updated 2/2/2006 10:29:29 AM ET 2006-02-02T15:29:29

Guests: Joe Biden, Dee Dee Myers, Bill Frist, Barbara Boxer, Matthew Dowd

CHRIS MATTHEWS, MSNBC ANCHOR:  President Bush will say tonight that we are better off for having gone into Iraq.  Is that the true State of the Union?  Let‘s play HARDBALL.

Good evening.  I‘m Chris Matthews.  Welcome to HARDBALL, a special preview of the president‘s State of the Union.  The president gives the State of the Union tonight and the word from the White House is that the president is going to take on critics of the Iraq war directly. 

He‘ll say that anyone who argues that this war in Iraq has made us more enemies than friends is wrong.  In a moment, with the top Senate Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Joe Biden will respond to that assertion. 

First, NBC Chief White House correspondent David Gregory.  David, I‘m struck by the Associated Press headline that is already moving based on backgroundings today by White House officials and perhaps by the president.  Why is he taking on the Iraq war, which is one of his biggest problems tonight? 

DAVID GREGORY, NBC NEWS CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT:  Well, because he knows he has to.  He knows that the public is anxious about it.  The president knows that the public is not only anxious but disgruntled, in some respects, about the war and other aspects of U.S. policy in the war on terror, particularly warrantless eavesdropping.  And so the president wants to take it on. 

Aides describe this in some ways as a more philosophical speech, a speech that he has been wanting to give for some time, where he tries to explain, to argue the need for America‘s aggressive leadership in the world. 

And so he‘ll talk about and warn against pessimism, which is kind of a code word for their arguments against war critics around here, like the Democrats, who the White House claims wants to precipitously withdraw from Iraq. 

So I think he will make the argument that we have to be forward-leaning, in the parlance of neo-conservatives, and continue to take the fight to terrorists on all levels and that we can‘t be complacent.  And so a rigorous defense of the war in Iraq, despite the various prevails and setbacks there, is certainly part of it. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, there is about 20 neo-conservatives in the country, by my last count, but two-thirds of the American people in the new NBC poll say bring the troops home.  How can he narrow his focus on the opposition by saying it is just a bunch of partisan Democrats and ideologues? 

GREGORY:  Well, I think he is trying to define the terms of the debate and trying to define in a sense Democrats who want to just, in his view, cut and run as being as not a legitimate part of that debate. 

It‘s going to be difficult, as you point out, because of our polling, and how much pressure he is under to get troops home.  And he will try to speak to that tonight and try to defend the policy and, again, talk about the need for this to be a decision that‘s driven from commanders on the ground. 

MATTHEWS:  What kind of information, do you believe, he will be giving us on troop levels? 

GREGORY:  I don‘t think very much specifically.  I think he will, again, articulate this desire for troop levels to go down if circumstances warrant.  But, I mean, it would be a violation of his own principle of not, you know, getting too far ahead of himself on that to do that tonight.  I just don‘t expect him to break significant new ground there. 

MATTHEWS:  What about Iran? 

GREGORY:  I think he‘ll—we‘re told he will, in part, speak directly to the Iranian people to try to encourage the dissent that‘s already ongoing there.  And I think he‘ll also talk about the fact that now the United States is attempting to rally the world, which many critics say it did not do sufficiently in the run up to the war in Iraq, by getting other key plays in the world to exercise leverage against the Iranians, like Russia, like the Chinese. 

It‘s an acknowledgement rally, Chris, as the president has said before, that America doesn‘t have a great deal of leverage against the Iranians, and sanctions from the United States—United Nations Security Council may not be enough if you look at the history of what happened with sanctions against Iraq and because of the leverage that Iranians have on the world market in terms of their oil. 

MATTHEWS:  The first step toward us going to war in Iraq was a move to call for regime change by democratic means, by opposition forces.  I saw in the paper one of the people who led that argument, Robert Kagan, now pushing for regime change by democratic force in Iran. 

Are we on the step up?  Are we on a gradual stepping stone now toward war in Iran by building the case for regime change there through democratic means?  When that fails, we push the button and go to war? 

GREGORY:  I don‘t think so.  I mean, I think that‘s much further down the road if we ever get there.  I have heard today, though, that there are conservatives who are specifically and significantly exercised about Iran and expect to hear something pretty forward-leaning from the president on that, something tough, which he may be in the mood to give, but I don‘t think it‘s going to be that unilateral. 

I think it is much more about how we are together with Germany, with Great Britain, with the Chinese, with the Russians, to try to exercise pressure on the Iranians to accept that deal to allow the Russians to—so they can develop, in Iran, a civilian nuclear program but have all the spent fuel sent back to Russia.  So I think this is going to be a much more united front than the president trying to pick a fight there about regime change. 

MATTHEWS:  OK, thank you very much, chief White House correspondent for NBC News, David Gregory.  We will see him throughout the evening tonight. 

Democratic Senator Joe Biden of Delaware joins us now.  He‘s on the Judiciary Committee.  He‘s also the top Democrat on foreign relations.  Senator Biden, are you surprised at the words getting out from the White House that the president wants to take on critics of the Iraq war tonight?

SEN. JOE BIDEN (D), DELAWARE:  I‘m a little surprised, unless he‘s going to accompany with a plan.  I‘ve never supported, as you know, cut and run.  I‘m looking for a plan and stand. 

I don‘t know what the plan is.  I think we‘re looking for a plan.

Tell us how you‘re going to get a political settlement there, Mr.

President. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, we have an NBC poll, Senator Biden, that has just come out in the last 24 hours which says that you are among a great majority of the American people—two-thirds want a big reduction in troop levels over there; 35 percent of our people said in a poll, in this “Wall Street Journal”/NBC poll, that their number one goal for the next year is to get the troops home. 

BIDEN:  Well, I have two goals:  get the troops home and maintain our security interests in the region. 

And unless we get a political settlement, there‘s no possibility of doing that, Chris.  And that‘s why I don‘t understand why the president hasn‘t brought in other parts of the world, other countries, to put pressure on the Sunnis, the Shia, on the Kurds—in order to reach a political consensus. 

Absent that, we‘ll bring our troops home all right, but we‘ll leave behind chaos.  We‘ll have traded a dictator for chaos.

MATTHEWS:  Explain to me this problem we have in figuring out the polling we do—and I don‘t think polling tells us all the answers. People say they don‘t like—in a lot of cases they‘re worried about abuse of this NSA spying at home, they do want to bring the troops home, they don‘t think the war was worth it—probably don‘t think it was worth it to fight. 

And yet when you ask them, “Who do you trust on terrorism and security,” they say the president, who seems to lose on each particular, but somehow wins on the general question of security. 

How does that work? 

BIDEN:  Well, that‘s kind of above my pay grade, Chris.  But I think it‘s because it‘s the president versus whom?  The president versus this amorphous Congress, this amorphous Democratic Party?

It would be a very different circumstance if it was the president versus an individual Democrat who had a different vision and was articulating it.

But absent that, you know, there is a cacophony of voices coming out from the Democratic side, as you‘d expect and as there should be.   You know, there‘s different views.  And so I don‘t—I think in that climate the president is given higher marks. 

MATTHEWS:  What do you make of our poll that showed that Hillary Clinton is seen by most Americans, or a plurality of Americans, as the leader and spokesperson for the Democratic Party? 

BIDEN:  She‘s the best-known Democrat.  It doesn‘t surprise me at all. 

If you ask people who they know best in name recognition, I‘m confident Hillary Clinton is the best known.  And she is a very competent, serious person.  And so, you know, she‘s out there speaking and she‘s the best known, so it makes sense that, would be the case. And besides, the Republicans encourage that as well. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, you know being a senator from Delaware, you know that most people have problems in their own pocketbook.

And the biggest pocketbook problem of a lot of people is health care, out-of-pocket costs, co-pays, where they have an insurance policy if they‘re lucky but it doesn‘t cover enough, and when it does, it doesn‘t cover enough of that particular surgery or whatever. 

Do you think there‘s anything the president will say tonight that will make people feel they got something better coming down the line?

BIDEN:  Based on what I‘m told he‘s going to say, no. 

He‘s going to call for these savings accounts, health-care savings accounts.  Well, if you‘re a parent, if you‘re two parents raising three kids and you have a combined income of $100,000 -- a lot of money—do you have enough money to put away $10,000 before taxes to allow you to buy into one of these accounts? 

I don‘t think this is real.  I mean, if that‘s what the—based on what we‘re told the president is going to say.  So I don‘t think it speaks to the real concern.  It‘s health-care costs. 

And people, even people whose combined income is by any stretch of the imagination a solid living, raising kids, you can‘t put away $10,000 before taxes when you‘re raising three kids making $100,000 for health care.  That will help people making $250,000, $350,000, a million, but it‘s sure not going to help the people and the ones that are most frightened and most in need. 

MATTHEWS:  What‘s a better alternative? 

BIDEN:  The better alternative is to go out there and make it clear that you need to have—drive down the cost of drugs, you have to be able to allow us to be able to compete. 

The federal government put pressure on the drug companies to buy in bulk like we do with the V.A.  You have to come up with a plan where you provide catastrophic coverage for everybody.  And you‘ve got to come up with a plan that, in fact, allows the sharing of the risk much, broader than it is now, including people being able to buy in small businesses the same way, and all individuals the same way, as we do in the Congress. 

But end of the day, Chris, end of the day, I don‘t know what the answer is specifically.  But I know there‘s no way this country can compete and/or people feel secure without a national health-care plan that shares the risk other than through the employer. 

MATTHEWS:  OK, thank you very much Senator Joe Biden, we would love to have you back at anytime tonight.  We‘ll be back.  MSNBC will have Tucker Carlson, former Clinton press secretary Dee Dee Myers and later, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, all coming here in just a minute, for a preview of tonight‘s State of the Union.  You‘re watching it, HARDBALL on MSNBC.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (voice-over):  For his final State of the Union address, President Ronald Reagan assured the country he was no lame duck.

RONALD REAGAN, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  If anyone expects just a proud recitation of the accomplishments of my administration, I say let‘s leave that to history.  We‘re not finished yet.

So my message to you tonight is, put on your work shoes.  We‘re still on the job. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  The president addresses the American people tonight in a few hours, actually.  Tucker Carlson has been covering President Bush since he was governor of Texas and Dee Dee Myers was White House press secretary, as we all know, when we all met her, for President Bill Clinton.  Dee Dee, you first.  You‘ve had a hand in prepping presidents for States of the Union, getting them up, buoying their spirits.  What‘s it like?

DEE DEE MYERS, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST:  Well, as you know, it‘s a long, complicated process that does sort of build to a very important moment.  I think the rest of the country sometimes is oblivious to how big that moment seems when you‘re sitting inside the White House or even inside Washington.  But it starts, you know, early on, deciding themes.

MATTHEWS:  When do you first start writing the speech in your administration?

MYERS:  Well, well before Christmas...

MATTHEWS:  November?

MYERS:  ... Which is probably months later than they do it in the Bush White House, which is a lot more orderly in some ways.  But it starts in the fall with sort of a discussion of ideas and putting together themes and what is it that we need to accomplish substantively and politically. 

And then the speech-writing process begins.  And there‘s a parallel process of talking about, “OK, how do we get the most out of the initiatives the president‘s going to talk about in that speech?”  And we are seeing President Bush leaves tomorrow to go first to Tennessee and then make several stops around the country to highlight the biggest proposals that he‘ll begin to talk about tonight in the speech.

MATTHEWS:  Who‘s the final editor, who‘s chief?  Who says, this is final edition.

MYERS:  The president, certainly.

MATTHEWS:  Well, he was in your case. 

MYERS:  Well that‘s—he certainly was.  And we‘ve been hearing that day in and day out.

MATTHEWS:  But he did a lot of cut and pasting, Bill Clinton.  He was making...

MYERS:  ... at the last minute in his illegible handwriting.

MATTHEWS:  Two or three speeches, put them all together and you had two or three endings.  You thought it was over and then he‘d start up again.  You thought it was over, because these were endings he liked.

MYERS:  Well he liked to keep going.  If you remember the first time President Clinton spoke for 89 minutes and the pundits, people like us, declared it a disaster until the next day the Nielsen ratings came out, which showed that the audience grew every 15 minute increment throughout the speech. 

People tuned in and they stayed with it.  So people who tune in to watch the State of the Union generally like the president, they‘re tuning in to see—they usually, the themes of the speech sort of reinforce the themes that these people want to hear.

MATTHEWS:  God if Castro followed that, he‘d be getting huge ratings.

MYERS:  Well, he does, exactly.  Clinton would have gone four hours.

MATTHEWS:  Did that happen every year or just one year?

MYERS:  It went well over an hour one year and of course it was never under an hour once...

MATTHEWS:  ... Tucker, you‘ve had some amazing insights into this president and his attitudes towards capital punishment and his charity towards the condemned and that.  You‘ve had a lot like that as a reporter.  What do you think he goes through today?  Is he a cutter and paster like Bill Clinton?

TUCKER CARLSON, MSNBC ANCHOR:  No, I mean, you always hear a lot from the White House staff around this time about how the president is the final arbiter of what‘s in the speech or not.  And I take it him at face value, I think that‘s right.  He‘s the one who has to deliver the speech.  I always get the feeling, and one of the most interesting parts of the speech for me, is seeing all the different elements of the executive branch at play in the speech.

You could see this adviser got this in and everybody‘s got his pet project crammed into speech.  I think famously Bush is uncomfortable with public speaking, of course.  Anybody who‘s interviewed him, all three have talked to him in person, knows he‘s very fluid, very calm, relaxed, does a great deal of communicating non-verbally, sort of touching you.  He lets you know what he wants to know without using words.  And of course, it‘s impossible to do that when you‘re at the podium.  This speech is a little different than most speeches though, because there is a call-in response.  It‘s a little bit like a black church in that way.  You know, he speaks, then the congregation responds to him.

MATTHEWS:  And the congregation tends to be the party of the president.

CARLSON:  Well of course, as always.  You‘re literally preaching to the choir.  And this choir gives Bush, I think, strength.  It makes him more comfortable.

MATTHEWS:  So it‘s interactive.

CARLSON:  You see him get more comfortable as the speech goes on. 

MYERS:  Last year he got 66 interruptions for applause in a 55-minute speech.

MATTHEWS:  Is the ideal, is the home run, the 21, right?  The goal here?  Is it to get a scene where his party stands and applauds and the other guys on the other side sit on their hands, because if he says something like the NSA and we‘ve got to be tough with these bandits and people in our country that shouldn‘t be here, and we should be spooking on them and all that stuff—and the Democrats sit on their hands because they‘re concerned about the privacy aspect, is that a win for him or is it better when everybody stands up?

CARLSON:  No, the home run is when he gets up—the essence of the speech, the essence of every Bush speech since September 11th has been, “I‘m protecting the country.”  That‘s the bottom line of his presidency, that will be the bottom line of his speech.  The most successful moment is when he gets up and says, “We‘re taking the fight to the enemy and winning, we‘re winning the war on terror,” something along those lines, and everybody applauds.

MATTHEWS:  That won‘t be applauded on the Democratic side.  Will it, Dee Dee?  Will they stand and applaud if he says, “I‘m standing here in defense of my forward-leaning aggressive tactics towards Iraq.”  Will they applaud? 

MYERS:  Well he won‘t say it quite like that.  He‘ll use language that they will have to applaud. 

CARLSON:  Yes, they‘ll be required to applaud.

MYERS:  I think Tucker‘s right that that‘s the goal.  But I think one of the interesting things to watch in terms of theater tonight is how often one side will be standing and applauding and the other side, the Democrats won‘t be.  Because I think the president faces sort of a strategic decision here.

Is he going to go for progress on important initiatives that will make his presidency, I think, a better long-term, more successful presidency, or is he going to continue to play the political game of dividing, getting his narrow majority for his initiatives as he can.  We talked about energy policy.  Is he going to try to reach out and include some Democratic ideas? 

When he talks about health care, is it just going to be...-

MATTHEWS:  OK, can I ask you a bottom-line question, I‘ve got to—bottom-line question, will he talk about bringing the troops home from Iraq?  Will he do that?

MYERS:  Yes, I don‘t think in any specific terms, but he‘s been talking about that for months now, saying “We‘re going to turn security over to the Iraqis on the ground.  We‘re going to draw down troops.”  And there was a report in one of the papers today saying they expected to have it down—all foreign troops in Iraq under—this is by an Iraqi commander—under 100,000 troops by the end of the year.  Well that would be a significant development and something the administration I think would welcome if they can really do it.

MATTHEWS:  Tucker, do you think he can make that commitment?

CARLSON:  I think that‘s the most interesting question about this speech and I don‘t know the answer.  There are two tracks, though the reality track and the rhetorical track.  The reality track is, as Dee Dee said, “We‘re bringing troops home and they will be home in much larger numbers by the end of this year.”  The question is whether Bush will say that out loud, which I think itself is a significant question, because admitting you‘re doing something—doing that specifically, kind of flies in the face of previous rhetoric.  I‘m not sure if he is going to say that out loud tonight. 

MATTHEWS:  Because if he begins to draw down troops below the 100,000 mark, you believe that is a point of no return.  He has to keep doing it?  You can‘t stay with a small contingent for a long period of time. 

MYERS:  I don‘t know if he will get there, but there is planning going on. 

MATTHEWS:  You say he will talk about bringing them down? 

CARLSON:  I‘m not sure he will, because I think it is a big deal to say that out loud. 

MATTHEWS:  It‘s a big question weather he will or not.  Thank you Tucker Carlson and we will be listening to the answer, and Dee Dee Meyers.  Tucker will be blogging live tonight.  Blogging during the State of the Union, that should be exciting. 

Go to hardball.MSNBC.com.  Up next, Senator Majority Leader, Bill Frist is going to right here.  You‘re watching HARDBALL‘s preview of tonight‘s State of the Union.  Forty million people will be watching, most of them on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist joins us right now from the rotunda of the Russell office building of the U.S. Senate.  Sir, the president is apparently going to take on critics of the Iraq war tonight.  Do you, as a Republican leader still believe that this war was worth fighting? 

FRIST:  Yes. 

MATTHEWS:  We will be right back with Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist.  You are watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist joins us right now from the rotunda of the Russell Office Building of the U.S. Senate.     

Sir, the president is apparently going to take on critics of the Iraq war tonight.  Do you as the Republican leader still believe that this war was worth fighting?

SEN. BILL FRIST (R-TN), MAJORITY LEADER:  Yes.

MATTHEWS:  Do you believe that we‘re better off as a country for having gone into Iraq?

FRIST:  Saddam Hussein, who killed hundreds of thousands of other people, invaded two nations, used chemical weapons of mass destruction on his other people and other nations—yes, we‘re much better off.

MATTHEWS:  Are we in a situation in Iraq where we can leave sometime in the next couple of years?  Can we believe to draw down now, our troops?

FRIST:  Chris, the fact we‘re making progress.  They now have 100 Iraqi battalions now that they didn‘t have two years ago.  The fact that they have about over 200,000 security forces that are trained and are being trained, about 3,000 every month.

We will be able to draw down over a period of time.  I‘m certainly not going to be able—and wouldn‘t, and would refuse to put a time line on that.  But over time we will be drawing down significantly.

MATTHEWS:  Do you believe we‘re being effective in avoiding taking sides in what looks to be a civil strife between the various sides in that country?

FRIST:  You know, Chris, I think we‘re doing a good job.  I think our ambassador there, both now and before, has been actively engaged in trying to establish fairness and democracy, maybe not in the sense that we think of a democracy, but where you have good, adequate, sufficient representation.

So I think we‘re doing a good job.  We could always do better, but I think we‘re doing a good job in staying out, in not taking specific sides.

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask you about the American people.  And I‘m sure your home state of Tennessee is fairly familiar with these numbers, probably consistent with them.

Number one goal, NBC pollsters asked people, they have for this year, if they could have nothing else in the world, on health care, on the economy, on anything.  They said their number one goal was to bring most of the troops home by the end of the year.

Why do you think the American people are focused so much on getting our troops home by the end of the year?

FRIST:  Chris, I think—I know every family knows some family in their community that‘s had to pay a huge price, though our military, but also through private contractors, in engaging this war against terrorism.

On the other hand, people throughout Tennessee—and I traveled a lot throughout Tennessee and indeed around the country—tell me how important it is to win this war on terror, recognize if we don‘t stop it now, wherever it is in the world, it is going to be right in Nashville, Tennessee; Washington, D.C.; Cleveland, Ohio. People recognize the importance of that and they‘re going to stick behind this president in winning that war. 

People hate the tragedy.  They hate the deaths.  They hate the sacrifice.  And therefore, if somebody comes to me with a survey or a poll, I would say let‘s do everything possible to get the troops home as well. 

MATTHEWS:  Our poll must be wrong, Senator, because our poll, conducted by NBC in coordination with the Wall Street Journal, and it has been recognized for years as a bipartisan poll, shows a plurality of the people do not believe our going to war in Iraq was worth it. 

FRIST:  First of all, poll data—and I‘m not saying that everybody says it‘s worth it.  I think the poll data broadly, it really doesn‘t bother me that much.  I think we need to pay attention to it, we be able to listen to it all. 

But we know that ultimately, if we do the right thing, if we lead with a bold vision, that the world and our homeland is going to be safer.  And I believe that absolutely.  I think going to Iraq was a major first step in doing that.  I think we have other important areas around the world, whether it is Syria or Iran or now Palestinian Authority, again where we are go to go have to address, not necessarily with military might, but with diplomacy, this rise of terrorism, which, you know, I think the recent elections of Hamas in the Palestinian Authority shows, shines that light on what we are up against.  

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to “Hardball.”  President Bush will take on critics of his handling of the Iraq war—in fact, his holding of the Iraq war, when he delivers the State of the Union in just a few hours from now. 

We‘ll have live coverage all night tonight.  And after that speech at 10:30, NBC‘s Brian Williams and Tim Russert will be joining us. 

Right now we‘re back with Senate Republican Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee. 

The other day I was struck, Senator, by Condoleezza Rice, the secretary of state, saying she was surprised at the strength of the Hamas victory on the West Bank last week. 

We were surprised by the strength of the insurgency in Iraq, surprised there was no WMD in Iraq, surprised by 9/11 -- even though there was a presidential briefing just a month before saying “bin Laden to attack in the United States.” 

Why should we trust the vision of this president when there have been so many damn surprises? 

FRIST:  You know, we need better terrorist surveillance—taking a hot topic here in Washington, D.C.  I think just about everything on your list, which is surprise after surprise after surprise, reflects our nation‘s inadequate intelligence across the world. 

Now maybe in Hamas and the Palestinian Authority it‘s a little bit different, because it‘s hard to fully understand those elections yet.  But where we have terrorism around the world today, we cannot afford these surprises. 

And that is why most people believe, when it comes to things like surveillance and investment in technology for such surveillance, that there is a balancing act and that balancing act needs to be with that purpose of destroying terrorism—better intelligence.

MATTHEWS:  Do you think we‘re doing a good job on the ground, though?  A lot of people—and I‘m not a diplomat or a spook, an intelligence expert—but you know as a leader, I think, that a big problem we have is cross culture.  We don‘t have enough people within these organizations.  We don‘t have enough Arabs, Islamic people who can infiltrate and find out what‘s coming our way.

FRIST:  You know, I do think that‘s a huge problem.  I think it is getting better.  If you just look since 2001, but really over the five or six years, I think our government, our intelligence agencies have made a huge effort to build and to build from within. 

But then you really go back to some basic problems like not enough people coming into the agencies who have appropriate foreign language experience.  They don‘t have the experience in certain foreign languages.

And there are lots of ways we can respond to it.  I just passed a SMART bill—S-M-A-R-T—which improves education at the collegiate level for people who are majoring in languages that would be useful to our intelligence agencies so that we can rebuild that in the future to give them actual financial aid. 

We have got to rebuild that infrastructure starting in college—starting even in high school—and pull it all the way up through our intelligence agencies. 

MATTHEWS:  Senator, you‘re a doctor as well, a medical doctor, and you‘ve done a lot of great work in Africa—East Africa especially.  We were just over there, my family, and struck once again by the strength of these terrorist forces. 

When you see a kid with a bin Laden tee-shirt on, a baseball hat, you see a store with a beautiful picture of bin Laden right on the front of the grocery store urging you to go in as an American and spend some money—why are the little people of the world, the third world people out there, going for a guy who is killer of people by the thousands? 

FRIST:  You know, I wonder that.  I‘m in Africa a lot, as you mentioned, doing medical mission work.  I started going to the southern Sudan about eight months after Osama bin Laden left Sudan—working in the south. 

And it is interesting, but one of the conclusions I came to—and I‘m working very hard to change our foreign policy because of that—is that we‘ve inadequately invested in other countries in our foreign aid. 

Traditionally, we haven‘t focused on things like public health or education or using medicine as a currency for peace. 

And I think, as we move in that direction—and this president has led in that direction; we‘re spending probably $4 billion, $4.5 billion now, to public health and medicine as a currency for peace—this reputation of the United States of America is going to radically change, because it helps build economies. 

It makes it so people whether they‘re in the high school or young people can actually get jobs.  It means that they‘re not decimated, or their hopes not decimated by a disease, whether it is HIV/AIDS or malaria or tuberculosis. 

And so, I‘m pretty hopeful as we change our foreign policy, aid and aid given to countries that where terrorist activity can boil up, as we change that emphasis on reaching out through compassion, touching people with trust.  When you give somebody a medicine as a doctor or as a nurse or as a volunteer, they begin to trust you.  It establishes a dialogue which will change that attitude toward the United States. 

MATTHEWS:  Polls taken in Pakistan and in Indonesia have proven your point, when we‘ve sent aid over there.  Does the president of the United States, your political ally, appreciate the importance of this kind of effort overseas in addition to the military? 

FRIST:  Yes, he does.  And you know, it‘s one of the things that bothers me.  And I had the opportunity—and it reminds me of being here tonight in this Great Rotunda. 

I was here four years ago.  And I knew—just like you gave me a little information earlier about what he was going to say—I knew he was going to put $15 billion into HIV/AIDS, the greatest moral, humanitarian and public health challenge of the last 100 years.  That sort of commitment had never been done by any president, by any country in the history of the world.  Yet this president did that. 

He doesn‘t get a lot of credit for that, but with that, as we have saved, as he has saved, as his country has saved hundreds, thousands and probably millions of lives. 

That reputation, the way people view compassion of the United States, is going to change over time and it is not going to be just military or just what people see on television.  I end up being much more optimistic under the bold vision President Bush who at that State of the Union message made that commitment, and we‘re fulfilling it. 

MATTHEWS:  Thank you very much, Dr. Bill Frist.

When we return, Democratic reaction from Senator Barbara Boxer from California.  This is HARDBALL only on MSNBC. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ANNOUNCER:  After losing the 1976 election, President Gerald Ford graciously wished President-elect Jimmy Carter and the country good luck. 

GERALD FORD, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  The people have spoken and they have chosen a new president and a new Congress to work their will.  I congratulate you, particularly the new members, as sincerely as I did President-elect Carter.  In a few days, it will be his duty to outline for you his priorities and legislative recommendations.  Tonight I will not infringe on that responsibility, but rather wish him the very best in all that is good for our country.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  With President Bush‘s approval rating stalled just under 40 percent, what can he say tonight to turn things around?  Senator Barbara Boxer and former Bush/Cheney strategist Matthew Dowd join us when HARDBALL returns. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  We‘re back and joining us right now, Senator Barbara Boxer, Democrat of California, who‘s a member of the Foreign Relations Committee. 

Senator Boxer, we got a lead on the speech tonight from Reuters, the news agency in Britain.  It says the president‘s comments tonight will amount to a rejection of those Democrats and others who argue that U.S.  policies in Iraq and in the war on terrorism are doing more harm than good abroad.  Is the president right or wrong? 

SEN. BARBARA BOXER (D), CALIFORNIA:  Well, clearly, we have a president who shunned the world community, who walked away from the United Nations, who went into Iraq really, basically go it alone.  They say they had a coalition, but as we know, outside of the Brits, our usual allies were absent. 

And as a result we‘re seeing elections in the Middle East.  We saw Hamas, a terrorist group, win in the Palestinian territories.  We see—I would have to call him, and I just am going to qualify it, someone who appears to be a terrorist leading Iran, threatening Israel with annihilation, and threatening America. 

This is the result of George Bush‘s policies, I believe, in Iraq, because I think the people looked at it as being arrogant and with no plan to get out.  And I think it‘s a disaster unfolding. 

Even in South America we see people being elected like Hugo Chavez, gets elected because he‘s anti-George Bush.  It‘s not helping us be safer in the world, Chris.

MATTHEWS:  Well, just to nail it down, are we worse off as a nation for having gone to Iraq? 

BOXER:  Well, if I answer that question from my heart, I‘d say we certainly are less secure.  What we have should have done is just gone after Osama bin Laden.  We should have made Afghanistan a model state. We should have kept our eye on that tyrant Saddam Hussein, with the whole world, we had the whole world with us, and we didn‘t do it.  And we‘re paying a very, very bad price. 

So I think if the president were to level with the American people and admit his errors, it would be helpful.  I don‘t anticipate that he would do so. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, what you just said has a plurality of the American people supporting you, although less than a majority.  More Americans believe this war in Iraq is not worth it than believe that it has been worth it.  

MATTHEWS:  Why does that not seem to come across—if it is the larger opinion, the one you‘ve expressed, than the president‘s, why doesn‘t that seem to run through the American mind set? 

BOXER:  Well, I think the American people, if you look at the polls, are very disgruntled with this president‘s policies in Iraq.  A majority do not support him. 

But here‘s the real problem, Chris. 

The worst kind of leadership is the leadership that gets you in a position where you have no good choices, and that‘s where we are.  We all know that.  We have no good choices and it‘s a result of this policy. 

And, you know, that awful, awful situation where the newsman, Bob Woodruff was severely injured, to me it represents what is wrong with this president. 

He keeps chiding the major news networks to tell the good news, he‘s kind of blaming the news media for not telling the good news. And there was Mr. Woodruff trying to report a story about the good news, standing in a vehicle run by the Iraqis and look what happened to him. 

The truth is it is way less safe over there.  I was there last March. 

It was a horror story then; it is worse now. 

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Thank you very much.  Senator Barbara Boxer, senator from California.

When we return, former Bush strategist Matthew Dowd is going to come here to give us a preview of what we will hear from the president tonight.  And a reminder for all of us, we‘ll have live blogging from MSNBC and my colleague, Tucker Carlson. 

Plus, MSNBC.com‘s Tom Curry throughout the State of the Union Address tonight as it‘s happening on hardblogger, our political blog Web site.  Just go to our Web site, hardball.msnbc.com. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  We‘re just—a bit over three hours from now, the president is going to give the State of the Union address from The Capitol, but get this, U.S. Congressman are already staking out the good seats.  NBC‘s man on the hill Mice Viqueira has this scoop. 

MIKE VIQUEIRA, NBC NEWS CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT:  I don‘t know if you want to call it a scoop, Chris, because it‘s been going on for several years now, probably a couple of decades. 

What happens is that many members of Congress stake out seats hours in advance of the 9:00 speech.  They‘re there at 1:00 in the afternoon, putting their names down, putting bags down.  Staking out seats along the center aisle. 

You‘ve seen the shot a million times.  The president is announced into the chamber by the Sergeant at Arms, and then comes in and is immediately mobbed by members of Congress on both sides of the aisle, both Republican and Democrat, and that center aisle does divide the House of Representatives, Republicans on the president‘s right, Democrats on the left. 

What‘s really peculiar is it‘s not simply Republicans there who want to wish the president good luck in his speech or maybe whisper something in his ear for whatever reason, but it‘s also some of the of the‘s president‘s staunchest foes who have been there for hours. 

One person who has done this year after year and is noted as being a camera-ready member of Congress, I hope I‘m not out-of-school saying that, is Representative Sheila Jackson Lee, she‘s a Democrat of the Houston area. 

Dennis Kucinich, who ran for the Democratic nomination on a relatively far left platform, has also put his name down in order to be next to the president.  Maybe he has something urgent he has to tell the president on this occasion as the president makes his way up the aisle.  I‘m not sure.  But I did see him from the balcony, writing his name down on a piece of paper, taking a piece of tape from somebody else‘s piece of paper and putting it on his, staking out a seat maybe two or three seats away.  He was a little bit late.  Most of these people had been there for hours.

Also, a very well-known and, I would regard, as kind of a funny ritual, is a lot of members of Congress wear electric red suits.  It‘s sort of the uniform of the day in the House chamber on State of the Union day.  The idea, of course, is when the camera pans in that wide shot of the chamber, your eye is drawn to that electric red suit sitting out there, among the 535 members of Congress, members of the Supreme Court, the diplomatic corps and so forth and so on. 

It‘s certainly a bipartisan effort to get themselves on television, at least on the part of some. 

MATTHEWS:  I can think of 50 wise cracks right now, but I won‘t deliver any of them until later tonight when I get in the mood.  Thank you Mike for that insight into people waiting in line like they were Star Wars or Star Trekkie types. 

Anyway, Matthew Dowd served as a chief strategist for the Bush-Cheney campaign in 2004.  Reports say he‘s about to get started with another big-time Republican known around the world, California Governor Around Schwarzenegger.  You want to answer that question a minute.  The first question is will you be working for Schwarzenegger‘s reelection? 

MATTHEW DOWD, FMR. CHIEF STRATEGIST FOR PRES. BUSH:  Yes, I will. 

MATTHEWS:  Good, I love the facts on the table.  Does the president of the United States see this tonight as the beginning of his third race for president, to prove he‘s not a lame duck? 

DOWD:  No, I think this is part of a narrative and part of a process you have to go through.  The State of the Union can‘t be judged totally on its own, because it‘s hard to move numbers in one given speech. 

MATTHEWS:  I read your memo today.  He‘s lowering the bar. 

DOWD:  I‘m just trying to put some historic dynamic to it.  It‘s interesting, when you look at State of the Union addresses they don‘t change public opinion much. 

MATTHEWS:  Why not?

DOWD:  The public, unlike a lot of people, don‘t judge events purely unto themselves, they see it as a long story or a long narrative, and that‘s how they‘ll judge the president.  This speech is part of what he does in the next month, two months or three months.

MATTHEWS:  I love the way you said that, the public, unlike other people.  Who are these other people besides the public you‘re disdaining here? 

DOWD:  People that live inside the Beltway. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask you this, I was looking at the numbers and maybe I‘m making a guesstimate, about 40-some million will watch tonight, I hope they all watch us here.  That‘s a big number.  And if the president is really good tonight, and he starts off at 39 percent in our poll in approval, you don‘t expect he‘ll come up a couple points after an hour of strong performance? 

DOWD:  If you look at it, he‘s only had one speech that he‘s given on a State of the Union address that‘s actually moved the numbers and the Iraqi elections in January were an intervening event.  The other person, Ronald Reagan had eight speeches, only one speech he gave moved numbers.  I don‘t expect the numbers to move that much.  The public does not see this as one event.  They‘ll judge this in the context of a lot of things: his policies, what he does in the next six weeks, what he does in the next six months.  But not one event will move the numbers. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me help you, let me try to think of an alternative.  Could it be that the public, when they decide how the union is doing, America, the state of the union, they look at their own situation, they read the papers, most people do, they know there‘s a war on, they know we‘re losing troops.  They know we might win at some point in three or four years, we might not, we might have to leave in a bad way. 

They know Iran‘s a problem.  They make their own judgments. 

DOWD:  The public does do that, but they‘re also very good at putting things in context, which is not why one event, one speech or one thing never really ever moves numbers.  They want to see the entire story and what it means and what it‘s reflected and how he‘s going to accomplish these priorities in Congress.  They want to understand that and see how this fits in. 

MATTHEWS:  But he did win the election, to the extent he won, it was a tie basically in 2000, because the polls dramatically went up for him after his debate with Al Gore, those three debates. 

DOWD:  If you look at the context of the debates—

MATTHEWS:  He does do well when he meets the American people. 

DOWD:  Debates are slightly different.  Debates are a time when the public wants to focus on a choice they have to make.  Tonight they don‘t have to make a choice.  They‘ll listen to his priorities and listen to where he want to take the country in the next year.  So it‘s a different context.  But even debates are put in the context of a long election. 

MATTHEWS:  We‘re going to show the Democratic response tonight as a civic duty, also out of fairness, we‘re going to hear Tim Kaine, the new governor of Virginia.  Do they have any impact, the Democratic response? 

DOWD:  If the president‘s speech is not going to move numbers all that much, it I can‘t imagine the governor of Virginia having an impact on the numbers.  I think a lot will depend on what he has to say, and weather or not they have a vision that‘s not just don‘t do what the president says.  If they have a real proactive vision and they talk about it in the next six months it could move numbers. 

MATTHEWS:  Do president‘s pay a price for things they say in the State of the Union? 

DOWD:  They could be held accountable for it more than anything else.  The public will see the speech and see how he does accomplishing what he says.  So they could be made to be held accountable. 

MATTHEWS:  If you were a presidential adviser at the highest level, would you advise the President to come out with fighting words or bipartisan words? 

DOWD:  I think, what you‘ll see the president, and what I would say, is how do we work together as a country, both internationally and nationally. 

MATTHEWS:  But there‘s a division in this country over whether we should have gone to Iraq or not.  How does he seal over that? 

DOWD:  I don‘t think there‘s a division in this country on whether or not we should finish the job and get it done. 

MATTHEWS:  That may be your argument, but our poll, we just got it, the number one goal of the American people is to get our troops back by the end of the year.  They do have that goal. 

DOWD:  That‘s everybody‘s goal, including the president, is to try to figure out a way to get the troops out of Iraq as quickly as possible.  And if you ask the question, do we need to finish the job, the majority of the country is for that.  And I think that‘s what the president can talk about. 

MATTHEWS:  The only thing we ask is what‘s your number one goal and they say get the troops home.  You say what they really meant to say was something more complicated. 

DOWD:  It‘s always more complicated than one question. 

MATTHEWS:  Good luck with Arnold, the terminator.  In one hour, at 7:00 eastern, live coverage.  We‘re going to come back in one hour and give our live coverage of the State of the Union at 9:00 p.m. tonight.

Right now it‘s time for “THE ABRAMS REPORT” with Dan.

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