Opinion

How Long Can Hakeem Jeffries Keep His Democratic Cats Herded?

Kevin McCarthy, after 15 excruciating ballots, was finally elected speaker of the House, and if his path to leading a slim, ideologically volatile Republican majority is any indication, chaos will be in the offing for the next two years.

This has lent Democrats — strongly unified behind their new leader, Hakeem Jeffries of New York — a degree of smug satisfaction and has put Mr. Jeffries in a strong position.

His coalition will be united against Mr. McCarthy on a fight to lift the debt ceiling and fund the government. With Democrats out of the majority, ideological divisions on the left will be sanded away.

Yet Mr. Jeffries, the first Black leader of a party caucus, is comparatively untested. The comity Democrats enjoy today may be imperiled by the threat posed by an extremist right taking the government hostage — and by what progressives may have learned from the House Freedom Caucus’s clashes with the new speaker.

The Democrats won’t control any committees, but Mr. Jeffries will have big decisions to make on which Democrats sit where. He will have to weigh how he can best placate the various factions of the Democratic conference. Chairmanships are not at stake, but the process will determine who Mr. Jeffries decides to embolden.

The Squad and their allies loom. In a recent Instagram stream, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said she was taking stock of the tactics employed by the hard right. “I’m not gonna lie, some of the points that are made — I mean a lot of them are bad, most of them are bad — but some of them, there is actually some common ground on,” she said. “Like for example, democratizing the rules of the House and kind of breaking up that concentration of power that is so focused in a handful of leaders in both parties.”

Mr. Jeffries’s long-running hostility to the party’s left flank may soon be thrown into much sharper relief. Nancy Pelosi evolved from a die-hard liberal who once backed single-payer health care into a more calculating, center-left party leader. Mr. Jeffries will probably need to migrate left if he hopes to successfully manage a caucus that is bound to grow more restive.

Ms. Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, Cori Bush, Ayanna Pressley and Jamaal Bowman never came close to seriously imperiling Ms. Pelosi’s speakership. There’s no doubt that the right-wing Republicans under Mr. McCarthy will enjoy comparatively more clout, gaining the ability to force snap votes on Mr. McCarthy’s future and infiltrating the powerful Rules Committee. Disobedience was worthwhile: The new speaker will be the weakest in modern times.

Mr. Jeffries, though, may not always enjoy Pelosi-style deference from the rank-and-file, including the hard left. Ms. Pelosi was the first female speaker of the House, a seminal political figure with an enormous fund-raising operation, the very personification of coastal liberalism. She frustrated the left, but also opposed the Iraq War, killed George W. Bush’s plan to privatize Social Security and was a critical force in shepherding the Affordable Care Act into law. She was adept, first and foremost, at uniting various factions of the Democratic Party and quelling dissent.

Mr. Jeffries, who began his career as a white-shoe corporate lawyer and later became a state assemblyman, was never a starry-eyed liberal. Before Andrew Cuomo’s spectacular downfall, he counted Mr. Jeffries as one of his top allies in the state. Mr. Jeffries’s tenure in Congress, which spans only a decade, overlapped with the rise of the New York socialist left, and he enthusiastically supported candidates who tried to beat the socialists back.

Unlike the young leftists who rose to power in 2019, Mr. Jeffries is a staunch supporter of Israel and privately run, publicly funded charter schools. He clashed with progressives who backed defunding the police in the wake of the George Floyd protests. “There will never be a moment where I bend the knee to hard-left democratic socialism,” Mr. Jeffries said as recently as 2021.

An effective speaker should never “bend the knee” to anyone, but if Mr. Jeffries is lucky enough to sit in the majority, he’ll have to start counting votes. One of the overlooked stories of the 2022 midterms was how many leftist or Squad-friendly candidates won elections. The old Justice Democrats strategy of contesting safe-blue seats is beginning to bear considerable fruit. Moderates are right that Democrats in the Bernie Sanders or Ilhan Omar vein have yet to prove they can win swing terrain — but they won’t have to to have tangible influence in Washington.

In addition to Democrats like Mr. Bowman and Ms. Pressley, Congress now has Maxwell Frost, the 26-year-old activist who won with Mr. Sanders’s strong support. Without much fanfare, Mr. Sanders was also able to anoint a potential successor in Vermont, elevating Becca Balint, a close ally, to the state’s lone House seat.

Mr. Frost and Ms. Balint are not alone in this new class. Summer Lee, who began her career as a Democratic Socialists of America ally and was backed by Justice Democrats, overcame furious opposition from the right to become a member of Congress from Pennsylvania. Greg Casar of Texas is another Justice Democrat who has now been sworn in. Delia Ramirez, a Chicago area Democrat, backs top policy prescriptions of the Squad like Medicare for All and a Green New Deal.

In the minority, they will be relatively impotent. Mr. Casar has talked about advocating for Mr. Biden to take more executive actions when possible, pointing to the need for stronger overtime rules and labor protections. For now, Mr. Jeffries can make peace with the broader progressive movement.

But these Democrats may seek their own places on influential committees like Rules and hope, over time, to sap the power of the legislative leader and force more debate on the House floor. In 2019, when the Squad first got to Washington and Ms. Pelosi became speaker again, they lacked leverage. Four votes wasn’t much to her — but 11 and counting may be another matter to Mr. Jeffries.

If Ms. Pelosi could be dictatorial, she was savvy about heading off challenges. Mr. Jeffries would be wise to learn from her example. When Marcia Fudge, a longtime Ohio representative, was contemplating a run against Ms. Pelosi for the speakership, she restored a House elections subcommittee and named Ms. Fudge chair so she could pursue voting rights.

Mr. Jeffries could consider ways to placate a left-wing that’s only getting stronger. Ms. Ocasio-Cortez, for example, could be elevated into a role that allows her to pursue important messaging bills on climate change. Other leftists could win concessions on health care, where the House has been relatively timid in the Biden years, failing to either bring up for a vote Medicare for All or a public option bill that was championed by most of the Democratic presidential candidates in 2020.

A longer-term question is: if and when Democrats find themselves back in the majority, will the Squad and any allies ever withhold votes from Mr. Jeffries? Given that the tactic has become so identified with the extremist right and we live in polarizing times, that seems unlikely. Democrats may fear left-leaning media organs and pundits branding them as political arsonists. But some could make demands. A Republican president or Senate majority leader may not be enough to tamp down unrest.

Would the leftists force Mr. Jeffries to bring Medicare for All to the floor for a vote? Will they fight for more legislation to combat climate change? After years of relative deference to the Washington foreign policy establishment, will they demand far smaller Pentagon budgets or try to derail military aid to Israel?

For now these questions are theoretical. Mr. Jeffries faces more immediate questions, like who to put on the “weaponization” of the federal government subcommittee led by Jim Jordan. Democrats will have relatively little power in terms of halting its investigations or scope, but Mr. Jeffries would do well to pick those who have experience in the relative areas who could, in theory, slow the work down. (Dan Goldman comes to mind.)

Looking ahead, Mr. Jeffries, perhaps a few short years from the pinnacle of legislative power, should think of how he’ll have to make his knee just a little more supple.

Ross Barkan, a novelist, is a contributor to New York Magazine and The Nation.

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