Jim Clyburn Has Plenty of Power With Joe Biden. Is He Actually Using It?

·14 min read
Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast / Photos Getty
Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast / Photos Getty

Jim Clyburn has so much clout these days that he may not know what to do with it all.

Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-MO), a longtime ally of Clyburn’s, had a quick answer when asked how the No. 3 House Democrat was handling his increased profile and influence in a Joe Biden administration that Clyburn helped usher in.

“Like somebody forgot to tell him,” Cleaver said.

Clyburn has, in fact, heard all about his influence. Like every other Democrat, he knows that if he didn’t get on a stage in South Carolina in February 2020 and lock arms with Biden, the primary—and the general election—might have turned out very differently. At a subsequent House Democratic caucus meeting, Clyburn’s colleagues came up to him, thanking him for saving the party.

“It's a rare moment in American history,” said Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-VA), “that a president of the United States owes exactly one presidency to one member of Congress.”

But ask the 80-year old majority whip how he wields his power in a Congress controlled by Democrats—and a country run by one very grateful Democrat—and Cleaver’s friendly observation might seem like an indictment.

“I don’t see myself as having any kind of role in this administration,” Clyburn said in an interview with The Daily Beast last week. “I make proposals, I recommend people… I do things I have always done, what I did with Barack Obama, what I did with Bill Clinton.”

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Clyburn doesn’t actually speak much with the president. He couldn’t exactly recall the last time he spoke directly with Biden—it might have been last week, though he can’t remember the subject—but that’s something his staff tracks. And he doesn’t visit the president all that much. In the first two months of the Biden presidency, he visited the Oval Office twice—the same as a Republican, Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, according to visitor logs kept by the White House.

Regardless, Clyburn doesn’t feel he needs to be in Biden’s ear. To make his point, Clyburn pointed to a recent workday in Washington: he had a call with Vice President Kamala Harris, a 90-minute meeting with top adviser Steve Ricchetti, and dinner with another adviser, Cedric Richmond, his former protégé on the Hill, with whom he dines on most nights.

“Come on. I don’t need to talk to Joe Biden,” Clyburn said. “Talk about what? If you just talk, I can do that over a drink or on the golf course. I don’t need to waste his time.”

It’s not a down-to-earth act from Clyburn. His colleagues, allies, critics, and longtime observers describe him as a low-key, laissez-faire figure who, in the words of one lawmaker, “keeps to himself.” His job may have national significance, but Clyburn has always been rooted in his district—a mostly rural triangle in South Carolina that was gerrymandered to include the Black sections of Charleston, Columbia, and the Savannah suburbs.

But it’s rare to see a figure in politics with as many potential chits to cash as Clyburn. And it’s even rarer to see someone leave those chits on the table, as Clyburn has seemingly chosen to do.

Despite his singular status in Biden’s Washington, he has not publicly pressured the president or other leaders on issues he’s long cared about, like economic and racial equity, education, or voting rights.

Clyburn counters that he flexes his muscles privately—“Why should I do it publicly?”—and he mentioned Biden’s fateful endorsement speech, in which the soon-to-be-nominee promised to put a Black woman on the Supreme Court if elected.

“Who the hell planted that with him but yours truly?” Clyburn asked.

“Most of my friends feel like I’ve got to make a headline,” he said. “I don’t think so. I make headway. Let Joe do the headlines.”

But in a moment when Democrats are eager to maximize their already waning power, there’s hunger for leaders to leverage their influence and advance goals like protecting the vote and furthering racial justice. And there are some on the party’s left who feel Clyburn—not an enemy of progressives but certainly not a darling—hasn’t done enough on the things that matter most right now, even if they respect his contributions.

“At this stage of his career, it feels like he is such an arch-institutionalist that the preservation of his power, and that of his allies, feels like his number one concern,” said Max Berger, a strategist who has worked for the progressive group Justice Democrats.

Berger said it’d be understandable that Clyburn—who got his start in the civil rights movement and fought to bring Black politicians to the halls of power—would care about putting a Black woman on the high court. But a new generation has different concerns.

“If your goal is to ensure there’s Black representation in the Democratic Party establishment, you don’t need much from Joe Biden,” said Berger. “If your goal is to make sure that Joe Biden is doing everything he can to accomplish a range of progressive priorities, you’ve got a lot more asks of him.”

Others still believe his power is more of a mirage.

“He’s one of the most significant figures in American politics,” said a former Democratic leadership aide. “He is more powerful now than he’s ever been, but not as influential as many assume.”

Some point to Clyburn’s priorities so far to make that case. A Democratic lawmaker, speaking anonymously to candidly describe the dynamics, said a widely held opinion in the caucus is that Clyburn spent a great deal of his political capital elevating two key allies from Congress to the administration: Richmond, who’s now Biden’s director of outreach and engagement, and Marcia Fudge, now Secretary of Housing and Urban Development.

Clyburn also strongly pushed for Biden to select Jaime Harrison, his former aide and a high-profile 2020 Senate candidate, to chair the Democratic National Committee.

But even Clyburn’s critics have a hard time bashing him, given his long tenure in leadership and pivotal role in Biden’s presidency. He gets widespread respect on Capitol Hill, and earned that esteem long before the Biden era.

“He has just extraordinary, universal respect from the members,” said Rep. John Yarmuth (D-KY). “He’s always been influential in that way. And he’s not somebody who wants to speak on every issue. He picks his spots.”

Allies say Clyburn’s low-key style means that thinking about his influence in transactional terms misses the mark.

“If someone said, ‘Oh, Jim Clyburn has influence,’ influence means you call and ask for stuff and give directions,” Richmond told The Daily Beast. “And I don’t think that’s how I’d characterize his relationship with the White House. He’s a valued partner, is how I think of it.”

What that means in practice, said Rep. Dan Kildee (D-MI), a member of the Democratic whip team, is that Clyburn’s imprint is on everything that moves in Washington. “I don’t think he came in with a laundry list of things,” Kildee said.

“He came in with a set of values that he wanted to pursue,” he continued. “And I think a lot of what you’re seeing is a reflection of that from the administration. Whether it’s explicit or not, it’s there. That influence is clear.”

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Others say Clyburn has privately pushed their views on the party’s most pressing topics. Rep. Madeleine Dean (D-PA) told The Daily Beast that it was Clyburn’s words on race and government that pushed her to support ending the filibuster, the 60-vote threshold in the Senate.

His approach is always rooted in history,” said Dean, echoing an observation from many Democrats. “It was he who educated me on the filibuster and its Jim Crow roots… it was he who inspired me to go read about it and learn my history.”

More than a dozen Democratic lawmakers, aides, and operatives who spoke to The Daily Beast about Clyburn all testified to the fact that he doesn’t speak much. It’s just that, when he does, people listen.

In his interview with The Daily Beast, Clyburn generally gave the Biden administration and congressional Democrats high marks. But he did identify one stumble: the rollout of Biden’s infrastructure plans.

On June 24, the president and a group of Democratic and Republican senators emerged from the Oval Office and declared they’d reached a bipartisan deal. That part Clyburn liked. What he didn’t like came right after.

“All that was threatened because several hours later, Joe Biden, after making all that headway, said something that made headlines,” Clyburn said, referring to the president’s promise to ensure a bipartisan deal is linked to a broader package that only Democrats support—which infuriated the GOP negotiators and jeopardized the fragile deal.

“Look what happened,” said Clyburn. “You gotta be careful about making headlines. He spent the next 48 hours trying to walk back something that we’d all be much better off if he had not said it.”

Asked if he felt Biden had gotten the deal back on track, Clyburn only said, “I hope so.”

As for Democrats’ five-seat majority in the House, Clyburn said he feels the party is “developing that which is necessary to hold onto the House” in the 2022 midterms, where Republicans have an edge, if history is any guide.

If Democrats do fall short in 2022, Clyburn has already identified a culprit: progressive sloganeering. He attributed Democratic losses in 2020 to the “defund the police” rallying cry and how the GOP weaponized it, and he told The Daily Beast that it could happen again.

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Clyburn’s post-2020 status as something of a political oracle means that the party listens to his observations about strategy and messaging a little more closely—particularly on how the messaging resonates with working-class and older Black voters.

That’s smoothed over what’s long been a Clyburn quality: candidness. Depending on who you ask, he’s somewhere between a frank truth-teller and a loose cannon. Allies and critics alike compare him to the straight-talking grandfather or uncle at the dinner table.

As Harrison put it: “He can speak with a clarity and speak unencumbered because he’s 80 years old and he’s a Black man and he’s gonna say whatever the hell he wants to say.”

There is less patience for that no-filter style, however, when delicate policymaking is at stake. In May, for example, Clyburn exasperated many Democrats after showing complete willingness to shed a key priority in police reform negotiations: reforming qualified immunity, which shields police officers from lawsuits.

“If we don’t get qualified immunity now, then we will come back and try to get it later,” Clyburn said. “But I don’t want to see us throw out a good bill because we can’t get a perfect bill.”

Those remarks “cut us off at the knees,” said one Democratic aide, and a deal seems far-off at the moment. But Clyburn stands by his comment, and in doing so, revealed an outlook he perhaps shares with Biden. “The Senate is 50-50. Those 50 Republicans aren’t going to get 100 percent of what they want,” said Clyburn. “Why should Democrats get 100 percent of what they want?”

Clyburn also has no compunction about sounding off in delicate intra-party battles, too. Last week, he jumped into the latest battle between progressive and establishment Democrats by endorsing Shontel Brown, the moderate opponent of Nina Turner, a top ally of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), in a special election to fill Fudge’s seat in a Cleveland congressional district.

It rubbed progressives the wrong way, who feel that the establishment is unable to drop its vendetta against Sanders and his allies. But many were happy to see him go there. “That’s a meaningful message for Democrats who are increasingly exasperated, about the hard left and the agenda that it’s driving,” said one Democratic lawmaker. “He’s the tip of the spear.”

To hear Clyburn tell it, his reasons for getting in were a little more personal.

He told The Daily Beast that, last week, one of his adult daughters was scanning social media and saw that Turner and her allies were disparaging Clyburn. “I mean, I hadn’t said a damn word,” Clyburn said. That’s when he decided to respond. “If I get credit for doing it,” he asked, “why not do it?”

The Turner episode gets at a topic that’s hard to avoid when Clyburn comes up: generational differences within the Democratic Party, particularly within the Congressional Black Caucus, where some of the party’s staunchest representatives of the old guard now find themselves alongside younger members.

One of those younger members, Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-NY), once found himself on the opposite end of a Clyburn endorsement—last year, as Bowman successfully challenged former Rep. Eliot Engel in a Democratic primary. Now in Congress, Bowman says he has abiding respect for Clyburn, who he called a “larger than life figure.”

“Mr. Clyburn has always been respectful of me, always supportive and giving me advice,” Bowman told The Daily Beast. “When I call him, he calls me back and, you know, we engage but we also disagree. That’s healthy.”

Bowman, who endorsed Turner, said he didn’t always “politically agree” with Clyburn. “But, you know, he can endorse who he wants and we’ll see how it plays out,” he said.

That divide between new and old is clearest—and most sensitive—when it comes to the political future of the Democratic Party’s aging set of leaders. Clyburn is 80. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) is 81, and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) is 82.

The trio’s nearly 20-year stranglehold over caucus leadership has driven many younger Democrats crazy—or at least to leave Congress.

This year, amid questions about whether this would finally be the last run for Pelosi, Clyburn announced he would run for a 16th term in 2022. There are rumblings in Democratic circles that Clyburn harbors ambitions for the speaker’s gavel. It would be hard, after all, to not see Biden endorsing him should Pelosi retire. And even if his stint with the gavel were just a placeholder role, it would make him the first Black Speaker of the House.

Clyburn shot down those rumors with The Daily Beast, saying he’s never expressed interest in the speakership. “Even if Speaker Pelosi were to leave… I wouldn’t see any reason why I wouldn’t support Steny, unless one of my best friends were to run,” he said.

The majority whip and his allies bristle at suggestions that it’s time for him to go home, regardless of what his remaining ambitions might be. Speaking to South Carolina reporters on Thursday, Clyburn explained his fitness for office at 80 by boasting about his endurance on the golf course—proof, to some observers, that the golf course is where he should be now.

Bowman, for one, said Clyburn “seems to be light on his feet and sharp as a tack. If he’s still light on his feet and sharp as a tack, it’s definitely his prerogative to stick around.”

Clyburn said that anyone who believes it’s time for him to go home is welcome to challenge him, and friends say he would be happy to retire as whip—whenever that time comes.

“At the end of the day, Jim Clyburn is very happy with his political career, his life, and what he’s been able to accomplish, how he’s been able to transform the lives of so many people,” Harrison said. “I stand on his shoulders. Everything I accomplish, I attribute to Jim Clyburn.”

Cleaver’s answer was perhaps more blunt. “There’s nothing that I think he wants,” he said.

Asked what he still wanted to accomplish before leaving office, Clyburn said he was doing his best to make the country’s greatness “accessible and affordable” to all.

When The Daily Beast noted there is no real end date to such a project, Clyburn said that was sort of the point.

“I never put an ending on it,” Clyburn said. “I don’t have a period or a question. Everything is a semicolon.”

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