House Speaker Mike Johnson got it right in his impassioned speech shortly before going forward with a vote on Ukraine aid, in which he said, “We can’t play politics with this. ... I’m willing to take a personal risk for that because we have to do the right thing, and history will judge us.” This moment showed Johnson to be the man many hoped he would be.

Voices from many corners — from Ivy League faculty who hailed the move as Johnson’s “Profile in Courage” moment, to former Vice President Mike Pence, who lauded the speaker’s “moral courage” — have rightly applauded Johnson’s decision.

The vote was a victory for everyone who cares about standing up to tyranny. It’s also a victory for the U.S. Constitution. It is a triumph of these institutions over what the American founders called “faction,” or what we call tribalism or partisanship today.

The Ukraine aid passed the House overwhelmingly, by a vote of 311-112, and by an even greater margin in the Senate. Yet Johnson’s critics on the left point out it came only after Johnson reversed the stance he held before becoming speaker, and after months of delay, which has cost Ukrainian lives. There is some truth to this, but the criticism misses important context.

Johnson’s decision to go forward was difficult, not because it’s hard for a politician to change his stance, but because the Republicans’ incredibly narrow majority gave disproportionate influence to a small minority of Johnson’s own caucus. This group, egged on by the small but influential band of neo-isolationists on the right, threatened to oust Johnson as speaker, just as they had former Speaker Kevin McCarthy. Johnson’s caucus ended up splitting about 50/50 on the final vote, with a small majority of Republicans voting “no,” but few of those who voted against Ukraine aid wanted to oust him over it.

It’s easy to say Johnson should have moved faster, and, in my view, it would have been better if he had. But even putting Johnson’s personal ambitions aside, one should not underestimate the costs of having a third election for speaker inside of six months. The spectacle could easily have led to complete paralysis for the rest of this Congress. This was not a small issue. The tiny minority that threatened to oust Johnson, however, was only viable because both Republicans and Democrats routinely vote for their own candidate for speaker, and reflexively vote against the other side’s candidates. This is especially true in our era of high polarization. Given the narrowness of the Republican majority, in essence, Johnson needed a clean sweep of his own party.

This is a problem that James Madison warned about in The Federalist Papers. In Federalist 10, Madison described a “faction” as “a number of citizens … who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse(d) to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.” In other words, the faction does not represent the permanent will of the majority, is indifferent to the good of the whole and does harm to the interests of the country.

Johnson was able to push forward this important vote, in large part, because Democrats, led by Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, made the extraordinary decision — at first tacitly and then, after the vote, explicitly — to support Johnson against the fringe faction of his caucus. Democrats would refuse to vote to oust him, as they would usually reflexively do. Their reasoning was clear: They wanted Ukraine aid to pass, they understood the position Johnson was in, and rather than allow a “faction” to control policy, they would join with their usual rivals to ensure that the aid passed.

Why character matters to us and the new speaker of the House
House Speaker Mike Johnson's Ukraine vision

Politics is often messy and confusing, and sometimes it’s dirty and dishonest. Because of that, Madison wrote Federalist 10 in support of ratification of the U.S. Constitution.

One of the fears at the time was that “faction” would eventually destroy the ability of the government to function. Madison’s argument was clear: The “relief” from faction “Is supplied by the republican principle, which enables the majority to defeat its sinister views by regular vote. It may clog the administration, it may convulse the society; but it will be unable to execute and mask its violence under the forms of the Constitution.”

Put another way, the constitutional framework of checks and balances, both internal and external from the House of Representatives, would eventually defeat the efforts of a small faction to derail policies that represented the clear will of the majority. Both Johnson and Pence alluded to this fact, with Johnson saying his move would “allow an opportunity for every single member of the House to vote their conscience and their will,” and Pence saying that the “the vast majority of members of Congress” knew that this was needed. Minority Leader Jeffries made the more partisan statement that Democrats partnered with Johnson “so that pro-Putin Republicans could not break democracy in the free world.”

It’s worth noting that even this maneuver posed risks for both Johnson and Jeffries. Getting the backing of the opposing party, for any reason, will be seen as a bad thing by some in a politician’s base. This was minimized because both the Biden administration and former President Donald Trump tacitly blessed the union, even if for different reasons. This, too, shows how the constitutional structure should work.

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, the de facto leader of Johnson’s right-wing antagonizers, denounced this maneuver as the will of the “uniparty.” In a sense, she’s correct. It represents the clear will of the majority of Americans that affiliate with both major parties, and no small number of independents and third-party members. She’s wrong to think this is a negative. Indeed, our entire constitutional structure is based on the idea that the “uniparty,” as Greene derisively calls it, will eventually triumph over “faction.”


These events bring hope, hope that Ukraine and the civilized world will triumph over barbarism, and also hope that the American system will not eternally be rendered dysfunctional. Blind ideological factions and narrow, short-term political interests can only threaten the clear majority for so long before the majority reasserts itself. But while the system is designed to encourage these results, it is not inevitable.

The better angels of Johnson’s character rose up at a pivotal moment, as they have with others such as the late Sen. Arthur Vandenberg, the Michigan Republican who supported Harry Truman in early Cold War containment policy; Sen. Joe Lieberman, the Democrat then Independent from Connecticut who championed the “surge” in Iraq at great personal cost; and Vice President Mike Pence who saved the country from a constitutional crisis on Jan. 6, 2021, by refusing to reject rightful electoral votes for President Joe Biden. While a system can encourage these outcomes, no system can constrain selfish or shortsighted decision-makers forever.

As John Adams once said, a politics that cares nothing for morality “would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net.” That is something every American should remember when they cast a vote.

Cliff Smith is a lawyer and a former congressional staffer. He lives in Washington, D.C., where he works on national security related issues. His views are his own.

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