Rep. Cleaver: Obama Will Win

Missouri Rep. Emanuel Cleaver's connection to Senator Hillary Clinton dates back to the Clintons' Arkansas days. Even then, Cleaver says, he was very fond of the former First Lady. So it was a surprise to hear the congressman, who is a superdelegate and has pledged his support to Clinton, tell the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) that he thought Sen. Barack Obama would win the presidency in November. He took a few shots at Obama, as well, commenting on his rhetorical skills and the implications of being an African-American nominee. Cleaver spoke to NEWSWEEK's Jessica Ramirez about his comments and the future of his party. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: You've made it clear that you're a very strong supporter of Hillary Clinton's bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. Why do you think she's a better candidate than Barack Obama?
Emanuel Cleaver:
Because I know her, and I have seen her work. It has nothing to do with the political work of Barack Obama but rather the view I have of her tenacity in dealing with some very weighty issues. People can say what they want, but Senator Clinton, in the face of Herculean opposition, worked on health care at a time when most people were afraid to talk about it publicly. If you'll notice, there have been no serious moves by Congress to do anything with universal health care since her failed effort. She's been roundly criticized for doing what most people frankly didn't have the courage to do. She has also been very successful in working across party lines over in the Senate. Even people who have endorsed Obama speak of how successful she has been over on the Senate.

You made several comments about Senator Obama in a recent interview with the CBC. Among them you said that you would be "stunned" if he's not the next president of the United States. As a Clinton supporter, how do you explain that?
In the absence of the delegates from Michigan and Florida, few avenues lead to the nomination in Denver [at the party's national convention] unless we pitch a perfect game: we win Pennsylvania, North Carolina, we make no mistakes and take advantage of mistakes that Senator Obama may make. I have said nothing that pundits and political journalists haven't been saying over the past couple of weeks. I think what probably surprised some people is that someone who is such a strong supporter would say that and still say, "I'm not going to abandon my candidate." And I'm not.

How did she respond to that?
She was encouraged. She understands that I'm for her and not against Obama.

How did she react to your CBC interview?
I'm not even sure that she saw the interview because most people didn't. They saw little snippets or heard some part of the statements. I wanted to let her know that if she had not seen it that there was nothing in it that said that I was pulling out. I was still with her. She just said, "You've been a very loyal and dependable friend."

During that interview you also said: "For many white Americans, they are looking at Barack Obama and saying, "This is our chance to demonstrate that we have been able to get this boogeyman called race behind us'." Do you think white Americans will assume this is a one-stop redress for all race-related issues?
Not all white people, and I probably should have said African-Americans, too. I think there are inflated expectations on both sides, and that's not realistic.

In the context of running a campaign, you said the one discussion that Obama should not be having right now is the discussion on race. Why?
That's absolutely right, and I am also certain that his advisers have told him the same thing. All you have to do is remember that he did a speech on race. Afterward, he answered some questions that following week about Rev. [Jeremiah] Wright, but you notice he's not out talking about race now.

But why is it not the discussion to have right now?
Remember what I said, I'm for Senator Clinton. I'm not against Senator Obama. If he gets the nomination, I want him to win. If he runs a campaign where he's doing a lot of talking about race, it's going to be one messy season. The reason is, we don't know how to have that conversation. Any time you're talking about a volatile issue like race, people are going to make awkward statements. Now, we all make awkward statements, but when you talk about race, the media pounces on, "Well, you said that black people seem to be taller than white people, isn't that racist?" I'm just using that as an example. If we start having that discussion, the 24-hour news outlets might as well start a new network, R-A-C-E. That's all it's going to be.

When it comes to language, you've said that the use of the word "articulate" by white people to describe African Americans bothers you, but you referred to Senator Obama as an "articulate" man during your CBC interview. You also said that in the black tradition he would probably be "mediocre." What does that mean?
That was more tongue in cheek. I testified before Congress in 1977. After my testimony, one of the members of Congress, a Democrat, walked down and said, "That was such an articulate presentation." You don't have to say I'm articulate. Why can't you just say, "That was an awesome speech."

And the point I was trying to make [regarding his rhetorical skills] was that most whites have never heard of the great silver-tongued orators like Sandy Ray and Gardner Taylor and Kelly Miller Smith and Otis Moss. I think that's because of our racial separation. They haven't had that opportunity to hear these great folk. I think Obama will join me in saying that neither of us are in the same league with the likes of Gardner Taylor. For many whites it's like, "Oh my goodness, did you hear him [Obama]." He's good, but black folks hear powerful people all the time.

I'm sure you know that Clinton strategist Harold Ickes has discussed whether Obama is electable [because of the Reverend Wright issue] with uncommitted superdelegates. What are your thoughts on that?
Well, I didn't know that. I didn't know that was being said to superdelegates. I understand politics. I wouldn't necessarily do that, but the reality is that if [the GOP] can Swift Boat a war hero then I think we'd be surprised if they don't bring up Wright. I'm sure they will, but they have something reserved for Senator Clinton, as well. If you listen to conservative talk-radio shows, they are saying that in the general elections that the Reverend Wright ties will hurt. That's not going to stop. Though I'm not sure that ought to be one of our strategies.

Some Democratic insiders have said all the fighting between the candidates is normal and that it's OK if it runs to the convention. You've called that the party line. What sort of impact would a run to the convention have on the Democratic Party in the general election?
You're familiar with the poll that says a certain number of Clinton supporters won't vote for Obama and a certain number of Obama supporters won't vote for Clinton? I think a toxic campaign all the way to June will raise those numbers. I would hope something will happen between now and Denver that will prevent a fight at the convention. I sent a letter to [Democratic National Committee chairman Howard] Dean a few weeks ago asking that he appoint a committee of Democratic elders … who would meet and discuss options to solve the Michigan-Florida situation. I think if Senator Clinton loses, she would sleep a lot better if she felt that she lost with all votes counted. We're going to get to Denver and have an eruption if we don't seat the people from Florida and Michigan or otherwise satisfy them. All I want is for us to leave Denver more united.

If you think Obama will likely win the Democratic nomination and the general election, then why have you decided to stick with Clinton?
Because I didn't sign up for a friendship in good times only. And as I said earlier, there is a chance—if we pull the run that I described—to win. What happens if somewhere along the way Senator Obama stumbles? I just think we need to have some options. Republicans don't have that luxury. They're planning a coronation for [Sen. John] McCain. What happens if his well-known explosiveness surfaces in a very damaging way?

Your own state is historically considered a bellwether for the general election. How do you think it will swing come November?
Missouri will be a difficult state for either Senator Clinton or Senator Obama. Whoever wins, I will tell them to send surrogates to St. Louis and Kansas City. They also need to go out and show people in the rural areas that they are not liberal loonies. They need to show them that they are Americans who want the same thing these people want—healthy families, a decent job and a home without the fear of foreclosure. I don't want to overstate the toughness that we will face in Missouri, but we have a Republican governor, even though he's not running again. We have Sen. [Christopher] Bond. I mean they're not going to lie down. So, Missouri's going to be tough. I think we can win it, but it's not going to be a landslide.