Plus, a question about our debt and some footage from our live event.
I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”
Today's read: 12 minutes.
On Tuesday, we noted that a "pair of corporate tax cuts Biden signed into law in 2022 did not offset unexpected losses in revenue from the more volatile capital gains taxes." This should have read a pair of tax increases, not cuts. It was a reference to a new minimum tax and a tax on stock repurchases that Biden passed.
This is our 93rd correction in Tangle’s 219-week* history and our first correction since September 27th. We track corrections and place them at the top of the newsletter in an effort to maximize transparency with readers.
*We recently recalculated this number and realized it was off by five weeks, so we've meta-corrected our correction tracker to reflect this.
See you tomorrow?
In tomorrow's members-only Friday edition, I'm going to be breaking down the media lessons from the Gaza hospital explosion — and how to avoid the same mistakes many people made in the future.
- At least 18 people were killed and dozens injured in a mass shooting in Maine. As of publication, the alleged shooter is still on the loose, and a manhunt is underway. (The shooting)
- Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-NY) was charged with a criminal misdemeanor for pulling a fire alarm in a House office building three weeks ago. (The charges)
- In a dramatic courtroom moment, former President Trump was called to the stand and fined $10,000 for violating a gag order in his New York civil fraud trial. (The fine)
- Hours after the United Nations secretary general called for a ceasefire in Gaza, Israel carried out one of the biggest raids in Gaza since Hamas's attack. (The updates)
- The U.S. economy grew at 4.9% last quarter, the fastest pace in two years, despite higher prices, rising interest rates, and forecasts of a recession. (The news)
Mike Johnson (R-LA). Yesterday, Republicans in the House of Representatives elected Johnson their new Speaker. His election ended three weeks without a Speaker, and came after Reps. Jim Jordan (R-OH), Steve Scalise (R-LA) and Tom Emmer (R-MN) all failed to win a full floor vote after being nominated by the party. Johnson unified the party, winning the votes of all 220 Republicans in attendance, while all 209 Democrats present voted for Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY).
The bio: Johnson is not a household name. At 51 years old, he is a staunch conservative and fourth-term member of the House. He has served as the House Republican Conference vice chair. He also sits on the Judiciary and Armed Services committees, and his deep-red district in western Louisiana is home to a few military facilities. Before becoming a member of Congress, he was a professor at Liberty University, talk radio host, and columnist. A graduate of Louisiana State University, he also worked as an attorney and spokesperson for several religious groups, which helped propel his political career.
Johnson promised to bring the House back to order, fight vigorously with Democrats, and also seek out the common good. He was celebrated as one of the only Republican options with few enemies who could unite the party.
Johnson is also one of the most inexperienced Speakers in modern history. Since the Civil War, the average Speaker had served 18 years in Congress. Johnson has served six. An Axios analysis determined he has less experience serving in the House than any Speaker elected since John G. Carlisle in 1883, making him the least experienced person in the role in 140 years.
Less well known to many Americans is Johnson's record, which is sure to be headline news in the coming weeks. Most controversially, in December of 2020, he submitted an amicus brief in Texas signed by over 100 House Republicans that sought to invalidate Biden's election victory in four swing states. He also trafficked in baseless allegations that Dominion voting machines had corrupted the election. Rep. Ken Buck (R-CO), a key holdout who had opted not to back Reps. Scalise and Jordan and pledged not to support a Speaker who denied Biden won the 2020 election, reversed course and supported Johnson.
"What he did was he went to the courts," Buck said. "That’s what the courts are set up for. It is absolutely appropriate."
Johnson, an evangelical Christian, has also drawn attention for his hardline views on abortion and homosexuality. He recently voted for a national abortion ban without exceptions for rape or incest and co-sponsored a 20-week abortion ban. He's also defended Louisiana's same-sex marriage ban in front of the Supreme Court, and in opinion pieces from the mid-2000s, he compared homosexuality to bestiality and called it "inherently unnatural" and a "dangerous lifestyle." Democrats have pounced on these comments and are already developing advertising campaigns based on his views on the 2020 election and abortion.
"Mike Johnson, probably moreso than almost any other member of the House Republican Conference, wants to criminalize abortion care and propose a nationwide ban," Minority Leader Jeffries said.
Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL), who helped orchestrate the ousting of former Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), celebrated Johnson's rise.
"If you don’t think that moving from Kevin McCarthy to MAGA Mike Johnson shows the ascendance of this movement and where the power in the Republican Party truly lies, then you’re not paying attention," Gaetz said in an interview on Steve Bannon’s “War Room” podcast.
With a Speaker in place, the House now faces a laundry list of pressing issues. Lawmakers will need to beat a looming government-funding deadline (Nov. 17), pass military aid for Israel, determine the path forward on supporting Ukraine in its defense against Russia, and bring up legislation to address the border crisis.
Today, we're going to break down some arguments from the left and right about Johnson, then my take.
What the left is saying.
- The left is opposed to many of Johnson’s policy positions but more concerned about his willingness to go along with Trump’s 2020 election denialism.
- Some say Johnson’s Speakership is a bad sign for American democracy.
- Others think Johnson will struggle to lead the House through the significant legislative challenges it faces.
In Bloomberg, Francis Wilkinson asked “who chose the new House Speaker: Republicans or Trump?”
“The House GOP is only an embarrassment if you are under the mistaken impression that it’s there to serve the national interest. Emphatically, it is not,” Wilkinson wrote. “No one, least of all Republicans, thinks that the GOP is capable of legislating. If all goes well, the party that has organized itself around Trump’s voluble lies and seething rage will keep the government open and fund whatever the White House and Senate work out. If all doesn’t go well, the House GOP, having recommitted itself to lawlessness and deceit, will precipitate another existential crisis for American democracy.”
“What ultimately matters is that Trump has an obedient Speaker who supported Trump’s attempted coup after he lost the 2020 election by seven million votes. Johnson, or his replacement if Johnson doesn’t last, must be poised to perform a similar duty if Trump fails again in 2024. Anyone unwilling to overthrow the republic and keep Trump out of jail is a MAGA enemy. They must be purged,” Wilkinson said. “Every Republican action now is shaped by Trumpism and the political desperation and cultural panic that birther-ed it.”
The Los Angeles Times editorial board argued “American democracy is in trouble” after Johnson’s election.
“If there was any hope that the GOP would steer toward sanity and distance itself from the Trump sideshow, that hope is gone. It’s still unknown where Johnson will lead the party on important issues, though he is a vocal opponent of reproductive rights and gay marriage, and happy to impose his evangelical views on the rest of the country. It’s also unclear if he has the skill to avoid a looming government shutdown,” the board wrote.
“Of course Johnson’s elevation to speaker is particularly alarming for the upcoming presidential election, in which a rematch between President Biden and Trump is more than likely. There’s little reason to believe Trump can win legitimately four years after being dumped by a majority of voters, and after being charged in four criminal cases. His best prospect for returning to the White House may be to steal the election, with assistance from MAGA leaders running the House.”
In The American Prospect, David Dayen said “electing a Speaker is the easy part,” and “what that leader does is the more fraught question.”
“The White House wants to keep the Ukraine and Israel funding together, using border funding as a sweetener. There would be strong bipartisan support for such a bill; a smaller supplemental request for Ukraine received over 300 House votes recently,” Dayen wrote. “But the sword of Damocles in the form of a motion to vacate the chair still hangs over the head of any Speaker. Johnson cannot just bring a foreign military aid supplemental to the House floor without blowback, lest he face the wrath of the hard-liners, just as McCarthy did.”
“Cutting against this is the lack of unanimity within the Republican Caucus on spending, to say nothing of their fights with the Democratic Senate and White House. That lack of consensus is the reason these bills aren’t passed already, months into the Republican House majority,” Dayen said. “This all falls on the shoulders of a fourth-term congressman who has never held a committee chairmanship, never been in leadership, and never had to negotiate among factions of his caucus, let alone with Democrats. Good luck, buddy.”
What the right is saying.
- The right is largely behind Johnson, arguing he is a strong choice for the party after a month of turmoil.
- Some say the GOP’s far-right flank will need to soften their stances to enable Johnson to effectively lead the House.
- Others say Johnson’s election is a victory for Matt Gaetz and the House Freedom Caucus.
In The American Spectator, Scott McKay called Johnson “the Speaker we need.”
“We have, after three weeks of infighting and paralysis, a Speaker of the House — and what we have, by all indications, is something of which we can be very proud,” McKay said. Johnson is “a Christian. And a mild-mannered Christian, at that. But don’t take Mike Johnson’s Ned Flanders manner as a sign of weakness. Mike Johnson’s spine is made of steel, and Mike Johnson knows exactly what time it is in America.”
“The most important reason why McCarthy fell was his inability to move the 12 appropriations bills funding the government in a timely manner… McCarthy didn’t take this issue seriously enough, and he rightly lost his speakership over it. Johnson understands how crucial it is to reform the budget process,” McKay wrote. “Johnson is going to have to devote all of his energies to getting appropriations bills off the floor and across the rotunda to the Senate so that he’s not a victim of shutdown politics as McCarthy was. But it’s doable.”
The Wall Street Journal editorial board said “GOP agitators” will have to give Johnson the “leeway they denied Kevin McCarthy.”
For Johnson, “the optimistic case is that he might have the credibility on the right to get the GOP’s narrow majority to accept the modest wins of divided government. Maybe it will take a Speaker like Mr. Johnson to convince the disruptive Republican rump that accepting partial victory is better than a government shutdown or an eventual spending omnibus,” the board wrote. Johnson has already “proposed a roadmap for passing spending bills, with a potential stopgap extension through early next year to gain the time to do it. Good luck and Godspeed.”
“Whatever the McCarthy mutineers might say, the three weeks of turmoil have hurt the GOP’s image as a party that can competently govern while acting as a political check on Mr. Biden. A big part of Mr. Johnson’s job is to bring order to this Republican chaos. The hard reality is that the GOP’s narrow majority puts him in the same precarious position as his predecessor.”
In The Daily Beast, Matt Lewis called Matt Gaetz “the big winner of the GOP’s House Speaker battle.”
“It’s unclear how newly-minted House Speaker Mike Johnson, 51, will lead. But those who view election denial as the sine qua non, as Trump clearly does… have good reason to believe that the Big Lie has been, thanks in large part to Gaetz, deeply embedded into the GOP’s leadership,” Lewis said. “Gaetz deserves most of the credit (or blame) for this outcome—and not just because he took down Speaker McCarthy on Oct. 3. Instead, the elevation of MAGA Mike was the result of concessions Gaetz demanded from McCarthy way back in January.”
“We are now entering into third-wave Trumpism: the elevation of true believers. The rise of the first MAGA speaker. And if we have learned anything, it is that this is just the beginning. Gaetz has been rewarded, and his theory regarding how to change the GOP and America has been confirmed,” Lewis wrote. “But even if Speaker Johnson proves more moderate and pragmatic early on, the fact remains that the new Republican leader was an architect of the attempt to overturn the 2020 election.”
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- Not enough people are talking about how inexperienced Johnson is.
- I suspect we’re about to see high hopes about his Speakership run head first into reality.
- It's worth noting that his views play right into the ways Democrats have been winning elections recently.
I think Johnson is about to get run over.
It's hard to overstate just how unfathomable this entire thing is. By the end of this week, this little-known member of Congress who began serving in 2017, has never held a leadership post, and has never negotiated between factions in Congress is going to be in a room with the President of the United States, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, and House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries. And he'll be deciding what to do about the most important world affairs: The war in Ukraine, the Israel-Palestine conflict, the southern border, and our multi-trillion dollar budget. I don't think people are talking enough about how much power this inexperienced (and frankly, ill-prepared) member of Congress just inherited.
To beat the dead horse a bit: When Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) was asked what it would be like to work with Johnson on spending issues, she said she needed to go home and Google him because she didn't know who he was.
Remember: Kevin McCarthy got run out of the House Speaker role in part because Biden ran circles around him and McConnell ran him over. And McCarthy is a creature of the D.C. swamp, someone who knows the ins and outs of Congress, a prolific fundraiser (which makes him incredibly valuable to his caucus), and a person with actual relationships with the president and Democratic leadership.
Johnson has none of that. He isn't even well known among members of his own party. Compared to McCarthy's $16 million, he's raised just $553,000 this year. Worse yet for Republicans, he has years of public writing and radio spots that have never been combed through by Democrats and are about to become fodder for anti-Republican advertisements. Put differently: He isn’t just inexperienced, but almost entirely unvetted.
I suppose there is a world where this works to his advantage — maybe the novelty of his Speakership and his lack of enemies cracks open some advantage for Republicans to get their agenda through that I'm not thinking of. Maybe Biden and Democrats struggle to navigate a Johnson speakership because so much about him is unknown. But I doubt it. I think it is far more likely Johnson feels the entire weight of the world on his shoulders in short order and it becomes clear to everyone that he was thrown into the deep end of the pool before learning to swim.
I also think this is likely to be bad for Republicans politically. Republicans’ string of recent election losses and under-performances have been driven by abortion restrictions and a refusal to acknowledge the result of the 2020 presidential election. Both of those issues have driven away independents, moderates, and suburban women while simultaneously driving massive turnout for Democrats, young voters, and left-of-center women. Yet Johnson — now tasked with securing a House majority — is a hardliner on abortion who literally helped lead some of the legal challenges to overturn the election. The ads write themselves. And again: That's just the stuff we know about him within the first 24 hours of his victory.
Now, that's not to say Johnson is all electoral downside. He has some sensible positions on competition with China, immigration restrictions, and cybersecurity issues. As I've written before, I appreciate Republicans' efforts to bring back regular order to the appropriations process and pass 12 individual spending bills. Johnson seems more committed to this than anyone, and we could certainly use a dose of some fiscal conservatism right now.
Relatedly, it's also nice to have a man of modest means at the wheel. Johnson — who has four kids, no assets and $280,000 of debt — is a lot more relatable to me than the ultra-wealthy and out of touch leadership we've been living under for the last few years. Maybe that real-world experience will produce a different result than we’ve grown used to.
And, of course, he's likable. There isn't really an intellectual way to say that, but there is a reason he just won this vote unanimously among Republicans. Johnson is an affable guy with a calm demeanor who is new enough to not have many enemies, and apparently predisposed to making friends. I think describing him as a "MAGA" or "Trump" Republican is actually not quite right — he's far less of a combative flame thrower than you might expect hearing that description.
As CBS's Robert Costa put it, "To understand Mike Johnson, think of Mike Pence. Both served as chair of the Republican Study Committee. Both have a calm conservative talk radio demeanor. Pence had a radio show, Johnson has a podcast. Both evangelicals. Rush Limbaugh on decaf as Pence used to call himself."
How all of that translates as Speaker is yet to be seen, but I'd certainly file much of that as a positive.
On the whole, though, I mostly find him concerning — for both Republicans and the nation. I'd much prefer someone overseeing Congress who didn't fall for election fraud claims and didn’t try to overturn an election that Donald Trump very obviously lost. I’d also prefer someone with a track record of actually balancing budgets, navigating foreign conflict, and securing the U.S. border with their hand on the wheel right now. Johnson has issued some strongly worded statements, kept his head down, and taken easy votes, which creates a great deal of uncertainty about what he'll do at a time when there already is, well, a great deal of uncertainty.
Your questions, answered.
Q: How does our large national debt compare with other similar, large countries?
— Matt from Charlotte, North Carolina
Tangle: It’s either much larger, much smaller, or about in the middle, depending on how you measure it. We wrote about the federal deficit recently, and in our piece we gave our standard disclaimer about the debt:
“The United States regularly spends more money than it collects in revenue each year. This annual shortfall is called the deficit. To cover that shortfall, the government borrows money by issuing government securities, or bonds. Investors lend that cash with the expectation the government will pay them back with interest. Together, those loans comprise the national debt. Our debt is held mostly by the public, and a large portion is owned by foreign governments, the federal reserve, U.S. banks, and state and local governments, among others.”
Though we focused on the deficit, we’ve covered the debt in previous pieces as well. What we haven’t really done is directly compare the U.S.’s debt to other countries’. So I’ll give a couple quick comparisons — Canada, Germany, Brazil, and Japan — in terms of USD and as a percentage of that country’s GDP.
- United States: $32.3T, 119%
- Canada: $1.4T, 66%
- Germany: $2.8T, 65%
- Brazil: $1.6T, 74%
- Japan: $9.4T, 224%
And even though it’s not a country, it’s economy is the most similar to ours globally, so here’s the European Union: $14.7T, 84%
So, in terms of real dollars, the United States’ debt is far and away the highest. But that’s not the best way to measure a country’s debt, since larger economies are much easier to pay off debts more quickly. Percentage of GDP is a better measure, and there, the U.S. isn’t in quite as bad shape. It’s not too far above its peers, and it’s way behind Japan. But countries like Japan and Greece that have more debt than the U.S. aren’t exactly thought of as being in good positions economically.
I sense there’s a question behind the question: Is the debt a problem? That’s a whole other can of worms, and one that we’ve opened before. If you’re interested, you can check out this interview from 2021, where I asked two economists (one more liberal, one more conservative) questions about the debt and then lined up their answers side-by-side.
Want to have a question answered in the newsletter? You can reply to this email (it goes straight to my inbox) or fill out this form.
Under the radar.
The United Auto Workers union said Wednesday that it has reached a tentative deal with Ford — a major breakthrough that has the potential to end the 6-week-long strikes against Detroit's automakers. The deal still needs to be approved by 57,000 union members and includes a 25% general wage increase, cost of living raises that put the effective pay increase at over 30%, annual bonuses for retirees, and pension increases for those who retire. “We told Ford to pony up, and they did,” Union President Shawn Fain said. “We won things no one thought possible.” The Associated Press has the news.
- 65.2%. The percentage of the vote Mike Johnson won when he was elected to the U.S. House in 2016.
- 27th out of 222. Johnson’s “legislative effectiveness” rank among House Republicans, according to the Center for Effective Lawmaking, which assesses lawmakers’ ability to “move agenda items through the legislative process and into law.”
- 62. The number of bills Johnson has introduced since he began serving in Congress in 2016.
- 3. The number of bills introduced by Johnson that have become law to date.
- 21. The number of days the House of Representatives was without a Speaker before Johnson’s election.
- 55. The number of days the House of Representatives was without a Speaker in 1962 before John McCormack (D-MA) won the Speakership.
- 6.75. The number of years John G. Carlisle (D-KY) was in office before being elected Speaker in 1883.
- 6.81. The number of years Johnson has served in the U.S. House.
- One year ago today we covered the pandemic learning losses.
- The most clicked link in yesterday's newsletter was the library map.
- Sticking on to Teflon Don: 743 Tangle readers responded to our poll asking how the latest guilty pleas affect Trump's chances of being found guilty or taking his own plea deal, with 52% saying they increase the odds somewhat. 27% said they don't affect the odds, 13% said they greatly increase them, 2% said they greatly decrease them, and 1% said they somewhat decrease them. "Trump is a wild card playing by his own rules. It's as if none of the ways things 'SHOULD' work ever affect him. So I don't see this helping OR hurting him right now," one respondent said.
- Something to do with politics: Many of you have asked for footage from our live event in Philadelphia. Here is a highlight reel we just released on YouTube!
- Take the poll. How do you think Mike Johnson will do as Speaker? Let us know!
Have a nice day.
Scientists at Cancer Research UK may have made the biggest breakthrough in treating cervical cancer in 20 years using a course of existing and affordable drugs with standard radiotherapy. According to their trial findings, the approach cuts the mortality risk for women with the disease by 35%. “Our trial shows that this short course of additional chemotherapy delivered immediately before the standard CRT can reduce the risk of the cancer returning or death by 35%," said Dr. Mary McCormack, lead investigator of the trial from University College London Cancer Institute and UCL Hospital. "The important thing here is that if patients are alive and well, without the cancer recurring at five years, then they are very likely to be cured, so that's what makes this very exciting." The BBC has the story.
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