Shop Talk: Health Care Overhaul Almost As Important As Tiger Woods' Drama

In this week's Barbershop, host Michel Martin chat with Editor and Founder of the Muslimguy.com Arsalan Iftikhar, syndicated columnist Ruben Navarrette, political science Professor Lester Spence and NPR Political Editor Ken Rudin. The group weighs in on the ongoing dramatic process to overhaul U.S. health care legislation and immigration policies. As a kicker, the guys give their opinion on the latest developments in the troubles surrounding golf star Tiger Woods as his once squeaky-clean image continues to implode amid revelations of infidelity.

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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 shape-up this week are civil rights attorney and editor Arsalan Iftikhar, syndicated columnist Ruben Navarrette, Johns Hopkins University political science Professor Lester Spence and NPR's political editor Ken Rudin. Jimi seems to be getting his shape-up elsewhere this week. I'm sorry, guys, you're stuck with me. Sorry about that, but you'll just live through it, I guess, right?

KEN RUDIN: And after the show, I'm going to visit Jimi in prison, so it'll be great.

MARTIN: They don't lock you up for a bad hair day. They don't lock you up for a bad haircut, like not yet.

Anyway, President Obama met with Senate Democrats on Tuesday to push for the health care overhaul bill, and as I think everybody knows who's been covering this thing, that Senate Republicans have been pushing back and pushing back. They've been using all kinds of delaying tactics, including requesting a reading of the legislation on the floor, and when I say reading, I mean reading. I'll just give you a flavor of what your elected representatives are living through. Here it is.

Unidentified Man: Section 4001: Purpose. Section 4002: Definitions. Subtitle B: Innovations in the Health Care Workforce. Section 4101...

MARTIN: Do you love it? Ken, do you love it?

RUDIN: I can't wait to see the movie, if the book is that good. You know, we could talk about the Republican obstinance all we want, but really what we're talking about is two Democrats whom Harry Reid and President Obama needs to win over, and that is Joe Lieberman - and Joe Lieberman apparently has come on board. Joe Lieberman objected to the public option, the Medicare buy-in from -at least for the last couple of weeks, and Joe Lieberman says I'm not going to sign up.

You need 60 votes to pass this thing. Democrats - Harry Reid has 58 Democrats plus two independents, so they need everyone. They need everyone. They know they're not going to get a Republican.

Now Ben Nelson, the senator, the center senator from Nebraska, who's very pro-life, very strongly opposed to abortion, he doesn't want any kind of language in the bill that would allow anybody to get subsidies for this health care bill to pay for abortions.

And so the Republicans could argue all they want, but ultimately if Reid can get every Democrat and the two independents on board, they pass the bill. But that's a big if.

MARTIN: And it's not just the abortion language. I mean, he was interviewed earlier today on NPR's MORNING EDITION. Well, there was an interview that he gave to a local station.

RUDIN: In Lincoln, Nebraska, right.

MARTIN: In Lincoln, Nebraska, where he says, you know, that's not my only issue. You know, I wanted to ask Arsalan and Lester, because I think you kind of speak often for the sort of the progressive side of the Democratic Party, as it were.

Howard Dean, the former DNC chair, says - you know what? Scrap the thing, start over. Arsalan, what do you say about that? And then Lester.

Mr. ARSALAN IFTIKHAR (Muslimguy.com): Well, I don't think that that's necessarily the path to take. You know, springboarding off what Ken said, you know, when it comes to Joe Lieberman and Ben Nelson, I'm reminded of the adage: With friends like these, who needs enemies? You know, at the end of the day, you're having two Democratic - well, actually one independent and one Democratic senator essentially hamstringing this entire debate, you know, because of Joe Lieberman, who let's not forget lost the Democratic primary in Connecticut to Ned Lamont, had to run an end-around and essentially take all the Republican voters in order to win, showing that he really has only a constituency of one, that being the insurance lobby.

MARTIN: But that's the way it is. I mean, so he's there...

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Right, well, but the thing is that, you know, when you have one senator who is wielding, you know, a disparate amount of power because he got the public option yanked, he got the Medicare buy-in yanked, essentially to those of us liberal Democrats out there, we're like, well, what kind of health care overhaul bill is this then?

MARTIN: So scrap - do you agree with Howard Dean?

Mr. IFTIKHAR: No, I mean, I think at the end of the day, I think we've come too far. It's like taking the ball to the, you know, five yard line and saying all right, you know what, we're going to punt from here and then start from our own side(ph).

MARTIN: Lester, what do you think about that?

Dr. LESTER SPENCE (Johns Hopkins University): I think Howard Dean makes a really, really strong case, but I side with Arsalan and Paul Krugman, as well, as others who argue, like, listen. We've got - this is the closest we'll ever come. Thirty-one million people who are not currently insured will be insured. There's never been a moment where those of us on the left have gotten the policy that we wanted from jump(ph).

What's happened is you get a policy that's really weak, and then we build on this. So what we do is we still work hard to get legislation that we want, and then I think what the bigger battle is - it's not about just increasing the scope of this bill in the future, but it's also about hamstringing our enemies, right?

It's about literally making sure that people like Lieberman aren't elected next time around because they really don't represent citizens. They represent corporate entities. And in order to create a more perfect union, we need to go in another direction. So that's what we need to do.

MARTIN: Ruben, what do you think?

Mr. NAVARRETTE: I think this notion of somehow we just discovered that a member of the U.S. Senate might represent corporate entities is ludicrous. I mean, where have you been? We've - pick a senator, just any senator of the hundred. You'll see that they represent different corporate entities.

The two political parties have become like Visa and MasterCard, and this notion somehow that Democrats are more pure or Republicans are more pure is just nonsense. The reason that Lieberman has so much power is simple. It's not because, you know, people handed over to him. It's because he's an independent. They don't know if he can go this way or that way, so he could really negotiate.

People think that because you live in a big state like Texas or California you have a lot of power. That's not true. Both those parties - I live in a blue state. I used to live in a red state. The people who have power are people in purple states like Ohio, which they could go either way. So that's why Lieberman has power, because he's on the fence, you see. He can go either way. And I think there's a cautionary tale here.

The reason that Barack Obama and the Democrats are having such trouble within their own party is because they did not make sufficient attempts to reach out to and continue to reach out to people like Susan Collins or Olympia Snowe, moderate Republicans who they could've pealed off by dumping the public option a long time ago. So now they end up in a situation where, guess what? They dump the public option anyway, but they don't have any Republicans, which means they're being held up by Ben Nelson.

MARTIN: So what do you think?

Dr. SPENCE: Michel, can I...

MARTIN: Do you think it's done?

Dr. SPENCE: Michel, can I jump in here?

MARTIN: Yeah.

Dr. SPENCE: So, I agree with part of what you said, that is...

Mr. NAVARRETTE: I'll take that.

Dr. SPENCE: ...representatives do represent more than individuals. They represent corporate entities, right? But there's a difference between a party that actually works to insure 31 million people who aren't insured and a party that does not, right? So I understand. So we've been moved to the right ideologically, but there's still a single difference between those two parties, one.

The second is that we have to - hmm. There has to be some way in which we acknowledge these - we have to acknowledge that the Republican Party has done really, really an excellent job of making sure that their party's the party of no. So it's not just about pulling people from the Republican Party to support the health care initiative in this case, because there's no way in heck that they would've done so.

MARTIN: Ruben, final thought from you, though? I can I just...

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Well, yeah.

MARTIN: Yes or no on health care? Do you think they should dump the bill and start over or not?

Mr. NAVARRETTE: I think they should dump the bill, but for a different reason, not because Howard Dean says so. They should dump the bill because it still is not good enough in terms of controlling costs. It's still not good enough in terms of drug costs and things like that.

I think what Lester misses here is, you know, I'll take your insurance companies that you think Lieberman is fighting for and I'll throw in the pharmaceutical companies that I would say Obama's fighting for. Until we have a serious discussion about how expensive drugs are in this country, then don't tell me somehow that you guys are the little guys - fighting for the little guys.

Dr. SPENCE: That's an excellent point.

MARTIN: But it wasn't based on corporate interest on the pharmaceuticals. It was because of an agreement that had been reached to sort of bring new people into the system, which would increase their profits in exchange for limiting imports. So, I mean so - so anyway, Ken, final thought from you before we move on.

RUDIN: And quickly, even if you get Lieberman, even if you get Ben Nelson on board, that's the Senate. We still have a House which has the public option, which has the Stupak anti-abortion amendment. So the Senate and the House, for all the applause and cheers you may hear if the Senate passes it by Christmas, there's still the differences with the House. And that could be a very, very long negotiation.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're having our weekly visit to the Barbershop. We're speaking with Arsalan Iftikhar, Ruben Navarrette, Ken Rudin and political science professor Lester Spence.

Ruben, something you've been talking about - writing about a lot has made its way back onto the...

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Right.

MARTIN: ...at least on to the news pages. Immigration reform back in the news this week, when Illinois Democratic Congressman Luis Gutierrez introduced a bill on Tuesday...

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Right.

MARTIN: ...reviving this idea of kind of offering a path to citizenship for an estimated 12 million illegal immigrants. You wrote about this in a column titled "Keep Ugliness Out of the Immigration Debate," and you talk about an unnamed conservative talk-show host - wonder who - and his less-than-flattering rhetoric surrounding the immigration debate.

And the question I think we have for, you know, for you is do you feel that...

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Right.

MARTIN: ...is this really the time? I mean, if the whole country's sort of interest is focused on health care number one, and Afghanistan and Iraq number two, and then on climate change, is this really realistic? Or is this Luis Gutierrez just basically reassuring his constituents that yes, we're still in the game, we're still thinking about it?

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Right. Well, it's also Barack Obama being pushed into a corner because he's actually got to do something he has loathe to do, and that's keep a promise. He promised in speech after speech - including one where I was in the room at the National Council of La Raza Conference last summer - to say, you know, if I'm elected president, from day one I'm going to start focusing on immigration reform.

It is clear that he has bigger fish to fry, other fish to fry and he is not as concerned about immigration reform as he is about the three issues he really does care about: climate change, education and health care reform. So, for better or for worse, you know, there's a tendency, I think, among some of the Latinos who supported Obama - of which there were many - to sort of say well, you know, where's ours? Where's our guy? You know, you've made promises. We accepted the promises. We voted.

The talk-show host in question is this minor league...

MARTIN: Who is it, by the way? And why do not want to...

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Well, it's this minor leaguer who was sitting in for somebody else. His name is - the person in question, his name is Jeff Kuhner. He's not a radio talk-show host. He's a writer at The Washington Times, but hosted a pretty good show. And he was sitting in for Michael Savage on the radio, and he had certain hot buttons. He talked about - he's not the only one, but he talked about we have to do something about immigration because we have to protect our language, our culture and our demographics.

And my thing is, when you start going down the demographic route, when you basically make the argument that the country is becoming more non-white and that's a problem, then you are down slippery slope into the Aryan Nation pretty quickly.

MARTIN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: And I think it's a very unfortunate way for the debate to go. I'm not an open border Mexican. We should have controls on our border. But when you start telling me that reason we need to do that is because you're afraid that there are too many Muslims, Asians, African-Americans and Latinos in this country, then don't be surprised if I yell out, hey, if the sheet fits, put it on, you know. So...

MARTIN: I hear you. Ken, can I ask you: Realistic or not?

RUDIN: Well, here's the problem. The Republicans effectively - first of all, they couldn't even get it together on an agreement. There was Bush and McCain on one side and the rest of the Republican Party on the other side, and that's when unemployment was in single digits. Now that it's 10 percent unemployment, you could see - I mean, for all Ruben would love to see the rhetoric be softer, you could see the rhetoric, you could see the harsh language coming out saying they're taking our jobs, especially with the double-digit unemployment. I say that it's less likely than ever.

MARTIN: And Lester, final thought on this. I am curious, though, about this, the kind of language that Ruben is talking about. It's just interesting to me. On the one hand, we keep talking about this post-racial thing and all this other thing. And I understand that for some people, that's just kind of a conceit and words and it's just interesting to talk about.

But it is interesting to me that people can come right out and say - feel that they can come right out and say, well, the reason is there's too many of these brown people here. I mean, that's something you know, you hear in some parts of the world and you heard that, you know, 50 years ago. But I don't know. Are you surprised by that?

Dr. SPENCE: No, I'm not at all. Race is something that's continue - if we think about race as something that we don't move beyond, like being post-racial, but something that's consistently produced and reproduced by our language and by institutions and by economic threat, then I think that what we're looking at is a point where race is actually going to become more important. It's just that the issues attached to it are going to be different because we're in a different moment in time.

MARTIN: Hmm. I don't know. I just...

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Michel, very quickly, if I could...

MARTIN: Yeah. Go ahead, Ruben. I just can't wrap my head around that.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: There's a story that came out...

MARTIN: I mean, it's - people are here, and you got people serving of all races...

Dr. SPENCE: Right.

MARTIN: ...and serving in the Cabinet, serving at the highest ranking of...

Dr. SPENCE: Yeah. Yeah.

MARTIN: You know, people in space, astronauts. And I just don't get it.

RUDIN: Talk-show hosts...

Mr. NAVARRETTE: There is a...

MARTIN: Yeah.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Listen, I think you - we get it. If you listen to the mail that you get, if you listen to the people who write into your show, who write into my column, there's a concern out there, hey, what happens to me? This country's becoming more non-white.

Dr. SPENCE: That's it.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Where do I fit into that? And there was a story out just this week about the Census Bureau putting that figure at 2050 in terms of whenever we get to that point where the most - the majority of folks in the country, the United States, are a minority, then all hell is going to break loose with some folks. Some folks are thinking that's the date to put off as far as we can. That's the end of the world as we know it.

Dr. SPENCE: Yes.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: And so, obviously, immigration wraps up in all this. But the important thing here I want to say is that just yesterday, Nancy Pelosi, you know, threw a right cross at the Latino community and the immigration advocate community by saying, basically, as a Democrat, a liberal Democrat, I'm not going to force my members to walk the plank on immigration. We're not going to do this next year. We're going to do this in 2011.

So it gets back to what I always say. I mean, the significance here is you get taken for granted party and written off by another, you find yourself in no man's land. The Latino community needs to be very careful with Nancy Pelosi. You know, watch that one. Don't trust that one. That one does not have your back.

RUDIN: And 2011, when you'll probably have 20 fewer Democrats on the House and probably...

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Well, that's the whole idea...

RUDIN: Exactly.

MARTIN: Because the Republicans are doing so much better on this, right?

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Ken, that's the whole idea because then they...

MARTIN: I mean, come on Ruben, because the Republicans are doing so much better?

Mr. NAVARRETTE: It's whoever got the vote, Michel. You know that. It's...

MARTIN: OK.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: You don't get to go to the black community as Democrats and say the other guy's so much more worse because in reality, you're the one who took the votes. You're the one got the vote.

MARTIN: Well, you actually do get to say that. And it actually does...

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Yeah, you do.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: It doesn't work. It does not work.

MARTIN: I mean, there's a famous ad in D.C. a couple of years ago where they're, of course, two African-Americans running for mayor. One was a Republican, and the ad said if he's for us, why is he with them? So there you go. Well, we can't end the Barbershop without talking about the Athlete of the Year. I know. I'm sorry, Arsalan...

Mr. IFTIKHAR: The Decade.

MARTIN: The Decade. I'm sorry, Athlete of the Decade. And Arsalan, why are you rolling your eyes? You're just over it. You just don't want to hear anymore about...

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Yeah, I don't.

MARTIN: ...T.W....

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Yeah.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Oh, boy.

MARTIN: ...and his situation.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Yeah. I mean, especially in light of everything that's happened...

MARTIN: Well you think that he, I know you're very strong on sort of male misbehavior, and you feel very strong - particularly, I think, as a newlywed, I think it's very hurtful to you to see somebody behave in this way as a young married male. But you just think, but what about it? I mean, he as an athlete doesn't he deserve it?

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Actually, I don't think so. You know...

MARTIN: Whoa.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: ...being the resident sports junkie, I would have to - I personally would've given the Athlete of the Decade to Michael Phelps. I mean, I think that, you know, someone's whose won...

MARTIN: What?

Mr. IFTIKHAR: ...12 gold medals in the millennium - you know, of course, you know, the detractors would say, well, you know, he was caught smoking a bong. Well, you know, I'd take Cheech and Chong over the, you know, the Caligula ways Tiger Woods any day.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Oh, man.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Caligula baby.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: So, you know, I think, I mean, 12 Olympic gold medals is nothing to shake its finger...

MARTIN: Twelve majors over - I don't know. I'm sorry about that. I don't know. Lester, what do you think?

Dr. SPENCE: No. Tiger Woods has changed - it's funny, because Tiger Woods' issue is actually related to the issue of immigration, right, where you have these people who - whites who've have everything theoretically being taken away from them. Golf was a white sport. I watched golf, or I like golf. But Tiger Woods has singlehandedly changed golf in a couple of different ways.

One, is he actually made it sport rather than a pastime. Two, is he changed the color of it. And then they're all types of stuff wrapped in. He's the best athlete of the decade by far, and I think that 10 women basically shouldn't take that away from him.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: That we know of.

MARTIN: Hmm. Interesting. Ken?

Dr. SPENCE: I'd say it's probably only 10.

RUDIN: Well, actually...

Dr. SPENCE: He's not Wilt Chamberlain.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RUDIN: And I was going to say, I do think that Tiger Woods should be the Athlete of the Decade because he is approaching Wilt Chamberlain's record, and I think that's one that's...

MARTIN: Oh, man.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: I thought that would never fall, either.

Dr. SPENCE: Twenty-four-nine-ninety away.

MARTIN: And Ruben, what about you on this?

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Yeah.

MARTIN: I mean what do you think?

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Right.

MARTIN: Can you separate his - I know you're another person. You write a lot about, you know, the responsibilities of being a father and how what you feel that that should mean both in terms of, you know, conducting yourself personally...

Mr. NAVARRETTE: He's had some pretty...

MARTIN: ...and privately. Do you feel that he deserves it despite personal misconduct? Which he's now admitted to, finally.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: I'd say no. I mean, the degree of the scandal, the fact that we know so much more than we did even two weeks ago, it's - I've not seen, nobody has seen an implosion of this kind, you know, before the car accident in Florida. Like, two percent of Americans had a negative opinion of Woods. Now 80 percent of Americans have a negative opinion of Woods. And a lot of it has to do with the fact that when you have these 12 different, you know, mistresses when you're, you know, reported allegedly to have frequented prostitutes and all this stuff, I mean, he has like come across as this man-child - this guy who never grew up, who's this adolescent stuck in this, you know, early 30s body. And he's telling people, you know, I wish I'd met you first. I'm not in love with my wife. I'm blah, blah, blah. All that stuff, I think, plays into the public perception of somebody. And it's not just a question of morality. It's just about the person. He's just not a very good person.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: Well, I'm sorry to hear it. Anyway, Happy Holidays to all of you. You are all very good people.

Dr. SPENCE: Aw. Thank you.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Happy Holidays to you.

MARTIN: You are. You are.

Dr. SPENCE: You, too.

MARTIN: And I thank you all for being here. Ruben Navarrette is a syndicated columnist. He writes for CNN.com and the San Diego Union Tribune, and he joined us from San Diego. Lester Spence is a blogger and political science professor at Johns Hopkins University. He joined us from member station WEAA in Baltimore. Arsalan Iftikhar is the founder of themuslimguy.com and a civil rights attorney. And Ken Rudin is NPR's political editor, our Political Junkie, and they were kind enough to join us from our Washington, D.C. studios.

Gentleman, thank you all so much.

Mr. IFTIKHAR: Peace.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Thank you. Thank you.

RUDIN: Happy Holidays.

Dr. SPENCE: Thank you.

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin, and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm off for most of next week, and long-time NPR personality Jacki Lyden will be keeping my seat warm. So let me be the first to say Merry Christmas.

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