Will Jeffries outshine Pelosi ? | By Dr Imran Khalid

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Will Jeffries outshine Pelosi ?

FOR the very first time in any American political party’s history, the top tier is devoid of white men.

With the advent of Hakeem Jeffries as the first black American to head the Democratic caucus along with representative Katherine Clark of Massachusetts and Pete Aguilar of California as whip and chairman of the caucus respectively, the fabric of Democratic Party is certainly passing through a kind of paradigm shift — but only at the top.

For the last two decades, octogenarian group, under the leadership of Nancy Pelosi, was dominating the Democratic Party — outgoing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, 82, her second in command, Steny Hoyer, 83, and senior Democratic leader, Jim Clyburn, 82 – and runninsg the caucus.

The new batch of caucus is much younger – in their 50s or even less. But will there be any shift in the outlook of the Democratic Party under the young leadership?

The answer to this question is quite a tricky one – neither solid yes nor weak no. Yes, there is a change of guards at the top as far as the Democratic leadership in the Congress is concerned, but it is more cosmetic in nature.

The octogenarian group is still very much dominant on the ideological and operational fabric of the Democratic Party.

Had the Democratic Party won the majority in the House of Representatives this time, there was little chance that Nancy Pelosi and her octogenarian associates would have opted for leaving the stage.

A cursory glance at Mr Jeffries’ resume reveals a thoroughly traditional political career: first a lawyer, then a stint in New York’s state house and onward to Congress.

Regardless of the fact that he has been a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC), many of his detractors on the left have labelled him just another “corporate Democrat”.

Similarly, it does not come as a surprise to see him boasting about his identity as a “black progressive Democrat”.

“There will never be a moment where I bend the knee to hard-left democratic socialism,” is how Jefferies explained his disliking for the left wing within the Democratic Party.

Though Nancy Pelosi was not yet ready to relinquish the speakership. But a new younger face was needed – and yes, a Black one from a big city – to offset the simmering pressure on the old bureaucracy of the Democratic Party.

The arrival of a new cohort of younger leadership is not expected to make any major change in the outlook of the party.

The growing influence of the Bernie Sanders group within the Democratic Party – particularly among the young voters – will pose serious challenges to Mr Jeffries in the coming days.

Jeffries and his two associates are looking for support from other pressure groups among Democrats to muffle primary challenges from the left.

However, Jefferies’ rise as the head of the caucus reflects the ascendancy of the moderates at the moment, with a hefty package of Biden’s legislative successes in their bag from these past two years: The American Rescue Plan, infrastructure measures and even a modest gun control law.

At the same time, these moderates are now over-confident about their strength after snubbing the emergence of much-hyped red wave in the recent midterm polls despite an incumbent president whose popularity ratings have been trapped in the very low 40s.

But being the minority leader in the House, Mr.Jeffries will not be in a position to steer Democrats’ legislative priorities onto the statute book in any case.

Though he has promised to reach across the aisle whenever possible and to resist extremism, when necessary, the success or otherwise of the new team will lie in its ability to exploit and maneuver the tissue paper-thin majority of the Republicans and to muffle the promised investigations by Republicans into Joe Biden’s record.

The single digit majority Republicans in the 118 Congress is still a big – but expected – challenge for Mr. Jeffries and his team.

With the possibility of winning speakership within two years, the pressure is indubitably on Mr.Jeffries to get his party into a position where it can take back the House in 2024.

However, the biggest challenge to Mr Jeffries will be how to outdo the huge influence of Nancy Pelosi on the party.

During her tenure as the House Speaker, Pelosi became one of the country’s most powerful political figures, carving a reputation as a skilled leader capable of steering the party caucus together during important votes.

“Our caucus is better. Our country is better. The world is better because of Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s incredible leadership,” said Mr Jeffries while paying tributes to Nancy Pelosi after her decision to step down as the Speaker.

Pelosi has the strongest network – much stronger than President Joe Biden – with the Democratic Party, and it is expected that she will keep pulling the strings as per her whims to maintain her clout within the party.

There will be surely a discrete tug of war between Mr Jeffries and Pelosi to take control of party affairs.

With Nancy Pelosi physically sitting in the House, it will be a grueling task for Mr. Jeffries to outshine her glamorous persona.

Despite being a chronic member of the caucus and elected unopposed head of the caucus, Mr.Jeffries is still relatively a ‘less-connected’ figure within the caucus and he may find it hard to rally the Democratic Representatives to drift away from Pelosi’s aura and genuinely accept him as their leader in the House.

He is considered to be one of the core members of the Democratic Establishment that has worked arduously to thwart the advances of the progressive movement from making inroads in the Congress.

However, his ongoing tension with the influential cohort of the Democratic Party will actually determine how the newly minted leader approaches his agenda as the first “new” Democratic leader in two decades.

Just like his predecessor Pelosi, he will be constantly under the microscope of the progressives — as well as his own party — inside the Capitol as well as outside.

—The writer is political analyst, based in Karachi.