Jun 3, 2024 - Politics & Policy
Column / Behind the Curtain

Behind the Curtain: Speaker Johnson's secret muse

Photo illustration of John Boehner reflected in the lens of Mike Johnson's glasses.

Photo illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios. Photos: Shannon Finney and Kent Nishimura/Getty Images

It turns out House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) had a quiet mentor who helped pull off the biggest accomplishment of his rocky seven months with the gavel — defying his right wing to pass a vital aid package for Israel and Ukraine.

  • John Boehner — an establishment Republican who was speaker a decade ago chronologically, but an eon ago in the GOP's radical evolution — has become a surprising tutor to the novice, full-MAGA speaker.

Why it matters: The two men have bridged generational, ideological and stylistic gulfs to form an extremely rare connection between today's hard-right Republicans and the pre-Trump party of Bush, McCain and Romney.

Boehner, 74 — with his smoker's cough, but undiminished love of the game — used his roguish touch to help talk Johnson, 52, toward a win on what the speaker called those "really important obligations" on foreign aid.

  • In our column on Johnson's historic road-to-Kyiv conversion, we told you how the speaker defied the loudest, most threatening GOP personalities, dug deep into government intelligence, and shifted his position on the most vital foreign policy legislation in years.

Johnson had to defy a majority of his party, and risk his speakership.

  • He not only survived, but now has a good shot at remaining Republican leader (whether in the majority or minority) in 2025 — which once looked unlikely.

Behind the scenes: "For a guy who doesn't drink, smoke, or cuss," Johnson's "really an affable guy," Boehner, who does all those things (although he pivoted years ago from his trademark merlot to cabernet sauvignon), told us by phone from his home in suburban Cincinnati.

  • "He's got to do this Kabuki dance every day to keep some of his more — I don't even want to call them conservatives," Boehner said.
  • "I don't know what you — I think that's the wrong word for them. He's got to go through this dance every day to try to appease his caucus. But at the end of the day, he knows what has to get done, and he finds a way to get it done."
Photo of Speaker Johnson with John Boehner
Speaker Johnson with John Boehner at a fundraiser in Cincinnati last week. Photo: @OhSchnitt

Last week, the two had a coming-out, with Boehner headlining a fundraising reception in Cincinnati for Johnson's Grow the Majority fundraising committee.

  • Johnson called Boehner a "living legend."

A recent New Yorker profile called the speaker "MAGA Mike ... [o]utwardly deferential but privately ambitious."

  • "I found it interesting, reading the press about him," Boehner said. "I think there's a lot more there than what the press gives him credit for. ... His members respect him, even those that may disagree with him. I think it harbors a pretty bright future for him."
  • "This guy knows who he is," the Ohioan added. "He's not searching for a meaning in life."

The big picture: Asked how common it is for a top political leader to know who they are, Boehner called it "a 50/50 proposition, based on my experience."

  • "I never thought about it before. But half of the people in those jobs know who they are, and the other half are still trying to figure it out."

On the epic foreign-aid package, Boehner said Johnson "may not have been thrilled with the Ukraine stuff early on. But once you become speaker, one, you learn a few more things; and two, the gravity of the issues you're dealing with change as well."

  • "All of a sudden, you have not just a responsibility to your district or to yourself. You've got a team of members, and you've got what's good in the long-term interest of the country involved as well. And I think he rose to the occasion."

What's next: House Judiciary Chairman Jim Jordan of Ohio is among the GOP leaders working behind the scenes to position themselves if the party has an opening for speaker or minority leader come January.

  • Kevin McCarthy, who was ousted as speaker in October, told Manu Raju on CNN's "Inside Politics" yesterday when asked about his successor: "He's doing the best job he can as he goes through this. It's not an easy job. But winning seats solves a lot of problems."

Asked if he thinks Johnson will hang on, Boehner told us he's "read all these stories about his upcoming funeral. I just don't see it."

  • "I had members who disagreed with me on a lot of things," Boehner added. "But they trusted me because I always told them the truth, even when they didn't want to hear it."
  • "I think he's got himself in as good a spot as he can put himself, given the situation he's dealing with."
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