Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters

From the Center

We often lament the death of bipartisanship in American politics. We mourn the lack of leaders willing to put aside the demands of their own party to do the right thing. We wonder why our politicians will never put the interests of the country ahead of their own careers.

And then, when is does happen, we are reminded why such acts of statesmanship are so rare.

I’ll admit that I had not been a particular fan of Mike Johnson. He was an election denier who tried to help Donald Trump overturn the results of the 2020 election. He seemed otherwise like a completely unremarkable and uninteresting backbencher who, after a handful of zealots deposed Kevin McCarthy from the speaker’s chair last year, became the least experienced House leader in over a century. His early months in the job were equally undistinguished: he seemed overwhelmed by the demands of the job and seemed unwilling to upset or confront any of the many factions that added up to a tiny Republican majority. The result was a House that appeared to be almost completely paralyzed, and Johnson himself looked most likely to be a short-termer who would go down in history only as the answer to an exceedingly difficult Jeopardy question.

The timing could not have been worse. The world has been hanging by a thread, and the ongoing delays of the U.S.’s long-overdue aid to Ukraine was imperiling that country’s ability to defend itself against Russian aggression. It was becoming more clear that Ukraine was on its way to losing the war, and a large share of the blame would be placed on America’s refusal to deliver needed and promised support. A small band of ultra-conservative rebels had directly threatened Johnson, promising to vote him out of his position if he moved forward with the aid package.

Johnson appeared to stall for time, but there were few signs of progress. In the last several days, though, his jury-rigged multi-bill package began to pick up support, first from the White House and then a growing number of other Democrats. It became clear that there were sufficient votes to pass the bill, but in doing so, Johnson would gravely endanger his own political future. Relying on Democratic votes to pass any legislation, especially something of this magnitude, is extremely risky, and Johnson understands that his decision has left his speakership in an exceedingly precarious position.

Given the razor-thin majority that Republicans retain in the House, he will only survive as speaker with Democratic support. It’s impossible to predict how long that support will be available to him, but it is certainly not a long-term solution to his predicament. Any vote that divides the two parties on more traditional lines could easily cause Democrats to abandon him, which means that Johnson will essentially be forced to choose between the two parties’ priorities for the foreseeable future.

Simply put, Johnson decided that he would potentially sacrifice his speakership if that is what would be required to make sure that the United States honored its commitments on the world stage, stood by Ukraine in its hour of need, and sent a clear message to Vladimir Putin that the path forward would be a much more difficult one for him. We often say that true leaders are those who are willing to give up their position in order to achieve important victories, and here we are actually seeing such leadership in action.

In exchange for his courage, Johnson received a round of positive news coverage over the weekend, a smattering of congratulations from responsible political leaders of both parties and a heartfelt thanks from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Going forward, his additional reward will be an ongoing guillotine hanging over his head from his most extreme Republican colleagues who will be looking for any opportunity to take him out, as well as a remarkably short memory from his erstwhile Democratic allies who will quickly move on to other issues on which they are not nearly so fond of him.

It would be nice to imagine that – for his courage and his willingness to put his own career on the line – Johnson would receive some type of honor that would not be quite so ephemeral. But that’s not the way our world works these days. The next time we clamor for a leader to emerge, let’s remember our own fleeting willingness to only briefly recognize a hero before we tossed him over the side to resume our partisan warfare.

Want to talk about this topic more? Join Dan for his webinar "Politics In The Time of Coronavirus." Or read more of Dan’s writing at: www.danschnurpolitics.com.

Dan Schnur is a Professor at the University of California – Berkeley, Pepperdine University, and the University of Southern California, where he teaches courses in politics, communications and leadership. Dan is a No Party Preference voter, but previously worked on four presidential and three gubernatorial campaigns, serving as the national Director of Communications for the 2000 presidential campaign of U.S. Senator John McCain and the chief media spokesman for California Governor Pete Wilson. He has a Center bias.

This piece was reviewed and edited by Isaiah Anthony, Deputy Blog Editor (Center bias).

Photo Credit: Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters