Hakeem Jeffries' Strengthened Hand
How the Republican chaos helps him
Early in the year, I wrote in the New York Times about Hakeem Jeffries, the new House minority leader, and how he might have a different task ahead of him than Nancy Pelosi should he ascend to the speakership in 2025. What many political observers do not realize is that Jeffries has been a centrist—socially liberal but fiscally moderate— for much of his career. Within New York, Jeffries has always allied himself with the centrist and corporate-friendly Democrats trying to tamp down the party’s left wing. Jeffries used to work closely with Andrew Cuomo, who warred with progressives for more than a decade, and became a vocal opponent of the Democratic Socialists of America. He proudly supported privately-run, publicly-funded charter schools. He was an unreconstructed Israel hawk, no different than any Republican on the issue.
His friction with progressives at home could come back to haunt him, I argued, when it became time to round up the votes for speaker. There’s no doubt, if Democrats win the majority next year, Jeffries will be speaker—no one credible will emerge to challenge him—but the growing number of Squad and Squad-friendly Democrats in the caucus could make his life more uncomfortable. There are as many as a dozen Democrats now either affiliated with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s progressive faction or at least warm to its politics. They are not nearly as radical as the far right Republicans in Congress in terms of their willingness to throw the chamber into chaos; it will take Jeffries only one vote, if Democrats have the majority, to become speaker. But the progressives, if they remain united, will have clear leverage in a Jeffries-run House. There are enough of them to amend or derail bills. There are enough of them to make Jeffries behave in the manner they prefer. Pelosi could easily ignore the Squad in 2019 because the Democrats had a fairly large majority and there were, at best, four votes from the group. In 2025, they may have triple the number.
But Jeffries has every reason to enjoy Kevin McCarthy’s ouster and the GOP’s failure to elect a successor. When McCarthy was still speaker, progressives could feasibly look upon the Matt Gaetz faction and see something of a model: by threatening McCarthy and still electing him, the insurgent Republicans won clear concessions from leadership. They cared much less about particular policy outcomes than the Squad Democrats, but they proved, at least, a small number of united lawmakers could effectively set an agenda. If they were actually disciplined, they could have dragged McCarthy along for two years, benefiting from his fundraising prowess while wielding the threat of a coup (without the actual coup) over his speakership.
Instead, the House has no speaker. Republican lawmakers are a national laughingstock. McCarthy’s ouster and the eventual elevation of a speaker who is more right-wing and incendiary will benefit Democrats running in swing districts, especially since no Republican appears poised to fill McCarthy’s fundraising void; he really was good at hauling in cash for his colleagues, and this was a major reason why he was able to climb the ranks of the caucus in the first place. Democrats could easily lose the Senate and the White House next year, but retaking the House, at the minimum, appears quite doable.
For Jeffries, the House drama will serve as a cudgel—make trouble for me and I’ll brand you as the dysfunctional ones. Oppose me at your own peril.