For the very first time in any American political party’s history, the top tier is devoid of white men. With the advent of Hakeem Jefferies as the first black American to head the Democratic caucus along with representative Katherine Clark of Massachusetts and Pete Aguilar of California as whip and chairman of the caucus respectively, the fabric of Democratic party is certainly passing through a kind of paradigm shift – but only at the top.
For the last two decades, octogenarian group, under the leadership of Nancy Pelosi, was dominating the caucus for almost 20 years. The new batch of caucus is much younger - in their 50s or even less. But will there be any shift in the outlook of the Democratic party under the young leadership? The answer to this question is quite tricky one – neither solid yes nor weak no. Yes, there is a change of guards at the top as far as the Democratic leadership in the Congress is concerned, but it is more of cosmetic in nature.
The octogenarian group is still very much dominant on the ideological and operational fabric of the Democratic Party. Regardless of the fact that he has been a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC), many of his detractors on the left have labelled him just another "corporate Democrat".
Similarly, it does not come as surprise to see him boasting about his identity as a "black progressive Democrat". A new younger face was needed - and yes, a Black one from a big city – to offset the simmering pressure on the old bureaucracy of the Democratic Party. The arrival of new cohort of younger leadership is not expected to make any major change in the outlook of the party. However, Jefferies’ rise as the head of the caucus reflects the ascendancy of the moderates at the moment, with a hefty package of Biden’s legislative successes in their bag from these past two years: The American Rescue plan, infrastructure measures and even a modest gun control law.
At the same time, these moderates are now overconfident about their strength after snubbing the emergence of much-hyped red wave in the recent midterm polls despite an incumbent president whose popularity ratings have been trapped in the very low 40s. Though he has promised to reach across the aisle whenever possible and to resist extremism, when necessary, but the success or otherwise of the new team will lie in its ability to exploit and manoeuvre the tissue paper-thin majority of the Republicans and to muffle the promised investigations by Republicans into Joe Biden's record.
The single digit majority Republicans in the 118th congress is still a big – but expected - challenge for Jeffries and his team. With the possibility of winning speakership within two years, the pressure is indubitably on Jeffries to get his party into a position where it can take back the House in 2024.
However, the biggest challenge to Jeffries will be how to outdo the huge influence of Nancy Pelosi on the party. During her tenure as the House Speaker, Pelosi became one of the country’s most powerful political figures, carving a reputation as a skilled leader capable of steering the party caucus together during important votes.
Pelosi has the strongest network – much stronger than President Joe Biden – within the Democratic Party, and it is expected that she will keep pulling the strings as per her whims to maintain her clout within the party. There will be surely a discrete tug of war between Jeffries and Pelosi to take the control of part’s hull. With Nancy Pelosi physically sitting in the House, it will be and gruelling task for Jeffries to outshine her glamorous persona. Jeffries is still relatively a ‘less-connected’ figure within the caucus and he may find it hard to rally the Democratic Representatives to drift away from Pelosi’s aura and genuinely accept him as their leader in the House.