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Rep. Jim Clyburn frames election as choice between 'loud noise' and 'quiet diplomacy'


In Columbia, S.C., where, tomorrow, the state holds the first-in-the-nation Democratic primary, President Biden is expected to easily win his party's first official 2024 contest. And voters have seen a lot of the president and his allies, including South Carolina Congressman Jim Clyburn, in recent days. They've been reminding people that the ballots cast in South Carolina this week will have an impact on how Biden is viewed across the country, just like four years ago.


PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: But the truth is, I wouldn't be here without the Democratic voters of South Carolina, and that's a fact.

SUMMERS: Congressman Clyburn, it's great to be here in Columbia with you. Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

JIM CLYBURN: Well, thanks for having me back.

SUMMERS: So voters here in South Carolina will have their say tomorrow, and this is the first time that your state has been first in the pecking order for the Democratic primary process. And I have to say, I was here four years ago, and things look a lot different in the Democratic primary...


SUMMERS: ...This time around. So what does that mean we should take away from the results of the election here in South Carolina tomorrow? How will you know that the president has had a good night?

CLYBURN: Well, I'll be going precinct by percent, county by county, looking at the returns. We're not going to get anywhere near the turnout that we got before. This is almost an uncontested.


CLYBURN: I'm going to see how far we got beyond New Hampshire's percentage. I think he got somewhere like 67% in New Hampshire and not being on the ballot. I want to beat that since we do have a ballot.

SUMMERS: You, as many people know, are a longtime ally of President Biden. He credits your endorsement four years ago with him becoming president of the United States. What advice have you given the president and his team as we're in this moment in the campaign where national polling averages - and polling in some swing states, even - show President Biden running even with or, in some cases, trailing former President Trump, the likely Republican nominee?

CLYBURN: My father was a minister. He thought he was training me for the ministry. He may have been. I just didn't hear the calling. And he always told me, pick three things. If you ever give a speech, three things. Us ministers, he would say, it's the father, son and the Holy Ghost. With you politicians, this is what I'm going to do for you, this is what I'm going to do for your family and this is what I'm going to do for your community. And I've just said to the president, let's just stay focused on the family, stay focused on the community, and let people know exactly what you're going to do for them. And he's done that.

SUMMERS: Our colleagues who cover the election and I and our team have heard from voters in states across the country, and one thing that stuck out to me - there was a voter in New Hampshire that spoke to our colleague, Tamara Keith. And this voter told her that they wished that they could vote for something rather than simply casting a vote against someone else. What would you say, as a close ally of the president, that this president stands for in 2024?

CLYBURN: Freedom and democracy - everybody's got something to vote for - to pass on to their children and their grandchildren freedoms and democracy that this autocrat vows to take away.

SUMMERS: I want to shift the focus of the conversation now to Black voters, who, of course, are essential for Democrats to turn out, which is something I do not have to tell you. In 2020, Black voters made up about 60% of the electorate here, and there are some polls that suggest that former President Trump is gaining support among Black voters. President Biden's approval rating is down. Do you see that here in South Carolina, and why do you think that is?

CLYBURN: Well, no, I don't see that here in South Carolina, to answer your question. I don't see that anywhere in the country. The biggest picture on the wall of my barbershop is Joe Biden - even bigger than the one they got of me. And I talk to my barber all the time about the conversations coming through there. And everything he says to me about the conversations in the case - it's one thing. People are being attracted to bombasity (ph). They are attracted to loud noise. They aren't attractive to quiet diplomacy.

One of the best examples I know - everybody is saying cease-fire. What do you think Blinken is doing over in the Middle East right now? What do you think Burns is doing in the Middle East right now? The quiet negotiations that you have to do to get to a cease-fire is one thing. They are paying attention to the loud noise coming from the other side, yelling cease-fire. And so I say to people all the time - if you're more attracted to headlines than headway, then you'd be more attracted to the other side.

SUMMERS: It sounds like you don't put much stock in these polls. You don't think the president - you are not concerned, it does not sound like, about the president's standing with Black voters. Is that right?

CLYBURN: I'm concerned about how we message this campaign. I'm concerned about whether or not, as I say - and everybody keeps misinterpreting this - when I say smash through the MAGA wall...

SUMMERS: Yeah, what does that mean?

CLYBURN: That means that wall that's built out there by the lack of information that people are reporting. For some reason, no matter what this president accomplishes, because he doesn't do it with the style that people feel should be there, then they don't report it.

SUMMERS: I do want to ask you a question about the issue of foreign policy. You brought up the issue of the conflict in the Middle East.


SUMMERS: And as I talk to young voters here, but across the country, it is an issue that keeps coming up, particularly the high death toll in Gaza. And President Biden, as you know, has repeatedly faced criticism from protesters at events who have shouted their thoughts on this issue. And I want to ask you - particularly among young voters, who seem to care deeply about the situation in the Middle East - are you concerned that this could cause some young voters to turn away from the president's campaign?

CLYBURN: Yes, I am, and it's unfortunate. Everybody's for a cease-fire. Netanyahu cannot have a bigger critic than Jim Clyburn. I see the headlines every day these days of how upset Joe Biden is with Netanyahu. But Netanyahu cannot be the focus of your attention. It's got to be bringing an end to this conflict and setting up a two-state solution that Joe Biden has been for forever. Trump is not for it. Netanyahu is not for it. So how do you get there? And so I would say to young people, as I've said to my own family members who seem to think that because Joe Biden isn't having a press conference saying, y'all, I'm seeking a cease-fire, he is.

SUMMERS: You are a former history teacher, and I do have to ask you a question about that. I mean, it's not overstating things to suggest that this year's election is one that could have profound global implications. If you were back in the classroom today, how would you put the stakes that this country faces in November into context?

CLYBURN: If I were in my classroom today, I would be spending every day teaching about the election of 1876 in the United States of America.

SUMMERS: Tell us why.

CLYBURN: I'll be saying to them, Reconstruction came to an end by one vote. Jim Crow became the law of the land by one vote. Are you going to be the one vote that brings an end to what everybody has called the second reconstruction? Let's hope not.

SUMMERS: South Carolina Congressman Jim Clyburn, thank you, as always.

CLYBURN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF GOAPELE SONG, "CLOSER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.
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