A Democrat’s Case for Saving Mike Johnson

If Speaker Mike Johnson keeps his job, it’ll be Democrats who save him. Like his predecessor, Kevin McCarthy, the Louisiana conservative is facing an attempted ouster after he defied Republican hard-liners by relying on Democratic support to pass a funding bill—$61 billion for Ukraine, in this case—they hated.

Democrats helped boot McCarthy six months ago, but now several of them say they’ll rescue Johnson. Just three Republicans have signed on to the effort to depose Johnson, so the speaker might be able to survive with only a small Democratic contingent backing him. On the surface, the willingness of any Democrat to stand with Johnson might seem curious; he’s both more conservative than McCarthy and more loyal to Donald Trump. So why are some Democrats who voted to end McCarthy’s speakership planning to salvage Johnson’s?

Representative Marie Gluesenkamp Perez of Washington State is one of them. She was a 34-year-old co-owner of an auto-repair shop when she narrowly flipped a district in 2022 that had been held by a six-term Republican. In Congress, she co-chairs the centrist Blue Dog Coalition and recently helped write the aid package that the House approved in a series of bipartisan votes on Saturday, which included long-stalled money for Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan. In an interview one day before the vote, Gluesenkamp Perez drew a sharp contrast between McCarthy (a “classic suit calculating his next advancement”) and Johnson (“a man of faith”).

“I don’t think my constituents wanted to see me save Kevin McCarthy. I think they saw a lot of hair gel,” Gluesenkamp Perez told me. “I think they see Mike Johnson as different. I think they want me to save him. They’re tired of chaos, regardless of party.”

Last month, Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, who ardently opposes sending more aid to Ukraine, introduced a motion to vacate the speaker—the same procedural maneuver that Representative Matt Gaetz of Florida deployed in October to remove McCarthy. The House is on recess this week, and Greene has vowed to bring the motion to a vote after lawmakers return if Johnson doesn’t resign (which he has insisted he won’t do).

Representative Hakeem Jeffries of New York, the House minority leader, hasn’t said whether he would urge Democrats to save Johnson. Some in the party first want to extract additional concessions from the speaker in the closely divided House. But Gluesenkamp Perez isn’t waiting for a directive from her leadership. She told me that Johnson has already earned her vote. “Putting this package forward is enough to demonstrate for me that he’s worth saving,” she said.

Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Russell Berman: If Marjorie Taylor Greene forces a vote on a motion to vacate, would you vote to save Speaker Johnson?

Marie Gluesenkamp Perez: I will not be voting to remove Mike Johnson.

Berman: Do you think Democrats should try to force Johnson into negotiations and extract more concessions from him before agreeing to save him?

Gluesenkamp Perez: I don’t think my community is invested in procedural rules and structure. I think my community cares about an America that exerts influence in support of democracies, and putting this package forward is enough to demonstrate for me that he’s worth saving.

I think Mike Johnson is a man of faith. I think he’s guided by that faith. I am also a woman of faith. And I understand and I respect that. The Southern Baptist Convention put out a letter where they said that they supported funding for Ukraine aid. After that, Mike Johnson [a Southern Baptist] came out in support of moving the military-aid package forward. I do not think that is a coincidence. I see a guy that is guided by conscience, guided by his faith.

I do not agree with Mike on many, many issues, but I did not see that level of conviction in Kevin. He had this sort of unctuous image. The reason that Kevin lost his job was that he voted to fund the government. That is an incredibly low bar. Funding the government is not showing courage. That’s just our job. Supporting our allies, supporting our values—that’s courage. And that’s something that resonates much more strongly in my community.

Berman: Do you think your constituents see this situation differently from last fall with McCarthy?

Gluesenkamp Perez: It’s sort of inside baseball versus real-life policy. Funding the government—as I said, that’s the job. I don’t think my constituents wanted to see me save Kevin McCarthy. I think they saw a lot of hair gel. I think they see Mike Johnson as different. He has one of the lowest net wealths for a member of Congress. I think he actually likes his family. I think they want me to save him. They’re tired of chaos, regardless of party.

I had not been to D.C. since ninth grade before I got this job. I was similarly thrown into this very different world with very different responsibilities, and I empathize with the personal situation he’s in. He was not expecting to be speaker seven months ago. And all of a sudden he’s thrust into this massive job, and he’s figuring it out as he goes. To be clear, I think he’s made mistakes along the way. But I empathize with him in a way I could not with Kevin McCarthy, who was just this classic suit calculating his next advancement as a politician.

Berman: It sounds like you think he’s been a better speaker than McCarthy.

Gluesenkamp Perez: I don’t think Kevin would ever have put forward this package. And Mike has gone out on a limb to do it, because it reflects his values.

Berman: Supporters of Ukraine aid—both Republican and Democratic—have been pushing Johnson to put something like this package on the floor for months, and the delay has come at a significant cost to Ukrainian lives and territory. How much do you hold him responsible for not doing this much earlier?

Gluesenkamp Perez: In the cloakroom and around the Hill, there’s been a debate about whether Mike Johnson is Chamberlain or Churchill. I think, in the end, he’s manifesting the Churchill quote, “Americans will always do the right thing after they’ve exhausted every other option.”

Berman: Johnson is way more ideologically conservative than McCarthy was, particularly on social issues. How would you respond to people who would say that Johnson is actually more dangerous if you’re a Democrat or progressive, who would ask why you threw out the mainstream Republican but saved someone they consider to be a zealot?

Gluesenkamp Perez: I’m pretty confident that my district sees a difference between a drive for power and someone that’s doing his best. I’m not concerned that they’re going to confuse my values in a vote to support Mike and with my values in walking away from a machine that Kevin McCarthy represents.

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