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OK, There Was Something Positive in the Speaker-Vote Debacle
Long after midnight, what Hakeem Jeffries said was notable. What Kevin McCarthy didn't say is worth at least noticing as well.
There is a category of jobs for which the greatest day is the day your appointment is announced. It all gets worse from there.
Being an NFL coach in Washington D.C. is one of those. Ambassadorships generally are another. Many (though not all) university deanships and presidencies. Marrying into a royal family, apparently. Others you can think of.
And then we have Kevin McCarthy’s new job, of which his very greatest moment occurred in the wee hours of Friday night, when enough of his opponents finally agreed to vote “present” to let him squeak in. But even considering the 15-ballot ritual humiliation he had just been through, the bad part for McCarthy has only now begun.
He can be speaker. What he can do in that job… we will see.
That’s for next week, and next year. For now I’ll mention what happened after the final vote, when two leaders said—and didn’t say—things that were interesting.
Hakeem Jeffries uses the moment.
In the case of Hakeem Jeffries, who had mainly sat silent as Rep. Pete Aguilar and other colleagues nominated him ballot after ballot, the attention-getter was his presentation once all the voting was done.
The speech was 15 minutes long; you can see it on C-Span here. Most press attention has been on its final 90 seconds, which I will get to. The whole thing worked, in my view, as an upbeat, happy-warrior-toned declaration of a party’s values, from a man who knew that every single Representative from his party had backed him on every one of the endless votes.1
Jeffries, who is the first Black leader of a party in the House, following the first woman Speaker, naturally cast his own story as an example of The American Story.2
It’s worth realizing that almost every U.S. political leader does this, since in various ways most of them have overcome odds. Race, gender, education, poverty, family difficulties, regional or rural bias, other obstacles—almost anyone who gets to these levels in public life has internalized the idea that their story can offer instructive hope to others. You’ll see this theme in the origin-narrative of most national candidates. Even George W. Bush, whose father was President, offered his own version, about overcoming bad grades and a drinking problem before straightening himself out.
Then Jeffries built from his own story of opportunity to a “this we believe!” credo for the Democrats. The lines below were delivered with the pauses and emphasis I’m showing with line breaks. In a confident sounding rather than angry way, they amount to the Democrats’ refutation of the “it’s not our country any more” white-grievance stories of recent politics:
As Democrats we do believe in a country for everyone….
We believe that in America, our diversity is a strength. [pause, and emphasis on “strength.”]
It is not a weakness.
It is an economic strength. A competitive strength. A cultural strength.
Our diversity is a strength.
It is not a weakness.
Back when Jimmy Carter was running for president, he used the “mosaic” image of American diversity. I remember typing out these words in speech drafts, on a manual typewriter. Here is how Jeffries applied the metaphor, leading to a well-paced list, again with emphasis like what I’m showing with the breaks:
We are a gorgeous mosaic of people from throughout the world. As John Lewis would sometimes remind us on this floor, we may have come over on different ships. But we're all in the same boat now.
We are white.
We are Black.
We are Latino.
We are Asian.
We Are Native American.
We are Christian.
We are Jewish.
We are Muslim.
We are Hindu.
We are religious.
We are secular.
We are gay.
We are straight.
We are young.
We are older. [Note the artful older.]
We are women.
We are men.
We are citizens.
We are dreamers. [Artful way to draw the distinction with ‘we are citizens.’]
Out of many, we are one.
That's what makes America a great country.
This last line was, once again, an artful way to appeal to that timeless national ideal, E pluribus unum—without sinking to the bluntness of a direct MAGA response. Ie, “This is what really makes America great, as it always has through the years.” It’s an effective subtweet.
Anger can sell in politics—think of Trump. But in the long run sunniness and confidence work better. Jeffries sounded upbeat in making this case.
An alphabet of politics, or: It’s the 15th ballot, so anything goes.
Naturally the attention about Jeffries’s speech has all gone to its conclusion, with the A-to-Z rundown of how the two parties differ.
Was this a stunt? Of course. I can imagine discussions in the speechwriting room. “Are you crazy? This can just fall flat.” “Yeah, but if it works …” “But what if no one gets it?” “Yeah, but no one will be watching anyway.”
As it turned out, this was a gamble that paid off. By the time Jeffries got to the G’s in his sequence, the audience understood what he was up to, and they—the Democrats—were cheering him the rest of the way.
For the record, here was the speech’s closing sequence, xenial and all:
House Democrats will always put
—American values over autocracy…
—benevolence over bigotry,
—the Constitution over the cult,
—democracy over demagogues,
—economic opportunity over extremism,
—freedom over fascism,
—governing over gaslighting,
—hopefulness over hatred,
—inclusion over isolation,
—justice over judicial overreach,
—knowledge over kangaroo courts,
—liberty over limitation,
—maturity over Mar a Lago [big laughs from the Dem side],
—normalcy over negativity,
—opportunity over obstruction,
—people over politics,
—quality of life issues over QAnon,
—reason over racism,
—substance over slander,
—triumph over tyranny,
—understanding over ugliness,
—voting rights over voter suppression,
—working families over the well-connected,
—xenial over xenophobia [meaning “hospitality”—a word I was not familiar with],
-‘yes we can’ over ‘you can't do it,’ and
—zealous representation versus zero-sum confrontation.
By the end of this, Jeffries was having fun, and much of the audience was too. What would he do for Q? And … X? It didn’t go on too long, it was appropriate for the time of night and place in history, it was both sober and jokey, and it made his point. Jeffries never needs to recite this list again, because other people will quote it.
He had his opportunity, and he used it.
Now, the new Speaker of the House.
Kevin McCarthy took the gavel from Jeffries and then gave a longer speech — 25 minutes versus 15. He’s entitled; after all, it is the best moment of his life. You can see the whole thing here.
Part of McCarthy’s speech was origin story—a son of Bakersfield, overcoming obstacles—and part of it was standard MAGA platform. Eg, “We will hold the swamp accountable from the withdrawal of Afghanistan, to the origins of COVID, to the weaponization of the FBI.” And, “We will create a bipartisan Select Committee on China to investigate how to bring back the hundreds of thousands of jobs that went to China.” [I’ll get back to this one in another post.] Part of it was the heritage of American optimism.
But if you’d listened to the nominating speeches for his opponents, or to general GOP rhetoric of the era, you’d notice the things McCarthy did not say:
—He did not mention a “stolen” election.
—He did not talk about “socialists” on the other side.
—He did not use the name Hunter Biden.
—While he talked about “national debt” as a threat he did not saber-rattle about raising the debt ceiling.
—He did not use “Democrat” as an adjective (rather than “Democratic”), in the routinely insulting way pioneered by Newt Gingrich. (“These Democrat schemes…”)
—He did not disparage the man who gave him the gavel, Hakeem Jeffries. He addressed him respectfully: “There will be times we agree, and many times we will differ. I promise our debates will be passionate, but they will never be personal.”
—His very first words were meant as self-deprecation—“That was easy,” after 15 ballots—and his overall tone was more upbeat than resentful.
Will this make any difference in terms of votes or policy? About the debt ceiling—which by the way is the very stupidest “disagreement” in politics? About investigations? About the January 6 aftermath?
But it could have been worse. Hakeem Jeffries sounded confident, as he welcomed a Speaker of the other party. Kevin McCarthy sounded grateful rather than furious about the hazing he’d been through.
It will get worse, but for those few minutes it wasn’t. For now let’s take the win.
C-Span addicts will recall that this meant an unchanging 212 votes for Jeffries through the 15 ballots, as totals for various Republicans went up and down. The exception was when one Democrat was temporarily out for minor surgery, and Jeffries got 211.
After the first round of voting, GOP operatives spread word that Democrats might get “bored” and stop showing up for votes, which some credulous mainstream reporters circulated. In reality they all stayed and did their part.
“I was born in Brooklyn hospital and raised in a working class neighborhood in Crown Heights… Somehow survived the violence or the crack cocaine epidemic and wound up here in the United States Congress, as the highest ranking Democrat in the House of Representatives.
“America is truly a land of opportunity… On this first day, let us commit to the American dream that promises that if you work hard and play by the rules, you should be able to provide a comfortable living for yourself and for your family.”