In a wide-ranging interview in the lush office that he’s about to relinquish to the GOP, Majority Whip James Clyburn vowed to be an independent voice with a broad portfolio in the newly created post of Assistant Leader.
The South Carolina Democrat was elected to the post by acclamation Wednesday, and he spoke Thursday with Roll Call about where his party went wrong during the past two years, where it needs to go and the expansive new role that he plans to play.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) created the Assistant Leader post for Clyburn late last week after Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (Md.) gained the edge in a divisive battle for Minority Whip in the next Congress.
Clyburn made it clear that he will not be beholden to Pelosi. “One of the reasons I insisted this position had to be elected by the body was in order for me to have an independent portfolio,” he said. “There will be times I will agree with the Speaker … there will be times when I will agree with Steny Hoyer and there will be times when I may not. This should not be an extension of her office.”
But he endorsed her decision to stay on as Minority Leader despite the fact that 43 returning Members voted Wednesday to fire her as leader. In an earlier vote, 68 unsuccessfully sought to postpone the leadership elections.
“The question is, who can best get us to where we need to be? … She brought us out of 12 years in the wilderness into the land of milk and honey. Now, we didn’t stay there but four years, but if she’s done it before, she can do it again. I believe that,” he said.
Clyburn acknowledged that that some Members suggested he run for leader, an idea he quickly dismissed. “I don’t think that I could raise the money that’s necessary to do what needs to be done. … I may think well of myself, but I’m not stupid,” he said.
Clyburn said there’s no ill will between him and Hoyer over the Minority Whip race. “Look, man, I’m too old for that, and Steny’s too old, too,” he said.
He discussed the race almost daily with Hoyer, he said. “If this goes to a vote, the people that I represent, the people we need to keep in this party, will be upset if I lose,” Clyburn said he told Hoyer. “I said if this goes to a vote, and you were to lose, the people we need to bring into this party are going to be upset. … And I thought he had a clearer path to victory.”
Clyburn, meanwhile, plans to use his position to focus on the looming battle with Republicans on the budget and appropriations. He said he will try and protect budget items such as community health centers and student loans, and he took credit for getting funding for those items included in the stimulus and health care bills.
He describes the tense final night of negotiations with the Senate on the health care reconciliation package and on student loan reform with particular pride.
“All of a sudden the Senate says, ‘We can’t do education,’” Clyburn recalled. “That was the night that Jim Clyburn threw off his cloak of Southern gentlemanship and says, ‘Uh-uh, uh-uh.’ And we got a break on that, because I forced them to go to the parliamentarian. And we got a ruling out of the parliamentarian that allowed us to do the education bill along with reconciliation.”
Clyburn, a former bank board director, said the banks were profiting at students’ expense. “I don’t have anything against banks making money, but I have a problem with taking $40 billion out of students’ pocketbooks,” he said. “That’s the kind of thing that I have been doing, and I don’t think I could have done that adequately unless I could develop a portfolio at the leadership table that allowed me to do that.”
The party also needs to do a better job of messaging, Clyburn said, and he plans to use his new post to expand the party’s public outreach. “How do you expand the life of Medicare by 14 years and then lose the senior vote by 20 [percent]?” he said. “Seniors did not see in this health care vote all that we were doing.”
Democrats moved from bill to bill without taking the time to sell their work to the public, he said, adding, “You can’t be too busy to explain what you’ve done.”
But Clyburn said the Democrats’ biggest problem this election year was the 9.6 percent unemployment rate, which he attributed in part to a stimulus package that he said was too small and too focused on tax credits.
“This thing got screwed over in the Senate,” he said. “I advocated for a $1.2 trillion bill. [It] finally came out of the Senate at $787 billion, 40 percent of which was tax credits not creating any jobs. It may have helped some bottom lines that got invested in companies that are sending jobs overseas, but on Main Street, it did not have the impact it should have had.”
Clyburn also said he championed a proposal by Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) for a big transportation package paid for by a transaction tax on Wall Street — an idea that never made it to the House floor.
“That would have paid for the whole bill and reduced the deficit by about $500 billion,” Clyburn said of the transaction tax. “I advocated for that, and I truly believe we ought to have been running on stuff like that.”
That package made political sense, he said, because it would have been sold as Wall Street paying the price for its own bailout. “Hindsight is 20/20,” he said.
But Democrats should be proud of what they accomplished, Clyburn added. He defended their record, and in particular, the health care overhaul, in what some Members described as an emotional sermon to the Caucus on Tuesday.
“I was emotional about what we did, why we did it and why we ought not be sitting around second-guessing about whether we should have done it, because every family in America was touched in a very positive way by what we did, and I think that too many of our people were defensive about it. I did TV ads boasting about what we had done,” he said.
Clyburn told the Caucus that his mother died from cancer in 1971 without health insurance — the kind of story that he said led generations to seek a health care law.
“She begged me not to spend all of her money if she had no chance to live. I lied to her and told her she did have a chance to live,” he said.
“We spent every dime she had,” Clyburn said. “Now, that’s something I don’t want to see visited on anybody.”
Clyburn said he recalled the accomplishments of President Lyndon Johnson in the 1960s — including the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, Medicare and the Fair Housing Act — and said the health care law would take its place alongside those achievements.
“These were big deals, and they cost our party its dominance in the South. But I don’t know if anybody’s looking back and says we shouldn’t have done the Voting Rights Act,” Clyburn said. “This year John Dingell, who’s been pushing health care for his entire career, had serious opposition. … Guess when the last time he’s had a close race like that? When he voted for the ’64 Civil Rights Act.”
Clyburn predicted that an improved economy would also help mend the rift between the Democratic Party’s liberal and moderate wings, as well as help return the party to the majority in two years.
If the economy improves, President Barack Obama, not Congressional Republicans, would get the credit, Clyburn said. If it doesn’t, Obama will get the blame.
“If we go into the elections two years from now, unemployment is down to 7 to 7.2 percent and the economy is growing, I think the wind will be at our backs and we’ll do fine,” he said.