The next question is: Did conservatives?
When eight Republicans joined with House Democrats in throwing out former Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), most of them justified their move, which was not popular in the wider GOP conference and has received mixed reviews at best in polling of rank-and-file Republican voters, by saying a more conservative speaker was possible.
On paper, Johnson certainly fits the bill. His 2022 Conservative Political Action Conference (formerly American Conservative Union) rating was 91%. His lifetime rating over six years is 91.87%.
That’s better than McCarthy’s ratings of 82% and 84.08%, respectively, or House Majority Leader Steve Scalise’s (R-LA) 2022 rating of 82%, though only a touch better than his lifetime score of 91.43%. House Majority Whip Tom Emmer (R-MN) was just 73% last year and 79.63% over his congressional career.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jim Jordan (R-OH) was the only candidate for speaker who was rated as being more conservative than Johnson, with 100% scores for last year and his entire 16-year stint in Congress.
But Jordan never got particularly close to being speaker, receiving fewer votes on the floor than House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) each time. By the third ballot, Jordan had dipped below 200 votes and had 25 Republicans declining to support him. The conference dumped him as the nominee shortly thereafter.
One reason House Republicans elected McCarthy in the first place was that no one associated with the Freedom Caucus had the votes to become speaker. Jordan was widely considered the most plausible member of that faction for the job. That experiment has now been tried and ended poorly.
The theory was that McCarthy could be held to certain commitments in exchange for conservative holdouts finally relenting to his election on the 15th ballot, including a low threshold for the motion to vacate, essentially making himself easy to fire.
Many House conservatives did not like McCarthy’s approach to the debt ceiling or a temporary government funding bill to avert a shutdown. A much smaller number was ready to oust him over it immediately. So fire him they did.
“We told you how to use the power of the purse: individual, single-subject spending bills that would allow us to have specific review, programmatic analysis, and that would allow us to zero out the salaries of the bureaucrats who have broken bad, targeted President Trump, or cut sweetheart deals for Hunter Biden,” Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL), an anti-McCarthy ringleader, said on the House floor last month.
Johnson isn’t a Freedom Caucus member either, though the group is secretive about its membership. But the new speaker is at least Freedom Caucus adjacent. He has a deep reservoir of goodwill across the conference. He will surely need to draw upon it as the next government shutdown deadline nears and some judge him by the standards Gaetz laid out for McCarthy.
Before becoming speaker, Newt Gingrich led a conservative revolt against a bipartisan tax increase signed into law by then-President George H.W. Bush. It didn’t take long before Gingrich was the target of conservative revolts himself once he took the gavel in 1995, though his speakership ultimately ended for other reasons.
Under House Speaker Dennis Hastert, Republicans formalized a conservative-backed rule bearing his name that requires the “majority of the majority” to support legislation that made it to the floor. By the end of his tenure, intraparty fights over federal spending began to intensify. Republicans lost control of the House in 2006.
GOP Speakers John Boehner and Paul Ryan clashed with the new Freedom Caucus and its allies. Over time, a perceived combativeness and a willingness to flout conventions in pursuit of conservative objectives became as important as policy or ideological differences.
McCarthy lasted just nine months and could only be replaced after House Republicans pondered their fourth option.
Democrats have already pointed out that Johnson was closer to former President Donald Trump, backing him on 2020 election certification. Spending will inevitably be the first test, however.
Congressional conservatives have long argued that Republican leaders don’t drive a hard enough bargain with the Democrats on spending, refusing to use the leverage they believe is offered by shutdowns and the federal debt limit.
We’ll soon find out whether Johnson can be a different story with a different ending.