Being House minority leader is usually the easiest high-profile job in Washington. You just tell your rank-and-file members that whatever the majority is doing is terrible and they should vote no.
Except if you’re House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, who has been forced to tell his members that the GOP majority is terrible but they should vote yes because of that. Repeatedly.
Let’s think about Jeffries’ 2023 for a moment.
The New York Democrat made history in January as the first person of color to serve as a party leader in Congress. Then he watched former Speaker Kevin McCarthy – who’s leaving Congress this month — undergo four grueling days of floor votes just to get the gavel.
Jeffries later provided more Democratic votes than Republicans to avoid a disastrous debt default in the spring. That was followed in the fall by watching Republicans completely implode and force McCarthy out, except they tried to blame Jeffries and the Democrats for that disaster.
Meanwhile, Democrats again provided more votes than Republicans to avoid government shutdowns in September and November. It happened again on Thursday when the House passed the annual defense authorization bill.
Republicans, however, did censure three Democrats this year, the most in a single year since 1870. And the infamously dishonest and allegedly corrupt former GOP Rep. George Santos (N.Y.) was expelled in another precedent-making vote.
So Jeffries has faced some bizarrely unprecedented situations in which the minority was forced to behave more like a majority.
Jeffries can look forward to 2024 with a very good chance at winning the majority and becoming the first Black speaker in history.
Redistricting in New York should provide some Democratic gains (offset by North Carolina losses), plus Democrats should pick up seats in Alabama and Georgia thanks to court rulings. There have been some Democratic retirements in tough swing districts, yes, but the battle for the House is basically a jump ball at this point.
Donald Trump seems very likely to be the GOP nominee, and he’s historically been very good at turning out voters for Democrats. Fundraising is strong even without Nancy Pelosi running the DCCC. Plus, the stunning, overwhelming ineptitude of the House Republican majority is a gift from the heavens. Democrats should light candles for the House Freedom Caucus every single day.
But – there’s always a but – some tough times lie ahead for Jeffries and his colleagues.
Republicans have launched a formal impeachment inquiry into President Joe Biden. Bashing GOP leaders by saying this is their real agenda, not helping the American people, will be easy. Defending Hunter Biden and some of the Biden family business dealings may not be.
The devastating war in Gaza has exposed serious rifts among Democrats nationally, especially younger Democrats. The longer Israel’s war with Hamas lasts, the tougher it will be for Biden and the party to stay united. Jeffries must navigate that divide.
A possible deal between the White House and Republicans over immigration and border security – needed to unlock billions of dollars in Ukraine aid sought by Biden – is another fault line for the party at large and the House Democratic Caucus. Biden and moderate Democrats may welcome an agreement, but many progressives and pro-immigration groups won’t.
Then there’s Biden himself. Biden governed as a pragmatic dealmaker with a surprisingly progressive streak during his first two years in office. Biden and Democratic leaders scored some big legislative wins that rank-and-file lawmakers have run on already and will again. It’ll be easy to portray that against the GOP’s non-existent track record.
Yet Biden is 81 and down in the polls, especially on key economic issues. Inflation is coming down and unemployment is low. The U.S. economy is doing better than other advanced nations. But voters aren’t feeling it – fairly or not – and they blame Biden. House Democrats will need Biden to find a way to boost his ratings. Hundreds of millions of dollars in campaign ads on local TV will help him and them.
Don’t kid yourself, though – 2024 will all be about Trump. It’ll be Trump vs. Biden. Trump vs. Republicans. Trump vs. the law. Trump vs. Trump. There’ll be no escaping it. And Trump could win, returning as the 47th president in Jan. 2025.
Yet the 53-year-old Jeffries may find that he can message this either way. Jeffries could be speaker under a second-term Joe Biden seeking to cement his legacy and rack up some more wins. Or he could be speaker under Trump, ready to lead the fight against a dangerous president as perhaps the most powerful Democrat in the land. EIther works as long as he has the gavel.
– John Bresnahan