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Barbershop: Conservative Views On Health Care, Kid Rock And The State Of The GOP


Now it's time for the Barbershop. That's where we talk with a group of interesting folks about what's in the news and what's on their minds. And try as we might, we're still very much focused on what's happening in Washington where, at the Capitol, the Senate leadership is trying to drum up support for its latest health care bill. And on the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, the Trump administration is facing still more questions about the interactions key figures in the Trump family and the campaign had with Russian officials before the election.

So we thought it would be a good time to get a conservative take on the events of the week, specifically on how the GOP, which frankly controls much of the country's governing apparatus at this point, is actually governing. And how is it confronting questions about Russian interference with U.S. elections? So in the chairs for a shape-up this week are Jennifer Rubin. She authors the "Right Turn" blog for The Washington Post, which is reported opinion from a conservative perspective. She was nice enough to stop by our Washington, D.C., studios again. Welcome.

JENNIFER RUBIN: Nice to be here.

MARTIN: And welcome back also to Sarah Westwood, White House correspondent for the Washington Examiner. Sarah, welcome to you.

SARAH WESTWOOD: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: And also joining us from WESA in Pittsburgh is conservative commentator Lenny McAllister. He's also a former congressional candidate. Hi, Lenny.

LENNY MCALLISTER: Good afternoon.

MARTIN: So, Sarah, let me start with you because the story about Donald Trump Jr.'s meeting with a Russian lawyer, which was set up with the advertisement that this was a person connected to the Russian government, now this has been bubbling along with new iterations every day for a week now. But it's also been a crucial week for Republicans to try to push through their health care bill. And I was wondering from your reporting, and from being at the White House, whether the Russian story is affecting the process, at this point, of trying to move this health care legislation forward?

WESTWOOD: This was terrible timing for Republicans on Capitol Hill, not that there's ever a good time for an email like this to surface. But certainly, congressional Republicans are trying to keep the attention on this health care bill. They're trying to articulate a coherent argument in favor of this bill which is unpopular in most of the country. And this was nothing short of a major distraction for Republicans, who, I think, what you saw was Senate leadership trying to keep the Russia scandal compartmentalized from their efforts.

When this bill was moving through the House, you saw President Trump was extremely involved. He was inviting members over for bowling and pizza. They were having photo opportunities in the Oval Office. You haven't seen President Trump do more than fire off a few tweets in support of the health care law. And I think that's deliberate because Republicans on Capitol Hill know that they want to try to keep their focus on policy and stay as far away from the rush of controversy as they possibly can.

MARTIN: Jennifer, what do you think?

RUBIN: Well, I think health care was in trouble before this. And I don't think we were on the verge of seeing any sort of consensus. And I think it's very interesting that, as the week has gone by, really, the game plan from the White House and from the Senate leadership has been trying to keep people who are opposed to the bill from speaking out. So hold your fire, they keep saying, because they would like to at least give it a go here. That - they have not been successful at that.

And most interestingly, I think, is that you now see people from outside Washington stepping forward. You see a major role being played by Republican governors, many of whom have key votes from their senators in the Senate. And I think it's not going very well for the White House, to be quite honest. And to your greater theme, how is governance going? They aren't governing. And we're going to see more of that through the rest of the summer and into September, when they will have things like the budget and the debt ceiling to deal with.

MARTIN: I'm going to talk more about that with you in a minute, but I want to bring Lenny in. And, you know, Lenny, I have to mention that the president has continued to say that this story is a big nothing. I was wondering if your Republican colleagues and friends see it that way. I mean, you're a person who's run for office. You know, you've advised, you know, campaigns. And I'm just wondering, with your network of Republican activists around the country, do they still see it that way? And I'm wondering if this is affecting their calculus at all about how they proceed.

MCALLISTER: It's a very unique answer because it's a certain camp. It's much like what you're seeing with the polling in regards to Trump supporters. There are some people that say this is truly nothing, and they're going after this guy. But there are a lot of people out there that are - whether they're legislating or they're running for office coming up in 2018 - they do understand that this is something that they don't want because it's a tarnish on the brand. You know, this is not just Donald Trump's to win or lose. This is not just his controversy. This is a Republican controversy.

And what's at risk right now - and people don't want to say this, but this is the truth - if this White House administration goes down, it's going to be very hard for swing states to trust Republicans with the White House for at least a couple of elections. That's what's at risk. So you have people such as a Marco Rubio, you have other individuals, such as a Ted Cruz, that would like to run for the president - presidency after President Trump is done doing what he's going to do - whatever he calls himself doing right now. And they're watching their chances to be governor or be president go down the tube.

So there are people behind the scenes that are nervous about this. And this is - I would say, this is the reason why I didn't endorse Donald Trump last year. And I think that some of those that tried to back away from him were backing away from him last year for this very fear.

MARTIN: Let me just briefly ask about this - about the health care bill, though, Lenny. Do people see a legislative victory like that as - does that at least, I don't know, neutralize all the other stuff? Does - is that a big enough victory that it neutralizes the other stuff, from where you...


MARTIN: ...Sit?

MCALLISTER: Yes, because if you're running in 2018, you can say, that's my victory. I promised that to you before Donald Trump came on the scene, and I delivered. And you can make just enough distance so that you can go ahead and get re-election or get elected and not have to always answer about the White House.

MARTIN: Well, Jennifer, what do you think?

RUBIN: I think we should look back to the exact same process that we saw when the Affordable Care Act was first passed. And the White House then was telling members, you have to vote for this. If you don't do this, you will lose. And what happened? They voted for a bill that proved to be highly controversial. They had a lot of initial problems in the rollout, and they lost, eventually, both the House and the Senate.

So I'm not sure there is a good scenario for Republicans. If they pass this thing, which is extremely unpopular, which if you believe the CBO numbers, will increase costs - will increase out-of-pocket costs for many people who voted for Donald Trump, that's going to be bad news. And if they don't pass it, then that's bad news, too, because they have not made good on their seven-year-plus promise to get rid of Obamacare.

MARTIN: So let me just stick with you, Jennifer Rubin, for a minute and talk about - you know, Lenny raised this whole question about the stain on the brand, OK. You actually took it a step further, I mean, in a recent column. And you called it the party's inner moral rot. Let me just read a couple of lines from your column. You said, let me suggest the real problem - and we're talking about the whole story - the Russian emails and this whole business.

You say, let me suggest the real problem is not the Trump family but the GOP. And then you said that, you know, forget all this the Democrats are just as bad. You said, look, I don't care. We collectively face a party in charge of virtually the entire federal government and the vast majority of state houses and governorships. It's that party's inner moral rot that must concern us for now. What do you mean by that? That's a pretty strong statement.

RUBIN: It is a pretty strong statement, and I think it's well-earned, if you will. I think the Republican Party got into a cycle of sort of woe-is-me victimization. They felt that the urban elites were out to get them. The media was out to get them. Democrats were out to get them. Somehow the Clintons were masterful in eluding their appropriate punishment. And as a result, I think they cloistered themselves in a mode of victimization and ultimately stopped paying attention to the real world.

And I think this pattern of one hand feeling besieged and, on the other hand, refusing to deal with Democrats and people outside the niche of really a right-wing bubble, has made it incredibly difficult for them now when they have to govern because they have to come back to the real world. They have to actually look at budgets. They have to look at what's possible. It turns out that things like slashing Medicaid are really unpopular. That may come as a shock to them because they've been in la-la land for a number of years. But, gosh, that's a problem for them.

It also makes it incredibly difficult for them to deal with someone like Donald Trump, whose relationship with the truth is informal, shall we say. And they have to now decide whether they're going to go down this road of excuse-mongering and explaining away or whether they have to show some independence from Donald Trump, get back to some semblance of independence and some semblance of, I think, a responsibility to the greater society and to the Constitution, which they've always held up as the ultimate responsibility of our elected officials.

MARTIN: Lenny, do you - I was going to ask you about this because, Lenny, you're a person who's championed for - really for years, as long as I've known you, this question of inclusion and talking to more people and broadening the party. Do you see it this way, as now something that's kind of rotting from within? I mean, be honest, do you?

MCALLISTER: Well - have you ever known me to just lie? Of course not. I mean, but the truth of the matter is there's a level of political and principle dishonesty that has been going on within the GOP for quite some time. And we've been - there is a segment of us within the greater lot that talks on both sides of issues. For example, you can't say that you're for greater freedoms, and you can't say that you're for equal protection under the law.

And you know that you have these issues within the criminal justice system. But you have a growing sentiment within the Republican groups, whether it's at the state level or the federal level, that are trying to push mandatory minimums, knowing full-well what it did to African-American and urban communities in the '80s and the '90s and call that, you know, the rule of law.

You can't sit there and say that you're for Second Amendment rights, but then you have individuals such as Marissa Alexander and others that had their gun rights fully under the Constitution and still found themselves either in jail or in a coffin. You cannot have that level of intellectual and political dishonesty and then not expect somebody to take advantage of it, whether it is the 45th president or other people that have...


MCALLISTER: ...Hijacked what the Republican Party used to be and make it into a farce of what it can...


MCALLISTER: ...Be and should be in America.

MARTIN: So you say that, and then what happens? I mean, the fact is all the folks here are writers and commentators, at the moment. None of you is running for office, to my knowledge. Sarah, like, no. So, Lenny, as a person - a once and possibly future candidate, when you say that, what happens, as briefly as you can?

MCALLISTER: Well, the truth of the matter is you either have to stick to your principles and try to lead in a better direction, or you just go with the flow and just sell your soul to whatever devil's going to come along and be on the platform at that time.

MARTIN: Sarah - or, you know, as I said, you know, it's - so Lenny's in Pittsburgh and Jennifer is a columnist and a writer. You talk to a lot of elected officials. Do - are any of them saying privately what these folks are saying sort of publicly?

WESTWOOD: Well, I think Republicans haven't really figured out how to effectively separate themselves from the Trump administration consistently. You know, and I think that we've seen, especially in these special elections that have been held, voters aren't necessarily going to hold Republican candidates responsible for what President Trump does.

And maybe Democrats should be worried about that because, in Georgia, you know, they thought, particularly in the 6th District, they thought they had a pickup opportunity. That didn't occur. And it has provided maybe some evidence that Republicans can still be successful in 2018. But they have to have their own agenda that's independent of the White House. They have to be able to pass legislation if they do choose to go the route of ignoring the Trump administration's controversies, which the vast majority of them seem to be doing.

They have to have something else to present. It's either they need to be defending the president, or they need to be doing their own thing. But they can't choose this middle-of-the-road attempt to do nothing because that will cost them at the ballot box.

MARTIN: OK, before we let you all go, finally, in the time we have left, Kid Rock has announced a Senate bid. Now, the - he's in Michigan. The Republican Party in Michigan apparently likes this idea. Now, he has not filed as a candidate officially with the Federal Election Commission, but he insists that it's not a hoax. So Jennifer, I ask you, is this the answer to the question here? (Laughter).

RUBIN: I think not. I think we may have a reassessment of what it takes to be a elected official in a high position of authority. I think Donald Trump has sort of ruined it for a while for nonpoliticians.

MARTIN: Well, I was going to ask you about that because, you know, you heard earlier this summer Dwayne The Rock Johnson, people were sort of talking about him. I mean, there were rumors about Mark Cuban. There were rumors about Mark Zuckerberg, I mean, people who don't have any governing experience. Do you think that's - so you think, no, it's the other way?

RUBIN: I think it is the other way. Had you elected a Mark Cuban, Jeff - you know, a Bill - Bob Iger, rather, from Disney, and they had performed sort of normally, I think it would have opened up a whole new avenue for people to run for office. This way, I think he's kind of made people nervous, perhaps rightfully so, about electing people who've never served in government and who are billionaires sort of cloistered in their own little family businesses. That doesn't sound like a formula for success to a lot Americans anymore.

MARTIN: I know, but you do want to watch that campaign, right?

RUBIN: Oh, yeah.

MARTIN: All right, yeah, exactly, Kid Rock for Senate. All right, we will keep an eye - we will keep an eye on that. Jennifer Rubin writes the "Right Turn" blog. It's a conservative column that appears in The Washington Post. Sarah Westwood is the White House correspondent for The Washington Examiner. They were kind enough to join us on a sweltering Saturday in our studios in Washington, D.C. Lenny McAllister's a conservative commentator joining us from WESA in Pittsburgh. Everybody, thank you.

RUBIN: Thank you.

WESTWOOD: Thank you.

MCALLISTER: God bless.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLAZO'S "NATURAL GREEN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.