The caucus’s “thanks, but no thanks” reply wasn’t political grandstanding or an attempt to embarrass the president. Instead, it represented a smart political calculation, one that reflects the CBC’s strategic approach to its relationship with the White House.
Over the course of its nearly 50-year history, the CBC has only twice before publicly refused a presidential meeting. While every president from Gerald Ford to Donald Trump has met with the group within the first weeks of taking office, invitations to return to the White House are much less routine.
In fact, the CBC has often taken extreme measures to be recognized by the White House. George W. Bush ignored their meeting requests for so long that caucus leaders informed the White House that they were on their way over, like it or not. Once they were allowed in, the White House sent Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice to meet them. But the group declared it wasn’t leaving until it saw the president. Twenty minutes after the caucus threatened to sit-in, and with the administration running out of black officials to send in his stead, President Bush showed up and met with the group.
The effort exerted just to get on the president’s calendar reveals how declined invitations and presidential boycotts are far from frivolous gestures. Rather, they are political maneuvers to force a president to take the group and its policy requests seriously.
The first such instance occurred right after the group’s inception. The caucus launched in 1969 and operated on one central principle succinctly captured by Rep. Bill Clay (D-Mo.): “Black people have no permanent friends, no permanent enemies … just permanent interests.”
Its nine members made repeated requests to meet with President Richard Nixon to no avail. By 1971, with its membership now at 13 and officially renamed the Congressional Black Caucus, the representatives were tired of being ignored by the Nixon administration and frustrated with its apparent disinterest in black Americans’ concerns.
So a couple weeks after the new Congress was sworn in, the CBC boycotted Nixon’s State of the Union address. This move garnered the young caucus national media attention and eventually led to a meeting with Nixon in March 1971. They presented him with 61 policy recommendations and did so as “Congressmen-at-large for black people and poor people in the United States.”
The caucus quickly filled a perceived black leadership void left by the deaths of prominent civil rights leaders and the ensuing decline of the movement. In return, Nixon appointed more black Americans to his administration, increased federal support for historically black colleges and implemented affirmative action programs.
It would be two decades before the CBC once again publicly declined an invitation from the White House. On June 9, 1993, then-CBC Chair Rep. Kweisi Mfume (D-Md.) emerged from a fiery caucus meeting and announced that the CBC would reject an invitation from President Bill Clinton.
While the official issue was Clinton’s budget proposal, what really angered the caucus members — now 39 members strong — was Clinton’s decision to withdraw the nomination of Lani Guinier, a black law professor and voting rights scholar, to lead the Civil Rights Division at the Department of Justice.
The CBC felt Clinton abandoned Guinier the minute she was unfairly attacked as being a radical black power advocate. His quick decision to drop her nomination, though they went to law school together, communicated to the CBC that he might not be a reliable partner for addressing the more difficult policy issues associated with erasing racial inequality and disparities. And his proposed budget was the final straw.
The CBC’s threat to pull its support was a way of flexing its political muscle to remind Clinton that his presidential success would hinge on its support. In the aftermath, Clinton heavily courted the CBC for most of his presidency. Although policy disagreements inevitably surfaced throughout his presidency, Clinton established a solid working relationship with the caucus.
For the current standoff between the CBC and the White House to end peacefully, Trump will need to follow Nixon’s precedent. This would entail substantially refashioning some of the administration’s budget and policies to deliver on a few of the caucus’s demands. In return, the CBC could be a pragmatic partner for a struggling White House in areas of common interests, like a national jobs and infrastructure program.
But following in Ronald Reagan’s footsteps seems more likely. If that is the case, Trump will signal, deliberately or not, that he has little regard for the interests of black America. Moreover, this approach could embolden the organization, just as it did under Reagan.
During his one and only meeting with the CBC, Reagan set the tone for his relationship with the group by telling caucus members his exaggerated tale of the Chicago-based “welfare queen.” Unsurprisingly, Reagan and the CBC maintained a mostly contentious relationship for the balance of the decade. The group successfully established a national holiday for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., despite the president’s objections. After Reagan challenged those who were unhappy with his budget to propose an alternative, the CBC called his bluff and did just that — a practice that continues to this day.
But the most significant blow the CBC dealt to Reagan was on South Africa policy. The CBC made dismantling apartheid its primary policy initiative despite Reagan’s opposition, a cause aligned to its civil rights agenda here at home. Two years later in 1986, Congress overrode Reagan’s veto to enact the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act that levied heavy sanctions on South Africa.
As historian Stephen Tuck observed, this victory marked “the first time that African Americans had decisively shaped the United States’ foreign policy,” and it occurred against the wishes of a Republican president fresh off a clear national mandate in the 1984 election.
Trump dismisses the CBC’s boycott as a simple publicity stunt at his peril. Just like Nixon, Reagan, and Clinton before him, Trump’s signature policy initiatives — health care, tax reform or infrastructure — will require working with, or outmaneuvering, a determined CBC to be successful.
Ultimately, it will be better for his presidency, the CBC and its 49 members, and the country if Trump and the caucus can develop a working relationship that identifies common ground and enacts policy that will help Americans. But until that day comes, history suggests we are in for a political prizefight.