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Opinion Hakeem Jeffries will lead. McCarthy will follow.

House Democratic Caucus chair Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) arrives to meet with fellow Democrats at the Capitol on Nov. 17. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

The contrast between the man likely to be the next House speaker, Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), and the likely House minority leader, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), could not be greater. Nor could the contrast be more indicative of the current state of the parties.

McCarthy remains hostage to the Christian nationalist base and the MAGA members who prioritize conflict with the Biden administration over governance. Jeffries, on the other hand, has broad appeal in his party and displays maturity and focus.

Appearing on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday, Jeffries showed the discipline and generosity of spirit that no doubt pleased his predecessor, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). The key to her leadership, as it will be for Jeffries, is the ability to maintain unity in search of legislative deals and provide a contrast between a party that fights for working people and one that opposes reality and democratic governance.

Asked about conflict between moderate and left-leaning members, Jeffries refused to accept the “Democrats in disarray” framing. He responded:

The majesty of the House Democratic Caucus is that we are so incredibly diverse, in terms of race, and gender, and religion, and sexual orientation, region, life experience, and even ideology, from the left, to progressives, New Dems, Blue Dogs, moderate and centrist Democrats, all points in between. The thing about us, Jake, is that, while we can have some noisy conversations at times about how we can make progress for the American people … though people have doubted us, tried to create this frame of Democrats in disarray, we always are consistently able to come together, find the highest common denominator, get things done for everyday Americans, and make progress.

And when it comes to supplying votes to avoid a default on the national debt, he was serene. “Democrats have always been willing to lean in on making sure that we fully fund the government,” Jeffries said. “And Democrats have always been willing to lean in, in making sure that we meet our nation’s obligations and do not default on our debt for the first time in American history.” He added, that his party has “consistently fought against extremism on the Republican side, including when it manifested itself often during the former president’s tenure, while, at the same time, being able to find common ground to make progress for the American people.”

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Jeffries underscored McCarthy’s inability to break with a radical, unpopular agenda. “Kevin McCarthy has said that he is willing to detonate the American economy, default on our nation’s debt in order to try to strip away Social Security and Medicare for tens of millions of Americans. That’s incredibly reckless.”

That’s the stark contrast Jeffries will need to maintain as Democratic leader. He will need to unite his members to shift the onus of keeping the government operating on the Republican majority. Will the GOP put forth an agenda crafted in MAGA cultists’ offices? If so, Jeffries will have to make the case for Democrats returning to the majority in 2024 by promising the restoration of competent and sober governance.

Meanwhile, McCarthy, who has yet to nail down the 218 votes he needs to become speaker, is still bowing and scraping to the MAGA radicals. He promised to remove a handful of high-profile Democrats from House committees, including the eminently qualified Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) and Rep. Adam B. Schiff (Calif.). And he has little — if any — legislative priorities ready to go. The only thing teed up is nonstop investigations.

Such posturing will make it hard for McCarthy to accomplish anything of substance. As Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) explained on CNN’s “State of the Union,” “I would not be surprised if Kevin McCarthy has to cut deals with Democrats, which is something he needs to keep in mind, because he’s not going to get 218 votes for everything he wants to pass, including government funding, because he’s got people that will never vote yes on anything.”

McCarthy is widely regarded (by Democrats, many Republicans, the White House and the media) as a weak leader. He is seen as a glad hander who is willing to prostrate himself before the most unhinged elements in the party. As Kinzinger put it, “I think he has cut so many deals with bad people to get to this position that I think he’s not going to be a leader at all. … And I, frankly, don’t think he’s going to last very long.”

In some sense, maintaining unity in the minority is easier than governing in the majority. That is especially true when the majority is thin and under the leadership of someone who has never been speaker before. Jeffries may not find perfect agreement on all issues among his fellow Democrats, but he surely will find unanimity in opposition to a MAGA majority lacking a governing agenda.

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