The Two Speakers

MAGA Republicans have owned themselves whilst trying to own the libs.

In “Hakeem Jeffries emerges as Congress’ shadow speaker,” Axios’ Andre Solender sheds light on a situation that many of us have noticed.

Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) found himself in an unusual position for a minority leader last week: It was he, not the House speaker, who had the ultimate power to decide whether legislation came to the floor.

Why it matters: Democrats got everything they wanted – a $95 billion foreign aid bill, the credit for passing it, and adversaries more divided than ever. In their telling, that total victory wasn’t a sure thing.

  • Former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), a master legislative tactician, heaped praise on her successor: “He is fabulous. We’re so proud of him.”
  • One senior House Democrat told Axios: “It easily could have fallen apart … He played the cards the way you’d want to play them.”
  • “I would not want to play blackjack against him,” the lawmaker added.

What happened: Democrats did something virtually unheard of in modern politics on Thursday, crossing the aisle on the House Rules Committee to save the foreign aid package. They did it again the next day on the House floor.

  • This was all Jeffries’ call, as was Democrats’ decision to wait until it was clear House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) didn’t have the votes on his own before saving the package on the floor.
  • “We wouldn’t be voting on this right now if it weren’t for Hakeem … He’s the one who created the system that Johnson could follow and get this done,” said a House Democrat.

Zoom in: Jeffries’ message to his members leading up to the foreign aid fight was to stay unified behind him and not commit themselves to positions on saving Johnson that might box the party in.

  • In other words: To give him all the power and maneuverability that Johnson lacks.
  • The senior House Democrat told Axios: “If he hadn’t taken the approach he had, he could have had members going rogue.”
  • “He gave us so many options,” said Pelosi.

Between the lines: Democratic leadership had already been forging the unified front that would be Jeffries’ strongest weapon for weeks with a push to get as many signatures as possible on their foreign aid discharge petition.

That Jeffries is being a shrewd leader and playing his cards masterfully is absolutely worth noting. But it obscures the larger story: the dysfunction in the Republican caucus caused by the nihilism of the MAGA wing has the ironic effect of giving more power to the enemy. Instead of “owning the libs,” they’re being owned by them.

It’s not all that unusual for leaders to need when from the other party to pass controversial bills. Bill Clinton, for example, needed massive support from Republicans to pass NAFTA. But that was a matter of legitimate ideological disagreement. That was rather common when the parties weren’t highly sorted. Northeastern Republicans often voted with Democrats and Southern Democrats often voted with Republicans to serve the interests of their constituents.

But this isn’t a case of a faction of “hard-line” Republicans opposed to, say, Ukraine aid because it’s breaking the budget. In that scenario, Johnson and Jeffries would quietly work together, freeing members of their caucus to vote their conscience/district and getting bills that have majority support in the body passed. Instead, Johnson has to put his job on the line to pass bills with overwhelming support.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Not the IT Dept. says:

    “Johnson has to put his job on the line to pass bills with overwhelming support.”

    Feature, not a bug. Johnson wanted this job – he should have factored this into his calculations. (Maybe when he prayed about it, God didn’t give him a warning about this? The Deity has a sense of humor!)

    Reality: actions have consequences. About time the MAGA morons learned this elemental fact of life. Many of them are going into their re-election campaigns with this kind of stupidity tied around their necks.

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  2. MarkedMan says:

    This has the potential to be a big, big win for the country and I don’t think the politics-as-sports mentality serves us best here. Ultimately whether the MAGAs lost or the Democrats won is immaterial. The real question is: is this the act that breaks Gingrichism, i.e. the mode of governing where policy and legislation doesn’t matter except in how they can be used to beat the other “team”? Because for over two hundred years those who wanted particular legislative action could convince members of any party to vote for their initiatives. House and Senate members viewed their committee assignments as important as their party. Defense, Foreign Relations, Energy, Science, Health, National Security, all of these areas had long term members on either side who, although they disagreed about many things, would make deals and build consensus. Starting with Gingrich and solidifying with the Tea Party wave, Republicans viewed every vote as a way to crush the Democrats, and the actual legislation was farmed out to their industry and billionaire benefactors.

    If this represents a break in that behavior, we should be encouraging and praising that, and not trying to score how this or that team is doing.

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  3. gVOR10 says:

    Harry Truman said, “It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.” I don’t see Jeffries trying to take credit for this. I hope all the praise being heaped on him isn’t going to make it harder to get the next must pass bill.

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  4. Scott says:

    Another way to look at it is that members of Congress are sick of being enthralled to a small group of radical malcontents (mostly on the right these days but there are some on the left). The way to break the back of the say no brigades is to be willing to be bipartisan. Given the overwhelming support with which these foreign aid packages passed demonstrates the power of the middle. Let’s hope the lesson is learned and sustained.

    Doubt it will happen but Johnson could maneuver to elevate and set himself up as Speaker of the House, third in line to the Presidency rather than the Speaker of the Republicans.

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  5. Tony W says:

    @MarkedMan: My hope is that the weakening of the Republican party, that Trump has brought forward at rapid speed, will result in more of this type of cooperation.

    MAGA has isolated itself into a niche hate group and will continue to dwindle in numbers – particularly after the orange one finally succumbs to whatever brain disorder he is plagued with.

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  6. Kylopod says:

    It’s already uncommon for a House majority to be this narrow. But Dems held a similarly narrow majority in the 2021-3 period without ever coming close to collapse. It’s just that all the factions of the Democratic Party–while their differences are significant–seem to have a desire to see their party be productive. That unified interest incentivizes them to work together to get legislation passed.

    In contrast, a substantial number of Republicans–maybe not a majority, but enough to matter–do not have that shared interest in seeing a productive party. A failure to pass legislation is, to them, a feature rather than a bug–partly because they’re so radicalized they view any compromise as siding with the enemy, but also because nonaction so often serves their ideological goals. Even with the Ukraine bill finally passing, the delay has already caused great damage to the war effort–exactly what the Chaos Caucus wants. Preventing government action isn’t due to incompetence, it’s their entire modus operandi.

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  7. Not the IT Dept. says:

    @Scott: Johnson could maneuver to elevate and set himself up as Speaker of the House, third in line to the Presidency rather than the Speaker of the Republicans

    It will take many more than one single vote to do that. I assume the MAGA caucus will take steps to punish Johnson for stepping out of line and we’ll see how he handles that.

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  8. Charley in Cleveland says:

    The clown who represents the district I live in is Max Miller – grandson of a local millionaire and formerly a staffer in the Trump White House. In his very first letter to his constituents he introduced himself as, “your *Republican* representative in Congress.” He has since wised up a bit, but his mindset has remained – he believes his job is to carry water for MAGA, not to do what is best for the district. (Naturally, he brags about bringing money to Ohio that comes from bills he voted against.) Miller isn’t as dumb and loud as Gaetz and MTG, but he is a prime example of someone who went to Washington to play games rather than govern, and he and his ilk have empowered the takeover of the GOP by Trump and the Free-dumb Caucus.

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  9. MarkedMan says:

    @Kylopod:

    It’s just that all the factions of the Democratic Party–while their differences are significant–seem to have a desire to see their party be productive.

    I think you are right on this, but it is also amplified that during the Obama Administration the “Reasonable Republicans” played Lucy with the football so often that Dems learned the lesson: Republicans don’t negotiate in good faith. Which is why I’m so interested in reports that Johnson appears to have done so, for the first time in a long time.

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  10. DK says:

    Democrats did something virtually unheard of in modern politics on Thursday, crossing the aisle on the House Rules Committee to save the foreign aid package. They did it again the next day on the House floor.

    Huh, but we keep being told around here that Democrats are just as tribalist and unwilling to compromise as Republicans — just as capable of extremist thuggery something something bothsides.

    Among the famously unreasonable and antisemitic 99-member Progressive Caucus, the vote for a bill sending aid and weapons to Israel was 64-33…in favor.

    @MarkedMan:

    The real question is: is this the act that breaks Gingrichism, i.e. the mode of governing where policy and legislation doesn’t matter except in how they can be used to beat the other “team”?

    Will Johnson bring the Senate’s bipartisan border bill to the floor, for a vote, where it will overwhelmingly pass?

    Or will House Republicans continue to block it, because Trump would rather campaign on xenophobic fearmongering than “give” Biden a “win” or something?

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  11. MarkedMan says:

    @DK: I suspect that if this represents a loosening of the log jam, it will still take years for the blockage to breakup completely

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  12. James Joyner says:

    @MarkedMan: @MarkedMan: I think it’s going to require Trump losing resoundingly in November and, quite likely, Democrats taking control of both Houses of Congress. It’s no fun being in the minority.

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  13. MarkedMan says:

    @James Joyner: While that’s probably the best short term outcome, it’s a return to the status quo. Republicans are then free to follow the MAGAs knowing that their vote won’t matter. So I hope you are wrong, and that for the remaining months they are in power Republicans start to develop some muscle memory around working with Dems.

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  14. Kathy says:

    @James Joyner:

    I think we called that 2020.

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  15. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    Doubt it will happen but Johnson could maneuver to elevate and set himself up as Speaker of the House, third in line to the Presidency rather than the Speaker of the Republicans.

    I doubt it, too. I see him as neither smart enough to be able to do it nor enough of a visionary to want to. I think the guy yesterday who noted that his son can’t go to a military academy as the son of the man who tanked for Putin has it right. The Ukraine vote was a one-off, not a trend.

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  16. Kathy says:

    @DK:

    The reports were sketchy, but I think an immigration bill was included in Johnson’s game of Four Card Monte last Saturday. It didn’t pass.

    It was not the bill negotiated in the Senate, though.

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  17. James Joyner says:

    @Kathy:

    I think we called that 2020.

    But Trump managed to successfully push the narrative with the base that the election was stolen and continued to be the leader of the party. That won’t continue through the next cycle simply because of his age.

    To be clear, I don’t think it’s a Trump-only problem. It goes back to the Tea Party and, to a lesser extent, Gingrich and company. But MAGA is uniquely uninterested in governing and the more traditional wing of the party is going to get tired of not getting any of their agenda passed.

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  18. MarkedMan says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker:

    The Ukraine vote was a one-off, not a trend.

    Perhaps, and that would be a bad thing for the country. But I am going to hope despite the odds that crawling on his belly to the crazies in his party, and have to listen to MTG’s bleating for hours on end is going to make working with collegial Jakeem Jefries appealing enough to deserve a repeat.

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  19. Jay L Gischer says:

    @DK: I think that the willingness to work as a team to accomplish common goals is something that’s a lot more specific than a generic party affiliation. A LOT more specific.

    Jeffries has been working on cultivating that, doing specific things. I don’t know if Pelosi did those things, but she might have done other things. And that’s good, believe me I like it.

    AND, I know Democrats, mostly rank-and-file, who are terrible team players. Not too many of them are on the national stage right now, though, and that is also good.

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  20. Kathy says:

    @James Joyner:

    That won’t continue through the next cycle simply because of his age.

    If it doesn’t continue in the next cycle, it’ll be because he’s in jail.

    You may recall Lardass was laying the ground to claim fraud and a stolen election in 2016, when it looked to everyone he’d lose. He’ll continue with that in this cycle, even if he loses Florida and Texas (very unlikely on both counts).

    Regardless of who believes him, and plenty will, he’ll continue to run for president as long as he lives, or until he realizes running from the VIP cell at Ft. Leavenworth is not possible. His overinflated ego covering his tiny self cannot deal with loss in any other way.

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  21. just nutha says:

    @MarkedMan: I hope so too. I’ll just be surprised if it happens. Pleasantly surprised, but surprised all the same.

  22. @DK:

    Huh, but we keep being told around here that Democrats are just as tribalist and unwilling to compromise as Republicans — just as capable of extremist thuggery something something bothsides.

    Weirdly, not what has been said.

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  23. TeeWay says:

    @MarkedMan: @MarkedMan: absolutely! Why rub their nose in it when they do the right thing? To quote Mike Johnson, “this isn’t a game.”

  24. dazedandconfused says:

    @MarkedMan:

    Re: “Gingrichism, i.e. the mode of governing where policy and legislation doesn’t matter except in how they can be used to beat the other “team”?”

    I’ve long considered this a manifestation of a sense of entitlement to power, which was established within the GOP in the Reagan era, which reversed a long trend of largely D-party dominance in the House. Always thought that if Newt had not come along to champion the sense of entitlement someone else surely would’ve. IOW, I viewed Newt as symptom, not the disease.

    Am I wrong? Half right…maybe?

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  25. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: Yeah. I was wondering the same thing. I wrote it off as an article of DK faith that he requires to reinforce his beliefs, eventually.

    We all do it. “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” We all see things that simply aren’t there from time to time. (And DK is going to be glad that I’m willing to admit that he’s right, too.)

    ETA: @dazedandconfused: Newt, Trump, both symptoms, not the disease. You’re not wrong.

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  26. Kathy says:

    @dazedandconfused:
    @Just nutha ignint cracker:

    I fully understand analogies are never exact, and they can be taken only do far. Just the same, in many diseases, not all, what winds up killing you are the symptoms rather than the disease itself.

    Take the trump disease (how appropriate). People don’t die because SARS-CoV2 destroys too many lung cells (though that’s a contributing factor), but rather because the immune reaction (the symptoms) floods the lungs with fluid. This prevents part of the oxygen breathed in to be absorbed into the bloodstream, and often patients die as a result.*

    So maybe Newt, and Lardass, and the Trailer Queen, and Banon, and the rest are the symptoms and not the disease, but they may wind up killing the country anyway.

    *It’s not as simple as that, and not every symptom is an immune reaction. And some diseases do kill you more directly (Ebola comes to mind). And infectious diseases are different from systemic diseases (like cancer), or degenerative diseases. But my point, I think, stands.

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  27. DK says:

    @Kathy:

    So maybe Newt, and Lardass, and the Trailer Queen, and Banon, and the rest are the symptoms and not the disease

    In this case, it’s six in one hand, a half dozen in the other.

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  28. DK says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    Weirdly, not what has been said.

    By whom? Why the passive voice?

  29. just nutha says:

    @DK: Because multiple people are all not saying what been accused (note passive voice again)?

  30. Kurtz says:

    @DK:

    Note: I am writing this part after finishing the post that follows. It is not nearly as clear as I would like. Nor is it as expressive as I would like. It is not as sharp rhetorically as I would like. Bluntly, I hate it. But I am going to post it anyway. Because I do think it is an important conversation to have. And I hope it provokes a bit of thought.

    ***

    I will bite on this one for a few reasons. The first, I am one of those people who finds it easy to envision a Dem demagogue. And I don’t think your characterization of this position is entirely fair.

    The second, from what I can tell, you and I are pretty close on the political spectrum–well to the Left of most here and certainly out of the mainstream of American opinion. So I think I can credibly speak as a Lefty peer rather than it come across as centrist, pox on both houses, analysis.

    Third is something I was thinking about today during my engagement with Michael on the shit sandwich thread. One of the difficulties of communicating, in general, but is of particular importance in this kind of forum, is that we comment issue-by-issue. Issues are inter-related, so I often find myself trying to explain, without writing 10,000 words, a position that depends heavily upon expressing a lot of other positions. So this is a chance to post something both on-topic and broad.

    The most straightforward example of my frustration in political dialogs is the separation of fiscal from social issues. As in, people who identify as fiscally conservative, socially liberal. As if there is a solid wall of separation. As if economics is a science akin to physics rather than a social science. It is almost impossible to have a productive conversation with someone who wants to maintain those walls.

    As I have found myself explaining frequently of late, I have no direct experience to draw upon that would even approximate what it feels like to be a gay person, a trans person, or a brown person. I suppose that is a slight overstatement–but my experience is different in both kind and degree, so I can call it zero.

    The most I can do is listen to the experiences of others, take them seriously, and try to understand how that impacts their worldview. I do my best to be supportive of individuals in marginalized groups despite my experience not lending itself to easy empathy.

    So, please keep that in mind as you read my answer.

    -Democracy is often an obstacle to small-p progress, however progress is defined. The issue here is that a commitment to democratic principles will often be at odds with the goals of justice, equality, and fairness.

    Appealing to democracy carries no cost for members of the group that fit the normative social structure. They are not the ones being oppressed. So, I can see how easy it would be for a marginalized person, who faces real threats daily, to reject appeals to democracy.

    As an aside, this is a thorny political theory problem for any form of any liberation movement–AnCap*, varieties of socialism, varieties of communism–all of them struggle with how to change the system without a period of authoritarianism.

    -Similarly, one of the key aspects of open society is respect for differing viewpoints. But that is based on a (imo, false) distinction between action and speech. That itself is based on the (imo, erroneous) assumption of a dualistic human nature–the mind as a separate thing from the body.

    Moreover, even if those assumptions were true, how far does one extend tolerance? Should we really abide those who are themselves intolerant? Especially when the expression of intolerant views can cross the line into inciting and celebrating spasms of violence against people whose very existence is seen as a crime or a threat?

    -How does the rule of law, another bedrock principle of democracy, interact with the existence of unjust laws? Accepting legal sanctions is an answer, but it comes at the cost of more division and adds to the total of injustice.

    All of these aspects of democratic society give a lot of space for bad faith actions. Concepts developed as critical of systems are co-opted to serve the dominant culture. Language is easily manipulated and changed–race-baiting now is used to signify the opposite of its original meaning. The reclamation of n– is now a grievance of some White people who think that if Black people use it in reference to each other, whatever the intent, that Whites should be able to use it as an insult.

    So yeah, I can easily envision how an otherwise committed and principled Lefty, someone similar to you or me or Bernius, could justify a little temporary authoritarianism in the pursuit of justice. Hell, just today, Bernius and I briefly lamented how fucking difficult it is to square the brilliance of Fanon’s arguments with our other beliefs.

    Why? Because this shit is hard–consistency, political theory, conflicting commitments, self-important shitheads like Cruz or Gaetz or Trump or MTG, a system design that stacks the deck against change and empowers those shitheads to exploit its weaknesses and play upon the ignorance and apathy of the polity, all for personal gain.

    Yeah, I can see how a charismatic strongman could be seductive to both committed allies and the marginalized. But maybe I am just too cynical.

    *Yeah, I don’t consider it a movement of liberation, either. But they certainly do, and the honest ones will agree that transitions of political systems are fraught.

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