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Rep. Jim Clyburn on the future of the Democratic Party and his legacy

Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) speaks on Medicare expansion and the reconciliation package during a news conference with fellow lawmakers at the U.S. Capitol on Sept. 23, 202, in Washington, D.C.
Kevin Dietsch
Getty Images
Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) speaks on Medicare expansion and the reconciliation package during a news conference with fellow lawmakers at the U.S. Capitol on Sept. 23, 202, in Washington, D.C.

Rep. Jim Clyburn has been a commanding voice in Congress for more than 30 years. But after a little more than a year serving as assistant Democratic leader, he's chosen to step down from his role in the House Democratic leadership.

He leaves the role of the assistant Democratic leader vacant and is already proposing a successor, though he will continue to run for reelection in his 6th district of Charleston.

In stepping down from his House Democratic leadership role, Rep. Clyburn wishes to make way for a younger generation and to shift his focus on other efforts.

Rep. Clyburn has been credited with playing a critical role in helping former President Barack Obama and President Joe Biden get to the White House. In 2020, his endorsement boosted President Biden to win the Black vote in South Carolina, and his renewed endorsement of the current president could be significant once more.

He shared with Morning Edition's Michel Martin why he stepped down and his assessment of the state of the Presidential race so far:

The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

You were the first African American to serve multiple terms as majority whip, which is a key leadership role. Now you're assistant leader of the Democratic caucus. Why have you decided to step down as assistant leader now?

Well, twofold. I think that high time for a transition to younger leadership is here. And I want to be a part of helping that get done in a way that would ensure continuity and effectiveness. And secondly, I want to spend my time on the campaign for Joe Biden's reelection.

So when you talk about the timing being right, is it just having been in leadership for a long time or is it age itself? I mean, you yourself are 83. Was that the issue? Energy level, etc.? Or is it more just you feel like it's time to turn over the reins?

Well, being 83 puts me about 13 years beyond the promise, but my energy level is still high. I have not noticed any real problems. I have three daughters. We have annual family meetings and they have informed me that they have not detected anything, except that I sometimes look for my eyeglasses when I've got them on. But they tell me they do the same thing. And so, we have come to the conclusion that they have that role to play. Now, if I felt differently before I really [heard] from them, I would quit myself. But I have not felt any real problems.

Age is, as you know, a theme in this election. President Biden is the oldest president in history. The former president, Donald Trump, is just four years younger. And former President Trump's only rival at this point, which is your former governor, Nikki Haley — she's been hammering away at the argument that they're both just too old. How do you respond to that?

Age, to me, brings on a lot of things. Among those things are wisdom relationships, both domestically and internationally. And no one can stop the aging process. I grew up in a parsonage, and it is scripture to me that the young are called because of their strength, the older, because they know the way — the experience. So there must be some balance here, and I see that balance in Joe Biden. If I did not, I would say it to him and I would say it publicly as well.

Jim Clyburn, (D-S.C.), speaks at South Carolina State University during a campaign event in Orangeburg, S.C., on Feb. 2, 2024.
Jim Watson / AFP via Getty Images
AFP via Getty Images
Jim Clyburn, (D-S.C.), speaks at South Carolina State University during a campaign event in Orangeburg, S.C., on Feb. 2, 2024.

So going forward here, the former President Trump won South Carolina, the primary there, the Republican primary in 2020 and 2016. He is expected to win this week — the Republican primary is this Saturday. What do you think accounts for his continued strength?

Look, this is still a pursuit of a more perfect union. You've got his big rival at the beginning of this campaign... was a man who vowed to ban books by office. The man who vowed to take Black history out of schools, not let students get advance credit for Black history courses. Now, if that didn't tell you what you need to know about what's going on here... you're talking about a man who took out a full page ad in The New York Times calling for the death penalty of five young Black people who were determined to be innocent. He never apologized for [it].

You're talking about former President Trump and the so-called Central Park Five.

Yes. You asked me why he's running better than Nikki Haley? I'm telling you why.

I don't know if you're ready to talk legacy, but what would you say is your proudest achievement as a member of the Democratic leadership?

I've said to those same three daughters that when I take my place alongside my late wife, their mother, I want them to put on my tombstone that he did his damnedest to make America's greatness accessible and affordable for all. If you look at everything that I've done, it has been looking for ways to make this government respond to the dreams and aspirations of everybody, irrespective of what zip code they may have been born in or currently live in.

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Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.
Lilly Quiroz (she/her/ella) is a production assistant for Morning Edition and Up First. She pitches and produces interviews for Morning Edition, and occasionally goes to the dark side to produce the podcast Up First on the overnights.
Reena Advani
Reena Advani is an editor for NPR's Morning Edition and NPR's news podcast Up First.