Shop Talk: GOP Hopefuls Beat Up On Obama In Debate

This week, the Barbershop guys discuss the last Republican primary debate before the Iowa caucuses and the official end to the Iraq war. They also question whether companies should pull ads from the reality TV show All-American Muslim.

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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 chair for a shapeup this week are author Jimi Izrael, civil right attorney and author Arsalan Iftikhar; from the Log Cabin Republicans, executive director R. Clarke Cooper. He is also an Army Reserve captain. Thank you for your service.

R. CLARKE COOPER: Thank you.

MARTIN: And from National Review magazine and the Texas Public Policy Foundation, Mario Loyola. Take it away, Jimi.

JIMI IZRAEL: Thanks, Michel. Hey, fellas. Welcome to the shop. How we doing?

ARSALAN IFTIKHAR: Hey, hey, hey. Doing all right.

IZRAEL: Super Mario. What's good, man?

MARIO LOYOLA: It's a little cold in Austin, Texas. I think it's in the 50s. So.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

IZRAEL: And we're so glad you're excited about it.

IFTIKHAR: World's smallest violin.

IZRAEL: Coop. My man. First time in, welcome to the shop.

COOPER: Thank you. Good to be here.

IZRAEL: All right. Well, let's get things started with reason, or, well, actually number 1,080 of thousands of GOP debates scheduled. OK. Well, that's a joke, obviously, but we do at least have one less now that Donald Trump backed out of his post-Christmas debate.

Anyhow, last night the Republican candidates spent a lot of time beating up Barack Obama rather than each other. Michel, we've got a clip, right?

MARTIN: We do. This is Newt Gingrich's opening remarks where he challenges President Obama. Here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLIP FROM GOP PRESIDENTIAL DEBATE)

NEWT GINGRICH: I believe I can debate Barack Obama and I think in seven three-hour debates Barack Obama will not have a leg to stand on in trying to defend a record that is terrible and an ideology that is radical.

IZRAEL: Wow. I'm surprised dude didn't say he floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee. He's kind of channeling a young Muhammad Ali right there.

MARTIN: But why seven? I didn't get the why seven?

IZRAEL: I don't know. He just picked a number...

IFTIKHAR: Magic number. It's a magic number.

MARTIN: Magic number.

IFTIKHAR: Seven's a lucky number.

MARTIN: Oh, you're being so zany.

LOYOLA: That's the number of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, isn't it?

MARTIN: Oh. Thank you, Mario.

IZRAEL: Let me tell you something about Newt Gingrich. You know, this guy's a palooka in a ring with a lot of other palookas. You know, and you know this, because his big idea is kind of the equivalent, of, you know, kids get off my lawn and get back to work. But I got to tell you, compared to Romney he's a visionary. And of course Ron Paul's doddering tends to make everybody look that much more - that much more erudite.

Overall, you know, overall everybody kept their hands to themselves and were pretty well-mannered, but we didn't learn anything we didn't know about this motley crew of ugly ducklings. I'm really thinking about getting my housecat, Isis, to run on the GOP ticket.

MARTIN: Well, now that we've cleared up how Jimi feels about all this...

IZRAEL: And she's going to win by a landslide. Just so you know, she's going to get the hairball vote. But anyway...

MARTIN: OK.

IZRAEL: ...go ahead, super Mario. What did you think about last night's debate?

LOYOLA: Oh, I don't even know if I've had enough time to think about it yet. To me it's mesmerizing to see, you know, these - I guess it's seven, eight people on the stage, week after week, just presenting themselves in front of the American people and attacking each other. And, you know, and they all sort of look more the same. Or - I'm not sure.

IZRAEL: The only person missing is Hulk Hogan. Coop, what do you think?

COOPER: Well, Jimi, for starters, the debates: good thing. Because most people aren't tuning into these every single time. So maybe those of us who are here on this program or, you know, in the political circles do pay attention to every single nuance, every single word, every single issue.

So the reason why there are multiple debates in any given primary is so you get a broader audience. There's a broader reach. A different audience there, obviously, in Iowa, than there was here before Thanksgiving at DAR Hall which focused on national security and foreign policy. So you're trying to get the broadest reach as possible. And, yes, it is a race. You're trying to get - each candidate's trying to one-up each other.

We've seen - because of the debates, we've actually seen candidates vacillate, come and go. There's less people on that stage now than there was earlier in the process. And we'll see that happen as we go into the primary process. Come March, come Super Tuesday, after Iowa's done, after New Hampshire's done, Florida, which is a big one, you'll definitely see a lesser number of folks up there on stage.

But this is an opportunity for them to show their strengths, and weaknesses are exposed during the debate process.

MARTIN: Yeah. Obviously I want to hear what Arsalan has to say about this but, Clarke, you are Republican. As we said, you're the executive director of Log Cabin Republicans. Now, some of the Republican political consultant aristocracy, let me put it this way, like Karl Rove, former assistant to the president in the George W. Bush administration, clearly a close confidante of President Bush and a major figure, said that there were too many debates, it's opened the door to too much bloodletting.

I'm just wondering if there's that division of opinion among, kind of, Republicans about whether too much or enough?

COOPER: Well, there's been - there has been that discourse.

MARTIN: Because I agree with you as a voter, because I can't watch every debate now and I'm fascinated. And when I do have the opportunity to watch I am, I appreciate it. And I appreciate the opportunity to hear from them as opposed to these ads crafted by guys like you?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

COOPER: Sure. Well, that's the whole debate about quantity verse quality. And, you know, full disclosure, I was in the Bush administration for eight years and there has been a discussion amongst those of us who serve President Bush of, you know, where do we go from here, because there wasn't that much of a selection in 2000. If you compare where we were in 2000 versus where we are now leading up to the 2012 cycle, there wasn't that much of a choice. And it has exposed where there are weaknesses in certain candidates. However, cream does rise and there will be a thinning of the herd as we go through the primary process.

The issue of concern that is shared by people like Karl Rove, like myself is how long will this go out? So you need to, we need to have less candidates up on that stage sooner than later.

MARTIN: Well, the Iowa caucuses are soon upon us so my guess is there will be fewer. Arsalan, final?

IFTIKHAR: Well, my final thoughts is, you know, with the ridunculous number of debates that there are this has turned into a bad reality show, like America's Next Top Republican. And for me at least, you know, as long as Newt Gingrich continues to think that Palestinians are an invented people, I will continue to think that he is an invented presidential candidate.

MARTIN: OK.

IZRAEL: All righty then.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're having our weekly visit to the Barbershop with author Jimi Izrael, civil rights attorney Arsalan Iftikhar, columnist Mario Loyola and R. Clarke Cooper. He is the executive director of the Log Cabin Republicans. That's a Republican group that supports LGBT rights. He's also an Army Reserve captain. Jimi.

IZRAEL: Thanks, Michel. Now...

MARTIN: Speaking of which...

IZRAEL: Okay. Yeah. Right. Right. Now U.S. combat troops in Iraq are coming home. It's great to see them reunite with families. But not everyone thinks it's the best time. Michel, we got a clip, yeah?

MARTIN: Well, you know, I don't know if it's so much the timing. The question here, as we talked about earlier in the program. In the first part of our program we had a debate with two members of Congress who were on opposite sides of the question of whether to go forward in Iraq. Senator John McCain of Arizona, of course, a distinguished veteran, many people know as a prisoner of war, he said this in a Senate floor speech this week where he decries the failure to establish a residual force in Iraq. Here it is.

SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN: Unfortunately, it is clear that this decision of a complete pullout of United States troops from Iraq was dictated by politics, and not our national security interests. I believe that history will judge this president's leadership with the scorn and disdain that it deserves.

IZRAEL: Wow. Thanks.

MARTIN: Tough speech. Yes.

IZRAEL: Yeah. Definitely. Captain Clarke Cooper, Coop.

COOPER: Hey, Jimi, now I'm not speaking on behalf of DOD. I'm here in my Log Cabin capacity.

IZRAEL: All right.

COOPER: But I'll tell you. As a combat veteran from the Iraq experience, I also served there as a diplomat as well, I have to agree with Senator McCain, you know, what were the motivations on the timetable? And he was alluding to on his floor speech the status of Status of Forces Agreement that we had on a bilateral basis between Washington and Baghdad. The question is, you know, why did that collapse, why did that fail? Certainly, everyone knew on both sides that there would be an eventual drawdown, but how to best shape that for U.S. interest in the region, and to make sure that there isn't a collapse of the government there in Baghdad.

MARTIN: Well, tell me. Explain though, if you would, a little bit better than I think we just heard, how would a residual force in Iraq protect U.S. interests? Is it simply a matter of not losing what we think - whatever we think we've gained? Or what, tell me the connection with U.S. interests, if you would.

COOPER: Sure. Well, one of them is the democracy, small-d, that's there. There's a nascent elected democratic government in the region, and then let's also not forget about Iranian influence. This is certainly a potential growth opportunity. It is a growth opportunity for Tehran. In fact, the Iranians are gleeful about our reduction there in presence.

Now, that said, we still have a bilateral relationship, we still have an embassy there, but the timing of it seems very domestically motivated.

MARTIN: Do you mind if I ask you personally, because I obviously want to hear what the other guys have to say about this - do you mind if I ask what your personal feelings were when you saw the flag come down?

COOPER: You know, from - there was a nostalgia there where I did, like many prior, you know, veterans and service members, we did look back and there were some email exchanges of what it was like on our time there. So, yeah, there was some nostalgia of remembering service there when they did the, you know, the flag ceremony in Baghdad.

MARTIN: Arsalan, what about you? I'm going to let Mario clear his throat there.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: You OK there? Perhaps you have a refreshing beverage that you could partake of, Mario?

IZRAEL: I thought a dragon got loose in the studio. Go ahead, A-Train, Arsalan. Give it up.

IFTIKHAR: Well, you know, I mean this is a war that has been going on for nine years and, you know, for many of us, you know, I think we're relieved to see the end of war in Iraq. I think what's interesting to note is a lot of Republicans talk about how this is being used as a political football, but they conveniently tend to overlook or forget the fact when George W. Bush went on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln in his jumpsuit with the huge "mission accomplished" banner on the back - as his backdrop.

And so, again, I mean I think we all knew that this day was coming. We were not going to remain in Iraq for time immemorial and, you know, we want to help build up the democratic infrastructure of Iraq. I think playing the Iran card is a little hyperbolic in my opinion. I think that there will be some, there will be some interactions between the Shia-dominated Nouri al-Maliki's government. But I think that it's a good thing and I'm looking forward to having our girls and boys come back home.

IZRAEL: You know, you're bringing a tear to my eye over here, A-Train. Thank you for that. But I mean, I agree it's good to have them come home, but obviously this is politically motivated. Obviously, the timing is just, you know, it's not for nothing. But me personally, I want the job done and I want them to come home. So I'm torn.

IFTIKHAR: How do you - what's the endgame? Like how do you define, quote-unquote, job being done?

IZRAEL: If I knew I'd be president.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

IFTIKHAR: Well, I thought your cat's going to run.

IZRAEL: My cat might run. So I don't know.

MARTIN: We have residual forces in Korea. We have residual forces in Europe. We still have, you know...

IFTIKHAR: Right.

MARTIN: ...forces in Japan, you know, however many years after those conflicts ended. So I mean I'm not taking a position. I'm just merely saying that there are residual forces, U.S. forces around the world long after.

IFTIKHAR: And we have it in the region in Kuwait. In Doha we have it...

MARTIN: Go ahead. Yeah. Mario, I'm sorry. We didn't forget you.

LOYOLA: Yeah, and by the way, yeah, what did those residual - what have those residual forces in Japan and Korea and Germany accomplished? They've accomplished an enormous benefit for mankind. They've allowed, you know, political, democratic political, commercial institutions to sink really deep roots and be successful in the early years of the Cold War. They prevented a Communist takeover in Germany.

And so I think it's, you know, what happened here, you know, first of all, let's be clear about something: this war did not end because somebody declared that it was over. It ended in 2007 when we defeated the insurgency and casualties dropped to, you know, levels commensurate with peacetime training accidents.

Second of all, the reason why we needed to have a residual force and the reason why the administration should have fought much harder and given much more priority to the maintenance of a residual force is to strengthen the hand of moderates and pro-American elements in the domestic politics of Iraq. And we see immediately already, we can see the effects of the diminishing U.S. influence.

Six hundred Sunnis were arrested by the Maliki government - the Shiite-dominated Maliki government - over the last several weeks on some very vague application of the anti-Baathist principles. And, you know, the Sunnis came over, the Sunnis, I was in Iraq in 2007 in the summer with the Marines in Anbar province. And, you know, the year before, a year before I got there, the Sunnis, the heartland - in Anbar province was the heart of the insurgency. And the reason why the sheiks in the tribes of that Sunni heartland came over to our side is because they realized that we weren't there to fight them, we were there to fight al-Qaida. And nobody could protect them from the Shiite militias, from the Iranian-backed, Iranian-armed Shiite militias except us. And that's why they came over to our side eventually.

MARTIN: Mm-hmm.

LOYOLA: And that's what turned the Iraq War in our favor along with the surge. And, you know, you may see thousands of people protesting in Fallujah and celebrating the departure of the Americans, but I saw tens of thousands of Sunni tribesmen joining the Sons of Iraq movement in the Anbar Awakening and coming over to the coalition. And that's a victory that we fought very hard for, one that we need to preserve. And, you know, Obama's letting himself get U.S. forces kicked out of Iraq and trying to make it come off like some kind of victory, you know, is a reckless state of affairs. I hate to agree with John McCain but I have to.

MARTIN: I'm just interested in what conversation we'll be having at this time next year. If we all reconvene at this time next year, I'll be really interested to see what the scenario is.

Ok, before we let everybody go, this has been blowing up the blogosphere, about TLC's new reality show "All-American Muslim." Two companies - we actually did a piece about it. We interviewed one of the folks who was profiled on this - I mean that, you know, in the neutral way, not the political way - on this program. Two companies have pulled their ads recently. One because they said they had gotten criticism from an evangelical group who said that they should not have - that was Lowe's, the home repair company, saying that, a group said that they didn't think they should be - it was Islamic propaganda, let's put it that way is what they said.

Another advertiser pulled out, they said because the show was lousy. It's not the word they used but they said it was lousy. I'll just give people a tiny taste of it. This is a clip where a young couple, Nawal and Nader, believe they got bad restaurant service based on the way they look. And here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ALL-AMERICAN MUSLIM")

NAWAL AOUDE: That's so rude.

NADER AOUDE: Maybe she didn't know.

NAWAL AOUDE: Didn't know what?

NADER AOUDE: To seat us. I mean we were standing on the side...

NAWAL AOUDE: OK. But that's perfectly fine. You don't know, OK.

NADER AOUDE: Right. Yeah.

NAWAL AOUDE: You don't know, but like, ask. And not only that, you don't just throw menus on a table and walk away.

IZRAEL: Mm. Wow.

MARTIN: So anyway, Arsalan, you wrote about this dustup with the advertisers. What's your take on it?

IFTIKHAR: Well, yeah, I wrote a column for CNN and I was on the "Dr. Drew Show" on Headline News debating this issue and basically saying that, you know, if this was a campaign by a right-wing fringe group that targeted a Latino show, an African-American show, an LGBT show, a Jewish show we wouldn't have had, you know, corporations like Lowe's buckling in cowardice and pulling their ads.

MARTIN: Well, forgive me, but I just have to push back on this because I was a correspondent at "Nightline" for many years and advertisers regularly pulled out of segments or shows that they deemed controversial, often when say a topic like abortion was the subject.

IFTIKHAR: Right. And they...

MARTIN: They would put the ad somewhere else in the same network. I just had to clear - yeah.

IFTIKHAR: Well, and Lowe's said that, you know, this is a controversial topic. And the question is what topic are you talking about, Muslims? You know, can a minority group just be demonized based on the fact that we are going to be seen as a monolithic entity. You know, as my friend and Pulitzer prize-winning columnist Clarence Page wrote in the Chicago Tribune, you know, this was the moral equivalent of saying, you know, that "The Cosby Show" was not indicative of black life because it didn't feature street gangs.

MARTIN: OK. So that was bad call on those advertisers. R. Clarke, one last thought for you?

COOPER: This is probably the one time that Arsalan and I will agree is that this was, this was the TLC caving to bigotry. You know, look, in the days following 9/11, President Bush made a very strong point to say this is not a war against religion, this is not a war against Muslims, this is a war against those who reject American values and ideals. So, you know, this is, it's very shocking that TLC would've done that.

MARTIN: Well, shoot, Mario, you know, we'll come back to you when you get over that cold and you can tell us what you think about this.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Jimi Izrael is a freelance journalist and author of the book "The Denzel Principle." He joined us from member station W - oh, no, no. He's sitting right here.

IZRAEL: Hello.

MARTIN: Sorry. Hello. Nice to see you.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Mario Loyola is director of the Center for 10th Amendment Studies at the Texas Public Policy Foundation. That's a conservative think tank. He's also a columnist for the National Review. And he joined us from member station KUT in Austin. R. Clarke Cooper is a captain in the Army Reserve. Thank you once again for your service for all these years. He's also the executive director of the Log Cabin Republicans, that's a group that advocates for gay and lesbian rights. Arsalan Iftikhar is a civil rights attorney, founder of themuslimguy.com, and author of "Islamic Pacificism: Global Muslims in the Post-Osama Era."

Thanks everybody.

IFTIKHAR: Peace.

COOPER: 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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