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Opinion Jeffries governs in poetry, Biden in grace — and the GOP in thuggishness

Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) speaks to House members early Saturday after the election of Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.). (Olivier Douliery/AFP/Getty Images)
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Democratic Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) got off to a flying start in the 118th Congress with what will forever be known as the “alphabet speech,” including this bit of acrostic poetry:

We will never compromise our principles. 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. 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 [hospitality] over xenophobia. ‘Yes, we can’ over ‘you can’t do it,’ and zealous representation over zero-sum confrontation.

All the more impressive for speaking without notes or a teleprompter, Jeffries set a tone for Democrats that was both contemporary and high-minded, fun and sophisticated. With the cadence of a preacher and erudite vocabulary of a professor, he perfectly encapsulated the difference between his party’s optimism and accomplishment and his opponents’ bitterness even in victory.

Former speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), to whom Jeffries paid tribute (“a legendary legislator, a fabulous facilitator and a no-nonsense negotiator,” he quipped), did not excel with stirring rhetoric. But in a Congress that is likely to see very little legislating thanks to an unhinged and chaotic majority, Jeffries fills the void with inspirational words and a values-based message for his party.

President Biden is not acclaimed for his rhetoric, either. And with the most productive days of his first term likely behind him, he’ll be focused for the next two years on implementing his legislation and expressing what his foes totally lack: graciousness and empathy.

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Biden’s telltale ability to connect with others’ suffering loss was evident in his post-election news conference late last year. He spoke at length on the nature of empathy in governance:

Again, on Jan. 6 of this year, Biden showed a level of humanity entirely absent in the MAGA movement by honoring 12 heroic Americans who defended our democracy two years ago — a display of patriotism and courage Republicans are obliged to ignore or denigrate to sustain the Trumpian cult.

After reciting the honorees’ courageous actions, Biden talked to the families. “You know, for those who lost someone on that day, they’re proud as the devil that their kin are being honored, but, boy, is it hard,” he said. “I know how proud I am when my son Beau is honored on the anniversary of his death as a consequence of burn pits in Iraq. But it brings everything back like it happened that moment.” He added, “So to all the families here … my heart aches for you. And I want to thank you for having the courage to be here today so the rest of America can know what your kin did.”

From both Jeffries and Biden, then, we get a full recitation of American values: kindness, empathy, inclusion, generosity, decency and optimism. They echo the sensibility of the 20th-century mourner who was asked whether he had known the just-deceased President Franklin D. Roosevelt. He famously replied, “I didn’t know him, but he knew me.” The Democrats of this century know Americans, too.

The gap between that humanistic vision and what we see from the Republican Party could not be more stark. Violence (whether inside the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, or inside the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2023) and toxic masculinity seem to be endemic to a party that scorns the police who defended them two years ago and minimizes the brutality of the mob.

This is a crowd that delights in mocking the vulnerable and bullying the defenseless, persecuting refugees, elevating their selfish aims over the needs of others and fanning bitterness and vengefulness.

The Republican Party aim is to define America as a White Christian nation, bolstered by an apocalyptic fear of the Great Replacement conspiracy and a perpetual sense of victimhood. The MAGA camp’s character is displayed in the surly reception (and, in some cases, boycotts) given to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky during his speech to Congress.

It is exemplified, too, in former president Donald Trump’s ongoing abuse and attacks on election workers Ruby Freeman and Shaye Moss, in the forced birth crowd’s insistence that a teen be compelled to bear her rapist’s child, in MAGA lawmakers’ refusal to extend the child tax credit that lifted more than 2 million children out of poverty, and in the House Republicans’ obsession with inquisitions into fake scandals and phony conspiracies.

It’s no coincidence that the most viable Republican challenger to Trump is Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has repeatedly used his power to crush dissent, harass innocent voters, vilify manufacturers of lifesaving vaccines and cultivate the image of a bully. He fits right in with today’s GOP.

One doesn’t even need to know the two parties’ policy positions to know there is a world of difference in their vision and character. Poetry and grace on one side, thuggishness and fury on the other. Americans cannot say they lack a stark choice.