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Democrats consider the Build Back Better bill to be vital for the country


Prior to this morning's vote, the No. 3 House Democrat spoke with Steve Inskeep.


Democrats consider the substance of this bill to be vital for the country. They also consider it part of the record they want to run on in next year's midterm elections. Every seat in the House is up for election, which is on the mind of Congressman Jim Clyburn. The South Carolinian suggests it would be a disaster if Democrats should lose power to Republicans.

JIM CLYBURN: The Republican party seemed to have turned into a cult. They're following a gentleman who has been impeached twice. And how do you run a country like that?

INSKEEP: But are you not in a situation where that party, the party you just criticized, has an excellent chance to capture the House in less than a year?

CLYBURN: Yes, it does. I have no idea why it is that so many in this country seem to feel that they want to give up on democracy and turn the country over to autocracy. Now I just saw headlines saying Democrats could lose in '22 and '24. And if they do, democracy loses. And I don't know why people can't come to the conclusion that we can. It has happened over and over again in history. I don't fly in the face of history. George Santayana said to us, if we fail to learn the lessons of history, we're bound to repeat there.

INSKEEP: Well, if we take what you're saying as fact for the purposes of this question, that Republican victory could mean the end of democracy, that makes it pretty darn important that Democrats would win, from your point of view. And Democrats seem to be at a disadvantage. What, if anything, is your party doing wrong?

CLYBURN: Well, we are not messaging well. And I think we're going to regret that. The young people are nervous about the future of this country. And their nervousness seemed to be complicated by the rise of the cult that exists among the Republicans.

INSKEEP: Is there a message the Democrats are sending that is turning off some parts of their coalition?

CLYBURN: No. We just aren't turning them on. I don't know that we are turning off anybody. I think we did in 2020, but I think we've learned our lessons. We are...

INSKEEP: What was it that happened in 2020 that turned off some people?

CLYBURN: Well, I think we allowed ourselves to get caught up in sloganeering. I happened to have lived through the '60s - or a big part of the '60s. And I saw what things like burn, baby, burn did to the student movement. Defund the police did the same thing to us last year. And now we've fallen victim to this so-called critical race theory. Nobody teaches theory to second and third graders. We don't even teach it to high schoolers. Where I used to teach, I taught history. I taught facts, not theory. Theory is on college campus and universities, think tanks. And we have allowed these slogans to overtake us. We've got to stop that.

INSKEEP: John McWhorter, the Columbia University intellectual and linguist was on the program talking about this recently. And he said, OK, maybe critical race theory isn't literally being taught in elementary school classrooms. But there's something there, that there is a real parental concern. Do you agree with that? And is that something the Democratic Party should be saying?

CLYBURN: Well, I'm not saying we shouldn't address it. But I think that we are fooling ourselves if we don't understand that race is always, always foremost in the minds of too many Americans. They would rather make a decision based upon race rather than facts. I was born and raised in South Carolina. I know why the Confederate battle flag is worshipped in these places, because race is first and foremost to too many people.

INSKEEP: Let me ask you about an interesting fact about recent election results that get at that in an interesting way. The 2020 election results, as you probably know very well, showed some Latinos in key areas, like Florida and Texas, went far more for Donald Trump than your party would surely like and far more than people might have assumed. And then this month in Virginia, the Democratic vote was down in every county across the state, including the more diverse counties. Are you concerned about Democrats losing their dominance of some key voting groups, people of color particularly?

CLYBURN: Well, as I said, we have failed to turn voters on in the way that they must be turned on if we are going to be successful. We are failing to turn them on in these elections. And we'd better correct that next year.

INSKEEP: I'm thinking about the different ways that Democrats have argued for doing that. Democratic progressives would say, well, we need to pass a much larger reconciliation bill. We need to do much more, dramatically more, in order to excite voters. Do you accept that argument? Or would you make a different one?

CLYBURN: I would make a different argument. And I have been making it. And I have been saying, it's time for us Democrats, moderates and progressives, to each step outside of their comfort zones. The moderates can't have all that they want. The progressives cannot have all that they want. When people feel that compromise is some sign of weakness, they don't know what it is to raise a family. Families succeed when they compromise and reconcile differences, you know, to get something done. And that's what's missing in the American psyche today. We don't seem to want - to give up our comfort for anything.

INSKEEP: How would you rate the performance of the president, whose election you had so much to do with? His approval ratings have flipped. He was approved by a majority of Americans and disapproved by only about 40%. And now it's flipped the other way.

CLYBURN: Well, I think that when you do big things - you know, my favorite president in all of history is Harry Truman. I can't get over the fact that Harry Truman's approval rating was very low when he left the presidency.


CLYBURN: But as historians look back, they keep moving him up on the ladder. And I think the same thing happened with Lyndon Johnson because he did what he did. He said at the time he was doing some of it that he knew he was giving up his party's dominance in the South by passing the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act...


CLYBURN: ...Then the fair housing laws. These - like I said, race is first and foremost to too many people in America.

INSKEEP: But if, as you say, democracy is on the line the next couple of elections, does he need to change his approach?

CLYBURN: I don't know that he needs to change his approach. I think that we need to get people involved. You know, I tell people all the time, I know what my shortcomings are. And I reach out for help. And I just think that we as Democrats are going to have to learn what our shortcomings are. You ain't going to get a stem-winder of a speech from Joe Biden. We do have some people who can give stem-winders. They need to be out there giving them. This Build Back Better, bipartisan infrastructure and the American Rescue Act, those three things have got to be the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost going forward.

INSKEEP: Congressman Jim Clyburn of South Carolina. It's always a pleasure. Thank you, sir.

CLYBURN: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.