Will Republicans Follow The Leader?

The Barbershop guys talk about which political party seems more bruised now that the battle over taxes has ended. They also guess who will be going down in the NFL playoffs this weekend. Guest host Celeste Headlee checks in with culture critic Jimi Izrael; sports writer Pablo Torre, NPR's Ken Rudin and former chair of the Republican National Committee, Michael Steele.

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CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:

I'm Celeste Headlee. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away. And it's time yet again for our weekly visit to the Barber Shop. That's where the guys talk about what's in the news, what's on their minds.

Sitting in the chairs for a shape-up this week, writer and culture critic Jimi Izrael. He joins us from Cleveland. Here in our Washington, D.C. studios, Michael Steele, the former chair of the Republican National Committee; and NPR's political editor, the Political Junkie, Ken Rudin. And also joining us, Pablo Torre. He's senior writer with ESPN.com. He's with us from our bureau in New York.

So welcome and take it away, Jimi.

JIMI IZRAEL: C. Headlee, thanks so much.

HEADLEE: You're welcome.

IZRAEL: The man of Steele. Michael Steele.

MICHAEL STEELE: What's up?

IZRAEL: Michael Steele, what's up, man?

STEELE: I'm good, baby. Happy New Year.

IZRAEL: And to you, man.

STEELE: Thank you.

IZRAEL: It's good to have you in. K-Dog, my man, what's good?

KEN RUDIN, BYLINE: Yes. You can call me man of aluminum.

IZRAEL: P-Dog. What's up, Pablo?

PABLO TORRE: What's going on? I'm just staring at Rex Ryan's tattoo on the front cover of various newspapers today.

IZRAEL: That sounds very personal. We're not going there.

STEELE: I was going to say...

IZRAEL: Let's keep moving.

STEELE: It sounds like you need more than a shape-up.

IZRAEL: Listen, so John Boehner keeps his hand on the gavel, just barely. It wasn't quite the love fest we all thought it could be, but the speaker of the House was elected to a second term yesterday. That's despite some tough words from his own people about how he handled budget negotiations and Superstorm Sandy relief. Here's what he had to say after the vote.

REPRESENTATIVE JOHN BOEHNER: Public service was never meant to be an easy living. Extraordinary challenges demand extraordinary leadership. So if you've come here to see your name in the lights or to pass off a political victory as some accomplishment, you've come to the wrong place. The door is right behind you.

IZRAEL: Profound, as usual. Michael Steele, you know what's interesting to me...

STEELE: That was deep, though, bro. That was deep.

IZRAEL: Politico.com - well, you know, Politico.com intimated there may have been an underground movement to oust Boehner. Apparently, according to Politico, Republican Tim Huelskamp - I think I got that name correctly - was prepping a list of haters on his iPad and somebody caught a picture of it and posted it on the Webski. You know, of course, all of those people that were on that list ended up falling in line.

Still, me personally - I have to wonder if there was a coup to get him out of there that may have failed. Steele, you got the best look on that. Go ahead.

STEELE: Yeah. It wasn't a coup so much as it was sort of a cuh(ph) - you know, that was about it. It wasn't a full coup.

IZRAEL: Nice.

STEELE: It was just right there.

IZRAEL: Like half a coup.

STEELE: Half a coup.

RUDIN: It was a coochee-coochee coup.

STEELE: It was a coochee-coochee coup.

IZRAEL: A coochee-coochee coup.

STEELE: And that's right, Ken. You got it, bro. But the fact of the matter is it was...

HEADLEE: Oh, Lord.

STEELE: ...it's a bellwether for Boehner. It was a shot across his bow from conservatives who were like we're not doing two more years of what we just did, whether it's on negotiations, whether it's on debt discussions, whatever it happens to be; we need you to know that we're going to play a different kind of ball.

Now, the question that a lot of us are asking is, what kind of ball is that? Because the ball you've been playing hasn't been too successful, and if you're starting out by saying, you know, as the president has on his end, look, you know, I'm not negotiating on the debt ceiling, and Republicans saying on their end, the only thing we want to talk about is the debt ceiling and nothing else, then we've got a problem already.

So I think conservatives, at least, were saying, look, we're going to do this differently. They fell about one vote short of the 17 that would have been required for a second ballot, which would have been humiliating for the speaker.

IZRAEL: Of course. Ken Rudin, you know, even though Boehner won, you know, this a pyrrhic victory at best? I mean does he really have any power at all?

RUDIN: Well, he certainly does have power. He's the only Republican voice in government when you think that the Democrats not only control the Senate and of course they control the White House - I don't think anybody controls the Senate - but you know, think of what happened two years ago. Sixty-three new Republicans came into Congress, making John Boehner speaker. The Republicans only lost a net gain - a net of eight seats, so for all the disaster that 2012 was allegedly about the Republicans, they only lost eight seats.

But having said that, look, he signed off. He went for a Plan B on a fiscal cliff deal that he had to withdraw because he didn't have the support. Then he basically was thrown out of the negotiations when Mitch McConnell took over, and then, you know - and then, for those who, you know, didn't support him, you know, he knows that coming up, the debt ceiling limit battle at the end of February - that's when he's going to have to show his true colors.

IZRAEL: Pablo Torre, you're up in New York, you know, an area hit hard by Superstorm Sandy. Boehner was called on the carpet for initially delaying vote for storm relief. What are folks saying up there?

TORRE: Yeah. You know, it's funny because I never expected to see, to reference the New York tabloids, is them step up as sort of a liberal voice of reason on stuff, but now we have two issues. The first one being gun control certainly. You had the gun nut New York Post back cover about the NRA press conference. And then you have the Sandy relief bills, which pretty much everyone here agrees, you know, Republican Congressman Peter King, who's the chairman of the House Committee of Homeland Security, not known for obviously being anything close to liberal, but now you have him really taking Boehner to task because of the initial withdrawal of those Sandy funds, which is pretty shocking. Chris Christie, obviously governor of New Jersey, got in on that too and you have...

HEADLEE: And we should mention that the Sandy vote has now happened and passed, although there were some notable votes against. Yeah.

TORRE: Yes.

STEELE: Right. Right. Mm-hmm.

TORRE: Right. Exactly. And then you have also the, you know, you have Peter King saying he doesn't understand why you might need an assault weapon, you know, with that quote to Joe Scarborough. So all of this stuff is, and I don't think political dissension is unique by any means at anytime, but you do have New York, it seems, as this nice friction point for two big issues at least.

STEELE: Yeah. And I think...

IZRAEL: Well, you know...

STEELE: I was going to say real quick on that point...

IZRAEL: Go ahead, Mike.

STEELE: ...and I think it's an important point to note, that this whole issue, which I think frustrated a lot of New Yorkers and New Jerseys, was the fact that this is not a conservative or liberal issue. We're talking about devastation unimaginable since Katrina for two states. And the response by the federal government and the response, in particular by elected officials, was - how shall we say - pathetic. And I think that that really triggered the concern of Gov. Christie, you know, Congressman King and others to come out and make it very clear, this, get this out of politics and put it where it needs to be. Put the resources on the streets so those communities can make themselves whole again and we can move forward. We do not want to languish in a debate, a political debate.

RUDIN: That's what Christie said when he hugged President Obama. He said look, I'm not a Republican hugging a Democrat.

STEELE: Right.

RUDIN: I'm hoping somebody who could do something in the aftermath of what happened.

STEELE: Can help us.

TORRE: And that was one of the best moments of the political calendar.

STEELE: Absolutely. Absolutely.

IZRAEL: Ken Rudin, the great uniter. He...

RUDIN: Yes. A lot of people have said that. Actually, nobody said that.

(LAUGHTER)

HEADLEE: If that was a high point though, does that make Boehner's F-word, F-bomb the low point?

STEELE: Well, you know, my whole take on the whole...

HEADLEE: We're talking about his very famous dropping of the...

STEELE: ...of the F-bomb to Harry Reid in the White House.

HEADLEE: Yeah. To Harry Reid in the Senate - in the White House. Yeah.

STEELE: And you know what my response to that was, basically, when you're getting screwed at some point you want to get the guy off your back, so...

HEADLEE: Right.

STEELE: ...that's basically what he was saying.

IZRAEL: Wow.

TORRE: In the world of sports you're constantly...

IZRAEL: Go ahead, Pablo.

TORRE: In the world of sports someone dropping an F-bomb in the workplace is about - happens about 50 times for every game, so I'm pretty desensitized to that.

IZRAEL: What? Wait a second. But what happened to the whole contract about civil discourse. And, you know, do we have to talk like that? It's not the Barbershop, I mean. Well, you know what I mean.

HEADLEE: You don't swear in the Barbershop, Jimi.

(LAUGHTER)

IZRAEL: We don't have to talk like that, you know, in the White House, right?

RUDIN: Yeah, but the things they say about Harry Reid they did not say about President Obama and Vice President Biden. The Republicans do respect them. They don't respect Harry Reid and that was clear throughout the whole campaign when Harry Reid would come up with these concoctions of things about Mitt Romney that certainly weren't true and everybody knew they weren't true but Harry Reid would say them anyway.

STEELE: Yeah. And I think that's a lot of the political frustration eventually boiling over when, you know, you have Harry Reid saying that the speaker is a dictator. And, in fact, if you talk to the members, and I was talking to a few of them this morning, the two years prior to the current speaker's tenure-ship was much more of a dictatorship than anything the members have seen, particularly when you consider how he runs the caucus in allowing the members to vote their conscience and not always having a party call, as Ms. Pelosi was known to do.

HEADLEE: OK, the inside track there from former chair of the RNC, Michael Steele.

I'm Celeste Headlee. You're listening to the weekly Barbershop roundtable. We're also joined by writer Jimi Izrael, NPR's political junkie Ken Rudin, and sports writer Pablo Torre.

Back to you, Jimi.

IZRAEL: Thanks, Celeste. Now we're going to take a look at a sports story a lot of us were happy to be done with - at least we thought we were done with it, right Celeste?

HEADLEE: That's right. It's back. Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett is leading a lawsuit against the National Collegiate Athletic Association, the NCAA. He's not happy about the sanctions the organization put on Penn State after the sex abuse scandal there. Those crimes involved former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky. Sandusky is now serving a 30-year sentence for molesting several boys.

IZRAEL: Mm. Thanks, Celeste. You know, the NCAA fined the school $60 million and voided 14 years of football victories. The organization was not pleased with the way Penn State handled the charges. You know, Pablo, it appears to me that Corbett did say at a press conference that he would not let these sanctions stand, quote/unquote "without a fight." Is it just me or he doesn't seem to get the underlying point of the sanctions? You know, life isn't football, right?

TORRE: Yeah. And I think there are two issues here. The macro issue is that one, which is it's ironic that everybody, Tom Corbett, Penn State, everybody had agreed that something radical needed to take place because nothing was really commensurate with the magnitude of what had happened in terms of the Jerry Sandusky horror. Now the micro issue, though, is the fact that Tom Corbett himself publicly supported the initial NCAA ban. He said, in fact, it was good because taxpayers weren't paying any of it. And Penn State, importantly, signed a waiver accepting the NCAA's unprecedented punishment.

And Penn State isn't a party to this lawsuit, I should point out, but Tom Corbett is a board member of the Penn State Board of Trustees and he's also a guy running for re-election, who I think has seen poll numbers in November, he trailed a generic Democratic opponent 47 to 37. And it's hard to believe that there is a very principled argument here when it comes - when this lawsuit comes so late, filed on behalf of the governor, when clearly there is a base that needs to be shored up. I just don't - and also we should also note that he was the one who was supposed to investigate Jerry Sandusky way back when he was attorney general...

IZRAEL: Right.

STEELE: Right.

TORRE: ...and we still don't know why it took so long. So there are a couple, there are more than a couple issues that kind of, for me, taint the incentives here. And yeah, I think look, the NCAA has a lot of problems but I don't think that this lawsuit is the vehicle we all should jump on to go about solving some of them.

IZRAEL: Michael Steele, you know, last time you were in the shop you said that you thought the whole program should be shut down. Corbett says all Penn State students are being punished for this scandal. Does he have a point, though?

STEELE: Unless you play football. I mean, no. I go back to my point. As Pablo was speaking there I was thinking exactly about that time because I was here the moment all of that broke and I'll reiterate it again. I think the program has some really bad seeds in it. And I think you shut it down and you germinate something different and new, give it time, give it space, allow for healing. And this is taking Pablo's macro point. This is not about, you know, football and, you know, collegiate abilities and all of that craziness; this is about what happened to kids. This is about what happened to young people and the reaction is no less important here than it was in Newtown - to Newtown. And in my view, kids have been damaged, they've been hurt, they've been victimized in either of those two situations, and the community has to respond in the way in which that generation knows that we have their back, we have their support and things matter much more than football programs and scholarship dollars and advertising dollars.

IZRAEL: Ken, politically, what does Corbett get out of this lawsuit if anything?

RUDIN: Well, yeah, let me add, there's a lot of things to be said about that.

IZRAEL: Sure.

RUDIN: First of all, I just want to say for the record, my son recently is a recent graduate of Penn State University, just to get it out of the way. And I also want to say that I always thought the NCAA was one of the greatest civil rights organizations in this country's history, so let me put that on the record as well. I guess that joke didn't work and I thought it might.

(LAUGHTER)

HEADLEE: We're all sitting here wondering is he serious? Because what?

IZRAEL: They're all not just (unintelligible).

TORRE: We wait to see if we're going to laugh after that.

IZRAEL: Shecky Rudin in the Barbershop. Go ahead, man.

RUDIN: It's tough doing funny jokes on radio. But having said that, I agree completely with Pablo's earlier point that it is not about football, it really is about Tom Corbett's political future. He's up for re-election in 2014 as attorney general. The thing about Sandusky went on forever. His numbers are weak. And there's also, even the pro-Paterno contingent in Pennsylvania, which is not insignificant, they're angry at Corbett for signing off on this thing from the beginning. So he's getting it from both sides. I really do think this is much more about politics than anything else.

TORRE: Yeah.

IZRAEL: All right. Well, let's -go ahead, Pablo.

TORRE: Oh, just saying, it's just kind of crazy I mean - to go back to your original point - it's kind of crazy that, you know, right now it's January 2013. It seems like the, you know, as much as we want to think that there are things that everybody will be perpetually outraged about, it seems like there is an exploration date for even this, when some people can kind of realize, oh wait, there is some political wood I can throw on this fire for my own benefit.

STEELE: And how sad is that?

TORRE: Yeah.

IZRAEL: It is. It's very sad, Michael. Well, let's kick this ball over to another field. Seven National Football League coaches got handed their pink slips Monday. They were calling it Black Monday around your parts, ESPN, weren't they, Pablo?

TORRE: Yeah.

IZRAEL: Is this a musical chairs kind of deal or are the coaches, are their careers over?

TORRE: No, I mean these...

IZRAEL: Is that a rap?

(LAUGHTER)

TORRE: These guys are going to be popping up in other places, maybe as assistants. You know, the NFL...

IZRAEL: At McDonald's?

(LAUGHTER)

TORRE: Well, a couple rungs down the ladder maybe they'll get there. But I think the NFL right now, it's just a huge - I mean this is the testament to the enormous, enormous business that it is. We got to remember that the NFL is the most popular sport in America, maybe the most unanimous thing that Americans seem to love. And the patience for football coaches is lower than ever, it seems. And it's also - there's an interesting phenomenon here, where the NFL is also plucking people from college ranks. That sort of changed. The college game has become this sort of laboratory for offensive strategic innovation. We're seeing it with Oregon's Chip Kelly, who just won that big game last night, who is now being suited by - pursued by every NFL team which didn't used to happen. So there's a bigger talent pool lately for willing and qualified candidates. But, yeah, if you're an NFL coach, I mean, it's hard to think that you can really put down roots for a while.

STEELE: Well...

IZRAEL: You know, Pablo, I'm no big sports aficionado, but the whole idea of plucking coaches and such from little, you know, from college ranks, it's like well, why don't we go, you know, to the city leagues? You know, why don't we go to little league and pluck...

HEADLEE: Yeah.

IZRAEL: Because it in my mind it requires a different skill set. You have to know how to manage different levels of players. Am I saying this right?

TORRE: Well, you know, I get your point. I think the distinction though, is that as we were talking about with Ken's point about the NCAA, college football is professionalized at this point.

HEADLEE: I don't think everyone believes that. But, you know, but Pablo, before we let everybody go, because were wrapping up here...

TORRE: Yeah.

HEADLEE: ...I just want to very, in five seconds, give us your pick for the playoffs. Ken, you're rooting for anybody?

RUDIN: Yeah, the Giants.

HEADLEE: OK. Michael?

STEELE: Oh, Redskins, all the way, baby.

HEADLEE: OK. And up there in New York, Pablo?

TORRE: You know, I was on the Redskins bandwagon last week. I'm going to stay on it until RG III's legs fall off. God forbid.

(LAUGHTER)

RUDIN: But I love Peyton Manning. I love Adrian Peterson.

HEADLEE: Yeah, right.

STEELE: Hey, could I just say one thing real quick? I just want to identify with those coaches who got fired for being successful.

HEADLEE: Some of them on Sunday?

STEELE: Yeah.

HEADLEE: Oh, come on now. That's Michael Steele...

STEELE: I just want them to understand that...

HEADLEE: ...former chair of the Republican National Committee...

STEELE: ...this brother relates to that. Just call me.

HEADLEE: All right. All right. OK.

STEELE: I can help you through it.

HEADLEE: Contributor for theroot, BET.com. Pablo Torre, senior writer for ESPN.com. He joined us from our NPR studios in New York. Ken Rudin is NPR's political editor and the network's political junkie. Ken and Michael are here with me here in D.C. Jimi Izrael is writer and culture critic, also adjunct professor of film and social media at Cuyahoga Community College. He was at NPR member station WCPN in Cleveland.

That's our program for today. I'm Celeste Headlee. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We'll talk more on Monday.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

IZRAEL: Yup.

TORRE: Thank you.

RUDIN: I'll explain that joke later.

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