IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Hakeem Jeffries needs to learn on the fly

The Brooklyn congressman who will succeed Nancy Pelosi may be in the majority sooner than he thinks.

UPDATE (Nov. 30, 2022, 11:45 a.m. E.T.): House Democrats on Wednesday elected Rep. Hakeem Jeffries as party leader, making him the first Black lawmaker to head a party in Congress.

After years of speculation, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of New York officially announced his bid to become the new leader of the House Democrats on Friday. In a letter to his colleagues, Jeffries promised to focus on empowering every member, prioritizing security in the face of political violence, and reclaiming the majority in 2024.

That Jeffries was the top candidate to replace outgoing Speaker Nancy Pelosi atop the caucus was an open secret. Unlike Pelosi, whose bid to lead her generation of House Democrats faced competition from her future deputy Steny Hoyer, Jeffries will ascend to the position of minority leader without a fight. He’ll also do it with less than half the experience in Congress that Pelosi had when she was elected to a leadership role in 2002. And with only a handful of seats separating him from the speaker’s gavel, Jeffries doesn’t have long to learn how to fill Pelosi’s shoes.

What’s striking about Jeffries is just how aggressively pragmatic he is. I don’t mean that just in terms of policy, though he does tend to favor more incremental changes than the party’s left wing does. I mean that he seems to deliberately place himself in the center of the caucus, almost to the point of contradiction.

What’s striking about Jeffries is just how aggressively pragmatic he is.

Jeffries is a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, same as the likes of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, also of New York. But over the past few years, he’s clashed with Ocasio-Cortez and her alliesoften loudly and publicly. He’s a co-founder of the True Blue PAC, which is dedicated to protecting incumbent Democrats from getting primaried by more progressive candidates. One of his closest allies in the House is Rep. Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey, a prominent member of the fiscally conservative Blue Dog Democrats caucus. 

Is that the sort of thing I personally want to see from the head of the Democratic caucus? No. But I can appreciate that this instinct could wind up serving Jeffries well in the current Congress. Because the thing that will make or break Jeffries is his ability to negotiate on two fronts: among Democrats and with the GOP House majority.

As things stand, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy is still the most likely speaker of the House next year, despite the ongoing revolt from the far-right Freedom Caucus. But Jeffries may credibly control more votes in the House than McCarthy does. That leverage will be crucial for anything of substance to pass the House that would actually have a chance of becoming law.

We know that as far as messaging goes and drawing a clear line between Democrats and Republicans goes, Jeffries excels. That was on display when he was an impeachment manager during former President Donald Trump’s first trial in the Senate, as well as in a viral clip of him going in on Justice Clarence Thomas that is currently his pinned tweet. And while his relationship with McCarthy isn’t quite as frosty as the one between the GOP leader and Pelosi, he has been more than willing to call McCarthy out for not keeping the far right in check.

The question then becomes how effective Jeffries will be at bridging the divide between the flanks of his own party. And honestly, that is a bit of an unknown right now. In his current job as Democratic caucus chair, he’s been at the leadership table helping to craft strategy, but he hasn’t been tasked with implementing that strategy. Sure, most members of the caucus seem to like him. But he hasn’t been out there whipping up votes on contentious legislation or using his influence to try to cut deals that would have helped save the Build Back Better Act last fall.

The next two years will be a train wreck on many levels as Republicans focus more on scoring points with their base than actually governing. It’ll be up to Jeffries to figure out when to hit the gas against Republicans and when to offer up Democratic votes with conditions that make McCarthy sweat. And ideally, if he can hold it all together, he may wind up as the first Black speaker of the House come 2025 — or sooner if enough weirdness happens in the course of the next Congress. For right now though? That’s a pretty big if.