Shop Talk: GOP Primaries Heating Up In The South

Host Michel Martin and the Barbershop guys talk about whether there's a clear path to securing the GOP nomination. They also weigh in on Peyton Manning and on the NFL investigation that revealed some players were paid bounty to take down opponents.

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 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 freelance journalist Jimi Izrael. He joins us from Cleveland. In New York City, Sports Illustrated reporter Pablo Torre. In Boston, Neil Minkoff. He is a health care consultant and contributor to National Review magazine. He's also a trained physician, so if you want to talk about that little cough you can't get rid of, he's right here. And, in Washington, D.C., NPR's political editor, the Political Junkie himself, Ken Rudin.

Take it away, Jimi.

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

KEN RUDIN, BYLINE: Hey, welcome sluts and prostitutes.

DR. NEIL MINKOFF: It's a beautiful day in the neighborhood.

IZRAEL: Oh, come on. Come on. Really?

RUDIN: Rush Limbaugh said it was OK to say that.

IZRAEL: Neil Minkoff, this is your first time in the shop. Yeah?

MARTIN: No.

MINKOFF: No, the second. I was here about...

IZRAEL: Really?

MARTIN: Second. Come on, man.

IZRAEL: OK. Well, welcome back. Forgive me. I'm getting older. I'm getting older.

PABLO TORRE: ...talk trash about my own New England Patriots.

MARTIN: Yeah. Talk to him about that hit on the head afterwards. OK?

IZRAEL: Right. Exactly.

MARTIN: That hard hit that somebody obviously hit Jimi with.

IZRAEL: Clearly. Well, Super Tuesday is behind us, but the race for the Republican presidential nomination, it isn't over yet. It's Saturday night fever in Kansas tomorrow and, well, it's the last dance for somebody, Michel.

MARTIN: Well, I don't know. That's what we're here to talk about. So tomorrow, caucuses in Kansas, then Tuesday, Alabama, Hawaii and Mississippi weigh in. I think a lot of - most attention focusing on Alabama and Mississippi because a superPAC supporting former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum says it's planning to spend more than half a million dollars on ads there.

And I just have a clip for you so you can get the flavor of what they're talking about. It's not subtle. Just a little heads up here.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: They're not much different. Like Obama, Gingrich supported individual health insurance mandates and lobbied for Freddie Mac. Mitt created Romneycare, the blueprint for Obamacare. And just like Obama, Romney left Massachusetts $1 billion in debt. Who can win? Rick Santorum. His bold...

IZRAEL: Yeah.

MARTIN: OK. Well, the part you missed, just in case there was any doubt about who they're talking about, it starts by saying, how can Mitt Romney or Newt Gingrich beat Barack Obama, when on the vital decisions they're not much different? OK. So there is the point.

IZRAEL: All right. Well, thanks for that, Michel. Neil Minkoff, does Santorum need a stronger argument to take down frontrunner Mitt Romney?

MINKOFF: If he can find one. I just don't see it happening.

IZRAEL: Right.

MINKOFF: I mean, the thing that I think is really funny here is that, on paper, it looks like some weird version of "Glengarry Glen Ross," where you have three salesmen and nobody can close the deal. But if you take a step back and look at it, it's kind of because of the way we look at it. So, you know, maybe Romney and Santorum have sold the same number of houses, but Romney's selling million dollar houses and Santorum is selling small condos because Romney's got over 300 delegates. Santorum has under 100.

So a lot of it depends on your perspective going forward and these smaller states aren't going to be enough for him to help close the gap.

IZRAEL: Where's the machine when you need him? All right. Ken Rudin.

RUDIN: Well...

IZRAEL: You're the Political Junkie, man. Do you think there's a clear path to the nomination for any of these candidates? Now, man, jump in. You're at the bit, man. Go for it.

RUDIN: Is it time now? OK.

IZRAEL: Yes, man. It's your time.

RUDIN: Certainly, Romney has the advantage. He has the money. He has the organization. In states like Florida, in states like Ohio, in states like Michigan, and perhaps coming up on March 20th in Illinois - look, he doesn't win these states big. He doesn't win - he wins them close. Ohio was a squeaker. Michigan was much closer than anybody expected.

But he still won. I mean, we can talk about, you know, whether he should have won by a bigger margin. Should John F. Kennedy beaten Richard Nixon by more than 100,000 votes in 1960? Sure.

But the thing is, you know, look, he'll never win over these strong Tea Party-backed conservatives who just don't trust him from all the pro-choice, pro-gay rights stuff he's said in the past. The real issue right now, at least as of this next week, is whether Newt Gingrich remains viable and if he doesn't win in Alabama and Mississippi it's hard to see the argument for him going on.

IZRAEL: You know what, Michel? What you called the Saturday night fever, this is Saturday night fever with no Tony Manero. The GOP that keeps, they keep underwhelming me and the rest of the electorate with their lack of a big idea.

Gingrich is trying to stay alive. Santorum wants to know how deep the love is, but it's going to be the last dance - I'm sorry - for somebody. Somebody's not going to be happy. Somebody's not going to leave with the trophy.

MARTIN: Well, but I still have to ask, though. Still have to ask Ken, though. What is the - what's the rationale? I mean, you can't miss the fact that this race is being funded, to this point, by very few people. So the question you have to ask is, if they had to rely on a broader network of fundraisers, would these other guys keep going? So set that aside.

The rules are that, you know, one guy who really believes in you, who happens to have a lot of money can keep you going. But still, what's the rationale for everybody else for why these guys should keep going? Is there one?

RUDIN: Well, Newt Gingrich insists that Rick Santorum can't win in November. He's too conservative. He's too far to the right. He's too unaccommodating. The argument against Rick Santorum is that - against Rick - Newt Gingrich is that he has, you know, more baggage than American Airlines. He has all the things in his past. You know, the – I mean I understand that if he were elected president Callista would be third lady. I mean not first lady, you know.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

RUDIN: So there's so many things...

TORRE: Aw. Aw.

IZRAEL: Ba-dum ching.

RUDIN: No. No I just read – no, it's in the official rules. And, of course, Romney has the problem that just nobody trusts his ideological bearings.

MARTIN: Well, you know, I wanted to ask Neil about this, because Neil, you're in Massachusetts, which Mitt Romney served as governor - one of his home states. I guess we could sort of put it this way. And the roots of the argument that he can't be trusted kind of date back to his time there when many people say look, he made certain promises as governor and then he flipped completely to the right and moved so far to the right they don't even recognize the man anymore. So I just wanted to ask you, how is he viewed there now? He did when Massachusetts in the, you know, primary but how is he viewed now?

MINKOFF: Winning the Republican Massachusetts primary is being like the tallest munchkin.

MARTIN: Canadian. It's like being Canadian, right?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MINKOFF: Yeah. So that's not a huge thing. But to me here's - this is why I think everybody is going forward, including Mitt, which is that everybody who's left standing at this point has made some serious changes in their positions over the years, including the man who's going to be running on the Democratic side, has made some very significant policy changes, from being the candidate to being the elected official. And if you're saying that Mitt Romney has changed his position over time, that puts him in pretty good company.

RUDIN: Except for Ron Paul. We should point that out. Ron Paul has not changed his views. He still supports all 13 states. But and the problem is...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

RUDIN: ...that despite having not changed his view, he has not won - he is the only one of the 21 states not to have won a single primary or caucus.

IZRAEL: Fair point.

MARTIN: But he seems to be in it to advance his ideas, though. I don't think he thinks he can win.

RUDIN: Oh yeah. And that's what it's all about.

MARTIN: I don't think there's any idea here now. Pablo, you want to get in this?

TORRE: Yeah. Just in either case I think it's safe to say that Barack Obama's staff is clearly sending anonymous motivational greeting cards to Newt Gingrich, saying you can do it.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

TORRE: I mean you're the man. Don't let us down. I think that's clear. I mean the longer this goes on...

IZRAEL: Nice.

TORRE: I mean Barack Obama, besides the jobs stuff, he's loving this. I mean how could you not?

RUDIN: And Republicans said something similar in 2008, when Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama went all the way to June, but then it wasn't vituperative, it wasn't personal, it wasn't ugly, and that's the difference. It made Barack Obama a better candidate. It's questionable whether this is making Mitt Romney, or whoever the nominee is, a better candidate.

TORRE: Right.

MINKOFF: So looking back four years though, I seem to remember that P-U-M-A, Puma movement at the end of the primaries. I don't recall it as being as...

MARTIN: Remind people what that is.

MINKOFF: Non-vituperative...

MARTIN: Neil?

MINKOFF: The Party Unity My...

MARTIN: Oh yeah. My...

MINKOFF: Posterior.

MARTIN: Exactly.

TORRE: Butt.

MARTIN: Well, spoken like the doctor you are.

MINKOFF: Yeah, party - that was a movement that that was saying we're not going to, you know, for Hillary, strong Hillary supporters...

MARTIN: It was her.

MINKOFF: ...that weren't going to come back in the fold, that's...

MARTIN: But they did.

MINKOFF: That happens every four years.

MARTIN: They did, though. But you're right about that.

MINKOFF: They did.

MARTIN: I was going to disagree with Ken on that too. It was personal. It may not have been like...

RUDIN: As ugly as this? I don't think so. No.

MARTIN: No. Well, there were no ads pointing out. There were just people being really annoyed you know?

MINKOFF: There was the 3 a.m. ad.

TORRE: (Unintelligible) voice actor.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MINKOFF: That 3 a.m. ad was pretty ugly.

MARTIN: That was. Well, I don't know. You think it's as - well, all right. We'll debate the ugliness meter.

If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from...

RUDIN: Speaking of ugly.

MARTIN: Oh, nice. Nice.

RUDIN: No. No. No. No. No. I was...

MARTIN: What was that about? Excuse me.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

RUDIN: No I meant - no I didn't mean that.

IZRAEL: Oh, man.

MARTIN: Because you talk for a living so we don't know what you meant, right?

RUDIN: This is my last day on the show, right?

MARTIN: Exactly.

RUDIN: Yeah. OK. OK.

MARTIN: If you're just - on this floor.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin, Ken.

RUDIN: Sorry.

MARTIN: And you're listening to our weekly Barbershop roundtable. We're joined by freelance journalist Jimi Izrael, National Review contributor Neil Minkoff, Sports Illustrated reporter Pablo Torre, three gentlemen and NPR's political junkie Ken Rudin.

Back to you, Jimi.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

IZRAEL: Thanks, Michel. All right. Well, we move from a little infighting to the hard-hits of professional football. NFL officials are still, still dealing with news that some players are getting paid to injured their opponents - not after the game in the parking lot - but on the field of play, Michel, if you can believe that.

MARTIN: Well, you know, this is where, I'm interested to hear what Pablo has to say about this, because there's been, there was an NFL investigation and former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams at the time that he was at the Saints, and also it appears that when he was with the Redskins, organized or helped organize or somehow participated in this bounty system where players were paid for hard hits, even to knocking people out of the game. And the public reaction to this has ranged from this is terrible to, you know, duh, you know, this is how the game is played. And I'll just...

IZRAEL: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: And I'll just play a – I just want to play a short clip from Alex Brown. He's a former Bears and Saints defensive end. He's talking on a sports radio show earlier this week. Here it is.

ALEX BROWN: I'm not here to talk about whether or not it was money to put a guy out or not. There were instances where players would say well, first guy get a sack, first guy get an interception, I mean you get 100 bucks or something like that. You can knock a guy out of a game and do it legally.

MARTIN: So I just got to ask, you know, Pablo, what's you're reporting indicate here, is that this is widespread because some guys are saying like hey, this is like dinner for the first guy who...

TORRE: Right.

MARTIN: And then other people are saying people on some of these special teams could match their salaries.

TORRE: Yeah. I think the...

MARTIN: So that's a whole different kettle of fish.

TORRE: Yeah. I think there's a spectrum of the magnitude. I think this, what the Saints did, was clearly on the upper end of that spectrum. It was intense. It was codified and that's the difference when you talk about the NFL rulebook. It clearly went against the letter of the law.

The question for me is, I mean, where I fall on this is that it doesn't really go against the spirit of the law. I mean the NFL, I mean you can talk to players for days and they'll tell you that the way to change games - I mean Neil knows this. The Giants-Patriots Super Bowl...

MINKOFF: Oy.

TORRE: You know, they hit Tom Brady. And that was the plan, to make Tom Brady fear the Giants' physical presence. And that's a part of the game that even if it's not illegal or legal - and certainly there are referees to make that distinction in the field of play - but those hits, I mean the physicality of it, you know, you talk about a bounty system, talk about contracts. I mean the reason guys are paid millions of dollars is to make the other players on the field physically intimidated. And legal or illegal hits, hard hits have always been part of the game. So for me there is a little bit of the duh element because even if it's not codified, guys are being encouraged to do this with high fives, butt slaps, however else. It's just that the Saints were dumb enough to put it in paper and actually have an organized system.

IZRAEL: Mm.

MARTIN: Well, Jimi, what do you think?

MINKOFF: Well, can...

MARTIN: I don't know, Neil, I guess. Neil, do you want to jump in?

MINKOFF: Yeah. I was trying - my point is this is what worries me about this going forward. So, you know, a bounty system seems unacceptable, but as we're talking about it here it becomes increasingly unclear where the line is drawn.

TORRE: Right.

MINKOFF: And where I'm sitting right now is a block away from the place where all of the research on chronic head trauma and brain trauma in NFL players has been done and it is devastating. I mean Jim McMahon basically says he can't remember playing in the Super Bowl. The Players Union had to set up with the league in what they call the 88 Fund to help support players who get early dementia. And so what really worries me here is why aren't the players and the Players Union stepping up and saying that we're the ones that have to protect ourselves maybe even from ourselves and what are we going to do to draw the line between what's a good hit and what's going to leave a co-worker crippled later in life.

TORRE: Right.

MARTIN: Where is the NFL Players Union on this, Pablo?

TORRE: I mean they are in a very awkward place. I mean Scott Fujita, who is one of the Saints' linebackers, who has been very active with that very movement and with the union, is one of the guys who was on those teams. And he says that he'd only pay for legal hits especially, you know, big tackles, interceptions and all that. But I mean what Neil is hitting on is exactly the point. I mean when you have a market that validates and encourages players - like for example, James Harrison, the Steelers linebacker who's known for being vicious, Ray Lewis, guys who've ended all their player's careers with legal hits, let alone illegal hits. I mean it's a question of why would you personally if you're an NFL player be disincentivized, would you try to do less of that if that's what's getting market value?

For as much as the NFL what to pontificate about safety issues, as long as the game is based in violence, as long as the game is more like boxing, which is something I've said in the Barbershop for a while now, as long as it's more like pugilism, and it fundamentally will always be that way, then how could you possibly try and curb this problem and sort of put an end to the slippery slope?

MARTIN: Well, just a couple of minutes we have left I did want to ask Jimi and Ken as fans what - does this change the way you look at the game? I don't know, Jimi, do you want to try that?

IZRAEL: Well, correct me if I'm wrong Pablo, but in the MMA fighting, you know, UFC, you know, you get more money for a submission. You get more money for knockout. So it just makes sense to me that in the NFL yeah, you would get more money for hard hits and possibly maiming somebody. It's not right but it's OK. It's the business. You know, if you don't like it then we got to change the whole business of football, if that's what it's come to. So I mean...

MARTIN: Well, Ken, what do you think?

RUDIN: Yeah. I just...

MARTIN: Ken, because they keep saying like this is not a gladiator sport. This is about yardage. So...

RUDIN: Look, all I know is when I watch a hockey game and there's a fight, everybody cheers and cheers and (unintelligible) get riled. But when there is somebody unconscious on a football field there is dead silence there. And you look at somebody like Peyton Manning, look, these defensive linebackers are supposed to hit and they are paid to be hit, but to be paid extra to knock somebody out the game, end their career, you look at the city of Indianapolis, you look at Peyton Manning, you look at that whole franchise, which had won, which had been in two Super Bowls in succession, and then they go with like, you know, 0 and 27, you know, without their star player, sure there's aggressive hitting, but trying to damage somebody's career it's just beyond the pale I think.

MARTIN: Well, before we...

MINKOFF: So can I just make...

MARTIN: Go ahead.

MINKOFF: ...one more quick before we move on to Peyton, which is the long...

MARTIN: Well, we'll we have two minutes Neil, so the reason is I wanted to ask you to go on to Peyton now and to say look, do you think he should keep playing or not, I mean given that he had a serious neck injury?

MINKOFF: So I don't know what to do about that. A few months ago, even though I'm a doctor, this is so convoluted that I didn't know what to say about that, I didn't know what to think. I interviewed a spine specialist for a sport site up here and he said look, there is no one answer to that question. There is probably so much arthritic damage and so much potential for long-term damage that he would be against it. But there is no one right answer.

MARTIN: Hmm.

TORRE: Yeah.

MARTIN: Well, I know I'm not going to make you sort of - I'm not going to make you diagnose him from a distance because that would not be right.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: But, so Pablo, look...

TORRE: Yeah.

MARTIN: You know, this is obviously a business thing very, you know, emotional decision...

TORRE: Right.

MARTIN: ...it seemed to be. He was due for a $28 million bonus check from the Colts. Why not just renegotiate his contract, let him sit on the bench and be a spiritual force or whatever from there?

TORRE: Yeah.

MARTIN: What's the deal with that?

TORRE: I think the deal is that Peyton Manning thinks he's a quarterback still. And they have Andrew Luck or Robert Griffin III coming in to be a franchise player who are both really good. But the saddest thing in sports is to see, you know, Joe Namath not playing for the Jets, to see Joe Montana going to, you know, the Rams or wherever it is.

RUDIN: Kansas City.

TORRE: Peyton Manning, I mean we all want him to be in a glass case where he's throwing a touchdown forever. And he's going to come back. If he plays for the Redskins, God forbid, or for the Jets, God forbid - no offense to you, Michel - it's going to be sad. I mean I just don't see this ending well. And the graceful thing would be to step away but we all know that an athlete dies twice, once when he actually physically biologically expires and once when he retires. And that's what everybody is fighting against

MARTIN: Well, how come nobody gave me any love on Hines Ward last week?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: I don't understand this. I was like the only one here crying. Everybody was like whatever, it's the sport. But somehow, I don't know. I'm just feeling very alone, that's all I can say about that. I'm just feeling very - I'm not angry. I'm just very hurt. That's all I can say.

RUDIN: Michel, I'm here for you, Michel. Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

TORRE: Ken's back.

RUDIN: Yeah.

MARTIN: Goodbye.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Ken Rudin is NPR's political editor. He was here with me in our Washington, D.C. studio. Jimi Izrael is a freelance journalist and presidential fellow at Case Western Reserve University. He was with us from member station WCPN in Cleveland.

Pablo Torre is a reporter for Sports Illustrated. He was with us from our NPR studios in New York. And Dr. Neil Minkoff, he is a doctor turned health care consultant. He's a contributor to the National Review, and he was with us from Boston.

Gentlemen, thank you all so much.

MINKOFF: Thank you.

TORRE: Thank you.

RUDIN: Thank you so much.

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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