updated 3/7/2006 11:32:12 AM ET 2006-03-07T16:32:12

Guests: John Boehner, K.T. McFarland, Al Sharpton, Michael Smerconish

CHRIS MATTHEWS, MSNBC ANCHOR:  Tonight, they found someone to run against Hillary this time, but what about in 2008?  Republicans are still in charge, but who is in charge of the Republicans?  Let‘s ask the leader.  Let‘s play HARDBALL.

Good evening, I‘m Chris Matthews. 

Tonight on HARDBALL, bold faced names, George Bush, Hillary Clinton, Tom DeLay and George Clooney. 

President George Bush, will his party pay the price for his second rate second term?  Plus, when the Republicans go walking in Memphis this weekend to pick their next president, can they find a hot shot to take on Hillary? 

And who can beat Hillary?  In her first national interview, meet the woman who is challenging Senator Clinton in the New York Senate race. 

And tomorrow, Texas voters decide if they want Tom DeLay back in the House, but will the stench of the Abramoff scandal rub off on him and other Republicans in upcoming elections?  Tonight, an exclusive interview with DeLay‘s replacement, House Majority Leader John Boehner. 

And “The Daily Show‘s” Jon Stewart ramrods the culture wars at the Academy Awards.

But first, HARDBALL‘s David Shuster has this report on the winter of discontent. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)        

DAVID SHUSTER, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT (voice over):  It was not the sort of welcome home President Bush or his top advisers wanted to see. 

Just hours after the president returned to the White House from a five-day trip to southeast Asia, Republican Congressman Duncan Hunter, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee and a strong supporter of the president, again attacked President Bush‘s defense of the Dubai Ports deal, and Hunter vowed to kill the transaction. 

REP. DUNCAN HUNTER ®, CALIFORNIA:  I think they looked at it from a very superficial level, and they didn‘t get the intelligence briefs. 

SHUSTER:  The Dubai Port deal has become an example of some of the larger problems for the president‘s second term.  A CBS News poll last week found that 70 percent of Americans oppose the deal, including 58 percent of Republicans. 

GOP lawmakers on Capitol Hill have been flooded with calls against the transaction, and the deal has opened up a rift between the president and top Republican leaders in Congress, including House Speaker Dennis Hastert and Senate Leader Bill Frist.  Both oppose the deal.  And they got a temporary reprieve from a head-on battle with the White House, only because Dubai Ports World agreed to a 45-day review. 

Meanwhile, Democrats have seized on the opportunity to paint the president as negligent and irresponsible. 

SEN. CHARLES SCHUMER (D), NEW YORK:  The review has been casual and cursory, and the bottom line is very simple.  When it comes to security, you can‘t be too careful. 

SHUSTER:  President Bush has also been getting hit hard over Iraq.  Supporters of the war, Democrats and Republicans, have accused the Bush administration of handling the war poorly and avoiding accountability.  The issue of accountability is also creating friction between Republicans and the Bush administration over Hurricane Katrina. 

Against all of this, the congressional midterm elections are coming this November.  And now, there may be a new point of contention.  With polls showing Americans increasingly concerned about the deficit and how the government is spending money, today the president, who has never vetoed any spending bill, called for legislation giving him the line-item veto and he pointed his finger at the Republican-controlled Congress. 

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  By passing this version of the line-item veto, the administration will work with the Congress to reduce wasteful spending, reduce the budget deficit and ensure that taxpayer dollars are spent wisely. 

SHUSTER:  It was just two years ago , however, when House Republicans shot down legislation for a line-item veto, and if the White House persists in pushing it again, a new front between the president and House Republicans may open up. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)            

SHUSTER:  Meanwhile, Republicans thinking about a possible presidential campaign in 2008 are headed to Memphis, Tennessee, this weekend for a widely anticipated GOP leadership conference and presidential straw poll.  It comes at a time when White House ambitions and loyalty to President Bush may not be one and the same. 

I‘m David Shuster for HARDBALL at the White House.             

MATTHEWS:  Thank you David Shuster.

Congressman John Boehner of Ohio is the newly elected leader of the Republicans in the House of Representatives.

Mr. Boehner, Mr. Leader, thanks for coming over. 

REP. JOHN BOEHNER ®, HOUSE MAJORITY LEADER:  Chris, it‘s nice to be with you. 

MATTHEWS:  I am very much proud of anybody who takes on a job like you have taken on.  It‘s so great.

BOEHNER:  It‘s a big job.

MATTHEWS:  It‘s a big job.

Let me ask you about this ports deal.  Where is it going to end up in the end after all the arguing?  Are we going to have the emirates run the ports or not? 

BOEHNER:  Well, I think there are a number of reviews that are underway in the Congress.  We‘re having our hearings, but there‘s a lot of angst.  I think the administration has handled this poorly.  I don‘t think the right people have been consulted in the process, and at the end of the day, it‘s beginning to appear that Congress may want to speak to this issue.

But I do think that in the short term, we‘ve got to let the committees do their work. 

MATTHEWS:  Had this been run up the flagpole, would Congress have pulled it down? 

BOEHNER:  I think so. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask you about this line-item veto.  I‘ve been hearing about this for 30 years, the line-item veto.  I wouldn‘t think it would be very popular with the legislative branch because it takes away your leverage.  You have to give the president the opportunity to—oh, I like this.  I don‘t really like that.  I like this.  Don‘t you lose out on a line-item veto?

BOEHNER:  Well, I think there‘s a legitimate role for the Congress to play.  Under the constitution, we‘re charged with setting spending levels, but I do think giving the president an enhanced precision authority on a line-item authority that‘s legitimate, does in fact work. 

Where the president can point out these revisions, these reductions in spending, send them back to the Hill where we get to vote on them.  I think it would help balance the process.

MATTHEWS:  Then you have the final word. 

BOEHNER:  We have the final word. 

MATTHEWS:  Do you think he would go with a deal like that? 

BOEHNER:  I think he would, because it does enhance his power somewhat more than what he has to do. 

MATTHEWS:  What is it about second terms? 

BOEHNER:  The American people...

MATTHEWS:  Why do they always blow it, the second term of every presidency? 

BOEHNER:  Well, I think there‘s fatigue that sets in.  You have got a

president who‘s been there four years, gets reelected, and this president

has really dealt with a lot of more difficult issues than most presidents -

than a whole myriad of presidents. 

Just think about this 9-11, war in Afghanistan, a war in Iraq and a whole port-security issue, the largest natural disaster to ever hit the United States.  I was down there last weekend.  These are big challenges, and it‘s not surprising that the president is going to take some hits. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, you‘re a loyal Republican.  I‘m going to ask you, I don‘t expect you to answer...

BOEHNER:  I‘m very loyal.  I‘m very loyal, and I like the president. 

MATTHEWS:  But OK.  But do you see a pattern here, Katrina, a couple days late to act.  And then he got down there.  He‘s been down there 11 times now already, but a little late, a couple days late.  The Harriet Miers thing, an odd appointment for the Supreme Court.  Somebody from the White House staff yanked that baby back after two days of fire.  The shooting incident, still seems a little murky to me about the president‘s role in that. 

BOEHNER:  Oh, there is no issue there, Chris. 

MATTHEWS:  You don‘t think he should have gotten a call from the veep? 

BOEHNER:  No. 

(CROSSTALK)                    

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Let‘s go back to this ports issue.  You don‘t see a pattern of being slow off the pad? 

BOEHNER:  No.  No, listen, any administration, they‘re going to do a lot of good things and they‘re going to have their mistakes as well.  And I don‘t fault the president.  Running this operation downtown, the administration is a very big job, lots of moving parts.  So mistakes are going to happen. 

Having been down in New Orleans and on the Gulf Coast the end of last week, when you begin to see the enormity of the storm, the enormity of the damage, if we had done everything right—I don‘t think there‘s any way to prepare for a natural disaster as large as this was. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask you about the next president.  Have you started thinking about who you want to lead after Bush? 

BOEHNER:  Well, there are a lot of people out there contending, a lot of good people.  George Allen and I have been friends for 20 years.  He‘s a good guy.  But a lot of other people, and I think it‘s as wide open a Republican primary as we‘ve had in my lifetime. 

And so, I think it‘s going to be a matter of which of these candidates can prove themselves.  And which can put the coalition together to win. 

MATTHEWS:  Who—what do you think is the strongest attribute the next Republican president should have if it‘s a Republican? 

BOEHNER:  Straight talk.  The one thing about President Bush is that he means what he says and he says what he means.  And I think the American people appreciate someone looking them in the eye and telling them the truth as they see it. 

And so I think the next contender on our side has to be someone who can relate to the American people, look them in the eye, and tell them the truth, even when it hurts at times. 

MATTHEWS:  Is John McCain a regular Republican? 

BOEHNER:  Yes, he‘s a regular Republican. 

MATTHEWS:  He is? 

BOEHNER:  Yes. 

MATTHEWS:  You consider him a regular guy, a regular Republican...

BOEHNER:  A regular Republican.

MATTHEWS:  ...who goes with the party, he‘s a party guy? 

BOEHNER:  Well, now let‘s not get carried away.  We all know that - well, we all know that John McCain will have his moments of independence, which is part of his...

MATTHEWS:  But do you trust him as a Republican?  But I know I hear it all the time, that real Republicans, not people who vote Republican necessarily, do more than that.  They are active in the party, show up, organize locally, that they think McCain is kind of not one of them. 

BOEHNER:  Well because he has these periods of independence.  You know, some people look at him and begin to wonder, boy, is he one of us? 

MATTHEWS:  Yes.

BOEHNER:  But I‘ve known John McCain...

MATTHEWS:  You‘ve never asked yourself that? 

BOEHNER:  No, I‘ve known John McCain for 15 years, good guy and will be a serious contender in this. 

MATTHEWS:  If you see Hillary coming, if it looks like she‘s built up a head of steam and looks like she can win this thing, the Democratic nomination...

BOEHNER:  Well, now wait a minute.  If ands and buts were candies and nuts, every day would be Christmas.  You put all these...

(CROSSTALK)

BOEHNER:  Listen, I don‘t think she can win.  And there are a lot of Democrats around the country who don‘t think she can win the general.  And as a result, you know, there are a lot of Democrats, as you well know, who are wondering, well, why would we want to nominate someone who can‘t win? 

MATTHEWS:  Oh, yes you hear it everywhere.  People will say—you hear Dukakis in a dress.  You hear all kinds of lines like that.  But the question I am asking you is do you have to adjust your defenses and offenses with the probability of running against her since she is the front runner?

BOEHNER:  No.  No.

MATTHEWS:  You don‘t need to run someone who can beat her then?

BOEHNER:  The best defense is a good offense.

MATTHEWS:  So don‘t pick somebody who can beat Hillary.

BOEHNER:  And we need someone who can stand up and represent our party, take our case to the American people, has a party of reform, a party of ideas and frankly, a party of vision, which will far surpass anyone the Democrats can put up.

MATTHEWS:  What‘s her biggest handicap, that she‘s married to Bill, or she‘s a liberal or she‘s a woman?

BOEHNER:  I think the eight years she spent in the White House along with her husband, just put labels on her, that you just can‘t erase. 

MATTHEWS:  Like?

BOEHNER:  Liberal.

MATTHEWS:  She‘s a liberal. 

BOEHNER:  How about national health care?  Hello?  Hello?

MATTHEWS:  Well, she‘s backing the war.

BOEHNER:  And at the same time, alienating people who could be voting for her in the Republican—or in the Democratic primary.  But I think if you go back to Hillary care in 1993 and 1994, says it all.  It set a view of people‘s minds of here‘s a lady, who wants to nationalize health care in America.  Now, most people know about national health care in Canada, they know about it in Europe, they‘re not very impressed about it and they don‘t want to hear it.

MATTHEWS:  Is she a socialist?

BOEHNER:  No.  I‘ve worked with her on a number of issues on the Congress.

MATTHEWS:  On the issue of health care is she a socialist?

BOEHNER:  She would be to the left of most people I know.

MATTHEWS:  Yes, but not a socialist?

BOEHNER:  I wouldn‘t go that far.

MATTHEWS:  You wouldn‘t go that far?  That stops you.

BOEHNER:  I don‘t like the labeling of people.

MATTHEWS:  Well you called her a liberal, you called it Hillary care.

BOEHNER:  Well she‘s liberal, she‘s left, but I don‘t want to call her a socialist.

MATTHEWS:  Could she carry Ohio in the general?

BOEHNER:  I don‘t think so.

MATTHEWS:  Who could beat her?

BOEHNER:  Anybody.

MATTHEWS:  Anybody.  Strong words.  We‘ll be right back with House Majority Leader John Boehner.  You can see this man‘s greatness.

Plus, she‘s challenging Hillary and she‘s coming here, wait until we meet her.  The woman running against Hillary in New York state.  Another HARDBALL exclusive with Republican Senate candidate K.T. McFarland.  And starting tonight on the bottom of your screen, the HARDBALL headlines, watch them.  The political season is heating up and we‘re keeping you up to the minute throughout the hour, just watch that crawl.  You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  We‘re back with House Majority Leader John Boehner.  Congressman, I try to think about all the times about why people vote the way and my hunch is that the strongest thing your party has going for you in congressional district after congressional district, right across the country, is tax relief.  You‘re the party that cuts taxes and as long as you‘re seen that way, you win elections.  Is that true?

BOEHNER:  I think taxes do help, and there‘s no question that the tax relief we‘ve provided over the last 10 years has helped provide a stimulus to keep this economy growing and employing more people.  And I think making the tax cuts permanent, that were proposed by President Bush in 2001 and enacted by Congress, are critically important to spur more investment in our economy, create more jobs and to put more money in the American people‘s pockets.

MATTHEWS:  Can you do it?  Can you get this bill passed and signed? 

Forget signed, can you get it passed?

BOEHNER:  That‘s the hard part.  The Senate—we can pass it in the House.  The hard part‘s getting it passed in the Senate.

MATTHEWS:  OK, let me talk about a tricky issue that does hurt you someplace and helps you other place, abortion rights.  Do you think it‘s good for the country to have the South Dakota bill coming?  It‘s been signed by the governor, it‘s going to outlaw abortion basically, except for the life of the mother, it‘s coming right back to the Supreme Court.  What do you think of that? 

BOEHNER:  Well this issue‘s been in our country for a long time.  I happen to have 11 brothers and sisters and I‘m sure it wasn‘t convenient for my mother to have 12 of us, but I‘m sure glad she did.  And the issue is going to be debated.  I think South Dakota has a right to do whatever they want to do and clearly it‘s going to going to get to the Supreme Court and they‘re going to have to make some decision.

MATTHEWS:  Is it good for the Republican Party, clean and simple, to outlaw abortion?  Does that help you or put you more in jeopardy?

BOEHNER:  Chris, the issue is not about the Republican Party, the issue is about a very divisive issue in our country.  It‘s been divisive for 30 years now, it‘s going to continue to be divisive and in the case here where South Dakota has spoken, you know, it‘s a state.

This is their state legislature, their governor signed a bill, it will work its way through the court process, and as it does, we‘ll continue to have this debate.  But Republicans by and large, support the right to life, and I‘m glad they do.

MATTHEWS:  But you‘re better of with the issue.  You have the issue now—you‘re better off with legalized abortion because then you can argue against it.

BOEHNER:  It‘s not about a political issue.  For me, this is part of who I am.  It‘s not some convenient position I took somewhere along the line.

MATTHEWS:  But it‘s the party platform, it‘s political as hell.  The Democrats have one position, the Republicans have another.  It‘s a political issue.

BOEHNER:  Yes, but not every Republican supports the right to life and not every Democrat supports abortion.  This is—it‘s not quite a party issue.  Now...

MATTHEWS:  ... Except in every presidential election it is.

BOEHNER:  Well every presidential election becomes one.

MATTHEWS:  What about Iran?  Should you—most voters say don‘t attack Iraq—Iran rather.  We‘re already in Iraq, don‘t attack Iran, we have to find diplomatic and economic means to prevent them from going nuclear.

BOEHNER:  I think the diplomacy that we‘ve been engaged in for the last several years continues to work and the fact this we have our partners in Europe working with us on diplomacy, will help us get there.  And I do think that economic sanctions as well may tighten the noose a little bit around their necks, and supporting democracy movements within Iran is also very giving because our fight‘s not with the Iranian people, it‘s with the leaders of their country.

MATTHEWS:  OK, thank you, well said.  Thanks for joining us here, Majority Leader John Boehner.  When we return, an exclusive interview with the woman who hopes to defeat Hillary Clinton in the Empire State.  She‘s going to be right here.  You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  New York Republicans have a new challenger for Senator Hillary Clinton.  Her name is K.T. McFarland, she served as Pentagon official in the Reagan administration, as an adviser to Henry Kissinger in the Nixon and Ford administrations. 

Twenty years ago she left Washington for New York to get married and raise a family.  Now she‘s running for the Senate as a bona fide security mom. 

She‘s here in her first national television interview.  K.T., you still have a primary ahead of you.  Can I ask you some questions about yourself and your own thinking.  I won‘t get into Hillary, I want to ask you.  Would you have voted to convict president Clinton when he was impeached? 

K.T. MCFARLAND, ® NEW YORK SENATE CANDIDATE:  No. 

MATTHEWS:  No? 

MCFARLAND:  No. 

MATTHEWS:  You would have voted as a Republican, you would have broken the party ranks and voted to acquit him? 

MCFARLAND:  Chris, the reason I‘m in this race is because I think that we‘ve gotten to the point where we‘re just fighting with each other all the time.  The extreme partisanship in American politics is driving voters away, it‘s driving us away from finding any common ground on which to stand to solve issues.  So—

MATTHEWS:  So basically, just to finish that up, K.T., just so I know how tough a Republican you are, you believe that the husband of the woman you would probably run against if you were to win the nomination was innocent of the charges?  He was innocent. 

MCFARLAND:  No, I didn‘t say that.  I didn‘t say that.  I said that I wouldn‘t—I would not vote for impeachment.  I think that one of the problems that we have is this gotcha politics where people are constantly looking to divide, looking to conquer, looking to impeach. 

People are even talking now about impeaching President Bush.  It‘s crazy.  We‘ve gotten this adversarial political system where all we do is look and try to find what‘s wrong. 

MATTHEWS:  To use a phrase I heard from Hillary Clinton, you‘re not part of the vast right wing conspiracy? 

MCFARLAND:  I‘m not part of any conspiracy. 

MATTHEWS:  So what do you want to do?  Hillary Clinton is one of the most bankrolled politicians in history, people talk about her raising Zillions of dollars already to run for president.  How do you think you can beat her? 

MCFARLAND:  Chris, I read your book.  One of the—one of things I‘ve done for the last 20 years is think about government, think about politics.  And I must tell you that your chapter on the underdog was one of the things that I read and one of the things that pushed me over to make this decision to run. 

America is full of underdog stories.  President Clinton, when he first set out to run, he was running against the president who had enormous popularity, and he was—it was right in the wake of the first Iraq war.  There were—President Bush was so popular at that point, that no major Democratic officials would step forward to challenge him.  They thought it was a lost cause.  As a result, Bill Clinton stepped forward, he won the nomination, he won the presidency, he was reelected.  You know, I worked for Ronald Reagan.  They didn‘t give Ronald Reagan‘s a snowball‘s chance when he first set out. 

MATTHEWS:  He ran three times before he won.  He was a courageous guy.  You may have to run a few times too to get elected.  Let me ask you about a tough one.  Hillary Clinton supported the authorization to go to war in 2002, would you have done that? 

MCFARLAND:  Look, I wasn‘t there at the time, I didn‘t see the intelligence reports.  I certainly look at something like any commitment of force overseas and I try to judge it by something that I was involved with in the Reagan administration. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, do you think—let me ask you this, because you‘re an expert on Ronald Reagan.  Do you think Ronald Reagan would have invaded Iraq?  I don‘t think so.  That‘s my opinion. 

MCFARLAND:  Well, I don‘t—

MATTHEWS:  As an observer of watching him for a long time.  Do you think Ronald Reagan would have invaded Iraq?  Do you think Bill Clinton would have invaded Iraq?  Do you think Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy would have invaded Iraq?  You‘re an expert on foreign policy.  I‘m just asking you to use your expertise.  Would any other president besides this one and Dick Cheney have taken that step?  That‘s all I‘m asking? 

MCFARLAND:  I don‘t know.  My point is—let historians debate whether we were right or wrong.  Let go forward. 

MATTHEWS:  You worked for Henry Kissinger, it‘s on your resume.  Did Henry Kissinger, in the back room, not what he says in the op-ed pages of the major newspapers, did Henry Kissinger thought that this was a smart move, Henry, Henry the K, he‘s watching now, I‘ll bet you because he watches.  Did he think this was a smart move to go in there where there might be a civil war? 

MCFARLAND:  I don‘t know.  I didn‘t ask him.  I‘ll let Henry Kissinger speak for himself.  I worked for him for seven years and I can tell you one thing, Henry Kissinger can speak for himself. 

MATTHEWS:  You‘re a delightful candidate, you‘ll probably do well in this uphill battle as the underdog.  I have to ask you this question.  You must answer this one.  You can‘t foul this one off.

We have a situation if Iran right now where the Iranian government for reasons of national pride or zealotry or Islamic whatever, wants to have some kind of nuclear capability, for whatever purpose.  We could only read their minds, they probably want it for a bad purpose.  The president won‘t even let them develop for peaceful reasons working with the Russians to keep them honest.  He doesn‘t trust that deal. 

Do you think we should take any military action to stop that? 

MCFARLAND:  Well, you clearly don‘t want to put anything off of the table right now.  Iran to me and the potential nuclearization of Iran is probably the single biggest national security problem we face going forward, because if Iran develops nuclear weapons, I think it‘s highly likely that Saudi Arabia will seek to develop its own nuclear weapons and before you know it, we could have a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, which threatens Israel, which the Middle East, which threatens us and the world, so that‘s something that we need to address very carefully, very soberly, and with a full range of options before us. 

Now, I don‘t think that we‘ve even begun to exhaust the diplomatic avenues that we could take.  This is the Iranian nuclear situation, it‘s something the United Nations is currently considering.  I think that if—whatever we do in the Middle East, with regard to Iran and nuclear weapons, we need to do it in concert with allies and with other powers who have influence over Iran.  But I would agree with you, that it is probably going forward, the single most difficult to solve problem that the United States will face. 

MATTHEWS:  How are you going to beat former mayor John Spencer to get the nomination to run against Hillary? 

MCFARLAND:  I‘m going to do it the good old fashioned way by going to meet the voters.  There are 62 counties in New York State, each one has a Republican Party chairman, I‘ve talked to almost all of them.  I‘ve gone to see a number of them.  At this point I have been extremely enthusiastically received by all of the ones I have met, and all the ones I‘ve spoken to.  So I‘m going to do it the old fashioned way, go to the voters, convince them I‘m the best candidate for the job, and then win. 

MATTHEWS:  You are not angry are you? 

MCFARLAND:  No, I‘m not angry. 

MATTHEWS:  What did you make the Hillary‘s comment today that people who call women candidates angry are being chauvinist or sexist.  

MCFARLAND:  As a woman, I think that the whole issue of anger, who‘s angry who‘s not angry, that‘s just nonsense.  Let‘s move a little bit beyond that, don‘t you think? 

MATTHEWS:  Are you brittle? 

MCFARLAND:  I think you ought to ask my five children. 

MATTHEWS:  These are all the charges your party is making at Hillary and I think they might be along that line.  You don‘t think so.  You think it‘s fine to call somebody brittle and angry? 

MCFARLAND:  Ask my five children.  I don‘t think they think I‘m brittle, maybe tough, but not brittle. 

MATTHEWS:  Do you know Hillary personally? 

MCFARLAND:  I‘ve been racking my brain to think if we‘ve ever met.  I worked for Henry Kissinger during the Watergate, I worked in the White House situation room, and I know that she was on the Watergate Committee and one of the lawyers working on it and I know there was a period of time when we turned our files over to some of those investigators, so I don‘t know.  Could I have met her?  Sure.  I don‘t know if she was actually in the White House during those days.  If she actually did come into the White House to read the files, chances are I did meet her.

MATTHEWS:  Great.  Thank you very much.  Good luck in your race.  K.T.

McFarland potentially taking on Hillary Clinton in the fall.

Up next, radio talk show host Michael Smerconish of Philadelphia versus the Reverend Al Sharpton of New York on President Bush, the Republicans, Hillary Clinton and the culture wars, culture kampf, raging at last night‘s Oscars.  You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.

Here to hash out some big culture questions from Hollywood to Baghdad, to Memphis to Washington, a radio talk show host Michael Smerconish of Philadelphia and the Reverend Al Sharpton of New York.

Let‘s do a damage report on the president, gentlemen.  In the new “Washington Post” ABC News poll, a whopping 80 percent of the country believes that civil war in Iraq is likely.  The trouble in Iraq and the port deal fallout have taken their toll on George Bush, the president, only 38 percent right now approve of his job performance, 60 disapprove. 

Michael Smerconish, what‘s hurting the president right now? 

MICHAEL SMERCONISH, WPHT TALK RADIO-PHILADELPHIA:  I think it‘s a combination of both of those issues, but I think it‘s the port in particular, because, you know, Chris, when all is said and done, national security has always been his strong suit. 

And this port issue has cost him, with people like me, with people who are traditionally his base, people who voted for him twice, who think that his heart and his mind are in the right place, but not on this issue and we just don‘t understand it. 

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Let me go to the Reverend Al Sharpton. 

Reverend Sharpton, this issue, the president, he managed to be reelected in November of 2004.  It‘s been downhill pretty consistently ever since 9-11, but especially in the last month or so.  What‘s bringing him down to below 40 percent in public trust? 

REV. AL SHARPTON, NATIONAL ACTION NETWORK:  I think a lot of it is the continual Iraq engagement.  There seems to be no end in sight, so I think after a while, it just starts weighing down and the public loses more and more faith in him. 

And then I think when you cover that with Katrina and then tapes coming out and clear inconsistencies, and then on top of that, the ports, you can‘t run for reelection telling everybody to look out for the bogeyman.  And then it looks like the bogeyman has a contract with you, and I think that you really, really, are getting a combination of a lot of things that just can‘t be spun by any of his spin doctors. 

MATTHEWS:  But doesn‘t this bother you?  You must be conflicted on this Reverend Sharpton, because you‘ve heard some of the lingo.  I mean, let me just give you some of it.  His name is Michael Smerconish, Michael, you said that your concern about this port deal has to do with the nationality of the country that‘s got the control of the company.  If it was Holland or it was Belgium or Germany, it wouldn‘t bother you, you said. 

SMERCONISH:  And when I say that, I think I speak for the nation.  I mean I come on and I articulate that view.  What troubles me is Arab control of our ports.  Now everybody else is against this transaction, but they‘re just afraid to say it. 

And yet what are we doing?  We‘re replacing the Brits with the Arabs. 

I mean, that‘s the issue.  It‘s not foreign control.  It‘s Arab control. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, the Brits made the deal.  They sold it to the Arabs. 

How do you stop that?  You just say no Arabs need apply?  How do you do it? 

SMERCONISH:  Well, you say no foreign control, because frankly no foreign entity should be in control of the management Minneapolis of our ports.  But let‘s be real about this.  It‘s Arab control that has people like me offended. 

MATTHEWS:  Are you offended by that, Reverend Sharpton, that Michael Smerconish is nailing it down to nationality if not ethnicity? 

SHARPTON:  Yes, I am offended.  I think there‘s absolutely Arab bashing and racial profiling, but I also think that‘s the crime they have created that has now come back to haunt the president.  I don‘t agree with Arab bashing, even though I agree that I don‘t think any foreign interest ought to be controlling our ports, but that would go for Britain and everyone else, so I am conflicted. 

At one level, I agree that we ought to be creating jobs and creating infra-structural jobs with our own people taking care of the ports, but at another level, I certainly see this as Arab bashing and saying that we could deal with it if it was other foreigners, not Arabs.  It is absolutely based on nationality and race.  That‘s wrong. 

MATTHEWS:  Michael, the president has said that you‘re for us or against us in the war on terror, and some Arab countries and some Islamic countries like Musharraf‘s Pakistan have joined our side in the fight.  If you say to the guys who have joined our side in the fight, screw you, are you going to have any friends? 

SMERCONISH:  Have they really joined our side in the fight? 

MATTHEWS:  Well, I am asking you.

SMERCONISH:  I mean, isn‘t there really some consensus that bin Laden is probably holed up on the Pakistani side of the border right now?  I mean, I look at this as almost what Nixon faced with Cambodia during the Vietnam war.  I‘m not sure we shouldn‘t be going into Pakistan, Chris. 

MATTHEWS:  You mean, not withstanding the opposition of the government to an intrusion, just go to war with Pakistan as well? 

SMERCONISH:  You see what we did with regard to al-Zawahiri, a couple of weeks ago when we thought we had him.  We went in with a predator, we bombed and later we apologized.  I think we need a little bit more of that activity. 

MATTHEWS:  Do you think we can find him in the tribal areas, the wild areas of that part of the old northwest frontier of India that is now the northwest frontier that nobody seems to run? 

SMERCONISH:  You know, one of the elements of the hunts for bin Laden that never gets discussed is that frankly we never committed troops for that search.  We relied upon the northern alliance, and we were calling the shots for the activities of the northern alliance.

But Gary Berntsen, the fellow who hunted bin Laden post 9-11, reminded me just this week that we had 500 special-ops guys on the ground and no troops. 

SHARPTON:  We sent the troops to Iraq.  That‘s the problem.  We never went after bin Laden.  I mean, to have us invade now, apologize later, that‘s the foreign policy that has gotten Bush under 40 percent.  And in all sincerity, Chris, will they find bin Laden?  They couldn‘t find a hurricane in New Orleans.

MATTHEWS:  Well, that‘s well said, I suppose, except it begs the question, how would you have found him Reverend Sharpton?

SHARPTON:  Well, first of all, I would have committed troops.  I would have kept the word George Bush gave this country the night of September 11, and that is he would have went in...

I would have put all of my resources in military power into bringing the man to justice that we say killed 3,000 innocent Americans.  I would have never got diverted to Iraq and Saddam Hussein, who had absolutely nothing to do with the attack on the United States. 

MATTHEWS:  We‘ll be right back to talk about which Republican hot shots can take on Hillary in 2008. 

Plus, race and culture at the Oscars.  What a night last night, a very interesting night—I‘m not saying it was a great night.  It was interesting about politics and a lot of it we saw last night. 

More with the Reverend Al Sharpton and Michael Smerconish.  This is HARDBALL only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  We‘re back with radio talk show host Michael Smerconish and the Reverend Al Sharpton.  This weekend HARDBALL follows the biggest Republicans down to Memphis, Tennessee, for the southern Republican leadership conference. 

We‘re all going to be there.  It‘s the first major gathering of 2008 presidential wanna-bes.  The biggest question on their minds, I think, is who has what it takes to beat Hillary Clinton?

Well, Reverend Sharpton, you‘ve been in close quarters with Hillary Clinton politically for a long time.  You have challenged her.  You have made her life a little difficult.  You have also backed her. 

Let me ask you.  Do you think the Republicans are smart to start this fight early, saying she‘s brittle, saying she‘s angry, trying to lure her into a fight early for the 2008? 

SHARPTON:  I think that they‘re probably smart to try to provoke a fight, and I think she‘s probably smart not to give it to them.  I think that it‘s to their advantage to try to define the race early and to try to make her make mistakes.  And I think that if she is smart and she has shown throughout her career to be smart, she won‘t go for the bait. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, you have just set her up, Reverend Sharpton, because you said if she were smart she wouldn‘t go for the bait.  Here she is today, this afternoon.  When you run as a Democrat and in particular, when you run as a Democratic woman, they may even say you‘re angry.  She went right back into Ken Mehlman‘s teeth on that one. 

Reverend Sharpton, do you mean that she blew it? 

SHARPTON:  No, I think that what she did was put the context of the attack out there.  I don‘t think that she at all responded in the way they want.  I think that what she has done is described what they‘re doing, and I think it will help her politically. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, you‘re—what do you call it, you‘re a switch-hitter on that one, Reverend.  Because you were ready for both answers.  Let me tell you something.  Look at the headline here, “Clinton Says Anger Attack is Part Gender Based.”

Michael Smerconish, it looks to me like she is taking the bait. 

SMERCONISH:  I think she is taking the bait, and, Chris, there are no undecided folks in the country with regard to Hillary Rodham Clinton.  We could have this election tomorrow. 

MATTHEWS:  I agree with you on that.  OK.  Who wins in Philadelphia? 

SMERCONISH:  Well, not Hillary. 

MATTHEWS:  Who wins in Pennsylvania? 

SMERCONISH:  I think John McCain is the perfect kind of a guy for Pennsylvania because of his independence.  I mean, after eight years of this administration, the pendulum is going to swing, and I do not believe it‘s a cycle for ideologues. 

MATTHEWS:  OK.  But you‘re giving away something here.  You‘re telling me something that I had a smell of, which is there are certain Republicans that might just lose to Hillary.  Could a Frist lose to Hillary?  Could a Brownback lose to Hillary?  A more conservative cultural conservative who turned off of the burbs? 

SMERCONISH:  Probably.  I think they have probably could, and, you know, I think the challenge for the Republican Party when you go down south this weekend is to decide who can win a general, not who can win a primary. 

I mean, you know what happened to McCain in South Carolina in the last cycle, and we have got to let that be the lesson for the ‘08 cycle.  And one more point, the irony here is that McCain‘s numbers are surging and yet he‘s a hawk on Iraq.  At the same time that the president‘s numbers are tanking, because of Iraq. 

MATTHEWS:  Why is that going on Reverend Sharpton?  Are people not that sharp, they don‘t notice that McCain is to the right of the president?  He probably wants to go to Iran at some point.  Far to the right of the president.  He‘s to me hard to tell apart from “The Weekly Standard” and the Bill Kristols of this world. 

SHARPTON:  Well, what I‘m hearing is that a lot of the right wing Republicans are now going to hold their nose and go for McCain.  And that‘s interesting because many of us felt they would not, but I think the reason why McCain is surging in the polls, it has to do with your original question in the last block, Chris, is about trust. 

I think that even though a lot of Americans—I would argue, most Americans don‘t agree with the policy, they do feel McCain has demonstrated some integrity until that is attacked or put under further scrutiny.  I think what‘s hurting Bush is not just the policy but the inconsistency and the lack of trust because of the inconsistencies.  It‘s a big difference. 

MATTHEWS:  We‘ll be right back.  When we return, the culture clash --  the Germans called it culture kampf—at the Oscars.  A lot going on last night.  A lot of politics.  You could hear it all night.  More with Michael Smerconish and the Reverend Al Sharpton.  I think we might have a fight on our hands when we come back. 

And on MSNBC.com, the hot Senate race in Pennsylvania between Rick Santorum and Bob Casey Jr. may be getting hotter, as abortion rights activist Kate Michelman has the notion of making this race a threesome.  Tom Curry has got the story, and it‘s on our web site, MSNBC.com.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  We‘re back with radio talk show Michael Smerconish, and the Reverend Al Sharpton.  If you missed any of the show tonight or want to see it again, catch us again at 11:00 tonight.  We‘re back at 11:00 this week eastern.  That‘s HARDBALL at 11:00. 

There‘s some big political and cultural question coming out of Hollywood last night.  Here‘s George Clooney accepting the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE CLOONEY, ACTOR:  We are a little bit out of touch in Hollywood every once in a while.  It is probably a good thing.  We‘re the ones who talk about AIDS when it was just being whispered.  And we talked about civil rights when it wasn‘t really popular.  I‘m proud to be a part of this academy.  I‘m proud to be part of this community and proud to be out of touch and I thank you so much for this. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Michael Smerconish, do you have any problem with that? 

SMERCONISH:  Yes.  I have a problem with that.  That‘s as far as they got last night.  I think Hollywood is afraid.  I think they‘re afraid of red state America.  It was a disastrous year.  Those top movies, those top movies—

MATTHEWS:  That‘s not as far as it got.  I want to you watch this.  This is from a hip hop group.  Let‘s take a look at the winning song.  This is the one that all the academy voted for as the best song in any movie last year.  It is called it‘s called, “It‘s Hard out There for a Pimp.”

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

(SINGING)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Reverend Sharpton, looking at that as white guy, middle class, at least I was middle class, if you want to keep the people down, sell that crap.  Could not believe all those whites in that academy voted for that stuff.  That‘s the best music of the year? 

SHARPTON:  Absolutely.  If you are going to take Clooney‘s statement about being out of touch and being ahead of the curve, and then come with a song like that, to infer that this is making some political or cultural statement, that‘s very offensive to me. 

I do a syndicated radio show for syndication.  I open it up on the airwaves today.  And 99 percent of the people that called were absolutely offended and outraged by it.  I‘ve been travelling all weekend, everywhere I talked about the nomination.  We‘re doing a march April 1 in New Orleans Reverend Jesse Jackson has called.  I travelled with him this weekend.  People are outraged.  We‘re not trying to get rights for pimps.  We‘re trying to get rights for people who work and raise their children.  If that‘s Hollywood‘s statement, I think that it is a very offensive statement. 

MATTHEWS:  Is this trendy left as we used to say?  Radical chic?  Where a bunch of White people living in San Fernando Valley think this is a way to stick it to blacks by saying this is the best you can do.  What is the statement that this is the best talent in Hollywood.  Look at the actors in the audience.  Why did they pick this group to celebrate? 

SMERCONISH:  I think you‘re putting too much thought into the process. 

MATTHEWS:  Every member of the academy voted on this and they said this was the best music in Hollywood this year of all the movies that came out.  They wanted to pick this out. 

SMERCONISH:  In five years, if you have me back, neither of us could ever remember the name of the group that you just showed on HARDBALL tonight.  That‘s the reality.  I think everybody wants to be cool and feel like they‘re part of the drill.  I have kids in my white suburban community wearing baggy pants thinking they‘re part of the action. 

MATTHEWS:  It‘s not exactly “As Time Goes By,” is it, Michael? 

SMERCONISH:  It is ridiculous.  It isn‘t talent.  None of this is talent.

SHARPTON:  Michael, the bad side of that is you don‘t want a 3-year-old kid walking around singing, it‘s hard out here for a pimp, thinking it is all right and it is cool.  Forget the name of the group.  The impact is what‘s disturbing to me.

SMERCONISH:  Reverend Al, I‘m with you on this.  The B word being uttered last night I thought was outrageous. 

SHARPTON:  I think it was.  On some level, I think all of us as Americans have to say, we can disagree politically, but to project that to young Americans, when you have a lot of good young American artists, I think was wrong. 

MATTHEWS:  Do you know what I liked about the Academy Awards?  It inspires me.  Maybe I can write a screenplay someday.  Maybe I can do something that these guys in the beards, the smart guys who are behind the films, can do that.  Maybe I can do that someday.

It is about inspiring people to maybe be creative someday, maybe be an actor someday.  It‘s not about encouraging people to be pimps.  Thank you, Michael Smerconish.  Thank you, Al Sharpton. 

HARDBALL hit the Oscars in full force last night.  We asked Hollywood start about the hot political flames in this year‘s top movies.  Here‘s MSNBC‘s Ashley Pearson. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ASHLEY PEARSON, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT:  If you think it is political out there in Washington, Chris, Washington has nothing on this year‘s Academy Awards.  In fact, each of the top five nominated films this year had some kind of political message, journalistic ethics, homosexuality, racism, even the aftereffects of terrorism. 

It seem like Hollywood is taking a direct approach to make its political agenda known. 

SUZANNE SOMERS, ACTRESS:  I think movies are mirrors and it is really mirroring what we need to be thinking about, acceptance and tolerance and prejudice and racism and terrorism.  And the movies were all reflecting that. 

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR, “CRASH”:  Wait, wait.  Did you see what that woman just did? 

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR, “CRASH”:  She‘s cold. 

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR, “CRASH”:  She got colder as soon as she saw us. 

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR, “CRASH”:  Oh, man.  Come on.  Don‘t start. 

Look around you, man.  You could not find a whiter, safer or better lit part of the city right now.  But yet this White woman sees two Black guys who look like UCLA students strolling down the sidewalk and her reaction is blind fear? 

PAUL HAGGIS, “CRASH” DIRECTOR:  I think the country is ready for these questions to be asked.  And we‘re asking serious questions of ourselves as Americans.  I think that‘s reflected in our movies. 

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR, “BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN”:  I told you, it ain‘t going to be that way.  You got your wife and baby in Texas.  And I‘ve got my life. 

FELICITY HUFFMAN, “TRANSAMERICA” ACTRESS:  I think probably film is a reflective art form.  The fact they exist already is a statement about society. 

WILLIAM HURT, “SYRIANA” ACTOR:  There‘s a line that‘s been crossed.  And it probably has to do a lot about with September 11.  The consciousness of America has to do with our interpretations of ourselves as being a political issue. 

GEORGE CLOONEY, ACTOR, “SYRIANA”:  There are young people marching the street.  The next day they shut down 50 newspapers.  Satellite dishes up on the roofs let them watch “My Two Dads.”  That doesn‘t mean that the ayatollahs are surrendering one iota of control over that nation. 

JON VOIGHT, ACTOR:  I have very strong ideas about what‘s going on in all this.  We‘re all a little scared of what‘s happening.  It is a dangerous time.  We‘re in the middle of a war. 

PEARSON:  Ultimately, whether the messages in these movies speak for the average American remains to be seen.  It certainly gives us a great deal of insight into the way that Hollywood thinks.  This is Ashley Person for HARDBALL.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MATTHEWS:  Thank you, Ashley.  HARDBALL is on tonight and every night this week at 11:00 eastern.  And Friday HARDBALL hits the first stop on the ‘08 campaign trail.  The nation‘s top Republican contenders gather to prove they‘ve got what it takes to be president.  An exclusive television and online political event live from Memphis.

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

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

END   

Copy: Content and programming copyright 2006 MSNBC.  ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.  Transcription Copyright 2006 Voxant, Inc. (www.voxant.com) ALL RIGHTS  RESERVED. No license is granted to the user of this material other than for research. User may not reproduce or redistribute the material except for user‘s personal or internal use and, in such case, only one copy may be printed, nor shall user use any material for commercial purposes or in any fashion that may infringe upon MSNBC and Voxant, Inc.‘s copyright or other proprietary rights or interests in the material. This is not a legal transcript for purposes of litigation.

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