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Clyburn Shapes South Carolina Politics, '08 Elections

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

We're coming to you from the stations of Columbia, South Carolina's ETV for a special broadcast in the run-up to this weekend's Democratic primary.

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Coming up, we've stopped in a beauty shop this weekend. In addition to a roller set and two-strand twist, we got a primer on presidential politics. That's in just a few minutes.

But first, we're going to speak with Congressman James Clyburn, House Majority Whip; that's the number three leadership position in the House of Representatives. He's one of the most powerful political leaders in South Carolina. He was instrumental in moving the South Carolina primary earlier in the process.

He's joining us from Myrtle Beach, which is the site of the Democrats' debate tonight. Thank you so much for speaking to us in what I know is a busy day for you.

Representative JAMES CLYBURN, (Democrat, South Carolina): Well, thank you very much for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: And this is a big year for South Carolina. What does it mean to the state to be such an integral part of the nomination process?

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Rep. CLYBURN: Well, I think it's very, very important for us in the Democratic Party to have a state like South Caroline where the voting population has such a great demographic touch to it. We have a significant African-American community. We have a very diverse state, a small state, relatively small, with four distinct cultures in it. We can look back on the results and see exactly how that candidate acquitted him or herself in - among black voters, among rural voters, among urban voters, among educated voters, among the voters who are in tune to the governmental process.

So we are a tremendous laboratory in this state, and I use that when I talk with the rules committee and I think when this is over they'll be able to look back and say that this is a good state to have on our calendar every four years.

MARTIN: Well, I know you played a critical role in this process but the cost of that has been that you've agreed not to endorse anybody before the primary. Has it been hard for you to stay out of it?

Rep. CLYBURN: It's been very, very hard for me. As you know, Michel, I have been very politically active since my pre-teen years, and I always believe in getting out there, mixing it up, taking a stance, and let people pursue that as they may. So this is very, very hard for me to stay on the sidelines, but I've set aside my own personal emotions in favor of what's best for the South Carolina Democratic Party, because we are in a rebuilding mode in this state and I'm going to do everything I can to be helpful.

MARTIN: Well, you don't have to stand in the sidelines where the Republicans are concerned. Their primary is behind us. How do you assess the results?

Rep. CLYBURN: Well, I was not surprised at the results at all. I think that Senator Lindsey Graham got on board with Senator McCain early; it was part of his intent to get beyond what happened eight years ago. I think what happened to McCain in this state eight years ago was downright criminal. It's the worst thing I've ever seen in politics in all my years.

MARTIN: For those who aren't familiar, he is widely perceived to have been the victim of a dirty tricks campaign.

Rep. CLYBURN: A very, very - more than just tricks, it was downright vulgar what they did to him.

MARTIN: And so you saw - what do you feel, that it was like a sympathy vote or that people who are kind of - wanted a chance to make it up to him for what happened eight years ago?

Rep. CLYBURN: Yes.

MARTIN: What are you saying?

Rep. CLYBURN: A lot of people wanted a chance to make it up to him. I know that Senator Graham really wanted to be a part of that. He was very, very embarrassed by all of that. And so I thought should they come together. The people who I interact with in the Republican Party here in South Carolina were all kind of lined up to try to help McCain get over that threshold.

So I was not surprised at that. I expected that result. I do believe though that the contest is not really between McCain and the governor - former governor of Arkansas. I think it's between McCain and Romney.

MARTIN: I wanted to ask you about this, because the reason - part of the reason I'm asking you this is a big factor in Senator McCain's victory were independents. I mean 42 percent of those who identified as independents voted for McCain. He's always been a popular candidate with independents. But I wonder whether that big number means that - this has been a very Republican leaning state in national elections in the past, and I wonder whether you think that means that perhaps it's more competitive for Democrats and independents than it has been in the past or you think that's maybe just, you know, wishful thinking?

Rep. CLYBURN: No, I think it's more competitive. I'm anxiously awaiting the results for Saturday because I would like to see what the voting patterns are for our primary as opposed to the Republican primary. I at one time wanted both of these primaries to be on the same day, but it's going to be good for me to look at these things and see exactly how, first of all, how many people voted in the Republican primary as opposed to the Democratic primary. I think their numbers were way down on Saturday. I have not looked at it in depth. And I want to see whether or not our numbers go up.

One of the reasons we wanted to do is because in order for us to rebuild our party in South Carolina, we've really got to be on the field every time politics - there's a jump ball in politics. And we have been off the field as a caucus state while the Republicans were doing primaries, and therefore we did not have our troops engaged in the process while they were engaged. And so I feel real good right now about where we stand. I think we're in a good position to bring South Carolina back toward the Democrats.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with House Majority Whip Congressman James Clyburn of South Carolina.

Congressman, it's just no secret that race has played a role in the weeks leading up to the primary here in South Carolina. Primarily there was some skirmishing between the campaigns of Senator Hillary Clinton and Senator Barack Obama. Do you think that that back and forth has had an affect on the voters here, and if so how?

Rep. CLYBURN: Well, I do believe that it sort of crystallized some things for some people. I think that when you talk about the so-called civil rights era, and I don't know why we tend to compartmentalize it that way, because the fact of the matter is it's still a pursuit of a more perfect union; we're not there yet, there's a long ways to go. But anytime you say anything that seems to be casting doubt upon anybody's place in history, especially when it comes to African-Americans, we are always a little bit sensitive about whether or not history has been fair to our contributions.

And if you even hint at the fact that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s contributions may not have been as important as a white American, irrespective of what position that person holds, you could get yourself into difficulty, and I think that's what happened with Mrs. Clinton. I don't think she intended the way it came off, and I accepted her explanation for it, and that's why I came out and said let's get this behind us, let's get back to expressing our vision as Democrats for this country, let's get back to discussing our competing visions as candidates, and let's get beyond the race thing. But it's always there, it will always be there. Let's honor it, let's respect it, but let's move on from it.

MARTIN: But there are some who are arguing that if you look at the results coming out of Nevada, where African-Americans went heavily for Obama and white voters went heavily for Senator Clinton, some are arguing that this whole thing has really had the effect of getting the people to choose up sides along racial lines. You think that might be true?

Rep. CLYBURN: That could very well be true. The fact of the matter is, women went heavily for Mrs. Clinton in New Hampshire and in Nevada. But for some strange reason, we tend to accept women being proud of other women, but we don't want to see - have the same thing happen for blacks being proud of other blacks. That's the way it is. When you have a segment or segments of our society historically being left out of the mainstream, when an opportunity comes to break through, to crash through that glass ceiling, so to speak, for women, there's a certain pride in that. And I think the same thing happens to African-Americans. You see the same thing going with Hispanic-Americans. The Latinos were very proud of Richardson and the way he conducted himself in the campaign.

MARTIN: But they didn't vote for him.

Rep. CLYBURN: I'm sorry?

MARTIN: They didn't vote for him. Latinos went for Clinton.

Rep. CLYBURN: The fact still remains he was a breakthrough for them. Richardson, in this year, was where Jesse Jackson was in some years ago.

MARTIN: Sort of a movement for - can we just switch gears for a minute, sir? I know we want to focus on South Carolina today. But you are the third highest ranking member of the House and an integral part of the negotiations between Congress and the president on the stimulus package. I wanted to ask you what are the odds, you think, that there will be an agreement between the White House and Congress on a stimulus package?

Rep. CLYBURN: Oh, there's going to be an agreement. We'll be meeting with the president, I think, at two o'clock or sometime tomorrow afternoon, the leadership of both the House and the Senate and both parties will meet with him. And we'll be talking about what we need to do to have an infusion into this economy. I think the president's put on the table something like a $145 billion program.

I do believe, though, that while we're talking about targeted, temporary and timely spending, we need to think about the quickest way to get an infusion into this economy, get people to spend some money. And so I'm going to be putting on the table, and I hope all of my colleagues would agree, a summer jobs program. Nobody's been talking about that. But there are three times in the past where we've had these stimulus packages, we have put summer jobs into the mix. For $2 billion, you can create 2 million - up to 2 million summer jobs. And if we have some eight- to ten-week summer employment for students, especially, that money will be spent within one hour of them getting their checks in their hand.

MARTIN: Okay.

Rep. CLYBURN: And that's the way I think to do it.

MARTIN: All right.

Rep. CLYBURN: Have productive work experiences for young people in the summer, and that will get money directly into the economy…

MARTIN: Okay. We'll be looking for that. Senator - I'm sorry - Congressman, I have one quick question. It's my last night, and I have a critical decision to make. I need your help. What do I do? Shrimp or grits or barbecue?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Rep. CLYBURN: You should have both.

MARTIN: Okay.

Rep. CLYBURN: Go on down the Myrtle Beach, and we'll make sure you get shrimp and grits.

MARTIN: All right.

Congressman Clyburn, congratulations on South Carolina's role in the nomination process. And thank you so much for joining us today.

Rep. CLYBURN: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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