Mike Johnson, Like Pence, Does What Passes for Brave in Today’s GOP: His Job

The accolades directed at Speaker Mike Johnson in recent days for finally defying the right wing of his party and allowing an aid bill for Ukraine to move through the House might have seemed a tad excessive.

After all, a speaker’s entire job is to move legislation through the House, and as Saturday’s vote to pass the bill demonstrated, the Ukraine measure had overwhelming support. But Mr. Johnson’s feat was not so different from that of another embattled Republican who faced a difficult choice under immense pressure from hard-right Republicans and was saluted as a hero for simply doing his job: former Vice President Mike Pence.

When Mr. Pence refused to accede to former President Donald J. Trump’s demands that he overturn the 2020 election results as he presided over the electoral vote count by Congress on Jan. 6, 2021 — even as an angry mob with baseball bats and pepper spray invaded the Capitol and chanted “hang Mike Pence” — the normally unremarkable act of performing the duties in a vice president’s job description was hailed as courageous.

Mr. Pence and now Mr. Johnson represent the most high-profile examples of a stark political reality: In today’s Republican Party, subsumed by Mr. Trump, taking the norm-preserving, consensus-driven path can draw the ire of your constituents and spell the end of your political career.

Mr. Johnson and Mr. Pence, both mild-mannered, extremely conservative evangelical Christians who have put their faith at the center of their politics, occupy a similar space in their party. They have both gone through contortions to accommodate Mr. Trump and the forces he unleashed in their party, which in turn have ultimately come after them. Mr. Pence spent four years dutifully serving the former president and defending all of his words and actions. Mr. Johnson, a Louisiana Republican, played a lead role in trying to overturn the election results on Mr. Trump’s behalf.

But in two critical moments, when facing intense, sometimes violent, pressure from within their party, they both chose a more difficult path.

Mr. Johnson is facing a growing movement on his right flank to oust him from his job. Even after he stood by Mr. Trump’s side at Mar-a-Lago and appeared to have his support, top surrogates for the former president including his son Donald Trump Jr. and one of the leading contenders for vice president, Senator J.D. Vance of Ohio, have been upbraiding him for the decision to move ahead with the security package.

“He’s not met the moment, and Mike Johnson must go just like Kevin McCarthy,” Stephen K. Bannon, the former Trump adviser and host of the influential right-wing War Room podcast, said Friday at a conservative retreat in Florida, referring to Mr. Johnson’s predecessor as speaker.

Because of his hard break with Mr. Trump, Mr. Pence’s short-lived presidential campaign struggled to raise money and never gained traction in the polls that were dominated from the start by the former president.

On social media this week, Mr. Pence urged Democrats and Republicans alike to “rally around Speaker Johnson.” Unsurprisingly, his post was besieged by commenters calling both Republicans “traitors”; one said it was an example of a “Judas supporting another Judas.”

Mr. Pence has been offering Mr. Johnson private encouragement in recent weeks, as he faced growing discontent from the far right.

“I think they’re both courageous,” said Marc Short, the former chief of staff to Mr. Pence, arguing that their Christian faith helps to ground both men in difficult moments.

Sarah Longwell, a prominent anti-Trump Republican political strategist, said it was notable when Republicans in Washington “do the right thing, and they do deserve credit for bucking the forces in their own party.” She added that “there still needs to be a robust apparatus for encouraging people to do the right thing and maintaining that expectation.”

On the House floor on Saturday morning, some members tried to do just that. Representative Mario Diaz-Balart, Republican of Florida, praised Mr. Johnson’s “fortitude” in moving ahead even “in the face of daunting obstacles.” He called the simple move to put on the House floor a security package with broad, bipartisan support a “testament to his character.” On Friday, a group of about 70 former members of Congress, foreign affairs experts and other advocates for Ukraine aid sent a letter to Mr. Johnson in support of his efforts.

“We are grateful for your courageous leadership,” the group, led by the Ukraine Freedom Project, wrote. “Your call for America to re-emerge as the country that defends freedom and confronts tyranny is a clarion one for our time.”

Even Volodymyr Zelensky, the president of Ukraine, singled out Mr. Johnson for praise minutes after the bill passed. “I am grateful to the United States House of Representatives, both parties, and personally Speaker Mike Johnson for the decision that keeps history on the right track,” he wrote on social media.

Not everyone was eager to pile on the kudos.

“I’m so glad Republicans finally realize the gravity of the situation and the urgency with which we must act,” Representative Jim McGovern of Massachusetts, the top Democrat on the Rules Committee, said on Friday as the House was about to take a vote to clear the way for the bill. “But you don’t get an award around here for doing your damn job.”

At a news conference later that day, Representative Hakeem Jeffries of New York, the minority leader, resisted offering Mr. Johnson any credit, even as he was pressed over and over to assess the speaker’s performance and to weigh in on whether Democrats would help to save his speakership.

“As much as I would like to think the American people care about what I may have to say about the job performance of any of my colleagues, I don’t believe that is the case,” Mr. Jeffries said. “What the American people care about right now is meeting their needs in a very dangerous world of standing by our democratic allies. That will be the ultimate test by which Speaker Johnson, myself, and all of our colleagues in the House on both sides of the aisle will be judged.”

Alyssa Farah Griffin, a former top aide in the Trump administration, was lukewarm, at best, in her praise for Mr. Johnson, who she noted had dithered for months before moving ahead on Ukraine aid, even though it was clear there was a broad consensus that the aid was critical.

“It’s remarkable that this is being viewed as a brave or heroic move — simply putting a bill on the House floor for a vote that has bipartisan support to pass,” she said. “In the period of time that Johnson waffled over whether to even allow a vote on it or not, Ukraine lost ground and Ukrainians were killed by Russians.”

Last week, Mr. Johnson told reporters in the Capitol that “history judges us for what we do,” adding that “I could make a selfish decision and do something that’s different, but I’m doing here what I believe to be the right thing.”

Even after his impassioned comments, he hesitated before releasing the text of the bills, prompting Democrats to worry that his indecision and desire to appeal to the far right would again win out.

On Saturday, some of them offered a verbal shrug at Mr. Johnson’s plight, arguing it was the brutal reality of what he signed up for when he threw his hat in the ring for the thankless job of Republican speaker.

“He didn’t volunteer for an easy job,” said Representative Steny H. Hoyer, Democrat of Maryland. “And he knew exactly the context in which he was going.”

Carl Hulse contributed reporting.

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