'Shop Talk': Tea Party Battles 'Occupy Wall Street'

GOP presidential hopeful Herman Cain surges to the top of the polls. The Tea Party is launching a counter-offensive against the Occupy Wall Street movement. And Detroit sports teams are enjoying exceptional seasons. Weighing in are the Barbershop guys: author Jimi Izrael, attorney Arsalan Iftikhar, columnist Ruben Navarratte and political science professor Lester Spence.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. 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, columnist Ruben Navarrette, who's on this coast, and Johns Hopkins political science professor Lester Spence.

Take it away, Jimi.

JIMI IZRAEL: Thanks, Michel. Hey, fellows, welcome to the shop. How we doing?

ARSALAN IFTIKHAR: Hey, hey, hey.

RUBEN NAVARRETTE: Doing good man. Great.

LESTER SPENCE: Hey.

IZRAEL: All right. Well, so we're going to start off talking about a former underdog who looks like he might become a serious challenger in the GOP primary, at least for now. Now, a couple of polls out this week show Herman Cain neck and neck with Mitt Romney and an NBC Wall Street Journal poll actually shows Cain ahead of Romney. Michel, we got a clip of Cain talking about his 999 tax plan that he's using as a centerpiece of his campaign, right?

MARTIN: Yeah, we do. Because remember, I spoke with him on this program back in September and I'll just play a short clip from that conversation. Here it is.

HERMAN CAIN: The American people are looking for specific solutions. It starts with throwing out the old tax codes and putting in this very simple, transparent, efficient, fair, revenue-neutral plan that's appealing to the American public. So I think it's the specificity of my ideas, the boldness of my ideas, which is allowing me to surge with people who are finding out who Herman Cain is.

IZRAEL: Wow.

MARTIN: I'm sorry. That was actually from Scott's - we did have him on the program in September, but that is from the conversation that he had with Scott Simon, which is going to air on WEEKEND EDITION tomorrow.

IZRAEL: All that and he's so modest, Michel. Thank you for that tape. Lester. Man, listen. You know what's interesting to me? I wrote a piece about a month back for the Loop21 and I told people I was early in on this. I said, don't sleep on Herman Cain because, you know - not just because he reminds me of kind of a Ross Perot in a bad George Jefferson costume, but he really appeals to a black conservative base that hasn't really felt properly represented and he could very easily divide the Obama vote. I told people, man, this could be your next president. What do you think?

SPENCE: First, Weezie.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SPENCE: But second, I just talked about this for NPR last week. I would have a different reading. It's not about him getting black conservative voters. What it is is he's going to draw the Tea Party white conservatives who are not really impressed with Mitt Romney. So if somebody like Perry ends up dropping out, he becomes their natural go-to guy, the one that's one of them. It's not about black voters at all. It's about white conservatives and unless Cain sticks his foot in his mouth racially, he'll have some legs.

MARTIN: I think he already has, though.

IZRAEL: Well, yeah.

MARTIN: Wouldn't you argue that he already has, Arsalan? I mean...

IFTIKHAR: I don't know. I mean, I think his surge in the polls is less a statement about him and more a statement about Mitt Romney and the lack of enthusiasm within the Republican Party for Mitt Romney, especially after the huge endorsement of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, which you know, a lot of political opponents thought it would sort of the death knell, you know, to streamline his way towards the nomination.

I think that, you know, Herman Cain is sort of seen as, you know, the Ross Perot-type character, but again, I think that it's more a statement against Mitt Romney as it is for Cain.

MARTIN: What do you think, Ruben?

NAVARRETTE: I think Herman Cain has three things working for him: He's not Mitt Romney, he's not a typical career politician and he's not white. Those three things are important to - as Lester Spence mentioned, not to African-American voters and conservatives at all, but rather to white conservatives.

The last one's an obvious one. By voting for an African-American and supporting an African-American, they think they're able to neutralize this charge that they are hostile to the idea of a black president.

But the second one, I think, is the most important and most fascinating. I don't care about the color end at this end. People are just sick of career politicians, seriously. And so when he gives these comments at debates and he says: I'm not a career politician. I've never run for office before. Everybody on stage who's run for office sees that as a liability, but Middle America does not see that as a liability. They actually see that as one of his greatest attributes: the fact that he hasn't been programmed, he's not blow-dried, he's not plastic, as so many of these people are. So, you know, kudos to him for that. I think there is something significant in that regard.

But having said that, he needs to be careful and I think that we all need to be very attentive to how the press treats him. They ought to treat him with the same amount of respect as they're treating the other candidates running for president on the Republican side. And I get worked up a little bit when I see white liberals like Lawrence O'Donnell at MSNBC go after Herman Cain in ways that I thought were unfair. Asking Herman Cain, where were you during the civil rights movement? My question would've been well, how about you, Lawrence? Where were you during the civil rights movement? Why do you save that question in your bag of tricks for the one black candidate running? Why don't you ask that of Rick Santorum? Where was he during the civil rights movement? Why hold me to a different standard? So...

MARTIN: Well, I also think that - address Jimi's point, though, I think that the - I think you can make an argument that actually black conservatives get far more attention from the media and far more respect from the media...

NAVARRETTE: Right.

MARTIN: ...then actually is represented by their actual...

NAVARRETTE: Numbers.

...by their actual numbers, by their actual influence on the - on voters. There's no evidence that African-Americans have ever voted for conservative candidates or really, even, Republican candidates, beyond the 20s, the top 20s. I think maybe Connie Mack in Florida...

Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: ...running for senator got maybe 20 percent of the African-American vote, and that generally is in off year elections, in national elections.

NAVARRETTE: Right.

MARTIN: ...when the Republicans, for whatever reasons seem very committed to using race as a wedge issue, even in modern times...

NAVARRETTE: Right.

MARTIN: ...that number drops. Now, and Arsalan, as you've pointed out, you know, on the program comments about whether Muslims could serve...

IFTIKHAR: Right.

MARTIN: ...you know, in his administration, that he'd be very skeptical of Muslims serving in his administration, I mean there are a lot of African-American Muslims in this country, too who are also socially conservatives. So the idea that there are no African-Americans conservatives out here is false. But as the question is, when it comes time to vote how does that conservatism doesn't necessarily translate into the vision that a candidate like a Herman Cain has.

On the other hand, you've got like a Michael Steele, who did very well in Maryland but couldn't win a statewide race in either.

IFTIKHAR: Right. But, and you know Michel, those are really good points that you bringing up. And there are a lot of Democrats who are actually praying that Herman Cain gets the nomination because they think that he would get, you know, politically wiped on the floor by Barack Obama.

Let's not forget when Obama was running for the Senate in Illinois, who did the Republicans bring in at the last second, Alan Keyes.

NAVARRETTE: Right. Right.

IFTIKHAR: And Barack had 72 percent of the vote. And so, you know, the whole racialist element might come into play if he ends up getting the nomination, where a lot of conservative Tea Party Republicans might actually stay home and not actually go to the polls.

MARTIN: See, see, see...

IZRAEL: But, but...

MARTIN: ...an African-American candidate like...

IZRAEL: Herman Cain is - I mean Herman Cain isn't Alan Keyes. Alan Keyes was just batty. You know, I mean, Herman Cain, some of what he is saying actually make sense.

IFTIKHAR: Yeah, but he got a little – yeah, he got a little batty in the brain, too.

MARTIN: Yeah, but Colin Powell is a candidate, for example, who is an African-American...

IFTIKHAR: Right.

MARTIN: ...who he probably considers himself - he might consider himself - a conservative, I don't know. Certainly, a moderate Republican...

IFTIKHAR: Absolutely.

NAVARRETTE: Right.

MARTIN: ...and he had tremendous respect and appreciation among both African-American and white voters...

NAVARRETTE: Well deserved. Absolutely.

MARTIN: But I don't believe he would ever have won a nomination - certainly not in the current climate he couldn't have the Republican nomination.

NAVARRETTE: But the reason that Colin Powell is so important a figure as what you're talking about, is he, as a black Republican, has spoken at the Republican Convention. It's true. But he's never been afraid of challenging that Republican Party.

IFTIKHAR: Right.

NAVARRETTE: You know, he spoke up in defense of affirmative action, he got booed by the crowd. He stuck up anyway. And I think, he stood by it anyway. I think that's important. People don't want to see an African-American candidate that they see as constantly pandering to white folks. We don't like that in the Latino community. You know, there's a world of difference between a Marco Rubio and a Susana Martinez out in New Mexico - the governor of New Mexico versus the new Florida senator.

Without getting into that, I think that there is this difference with someone like a Colin Powell, I think that people see him as independent-minded and willing to, you know, stand up to his own party. If Herman Cain is willing to do that he might serve better with African-Americans.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin and you're listening to our weekly visit to the Barbershop. We're joined by columnist Ruben Navarratte, he happens to be in Washington today - we're glad to see him; civil rights attorney and editor and author, Arsalan Iftikhar, Johns Hopkins political science professor Lester Spence and, of course, author Jimi Izrael.

You know, one of the other comments that Herman Cain made that got a lot of attention was his comments about the Occupied Wall Street movement and said he had no love for them. And turns out that the Tea Party doesn't have a lot of love for them, either. A number of Tea Party leaders have objected to being compared with the Occupy Wall Street folks. And for a while, some people thought that these two groups might actually have some common cause. But it turns out that there is a report that the Tea Party is launching a counteroffensive against the Occupy Wall Street movement by drawing attention to some extreme rhetoric and not great behavior.

But I'm interested in whether you all think that this movement has any legs. In the same way that, I don't think you can really argue that the Tea Party movement had an impact on the midterm elections, can you? I mean that kind of energy...

NAVARRETTE: Right. It did. It did.

MARTIN: ...activism, organizing.

NAVARRETTE: Right.

MARTIN: So Ruben, I don't know. But you think?

NAVARRETTE: I think the comparison between the two, two different questions here. Are they going to have an impact as the Occupied America crowd are they going to stick around a while? I think it is. I think it's important. I think it tapped into something major. I don't think it's going to go away. I don't think that it's comparable to the Tea Party, because the Tea Party, for better or for worse, work within the political system. You know, there were not Tea Party candidates, per se, you know, run under the ticket. They were Republicans were anointed by the Tea Party to be their representative. And so, they sort of went along with that. The Occupy folks seem to be outside that system.

It's all good. I mean, some people are outside throwing rocks on the inside. Some people were on the inside working from within. And I think the Occupy folks are way too alienated from the political process. They are not going to be running candidates in your local Congressional races and things like that, like the way the Tea Party did.

MARTIN: Mmm. Lester, what do you think?

SPENCE: I think, first of all, I do think the comparison doesn't work, to the extent that the media has focused on people moving against the Occupy movement. I think it would be a better look to focus on actors like Rush Limbaugh, Deborah Brooks, or even somebody like Karl Rove who's tried to paint pictures of the Occupy movement being something other than what it is.

As far as their impact, what the Tea Party had access to that these - that the Occupy movement doesn't necessarily, is the media as an institution - or at the very least, something like Fox News, and that's important. But, with that said, going forward, all they really need are a set of entrepreneurial political representatives who are willing to use that energy and transform that into legislation. And then what you'll see is not just the movement grow, accepting the movement is going to grow, but it's going to grow and transform American politics.

IZRAEL: Oh, Lester, you know, I mean, you know, we're down five pounds, man. You're my dude. But I'm going to have to push back on that, man. You know, you're...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

IZRAEL: You know, like well, all these cats...

NAVARRETTE: Wait. Hold on, brother. Hold on. I need to whip out my urban dictionary. I...

MARTIN: Yeah, me too.

NAVARRETTE: I'm lost.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROSSTALK)

NAVARRETTE: Okay, down five pounds. All right.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

IZRAEL: It's like this here, I mean, you suggested that all they need is an agenda and somebody to speak for them. That's a tall order, man. Listen, this Occupy Wall Street thing is the most polite, most comfortable, passive aggressive protest I've ever seen. You've got these hipsters squatting in private corporate owned parks, eating smoked salmon and cream cheese, smoking dope and griping. Listen, there's no agenda, there's no point plan but plenty of condoms. Let me tell you something: if your revolution requires WiFi and needs to be in close proximity to a Starbucks, whatever political program you have jumping off is suspect.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

NAVARRETTE: Nice. Nice.

SPENCE: Empty outrage is interesting and entertaining, but it's not effective. I'm sorry.

Jimi? Jimi?

MARTIN: I think you confuse technology with message. And I don't mean, you know.

IZRAEL: No. No. No, no, no. Hold on.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROSSTALK)

IZRAEL: Don't even talk to me about revolution in terms like (unintelligible) to survive, period.

SPENCE: Jimi, Jimi, give me a second. Well, first of all, the civil rights movement didn't happen like that. When we transformed the University of Michigan it didn't happen like that. In student movements across the country, when we transformed South Africa, it didn't work like that. But more importantly, I've actually been there, right. And so when you talk about condoms, were you there? They don't have no Occupy Shaker Heights...

IZRAEL: I wasn't there.

SPENCE: ...that I know of, right? There were no Occupy Cleveland. There wasn't occupied (unintelligible).

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: All right. Now I'm totally lost.

IZRAEL: I was there.

MARTIN: All right. Well, we'll see. We will see. We will see. It's a developing story. We're (unintelligible) here now, and talk about Detroit.

IZRAEL: Detroit.

MARTIN: Detroit. Specifically Detroit sports teams. Okay, the Lions, undefeated so far. Big Monday night against the Bears.

IZRAEL: Right.

MARTIN: Best start since 1956. There 5 and 0. Tiger is still alive.

NAVARRETTE: Four and 0.

MARTIN: Sorry, 4 and 0?

IZRAEL: Mm-hmm.

NAVARRETTE: Four and 0.

MARTIN: Four and 0?

IFTIKHAR: Oh, no, 5 and 0.

MARTIN: Five and 0. My bad.

IZRAEL: They're 5 and 0. Get it right.

MARTIN: I'm - excuse me.

NAVARRETTE: Yes.

IZRAEL: We even have some tape, right?

MARTIN: Wait a minute, Arsalan is - wait...

IFTIKHAR: My bad.

MARTIN: ...he is challenging my sports knowledge. And did you see how he got all like mannish with it. It's like you couldn't possibly know, sister.

IZRAEL: I'm sorry.

MARTIN: Thank you.

NAVARRETTE: On behalf of the entire - on behalf of the Detroit Lions organization, they waited 60 years to go 5 and 0...

MARTIN: Thank you, 5 and 0 – 5 and 0. Thank you.

NAVARRETTE: ...and now to be cheated on that.

IFTIKHAR: All right. I'm sorry. I was wrong.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: And the Tigers still alive in the playoffs. Big win last night against the Texas Rangers. You're not going to dispute that day one last night against the Rangers, right, Arsalan?

IFTIKHAR: No. No.

MARTIN: Thank you so much.

NAVARRETTE: It's a Detroit sports renaissance.

MARTIN: And, and, and, you know what? The University of Michigan Wolverines is 6 and 0, ranked in the top 10.

NAVARRETTE: Whoa. What's in the water out there?

MARTIN: And even the Red Wings are undefeated. They played three games.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: So, and finally some good things for Detroit. So...

SPENCE: Detroit, wow.

MARTIN: Lester, you're from Detroit. You're from Detroit.

SPENCE: Yeah, that's why ya'll brought me on. This is a good time to be...

MARTIN: True.

SPENCE: Good time to be a Detroit export. Good time to be a Detroit citizen. We're kicking butt in every major sport except for basketball. That's another story.

MARTIN: It is another story.

IZRAEL: Wow, first Eminem, now this. You guys are on a roll.

SPENCE: On a roll.

MARTIN: But you were asking Arsalan, though, people were asking if Herman Cain is for real. You think the Lions are for real?

IFTIKHAR: They are for real. You know, they're definitely the story in the NFC. And, you know, on the AFC side you have my beloved Buffalo Bills who are 4 and 1. And, you know, ESPN columnist Gregg Easterbrook had a column a few weeks ago are we going to have a Detroit-Buffalo Super Bowl, you know, where you have to depressed cities who haven't seen the playoffs in 11 years. You know, it really is the season of the underdog...

NAVARRETTE: And fought for five years on the citizen's chair out in the West Coast talking about my beloved Oakland Raiders, and they are not perfect, but they're off to a good start. What is up with the world? The axis is just - the world has fallen off its axis. Look out.

MARTIN: See, and you all were nice enough not to mention the Jets. I'm just going to sit here really quietly...

IFTIKHAR: Right.

MARTIN: ...and hope we just pass that moment by. But what about, you mentioned the Pistons. Though the season doesn't look so bright, the season is on hold, obviously.

IZRAEL: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: Commissioner David Stern has already canceled the preseason and two weeks of the regular season. Next week they're going to go back to the bargaining table. I don't know, I just have to ask whether you think were going to have an NBA season at all.

IFTIKHAR: Yes.

MARTIN: Arsalan?

IFTIKHAR: Yeah.

MARTIN: Why?

SPENCE: Oh, wow.

IFTIKHAR: I think at the end of the day there's just far too much money on the table for both the owners and the players to walk away for an entire season. Right now it seems like the owners came back in their last negotiations, you know, asking for a 50-50 split. Derek Fisher, Billy Hunter and the Players Association want more of a 53-47. And granted, you have multimillionaires, there's multimillionaires in this recession, they're not going to get a lot of, you know, sympathy. But a lot of analysts say that, you know, November 14th right now is the cut off date. The first two weeks of the season have been canceled. Some people are saying that we should have a seasoned by Christmas, December 25th.

MARTIN: Jimi, what do you think?

IZRAEL: I think that NBA 11 for the 2K 11 for the Xbox never goes on strike and there's never any kind of work stoppage. So, you know, my game console never gives me any gripes, so one way or another, I'm going to have basketball.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Okay.

NAVARRETTE: That's a long way around.

MARTIN: That's a practical man.

NAVARRETTE: Yeah.

MARTIN: Jimi's motto: due first off, right?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Lester, what do you think? Are you going to make it? How are you going to make it if there's no NBA season this year? Are you going to be all right?

SPENCE: NBA 2K 11. But I think what's important is that the owner's position basically reverses their last deal. So it's not like they're trying to move a little bit forward from their last deal. They're trying to go significantly backwards in that deal.

MARTIN: I mean isn't that called a negotiation? I'm sorry. Is that...

SPENCE: Well, no, no. I mean well, I mean you can move a little bit back and then move a little bit up, right? But I'm talking about going significantly backwards. And it's just not clear that the players are going to really go for that. And it's problematic because it hurts not just the players, it hurts the vendors, it hurts the ticket takers, it hurts the bar owners. But I don't think the players are going to go for it.

MARTIN: Okay. Ruben, final thoughts from you? Are you going to make it?

NAVARRETTE: Yeah. I'm with Arsalan. This is going to happen because they don't want to be known as the sport franchise, the sport industry that did lock out. They didn't just threaten it, but actually canceled their season. So they'll work it out.

MARTIN: and what are you going to do if there is no season? You going with Jimi, with the Xbox?

NAVARRETTE: Yeah. I'll do other things. I'll probably do football.

MARTIN: Gardening. Football.

NAVARRETTE: Yeah. I'll just get ready (unintelligible) and stuff.

MARTIN: Read to the kids.

NAVARRETTE: Yeah.

MARTIN: Okay.

NAVARRETTE: I've got plenty to do.

MARTIN: You've got plenty to do, right?

NAVARRETTE: Are you kidding?

MARTIN: That's right. Ruben Navarrette is a syndicated columnist who writes for The Washington Post Writers' Group, Latino magazine and Pajamas Media. He was here with us in Washington for change, along with Arsalan Iftikhar, who is a legal civil rights attorney and founder of the muslimguy.com. Lester Spence is a political science professor at Johns Hopkins University. He was with us on the line from the Baltimore Sun. and Jimi Izrael is a freelance journalist and author of "The Denzel Principle." He joined us from member station WCPN in Cleveland. Thanks everybody.

IFTIKHAR: Peace.

NAVARRETTE: Thank you.

SPENCE: Detroit.

IZRAEL: Yup-yup.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

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.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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