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MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry and Activist Kevin Alexander Gray on Obama’s Record and Re-Election

StorySeptember 06, 2012
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As President Obama prepares to accept the Democratic Party’s nomination, we’re joined by two guests: Melissa Harris-Perry, host of the show “Melissa Harris-Perry” on MSNBC, professor of political science at Tulane University, and founding director of the Anna Julia Cooper Project on Gender, Race, and Politics in the South; and by Kevin Alexander Gray, a civil rights activist and community organizer in Columbia, South Carolina, and author of the book, “Waiting for Lightning to Strike: The Fundamentals of Black Politics.” [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, We’re “Breaking With Convention: War, Peace and the Presidency,” covering the Democratic convention, inside and out. I’m Amy Goodman.

Former President Bill Clinton returned to the spotlight Wednesday, giving a 50-minute address endorsing President Obama while attacking Republican Mitt Romney. Clinton said Obama should not be blamed for the poor economy inherited in 2009. He also praised Obama for working with Republicans over the past four years.

BILL CLINTON: One of the main reasons we ought to re-elect President Obama is that he is still committed to constructive cooperation. Look at his record. Look at his record. Look at his record. He appointed Republican secretaries of defense, the Army and transportation. He appointed a vice president who ran against him in 2008. And he trusted that vice president to oversee the successful end of the war in Iraq and the implementation of the Recovery Act. And Joe Biden—Joe Biden did a great job with both. Now, he—President Obama—President Obama appointed several members of his cabinet, even though they supported Hillary in the primary. Heck, he even appointed Hillary.

AMY GOODMAN: Yes, that’s former President Bill Clinton speaking last night. Well, tonight, President Obama will accept the party’s nomination.

To talk about President Obama’s candidacy, his tenure as president, the Democratic National Convention so far, we’re joined by two guests: Melissa Harris-Perry, host of MSNBC’s show Melissa Harris-Perry and professor of political science at Tulane University in New Orleans, founding director of the Anna Julia Cooper Project on Gender, Race, and Politics in the South; and Kevin Alexander Gray is back with us, civil rights activist, community organizer from the Carolinas, from Columbia, South Carolina, author of Waiting for Lightning to Strike: The Fundamentals of Black Politics.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now!


AMY GOODMAN: It’s great to have you both back. Melissa, congratulations on your show—


AMY GOODMAN: —at MSNBC. I remember having you on when you were debating Gloria Steinem about whether to support Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton, the two senators.

MELISSA HARRIS-PERRY: It’s a cult classic, yes. That interview went viral in a very small, nerdy community, yes.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, talk about President Clinton being brought back into the fold as the Republicans were touting him as a president they could kind of support.


AMY GOODMAN: And the significance of this?

MELISSA HARRIS-PERRY: Well, so, look, I think that there are meaningful differences between the Democratic choice and Republican choice for president this year. I think there are meaningful differences between President Obama and his challenger, Mitt Romney. That said, the re-emergence of the Clinton version of the Democratic Party last night is a reminder of why one has to keep repeating that there are meaningful differences, because, of course, Clinton’s strategy in the ’90s was to make those differences as small as possible and to sort of build the New Democratic Coalition by moving to the right.

I think, for me, part of what’s been fascinating to watch with the Romney attack on the welfare policy change is it, of course, puts President Obama, the Obama administration and Obama supporters in a position of having to support the Clinton welfare-to-work reform. And that reform is, of course, one that is most deeply problematic for those who are concerned with issues of poverty and fairness and justice. And so, you know, I think part of what we always see with Bill Clinton is the brilliance of the politics, of the rhetoric, of the way to win an election, and also the difficulty that that creates and generates for progressives in the party. And it was really a very different tone that we had heard, for example, from Deval Patrick the night before, who is, himself, pretty moderate, but who came out—

AMY GOODMAN: The governor of Massachusetts.

MELISSA HARRIS-PERRY: Yeah, the governor of Massachusetts—but came out and said Democrats need a backbone, and they’re going to have to distinguish themselves as a party.

AMY GOODMAN: Cory Booker also addressed the convention, though he seemed to have been sort of up—distanced from the Obama campaign when he spoke on national television and said, “You people shouldn’t be criticizing private equity,” talking about Bain.

MELISSA HARRIS-PERRY: Yeah, absolutely. Again, all of these candidates—Deval Patrick, Cory Booker, President Obama—are post-Clinton Democrats. They are folks who have very much learned the lessons of this particular version of the big tent. But what’s been interesting is watching how particularly the very hard-right move of this Republican Party on reproductive rights has opened up some space on the left for some identity politics, some of which has been very much captured in this convention. Yeah, I was wearing my uterus button yesterday from the Florida delegation. You know, this sense that reproductive rights, that the rights of immigrants—I mean, they really pushed forward the DREAMers last night, and then, of course, of labor. So you see sort of the convention with a slightly more identity politics leftward-leaning perspective.

But the anchor of the night was Bill Clinton, whose fundamental sort of position had been to triangulate, to go to the right, and whose speech last night was very much about his bipartisan workings with Republicans and a kind of, dare I say it, white-washing of the realities of his own terms, which included, of course, an impeachment. But, you know, we—it was our own form of Democratic nostalgia going on last night. We saw a lot of Republican nostalgia about the good old days. This was a Democratic nostalgia about the good old days of the Clinton campaign. But, it was great politics. I mean, it was absolutely an effective speech as a matter of politics.

AMY GOODMAN: Kevin Alexander Gray?

KEVIN ALEXANDER GRAY: Well, you know, in '92, I was Tom Harkin's Southern political director, and I was with Reverend Jackson when Clinton had his Sister Souljah moment. And so, I’ve seen Bill Clinton come up. And, of course, I tell people, if they want to really know the real Bill Clinton and how his campaigns worked, then they should go and watch that movie Primary Colors. I think that should be required viewing for people to understand how the Clintons operate.

But this idea of going back to the Reagan era and the Reagan administration, and the fact that we are still in the Reagan era and the fact that both parties seem to pivot on Ronald Reagan. One of the lines of the night from Clinton was, “Well, there they go again,” which was a famous retort to Jimmy Carter, who you’ll see in passing in the Democratic Party. They recognize that he’s a Democrat, but they don’t really want to claim him. So, all this going back to the Reagan administration and trying to talk about bipartisanship and reaching out to those so-called Reagan Democrats, you would think that they were all dead by now. But this was obviously an appeal to the white working class. As we talked about earlier, Bill Clinton is going to end up being Barack Obama’s Jesse Jackson because of his problems with labor. They’ll put Bill Clinton on an airplane. They’ll send him to the swing states. And he’ll go to North Carolina, he’ll go to Wisconsin, he’ll go to Ohio. And he’ll be trying to pull together those white votes.

And, of course, the Democrats want to be tough on crime, which Bill Clinton was. Bill Clinton actually put more black men in jail than Ronald Reagan. They want to show that they’re tough on security, you know, that we’ve progressed from torture to assassination. And then, of course, there’s welfare reform. But people don’t realize, underneath all that welfare reform and underneath that attack on poor people is a structure of laws that attack poor people. One strike for public housing. There are no jobs programs for ex-drug offenders. So, those are the things that are left out of the speeches. Of course, as you mentioned on your show, which was eloquent, in regards to poor people being at risk, as opposed to rich people, you might hear the word “poor,” but you’ll hear “poor child,” “poor kid,” but you won’t hear “poor people.”

AMY GOODMAN: What about that? You were a fierce endorser, Melissa, of Senator Obama to be president.


AMY GOODMAN: But now, as you look at his record on this issue, for example, of poverty?

MELISSA HARRIS-PERRY: Oh, I am absolutely still a fierce endorser of President Obama and would make the same—would absolutely make the same choice within that truncated space that we have in the American political system. I guess what I’d say is, I’m a progressive in my—in my leanings and my preferences. I’m also, I suppose maybe from my years at the University of Chicago, a bit of a realist in my politics. And, you know, one of the things, for example, that is driving me a little nuts at this moment is the number of Democrats who are talking about a potential Hillary Clinton run in 2016. Now, whether or not I’d be supportive of her candidacy, I can’t say now, but there is—there was for me then and is for me now a sense that we must have a deep bench, that part of the nature of democracy is to go further than one or two ruling governing families, Bushes and Clintons, for example, Romneys.

I think that the president’s record on poverty is mixed. I think that the Pigford settlement, getting the cash outlays for the Pigford settlement, is meaningful.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain what that is.

MELISSA HARRIS-PERRY: So, the Pigford settlement is, of course, the USDA’s decades of racial discrimination against both African-American farmers and indigenous Native American farmers. And the decision had long been made before the Obama administration came into office. The Congress had passed it, but no money had actually been allocated. And in 2010, under President Obama and the Democratic House, that money was finally allocated for damages.

I think that his minimization of the—his signing of the Fair Sentencing Act, which helps to minimize, although certainly does not remedy, the crack and cocaine disparity, is a meaningful difference. I am generally not a fan of President Obama’s education policies, which I—because I’m not a fan of school choice over strengthening public schools. But I do see it at least as an attempt at the edges to repair some of the damage done by No Child Left Behind. You know, I think it would be very difficult, in this particular, again, truncated American partisan space, for me to have a president that I’d say, “I give you 100 percent A+.” For me, a B+ president is pretty fantastic, given what we have to work with.

AMY GOODMAN: Kevin, what grade would you give President Obama?

KEVIN ALEXANDER GRAY: Oh, it’s—listen, I am—I’m not a Democrat, I’m an independent. And I believe what—so, I’m not begging off the question. I believe movements have to be built outside the parties. And if we’re going to put pressure on President Obama, first we have to come up with an agenda, then we have to organize. Politicians respond to carrots and sticks.

AMY GOODMAN: So what do you want to see him change on?

KEVIN ALEXANDER GRAY: Well, I would—surely would like to see him change on housing policy, to be more straightforward on a moratorium and helping people in distress. I would like to see the drug laws changed. I would like to see housing policy change so that families or members of ex-offenders’ families can live together. I would like to see jobs programs. I came into government with Governor Dick Riley, who became Clinton’s education secretary, and I was a CETA director in—for youth programs in South Carolina. And those kinds of programs work, if you’re trying to talk about—

AMY GOODMAN: Has President Obama been to South Carolina?

KEVIN ALEXANDER GRAY: He has—President Obama hasn’t been to South Carolina since he won the South Carolina primary, which put him where he is today. And, well, he rarely comes to the South. He’ll come to North Carolina. He’ll go to Georgia. But he hasn’t been back to South Carolina.

AMY GOODMAN: Before we end, two things. When you tweeted out you lost your home, Melissa, in New Orleans, your new home—


AMY GOODMAN: —can you talk about what happened in this last week, the hurricane, Isaac?

MELISSA HARRIS-PERRY: Sure. It’s interesting, your point about housing policy. I mean, you know, living in post-Katrina New Orleans, housing is one of our critical issues. We live in the Seventh Ward. It’s a poor neighborhood, one that was pretty heavily damaged by the storm. We have a little traditional shotgun house, little two-bedroom house. But we bought the home that is across the street from us. It’s been damaged since Katrina. It’s a huge, historic, hundred-year-old house, but it only had three walls. It had a front and two sides. The back had been down for seven years. For seven years, we’ve been living across the street from a house with three walls, which, as you might imagine, encourages crime and blight and all of the things that occurs there.

So we finally managed to pull together a little cash. We bought the house. Three weeks after we closed on the house, Hurricane Isaac came through, picked up a pecan tree in the yard and threw it on our three-walled house. And the house has mostly collapsed, including collapsing on a power line and taking out our neighbors’ power for about a week. We are going to rebuild, because that’s what people in New Orleans do. What I will say is that what made that three-wall house possible, the idea that that stood for seven years, has everything to do with housing policy, and housing policy that goes back into the Bush administration, housing policy that is both local and state, the ideas of sort of what counts as a community. And although we had some resources to address it, there were—you know, that should not—that should not exist in communities.

AMY GOODMAN: I wish we had more time, but I have to ask you about the Mormon part of your family.


AMY GOODMAN: Given who’s running for president this year.

MELISSA HARRIS-PERRY: Yeah, my mother is a white woman who grew up Mormon in Spokane, Washington, graduated from Brigham Young University in 1964. I am fascinated by the fact that we have a Mormon running.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you consider yourself Mormon?

MELISSA HARRIS-PERRY: No, no, I was never raised Mormon. My mother was cast into outer darkness in the 1970s, because she is the—was the single parent of a black child, before—before we had paid off the sins of Ham. So, yeah, no, I was never raised Mormon, but I have many beloved members of my family who were Mormon, and I’m fascinated by the ways in which Romney does not talk about his LDS heritage, and the reasons that he chooses not to talk about it.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, where would you say you agree on the record of President Obama?

KEVIN ALEXANDER GRAY: I don’t know if we can agree on the record of President Obama.

AMY GOODMAN: Will you be voting for him, Kevin?

KEVIN ALEXANDER GRAY: I would not tell you who I’m going to vote for on TV.

MELISSA HARRIS-PERRY: Yeah, but I do think that there are meaningful differences between these two candidates.

KEVIN ALEXANDER GRAY: Yeah, I’ll agree on that.

MELISSA HARRIS-PERRY: Yeah, yeah, I think there are meaningful differences between these two candidates.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you both for being with us, Melissa Harris-Perry and Kevin Alexander Gray. That does it for the show. Melissa Harris-Perry’s new show on MSNBC is called Melissa Harris-Perry, and she’s a professor of political science at Tulane University in New Orleans.

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