Shop Talk: Gingrich On NAACP ... Justified?

The Barbershop guys talk about the Iowa caucuses, political campaigning, and the NFL playoffs. Host Michel Martin speaks with author Jimi Izrael, political science professor Lester Spence, syndicated columnist Ruben Navarrette, and former Obama administration staffer Corey Ealons.

Copyright © 2012 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. Now it's time for our weekly visit to the Barber Shop, where the guys talk about what's in the news and what's on their minds.

Sitting in the chairs for a shape-up this week are author Jimi Izrael, syndicated columnist Ruben Navarrette, Johns Hopkins political science professor and author Lester Spence, and communication strategist and former Obama administration staffer Corey Ealons.

Take it away, Jimi.

JIMI IZRAEL: Thanks, Michel. Hey, fellas, welcome to the shop. Merry New Year. How we doing?

RUBEN NAVARRETTE: Happy New Year.

LESTER SPENCE: Doing good, man. Doing good.

COREY EALONS: Happy New Year. Good to be here.

IZRAEL: Word. Word to Dan Aykroyd. All right. Well, it's finally 2012, so we're officially in the election year, and Rick Santorum and even Jon Huntsman, well, they got some early boosts. Santorum came in just eight votes behind the current GOP. Wow. That sounds like a mandate to me. The frontrunner in the GOP, the current frontrunner Mitt Romney, in the Iowa caucuses - last night, the Boston Globe dissed the former governor by endorsing Jon Huntsman. Ouch.

All right. Ruben Navarrette.

NAVARRETTE: Yo.

IZRAEL: Our conservative columnist, what's up, man? What's going on here? Can things like this derail the Romney train?

NAVARRETTE: Well, let me just say I'm only conservative half the time. The other time, I'm just a pain in everybody's side. Equal opportunity. I think that this is a great win for Rick Santorum. Anybody who says that this was a win for Mitt Romney because Romney beat Santorum by eight votes is just whistling past the graveyard if you're a Romney supporter.

Here you have somebody in Mitt Romney, who's run for president for six years, spent all this money, barely visited the state of Iowa. But you had, on the other hand, Rick Santorum, who will operate on a shoestring and nonetheless really gave him a run for the money.

This is like, in a sports analogy, the New York Yankees battling it out with the Cleveland - hello, Cleveland - Indians. Right? And they go to the 15th inning or something and, all of a sudden, the Yankees pull it out. You don't write the headline the next morning saying the Yankees won. That's a triumph for the little guy. This was a win for the underdog.

IZRAEL: Hmm. I forgot Cleveland even had a baseball team. Corey...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

NAVARRETTE: Oh, oh. They are going to run you out of that town. Remember I told you this.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

IZRAEL: Right. You've been a political insider. What's up with that?

EALONS: Well, I tell you, I have to agree with Ruben. I mean, this was definitely a win for Rick Santorum and it really established Iowa for the state that it has and justified why it is the first-in-the-nation caucus. I mean, look. You had the challenge coming into this thing of either Mitt Romney winning, not having visited the state and not having done it the way Iowans want you to do it, that being a potential negative for Iowa and being blown off next cycle.

Or having Ron Paul win, one of the most extreme candidates in the field right now. If either of those guys had won going away, then I think Iowa would be cast aside forever in presidential politics. But because you have a guy like Rick Santorum, who does it based on the ideal of what Iowa is, the guy that you can strap on your boots, get in a red pickup truck, have two dollars in your pocket and still come close to winning this thing, the mystique of Iowa was restored this week based on this win.

Now, from a further political perspective, I have to tell you, Rick Santorum, challenging candidate. We all know - or we're getting to know more about him because he's now in that spotlight that all of the other candidates, all of the other frontrunners or near-frontrunners have had to endure. We're learning more and more about him, that I think people are going to be interested to hear in the coming days, and especially as we go into New Hampshire.

IZRAEL: You know, either one of those two guys had done well, you know - pigs would have opened up an airline going coast to coast.

Professor Spence, you in here, our poli-sci guy?

SPENCE: Yeah. I'm a poli-sci guy, but I'm a different type of poli-sci guy. I watched the Sugar Bowl during the primary. I was really interested in that Michigan game, and I'm so glad that Michigan was able to pull it out.

I'd be - what I'm interested - to the extent I'm interested in Republican primaries, what I'm really interested in is the fact that there is this really deep contradiction between conservatism as thought and then conservatism as the candidates practice it. So I didn't really care who was going to win.

MARTIN: Well, let's talk more about that.

SPENCE: Well...

MARTIN: Tell us more, Professor Spence.

SPENCE: It's just really deep to me that they're still promoting, for example, the idea - that they're willing to promote a really intensive security state, right? So the idea of the president being able to literally kill somebody with impunity, that's going to require a really significant infusion of capital in the government. So they can support that at the same time they support the Second Amendment at the same time they call for reducing taxes. It's that type of contradiction that really makes the primaries of significant un-interest to me.

MARTIN: But, you know, I could...

SPENCE: If I could - yeah.

MARTIN: Couldn't you argue it the other way, though? That those ideas were broadly represented in the entire field, even if you see them as contradictory - like Ron Paul, for example, is a person who does believe in a significant cut in the security state, as it were.

NAVARRETTE: This is...

MARTIN: Right? Ruben?

NAVARRETTE: Yeah. This is Ruben. Here we go. I think it's absolutely the case that that - Michel's right. That's across the board in the Republican field. But it's increasingly across-the-board in the political field in general. There are plenty of Democrats, obviously, who in Congress voted for the Patriot Act, all but one - famously, Dennis Kucinich - but others who voted for the Patriot Act and who gave the president and the presidency all that power to fight terrorism.

And most interestingly, here you have Barack Obama just recently signing what I consider a really troubling and almost despicable bill that allows the government to indefinitely hold somebody, indefinite detention. Barack Obama signed that bill. He has basically photocopied all of President Bush's anti-terror policies. So it's simplistic to say that only Republicans believe this way.

SPENCE: No. No.

NAVARRETTE: We're in a new place, where all politicians believe this way.

SPENCE: Well, wait a second. We're talking...

IZRAEL: Go ahead, Dr. Spence.

SPENCE: We're talking about the Republican primary. I wasn't asked about the Democrats, right?

NAVARRETTE: Right.

MARTIN: Well, no. my only point is... (CROSSTALK)

SPENCE: And the other thing...

NAVARRETTE: You have to agree with me.

MARTIN: Go ahead. Ruben, let him finish, please.

SPENCE: And other thing is that Ron Paul is the only one who's speaking against this. So there is this deep contradiction. There are real significant problems with that bill. But I would've expected - if the conservatives on the right were on the right page, I would've expected really strong critiques coming from there and I didn't get it.

MARTIN: Well, that's interesting. But if you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. We're having our weekly visit to the Barbershop - getting a shape up - with political science professor Lester Spence, that's who was speaking just now, also with us, author Jimi Izrael, syndicated columnist Ruben Navarrette and former administration - Obama administration staffer, now communications strategist Corey Ealons.

Back to you, Jimi.

IZRAEL: Thanks, Michel. OK, before we move on politics, well, Newt Gingrich had a message in New Hampshire yesterday.

MARTIN: Yes, he did.

IZRAEL: Do you have a - we got some tape. Yeah?

MARTIN: Yes, he did. Speaking of keeping it interesting always, this is the former speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich. But a very interesting presidential candidate, he was sort of left for dead, and then he had a kind of a phoenix-like rise in the polls, and now he's kind of, you know, dropping again. And this is what he had to say about - well, you can hear and we'll talk about it. Here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

NEWT GINGRICH: If the NAACP invites me, I'll go to their convention and talk about why the African-American community should demand paychecks and not be satisfied with food stamps.

IZRAEL: Mm. Mm. Mm.

MARTIN: Well, there it is. And I - you know, well - I'm just - I'm fascinated by this, because can we just say this...

NAVARRETTE: What's wrong with that?

MARTIN: Let me just say this.

NAVARRETTE: What's wrong with that?

IZRAEL: OK. Yeah. I mean...

MARTIN: Well, let me just tell you one thing that's wrong with it. Well, I'll just tell you it just from a fact-basis, Ruben, that about twice as many white people get food stamps as black people.

NAVARRETTE: Right. Right.

MARTIN: That's about 21 million white households get food stamps compared to about 10 million African-American or black families that get food stamps.

NAVARRETTE: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: But the other thing that I'm sort of fascinated by this is it wasn't just - this is kind of a 20-year-old conversation. I mean, if you're talking about sort of redistribution plans, if you're saying that the government should be providing opportunity - which is the subject of our first conversation today, as opposed to a redistribution mechanism - isn't it the case that the government programs that do the most to redistribute income are those that are directed toward the elderly? I mean, isn't that the case?

NAVARRETTE: Oh, absolutely.

MARTIN: That's Medicare and that's Social Security.

NAVARRETTE: No doubt. No doubt.

MARTIN: So there's that.

NAVARRETTE: And no one talks about that. You're absolutely right.

MARTIN: But the other side of this that I found fascinating - I'll just say this, is a person of color who is in journalism, as a talk show host - one of the reasons I was curious about this is that of all the presidential candidates who are on the Republican side and major figures on the Republican side, I can't think of one alongside Newt Gingrich who has done more to engage with people of color in the last couple of years - when presumably he wouldn't get anything for it politically - than Newt Gingrich.

NAVARRETTE: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: Because very often, it is the case that African-American shows, commentators - Ruben, perhaps you will vouch for me on this point, too - is oftentimes when it is not perceived to be of any political benefit to engage with people from minority groups, that does not occur.

NAVARRETTE: Sure.

MARTIN: But Newt Gingrich is one of those people who has been consistently willing to engage. You'll see that he's worked with Al Sharpton, the MSNBC host, the civil rights activist Al Sharpton...

NAVARRETTE: Absolutely. Absolutely.

MARTIN: ...on projects. And so I'm just puzzled by this, if I may say.

EALONS: Well, I think...

MARTIN: Corey wants to get in on this. Go ahead.

EALONS: Well, I think he may have felt that he had the grounds to say this exactly for the point that you just made, Michel, because he has engaged in this type of conversation with the African-American community, and on issues of importance to the African-American community over the past five years, certainly since President Obama has been in office. He had the famous meeting with Al Sharpton and the president to talk about the president's education policies. He and the education secretary went on their education tour around the country talking about these things. So he may have felt he had the basis.

But you have to ask: Why make the point now, and why make it in New Hampshire? Why make it in this period of the election cycle that we're in? It's because it's not about New Hampshire. It's about South Carolina. And that is where you're going to have a very contested vote amongst the conservative candidates who are in this race. Newt Gingrich is still positing himself as the most conservative, the Ronald Reagan conservative. And so I think that's a way of him putting that out there, and also tied in the fact that he was a part of welfare reform back in the '90s. So I think that's where we're looking at. It's more political, and he's looking more towards South Carolina and trying to coalesce more of that vote there.

MARTIN: Ruben?

NAVARRETTE: I want to go to Michel's point, because I think it's exactly right, and this is the point about people not speaking to certain groups of people. The context of this remark, and I understand it to be this: that either he asked this question or the line of conversation - this question, answer doesn't come out of nowhere - was about whether or not Republicans should be speaking to the NAACP or would accept an invitation to do so. And so the alternatives are really this: if you had a President Romney or a President Santorum and they decided not to go speak to the NAACP, versus one like a President Gingrich who said I welcome the opportunity, I don't think you can somehow get away from the idea of preferring the Gingrich approach, which is just to engage people and not to blow them off, but to actually have that discussion and let them challenge you.

MARTIN: But why wouldn't people at the NAACP be equally interested in his foreign policy or in his monetary policy or on all these other issues? I mean, why food stamps, per se?

SPENCE: Right.

MARTIN: I mean, is he suggesting that that's the one issue that people were interested in? I...

NAVARRETTE: I don't know. That's part of what he got wrong. The other part that he gets wrong...

IZRAEL: Yeah.

NAVARRETTE: ...is the point you made earlier, which is he needs to broaden these messages out. I told him specifically in an interview I did with him that I agreed with him on the idea of a diminished work ethic, but he should be talking about that with regard to rich white kids in the suburbs just as much as anyone else. So he always sort of goes for the mark. I think he gets the right idea, but he doesn't broaden it out enough to say that you have a problem with dependency and entitlement in this country. But it's not limited to African-Americans.

MARTIN: Well, Lester looks like he's going to faint.

EALONS: Well, you have asked the question why does he couch it that way?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Lester looks like he's going to faint. Go ahead, Lester. Go ahead. Get it out here.

SPENCE: I mean, so he wants to hit certain voters - I mean, the Republican Party, at the national level, with exceptions, is predominantly a white party, predominately white voters. He wants to get at them, and - but, there's also part of a larger project of diminishing support for certain types of government programs, right? So he uses black people and welfare conveniently to basically castigate any government effort that really helps people and create a social safety net, right?

Now the challenge is, is that there are a number of things that middle-class people, that elderly people get. We - all homeowners claim a mortgage income tax credit, right? I mean, we all get the earned income. Those of us with children, those of us who put kids in childcare get tax credits from the government. Those are like handouts, right? So the challenge there is that we don't push these - push political officials of both parties - because both parties do this. We don't push them enough to talk about the ways that government actually helps people. And to that extent, I'd actually argue that we should be fighting against even claims that we should improve a work ethic, because that even - that further moves us away from social safety net-type programs that help all of us.

MARTIN: Well, I don't know if they do, but that's a debate. That's another sort of argument. Jimi, you have something that you want to weigh in on this before we move on?

IZRAEL: Yeah. I just wanted to say that, yeah, he talked about his engagement with people of color, and not for nothing, right? But I just think this - I want to give him the benefit of the doubt and just say he misspoke. I think his misspeaking really speaks to his general cluelessness to what to say to this particular black electorate and also...

NAVARRETTE: Right. Right.

IZRAEL: ...a general lack of a big idea coming from the GOP, period.

NAVARRETTE: Right. Right.

IZRAEL: So I mean, it's again somebody that stands up at the wedding, you know, after a few drinks with a toast with nothing anybody wants to say, I mean nobody wants to hear to say, you know, and I think is unfortunate. I do.

MARTIN: I don't know that he did misspeak. I don't know that he did misspeak. (CROSSTALK)

EALONS: Exactly. Jimi, I think you're letting him - Jimi...

IZRAEL: I'm trying to give him the benefit of the doubt, because his creds - I mean, he has a track record. So I don't know. I want to give him the benefit of the doubt.

EALONS: Someone who...

MARTIN: But that just perceives that, that just, you say somebody that speaks when you disagree with your analysis. Maybe that's his analysis.

NAVARRETTE: Well, what's wrong with what he said, this idea of misspeaking? He said basically, is anybody here? If this message were coming from an African-American and it wasn't being given to a white audience in New Hampshire - both of which, I agree with you, is problematic, are problematic. But if this were coming from an African-American, Bill Cosby-type figure who said the same thing, we would say there's truth in this...

MARTIN: Well, no. Not necessarily.

IZRAEL: No. (CROSSTALK)

I don't know about that. I don't know about that, because Bill Cosby caught it for that. So I don't know. It's a bad example.

MARTIN: A lot of people - no, a lot of people would disagree. But I'll just tie a bow on this to say, you know, the convention center is very near here where the NAACP had its convention. In the final year of the Bush administration, he finally came...

EALONS: Finally came. Exactly right. Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: ...and accepted an invitation to come, which had been repeatedly offered, and he was criticized because he did not talk about the war. Because what these folks said is, you know what? We are interested in everything you do as president. We're not just interested in one thing, because you know what? Because we are citizens and we are interested in the totality of your leadership.

All right. Before we let you go, you know, we have to talk about the NFL playoffs. OK. Now, you know I love my Jets, and they didn't make it. So I'm going to zip it right here and say Lester, the Detroit Lions returning to the postseason: Are they ready?

SPENCE: Lions. Lions. Lions. Yes. Yes. Yes. This is going to be dope.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: All right.

IZRAEL: So tell us how you really feel about it.

MARTIN: Tell us how you really feel. Corey, who you pulling for?

EALONS: Well, I got to tell you, my first appearance on this show back in the beginning of the season, I said I thought the Green Bay Packers were going to take it. They are now 15-1 going into the playoffs. They've got home-field advantage. They got a buy. I got to hang it on Aaron Rodgers and think he's going to take it all the way this year. I've got to stick with them.

MARTIN: You know, that was just a sneaky way of pointing out that he predicted the Packers. And he was just sending us texts throughout...

EALONS: Oh, there was nothing sneaky about that. That was very direct.

MARTIN: OK. Very good.

EALONS: Thank you very much.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Ruben?

NAVARRETTE: I just got a text message from Rick Santorum. This is the year of the underdog. Go Lions.

MARTIN: Oh.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: All right. Jimi?

IZRAEL: Yeah. I'm rocking with the underdogs, too. Lions all the way.

MARTIN: Lions all the way.

EALONS: That's great.

MARTIN: OK. All right.

SPENCE: What-what.

MARTIN: All right. Well, we have like 10 seconds left so you can, OK Lester, you can take...

NAVARRETTE: What's up with the Indianapolis Colts? Are they out of it? I wasn't paying attention.

SPENCE: Oh.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: That was so...

NAVARRETTE: I've been busy.

MARTIN: You know what?

EALONS: Number one in the draft. Number one in the draft.

MARTIN: Your words are just hurtful. Your words are just hurtful.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Your words are just hurtful. Lester, why the Lions? Just tell us: Why the Lions?

SPENCE: They got a really powerful offense. If their defense actually comes to play, I think they're going to be really hard to stop, and people are going to sleep on them.

MARTIN: All right. Lester Spence is a political science professor at Johns Hopkins University. He's author of "Stare in the Darkness: The Limits of Hip-hop and Black Politics." He was here with us in our Washington, D.C. studios, along with Corey Ealons, the senior vice president of the strategic communications firm VOX Global. He's also the former director of African-American media for the Obama administration. Here with us from San Diego, Ruben Navarrette. He's a syndicated columnist who writes for The Washington Post Writers' Group, Latino magazine and the conservative outlet PJ Media. And from Cleveland, member station WCPN, Jimi Izrael, freelance journalist and author of the book "The Denzel Principle."

Gentlemen, thank you all so much.

EALONS: Good to be here.

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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