Obama-Clinton Fight Hits Hill

Clyburn Stays Neutral in S.C.

Posted January 15, 2008 at 6:38pm

Days after injecting himself into a conversation about race in the presidential contest, House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) reiterated his neutrality on Tuesday and — echoing the calls of the top two Democratic candidates — sought to bring the debate back to substantive issues.

Meanwhile, Clyburn’s fellow members of the Congressional Black Caucus returned to Capitol Hill for the first time after being drawn into the days-long heated discussion of racial history and politics.

Surrogates for both Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Barack Obama (D-Ill.) — many of them CBC members — have been engaged in a defense of their preferred presidential candidates as well as finger-pointing over which side has played the race card in the past several days.

Clyburn, the highest-ranking black Member of Congress, added fuel to the debate late last week when he suggested in an interview with The New York Times that recent comments made by both Clinton and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, could lead him to abandon his neutral stance before the Jan. 26 South Carolina Democratic primary, presumably to endorse Obama.

But on Tuesday, Clyburn reiterated that he would not issue an endorsement, honoring a pledge he made to state and national Democrats when South Carolina was selected to have one of the key early presidential primary dates.

“I told everybody that I would not take a partisan position, that I would not endorse in the primary,” Clyburn told reporters.

Clyburn talked about the historic opportunity that Democrats have this year to elect the first female president or the first black president. He meted out similar amounts of praise for all three top Democratic contenders: Clinton, Obama and former Sen. John Edwards (N.C.), who was born in South Carolina.

Clyburn said that he had talked twice with Bill Clinton, as well as had conversations with Sens. Clinton and Obama since his comments appeared Friday, while he was travelling overseas. He said that he accepted the Clintons’ explanations and that it was time to move on.

“I hope that these candidates will be allowed to lay out their vision for our country,” Clyburn said. “I hope that our party will be allowed to lay out its vision for the country. And that cannot be done if all the focus is on distinguishing factors like race and gender.”

Clyburn acknowledged that some discussions of race and gender were inevitable, but that they should not be the main focus of the campaign.

“It’s always going to be an issue, but it shouldn’t be the primary issue,” he said.

Even before the Times story, Clyburn’s positive comments about Obama had led some observers to wonder whether he might be looking for a way out of his pledged neutrality.

In an interview in early January with The Wall Street Journal, Clyburn said that “unless something untoward was to occur” Obama is “going to run away with South Carolina.”

“He’s the candidate of change, and he demonstrated in Iowa that he can win,” Clyburn told the newspaper after Obama’s victory in the Iowa caucuses but before Clinton’s narrow win in the New Hampshire primary.

South Carolina is the first Southern state in the presidential primary process and the first state where black voters make up a substantial portion of the Democratic electorate.

The debate over the role of race in the presidential campaign grew after Hillary Clinton said that the Rev. Martin Luther King’s “dream became a reality when Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964.” The statement led to a backlash among some Obama supporters, who questioned whether Clinton was trying to diminish King’s role in the civil rights movement. Soon, several members of the CBC were fully engaged in defending the Clintons and their record on race.

But even as the Clinton and Obama campaigns sought earlier this week to tamp down the focus on race, their surrogates continued to lob shots.

Rep. William Lacy Clay (D-Mo.), an Obama supporter, said Monday that Clinton was “trying to score cheap political points on the back of Martin Luther King’s legacy,” according to The Washington Post.

Also Monday, Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), a Clinton backer, accused people in the Obama campaign of fanning the issue of race.

“I think there’s been a deliberate, systematic attempt on the part of some people in the Obama camp to really fan the flame of race and really try to distort what Sen. Clinton said,” Lewis said during an interview on “The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer” on PBS. “I understand and I think most right-thinking people understood what she said.”

Lewis, an icon of the civil rights movement, has been one of Clinton’s most vocal supporters, along with Democratic Reps. Stephanie Tubbs Jones (Ohio) and Sheila Jackson Lee (Texas).

The Georgia Democrat also suggested that Clyburn might be looking for a way to shed his neutrality.

“I think some people like [Democratic strategist and Roll Call contributing writer] Donna Brazile or even maybe Clyburn or some others in the African-American community are trying to use this as a cover to come out and endorse a particular candidate,” Lewis said on PBS.

Also on Monday, House Ways and Means Chairman Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) told a New York TV station that it was “absolutely stupid” to suggest that King alone could have passed the legislation and signed it into law.

“How race got into this thing is because Obama said ‘race,’” Rangel said in an interview on NY1. On Tuesday, he said he regretted his remarks.

Rep. Artur Davis (D-Ala.), one of Obama’s earliest Congressional backers, said that none of the attacks on Clinton or Obama are constructive for the party.

“Democrats should not be making attacks on Democrats,” Davis said Tuesday. “Certainly we can have a robust discourse about our differences in opinion.”

Davis said the ideological differences between Obama and Clinton are “very insubstantial.”

“This has been the low point of what has been heretofore a very inspiring campaign,” Davis said. “The winner is the Republicans.”

Davis said his colleagues should move away from discussing who is raising the issue of race and that both the Clinton and Obama campaigns have the responsibility to encourage their surrogates to dial back such dialogue.

The 41 members of the CBC are almost evenly split in their support of Clinton and Obama. Clinton has 15 supporters in the CBC while Obama has the backing of 16 of his CBC colleagues. Edwards has three CBC endorsements.

Clyburn said Tuesday that he likely will head home early this week to survey the Democratic campaign on the ground.

When asked if he already knew which candidate he planned to vote for, he said he did. He then added that he could still change his mind.