Opinion: Hakeem Jeffries gave the speech that Kevin McCarthy should have — but won’t
The longest battle for House speaker in 164 years finally ended early Saturday, culminating with the GOP’s Kevin McCarthy being elected on the 15th ballot. It should’ve been the most stirring moment after days of Republican struggle on the House floor, but it wasn’t.
Far more memorable was the speech that followed, delivered by House Democratic leader Hakeem Jeffries before he handed the speaker’s gavel to McCarthy in a display of the peaceful transfer of power.
Paying tribute to former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and touting achievements of the previous Congress, Jeffries then turned to the most unforgettable part of his address, the ABCs. He began each line consecutively with the letters from A to Z, passionately defending American values of democracy and compassion over fascism and hate.
But it wasn’t just this use of a literary device that was so extraordinary, even though that was a big part of why the speech went viral.
No, Jeffries’ words were so striking because they should have been the ones the new House speaker delivered.
Instead, McCarthy vowed that House Republicans’ “first bill will repeal funding for 87,000 new IRS agents.” Later speaking to reporters in the halls of Congress, he praised former President Donald Trump — the man the January 6 committee’s final report concluded was “the central cause” of the 2021 attack on the US Capitol.
Jeffries has consistently lived up to his first name, Hakeem — which translates from Arabic into a “wise” or “learned” person seen as a fountain of deep knowledge. (The lawmaker from New York City is Baptist, but as a Muslim, I wish he were Muslim!) His speech in Saturday’s early hours was the most recent example of his wisdom.
The first Black leader of any major party in Congress told the House chamber, “We believe that in America our diversity is a strength, it is not a weakness.” He also offered “our hand of partnership” to the Republicans, saying, “We extend, and intend, to try and find common ground, whenever and wherever possible on behalf of the American people.”
Yet Jeffries vowed that Democrats will “never compromise our principles.” The newly sworn-in Democratic leader followed this pledge with the most impressive part of his speech, listing each principle literally from A to Z.
He began by making it clear Democrats reject so much that has come to define Trumpism: “House Democrats will always put American values over autocracy, benevolence over bigotry, the Constitution over the cult, democracy over demagogues … freedom over fascism, governing over gaslighting, hopefulness over hatred. …”
Jeers vied with applause in the House when he reached the middle of this poetic passage with a dig at Trump: “maturity over Mar-a-Lago.”
Jeffries continued with an alphabetical recitation of what Democrats will defend and reject: “quality of life issues over QAnon, reason over racism, substance over slander, triumph over tyranny, understanding over ugliness, voting rights over voter suppression.”
He sent people Googling the definition of one word when he reached the letter X and said, “xenial over xenophobia.” (In this context, xenial means “warm, welcoming, and hospitable.”)
Jeffries brought this passage to a close with the line “zealous representation over zero-sum confrontation,” shortly thereafter ending by vowing Democrats will “always do the right thing by the American people.”
But these are the words McCarthy should have delivered, making it clear he denounces autocracy, fascism and the grave threats facing our democracy by Trump and the MAGA wing of the Republican Party.
It’s not that the House GOP leader doesn’t grasp these threats. Only a week after the January 6, 2021, attack, McCarthy took to the House floor and proclaimed without any ambiguity about Trump: “The President bears responsibility for Wednesday’s attack on Congress by mob rioters. He should have immediately denounced the mob when he saw what was unfolding.”
But fast-forward to the day after the two-year anniversary of the January 6 attack. Minutes after leaving the House, the newly elected speaker paid tribute to Trump.
“I do want to especially thank President Trump. I don’t think you should doubt — anybody should doubt his influence,” McCarthy said, adding, “He was with me from the beginning. … So, thank you, President Trump.”
“Thank you” to the man who refused to accept losing the 2020 election and whose words and actions inspired his supporters to attack the Capitol? That’s not what the speaker of the House should be saying.
After receiving the speaker’s gavel, McCarthy did have some nice moments such as when he said to Jeffries, “There will be times we will agree and many times we will differ. I promise that our debates will be passionate, but never personal.”
In closing, the speaker included these commendable lines: “Our nation is worth fighting for. … Our future is worth fighting for.”
But these are words without meaning, given McCarthy’s track record of flip-flopping on key issues such as standing up to Trump over January 6 to remaining silent over the lies by new GOP Rep. George Santos, whose vote he desperately needed in the speakership battle.
In his speech, Jeffries unapologetically defended American values and our democratic republic — if only we had a speaker who had the courage to do the same.
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