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Q&A: James Clyburn

The House Majority Whip speaks about the state of the Democratic primary campaign.
U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum Holds Annual Remembrance Observance
House Majority Whip James Clyburn attends the Days of Remembrance Program in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda May 1, 2008 in Washington, DC. Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

National Journal's Linda Douglass spoke with House Majority Whip James Clyburn, D-S.C., for the May 9 edition of "National Journal On Air." This is a transcript of their conversation.

Linda Douglass: I'd like to welcome Congressman James Clyburn. He is the Majority Whip of the House of Representatives. Welcome, Congressman.

Rep. James Clyburn: Thank you so much for having me.

Douglass: So, many reporters have been seeking your views because you are one of the top members of the House leadership and, of course, are African-American as well, and we often ask you to weigh in on these ticklish issues of race that have been raised in the campaign, along with other things. So, starting off on that subject, let me ask you this question: Hillary Clinton has been continuing to campaign today, yesterday, throughout West Virginia and the other states that she is seeking to win, making the argument that she wins with certain kinds of voters — blue-collar voters, Catholic voters — and [Barack] Obama does not; do you think that as she continues to press the case that he can't win, that she's doing damage to him as a candidate?

Clyburn: Continuing to press the case seems to me to be in search of a self-fulfilling prophecy here. You know, we all know anything that continues to be reinforced in the minds of voters tends to take on a life of its own. I would hope, as I have said before, that the candidates will continue to press their case on their own behalf. I don't know why it's necessary to talk about anybody else's shortcomings; just talk about your own attributes and what you bring to the table. And it seems to be that that's the better way to go. As I've said before, if we continue to raise these extraneous issues, we can and we will do irreparable harm, not just to our party but to our efforts.

And it would seem to me that we ought to be about bringing this country together. We are fighting an international war on terrorism. We cannot afford for this country to be divided on any front — gender, race, ethnicity — no matter what. This country has to come together, and the extent to which all of our candidates running for office would carry that kind of positive message of unification, I think the better off we are.

Douglass: Well, just one more question on that subject... She was quoted today in USA Today describing her strengths against his weaknesses, and she said about herself — quoting from a news article, she was talking about a news article — but Senator Clinton said the following: that "Senator Obama's support among working, hard-working Americans, white Americans, is weakening again," and "whites in both states who had not completed college were supporting me." "There is a pattern emerging here," she said. What's your reaction to that quote?

Clyburn: Well, I don't think that carries any more weight than anyone who will argue that the fact that she only got 8 percent of the African-American vote in North Carolina indicates that she cannot get African-American votes in the general election. It's one thing for us to measure these two Democratic candidates against each other. It is totally something else again for us to measure a Democratic candidate against a Republican candidate. Those are two different things — apples and oranges — and I do believe it is a stretch for us to consider otherwise. If we buy into that, and we buy into the conventional wisdom that no Democrat wins the presidency getting only 8 percent of the African-American vote, then what does that to say for her prospects in the fall?

So I think that we have to be very, very careful with all of this. And I really believe that this is the kind of stuff that I had been talking about with tamping down the enthusiasm of young people, because scores and scores of non-black young people have gotten involved in this campaign this year. They are very excited about Barack Obama, for whatever reason. A lot of it nobody can really fathom, but it's happened. And I think we would do well as Democrats to welcome the support, welcome the reactivation of African-Americans, welcome the re-involvement of young white Americans, welcome all of these people into our fold and give them some positive messages to carry forward, and not keep talking about what may or may not be the other person's drawbacks.

I saw a Gallup poll today — I saw the results of it, anyway — that said that Barack Obama, at this very moment, is exactly where [John] Kerry was at this point with white voters as well as with black voters. Now, what does that mean? That means, if he maintains that, and he does it in a state like Colorado, that's the difference between winning and losing. Any one of those states — Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona — that had been carried by Kerry would have delivered the presidency. Not to mention these other states — Virginia, for instance. If you look at the white vote that Obama got in Virginia — it was extraordinary. And the same thing, over 40 percent, in Indiana — extraordinary. And so I think that we all really ought to just dial back some of this rhetoric, and let's start talking about what makes us all good Democrats.

Douglass: Well, so I have to ask you, Congressman, because you are one of the most famous and closely watched uncommitted superdelegates... It's been said by many — and I think it's pretty clear, actually — that the only way that Obama, who appears to be on his way to getting the nomination, can get there is with the help of superdelegates.

You certainly sound like you are leaning in his direction; why not just endorse him?

Clyburn: Well, because I'm still House Majority Whip, Nancy [Pelosi] is still Speaker, Rahm Emanuel is the Chair and Steny Hoyer is the Leader, and we've all decided to maintain neutrality.

Now, I think part of the problem that people have with some of what I've been saying, thinking that it's not really the expressions of neutrality — there's a big difference in being neutral in this race and being proud of one's race. I'm very proud of what Barack Obama's done. When I sat in those jails back in the '60s in South Carolina — dreaming about growing up, dreaming about becoming an adult, dreaming about having children and grandchildren — I now have a 14-year-old grandson, and he is very proud of Barack Obama.

I'm not going to sit down and watch anybody marginalize my grandson's dreams and aspirations. And I'm not going to see anybody go out and just absolutely nullify the energy and time that my daughter, youngest daughter, put into Barack Obama's race. This young lady started going to his office at 5 o'clock in the afternoon, every day after work, staying there to 11, 12 o'clock at night, and apologized to me for having to follow her heart for fear that it might disrupt my neutrality.

So when I look at this daughter of mine, I look at this grandson of mine, and see the pride in their faces — I'm just not going to have anybody just tamping that down, and so that's why I spoke up. Because I'm going home on weekends, and I go to these college campuses, as I will be this weekend — I'm going to Voorhees [College] and do the commencement there, I'm going to Tuskegee in Alabama and do commencement there on Sunday — these young people are looking at me, saying, are you graybeards in this party getting ready to go into some room somewhere and nullify everything we did in this campaign?

That's why I started speaking out. I kept saying, let's lower our voices — Bill Clinton, please chill out. Stop saying things that will upset the most loyal constituency that this party ever had, African-Americans.

Douglass: And do you think that there is any way that Hillary Clinton can get the nomination at this point without doing something extraordinary, such as convincing superdelegates that she's the most electable?

Clyburn: Well, it would be very, very, very difficult for that to happen. Is it possible? Yes. It's possible. Is it probable? I don't think it's probable.

Douglass: So what do you think should bring this to a close?

Clyburn: Well, I think that to run out the time — I've been saying to everybody — I don't think that either one of them ought to drop out. I think they ought to keep schedules. They ought to go to West Virginia, they ought to go to Kentucky, go to Oregon, go to North Dakota, go to Montana, go to all of these places, because we've got downballot races. We've got people who are running for congressional seats, for legislative seats, and the more Democrats that we can get to vote in our primary, the better off we are in the general election. I'm afraid that if everybody just cancels out their schedules and go home, then those people who have been turned on to this process and are waiting for our candidates to show up in their states, they may stay at home as well. And that's not good for us.

So I think we ought to stay engaged, but stay engaged in conversations about yourself, about your record, about your party and about the other party and why we are better than they are.

Douglass: Very interesting insights, as always, Congressman. Congressman James Clyburn, Majority Whip of the House of Representatives, thank you so much for joining us, and I hope you will join us again someday.

Clyburn: Well, thank you so much for having me.