fueled in part by sheer exhaustion, that it was better to settle on someone that to let this uncertainty continue.

This logic has driven many Republicans to capitulate to their more extreme colleagues over the decades, from the time in 1989 when Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe voted for Newt Gingrich to be minority whip because his aggressive style offered the party the best path to majority power (which they had not held since 1954) to the continued concessions of Trump opponents such as Utah Sen. Mitt Romney. As McKay Coppins documents in his new book, “Romney: A Reckoning,” Romney kept agreeing to live with Trumpism despite his understanding of the dangers that entailed, reportedly thinking he could contain the extremes as he worked to protect his party. He was wrong.

Whether GOP members voted for Johnson as a result of practical or ideological considerations, the Republicans are now on the same page. The #NeverTrump contingent is irrelevant at best, or even an illusion. The reason that Trump is by far the lead contender for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination is because he is perfectly aligned with the most energetic part of the modern GOP — and the election of Johnson as speaker of the House proves the point.

Democrats have some big decisions ahead. The distance between what Johnson and the House Republicans will push for after agreeing to an expected continuing resolution to keep the government open for a few months will be hugely different from the concessions Democrats can accept. From assistance to Ukraine to funding for basic social safety programs, the two parties will be very far apart. To keep government functioning while protecting core programs that have been created since the New Deal, Democrats will have to choose whether to make massive concessions to their opposition that will no doubt leave voters feeling dispirited when the next election rolls around.

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