These are tough times for Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mo. He is the chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus at a time of 16.7 percent unemployment among African-Americans, the highest since 1984; he also leads the Civility Caucus in a Congress defined by partisan divide. The four-term lawmaker talked to National Journal about jobs, his views on the tea party, who would be President Obama’s biggest reelection threat, and his abiding love of animals. Edited excerpts follow.
NJ What do you think of the president’s jobs plan? How do you think it will fare in Congress?
CLEAVER I think the president was wise in presenting a jobs bill that is both ambitious and simple and achievable. Nobody in Congress will have to study again the payroll-tax holiday because it’s been around. We’ve discussed it; we’ve voted on it. It should be something that’s easily approved. I think the [Temporary Assistance for Needy Families] component is an excellent choice for the jobs program because it is a program that has been heralded by Republicans, not the least of whom is [Mississippi GOP Gov.] Haley Barbour.
I’m extremely happy that we finally are at least going to have some kind of discussion about an infrastructure bank. It’s a good time to do infrastructure, and, historically, Democrats and Republicans have agreed that transportation bills were seen as maybe the best employment engines the federal government could ignite.
NJ But already, Republicans have said they won’t raise taxes, so what has to change?
CLEAVER People. The president is absolutely right. He did not propose anything radical or anything that Republicans have historically fought against, except generating additional revenue, which I think is something that has to be considered; and, frankly, traditional Republicans would consider it.
NJ You are the CBC chairman in one of the toughest economic times for African-Americans, and you also lead the Civility Caucus. Which job is harder?
CLEAVER Both jobs are tremendously difficult, but I’d have to tell you that the challenges are greater on the civility side because they impact the CBC on the employment side. I am convinced, irreversibly, that the lack of civility is causing most of the problems we have in our government. We’ve gotten to the point now where Republicans and Democrats have nothing in common besides being members of the “caustic caucus,” and we can’t get anything done. I tell people, based on my obsession with animals and, to some degree, insects—
NJ You have an obsession with animals and insects?
CLEAVER Oh, yeah. Any time they bring animals to the Hill, they call me, because I’m deeply in to it. Any kind of animal. I have family in Tanzania. I can’t even explain the joy of riding through the Tanzania national park and seeing giraffes run across the road and elephants over in a pond and baboons running. I’ve never seen a lion, which I would like to see more than anything else.
One thing I’ve learned—and I’ve said this to Republicans and Democrats—is, bees cannot sting and make honey at the same time. They have to make a choice. Either they are going to be a stinger or a honey-maker, and I contend that honey is a symbol of legislation and, the nuclear language used by members is the stinger, and you can’t do both.
NJ Within the CBC, Republican Allen West of Florida has taken issue with comments by Andre Carson, an Indiana Democrat, and others on the tea party. Has West been a fly in your honey? How have you responded to him and his suggestion that Carson made racist statements?
CLEAVER First of all, I reached out with him to join, and I have, with great intentionality, spent time with him and tried to, in some instances, explain things to him that he may not have thought about. There’s no justification for anybody in the black caucus or the white caucus, or anybody, to describe other human beings, certainly people of our body, by using any language that is toxic. There’s no excuse.
NJ Is West sticking with the caucus?
CLEAVER Sure. Of course.
NJ Some have suggested that the tea party includes racist elements or at least has driven division within the country. What’s your view?
CLEAVER First of all, do I think there’s some racists in the tea party? Yeah. I’m an ordained United Methodist pastor; there’s some racists in the Methodist church. I don’t know if there’s a body that does not have some racists in it. There’s no question that some elements in the tea party are less sensitive on issues of race than others. And that has soured some of the CBC members on the tea party. And if you listen to our phone calls, and talk to the interns who answer these phones and hear the “N” word—
NJ Does that happen regularly?
CLEAVER Are you serious?
NJ The “N” word?
CLEAVER Of course. Where’ve you been?
NJ It doesn’t surprise me, but, regularly?
NJ What do you think of Obama’s chances for reelection?
CLEAVER I think the White House knows that this will be a much closer election than the first. For me, who served as the first African-American mayor of Kansas City, the second election is extremely important. The first could be a fluke. The second represents a declaration by the people that “we did the right thing the first time.”
NJ Who in the Republican field do you think would be the toughest opponent?
CLEAVER I’m different than anybody else: It would be [Jon] Huntsman, because he would appeal to independents, moderate Democrats, and, of course, Republicans who want Obama out under any circumstance. But he won’t get the nomination. When I look at the reality of it, it would be Mitt Romney.
This article appears in the September 17, 2011, edition of National Journal Magazine.