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Opinion: Mike Johnson has the worst job in Washington

Opinion by Patrick T. Brown

(CNN) — “One must imagine Sisyphus happy,” wrote the French philosopher Albert Camus. The ancient myth of the king of Ephyra doomed to slowly roll a boulder up a hill, only to repeatedly watch it roll back down and be forced to begin the cycle anew, traditionally stressed the figure’s useless toil and unending frustration. The absurdist Camus argued that Sisyphus could reach contentment only when he embraced the existential futility of his situation with a kind of wry humor.

If Camus is right, we must imagine House Speaker Mike Johnson happy.

Johnson is pushing a proverbial boulder up Capitol Hill as best he can. But the broader dynamics facing his razor-thin majority, as well as the Republican Party’s broader identity crisis, means he is continually faced with the limits of his power.

His critics will point out that the Louisiana Republican was thrust into a leadership role from virtual obscurity. His lack of experience counting votes has led to some high-profile flops, such as the GOP’s initial failure to pass a resolution to impeach Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and three failed rule votes during his speakership. (Before last year, the normally-routine procedural votes hadn’t failed in two decades.)

Yet in Johnson’s defense, he was dealt an especially challenging hand — one of the smallest House majorities in history and a fractious right flank that has already shown its willingness to defenestrate GOP leadership over perceived surrenders. Even the second coming of Tom Delay — who kept a bullwhip on his office wall as a sign of his ability to strong-arm the Republican caucus to various legislative victories — would have a difficult time herding a majority made up of figures as disparate (and colorful) as Representatives Matt Gaetz, Chip Roy, Jeff Van Drew, Marjorie Taylor Greene and Nancy Mace.

That — plus the recognition that pushing Johnson out of the speakership would simply result in the same shambolic process of choosing a successor that led to Johnson’s selection last fall — is the speaker’s security blanket. But as numerous legislative deadlines loom, those threads are wearing thin.

Over the next two weeks, Congress will be facing twin funding deadlines, set up by Johnson as a way to avert a previous standoff with hardliners on the right. If Congress can’t pass a deal to keep the lights on, a government shutdown could occur, an outcome some boisterous House Freedom Caucus members may welcome, but more mainstream Republicans would correctly see as a political vulnerability in an election year. The most likely scenario to avoid a shutdown would be relying on Democratic votes to pass a stopgap deal — the exact maneuver, of course, that sealed former Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s fate.

If Congress can’t reach a spending deal before April 30, an across-the-board spending cut of 1% will take effect. If that happens, a public blame game would break out between Republicans and Democrats over who is more to blame for cuts to popular programs — Johnson’s quiet, close-to-the-vest style wouldn’t set him up well to win an extended PR battle over spending.

It seems like House Republicans, who long chafed under leadership that tried to channel their rabble-rousing energy into establishmentarian goals, are now realizing that having a speaker who avoids confrontation with his majority’s various factions can have its own problems. Take the standoff over aid to Ukraine, for example — unwilling to risk support from either those favoring additional money and those seeking to scale down US involvement, Johnson let the bill sit while the House went on a two-week recess. Because the underlying reason for Johnson’s inability to herd the Republican caucus stems from both the relative weakness of the parties in today’s campaign system as well as the GOP’s lack of clarity about what it stands for.

Parties used to be able to credibly threaten the loss of plum committee placements or fundraising dollars if an individual lawmaker caused too many headaches. The rise of small-dollar donors, single-issue advocacy groups and social media followings allows individual members to pay little price for bucking leadership.

Similarly, the old “fusionist” consensus that used to bind Republicans of different stripes together — economic conservatives focused on lowering taxes, social conservatives dedicated to eliminating abortion, national security conservatives with eye on a strong national defense — has been distorted in the Age of Trump. On economics, Republicans debate reducing regulations and protectionist tariffs; the post-Dobbs landscape hasn’t been kind to pro-lifers; and the war in Ukraine has divided hawks and those with more isolationist ‘America First’ stances.

Johnson can barely navigate these tensions — he can hardly be expected to resolve them. The only figure with the ability to set a course for the GOP is its once and presumably future nominee, Donald Trump, who seems to care less about specific policy stances than his own personal beefs. As such, Johnson, or whoever fills his shoes, will continue to struggle with a job whose description asks its occupant to herd cats with very few sticks, even fewer carrots and only the vaguest sense of where they should be heading.

The only thing that can break Johnson out of his Sisyphean funk is a change in the political dynamics this November — a Republican president with clear priorities or a meaningfully larger House majority could give him a little more breathing room and a sense of where to aim his efforts. But the underlying dynamics will persist.

There’s no sustainable way out of this cul-de-sac until the GOP figures out what it is and what it stands for. Johnson’s valiant but existential struggle will personify the Republican identity crisis for the foreseeable future; at least until his restive colleagues decide they want some fresh meat.

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