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Has The Tea Party Lost The Messaging Battle?


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. As a special post-election treat, we decided to gather some of our regular guests from both the Beauty Shop and the Barbershop. We didn't know what to call it, so we're just calling it the TELL ME MORE Salon. How does that work? Does that work? Salon is good?

Sitting in the chairs for a fresh cut are Viviana Hurtado, blogger-in-chief of the website, The Wise Latina Club. She's with us from New York. Here in Washington, D.C. are writer and culture critic Jimi Izrael, civil rights attorney Arsalan Iftikhar, and Bridget Johnson, the Washington, D.C. editor for P.J. Media. That's a conservative libertarian commentary and news website.

Take it away, Jimi.

JIMI IZRAEL: Hey, thanks, Michel. Everybody, what's good?

VIVIANA HURTADO: Hey, hey, hey.

IZRAEL: How we doing?

ARSALAN IFTIKHAR: Hey, hey, hey.

IZRAEL: A train. We hanging out with the ladies in the salon.

IFTIKHAR: Yes, we are. Yes, we are. Let's get our perms done.

IZRAEL: Well, you get your perm done. All right. Let's get things started. Queue the music.


IZRAEL: All right. All right.

MARTIN: Where can you get a weave and beat boxing?

IZRAEL: Well, you know, I had to set the mood. President Obama gets another - Barack Obama gets another four years in office. He won the popular vote and the Electoral College, wrapping up nearly all of the swing states.

A train.

IFTIKHAR: Yes, sir.

IZRAEL: You know, it looks like Clint Eastwood finally has somebody to sit in that seat. Mitt Romney. I know you can hardly contain yourself as the resident Obama tankster. So let's get it over with. What put Obama - I'm sorry. Don't look at me like that. What put Obama over the top?

IFTIKHAR: Well, first of all, I told my 20,000 Facebook and Twitter followers that I'd be dancing Gangnam style behind the microphone today. You know, I think there's a sense of euphoric relief amongst Obama supporters and I think it was turnout. You know, whether it was African-American turnout in Pennsylvania, whether it was the Latino turnout in Florida amongst non-Cuban Hispanics, I think it was the young demographic vote. You know, 18 percent were - in 2008 came out. Nineteen percent came out here in 2012. I think it was the ground game and I think, at the end of the day, it was the ground game that got us into the end zone.

IZRAEL: Must be the shoes, brother. Bridget Johnson, you work for a conservative media outlet and a lot of folks on the right were saying that Romney was going to win this one right up to the moment he lost. So why do you think he fell short?

BRIDGET JOHNSON: Well, rewind to about - oh, six, nine months ago when we were still in primary season and those same conservatives were not saying that Romney could win it. They were saying he would lose to Obama, so it was kind of interesting to watch towards the end when it became an anybody but Obama race and, suddenly, you know, Mitt Romney was the savior.

But I think it was clear from the beginning that he was not poised to win this race. You know, he is a politician through and through. He changed his messages at many times. He even changed his message when he got the floor seat back and said, I'm a severely conservative Republican. And that did not work. I think there was also a lot of backlash among voters for how Obama was actually treated in a lot of the conservative media over the years.

You know, if conservatives put the same energy into exposing a lot of the chaos and mismanagement at government administrations, government agencies over this administration as they did in trying to further the Obama ate dog in Indonesia story...

IZRAEL: Right.

JOHNSON: ...there might have been a different result.

IZRAEL: OK. Yeah. I definitely take that. Viviana Hurtado, a lot of analysis said that, you know, the election would be decided by two groups, women and Latinos, and you worked on Hispanic outreach during the election season for Project Vote. Tell us, how did these groups play out for the candidates last night?

HURTADO: They were absolutely pivotal, Jimi. I mean, just with the Latino community, we saw that 66 percent went, voted for the president, according to a Reuters election day poll, and they were pivotal in the battle ground states. Florida, certainly, which we're still seeing coming down, certainly in Nevada and in Colorado.

Basically, the road to the White House isn't just the road to the - you know, it doesn't just mean going through the barrio and the bodega. It also means being - going through schools because 25 percent of all public school kids are of Latino descent. It also means going through our nursing homes because this is the largest growing segment of the population and, as they age, our (unintelligible), who are currently on social security and in nursing homes and as that segment of the population grows.

Any politician, any candidate from here on out is going to have to have both a rhetoric and policies that appeal to these voters that are a growing segment of the population and aren't going anywhere.

MARTIN: Yeah. I want to jump in here because, you know, we've been reaching out on Facebook to hear what, you know, listeners, voters have to say about this. And to the point that Bridget was making, we got a Facebook comment from Peggy Steele, who wrote that the Republican Party has lost its way with people, like Aiken and Mourdoch as representatives. She's referring to the Senate candidates - Republican Senate candidates - in Missouri and Indiana who both were defeated after they - in states that could probably have won - with comments about abortion and rape, where people just said that you just don't get it. You're way out of touch. She went on to say that Republicans should, quote "update their image and get rid of the Tea Partiers. They are like the obnoxious party crashers that won't leave," unquote.

So Bridget, I just wanted to ask you a little bit more about that. Is there, you know, you're talking about two different groups, you know, in some ways. There are social conservatives, the Tea Partiers, there's some overlap...

JOHNSON: Exactly.

MARTIN: Some overlap in message, but not always. But talk a little bit more about the point you were making.

JOHNSON: Yeah. You know, when the Supreme Court was deliberating Obamacare and there was a rally held by the Tea Partiers across the street from the Senate, you know, I went over there and Allen West got up and he said something about Barack Hussein Obama, and the guy behind me just goes, Hussein, that's right. Say it, Hussein, Hussein. And I'm like if this is the narrative, then you guys have a lot of problems because a small government, lower spending, lower taxes narrative is good, and a lot of people get on board with that. But when you're narrative is about, you know, calling the president Odumbo(ph). When you're narrative, you know, like it says about Obama eating dog, and just, you know, Kenya, etcetera and going into these things...

MARTIN: Well, and even Mitt Romney played into that at one point. Even Mitt Romney played into that at one point, who a lot of people said well, you know, Obama, you know, Mitt Romney at the end of the day he's a nice guy, he's a good decent guy, he's just trying to win an election but then he even sort of played into that in a campaign appearance, saying nobody's asking where I was born.

IZRAEL: Mm-hmm.


MARTIN: You know, Bridget, what is that about, by the way? What is that about?

JOHNSON: It's actually I think distressing to, you know, to especially a lot of like Reagan's conservatives in the party. You know, everybody that I talked to who served in the House or the Senate in the Reagan years said, OK, we were Democrats but, you know, but Reagan welcomed us and, you know, was kind and cordial and these are a lot of the same people who were complaining about the deteriorating tone in Washington.

You remember that Richard Mourdoch campaigned on going to Washington in being angry and fighting with Reid and everybody else on the other side of the aisle. Was it just the rape comments that doomed him? When you see a pattern of Joe Walsh falling, of Bachmann barely making it, you see, you know, Allen West, etcetera, it just, it goes to a greater thing that people are not liking the anger anymore.

MARTIN: Arsalan?

IFTIKHAR: Well, I do think that there is a racialist element here. You know, when you look at, you know, from the 2008 presidential campaign throughout the 2012 presidential campaign, you know, when you have over 20 percent of registered Republicans around the country who somehow believe that, you know, Barack Obama is a crypto Muslim Manchurian candidate, you know, I've said this before and I'll say it again. When people say that Barack Obama is a Muslim, that's their way of saying he's black. It's their way of otherizing him...

IZRAEL: Mm-hmm.

IFTIKHAR: ...in a way that, you know, would be palpable to the American public. And, you know, like Bridget said, you know, with Joe Walsh losing in the suburbs of Chicago to former Iraq war vet Tammy Duckworth, Allen West losing right now, you know, I think it was a repudiation of a lot of Tea Party politics.

MARTIN: If you're...

HURTADO: And it's not...

MARTIN: OK, Viviana, very briefly. Go ahead, Viviana.

HURTADO: Oh, Michel, I'm just jumping in from New York. And it's not just the rhetoric towards the president. It's the rhetoric that we've seen from the right towards any people who are not towing their party line, whether it's Hispanics being called illegals, whether it's women and the comments that we've talked about here on rape and on reproductive rights, people are fed up with this and they're saying and they're wondering when the moderates in the Republican Party are going to stand up - not just now, not just on the night that their candidate lost, but before.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to a special post-election roundtable. We're calling it the Salon, with regulars from our Beauty Shop and Barbershop roundtables. We are joined by Viviana Hurtado, blogger-in-chief at The Wise Latina Club, that's who was speaking just now. Also with us writer Jimi Izrael, Bridget Johnson, Washington, D.C. P.J. Media, that's a Libertarian Conservative media site, and civil rights attorney Arsalan Iftikhar.

Back to you, Jimi.

IZRAEL: Thanks, Michel. OK, in Congress we've got the same old, same old. Democrats still hold the majority in the Senate and Republicans in the House. But both Romney and Obama tried to set a new tone on partisan politics last night. Here's President Obama during his acceptance speech:

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: By itself, the recognition that we have common hopes and dreams won't end all the gridlock, resolve all our problems or substitute for the painstaking work of building consensus and making the difficult compromises needed to move this country forward. But that common bond is where we must begin.

IZRAEL: And Mitt Romney also echoed that point.

MITT ROMNEY: The nation, as you know, is at a critical point. At a time like this, we can't risk partisan bickering and political posturing. Our leaders have to reach across the aisle to do the people's work.

IZRAEL: Wow. OK. Bridget Johnson, you write for Conservatives and Libertarians. Do you think they're feeling a kind of Kumbaya moment for the next Congress.

JOHNSON: That might be a little bit of a stretch, but...


JOHNSON: I know that Obama and Boehner do need to work out a very long-lasting chill that's going on there. Whether that's going to happen with a beer summit, a golf summit or maybe a smoking summit, it remains to be seen. But I think that the greater chance is to work out something with Boehner, I think since Mitch McConnell is probably concerned about a Tea Party primary threat on the horizon. You know, Boehner, safe seat Boehner had a great night last night. He was, like, yeah, I'm just going to kick back. I still got my gavel, you know, we're just moving forward. So it's, the makeup of the House and Senate is not what these Tea Partiers had envisioned. And, you know, I have to say, you know, also in the Senate, you know, we did lose a good GOP senator in Richard Lugar, who did a lot of work here across the aisle on a lot of important issues, like, you know, reducing loose nuclear stockpiles around the world. But it's definitely going to I think fall on Obama and Boehner's court to work this out.

IZRAEL: A-Train?


IZRAEL: Arsalan, you know, he had a Democratic House and Senate for his two years in office. Now if he couldn't get his agenda through then, what about now?

IFTIKHAR: I think it's going to be a lot easier. And the main reason for that is that he does not have to worry about re-election anymore. You know, let's not forget first-term presidents, you know, always have this political albatross around the neck where essentially they're running for re-election from day one. And, you know, in many cases, you know, we saw the Obama administration triangulate in on, you know, virtually every issue. And now, without having to, you know, have the fear of running for reelection I think that he is, you know, when it comes to Guantanamo Bay, for example, and other things, I think he is going to be able to do a lot more than he was able to do in his first term.


MARTIN: But do you think that well, briefly Viviana, do you think that though, immigration, he's got a lot of criticism that he didn't do enough to advance immigration reform in the first term. Is that something that's on the agenda for the second term?

HURTADO: Well...

MARTIN: Or conversely, some people were saying you know what? The DREAM Act kind of takes it off the table - takes the steam out.

HURTADO: Oh, gosh. Well, you know, it's funny because he did say that and he repeated that certainly, throughout the debates. And kind of off the record, last week when he spoke with a newspaper editorial board - this is the president - the interesting thing is that Maryland did in fact approved the DREAM Act. Many Latinos are believing that the DREAM Act is just one piece of the pie. And on Twitter yesterday, I saw a lot of elation because Latinos voted. And that's kind of separate from Obama winning because there was certainly a sense of this is the candidate that many of us were supporting and this is the candidate that we voted for. But there was also a sense of pride that we set an agenda in our community to register Latinos and to get out the vote. And in fact, that was successful. The interesting thing I think is going to be moving forward if the president is able to deliver because a lot of the hash tag that I started to see on Twitter yesterday around immigration when he mentioned it in his acceptance speech was hash tag, no more broken promises.

IZRAEL: Arsalan Iftikhar?

IFTIKHAR: Yes, sir.

IZRAEL: You know, it was a big, big night for what some folks call the civil rights issue of our time. Give us of the news on same-sex marriage votes around the country.

IFTIKHAR: Well, I think, you know, the first headline takeaway that we had was, you know, we had the state of Wisconsin elect Tammy Baldwin to be their next senator - the first openly LGBT member of the Senate - which I think is a great historic move. In terms of state referendums I think, you know, here at least in the D.C. area, Maryland passing same-sex marriage by public referendum. You know, most people don't know that most of the legalization of same-sex marriage has been done at the court or legislature level. And this was the first time in Maryland and Maine that we had, you know, popular votes for that. And then in Minnesota, there was actually a blocking of a Defense of Marriage Act type ban on gay marriage. And so it was a good night for the LGBT community.

IZRAEL: You know, Bridget Johnson, attempts to legalize gay marriage, they normally fail. Do you think this trend signifies anything, including a kind of disconnect for your party?

JOHNSON: No. actually, I think one of the great trends, you know, I saw was reflected on Twitter yesterday when Charles Murray, a former colleague of mine at AEI and, you know, a great conservative thinker and writer said, you know, I went to the ballot box today in Maryland and I thought about it and, you know, I had these, you know, longstanding kind of structural objections to gay marriage. But then I thought about the couples that I know who are in these, you know, loving, happy relationships, and I gave in. I'm not fighting this anymore. That he voted for it and he was very proud to say that. But I think that this actually kind of goes to a wider GOP split, where there are, you know, a lot of conservatives who are like, we don't want to focus on these social issues. You know, some people even want to leave the entire, you know, business of marriage, you know, out of the hands of the government. So it's...

MARTIN: Interesting. So you're saying a lot of people are seeing this now as a Libertarian issue, which is just leave me alone, let me do my thing...


MARTIN: Don't intervene. That's interesting. OK...

JOHNSON: And prioritized low on the whole thing of voter issues as it is.

MARTIN: OK. All right. Well, thank you all again for your contributions to the Shop over the course of the year. Before we let you go, just our own exit poll question: what's your hope or wish for the next four years? What do want to see happen? I don't know that we have time to get everybody in but we'll try. Arsalan, hope or wish?

IFTIKHAR: Guantanamo Bay, shut it down.

MARTIN: Mmm, interesting. Bridget Johnson?

JOHNSON: Back to basics for the GOP. Reagan, Reagan, Reagan era.

MARTIN: OK. Viviana?

HURTADO: I want to see our education system strengthened so that we're churning out engineers that can fill the jobs that are left open in Silicon Valley.

MARTIN: Wow. Jimi, final word.

IZRAEL: He's not the black president but he does have an obligation to speak to truth to power with issues regarding gender and race, so put race in our face this time, brother.

MARTIN: OK. Interesting. We'll leave it there for now. Thank you all again so much for enriching and enlivening our political conversations, and about other things.

Jimi Izrael is a writer and culture critic. He's also an adjunct professor of film and social media at Cuyahoga Community College. Bridget Johnson is the Washington, D.C. editor for P.J. Media, the conservative Libertarian commentary and news website. Arsalan Iftikhar is a civil rights attorney and founder of themuslimguy.com. They were all here in Washington, D.C. With us from New York, Viviana Hurtado, blogger-in-chief of the website The Wise Latina Club. She also worked with Project Vote during the election on Hispanic Outreach and she was with us, as we said, from New York.

Thank you all so much.


HURTADO: Thanks, Michel.

JOHNSON: Thanks, Michel.

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 tomorrow.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.