House Democrats and Republicans, in High Fidelity

A critical review of acceptance speeches by House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries.

The Democratic and Republican parties presented a meaningful contrast at the delayed start of the 118th Congress. The Democrats voted unanimously for Hakeem Jeffries as the next Speaker; the Republicans took fifteen ballots to propitiate the objectors to Kevin McCarthy in their ranks. Set aside the histrionics and what the public got at the end of the week were two speeches, January 9, that disclosed with succinct clarity who the new House leaders are as politicians, the agenda each intends to pursue, and their relative capacities to deliver.

Jeffries’s Jaunty Jabs

Nancy Pelosi’s successor began with a tribute to her as the greatest speaker of all time (he did not use the acronym GOAT). He foreshadowed his peroration with a triplet of alliterative encomniums to her as “a legendary legislator, a fabulous facilitator and a no-nonsense negotiator.” He characterized the Democrats’ unanimous voting as a “show of strength” and recounted legislative achievements from the 117th Congress as big things, concluding that passage by asserting that “the D in Democrat stands for deliver.”

You can see where Jeffries was going. What you might not have expected was the extent to which the alliterations would extend: the entire length of the alphabet. The new Minority Leader wound up his remarks with twenty-six contrasts of party principles. This departed from a Democratic penchant of wading into policy details in situations that called for value statements. My favorite was “Maturity over Mar-A-Lago.” “Xenial not xenophobia” sent me to the dictionary and it is a bit of a clunker because it paired an adjective with a noun. I would not be surprised to see the DNC sell an abecadarium based on what is already being termed the “A to Z Speech.” It was a sustained attack delivered with passion and a smile; the Republican “principles,” as Jeffries framed them, were enthymematic putdowns (i.e. he never called the Republicans exponents of “autocracy,” “facism,” “racism,” etc. but the implication was obvious). Jeffries could afford the light touch in as much as his team will be defending popular legislation with a Senate majority and Presidential veto pen beside him. However, the gimmick will wear thin if reprised.

McCarthy The Docent

McCarthy will operate from a far more tenuous spot. He has a four-vote margin for dissent among his majority. In his address he had to blur lines of dispute between the right and the farther right. He had to slide by the fact that one of the things that they shared was a record of denying and obstructing Biden’s ascension to the presidency, during the second anniversary of the insurrection attack on the very hall in which they were assembled. And the four days it took him to win the gavel were televised by C-SPAN liberated from the normal restrictions on camera placement, since the House was literally not in session. We could see, for example, Marjorie Taylor Greene’s IPhone with a call from “DT” seeking to importune holdout Matt Rosendale, who refused to talk with the former president. In other words, McCarthy had to speak with high-resolution reaction shots a continuing possibility. As it turned out they were minimal.

The new Speaker made a point of tendering special thanks to Trump in his opening round of gratitude. He said he wanted to speak directly to the American people, to whom his and Congress’s ultimate responsibility lay. That was wrong; primary allegiance goes to the Constitution, as stated in the oath of office all members of Congress take. He asserted a mandate for the “Commitment to America” he had released as a campaign document. The party statement and the speech contained numerous platitudes –”end wasteful government spending” being a classic example– but also specific policy initiatives and oversight targets. 

Symbolic priority one, the first piece of legislation to be introduced, would repeal funding for 87,000 new IRS agents. “Congress must speak with one voice,” said McCarthy, on two matters: the national debt and the rise of the Chinese Communist Party. An early hearing on location at the southern border was promised: “no more ignoring a crisis of safety and sovereignty.” A new subcommittee will investigate the “weaponization” of the FBI. “Woke indoctrination” in American public schools will be challenged.

McCarthy elicited a bipartisan standing ovation for his family in attendance. He closed with two extensive tour-guide parables, his voice rising from its previously level register. Both revolved around objects on display in public sections of the Capitol: a clock in Statuary Hall that Lincoln had seen, and a painting of Washington crossing the Delaware River during the Revolutionary War. Right before he delivered the objects’ back stories McCarthy declared the Capitol re-opened to visits by the public, although he did not mention the crisis of safety and sovereignty that had precipitated its closing.

McCarthy bid both prospective tourists and his colleagues on the 118th to look at the others in the boat with General Washington. There for all to see and take inspiration from are immigrants, a woman, an African-American, and a Native American. Jeffries had quoted the late Congressman John Lewis to underscore the same moral: we Americans are all in the same boat.

McCarthy ended by saying “I never give up.” He had earned that flex.  

Conclusion

Both men made the obligatory gestures of good faith to the members of the opposing party. Both referenced their own family success stories, but in a gesture of goof will McCarthy drew a parallel to Jeffries’s rise from the working class, an impressive moment for him. Jeffries quoted Scripture; McCarthy pledged directly to Jeffries not to get personal in their debates ahead. Neither man mentioned Ukraine.

Through their words and omissions the new leaders of the House disclosed their priorities and powers. McCarthy, who pledged to “use the power of the purse and the power of the subpoena to get the job done,” seems to be in a procedural straitjacket but perhaps can make low expectations and decentralized authority work to his advantage. Jeffries glided into his post and in a different way benefits from the low expectations of a minority party. In any case, the opening speeches as a pair provide a detailed map to Congressional conflicts ahead. 

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