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Jim Clyburn did not go down easily. On Thursday, it seemed like the trio of octogenarians who have led the House Democrats for years were stepping aside to make way for a new generation in the new Congress. It quickly became clear that Clyburn wasn’t quite ready to leave leadership.
Soon after Nancy Pelosi announced she was stepping aside to pave the way for Hakeem Jeffries and a “new generation of leaders,” Clyburn announced he was also running for leadership. The position Clyburn has his eye on, assistant leader, was tailor made for him the last time the party was in the House minority. Back then, assistant leader was the third-ranked spot in the hierarchy. On Friday, Clyburn announced it would be number four this time around.
All sorts of behind the scenes wrangling apparently led to this arrangement. Yet even after all the wheeling and dealing, the man known as “Big Jim” due to his status as a political force and presidential kingmaker in his home state of South Carolina, didn’t seem quite ready to give up.
I spent much of Thursday night trying to get Clyburn’s office to clarify whether he was vying to be third or fourth. I got radio silence. Talking to others in Washington, it was evident that no one knew exactly what he was trying to do. Clyburn only clarified the situation on Friday, a full day after Pelosi first tried to set the stage for a smooth passing of the torch.
While Clyburn is deferring to Rep. Pete Aguilar (D-CA), who is in line to take the third-ranked spot as caucus chairman, his decision to run likely boxes out Rep. Joe Neguse (D-CO), an elder Millennial who also had his eye on leadership. One senior Democratic Hill staffer told TPM that it seemed like “Neguse was the collateral damage” in a “deal for assured ascension” for Jeffries, Aguilar, and Rep. Katherine Clark (D-MA), who is set to be second in command as the Democrats’ whip.
“There doesn’t seem to be room left for Neguse,” the staffer said. “And an overwhelming majority of the caucus accepts that.”
This is all part of a wider phenomenon. The current Congress is the oldest in history with Baby Boomers and the Silent Generation holding on to power. That isn’t exactly going to change. Jeffries and Aguilar are part of Generation X, which is the cohort born between 1965 and 1980. However, Clark, the other member of the new leadership, is a Boomer. With Clyburn in the mix, the average age of the party’s top House leaders is 59-years-old — Boomer territory.
Pelosi and her longtime number two, Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-MD), also aren’t retiring as they leave leadership. The pair are keeping their seats, which brings up the possibility they might supplant less senior members in the ranking on key committees.
One question that always comes up for me when I look at this situation is why people in their golden years would want to remain in the political swamp. One South Carolina Democrat, who requested anonymity due to Clyburn’s stature in the state, shared their theory about his motivation for refusing to ride off into the sunset.
“I think Jim Clyburn is just political. It’s what he does. It’s who he is,” the Democrat said. “From every conversation I’ve ever had with him, he’s not ready to stop fighting. You’ve got to remember he started organizing in college. I just literally think it’s innate in him to stay engaged.”
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