Hakeem Jeffries Wants Democrats to Take a Deep Breath

Most ways you slice it, House Democrats have had a turbulent few days. Swelling expectations that they would grow their majority in last week’s election crashed amid painful losses, and public blame-trading from some of the chamber’s most outspoken progressives and moderates has added a bitter note to President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s win.

Unbowed by the disappointment and division, Representative Hakeem Jeffries, a Brooklynite who as chairman of the unruly Democratic Caucus helps plot his party’s policy and legislative strategy in the House, plans to announce on Monday that he will seek re-election to that post. If he wins, as expected in a race in which he is unlikely to face a challenger, he would be positioned to be a crucial voice as the party figures out how to govern with an ally in the White House, but a slimmer majority on Capitol Hill.

As other Democrats compete to climb the ranks and secure a spot in the future of the party’s House leadership, Mr. Jeffries, 50, is also a top contender to succeed Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who has led the party in the House since 2003, whenever she steps aside.

But while he represents a different generation of leadership from Ms. Pelosi, he sees little need to upend the approach that Democrats put in place after the 2016 election, either by veering further to the left or tacking to the center. He has no problem with a hard “family conversation” about what went wrong in last week’s elections, Mr. Jeffries said in an interview, but his pitch to fellow Democrats is that their strategy — focusing on policies that affect Americans’ wallets and broadly popular issues, like gun safety — is sound and their message is resonating. He has encouraged his colleagues to set aside the lure of “irrationally exuberant expectations,” take a deep breath, and stay focused on economic and social justice.

“Democrats won the White House, kept the majority in the House and are on the midnight train to Georgia to take the Senate,” Mr. Jeffries said. “That’s a good day as far as I am concerned.”

Mr. Jeffries has already burnished an impressive profile for a House member in only his fourth term, having served as an impeachment manager in the Senate trial of President Trump. But how he navigates the coming weeks and months, when Democratic infighting is only likely to blossom in the absence of a common enemy in Mr. Trump, could go a long way in determining how high he climbs.

Moderates who narrowly held onto their seats are already laying blame squarely at the feet of the left for pushing unrealistic and sweeping ideas that open the party to charges of socialism and being anti-police. Leading progressives say the losses are moderates’ fault, and are already warning Mr. Biden and Democratic leaders that shying away from liberal policies on climate, health care, jobs and education will backfire.

Other leaders, most notably Representative James Clyburn of South Carolina, the party’s No. 3, have shown they are willing to be active combatants. Mr. Jeffries, for stylistic and political reasons, appears more comfortable as a peacemaker.

Mr. Jeffries’s own theory of the case is that Democrats’ “For the People” message is the right one. The best way to win back traditionally Democratic voters peeled away by the millions by Mr. Trump and to bridge the divisions within his party’s own ranks, he argued, is to relentlessly focus on kitchen-table issues like health care costs, prescription drug pricing, defeating Covid-19, creating jobs and addressing racial inequality.

“It is unlikely, absent the bully pulpit of the presidency, that someone who has mastered the art of grievance politics can have a same hold of on a significant part of the country that Donald Trump demonstrated,” he said. “So as we move forward, Democrats have a real chance to win back some of these working-class voters by making clear our implemented ideas will fix the broken American contract and improve their quality of life.”

That begins, he said, by “crushing the virus” and sending “direct relief” to American workers and business owners still reeling from the pandemic-battered economy.

“That should be our priority, and will be on Day 1,” he said.

Facing the likelihood of a Republican Senate, it will not be easy. Mr. Jeffries said Democrats believed there would be opportunities for them to partner with Mr. Biden and Republicans in the Senate to pass laws related to prescription drug pricing, infrastructure spending, and changes to sentencing and prison laws.

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Party leaders have promised a “deep dive” into Tuesday’s results to better understand how they lost five seats and counting and failed in nearly every pickup opportunity they believed was in reach.

Mr. Jeffries said he was most concerned about why the public opinion polling that guides campaigns at nearly every level systematically failed to capture the extent of support not only for Mr. Trump, but other Republicans on the ballot.

“One of the things that we should take a look at is, is the polling broken, or is the polling only broken when Donald Trump is on the ballot,” Mr. Jeffries said, noting that public opinion surveys had much more accurately predicted the 2018 midterm results. “Because if it is the latter, then there are not too many adjustments to be made going forward because Trump will be nowhere to be found electorally in 2022.”

Mr. Jeffries is among a handful of younger Democratic leaders emerging as potential heirs to Ms. Pelosi, 80, and her longtime top deputies, Steny H. Hoyer, 81, and Mr. Clyburn, 80, who are all seeking another term when Democrats choose their leaders later this month.

Three Democrats are currently competing for the party’s No. 4 House leadership post, assistant speaker, after Ben Ray Luján won a seat in the Senate last week. They are Representative Katherine Clark, 57, a Massachusetts progressive who currently is vice chairwoman of the party caucus under Mr. Jeffires; Representative David Cicilline, 59, another progressive from Rhode Island and the first openly gay member of House leadership; and Representative Tony Cardenas of California, 57, who is aiming to be the highest ranking Latino after Mr. Luján’s departure.

Representative Cheri Bustos of Illinois, 59, the chairwoman of House Democrats’ campaign arm, has been considered another contender, but after last week’s results — in which her offensive strategy fell flat and she only barely won re-election herself — her future was less certain. Some lawmakers were encouraging Mr. Cardenas to run for the campaign position instead, given signs that the party had lost ground to Republicans among Latinos in key battleground states.

This being Washington, Mr. Jeffries would not speak openly about aspirations for leading his party, and he has played squarely within the lines of Ms. Pelosi’s top-down leadership structure, keeping any public disagreements to a minimum and prizing consensus-building.

He said in the interview that there was “one speaker at a time,” and that he decided to remain in his own position, which has clearer responsibilities than the relatively new assistant speaker post, to provide “continuity” in a time of national crisis.

But allies note with enthusiasm that he would be the first Black representative to be speaker. And Mr. Jeffries’s actions indicate he has higher leadership ambitions in the House. He raised almost $9 million for Democrats this election cycle, clocking hours at about 150 events for candidates.

“There will be a time to focus on where we go as a party into the future, but in order to do that, we have to focus on being as successful as we can in the moment,” Mr. Jeffries said.

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