Rep. James Clyburn has called on the Democratic National Committee to cancel presidential primary debates to avoid damaging attacks on the eventual nominee. Clyburn did not say, as a conservative website falsely claimed, that he wanted to protect Joe Biden “from saying something that he ‘cannot overcome.'”
After faring poorly in the early Democratic elections in Iowa and New Hampshire, former Vice President Joe Biden received the endorsement of Rep. James Clyburn three days before the Feb. 29 contest in Clyburn’s state of South Carolina. Biden won that primary with 48% of the vote — and that victory marked the turnaround for his campaign.
On the eve of Super Tuesday, Clyburn was interviewed by NPR about his support for Biden and the primary battle. Clyburn told NPR, “if you get to the point that it gets contentious, people will say things, things will happen that you might not ever overcome.”
To prevent that possibility, Clyburn suggested ending the Democratic primary debates if Biden did well on Super Tuesday.
But a headline and story on March 10 on the conservative website The Daily Wire mischaracterizes and misquotes Clyburn’s remarks. It incorrectly reports Clyburn called for the Democratic National Committee to cancel the remaining 2020 primaries and debates to protect Biden “from saying something that he ‘cannot overcome.’”
The headline on the story said, “Jim Clyburn: Shut Down Primaries, Debates To Protect Biden From Saying Something He ‘Cannot Overcome.’”
Clyburn, the House majority whip, said the primary would continue, though the debates should end if Biden dominated the Super Tuesday elections.
“I think the DNC, the Democratic National Committee, should then step in, make an assessment and determine whether or not they’ll have any more debates. The contest will still go on,” Clyburn said.
The Daily Wire story also misquotes Clyburn as saying Biden will “get himself into trouble” as the primary process continues. That’s not what he said.
This is what Clyburn actually said, referring to the Super Tuesday results: “And quite frankly, if the night ends the way it has begun, then I think it is time for us to shut this primary down; it’s time for us to cancel the rest of these debates because you don’t do anything but get yourself in trouble if you continue this contest when it’s obvious that the numbers will not shake out for you.” (Emphasis is ours.)
In the NPR interview, Clyburn cited the 1988 Democratic primary between Michael Dukakis and Al Gore as an example of a contentious race that hindered the nominee in the general election.
“A lot of people think that Dukakis lost his election because of the Willie Horton ad,” Clyburn said, in reference to an attack ad that ran against Dukakis in the presidential campaign. “But if you go back and look at it,” Clyburn continued, “you will see that the Willie Horton ad did not come from [Republican strategist] Lee Atwater; it came from Al Gore.”
Hope Derrick, communications director for the majority whip office, told us in an email that Clyburn’s remarks stemmed from a concern that conflict between Biden and Sanders in the primary could hurt Democratic prospects in the general election. She then elaborated on Clyburn’s reference to the Willie Horton ad.
“While the ad came from Lee Atwater and the Bush campaign, the idea originated in the debate between Dukakis and Al Gore when Gore asked his Democratic opponent about his state’s prison furlough plan. The Republicans weaponized that question in racial terms with the Willie Horton ad during the general election. That is an example of what Congressman Clyburn was concerned about with continuing the debates when there isn’t a feasible path to the nomination for Bernie Sanders.”
During the NPR interview, Clyburn referenced the goal of Democratic voters to win the general election. No matter what other issues they care about, Clyburn said, “everybody says, No. 1 with me is getting rid of this president that we currently have in the White House.”
In Clyburn’s opinion, the DNC can help meet that goal by cancelling debates that could stir up animosity between the primary candidates once one of them has clearly emerged as the “prohibitive nominee.”
Biden and Sanders had their first one-on-one debate on March 15 in Arizona. Two days later Biden doubled his delegate lead over Sanders. Biden now has 1,185 delegates to Sanders’ 884. Candidates need 1,991 delegates to capture the Democratic presidential nomination on the first ballot at the convention.
Following his losses in the March 17 elections in Arizona, Florida and Illinois, Sanders has said he is “assessing the state of our campaign.”
A Democratic debate is scheduled for April, though the date and location have not been set.
Blumenthal, Sidney. Willie Horton: The Making of an Election Issue. Washington Post. 28 Oct 1988.
Bradner, Eric, and Paul LeBlanc. “South Carolina Rep. Jim Clyburn endorses Joe Biden ahead of primary.” CNN. 26 Feb 2020.
Derrick, Hope, communications director for the Majority Whip Office. Email to FactCheck.org. 17 Mar 2020.
Iowa Democratic Caucus Results. Des Moines Register. 29 Feb 2020.
Listen: March 10 Primaries Live Coverage. NPR. 10 Mar 2020. [Clyburn interview: 25:45 through 34:45]
Listen: March 10 Primaries Live Coverage transcript. NPR. 10 Mar 2020.
Saavedra, Ryan. “Jim Clyburn: Shut Down Primaries, Debates To Protect Biden From Saying Something He ‘Cannot Overcome.'” The Daily Wire. 10 Mar 2020.
2020 Democratic Party Debate Schedule. Accessed 19 Mar 2020.
2020 New Hampshire Primary Results. Politico. 12 Feb. 2020.