Sunday, December 26, 2010

Jim Clyburn's Transition


As I write this, on December 9, the lame duck Democratic caucus in the House rejected the plan proposed by Obama and the Republicans, and framed as a compromise.  A week earlier, it seemed that current Majority Leader Hoyer, and perhaps Speaker Pelosi were going to support the extension of the Bush tax cuts.
At the time, the Majority Whip, South Carolina’s James Clyburn said he would not “budge” on the issue.
I had the opportunity to talk to Clyburn on the phone, the day before the Democrats announced that they would not bring the plan to the floor.
I asked about Obama’s proposed compromise with the Republicans.
“I was born and raised in Sumter and my father’s family comes from Liberia and my mother’s from what is now Gambia and we’ve been in SC since the 1600s. I have much more at stake than many of these people who write letters to the editor. I know what my father and mother sacrificed for this state. The proposal put forward by the President has some good parts. But parts are not good. Unless there is some modification, I will not vote for it. I will not vote for it as it currently is.”
The fact that the House refused the proposal the next day, is a definitive victory for Clyburn. It is perhaps his last great maneuver as Majority Whip. But it also points the way forward and gives us an idea of what we might—or at least hope to—expect from Clyburn in his new Assistant Leader position.
He explained how the new minority number three position came to be.
“For the last four years I’ve been traveling around the country as Majority Whip and I’ve heard people talking about the Democrats taking certain base voters for granted and the Republicans ignoring them, especially the most needy communities. They feel as if they haven’t been listened to. So when we got into this minority position, Pelosi wanted to go back to being Minority Leader, and Hoyer wanted to be Whip and so they said, ‘Let’s let Clyburn go back to Chair,’ which is what I was before. But there is a very defined role for that position running Caucus meetings and it wouldn’t allow me to respond to all of the criticism that I’d heard. So I sat down with the Speaker and said, ‘Look: We ought to pull another chair to the table.’ And I told her what I believed [about speaking for those who feel they have been taken for granted].
“She said that, if I was Caucus Chair—which I was before—especially in the absence of earmarks, we would have a lot to do with appropriations and my special relationship with the President might help me to reach out on some of these issues, to work with him before we ever bring it to the floor for a vote.”
Clyburn explained his response.  “‘Yes, Madame,’ I said. ‘But I am concerned that there is an outside game that we need to be playing to address the concerns of the people.”
Clyburn told me that Pelosi asked him to tell her what kind of position he would like.
“I told her it would have to be Number Three. And it would have to be elected. Assistant Leader is a title already used by the Dems. In the Senate, Dick Durbin’s title is Assistant Leader. It’s not a foreign position to the Dems. So people saying ‘Oh Clyburn made up this position’ is a bunch of poppycock. We already use it in the Senate. I’ll be using it in the House. Somebody needs to look out for the people that have been ignored or forgotten.”
It is extraordinarily rare in the history of the U.S. Congress for new positions to be created. As the first Minority Assistant Leader in the House, Clyburn has the opportunity to create the traditions that could define the role for generations. He gets to set the standard. If Clyburn follows the course he just described—if the Assistant Leader is willing to buck the number 1 and 2 positions and to speak for the ignored and the forgotten— then he may create a lasting legacy. As the Democrats move to the minority position, Clyburn has the opportunity to move from the ranks of good congressmen to one of the greatest.
Isn’t that what anyone who has the bizarre desire to enter congress in the first place should hope for? To be among the greatest; to create venerable traditions; to change the legislative branch for the better?
Clyburn has that opportunity and he seems to be genuinely inspired—on fire even—with the possibility.  He was ready to fight—as he showed when I asked an entirely unrelated question about South Carolina’s greatest Bluesman, Drink Small (If States Rights Gist has the distinction of the worst name in South Carolina history, Drink might have the best). Drink Small wrote a jubilee sort of song about Obama’s election and he dreams of playing it at the White House. There’s an internet campaign trying to bring Drink to the White House. Small is one of Clyburn’s constituents and so I asked the Whip if he knew about Drink or the campaign.
“I know Drink,” Clyburn said. “He’s great. I haven’t heard of this effort but I’d be happy to do it.” He paused.  “But you better tell Drink to get the request in before this tax bill goes to a vote. I have a good relationship with the President now. Who knows what it will be like after I fight him on this?”

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