House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (California) announced on Thursday that she is stepping down as leader of the Democratic caucus after two decades in the role — and, while she often obstructed the left wing of her party during her time in leadership, the legislator favored to follow her, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, could be even more damaging to the left if he is chosen as her successor.
“With great confidence in our caucus, I will not seek reelection to Democratic leadership in the next Congress,” Pelosi said on the House floor. She will remain in office, as will her first and second in command, Representatives Steny Hoyer (Maryland) and James Clyburn (South Carolina), the former of whom is also stepping down.
As leader of the Democratic caucus, Pelosi, a centrist and one of the richest members of Congress, often butted heads with the left-leaning members of her party. She has publicly feuded with the progressive “Squad” — something that the group pushed back on in 2019, pointing out that the leader was picking on newly elected women of color at the time — and has made decisions that have deeply frustrated progressives.
In 2020, for instance, Pelosi endorsed a centrist in his race to unseat progressive Sen. Ed Markey (Massachusetts), an original sponsor of the Green New Deal. This endorsement came despite her supposed position of supporting Democratic incumbents, which she did with her endorsement this year of Rep. Henry Cuellar (Texas), the only anti-abortionist in the caucus.
Pelosi has proven a roadblock to progressive policy as well, and in recent years has dismissed progressive priorities like the Green New Deal (“the green dream or whatever”), Medicare for All (“I’m not a big fan”), and student debt cancellation (“not even a discussion”). In the meantime, she has repeatedly proved a supporter of policies that help enrich the ultra-wealthy.
However, Jeffries could be far more hostile to leftists if his past positions are a reflection of how he would lead; if Pelosi was a force that stopped progressives in their tracks, Jeffries could be a bludgeon actively forcing the progressive movement back, depending on how he decides to exercise his power.
Jeffries, a former lawyer, identifies as a progressive but has alliances in the center or right wing of the party; as The American Prospect reported last year, the New York lawmaker has stayed silent as supposed fellow progressives have lobbied for issues in recent years, and started a PAC last year, called Team Blue, that was formed specifically to protect Democratic incumbents from progressive challengers. His co-founder for Team Blue was Rep. Josh Gottheimer (New Jersey), a conservative Democrat who was key in torpedoing the Build Back Better Act last year.
Crucially, Jeffries has voiced unfiltered antipathy toward the left. In a profile by Edward-Isaac Dovere in The Atlantic last year, Jeffries contrasted himself, a “progressive,” with the left-leaning factions of the party that he was even then favored to take over in the House. “There will never be a moment where I bend the knee to hard-left democratic socialism,” he said.
In a separate interview in The New York Times about the upcoming primaries for the midterm election and in the heat of negotiations for the Build Back Better Act last year, Jeffries took his stance against the left even further, outright attacking anti-establishment leftists.
“The extreme left is obsessed with talking trash about mainstream Democrats on Twitter, when the majority of the electorate constitute mainstream Democrats at the polls,” he said. “In the post-[Donald] Trump era, the anti-establishment line of attack is lame — when President [Joe] Biden and Democratic legislators are delivering millions of good-paying jobs, the fastest-growing economy in 40 years and a massive child tax cut.”
The left would say that there are plenty of reasons to be anti-establishment in a time when the establishment is embracing corruption and corporate rule, but Jeffries may view anti-establishment views as a personal attack. Even in times when Democrats as a whole may have been pivoting away from Wall Street, Jeffries has taken donations from deep-pocketed conservative interests; he has been one of Congress’s leading recipients of hedge fund donations and is one of the only Democrats who has taken donations from Fox News’s PAC, News Corp.
At the same time, Jeffries has taken positions that progressives — or at least many within the progressive base — would find heinous. For instance, he is vehemently pro-Israel, and has supported legislation that would penalize companies and Americans that support the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement; this legislation is a major slap in the face to Palestinian advocates and could endanger Americans’ right to participate in political boycotts at all.
Jeffries isn’t facing other challengers for the leadership spot yet, but progressives aren’t likely to support him; after all, Jeffries was once rumored to be a target to be primaried by those close to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York), though that effort never came to pass. The leadership election is slated to take place in roughly two weeks, on November 30, meaning that if there will be a progressive or left-leaning challenger, they will likely have to emerge soon.
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