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The Leader of Dems
Hakeem Jeffries and progressives—it's complicated
On November 17, Nancy Pelosi announced she was stepping down from her role as the Democratic Party leader in the House of Representatives. (Pelosi, the first woman to lead the House, will pivot away from a public-facing leadership role and toward influencing the direction of the party from behind the scenes.) As soon as Pelosi announced she would take a step back, her two longtime lieutenants, Steny Hoyer and James Clyburn, announced they would not push for the role of leader. The gig went to Hakeem Jeffries, a Democrat from New York who currently serves in the important position of Chair of the House Democratic Caucus. This decision was monumental for the party: it broke the Democratic reliance on a trio that has dominated House leadership since at least 2007.
Many progressives voiced their displeasure with this pick. Jeffries, as they see it, is not one of them. Sure, he has a progressive-ish voting record, and has reliably been a left-leaning member of Congress by any political measure, but he’s also not as progressive as others within the party who are constantly generating grassroots-level buzz and glamorous media coverage. A write-up from last year in The American Prospect observes:
Jeffries is young numerically, but aligned with an older mode of Democratic politics, and has repeatedly distanced himself from the younger crop of Democrats that is almost categorically more progressive (and more popular).
It doesn’t help that he is part of the New York congressional delegation that some Democrats blame for the party losing the House in November.
Despite these criticisms, Jeffries was the inevitable choice. He was next in line in a leadership structure that rewards years of service and a developed capacity to preside over coalitional politics. The Democratic Party has been known for “falling in love” with candidates rather than “falling in line” behind whoever’s next—well, the opposite is almost always the case in the House. Of the past six Democratic speakers, five previously served in the high position of Democratic whip. Their average tenure in Congress before being elevated was approximately 26 years.
Jeffries actually bucks this trend in a few ways. He has only been in Congress for nine years, and while becoming Chair of the House Democratic Caucus is no small thing, it would also represent a weaker resume highlight than the ones past leaders brought with them to the speakership. Jeffries will also be the first African-American party leader and the first party leader from the Congressional Progressive Caucus. In this way, he meets the longtime demand from the base for younger leaders and fresh faces at the head of the party.
But the case for Jeffries is not just, “it’s his turn,” which, to be honest, is a rather distasteful selection mechanism for democratic politics, all things considered. Jeffries is a solid Democrat who solidly votes Democratic and solidly moves in step with Democratic trends. So when he is chided for being insufficiently left-of-center, we have to ask, does this charge have merit? Consider two critical examples offered in a write-up about Jeffries:
When all New York City House Democrats sent a public letter to Pelosi urging her to protect $80 billion for public housing in the Build Back Better Act in 2021, Jeffries was the only member not to sign the letter.
Jeffries has similarly refused to sign the Green New Deal, which younger progressives like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have espoused, but which other centrist Democrats like Pelosi have dismissed as "the green dream, or whatever they call it."
You can judge for yourself whether these suggest Jeffries is not left-leaning enough to lead the Democratic Party’s presence in the House. It certainly won’t endear him to those on his left when he says things like, “There will never be a moment where I bend the knee to hard-left democratic socialism,” though that doesn’t make the statement any less commendable. In the end, though, being one of the leaders of a major party, especially in a two-party system, is always going to require a certain capacity to massage initiatives and forge compromises and perform … the work of politics. The fact that Jeffries hasn’t tattooed “Green New Deal” on his forehead shouldn’t mean he’s disqualified from leading the Democrats in the House.
The midterms provided a boost for Pelosi, and—despite some half-baked criticisms—by extension Jeffries. The clamoring for more far-reaching progressivism at the helm of the party died down in the aftermath of a better-than-expected midterm cycle for the Democratic Party, which largely defended itself against a so-called Republican red wave not by letting their freak flag fly but by offering a sensible Democratic counterproposal. Jeffries is the kind of party leader who understands that, and that makes him right for the job.