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Obama Skips Justice Antonin Scalia's Funeral And Republican Primary In SC


Now it's time for the Barbershop. That's our weekly conversation with a group of interesting folks to talk about what's in the news and what's on our minds. Sitting in the seats for a shapeup this weekend are Barbershop regular Dru Ealons. Dru's a political blogger and former Obama appointee at the Environmental Protection Agency. Welcome back, nice to see you.

DRU EALONS: Glad to be back.

MARTIN: Welcome back also to Puneet Ahluwalia. He is active in the local Republican Party in Northern Virginia. He's also a consultant. Welcome back to you, Puneet.

PUNEET AHLUWALIA: Thank you so much for having me.

MARTIN: Joining us for the first time is Ben Domenech. He is the publisher of the conservative web magazine The Federalist and hosts The Federalist Radio Hour. Ben...

BEN DOMENECH: Good to be with you.

MARTIN: Good to see you, too. And thank you for having that great voice, that great, like, Darth Vader voice.

DOMENECH: Thank you so much.

MARTIN: I just love that. And also here to Domenico Montanaro. He's our lead political editor for NPR. Welcome - and I also understand that you have some news for us.

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: I do. Well, the Associated Press is projecting that Hillary Clinton has won the Nevada Democratic caucuses. With more than two-thirds of the vote in now, Clinton leads Sen. Bernie Sanders 52 to 48 - most of the vote that's out still remaining in Clark County, where about two-thirds of the vote in Democratic caucuses comes from. That's where Las Vegas is.

MARTIN: All right, so Domenico, thanks. That's Domenico Montanaro. He's going to stick with us for the rest of our conversation, right?

MONTANARO: All right, sure.

MARTIN: You have nowhere else to go, do you?

MONTANARO: Oh, you know, I'm just hanging out with...

MARTIN: Exactly.

MONTANARO: ...Twenty feet outside the studio anyway. So...

MARTIN: That's exactly it, so thank you for taking a walk down the hall to talk with us about this. OK, what we'd like to start with is we just heard our colleague Nina Totenberg reporting on the funeral of the late Justice Antonin Scalia. And I've got to start us off by asking about criticism of the president for not attending the funeral mass, which was held at the National Shrine at the Immaculate Conception. Now, the president did visit the Supreme Court yesterday, where the justice was lying reposed. And the vice president, Joe Biden, who also shares Justice Scalia's Catholic faith, did attend the mass with his wife Jill, which was celebrated by the justice's son Paul, who's a priest, a very moving ceremony. But a lot of people are jumping all over the president for not attending. And I just wanted to - for a number of reasons. Some people saying that it was just rude, and other people saying he missed a chance to demonstrate bipartisanship. So Ben, I just wanted to ask each of you what you think about that.

DOMENECH: So I think this is kind of a fitting coda for a presidency that began with a lot of promise to maybe make D.C. a more civil place, a place of more bipartisanship. And I think that this really is something that even people on the left - even my friends on the left criticized as being something that was inappropriate. President Bush, obviously attended and eulogized William Rehnquist when he died back in 2005. It's not like the situation security wise is any worse now comparable to then. And I think that, you know, Justice Scalia, during his life he had all sorts of different lines. But one of his lines that he came back to frequently was that he believed he was in a battle about ideas and not about people, that good people could have bad ideas and that they should be able to get past that. It explains his friendship with Ruth Bader Ginsburg and others across the aisle who shared none of his opinions really when it came to the law. And I think it would've been a good demonstration of bipartisanship for the president to show.

MARTIN: Dru, do we know whether the justice's family actually even wanted the president there?

EALONS: Well...

MARTIN: Not to be mean about it, but perhaps, you know, this is a solemn religious rite. Did they...

EALONS: Right.

MARTIN: ...Even want him there? Do we know?

EALONS: I was just thinking about that. Yes, he could have gone and yes, he could have shown bipartisanship. And I think - or ease the political banker - rancor that is out there. But I think, you know, a lot of times that needs to be a two-way street. And this is a way that unfortunately gave those who look for opportunity to criticize to criticize. However, when you think about the reverence and what happens and takes place at a funeral that case, if it were my family and how they do, they don't even have a eulogy. And they - it's a very sacred type of event. And to have the president there could have been disruptive. And yes...

MARTIN: But wait - but he's - the president's been to a number of funerals of people.

EALONS: Right.

MARTIN: I mean, you know...

EALONS: But...

MARTIN: Senator - State Sen. Pinckney in South Carolina...

EALONS: Exactly...

MARTIN: ...After that terrible shooting in Charleston, S.C.

EALONS: ...But those funerals were highly televised and were pushed before...

MARTIN: This was televised.

EALONS: But pushed for a public type of event. And he actually gave the eulogy. And I guess my point was that

MARTIN: This was televised, Dru. I watched it.

EALONS: I get that. I get it was televised. But I'm thinking more along the lines of he could've gone, yes.

MARTIN: Should he have gone? I'm asking you. Should he have gone...

EALONS: Should he have gone?

MARTIN: ...In your opinion?

EALONS: I would just say I am glad that he paid respects. I don't think he had to go. I think that's my point. I don't think he had to go.

MARTIN: OK, Puneet, what about you?

AHLUWALIA: He had to go. You have a justice who's in office who passed away, and President Obama there's no red America, there's no blue America. There's one America. Where is it? This was the time to show respect, and I think...

MARTIN: You don't think he showed respect by going to the Supreme Court?

AHLUWALIA: Well, that's one thing, but apparently I think when you - in certain cultures, especially in the Catholic you say goodbye. And he should have shown as a commander-in-chief - paid his respect and been there. That's how I look at it.

DOMENECH: Chris Hayes from MSNBC said the other day that his mother always told him that if you're thinking about whether you should go to a funeral or not, you should go.


DOMENECH: I think that's generally good advice.

MARTIN: All right, Domenico, I'm not going to ask you for an opinion on this because that's not - that's not your job. But I am going to move us along to the whole question of the South Carolina primary, if that's OK with you.


MARTIN: OK, so tonight's primary's in South Carolina. Donald Trump could cement himself as the frontrunner as we edge closer to Super Tuesday. But he continues to say things that we just have not heard from other candidates. Earlier this week, he hit back at Pope Francis after the Pope in Mexico remarked that people who want to build walls aren't Christian. Most people assumed that that was aimed at Donald Trump. And then last night, you just heard from our colleague Don Gonyea that he was talking about tougher tactics against terrorism by repeating a story that fact checkers say is not true about Gen. John Pershing allegedly executing Muslims with bullets that were tainted with pig's blood, which is clearly meant as a religious insult. And I just - you know, I have to say - you know, we keep saying that, you know, he can say things that other people can't say. It doesn't have any real meaning, but I still have to ask you about this. You know, what do you think?

MONTANARO: None of those things matter in a Republican primary, I have to tell you. I mean, I think that the thing that mattered - that might matter for Donald Trump and whether or not his numbers come down is the fact that on Thursday, he had echoed support for - voice support for the employer mandate in the health care law, Obamacare, and then kind of had to walk that back, his uneven performance at the debate in which he criticized George W. Bush for the Iraq War - and not only for criticizing the decision to go in but saying that he lied about weapons of mass destruction, knowing that they weren't there. Those things started to raise questions for conservatives in South Carolina. And also, it didn't look like he was in command. He wasn't in control, and I think when people start to look at that funnel and start to winnow out the field and figure out who do they want to be in the White House, I think a lot of conservatives were saying eh, you know, is this the guy who I want to pick? I think we'll see - he's had a double-digit lead for quite some time there in South Carolina. But there have been some polls in the last week or so that have showed that race tightening. It will be really great to watch what happens tonight when people actually vote.

MARTIN: Puneet, what do you think about this? Is this a candidate that you can go out and sell to your constituency...

AHLUWALIA: I think he is sellable.

MARTIN: ...To your fellow man?

AHLUWALIA: The reason is if he's leading in the polls, the very reason is that he is basically watching certain frustration and pent up emotion that exists, hence the reason he's leading the polls. And - but at the same time, he's also in a very divided field where it's basically - people are choosing their own special candidates they are in for. So he is vocalizing issues which are important. And as a person who's running for himself in the 10 District as a candidate, I will support any Republican nominee.

MARTIN: OK. OK, Ben, what about you? What do you think?

DOMENECH: So I think this is another example of Donald Trump being, you know, an Internet comment thread come to life, which is the way that he expresses himself oratorically. I do think that there was interesting point though regarding that the policy shift. One of the reasons he has enjoyed this support is that so many people who are backing him are not actually that ideological. They are moderate. They are disaffected voters who haven't been very active in politics before. But he has also glommed on a lot of new support in South Carolina from evangelicals, from conservatives, which were not the traditional people who had been backing him to that point. So it's potentially - something like endorsing the mandate does potentially hurt him with people like that. But then there's a question of how outraged are they? And I think that in this case, we're dealing with a state that while it traditionally has not looked to candidates like that to back, it's been refined, let's say, in the types of people it elects. It's elected people who look like kind of the dream team for the new Republican Party in Nikki Haley and Tim Scott and people like that. I think that in this case, you have an example of a state where the outrage may be so significant that they still give him a big victory tonight. And that's going to give him huge momentum going into the SEC primary.

MARTIN: What do you think? Can I ask you what you think about it? What do you think about what he said?

DOMENECH: I think that this is just par for the course for Donald Trump. Everything that Trump says has to be viewed as within the context of negotiation. He negotiates from the extremes. And frankly, it works along the lines of people who endorse a conspiracy theory where anybody who comes along who judges the theory as being incorrect is just more evidence that the conspiracy exists against him from the establishment, from the elites. I participated in the National Review cover story against Trump. Obviously, I was one of those 22 people. And so I think my stance on him is pretty clear. But I think that he's going to continue to thrive and succeed in an environment where there's so much outrage.

MARTIN: All right, Dru, what do you think?

EALONS: I think it doesn't matter what he says. I think he's turned the whole political system on its back. I believe that his bombastic reality and how he responds to things is what we come to respect and know, and I don't think it matters to this particular electorate. Those that are supporting him, like Ben said, the ideals about pro-choice, abortion rights, all of that is not necessarily concerned. What they feel is they've been disaffected because they haven't been heard. For those who have been establishment, who have been elected, who have been there, they have not done anything. You keep saying you're going to repeal Obamacare. It hasn't happened. You keep saying you're going to do this or that and it hasn't happened, so now they believe that because of who Trump is that he can actually make that happen.

MARTIN: OK, let's - before we let you all go, I want to touch on an interesting meeting between Ted Cruz and Ben Carson that occurred Thursday night. The meeting was reportedly an attempt by Cruz to mend fences between the two after, you know, some kind of dirty tricks, I think it's fair to say. And it's become a little bit of a thing on social media because of the venue where it took place, which was a closet.


ROBERT KELLY: He walks up to the closet. He closer to the closet. Now he's at the closet. Now he's opening the closet...

MARTIN: Sometimes you just have to do it. You just have to play the - I mean...

EALONS: Oh, my God.

MARTIN: Sometimes you just have to bring it out because it occurred to you, so you - OK, so it didn't end particularly well because the Carson campaign came out afterwards saying that they thought the meeting was going to be off the record and that the details were leaked and they didn't appreciate that. So I mean, you know, you've all - well, a lot of you have worked on campaigns. You've followed campaigns, certainly. I don't know, I didn't find it that strange that they met in a closet.


MARTIN: Did you? Did anybody?


MONTANARO: I thought it was weird. I don't know. They...

MARTIN: You did?

MONTANARO: I mean, maybe it was a really big closet. But I mean, they said that Secret Service were outside the - I don't know that I remember a meeting like that. I mean, maybe some of the others on the panel have met in closets with some of their cohorts before. I don't know.

MARTIN: Was it - why is this a thing? Why is this a thing, Ben?

DOMENECH: You know, isn't this kind of an example, though, where - I mean, you've - you're familiar enough with this to know it's very difficult to get privacy on the campaign...

MARTIN: Right...

DOMENECH: ...Trail.

MARTIN: ...Thank you. That's what I was saying.

DOMENECH: And so I think that if this is something like that, I can understand why people would laugh about it. Cruz himself though does have a problem with Carson. As long as Carson is in the race, he siphons away evangelical support. He may perform poorly in South Carolina but still stay in simply to kind of spite Cruz and everybody else in this situation where he feels that he's been treated unfairly.

MARTIN: Do you really think that's why Dr. Carson's staying in at this point, just to spite him?

DOMENECH: No, I think there really was signs that that campaign was getting ready to fold. And then after some of these things happened, I think that he's kind of staying in there - perhaps not out of spite but more directly just that he feels like he wants to reestablish himself...

EALONS: (Whispers) It's the ego.

DOMENECH: a serious candidate - yeah, the ego...

EALONS: It's the ego.

AHLUWALIA: I don't think it's the ego.

MARTIN: You don't think so, Puneet?

AHLUWALIA: I don't think - what I've seen of an intellectual doctor who is - who has a very - in his mind - a very clear way of leading America. I think he's staying there for a purpose. I think he...

MARTIN: Which is what?

EALONS: I'm not saying the ego is about the purpose. I'm saying the ego is for him to say you're going to get out or leap that he's going to be out, that his ego is saying no, I'm not because I do have a purpose. I do have something that America needs to see. That was my point of the purpose.

MARTIN: But do you think the closet meeting was - what, Dru? - you were cracking up. Just admit it, you were cracking up. Tell me why.

EALONS: I think it was unfortunate because they would take oppor - because it's going to go viral like this. But to your point, there's no place that you can be private. I just think maybe it could've been orchestrated a little bit better. But if anybody walks by and sees two Secret Service people standing outside a closet, it's still going to be a little weird. And the fact that things, they...

MARTIN: Where could they have met, at Denny's? I don't - where are you supposed to meet, like the kitchen at the Denny's?

EALONS: But the funny thing about it is, is that...

MARTIN: IHOP is good.

EALONS: ...He came out still mad. Like, he's still upset about it. Like, whatever happened in the closet, it didn't resolve anything

MARTIN: It doesn't work, didn't work.

AHLUWALIA: I think it didn't achieve the purpose what...

MARTIN: Right.

AHLUWALIA: ...Cruz had in mind and what Ben Carson had in mind. But I think it's a good - it could be a good movie in making in the future.


MARTIN: OK, all right...

MONTANARO: Even though they have Vegas on Tuesday, what happened in the closet - well, never mind.


MARTIN: Oh, wow.


MARTIN: Thank you, Domenico. All right, we have to leave it there for now. That was political blogger Dru Ealons, The Federalist's Ben Domenech, Virginia Republican activist Puneet Ahluwalia and our own political - lead political editor Domenico Montanaro. Thank you so much for speaking with us, all.

MONTANARO: Thank you.

DOMENECH: Thank you for having us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.