'Shop Talk': Should Common Have Been A White House Invitee?

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The 'Barbershop' guys discuss President Obama's immigration reform record and rapper Common's invitation to the White House for a poetry reading. Host Michel Martin hears from author Jimi Izrael, civil rights attorney Arsalan Iftikhar, foreign policy analyst Mario Loyola and syndicated columnist Ruben Navarrette.

MICHEL MARTIN, host: I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Now it's time for our weekly visit to the Barbershop where the guys talk about what's in the news and what's on their minds. Sitting in the chairs for a shapeup this week are author Jimi Izrael, civil rights attorney and editor Arsalan Iftikhar, syndicated columnist Ruben Navarrette and new to the shop, Mario Loyola. He has been a speechwriter at the Pentagon. He is a frequent contributor to the National Review. And he's a director at the Texas Public Policy Foundation. That's a conservative think tank that assesses how federal policies affect Texas and the rest of the country. And take it away, Jimi.

JIMI IZRAEL: Thank you, Michel. Get a sip of a beverage while you're playing. How are you doing?

MARTIN: Allergies, man, come on.

IZRAEL: I know, right?

MARTIN: Help us out.

IZRAEL: I know. Fellas.

MARTIN: Thanks for pointing it out.

(soundbite of laughter)

IZRAEL: No problem at all. Fellas, welcome to the shop, how are we doing?

ARSALAN IFTIKHAR: Hey, hey, hey.

MARIO LOYOLA: Good, man.

RUBEN NAVARRETTE: Great.

IZRAEL: Super Mario, this is your first time in, right?

LOYOLA: Yup. Thanks for having me.

IZRAEL: My man, welcome. So, check this out. Let's get things started with a tequila party. Hey. Da, da, da, da, da, da, da, da. Crack open the Patron. All right, Ruben, I'll let you explain that in a minute.

NAVARRETTE: Yes sir.

IZRAEL: I'll let you explain that in a minute. But, first, President Obama traveled to El Paso on Tuesday to deliver a speech on immigration reform. Some people are calling it campaign stumping. Ruben, as it turns out, you're one of them.

NAVARRETTE: Yes.

IZRAEL: Start us off, man.

NAVARRETTE: That was probably the nicest thing I said about that speech.

IZRAEL: Right.

NAVARRETTE: You got to understand that when Latinos see someone and they build up this idea of a big immigration speech, they kind of have hopes that somebody's going to go to the local university and talk about comprehensive immigration reform. We have to fix the system. But the cheap way of doing it, whether you're a Republican, Democrat or whatever, is to go to the border. People always go to the border and they talk about enforcement. This is what I've done to keep people out, OK?

And they go in there and they brag about the numbers, they talk about the Border Patrol agents they put down there, the deportations and everything else. And it just rubs a lot of Latinos the wrong way. It especially rubs them the wrong way when it happens to be coming from a Democratic president that they have given 67 percent of their votes to in the previous election. And Barack Obama has had, for some time, at least for the last eight or nine months, a real problem with the Latino community.

And it's a long story. Just the short version of it is, you know, his support in the Latino community is dropping. It's still at about 55 percent, which is not bad, but the real worrisome figure is that something like only 30 or 40 percent of Latinos say they'll vote for him again. So they still sort of like him. They approve of him, but they don't really believe in him anymore and they really don't think he's in their corner.

And just to end up with this, the reason isn't just because he broke his promise to make immigration reform a top priority. You can make excuses for that, you know. The guy was busy, health care reform, education reform. Other things to do, right? The problem with Obama is he has deported, listen carefully, almost one million people. Almost one million people. Somewhere around 900,000 people, so far, since taking office two-and-a-half years ago. More people than any U.S. president since Dwight D. Eisenhower in the '50s. And Eisenhower did it with something called Operation Wetback where he moved a million people out at one time. But this is a real problem.

MARTIN: You could've prepared me for that slur. I'm sorry, could you have let me know that was coming?

NAVARRETTE: It's a historical reference. It's a historical reference.

MARTIN: OK. I feel ya.

NAVARRETTE: It's an actual name that was given to this operation. So it's not really good for Obama that, while he tries to portray Republicans as the bad guy, he can't excuse the fact that in his own executive branch, they're moving people out left and right, deporting an enormous number of people, and it puts him in a really ticklish position. Ergo, he goes to El Paso to make the speech, tries to make chicken salad out of some other substance we know about and it doesn't really come out.

(soundbite of laughter)

IZRAEL: You know, certainly that's one perspective. But, Mario, see, follow me here. I think he's deflecting this to Congress to kind of - and follow me - I think he's trying to build some consensus, sort of try to build this, like, us against them team, you know, to try to rebuild his support in the Latino community. That's what I think. What do you think?

LOYOLA: Well, I think first of all...

IZRAEL: I mean - go ahead.

LOYOLA: If you're running against the Republicans, which he's going to be doing in 2012, immigration has to be part of your platform because the best way to get Republicans to start shooting at each other in the feet is to get the topic on immigration. So it doesn't matter what he says on immigration...

IZRAEL: Right.

LOYOLA: ...as long he just gets everyone to talk about it, the Republicans are going to start losing votes. So that's the first thing. And I think that it was, you know, so much political fluff in a way, because... For example, what would be a real...

MARTIN: I'm sorry, you said was or was not? Mario, forgive me, you said it was or was not?

LOYOLA: Was.

MARTIN: OK.

LOYOLA: Yeah, it was so much political fluff. I mean, and by the way, the same is true for Republican proposals on immigration in Texas. I mean nobody really wants, you know, we - one thing that would really make a difference is if instead of using a paper-based I-9 system, you required all employers to verify the employment eligibility of, you know, job of applicants through a national database. That would quickly cut down that would make it really difficult for illegal, you know, for undocumented workers to find undocumented immigrants to find work. And if you create that dissuasion and people start thinking in Mexico and Central America that they're not going to be able to find work in the United States, that would be a real solution. But for one reason or another only a few states have tried it. Arizona tried it and in the three or four years since it tried it, it's lost, you know, 30 percent of its undocumented immigrant population. But, you know, it's a lot of political fluff.

And from the Austin perspective, I mean I found out that the president was in Austin because the first thing I noticed was a traffic jam downstairs from my window, and then people started saying that it was because the president, you know, the motorcade had closed down I-35. So it's not...

NAVARRETTE: And this was for the I'm sorry. This was what the fundraiser afterward? This was, because he left El Paso and went to Austin?

LOYOLA: Yeah. Or I think it was the other way around.

NAVARRETTE: Yeah. Right.

LOYOLA: But he had a couple of fundraisers in Austin, which is probably place in Texas where it's worthwhile for a Democrat, you know, for Obama to even attempt a fundraiser. But...

MARTIN: I'd go to Austin for any reason.

IZRAEL: Ruben? Oh, go ahead.

MARTIN: I'm sorry. Austin is hot.

(soundbite of laughter)

NAVARRETTE: Yeah, it is. Austin's great. No.

MARTIN: Arsalan, you want to weigh in?

IFTIKHAR: Well, you know, for me the interesting political debate, at least here in the Beltway in Washington, is the fact that obviously, you know, about 10 days ago, you know, we heard, you know, the monumental announcement of the killing of Osama bin Laden. And, you know, a lot of pundits and members of the chattering class have started to talk about how President Obama was going to use the capital the political capital that he was going to gain from that and what he was going to try to do.

And one of, you know, the hypotheses was to try and push for a comprehensive immigration reform. And so, you know, I think that, you know, we can't analyze President Obama's speech in a vacuum. You know, there is a congressional reality that we have to deal with and I think that the White House has to deal with also. And so for me it's going to be interesting moving forward to see, you know, is President Obama going to use his political capital to actually push some sort of comprehensive immigration reform in Congress.

NAVARRETTE: But he's not even - this is Ruben again.

MARTIN: We need to I'm sorry. We need to deal back to the Tequila Party thing. Because Jimi brought that up at the beginning.

IZRAEL: Right.

MARTIN: And I just want people to understand, he's not just being rude and obnoxious, that he actually, you did write about...

IZRAEL: Me? Perish the thought.

MARTIN: Perish the thought. Perish the thought.

(soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: (Unintelligible) ourselves. That Ruben, you actually said that the Latinos need...

NAVARRETTE: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...a Tequila Party to rock the vote.

NAVARRETTE: Yeah.

MARTIN: So just to explain that. That was what that reference was about.

NAVARRETTE: I'll do that quickly. It ties in to what Arsalan just said about the political reality. The political reality right now in Congress is that the president has a divided Congress. Democrats controlled the Senate and Republicans control the House. But for two years, Democrats controlled everything in town, both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, both houses in Congress and the White House. Nothing got done on immigration. That really sent the message to Latinos, that if you put in Republicans, nothing changes. If you put in Democrats, nothing changes.

So what's up? You know, and they're looking for a third way and they're looking for a third choice, and they're looking for the Tequila Party. It's something that was talked about last year in Nevada and it's talked now about in Arizona, it's been started up in Arizona. And basically what it amounts to is a bunch of disgruntled and disillusioned Latinos who are tired of being beholden to one party and written off by the other. And they're not talking about defecting a bunch of Latinos out of the Democratic Party into the Republican Party, because as was made clear before, the Republican Party is many times worse, worse on issues like immigration, and very unwelcoming.

So what they want to do in Arizona through this Tequila Party that they've now started is basically put pressure on both parties. It's not a separate party with conventions and candidates and ballots and all that stuff, but it is a movement to put pressure on both existing parties to better serve this community and to say, listen, we will vote for a pro-immigrant, you know, type candidate, Republican, a Mitch Daniels from Indiana, who's the governor of Indiana, who helped torpedo an Arizona-style law in Indiana, or a Mike Huckabee, who has already taken heat from Republicans for supporting in-state tuition for illegal immigrants. But we're not just going to follow down the line for these Democrats who are often times not as good and not much better.

MARTIN: Well, I got to - I know we want to move on because there are other things you want to talk about. But see, Ruben forgets, I have a long memory. Ruben is the same guy who has been chastising Obama for doing too much, for saying why wasn't he focusing like a laser on the economy. He's doing too much, taking on too many things. But now...

NAVARRETTE: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...our man says, oh, but he didn't do immigration reform, so he's the wrong guy.

NAVARRETTE: Right. And here is my response.

MARTIN: And only - I'm sorry. I normally get you. But the only other...

NAVARRETTE: Okay.

MARTIN: ...point I would make on this whole deportation question is that this is a traditional thing that Democrats do; if they don't like the death penalty, they lock people up. And if you don't want to and if you feel that you - if you want to take a tougher stance on immigration, if you want immigration reform, if you want to pass the citizenship, then the trade-off has to be it seems to me - I'm just saying that this seems to be what the calculation is.

NAVARRETTE: Yeah.

MARTIN: Just like when Mario Cuomo locked up tens of thousands of people, why? Because he opposed the death penalty and he felt that was politically the only way it could be tolerated.

NAVARRETTE: Right.

MARTIN: And on immigration reform, I think the only way I think Democrats feel that they can advocate a path to citizenship is to say we are as tough on this issue as are Republicans.

NAVARRETTE: Right.

MARTIN: And we're actually - so that's my best argument.

NAVARRETTE: Here's my thing.

LOYOLA: But they've avoided...

NAVARRETTE: Remember when Bill go ahead.

LOYOLA: Well...

NAVARRETTE: Go ahead.

LOYOLA: Well, I was going to say this is Mario. I, but this is the thing, they have done something that - the Democrats have done something that Latino voters in the United States should be happy with, which is that they really tried to make people feel safe here. I mean it's not like they're, you know, there's a subtext to the immigration debate in Arizona. The state has adopted policies that are meant to make undocumented workers feel unsafe, to go about their daily lives, to try to find work, and so they leave. And, but the Democrats and Obama don't view undocumented workers as illegal immigrants and they've really tried - for example, if you're in a traffic stop in Texas, the cop may he may know that this is an illegal immigrant and he - but he can't check because immigration and customs enforcement has stopped providing that service.

NAVARRETTE: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. I think...

LOYOLA: And so I think that...

MARTIN: Quickly, Ruben. We've got to move on.

NAVARRETTE: I just think there's a different...

MARTIN: Final thought.

NAVARRETTE: I think there's a different calculation here. I think the Democrats have it in their minds to be as tough as they can so the Republicans will like them better. And I think Bill Clinton used to do that with the death penalty, I'm a pro-death penalty Democrat. It's part of the marketing that Democrats use to show they're not soft on given issues, and they do it, they've done it before. Clinton did on the death penalty and on(ph) immigration, and now Obama is doing it on immigration. It's not working out though...

MARTIN: But a lot of people agree with it. I think it has to be said. This is not like this is in a vacuum. A lot of people agree with it. They think it's absolutely right. You break the law...

NAVARRETTE: Oh, I agree. Absolutely.

MARTIN: You break the law, you go. That's it. So...

NAVARRETTE: Absolutely. Yeah. And you're talking to one of them too. But you shouldn't go around the country bragging about it. My problem with Obama is he tries to have it both ways.

MARTIN: You're trying to have it both ways. You only got 12 minutes, yo.

(soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to our weekly Barbershop segment. We're joined by author Jimi Izrael, civil rights attorney and editor Arsalan Iftikhar, syndicated columnist Ruben Navarrette, and Mario Loyola, who is a, an analyst. He's with the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a frequent contributor to National Review. Back to you, Jimi.

IZRAEL: Thanks, Michel. Okay. Well, moving on to other concerns of the White House, turns out not everybody is a fan of rapper/actor Common. Formally known as Common Sense, most often known to his mother as Lonnie Lynn, Jr.

(soundbite of laughter)

IZRAEL: Now, First Lady Michelle Obama, she's a fan and she invited him to a poetry event at the White House on Wednesday. But that didn't sit well with some conservatives and police officers because, you know, they're reflecting back to some lyrics that he had earlier on in his career, more radical lyrics, like those found in 'A Song For Assata." Michel, we have some tape, right?

MARTIN: We do. It's about a former Black Panther, Joanne Chesimard, who was convicted of murdering a state trooper on the New Jersey Turnpike in 1973. She escaped from prison a few years later. She now lives in asylum in Cuba. And this started when a union rep for the New Jersey State Troopers raised objections, saying that he didn't think she was he - that Common was an appropriate guest because of these lyrics. And we'll play them for you now.

(soundbite of song, "a song for assata")

COMMON: (Rapping) They lied and denied visits from her lawyer. But she was building as they tried to destroy her. If it wasn't for this German nurse they would've served her worse. I read this sister's story, knew that it deserved a verse. I wonder what would happen if that would've been me? All this shit so we could be free, so dig it, y'all.

IZRAEL: Thanks for that, Michel.

MARTIN: Mm-hmm.

IZRAEL: Chesimard is also known as Assata Shakur. So for the folks who don't know.

MARTIN: Exactly.

IZRAEL: So, you know, I look at this like, you know, Ted Jones famously said, you know, if you should see a man walking down a crowded street talking aloud to himself, do not run away from him but run towards him, for he is the poet. And you have nothing to fear from the poet but the truth. And - thank you. Thank you. Anyway...

(soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Clap. That's this piece. Clap.

(soundbite of clapping)

IZRAEL: Right. Right. Right. I mean...

IFTIKHAR: I'm snapping.

IZRAEL: So I mean - but my...

NAVARRETTE: I'm snapping my fingers - unexpressively.

IZRAEL: Look, Common is in no way a gangster rapper. He, like all rap, he's just a social commentary and he's just doing his thing. You know, and, you know, since those days, you know, he's making other rap, but he's making bad movies, you know, for Middle America. So, hey, why not have him in the White House reading poetry? That's what I say. A-Train.

MARTIN: Well, he's considered a conscious rapper. Go ahead.

IFTIKHAR: Well, yeah. I mean...

IZRAEL: Well, we're all conscious, aren't we? I mean, but I don't know...

MARTIN: But it's a term. It's a term. Meaning that he actually raps about things that matter as opposed to what party he's going to go to next.

IZRAEL: Well...

MARTIN: Which I know it matters to you, Jimi. I know.

IZRAEL: Right. Exactly. Yeah. Andy famously had a beef with Ice Cube about...

MARTIN: Go ahead.

IZRAEL: ...being a gangster versus conscious rapper.

MARTIN: Arsalan?

IZRAEL: Go ahead A-Train.

IFTIKHAR: Well, you know, being from Chicago, you know, we all claim Lonnie Rashid Lynn to be one of Chi-Town's finest. You know, one of his, you know, penultimate songs, "I Used to Love H.E.R," with the H.E.R. representing hearing every rhyme, talking about the evolution or devolution of hip-hop today. You know, what's funny to me is for anybody who knows hip-hop, if you have a problem with Common, then you have a problem with hip-hop. I guess Young MC was busy busting a move at Rotary Club because Fox News, and Sarah Palin, you know, the woman who famously said don't retreat, reload, who placed bull's-eye sculpt targets on her PAC website on congressional targets...

NAVARRETTE: Right.

IFTIKHAR: ...has more gun analogies than Charlton Heston. You know, what's interesting is that, you know, in 2002, when Johnny Cash got the Medal of Arts medal from George W. Bush, we never heard Fox News talk about the 'Folsom Prison Blues," where Johnny Cash said, quote, 'I shot a man in Reno." Again, I think, you know...

NAVARRETTE: Just to watch him die.

IFTIKHAR: Yeah. Just to watch him die.

MARTIN: Just to watch him die.

IZRAEL: Just to watch him die.

(soundbite of laughter)

IFTIKHAR: I don't think Fox so basically the nutshell is, I don't think that Fox News, you know, could find a brown person that they like today.

MARTIN: Oh that, dag(ph) . Ruben, quickly though, Ruben...

LOYOLA: In this country people are so touchy, you know, it's like if you, anybody that the White House invites to a party, I'm sure that there's somebody who could be offended by it. And people should just really do a better job of minding their own business. I mean I don't know.

IZRAEL: Thanks, Mario.

MARTIN: Tell it, Mario. You know, Ruben, before we let you go, you're, we...

NAVARRETTE: Yo.

MARTIN: You and I both come from police families. So I'm curious about...

NAVARRETTE: Yeah. Right.

MARTIN: ...what your take on it.

NAVARRETTE: I am actually against cop killing. This may sound...

MARTIN: Well, of course.

IFTIKHAR: We all are, dog. Come on, man.

(soundbite of laughter)

IZRAEL: Right. Come on.

NAVARRETTE: I think we live in a really bizarre world where people like a generation ago we had this debate over Ice-T and 'Cop Killer." Now Ice-T is on television playing a cop. You know, we go all the way around. But for me, what I've always found interesting is like African-American women and moms who complain about offensive lyrics and rap and I'm always in their corner. If this had been that kind of thing, I guess the left would be a little more conflicted, because they say wait a minute, that is not appropriate for the White House.

I don't necessarily agree with the attempt to censor anybody, but this is the way the game is played. Arsalan is right. When Sarah Palin makes comments about bull's-eyes or things like that, we go after her, the media goes after her. We ought to play by one set of rules and go after both left and right equally, things like that.

MARTIN: So he shouldn't have been invited?

NAVARRETTE: I think the debate is appropriate whether he should have been or not.

MARTIN: All right.

NAVARRETTE: And it's up to the White House to invite him and take the heat for it.

MARTIN: All right.

IZRAEL: All right. Jimi...

IFTIKHAR: But Ruben, let me ask you.

MARTIN: We've got to leave it there - we've got to leave it there for now. I'm sorry. Jimi Izrael is a freelance journalist and author of the book "The Denzel Principle." He joined us from member station WCPN in Cleveland. Ruben Navarrette is a syndicated columnist who writes for the Washington Post Writers Group and CNN.com. He was with us from San Diego. Mario Loyola is a foreign policy analyst with the Texas Public Policy Foundation. He's a frequent contributor to the National Review. He joined us from member station KUT in Austin, and we hope you'll come back, and at the very least, send us some barbecue. And Arsalan Iftikhar is a civil rights attorney, founder of themuslimguy.com and managing editor of the Crescent Post. He was here with us in Washington. Thanks, everybody.

IFTIKHAR: Peace.

NAVARRETTE: Thank you.

IZRAEL: Yup-yup.

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more on Monday.

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