Opinions, Column

Republicans’ Speaker Fiasco Should Serve as Warning for Democrats

Like any good Democrat, I enjoyed watching the meltdown of congressional Republicans as the party’s right-wing faction repeatedly shut down attempts to elect Rep. Kevin McCarthy as speaker of the House. In total, it took 15 tries to finally get McCarthy in power, and the plentiful concessions made to the right-wingers will make the GOP’s attempts to govern these next two years much more difficult. There were many rather funny scenes: McCarthy’s reaction after the failed 11th try, Rep. Matt Gaetz’s shouts of “Donald John Trump” in the House chamber, and apparent pathological liar Rep. George Santos’ many, many appearances.

Yet, even as Democrats gloat, a similar situation could be brewing in their backyard.

Since Rep. Nancy Pelosi stepped down as speaker, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries has served as the Democrats’ leading congressman, earning the support of the entire Democratic caucus for each and every speaker vote. In fact, Jeffries is now the House minority leader and the leader of his party’s caucus—both positions occupied by McCarthy from 2019 until now. 

A 52-year-old Democrat from Brooklyn, N.Y., Jeffries will be the first Black individual to lead a congressional party and has been described as a “rising star.” It’s not hard to see how he inspires enthusiasm. Young and vibrant, Jeffries stands in stark contrast to his fellow Democratic leaders, as he is decades younger than Pelosi, Senator Chuck Schumer, and President Joe Biden. In addition, Jeffries is a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and self-identifies as a progressive.

But don’t be fooled. Similar to Pelosi, Jeffries is a mainstream Democrat, and he is far from being a member of the “Squad”—a group of left-wing democrats started by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and three of her colleagues in 2018. He has made this distinction himself, highlighting in a 2021 article from The Atlantic the difference between progressives and socialist, left-wing Democrats. Also like Pelosi, Jeffries must put these ideological differences aside because his congressional coalition consists of “a fractious array of business-friendly moderates and urban progressives that spans a range of demographic divides.” Outlets have noted his ability to unite factions—Li Zhou of Vox wrote that his ascent “has been marked by the ability to bring together disparate groups” and Lisa Mascaro of the Associated Press wrote that “it’s rare that a party that lost the midterm elections would so easily regroup.”

But Jeffries’ actions have not always been geared toward unity. Like his predecessor, Jeffries has clashed with the Squad, but unlike Pelosi, he has not always done so subtly. In 2019, the Democratic Caucus Twitter account—with the support of Jeffries—slammed Ocasio-Cortez. In 2021, he described the “extreme left” as “obsessed with talking trash about mainstream Democrats on Twitter.” And later that year, he told The Atlantic that he would never “bend the knee to hard-left democratic socialism.”

Perhaps most enraging to progressives was Jeffries’ creation of the Team Blue PAC. He formed it in 2021 for the explicit purpose of defending incumbent Democrats from primary challengers, and he is personally active within the PAC. In Illinois’ 7th district, for example, Jeffries personally campaigned against a progressive challenger. This came as a major slap in the face to progressives in the Squad, who each earned their spots in the House through primary victories against longtime incumbents.

As a result, Jeffries has earned widespread suspicion from the far-left wing of the party, if not active hostility. The Intercept, a left-wing publication, said Jeffries is “known in New York and nationally for his hostility to the Democrats’ left flank” in 2021. And in 2018, rumors swirled that Ocasio-Cortez was recruiting a primary challenger to face off against Jeffries. This claim was never solidified, but the point remains—Jeffries and the “Squad” have a rough history, with each dealing quips and behind-the-scenes remarks about each other.

Now, Jeffries has apparently begun to extend an olive branch to the party’s progressives. Rep. Cori Bush—a member of the “Squad”—said she appreciated being approached by Jeffries. Rep. Jamaal Bowman, another member of the Squad, described Jeffries as “a mentor” and noted that he is “looking forward to working with him.” Even Rep. Ilhan Omar, considered one of the furthest left members of Congress, expressed excitement about Jeffries’ election, noting that he is a leader “who actually does represent the diversity of our caucus.”

Yet, between the lines, resentment lingers. Noted progressive Rep. Pramila Jayapal said she hopes Jeffries “doesn’t continue to use some of that language” about progressives. Additionally, some climate activists have staunchly opposed Jeffries’ ascent, noting his links to fossil fuels through index funds. Most dissent remains underground, but Politico reported that progressives have accepted Jeffries “with a dose of skepticism.”

The Democrats stand a solid chance of retaking the House in 2024. To say that Republicans are in disarray is an understatement—even disregarding their current fiascos in the House, their recent performances in the midterm elections were rather pathetic. Two years from now, Jeffries could very well find himself elected as the new speaker of the House. But, as we saw this year, that election process can either be short and painless or long and humiliating. If the progressives are further antagonized, it is anyone’s guess as to what may happen down the road.

So, it is up to Jeffries, and the mainstream wing of the Democratic Party at large, to determine what their fate will be.

January 23, 2023