Tale of Two Speeches: Speaker Johnson, Minority Leader Jeffries Articulate Different Visions for America
On Wednesday afternoon, U.S. House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) and newly-elected U.S. House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) spoke in succession on the House floor. Despite agreement on supporting Israel and quoting Lincoln, the speeches contrasted one another sharply in their themes, goals, and visions for America.
A major theme of Johnson’s speech was restoring public trust in the U.S. Congress. “Our mission here is to serve you well, to restore the people’s faith in this House, in this great and essential institution,” Johnson told the American people. He went on, “all the American people at one time had great pride in this institution. But right now, that’s in jeopardy, and we have a challenge before us now to rebuild and restore this trust. To that end, Johnson pledged that, as speaker, “My office is going to be known for trust, for transparency, and for accountability, for good stewardship of the people’s treasure, for the honesty and integrity that is incumbent upon us — all of us — here in The People’s House.”
Along those lines, Johnson pledged to decentralize power, which has accumulated in the speaker’s office in recent decades. “I made a commitment to my colleagues here that this speaker’s office is going to be known for decentralizing the power,” he said. “My office is going to be known for members being more involved and having more influence in our processes, in all the major decisions made here, for predictable processes and regular order. We owe that to The People.”
The same respect Johnson showed for American voters and his own party, he also extended across the aisle. “The job of the Speaker of the House is to serve the whole body, and I will,” he said. “I believe that Scripture — the Bible — is very clear that God is the one that raises up those in authority. He raised up each of you.” His speech invited along skeptical members rather than demeaning them, “We are in a dangerous time. I’m stating the obvious. We all know that.”
Johnson opened his speech with kind words for Minority Leader Jeffries, “I know we see things from very different points of view, but I know that in your heart you love and care about this country, and you want to do what’s right.” He even engaged in light-hearted humor with U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas), a far-left member who became embroiled in a scandal over the weekend.
Nevertheless, Johnson articulated his unwavering commitment to fundamental principles. He articulated what he called “seven core principles of American conservatism,” or rather “core principles of our nation.” He boiled these principles down to: “individual freedom, rule of government, rule of law, peace through strength, fiscal responsibility, free markets, and human dignity.” Johnson acknowledged the partisan divide over these principles without vilifying his partisan rivals, “We are going to fight vigorously over our core principles because they are at odds a lot of times in this modern era,” he said. “We have to sacrifice sometimes our preferences because that is what is necessary in a legislative body. But we will defend our core principles to the end.”
Johnson delivered “a unifying message,” Family Research Council President Tony Perkins said on “Washington Watch.” “He wasn’t trying to pick a fight.” Perkins predicted, “not only will Speaker Johnson be able to unify the Republicans, but I think what you’re going to see is … some Democrats join in some of these efforts to advance common sense, practical legislation … because he’s going to put it in such a way that it’s going to be hard for them not to.”
The preceding speech from Minority Leader Jeffries struck a different tone. It pretended to endorse bipartisan action, while not taking any steps to engage in it. “From the very beginning of this congress, House Democrats have made clear that we will find bipartisan, common ground with our Republican colleagues,” Jeffries claimed. In fact, he added, “it was House Democrats who provided a majority of the votes necessary to avoid a catastrophic default on our debt,” “avoid a government shutdown,” and “secure $16 billion in disaster assistance” — which was part of the bill to avoid a shutdown. Each example involves must-pass legislation, which is the lowest hanging fruit of “bipartisan” cooperation.
What Jeffries glossed over was that, with Democrats in control of the Senate and White House, the only House bills that stood a chance of consideration were versions more popular among Democrats than Republicans. House Democrats opposed every appropriations bill Republicans passed to fund the government according to the method prescribed in law, and they remain opposed to any legislation to rein in the federal deficit or secure the southern border.
After making this nod to bipartisanship, Jeffries pivoted to a list of Democrats’ partisan demands, including legalizing abortion, advancing the LGBT agenda, enacting green climate policies, fortifying Obamacare, eroding election security, and increasing social spending. He also pressured House Republicans to pass “immediately, in totality” a bill, to be crafted by the Democrat-controlled Senate, that would tie Ukraine funding together with funding for Israel.
Jeffries made sure to defend President Joe Biden, claiming that “he’s doing a great job under difficult circumstances.” This amounts to defending the Biden administration’s executive overreach — for which they have been slapped down more than once by the Supreme Court — and its extreme, pro-LGBT, pro-abortion policies. President Biden has impeded America’s recovery from COVID, stumbled into the highest inflation America has seen in 40 years, emboldened America’s adversaries from Russia to Iran to China, and repeatedly vilified his domestic political opponents.
Only 37% of U.S. adults approve of Biden’s job performance, according to a monthly Gallup poll released Thursday, tying his own lowest rating, registering the second-lowest (after President Carter) quarterly average rating (40%) of any elected, post-WWII president at this point in their term.
Taking a cue from the president, Jeffries aggressively attacked Republicans. His praise for the president occurred in this context, “Joe Biden won the 2020 presidential election. He’s doing a great job under difficult circumstances, and no amount of election denialism will ever change that reality.” Perkins commentated, “If you’re watching, he was pointing to the Republicans. So, he was talking to the Republicans, kind of poking them in the eye.”
The Republican-bashing didn’t stop there. Jeffries criticized “the chaos, the dysfunction, and the extremism that has been unleashed in this chamber from the very beginning of this Congress.” He pledged that House Democrats would “push back against extremism in this chamber” and “put people over politics.” He recalled the events of January 6, 2021, charging that “some in this chamber” incited “a violent mob of insurrectionists.” In light of these insults, one might even find it surprising that Speaker Johnson had so many kind words for Jeffries.
Jeffries even berated Republicans for partisanship at the very moment he was demanding they meekly accept the Ukraine spending bill written in the Democrat-controlled Senate. “The time for gamesmanship is over. The time for brinksmanship is over. The time for partisanship is over,” he urged. Of course, he only expected one party to submit to these directives.
Jeffries’s speech did not articulate his fundamental principles of government in the same way that Johnson would do after him. The closest he came to any principles was invoking President Lincoln’s wartime plea to Congress to save the Union. In fact, nearly half of Jeffries’s speech was devoted to the topic of saving the union, which he alleged could only be done if Republicans put aside their partisanship and agreed to pass Democrats’ preferred policies.
In summary, the successive speeches by Jeffries and Johnson elucidated their divergent governing philosophies and policymaking goals. Distilled down to its essence, the contrast was between principled conservatism and opportunistic progressivism.
Johnson’s speech emphasized process over policies. He listed seven principles he believed were fundamental to the American system of government and way of life. He pledged to decentralize power, restore regular order, and give everyone a voice. He did mention policy goals — support for Israel, border security, fiscal sustainability — but insisted on accomplishing them the right way. He valued preserving America’s constitutional institutions above achieving any particular policy outcome.
Jeffries’s speech emphasized policies over process. He discussed 20 distinct polices, mostly in laundry-list fashion. He rarely discussed principles and never referred to them as such. Even when he did mention principles, such as bipartisanship or preserving the union, he treated them more like weapons against Republicans than like a shared heritage to be preserved. The evident reason for this is that the progressive wing of the Democratic Party (numbering at least 103 of its 212 House members) does not revere America’s constitutional system or hold it worth preserving for its own sake.
As judicial activists conceive of the Constitution as a “living” document — that is, one malleable to their whims — so progressive legislators are only interested in the levers of power to the extent which they serve to advance their agenda. If their student loan forgiveness scheme lacks the necessary support in Congress, they have no problem with the executive branch endeavoring to do it unilaterally, without any authority whatsoever. If the Supreme Court enshrines abortion or same-sex marriage or any other preferred policy, then it is the law of the land; if it issues decisions contrary to their agenda, they must work to delegitimize it. The same faction campaigns against the filibuster, the electoral college, and (some) state-drawn legislative districts — for the sole reason that these features of the American system are obstacles to their preferred policy outcomes.
Thus, the leader of the party full of progressives gave a progressive-style speech. He emphasized his preferred policy outcomes over any fundamental principles. The few principles he did invoke were thrown in because he thought they would advance his partisan goals, not because he holds these principles sacred. And, of course, progressives have learned to euphemize their true intentions when the radical change they seek is out of line with what the American public really wants. In fact, in the same speech, Jeffries invoked unity and bipartisanship while he sowed disunity and partisanship.
These two contrasting philosophies of government reveal two contrasting visions for America. One the one hand, Johnson articulated a vision of limited government and ordered liberty, appealing to America as the Founders envisioned it. On the other hand, Jeffries promoted an extreme, left-wing agenda, an ever-expanding administrative state that will eventually override many or all of the nation’s founding principles. It might be the House floor’s most instructive 40 minutes of the 21st century.
Joshua Arnold is a senior writer at The Washington Stand.