updated 3/17/2006 12:10:49 PM ET 2006-03-17T17:10:49

Guests: Michael Ware, Kate O‘Beirne, Steve McMahon, John Edwards, Mike Berman, Ed Rollins

CHRIS MATTHEWS, MSNBC HOST:  Tonight, counterattack in the first major military operation since the blowing up of the Samarra mosque.  Fifty helicopters, 200 ground vehicles and 1,500 troops in an all-out attack on an insurgent bastion.  Down in the polls, the war in Iraq is heating up.  Let‘s play HARDBALL.

Good evening, I‘m Chris Matthews.  Today the U.S. military launched the largest air assault since the Iraq war began three years ago, 1,500 American and Iraqi troops in Operation Swarmer went after suspected insurgent camps northeast of Samarra. 

U.S. military leaders in Baghdad said, quote, “a number of enemy weapons caches have been captured containing artillery shells, explosives, IED-making materials and military uniforms.” 

Meanwhile, President Bush reaffirmed today his preemptive war doctrine that took us into Iraq three years ago.  This despite plummeting support for both the war and the president himself in the polls, including the latest poll by NBC News and the “Wall Street Journal.”  More on those new poll numbers later in the show. 

But we begin tonight in Iraq, with “Time” magazine Baghdad bureau chief Michael Ware and NBC News military analyst General Wayne Downing.  General, you first.  What is the campaign here underway right now, this dramatic attack by 1,500 troops?

GEN. WAYNE DOWNING, NBC NEWS MILITARY ANALYST:  Well, Chris I‘m not sure how dramatic it is.  I think probably what they have is good intelligence and what they don‘t want to have is another insurgent base area buildup like Fallujah was, like Ramadi was.

So I think what you‘re seeing, this area around Samarra—and you‘ve got to remember, this is one of the key cities in the so-called Sunni triangle.  They don‘t want to see that thing become an insurgent base area. 

I think certainly they started looking hard at that after the bombings.  They‘ve got a good target, so they went in and they hit it.  I think what was dramatic about this is they apparently airlifted 101st airborne, two battalions in there and then followed it up with the Iraqi forces.  Could be significant on how they‘re going to fight this battle from here on out, Chris.

MATTHEWS:  Let‘s go to the ground with Michael Ware of “Time” magazine.  Michael, thank you for joining us.  Give us your sense of this operation underway right now in Samarra.

MICHAEL WARE, BAGHDAD BUREAU CHIEF, TIME MAGAZINE (on phone):  Well, it seems to me that we‘ve seen this kind of thing over and over and over again.  This is quite a large operation, involving 1,500 plus troops. 

The significant thing here however, as the Pentagon has highlighted, is that the troops have been airlifted in.  This is an air assault, trying to catch the enemy off guard.  The area where they‘ve gone is notorious for supporting the insurgency.

In fact, there‘s a great fertile crescent or a ring that almost surrounds Baghdad, all of which is a staging post, a launch pad, a command center, a recruiting area for the insurgency.  So clearly they‘ve identified a particular area and they‘ve gone in to hit it hard.  I mean, we‘ve seen this many times, let‘s see what kind of success they have.

MATTHEWS:  Michael, is this going to be house to house, looking for material for weaponry, IED materials, etc?

WARE:  Yes, it is, Chris.  This is going to be very much the hard slog of this war.  I mean, we‘ve all done this time and time again.  They‘ve attempted to seal off 10-mile square area, and now the troops are going through from farm to farm, village to village, scouring for weapons caches, and for targeted individuals.

The problem is, how do you seal an area like that?  How do you prevent the enemy from putting the weapons down and mingling with the civilian population.  This very much is now very dour work, sifting through the sands out there, trying to find out who‘s a good guy and who‘s a bad guy.

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask you about who‘s a good soldier, how are the Iraqi units doing? 

WARE:  They‘re coming along.  It all depends, of course, on the individual units.  I mean, there is very much a mixed bag.  I mean, I‘ve been with units that have all but collapsed under pressure, or under fire. 

I‘ve also been with units that can now, except for the support they need logistically in terms of air support and artillery and medical support, operate all on their own, free of any need or reliance upon U.S.  soldiers.  It‘s very much a mixed bag.

The problem is, that we‘re also seeing that among the Iraqi security apparatus, entire units, which are all but aligned with the militia organization of one group or another, particularly within the Ministry of Interior, which is controlled by very powerful Shiite bloc.  And it‘s spent a lot of time being trained and supported by Iran, so they can be a force for good or they can be a force for great evil.

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask you, General Downing, as you understand it, is this going to be the model, the U.S. troops accompanied by Iraqi forces, us having the air projection power and them coming along for the ride and doing the job on the ground?

DOWNING:  Well Chris, the air projection piece of this is because it‘s the 101st airborne division.  That‘s an air mobile division, you know where another unit, a heavier unit would move by Bradleys or armored personnel carriers.  These guys are going to go by helicopter. 

The principle I think though that we‘re seeing here and we‘re going to see more of, is for the U.S. to go out and hit isolated targets with pure U.S. forces and strike operations.  When you‘ve got built-up areas where you‘ve got the Iraqi people, use the Iraqi units more for those kind of things. 

You know, we don‘t have a cultural fit.  Even with our interpreters and as hard as we try, we don‘t understand an Iraqi village.  We walk in, we don‘t understand the language.  We don‘t understand that somebody‘s keffiyeh, the color of it, can kill you, what tribe he‘s from.  We can‘t ask them their name and immediately from that name get the family connections.  The Iraqis can do this. 

So I think what we want to do as these Iraqi forces become more capable—and they are becoming more capable—we want them to work in those built-up areas, take those tasks and you kind of use the U.S. forces back to do what they do best, which is apply firepower and really get in there and hit things.

MATTHEWS:  Michael, when the army arrives, the Iraqi army we help to

stand up—arrives with our troops, whether it‘s by airborne or on ground

when they arrive in a town, are they viewed as government forces or Shiite militia forces?

WARE:  Well, it‘s often hard to tell until things start to unfold there on the ground.  I mean, I‘ve been in Sunni strong holds.  For example, in the city to the west of the capital, Ramadi, which is still very much a hotbed for al Qaeda and for the Baathist insurgency. 

There you find the government troops are primarily Shiite troops in a Sunni area.  So immediately they‘re seen as the enemy and there‘s a great tension between these men in uniform and the civilians they‘re there to protect. 

It‘s so problematic and it‘s so complex and within the army, they try to mix the sectarian divide within these units.  However, at some point, it can‘t help by being hidden. 

Some of the most successful combat organizations I know within the Iraq army, right now are going through the same tensions that the rest of the country is going through.  You have Sunni leadership within one of these units, yet most of the rank and file is Shia.  They‘re trying to hold together, but there‘s so much that‘s trying to pull them apart.

MATTHEWS:  Well let me ask you about one thing that might be pulling them apart, that‘s Tehran.  Do you have a sense, as a reporter, can you tell us with tangible evidence that there‘s been any kind of communication between the government in Iran of Ahmadinejad and the soldiers who are fighting on our side.  Is he having an influence on this war as it‘s being carried out by us?

WARE:  There‘s absolutely no doubt about that, Chris, whatsoever.  Indeed, I had a significant U.S. diplomat say to me, in the middle of last year, “We assume that anything we give to this government or any information we share with this government, goes directly to Tehran.”

I mean, the building blocks, the Shiite components of this government, and particularly of the security forces, that remain directly under the ministry of interior‘s control and other agencies, are all the beneficiaries of longtime Iranian support.

I mean, look at the dominant SCIRI party and its Badr military wing, both of which were formed in Iran, essentially by the Revolutionary Guards Corps.  They fought as revolutionary guard units or as a political entity during the Iran-Iraq war.  They continue as paramilitary forces throughout the 1990‘s.  And during the invasion phase, they swarmed back into Iraq with Iranian special forces officers as their liaisons in exactly the same kind of operation that Washington conducted in Afghanistan using local militias with special forces.  So there is very much strong connections between large chunks of the security apparatus, and Tehran and these are the men that U.S. troops are having to work with, an we‘re seeing the friction almost daily. 

MATTHEWS:  General, that sounds like a prescription for hell.  You‘ve got our guys being—training these people in military science and the ability to wage a war.  At the same time their political loyalty seems to be coming from Tehran. 

DOWNING:  Well, Chris, I wouldn‘t say that‘s necessarily a given.  Everybody out there has relationships—I‘m talking about the people on the borders with the people on the other side. 

Certainly the Kurds have relationships in Turkey, and in Iran, and in Syria.  The Shias have relations with the Iranians.  They had to have those kind of relations in order to survive.  And in many cases, they had to leave the country. 

The question is, is are they Iraqis first, or are they Shias first?  And I would say that, in many cases, they‘re Iraqis first.  Most of the—most of the leaders I‘ve talked to, in all the factions—Sunni, Kurd, and Shia—out there if Iraq have the interest of the country. 

They want to keep Iraq together.  And they realize that if they get into a civil war, then they‘re going to have a real donnybrook and they don‘t know what‘s going to happen. 

So it doesn‘t necessarily follow just because they‘ve been supported by the Iranians—and I do agree with this.  I mean, there‘s no doubt that we had the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps in that country, perhaps before and certainly immediately after, the invasion in 2003. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Thank you very much, Michael Ware.  We would love to get you back on in the next couple of days.  Thank you Michael Ware with “Time” magazine, at the front in Iraq.  And General Wayne Downing, thank you, sir.

Coming up when we come back, two top analysts, the “National Review‘s” Kate O‘Beirne and the Democrat‘s Steve McMahon.

And later, Congresswoman Katherine Harris vows to spend her own fortune of $10 million to win her hot Senate race down in Florida. 

You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.

President Bush issues his new national security strategy just today, and unapologetically defended his policy of preemption.  Will his steadfast message help his standing in the polls? 

Here to talk about all of that and more, Kate O‘Beirne, Washington editor of the “National Review.”  Happy St. Patrick‘s Day. 

KATE O‘BEIRNE, “NATIONAL REVIEW”:  Thank you, Chris.  Happy St.

Patrick‘s Day.

MATTHEWS:  It‘s coming on strong.  And Democratic strategist Steve McMahon, another Mc (ph).  Thank you, sir.

STEVE MCMAHON, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST:  Also have a little Irish in me.

MATTHEWS:  I think you do.  Well, it‘s great to have you on on this eve.  I think it‘s tomorrow.

MCMAHON:  Yes, absolutely.  Big day tomorrow, Chris.

MATTHEWS:  My parents—my late parents got married on St. Patrick‘s Day.  Why do you think?  Because Lent took a break on St. Patrick‘s Day, remember? 

O‘BEIRNE:  You could get married on Lent.

MATTHEWS:  You could get married on lent.  You could also have a—well, they didn‘t drink back them so ...

MCMAHON:  I think Lent is taking a break tomorrow too. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Let‘s take a look at this very unpleasant bit of polling here.  In a recent Pew Research Center poll, the one word descriptions of President Bush have turned incredibly negative with 48 percent—I checked this twice, this. 

I couldn‘t believe it, but it‘s true.  Forty-eight percent of the people responding to this poll used such words as “incompetent,” “idiot,” and “liar” to describe our president.  Kate O‘Beirne, what happened to respect? 

O‘BEIRNE:  Well, 40 percent of Americans voted for John Kerry and presumably in November ‘04 would have attached those adjectives to George Bush.  I‘m more struck by the consistent 37 percent, 38 percent approval ratings for this president. 

MATTHEWS:  The base. 

O‘BEIRNE:  Yes, exactly.

MATTHEWS:  Will it hold?

O‘BEIRNE:  This is lower than the base. 

MATTHEWS:  Will it hold? 

O‘BEIRNE:  I would argue it‘s lower than the base.  I suspect not, but I think some of the things that could move those numbers some, because it does include disaffected Republicans and conservatives, some of that is outside of his control.  There are some things he doesn‘t control that could be enormously helpful to him and that‘s just a really uncomfortable place to be. 

MATTHEWS:  What do you think is going on with these numbers?  Why is the president who was able to pull back some of the bad numbers over Christmas and the holidays, he was able to get them up a bit.  They‘ve fallen back down.  Not all the way, but almost as far down as they were in November.  What‘s up? 

MCMAHON:  Well, I mean, I think what‘s up is his administration got caught in another round of untruths.  And I think this is the most dangerous kind of slide that a politician can endure, because what‘s happen now ... 

MATTHEWS:  Look at the slide here.  Excuse me, Steve, but this is something that people don‘t understand.  This is not some seasonal change or—it‘s a serial thing as we say in statistics, a long trend line down from the high point, of course, when he was so heroic after 9/11, in the 80s.  It‘s a pretty strong 45 degree trend line. 

MCMAHON:  Here‘s what‘s happening.  The American public elected this guy to begin with because they felt like he was genuine, authentic and real.  He took a stand and he fought for it.  And what they‘re finding out over time, or what they believe they‘re finding out over time, is he‘s not the guy they thought they were. 

MATTHEWS:  Who is he?

MCMAHON:  Well, they think he‘s -- 48 percent think he‘s either incompetent, he‘s an idiot, or he‘s a liar.  And the most dangerous thing there is that people are moving from disagreements over issues to character conclusions about a person.

And once that happens, you know, if they think you‘re a liar, it doesn‘t matter what your policy is on Iraq because they don‘t believe it anyway.  If you get caught in lies, it doesn‘t matter what you tell them because they‘re not going to believe you. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, Katie, you are sympathetic.  I need to ask.  We will not be too evil here tonight.  Let‘s try to be understanding on the eve of St. Patrick‘s, OK? 

MCMAHON:  Absolutely.  Absolutely.

MATTHEWS:  OK.  I don‘t know the answers to a lot of these questions.  I think, you know, people say that when people, after years and years of alcohol abuse, which I‘m somewhat familiar with, they get very rigid in their ways when they clean up their act.  They say well, this is my way of living.  I‘m going to stay on the straight and narrow. 

So you ask the president, and your conservative people will say, why don‘t you get tough on immigration?  He doesn‘t change his policy.  He sticks where he is, sort of I want more Hispanic votes.  They say let‘s do something about all the spending.  He won‘t veto a single spending bill.  There‘s certain things on the right side of concern, no the liberals, he doesn‘t want to change on.  What‘s that about? 

O‘BEIRNE:  Well, Chris, first of all, I don‘t think people who hold Michael Moore‘s view of the president are the problem at the moment. 

MATTHEWS:  No.

O‘BEIRNE:  Iraq, Iraq, Iraq is a major problem.  That, of course, is Exhibit A when I said there are certain things outside the president‘s control that are really affecting his popularity and the approval rating. 

Constant bad news and the growing sense that things aren‘t getting better around the corner.  On one hand, he is firm.  People like that about him, certainly with respect to his resolve on the war on terror.  He can be flexible though, Chris.  I mean, I think it‘s a character choice saying he can‘t.

MATTHEWS:  Well, where before has he shown it? 

O‘BEIRNE:  He sure corrected his Harriet Miers mistake, didn‘t he, even though there was personal loyalty thing involved there.

MATTHEWS:  Yes, that‘s true.  That‘s true.

O‘BEIRNE:  When he realized that it was going over the way it was, which was not at all with his base, he changed his mind, didn‘t he?  He changed his mind on Dubai ports, didn‘t he?  So he can be flexible in the face of political reality.

MCMAHON:  Getting pushed isn‘t exactly being flexible and being forced to do something isn‘t exactly being flexible.

O‘BEIRNE:  He set up a construct that he‘s sort of mindlessly stubborn and he‘s not.

MATTHEWS:  He did, he did change on those things, I mean, that‘s true.

MCMAHON:  Kate‘s right.  His problem begins with Iraq and it‘s enveloped his presidency, but the big problem with Iraq is that this administration hasn‘t been straight with the American people from the very beginning.

MATTHEWS:  It‘s been overly optimistic.

MCMAHON:  Overly optimistic, whether it was a lead up to the war, whether it‘s what‘s going on with the wiretapping.  And you know, the American people are reaching some conclusions that the administration isn‘t comfortable with and the administration isn‘t showing any flexibility, isn‘t planning how we‘re going to get our troops home.  They‘re just staying let‘s stay the course and the American people don‘t want to.  They‘re not going to. 

MATTHEWS:  We‘ll be right back with Steve McMahon and Kate O‘Beirne on this eve of St. Patrick‘s Day.  You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JESSICA SIMPSON, SINGER:  The purpose in life is to walk through it smiling and no matter what we go through, whether it‘s heartbreak, hurt, joy, whatever it is, I think that the universal language is love.  And that‘s always shown with a smile.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Wow, that was pop star Jessica Simpson earlier today in Washington, showing her support for Operation Smile.  She was slated to attend the National Republican Campaign Committee gala tonight, but packed out yesterday.  I guess her father is a Democrat.  The rest of her remarks are on our Web site, HARDBALL.MSNBC.com and there will be a picture. 

And we‘re back with Democratic strategist Steve McMahon and Kate O‘Beirne of the “National Review.”  That‘s the first time I‘ve ever seen her in action, I‘ve just seen her pictures before.  Delightful.

MCMAHON:  She just realized she was a Democrat, apparently.

MATTHEWS:  I guess we know we now.  You ought to put her on your cover.

MCMAHON:  Terrific, it‘s good to have her.

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask you about something that‘s always fascinating to look at, fellows and lady.  Both parties in how people look at them.  Now both parties have their weaknesses, both parties have their strengths. 

Let‘s take a look at this.  On Iraq after all the criticism of the war by the Democrats, look at the numbers up on our screen right now, 30 percent trust the Republican Party after all the hell, all the casualties, more than the Democratic Party, which has been protesting this war. 

How can you explain that Steve McMahon, that your party, which has been bitching about this thing, gets no credit.  The Republicans after all the mistakes and promises that didn‘t come true, is still more trusted? 

MCMAHON:  Well, I mean, I think the Republicans have always had an advantage on national security. 

MATTHEWS:  But now?

MCMAHON:  I know, you know, listen, it‘s...

O‘BEIRNE:  ... I know.

MCMAHON:  It just sort of follows the trend.

O‘BEIRNE:  I have the answer.

MCMAHON:  What is the answer, Kate?

MATTHEWS:  Take it Republican.

O‘BEIRNE:  I have the answer, Mr. Chris.  First of all, the situation on the ground has knocked some of the stuffing on that number out of Republicans because they used to have a wider advantage than that. 

It‘s because those same polls that show the public is really discouraged and is really questioning whether or not it was worth the cost, Iraq, they still say immediate pullout, no.  We cannot immediately come home.  We have to keep our troops there for some period of time and whether or not it‘s the consensus view of Democrats, the view most people have is that the Democrats favor and the person of Jack Murtha and some of the more outspoken anti-war types, they favor an immediate withdrawal and that‘s not where the public is, so they favor Republicans.

MATTHEWS:  Here we go another one, this is homeland security, a phrase I detest.  It sounds like mother Russia, it sounds too totalitarian and alien to America, homeland security -- 31 percent GOP, they trust 21 percent Democrats.

Again, after all the mistakes of 9/11, the failure to recognize it was coming, all the questions about the ports, and the Republicans—I‘m doing this to you Steve, but the Republicans are still trusted more, in this case by 10 points.  Why?

MCMAHON:  Listen, when you—when you run the government, when you have the presidency on matters of national security, on matters of war and peace, you have an advantage.

And frankly if you don‘t have an advantage—I mean, I‘ve never seen a case where the president didn‘t have an advantage.  Bill Clinton had advantages on these things when he was president.  It‘s what the American people do, they rally behind the president.

O‘BEIRNE:  When the Republicans see Democrats talking about homeland security, they hear them expressing this obsessive concern about the rights of accused terrorists.  They actually support the president on the Patriot Act, on the NSA eavesdropping.  They support the president.

MATTHEWS:  OK, let me ask you this one, because this is the one—the president of the United States stuck his neck out and has enacted an extremely expensive, who knows how expensive, Medicare prescription bill, something that both parties have promised.

Here‘s his reward for having stuck his neck out.  Who do you trust on health care?  Republicans, 12 percent.  How do you explain that one?  Your party went down in the ditch on this.  We don‘t know what this thing is going to cost, people are complaining about it already and yet, 12 percent respect for this, for a brand-new entitlement program.

O‘BEIRNE:  Just as the Republicans have a stubborn, persistent large advantage on national security issue, Democrats have it on health care and education, despite the president doubling federal education spending.

MATTHEWS:  Four to one, your party has an advantage on health care.

MCMAHON:  We‘ll take it.

MATTHEWS:  What have you done for us lately?

MCMAHON:  Well listen, Democrats on the Hill, people know that Democrats have been fighting to control health care costs across the board.

MATTHEWS:  But what have you done for us lately?

MCMAHON:  Chris, there are so many bills sitting up in committees, bottled up because Republicans won‘t let Democrats bring them to a vote.  There are bills that would make health insurance more available and more affordable, that would control health care costs, that would do all kinds of things, but Republicans won‘t let us.

MATTHEWS:  You know what I think?  It‘s your reputation as the mommy party that hangs in there, even when you blow it.  You‘re still the mommy you go to when you have a problem.

O‘BEIRNE:  They love their mothers.

MATTHEWS:  Your nose is running, you know.

MCMAHON:  I love my mother, don‘t you love your mother, Chris?

MATTHEWS:  How many shots do you have?  Ask any guy if they know what shots the kids have had, right?  They have no idea.  Anyway thank you, Steve McMahon, happy St. Patrick‘s Day to both of you.  Kate O‘Beirne, Katie O‘Beirne. 

Up next, former Democratic vice presidential candidate John Edwards on today‘s Operation Swarmer going on right now in Iraq.  He‘s down there rebuilding in the Gulf Coast and whether he‘s up for another run for president next time around.  I think he‘s running.  You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(MARKET REPORT)

MATTHEWS:  Thank you, Margaret Brennan.  Welcome back to HARDBALL. 

Today the U.S. military launched the largest air assault in Iraq since the invasion in 2003.  The attack targeted an Iraqi insurgency camp north of Baghdad. 

Meanwhile, the new NBC/”Wall Street Journal” Poll shows declining support for the president‘s handling of Iraq.  Only 35 percent approve now, while 61 percent of the country disapproves. 

But first, direct from New Orleans, former Democratic senator and vice presidential candidate, John Edwards is down there helping with the Katrina recovery.  Senator, thank you very much for joining us from down there.  What‘s it like down there?  Is there a sense that things are working again or is this still a long way off? 

JOHN EDWARDS (D), FMR. NC SENATOR:  Long way off.  I mean, where we are, I‘ve got 700 college kids who‘ve come with me to work during their spring break instead of going to the beach, which is an amazing thing.  They‘re from like 80 plus schools across the country.

And from what we‘ve seen here—we‘re in St. Bernard‘s Parish, and we‘ve spent the day today, for example, gutting houses but there‘s enormous work left to be done here.  And, in fact, we could have brought more kids who wanted to come and participate in this, but it‘s hard to find places for them to stay. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask you about these houses.  We were watching down there on the ground and we watched all those houses being flooded in St.  Bernard‘s Parish.  Are those houses any good anymore, or you got to give them up for good or what?  Or can you dig the muck up around them and get them sanitary again? 

EDWARDS:  Well, what you have to do is, you have to go in, dig out all the mess, shovel out all the mess.  You can see some of it piled up behind me.  We‘ve done that on 50 different locations here in St. Bernard‘s Parish all day long today.  And once you get out the mess, then you can make a determination about whether the house could be rehabilitated.  But I think a lot of these houses can be rehabilitated. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask you about the situation in Iraq right now.  You know the hell that‘s going on over there.  This day we launched a major initiative, Operation Swarmer—you know, 1,500 troops, 50 helicopters, 200 land vehicles, an assault involving the United States and Iraqi forces, some who have mixed loyalties perhaps between the militia of the Shia and also the—their commanders and our outfits were put together.  Are you optimistic we can, quote, “win that war” or are we better off just gradually reducing our commitment? 

EDWARDS:  Well, my view is it‘s extraordinarily unstable.  I‘m worried about it, my own personal feeling that the thing may be slipping away from us and I think ultimately it‘s not going to be determined by the United States.  I think it‘s going to be determined by Iraq and the Iraqi people. 

You know, they‘ve got to decide if they‘re going to actually have a representative government, whether they‘re going to be able to protect themselves, and we can‘t—we can‘t take responsibility for this over the long haul.

So—and my own view is, we need to reduce our size, our footprint there and send an absolutely clear signal that we‘re not going to stay there forever, that we‘re going to let them govern themselves and protect themselves and that we‘re not there for oil. 

MATTHEWS:  When is the point at which you think we ought to just say this is going to be a civil war, these people don‘t want to form a common government, we‘re not going to stay in the cross-fire?  When would you know that would be the time to make that call? 

EDWARDS:  I can‘t tell you today when that is.  What I think we ought to do is we ought to start getting our presence much lower there.  We ought to make them start taking responsibility for themselves and their own country and their own government. 

And at some point in the future, if it‘s clear they‘re not going to do that, so be it.  We can‘t do this for them over the long haul.  And we need to make it absolutely clear we have no intention of doing it over the long haul. 

MATTHEWS:  You know, Senator, before you and the others who were in the United States Senate at the time voted to authorize a use of force in that very tricky time right before the 2002 election, you were told a lot of things. 

You were told that there were weapons of mass destruction in the hands of Saddam Hussein, including a nuclear potential against us in this country, that our arrival in that country would be greeted—we would be greeted as liberators.  You were told by Wolfowitz, the deputy secretary of defense, that the Iraqi oil would pay for a mission which is now costing $1 trillion. 

You were given all kinds of commitments over there.  None of them turned out to be true.  None of them.  Do you feel it‘s something that the Democratic Party as a whole should say, we were lied to, we were misled, we were B.S.‘d, if you will, if that‘s somewhere in the middle and that we ought to just say so, yet you‘re one of the few who has said so. 

EDWARDS:  Well, here‘s—what I honestly think is that Bush, the administration, members of his administration, grossly misled the country, I think made an effort to mislead members of Congress. 

But I think the other truth is, and I believe this very strongly, Chris, those of us who voted for this war—and as you know, I‘ve now said my vote was a mistake.  Those of us who voted for this war, we had our own responsibility and we need to take responsibility for what it is we did. 

Speaking for myself, you know, I was on the Intelligence Committee, I went to many hours of hearings and briefings, I talked to member—former members of the Clinton administration and I made a judgment and it turns out that judgment was wrong. 

Well, I‘m responsible for that, but Bush and the administration are responsible for misleading the country, and making—and just being absolutely incompetent in the way they‘ve administered this war. 

MATTHEWS:  You know, Hillary Clinton, the senator from New York, will not say what you just said.  She has a way of skirting the issue.  We had her spokesman, Mr. Wolfson, on last night who said there wouldn‘t have been a vote to allow force if the administration hadn‘t made the case it made. 

But she won‘t say that she made a mistake.  Is she hemmed in by the fact that she‘s a woman and can‘t admit a mistake, or else the Republicans will say oh, that‘s a woman‘s prerogative to change her mind, or another fickle woman?  Is her gender a problem in her ability to change her mind? 

EDWARDS:  Oh, I don‘t think her gender has anything to do with this. 

I think this is an individual, personal ...

MATTHEWS:  I mean because how it would be used by the other side.  Not objectively, obviously ...

EDWARDS:  Right.  Right.

MATTHEWS:  ... but how the other side would use it. 

EDWARDS:  No, I wouldn‘t—I don‘t think she‘s concerned about that.  I don‘t think any woman leader in this country should be concerned about that.  This is a difficult, independent judgment that people have to make about what they‘re going to say. 

For me, you know, I‘ve been going around the country and the world talking about poverty and our moral responsibility.  And I didn‘t feel like I could do that if I didn‘t tell the truth about what had happened with this war in Iraq, at least as it relates to me. 

MATTHEWS:  You‘re very young.

EDWARDS:  It‘s also, I might add—can I add, Chris?

MATTHEWS:  Sure.

EDWARDS:  It‘s also—in fairness to everybody, it‘s very hard because, you know, I made a mistake, a serious mistake.  So did lots of other people.  President Bush made an enormous mistake.  But the people who didn‘t make a mistake are the men and women who have lost their lives in Iraq, and who have served in Iraq.  And that makes it very hard to talk about these things.  But I still think it‘s the right and honest thing to do.

MATTHEWS:  You know, like yourself, Jack Kennedy, when he ran for vice president in 1956 and lost, learned something about party politics.  And he said afterwards, I‘m going to be a full-time professional politician now, no more just showing up and giving a nice speech, I am going to be a great political leader.  I‘m going to build an organization and win the presidency.  Does that sound like something you‘ve gone through?

EDWARDS:  Well, part of it is what I‘ve gone through.  I mean, you learn—when you‘re involved in a national campaign, you learn a great deal.  You know, one of the things that I have seen and I have believed very strongly now is I don‘t think the country is looking for politicians that are like the politicians they‘ve seen all their lives. 

I think they‘re hooking for leaders.  I think they‘re looking for people who will tell them the truth, even when the truth is harsh and difficult to hear.  And they‘re hooking for leaders that have back bone and strength and conviction and will actually stand up and fight for what they believe, whether it‘s popular or not.

I think the politics actually, the politics as usual as people say, is what people are sick of, and they see that all the time.  They‘re looking for something different.  They ought to be looking for something different.

MATTHEWS:  Do you feel that anyone has more of a right to run for president on the Democratic side than you do?

EDWARDS:  No, but I don‘t think I have any more right than anybody else.  I think...

MATTHEWS:  ... In other words, you don‘t feel you have to wait in line behind John Kerry or Hillary Clinton or anybody else and wait your turn again?

EDWARDS:  If I decide to do this, I‘m not going to wait in line behind anybody.  And I suspect nobody else will either.

MATTHEWS:  Do you think you‘ll be running?

EDWARDS:  Him who?

MATTHEWS:  Do you think you‘ll be running, I‘m sorry, Senator, you misheard me.  Do you think John Edwards of North Carolina, now working in New Orleans, will be running for president, six months from now?

EDWARDS:  I‘m thinking about it, but I haven‘t decided yet.

MATTHEWS:  Well let us know, will you Sir?  Thank you, thank you for coming on and good luck with that good work down there in New Orleans.  It‘s a great thing for kids to do rather than go to south of Florida, to the Gulf Coast and help rebuild.  What a great thing, thank you.

EDWARDS:  These kids are amazing.

MATTHEWS:  By the way today—it sounds like it.  Anyway, thank you, Senator.

Today Hardblogger College All-Star Eric Martin is in with John Edwards in New Orleans and you can read his blog on your Web site, he‘s out there working and blogging.  Hardblogger.MSNBC.com.

Up next, should President Bush shake up his staff?  Veteran Washington strategist Ed Rollins, Republican, Mike Berman Democrat will join us.  This is HARDBALL, only on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  There‘s a new political hot topic out there lately, weight loss, which is funny because you won‘t find any politician encouraging people to be unhealthy, but big stars like former President Clinton, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and Governor Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, a 2008 wannabe, by the way, are out there promoting healthy living. 

Washington political veteran Mike Berman has a new book out called “Living Large.”  It‘s a very personal story about what it‘s like to be overweight.  And now he‘s learned to manage it in his real life, both physically and spiritually.  Mike Berman, buddy, thank you.  So what is your big message?  “Living Large” sounds like you‘re happy to be doll king of thing.

MIKE BERMAN, AUTHOR:  Well but the big message is if you‘re an adult and you‘re fat, you‘re going to be fat for the rest of your life.  It‘s a chronic disease, learn how to manage it because the day is not going to come when you look like the average athlete.

MATTHEWS:  But what about problems like diabetes?  Don‘t you have to deal with them?

BERMAN:  Of course, you have to try and get your weight down, but the fact is most people can‘t do it.

MATTHEWS:  What happens?  Everybody says, “OK, I just joined a health club or I just stopped eating white meat, or red meat.”  Everybody comes up to you and they‘re losing weight, great, for two or three months.  They say, “Oh, I‘ve got a new workout guy who‘s working with me or I just quit red meat,” and then you see them three months later and they‘re back to where they were.

BERMAN:  Because whatever they‘ve done to lose the weight is not something they can sustain.  They‘ve changed their lifestyle too much and they go back to the regular lifestyle, you just put the weight back on.

MATTHEWS:  What makes you reach for that first donut after three months?  You‘ve been giving then up for three months.

BERMAN:  It‘s there.

MATTHEWS:  That‘s it?

BERMAN:  That‘s it.

MATTHEWS:  Or that apple fritter at Starbucks.

BERMAN:  You‘re feeling good about yourself.  The apple fritter at Starbucks, 820 calories, one of my favorite things. 

MATTHEWS:  The best thing on earth, changes your life for 10 minutes.

BERMAN:  Exactly right.  Doesn‘t even take me 10 minutes to finish it.

MATTHEWS:  But the feeling, you say it‘s just human nature to go back to what you are.

BERMAN:  It‘s not human nature.  It‘s the fact that if you‘re a really fat person, there‘s something else going on in your life, something psychological is going on in your life that causes you to turn to food and eventually it causes the food and your size to become part of your personality.  As you get thinner, you think you‘re a different person, you‘re not, but you think you are.

MATTHEWS:  Don‘t you feel like you‘ve left a load somewhere, you‘ve dropped your saddle bags when you‘re walking around, for a while, you have that wonderful light-footed feeling.

BERMAN:  And that feeling becomes part of your every day and then gee, one donut, what difference does it make?

MATTHEWS:  It doesn‘t make any difference the first day or two.  The scales are the same and you say, “That donut didn‘t kill me.”

BERMAN:  And if it was only one donut, you‘d be fine.  But it‘s the multiples and the many times.  And instead of eating a chicken leg, it‘s eating half the chicken.  It‘s all part of it.  And you say, instead of having maybe one piece of bread without any butter or something soft on it, you sit there in a restaurant.

MATTHEWS:  Mike, you‘re in a political life.  And I remember Barney Frank, a pal of mine from Massachusetts.  He once said that “You better lose 40 pounds before a race started because you‘re going to put it on afterwards.”  Because everybody in campaigns, Bill Clinton probably the worst, stuffs themselves to get your, what do you call it, your...

BERMAN:  ... It‘s an anxiety reliever.

MATTHEWS:  Get you down, bring you down.

BERMAN:  Makes you feel better.

MATTHEWS:  What is that about?

BERMAN:  Well food makes us feel good.  It‘s kind of a reward.  You know, it goes both ways.  If you‘re feeling bad...

MATTHEWS:  ... But it stops you from being so nervous and excited too.

BERMAN:  You get some of that too, because you kind of get logey as you go along.  But you know, in the ‘84 campaign, which you‘re familiar with, we got smashed completely.  I gained 62 pounds in four months.

MATTHEWS:  So that‘s why you have to lose weight before you go in the race. 

BERMAN:  Yes, but I never lost the weight before I went into the race. 

MATTHEWS:  What is it about the fact that American capitalism encourages eating slop? 

BERMAN:  It‘s not so much American capitalism, it‘s our lifestyle. 

MATTHEWS:  There‘s not health foods out there—fast-food places out there where anything tastes good. 

BERMAN:  Well, Subway sandwiches.  That‘s not a bad choice.  But remember, we got single-parent families, we got families where both people are working, working very hard.  Now it‘s time to come home at the end of the day, you have got kids waiting for a meal.

MATTHEWS:  Go to Popeyes.

BERMAN:  You go to Popeyes, you go to Kentucky Fried Chicken, you go someplace, grab something quick.  It‘s tasty, it‘s fast. 

MATTHEWS:  Sugar and salt. 

BERMAN:  Yes.  

MATTHEWS:  And they bounce back and forth.  Roy Rogers. 

BERMAN:  Absolutely.

MATTHEWS:  And by the way, until you‘re 30, you don‘t gain a pound.  Well, maybe you did.  I didn‘t gain a pound until I hit 30.  Then it was za-zoom. 

Anyway, Mike Berman‘s book is called “Living Large,” makes you feel better.  After the break, we‘ll bring in another Washington veteran, Republican strategist Ed Rollins to talk about the Bush administration and the 2006 election coming up.  They‘ll both talk about that.  And you keep up with us, and all the action in the race for Congress and the White House, ‘06 and ‘08.  Check our bios of the contenders and cast your ballot in your virtual Republican straw poll.  Just go to our Web site, hardball.msnbc.com.  And it looks like McCain is still leading it. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  We‘re back with Democratic strategist Michael Berman.  We‘re joined right now by Republican strategist Ed Rollins.  Ed, it is great to see you.  I think I‘m going to see you—there you are. 

Ed, we don‘t want to talk weight anymore, we‘re going to talk heftiness of this administration.  If you were invited into the White House now as the fireman right now, the old Ed Castane (ph) coming in and putting out the fire for the team, what would you do?  Would you accept the job?  Would you do the job? 

ED ROLLINS, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST:  Well, Michael and I are old friends, and first of all, it‘s nice to have two fat guys that are both bald and I think smart on your show at the same time for all those skinny pretty people that you have on normally.

You know, the bottom line is, as the two of you know, because you both advised important people, is Bush going to listen to anybody else?  I mean, Bush has his little cadre of friends and advisers.  He makes the decisions.  Cheney‘s been a part of that group for a period of time, maybe a little diminished in his role today and Rumsfeld, and it doesn‘t matter whether there‘s smart people all over town, it doesn‘t matter who goes in the White House if he doesn‘t listen to them. 

And my sense today is they have been on a spiral, downward trend for a year and a half, and have made a whole series of dumb decisions.  And I‘m sure there‘s a bunch of people who have told them some of those decisions are dumb—maybe not in a loud voice. 

So from my perspective, sure, I would go in any administration and help, but I don‘t think I could be much help, because I don‘t think this president is going to listen. 

MATTHEWS:  Who‘s the worst adviser to the president?  The second-rate help with the second term, or the first-rate geniuses that got him into Iraq?

ROLLINS:  Well, I think they‘re all one and the same. 

MATTHEWS:  You‘re laughing.  OK.

ROLLINS:  You know, my sense is, you know, as you look—the problem

this president has today is not just the war in Iraq, which obviously is a

long-term problem, but I think people are beginning to think this

administration‘s incompetent.  And once they start thinking in those terms,

as opposed to a bunch of smart guys that can win elections, then you start

every little thing that becomes a tactical error magnifies itself, whether it‘s Katrina or whether it‘s the war, or how you went into the war, Dubai, everything else starts to basically get magnified. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask you about the vice president, president.  You worked for Mondale, I worked for Carter.  There wasn‘t any mistrust there. 

BERMAN:  No.  

MATTHEWS:  Carter was sort of a maverick, but Fritz was a regular Democrat, they got along. 

Here‘s a vice president who swore to the president there was nobody involved in the leak of the CIA person, of (INAUDIBLE).  Then we find out that his guy Scooter Libby is up for 30 years of charges, and it‘s all involved with—including the fact, you know that‘s not the charge, that he talked to reporters. 

How do you trust the vice president anymore if you‘re the president? 

BERMAN:  Well, I assume he trusts him less today than he did before then.  But Cheney‘s been such an important part of this administration.  And in the mean, he has carried the administration‘s message so well and so firmly and—you don‘t see anything around the edges where he‘s leaking off to reporters that he‘s really unhappy or these kind of things.  I think Bush trusts him. 

And so he has taken the position—he‘s a plenty smart guy.  He‘s been through an awful lot of governments in his time...

MATTHEWS:  Sure has.

BERMAN:  And so, while there must be some diminution in how much he trusts him, I still think it‘s an important touchstone for the president. 

MATTHEWS:  Do you think he could—there‘s any chance, Ed Rollins, that a shakeup might involve the vice president himself? 

ROLLINS:  No.  Absolutely not.  I think—first of all, I think that creates far bigger problems.  I agree with Michael totally. 

You know, Cheney went in as the adult in the beginning of this administration, and he‘d been a chief of staff; he functions sort of as a chief of staff.  He had certainly had the relationship with Rumsfeld.  He‘d sort of kept Colin Powell at a balance in the early stages.  And today I think Condi Rice, who has a very unique relationship with the president, has sort of moved into the foreign policy chair.  Rumsfeld still is running the war, correctly or incorrectly, and I think Cheney basically has a gig voice on everything else.  He may not be functioning as the chief of staff anymore, but I still think he‘s the most important voice and the last voice probably the president hears. 

MATTHEWS:  OK, my favorite question, Ed, I probably phrased with you -

it‘s not with Mike—it‘s this one: Who‘s in the room?  I always ask about presidents and governors and senators, when a crisis occurs, who does he invite in the room to help him figure it out when it really matters?  And I want to ask you right now, Mike, you first.  Ed is a Republican, I‘ll let you start with you.

Who does the president want in that small circle when he gets into October this year and it looks like he‘s going to lose the Congress?  Who‘s he going to invite in to save it?

ROLLINS:  I think it‘s Karl Rove, Cheney and Andy Card. 

MATTHEWS:  Same old team. 

ROLLINS:  Same old team.

MATTHEWS:  What do you think, Mike?

BERMAN:  I agree.  Andy is kind of the steady bastion of the place.  Cheney‘s actually been out there, he‘s been elected, he‘s been in public office, in the Congress.  He‘s been around a long time.  And Karl still is...

MATTHEWS:  Is that good enough a gang to save the Congress if things keep going the way they‘re going? 

BERMAN:  Probably not, but I‘m not sure if going the way they are—I mean, getting the Congress is still a very, very high hill, as you know. 

MATTHEWS:  Thirteen points.  Ed, there‘s a 13-point difference right now in the generic, Democrats leading.  What does it tell you? 

ROLLINS:  Well, I ran the congressional committees...

MATTHEWS:  I know it so well.

ROLLINS:  ... when daddy Bush basically broke his tax pledge.  So I‘ve been in this environment when all of a sudden, everybody‘s numbers start dropping.  I don‘t think anybody in the Congress today expects the White House to help them.  It‘s going to be every man for themselves, and they‘re going to start basically (INAUDIBLE).

MATTHEWS:  OK, thank you.  Mike Berman, Ed Rollins, thank you both, gentlemen.  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   

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