WITH less than 50 days to go until the mid-terms, Hakeem Jeffries was not pushed for time. On a leisurely stroll through his Brooklyn congressional district, the rising Democratic star pointed out the hospital where he was born and a former crack park where the surrounding brownstones go for $2m, with a stop at his favourite diner along the way. While political America hyperventilates over the handful of competitive House and Senate races that will determine who controls Congress, Mr Jeffries is among the vast majority of congressmen facing no serious contest in November. In one of the safest Democratic districts in the country, he is running unopposed.
Such congressmen have nothing to fear but a primary challenge, like the one that dislodged another Democratic leader and New Yorker, Joe Crowley. Some veer to the political extreme to mitigate the risk of that. But Mr Jeffries is nearly as moderate as a safe-seat Democrat gets. That might seem surprising, given the plaudits he is winning in a party that is said to be shifting to the left overall. The 48-year-old former corporate lawyer is one of a handful of mid-level Democratic leaders sitting below the party’s geriatric supremos. Some predict he will become the first black Speaker of the House of Representatives, perhaps sooner than later. The Democrats look likely to take back the House in November, and at least a significant minority think that would be the moment for their 78-year-old leader, Nancy Pelosi, to step aside.
Mr Jeffries is not a member of the moderate New Democrats faction, but he often sounds as if he should be. He is a fan of charter schools and fiscal rectitude. Though he supports the principle of universal health-care coverage, he speaks of “the importance of market forces and getting things done in a responsible fashion”. Quoting Ronald Reagan approvingly, he suggests this means promoting a flourishing private sector outside the “legitimate functions” of government. The eternal quest to strike the right balance between the two “is the American dream”, he muses.
His pragmatism is as striking as his moderation. He praises Jared Kushner as a “tremendous partner” in his support for a bipartisan criminal-justice bill that Mr Jeffries co-sponsored. It was derided from the left as too weak, including by two Democratic senators with presidential ambitions, Cory Booker and Kamala Harris. They probably also minded the fact that President Donald Trump praised the bill. Mr Jeffries gives them short shrift: Democrats should back useful legislation whoever is president, he says, and a stronger bill was impossible under Mr Trump. He also questions their political judgment. Allowing criminal justice to become a partisan issue has handed the Republicans an offensive weapon, he says. “If we can make this a non-partisan issue, that is to Democrats’ advantage.”
Yet despite his bold attachment to the real world, Mr Jeffries is not merely unchallenged by his party’s Utopian wing. He is admired. In an interview with a left-wing radio host, waves of adulation come pulsing through the speakerphone. She congratulates Mr Jeffries for his “unapologetic progressive streak”. As the Democrats contemplate advancing from the wilderness, this raises a salient question: how does he get away with it?
There are perhaps two big reasons, which could have a bearing on his party more broadly. First, like Barack Obama (whose birthday he shares), Mr Jeffries’s ethnicity helps him head off the left. That is mainly because black Democrats’ emphasis on social justice—which, despite its critics, Mr Jeffries’s First Step Act clearly illustrates—earns them progressive stripes. It is also because black voters, who dominate Mr Jeffries’s district and are an essential portion of any Democratic coalition, are relatively moderate on economic issues. He attributes this to the traditions of the black church, which emphasise ownership and self-reliance, as well as to a centuries-old hunger for opportunity. All things being equal, black voters therefore tend to support moderate candidates, such as Hillary and Bill Clinton, in presidential primaries. If they ended up backing Mr Booker or Ms Harris, it would not be because the senators support Medicare for all.
The second reason Mr Jeffries gets away with it concerns Mr Trump. So long as the congressman attacks the president on points of principle, the left seems to gives his moderate views a pass, or fails to notice them. Mr Jeffries’s stand on school reform is much less well-known among Democratic activists than a feisty speech he gave after Mr Trump accused the Democrats of treason for failing to applaud his state-of-the-union address. Mr Jeffries’s fellow second-tier leaders are also better known for their contributions to the anti-Trump war machine than their views. They include Adam Schiff, a star of the House intelligence committee, and Cheri Bustos and David Cicilline, who share responsibility with Mr Jeffries for messaging.
Cheri B. and Hakeem
A return to governing, Mr Jeffries acknowledges delicately, “may make it more difficult to hold party unity”. But it might not be as hard as all that. Mr Trump will remain a powerful bogeyman. Moreover, Mr Jeffries thinks the Democrats’ fulcrum is closer to the centre than many imagine, in part because they have mistaken the Democrats’ zeal for resisting the excesses of the Trump administration with an enthusiasm for hard-left ideas. The pragmatic candidates who have emerged from most of the party’s House primaries suggest he may be right. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Mr Crowley’s fiery vanquisher, turns out to be unusual.
How endangered Ms Pelosi is will probably depend on the views of some 30-odd new House Democrats, which are yet unknown. Mr Jeffries says he will back her “to the end”, which is probably judicious, given her reputation for vindictiveness. But it does not denote a lack of ambition. Mr Jeffries plainly believes it is time Congress had a black Speaker. That would be both principled and tactically astute.