updated 3/20/2006 12:11:32 PM ET 2006-03-20T17:11:32

Guests: Jim VandeHei, Ron Christie, Dee Dee Myers, Paul Hackett, Jason Reitman

CHRIS MATTHEWS:  Tonight a Republican Congress versus a Republican president.  Why the conflict?  Why the anger?  What’s changed?  Let’s take it to the HARDBALL “Hotshots.”  Happy St. Patty’s Day.  Let’s play O’HARDBALL.

Good evening, I’m CHRIS MATTHEWS, and welcome to the St. Patrick’s Day edition of HARDBALL. 

President Bush marked the holiday today, when everybody is a little Irish, at the White House.  But the front page of the “Washington Post” might have the president and his senior staff hoping for a little luck of the Irish, as bad polls for the president, his Republican Congress, and the Iraq war continue to weigh down their agenda. 

Tension has been growing among Republicans, and the failed Dubai ports deal brought it to a head.  Will the tension be worse by November?  All that tonight, and with a little Irish luck, the HARDBALL “Hotshots” will be here: Norah O’Donnell, Joe O’Scarborough, and Ron O’Reagan. 

But when we begin tonight—we do begin tonight with Jim VandeHei, who took a hard look at the president’s problems in today’s “Washington Post."

Jim, what is it that’s causing the Republicans on Capitol Hill to dislike this president and his administration? 

JIM VANDEHEI, “THE WASHINGTON POST”:  I think it’s a lot of pent-up frustration from the last five years.  Members felt, even in the good times, that the president and the White House never really listened to Congress, never took their concerns into consideration, and didn’t provide them sort of that backup firepower when it came to casting tough votes like a No Child Left Behind and the Medicare Prescription Drug Benefit, both of which a lot of members now regret ever making even those votes.

So I think all of those combined with the politics of the moment have really created problems for Bush. 

MATTHEWS:  You mean, the Republicans on Capitol Hill who have constituencies at home think that the prescription drug bill has hurt them? 

VANDEHEI:  A lot of them do.  I’m surprised by how many members I’m talking to that actually voted for both Medicare prescription drug and for the No Child Left Behind education law and regret it, wish—said if they could do it over again today they definitely would not vote for it. 

MATTHEWS:  What is it that the president can do?  Can he change policy and go for tougher immigration, begin to bring the troops home from Iraq?  Cut some of the spending by veto?  What are the things he could do to fix things up? 

VANDEHEI:  He doesn’t have a lot of options.  I think one thing a lot of members are telling him is, listen, you know, hire some former members, bring them into the White House, maybe in the domestic policy shop or into the Congressional liaison office.  And have people who understand us, communicating with us, and then work on an agenda that we like, that helps us politically. 

And I think you hit the nail on the head when you talked about immigration.  If he came out for just tougher immigration bill that didn’t have some of the guest worker programs stuff that he supports, they feel like that could help them because that’s really important to the base, particularly in those border states. 

MATTHEWS:  But hasn’t the president done a couple of good things for Congress politically?  He has dumped his unsavory Social Security plan that nobody seems to want to buy, or eat, I should say.  He hasn’t vetoed a single spending bill.  Hasn’t he been accommodating to Congress on politics? 

VANDEHEI:  Oh, he certainly has, and I think a lot of this is just bellyaching because they’re frustrated about their own political situation.  I mean, if you think about those members that are upset about voting for these bills, they voted for them.  I mean, they’re big boys, they make these choices and they have to live with those decisions, and you can’t really blame Bush.

But even if you talk about Social Security, yes, the president dropped it, but he brought it up and talked about it relentlessly for five months and members didn’t want to talk about it, and they had sent that signal to him loud and clear, that they felt there isn’t enough time to educate the electorate.  And if you look at those Congressional elections where older voters vote in high percentages, they just didn’t want to get into that issue. 

MATTHEWS:  You know, when I was down in Memphis, watching this relatively—well, let’s call them that—conservative Republicans down there, for the Republican Leadership Conference in the South, they were mad at the president for spending too much money. 

Now the Congress tried to spend every nickel it could and got away with it, so it sounds like the president is stuck between the base that doesn’t want all this government spending, because it’s not fiscally conservative at all, and the Republican members of Congress who like to spend money. 

VANDEHEI:  Yes.  I mean, this is one of the biggest hypocritical areas you’ll find in Washington where members talk about not wanting to spend money and then when they get a chance, they spend all they possibly can. 

The government is basically getting 25 percent or more larger now than when Bush took office and members, in this vote-a-rama they had yesterday, every opportunity they get they continue to push for more spending.  And you had Arlen Specter actually come out yesterday and say listen, we’re now a moderate or liberal party if you look at how much money we’re trying to spend. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, that will go over well out West.  Let me ask you about this idea of somebody coming in—this man on horseback as we used to say, arriving at the White House, male or female, eminence grise, coming in and fixing up things so that things work with tightness and sharpness and a political sensitivity that has been lacking.  Who is this person? 

VANDEHEI:  I don’t know. 

MATTHEWS:  I mean, I can’t think of anybody that would meet that standard.  In other words, somebody smarter than Karl Rove, more on the ball than Andy Card, just a sharper political individual.  Who is out there like that? 

VANDEHEI:  You know, one person that does comes to mind is the guy that heads the USTR, Rob Portman, former Congressman who’s really popular with House Republicans and pretty smart politically and I think a lot members would like someone who understands them, like the port deal. 

They feel like if you had somebody who came from Congress, understood Congress, they would have known right away that this just wasn’t going to fly and that you had to have some kind of input, at least early on, you don’t come out and make a veto threat after you’ve had the leader of the Senate, the leader of the House from your own party say that they want to fight this deal and then come out and say you’re going to veto it. 

I think they just want anybody in there that understands them.  The problem you’re going to have is that this is such a tight circle.  I don’t care who you put in there, it’s still going to be a tight circle, it’s still going to be a White House run by Bush, Cheney, Rove, Andy Card, Dan Bartlett and just a few others, so you might be able to bring in new blood.  I don’t know how that changes things all that dramatically. 

MATTHEWS:  Thanks a lot for that report.  Jim VandeHei, of “The Washington Post.”

Dee Dee Myers was actually President Clinton’s first White House press secretary, and Ron Christy is the former White House adviser for both President Bush and Vice President Cheney. 

Dee Dee, this is a—let’s talk about the policy stuff.  What’s cutting against the president with his own ranks? 

DEE DEE MYERS, FMR. CLINTON WHITE HOUSE PRESS SEC.:  Well, starting with the fact that he’s losing just altitude and one of the things that keeps Congress in line, as we know, is presidential power. 

When that power starts to flag for a multitude of reasons in President Bush’s case, Congress gets—you know, gets its head back, so to speak, and they start, you know, airing their complaints which they kept to themselves for the first five years, everything from the Iraq war to jitters about the economy, to the port deal, which I think underscores really deep seated concerns in the American public.  And it brought them to a head in a way that I think people were surprised by. 

What’s going right for this president would be a better question, and so I think he’s just got a world of trouble and I think that gives the base and different elements of the Republican Party the license to go out and say what they feel. 

When the president has a lot of power, just the threat of using that power against them in an election or saying something or withholding approval of some measure the member wants is enough to keep them in line and when that power flags, you know, everything starts to break apart and that’s what we’re seeing right now. 

MATTHEWS:  Has the president lost his gleam? 

MYERS:  Yes. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Ron Christie, you say yes.  I mean, I mean that by the gleam, the ability to walk into a room and basically intimidate everybody by his presence. 

RON CHRISTIE, FMR. BUSH/CHENEY ADVISER:  I don’t think the president ever wanted to go in a room and intimidate everybody by his presence. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  He did it for 9/11.

CHRISTIE:  No, Chris, I think the president wanted to walk into a room, particularly with members of Congress, and talk about what he’s for and what they’re for.  I don’t think the president has lost that. 

Dee Dee, you know, said the president needs to be for something.  What he’s for, his policies have worked.  This economy is so strong right now.  We’ve created over 2.1 million jobs in the last year, almost five million jobs since 2003, the unemployment rate is down. 

The Bush administration and the people in the Congress have been for strong economic growth and they’ve been for providing for a strong national security.  This is a family spat. 

There’s no question that there are a lot of members of Congress who are upset with the president right now, who think perhaps their voice isn’t being heard, but when the elections come for November in 235 days, people across the country aren’t going to say did the Republicans have a spat last March? 

They’re going to say is the economy strong, have we been hit again, is this president and this Congress doing everything it can for this country, and then I think you’ll see that this president and the Republicans will do quite well in the midterm elections. 

MATTHEWS:  You say the president, if he continues on this course in terms of the polling, since 9/11, which has been downward, that Congress is not going to break with him, even if he continues on the course he’s been on? 

CHRISTIE:  Look, members of Congress who are up for reelection obviously have to be very in tune with the people in their respective Congressional districts.  I say one thing to you, Chris. 

If you look at Chris Chocola in Indiana, if you look at Mike DeWine out in Ohio, you look at Mark Kennedy in Minnesota, members who are in tough reelect races, they want George Bush by their side when they’re running for reelection.  They want Dick Cheney out there. 

For all of this, the president’s poll numbers are very low.  I say to you, let’s come back in 235 days and look at all the Republicans in vulnerable districts.  They’ll have the president, they’ll have the vice president out there because these people are very popular across the country. 

MATTHEWS:  Who are these people? 

CHRISTIE:  President Bush and Dick Cheney. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, how do you measure that?  How do you come to that conclusion? 

CHRISTIE:  I come to it very easily.  If you look earlier this week, Michael Barone had an article in the “Washington Times” that said if you look at the last five generic ballots that were up, the Democrats were supposed to take the tables.  What happened?  The Republicans did well. 

If you look at what’s going on around the country, Bush and Cheney continue to go out and they continue to talk about what they’re for, the economy, what their policies are with these members, and these members want them in their districts.  I’ve spoken to a number of members ...

MATTHEWS:  Why is Cheney in the 20s and the president in the 30s, in terms of these polls that are all taken, by all parties?  Everybody takes a different poll.  They end up with the same results.  The president is in the 30s and in at least the poll I’ve seen, the vice president is way below him.  Why do you say they’re over 50 percent when these polls ...

CHRISTIE:  Hey, I never said they were up over 50 percent. 

MATTHEWS:  You said people like these guys.

CHRISTIE:  Of course they do like these guys.

MATTHEWS:  Where do you get that from?

CHRISTIE:  Chris, look, if you look at “Newsweek” and you look at “Time” magazine, when they have these really dark, foreboding pictures of Cheney with these like, almost Darth Vader-like Cheney pictures, I think there’s a perception in the media that wants to paint these guys as being dark.

MATTHEWS:  So you’d say the polls are wrong?

CHRISTIE:  No, I’m not saying the polls are wrong.  I’m saying what questions are being asked.  If you ask Americans ...

MATTHEWS:  I’m totally confused by what you’re saying, Ron.

CHRISTIE:  No, Chris, what I’m saying ...

MATTHEWS:  And you say—you’re a smart guy.  How can you say that the polls show these guys to be immensely unpopular, down in the 20s in the case of the vice president, but they’re very popular.  What is it?

CHRISTIE:  No, that’s what you said.  What I said to you is that these members of Congress want Dick Cheney and they want George Bush in their districts because the politics that they have advocated, the votes that these members have taken and the direction the leadership of the president and vice president have provided, have resulted in a strong economy, have resulted in a strong national defense. 

You and I can talk about poll numbers being in the thirties, but I would come back to you and say, what question’s being asked, Chris?

MATTHEWS:  Do you approve of the job the president is doing, that’s a question?  Dee Dee, go ahead.

MYERS:  There’s also asking questions like, do you support the president’s policy in Iraq?  No.  Do you think he has a plan to get us out of Iraq?  No.  Do you support this administration’s policies on the economy?  The answer is no. 

And I know Ron, you can make a paper case, there’s a lot of good numbers out there, but people are feeling insecure and one of the things—

NPR had a poll that was out today, I thought was fascinating.  There was a question about what’s your biggest concern, which oddly turned out to be outsourcing and globalization.  And they trusted Democrats by a margin of 23 points over Republicans to handle those kinds of issues. 

So I think they’re asking all kinds of important questions which reflect that the country is losing confidence in the direction this president and this administration are taking. 

I think Ron is right about one thing.  I think there are a lot of members out there who’d like the president to come into their district and help them raise money.  That’s one thing he’s still able to do, but he was at the Republican Congressional Committee dinner last night and he got a tepid response.

That was a place he used to get a rock star welcome, there’d be thundering applause.  And last night, very different atmosphere.  So I think the president is—has already lost independence, Democrats are completely gone and now he’s starting to, you know, get soft in his base.  So I’ll be very curious to see how many members in really marginal seats want the president to come stump for them in the final days if the battleground is independent voters.  That will be a fascinating thing to watch.

MATTHEWS:  Luckily we’ll be back—luckily Dee Dee and Ron have a couple more minutes.  We’ll be right back with more of those.

And later, a special St. Patrick’s Day edition of the Hardball Hotshots, Joe O’Scarborough, Norah O’Donnell and Ron O’Reagan.  This is O’HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to O’HARDBALL.  We heard today that the federal judge running the trial of Zacarias Moussaoui, the so-called 20th hijacker from 9/11, will allow new witnesses after an earlier screw up made it possible that the death penalty case against him could be tossed out. 

Could this, along with more bad news from Iraq, bring more hurt to the Republican security advantage in 2006?  We’re back with Dee Dee Myers and Ron Christie.

After awhile, people develop a reputation and Dubai, Harriet Miers, Katrina, the bad intelligence in Iraq, the bad ability to predict what we’re going to face when we got there, the promise that was broken, all the oil would pay for the cost of the campaign.  When do people stop believing in the competence of an administration?

CHRISTIE:  Well, I think people actually still have a lot of faith in the competence of this administration, I’ll turn the question around on you. 

MATTHEWS:  Where do you find that evidence?

CHRISTIE:  Where do I find that evidence?  One small fact.  One, on the domestic side of the aisle, the economy is strong.  If this administration was incompetent...

MATTHEWS:  ... I agree with you.

CHRISTIE:  Exactly.

MATTHEWS:  Well why don’t people think so?  How come when you ask them how the economy’s doing, they’re tougher on the economy than they are on Iraq.

CHRISTIE:  Well miraculously, Chris, because you never talk about it.  When do you ever hear people in the media come out and say the economy is strong in this country?

MATTHEWS:  Every single night on this network, we produce on the half-hour, the latest stock averages.  We show NASDAQ is doing well and Dow is doing well and the economy is doing well.  We don’t produce bad news on this show.

CHRISTIE:  You’re not hearing my point.  What I’m saying to you is, if we spent as much time talking about what’s going on across America—if you look, and you have five states around the country right now who have the unemployment rates at the lowest levels.  If you look at the unemployment rates of the 50 states around the country, 46 of those states have had unemployment rates go down. 

Consumer confidence is up, people are spending more money, and people have the confidence by spending and opening their wallet.  But what I’m saying to you is, why doesn’t the media, why don’t we sit and have a conversation on HARDBALL and say, let’s talk about some of the good things.

MATTHEWS:  We only put out good news here on the economy.

MYERS:  You know, but Ron, you’re missing one big point.  One of the things people are reacting to is how they feel about their own personal circumstances.  They’re not really that interested in whether their neighbor has a job.  It’s about whether they have a job, whether it’s a job they feel is going to be there a year from now, whether they think their pension’s going to be there when they retire, whether they think their benefits are going to get ratcheted down.

People are feeling all those kinds of insecurities.  They’re not saying the economy is bad because they’re watching HARDBALL.  They’re saying the economy is bad because they’re nervous about what’s happening in their own lives. 

And I think people have lost confidence in the leadership of this administration, and even on security issues, which has been obviously the thing that’s kept that boat floating for the last couple of years. 

Again, the NPR poll today showed that on almost every measure, with the exception oddly of whom you trust to deal with the situation in Iran, Democrats have moved ahead of Republicans. 

Now that may not last, but at this moment, whether it’s dealing with terrorism, dealing with the war in Iraq, dealing with the security at our ports, homeland security Democrats are starting to beat Republicans on virtually every one of those measures.  And that’s a huge sea change and it has a lot to do with the fact that I think people have lost confidence in the leadership of this administration.

MATTHEWS:  OK, place your bets, Dee Dee, will the House go Democrat?

MYERS:  I think the odds—the chances are much better now than they have been, and based on the trends as they are today, I’d say yes.  But you know, we Democrats, no matter how bad the Republicans might be doing, we have the ability to get in there and doing almost just as bad ourselves.

Now I actually think Democrats are moving in the right direction and I think that again based on the trends I see right now, I think Democrats will take back one if not both Houses of Congress.

MATTHEWS:  You’re shaking your head, Ron.

CHRISTIE:  No, I think if you look in 235 days from now, the Democrats have continued to fail and articulate a message on the war in Iraq.  They’ve failed to articulate a domestic policy agenda,  I think people want to be for something and Republican candidates have consistently advocated policies saying, here’s what we’re for.  I just don’t think that the Democrats are going to retake the House or the Senate because they seem to be in disarray with the message.

MATTHEWS:  You don’t think so?

CHRISTIE:  No, I don’t.

MATTHEWS:  Do you have one of those little things that says only 235 days until Christmas.  Where do you get this—how do you know how many days it is?

CHRISTIE:  Come on.

MATTHEWS:  I’m just teasing.  Happy St. Patrick’s Day.  I like the tie, much more dramatic than my own.  Dee Dee, love the outfit.

MYERS:  Thank you.

MATTHEWS:  Thank you, Dee Dee Myers and Ron Christie.  Up next, former Ohio Senate candidate Paul Hackett and his advice for fellow Iraq war veterans who want to run for Congress.  You’re watching O’HARDBALL on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  Iraq war veteran Paul Hackett, who was heavily recruited by Democrats to run for the Senate in Ohio, only to be pressured out of the race later now want to make sure that other war veterans running for office don’t suffer the same fate he did. 

He’s joined the board of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America political action committee and plans on helping war veterans navigate the political battlefield. 

Welcome, Paul, thank you for coming on. 

PAUL HACKETT, IRAQ WAR VETERANS:  Thanks for having me on, Chris.

MATTHEWS:  You’ve had a rough ride in this political world.  You lost a close race for Congress, then you got sort of seduced into running for the Senate, right, from the highest level?

HACKETT:  It’s been a great experience.  It’s been a tremendous amount of fun.

MATTHEWS:  So what’s your advice to other veterans who are clean-cut young men and women coming back from the war front, with experience but not necessarily political know how.

HACKETT:  Well, that’s what we’re trying to do with IAVA PAC, is to help these folks infrastructurally get set up, help them get their feet on the ground when it comes to finances and help raise them money and give them a little bit of an insight into not only the process, but the infrastructure that it takes to put a campaign on the ground. 

And I did a lot of on-the-job training and learning and now that I’m out, I hope that maybe I can remove some of the lessons from them so that they don’t have to learn some of the lessons that I can sort of dump them on them.

MATTHEWS:  Do you think the Democratic Party is a party that’s worth joining?

HACKETT:  Sure.  I think that the party stands for great things, I think it has tremendous potential.  I think that it does hold out the hope to be a party that will do more than simply aspire to deliver greatness, but actually have the commitment and the leadership to achieve greatness.

MATTHEWS:  What’s holding them up from having a clear war policy?  I looked at the numbers on the new NBC poll last night and something like 80 percent of all people who call themselves Democrats are anti-war.  They don’t believe the war should have been fought in Iraq.

So you have to figure that among the activist people who show up and work in politics, it’s up to about 90 some percent.  Why doesn’t the 90 percent who say the war was a mistake say so through their leaders.  Why are the leaders so reticent to be in opposition on this war issue?

HACKETT:  Well I think it goes back to, in both parties, the lack of experience that politicians from both parties have with the military and I think it also has to do with the culture of politics.  And that politicians, if they can get away with saying as little as possible and stating their positions as weakly as possible, they’ll do it.  And I think that that’s just rooted in the process, in the culture of politics, more than anything else.

MATTHEWS:  People that haven’t fought overseas in combat, haven’t faced the enemy and bullets, are reticent to talk about anything, say anything that threatens so the way people are looking at things through the president’s eyes.

HACKETT:  I think, sure, I think they’re concerned about being painted as soft on national defense, being painted as not understanding the military, being a weak leader.  And I think that particularly if you look at a congressman like John Murtha, albeit he has military service, you can look at a guy like that and may not agree with his opinion on this war, but you’ve got to respect his position and the way that he articulates that.

And I think that other Democrats who’ve got to have the courage to get behind leaders like John Murtha, and adopt some of their rationale and some of their thinking on the war.

MATTHEWS:  So you think that if we have Republicans and Democrats, pro-war people and war critics running for office, we’ll have more of a real debate in this country about wars, because people won’t feel intimidated?

HACKETT:  Well, exactly.  I mean, there are those folks on both sides of the aisle.  You’ve got Chuck Hagel, you’ve got John Murtha.  I mean, these are folks who both have military experience and both are legitimately critical of this administration and this administration’s really lack of policy, lack of strategy in Iraq. 

We’ve been there three years, what’s the strategy?  Killing the evil doers is not a strategy.  That does not solve the problem of terrorism throughout the United States.  The president is wrong on it, he’s been wrong on it, he has no strategy.  He has no clear vision that he has articulated to the electorate of the United States on how we’re going to solve this problem and it’s a problem.

MATTHEWS:  Well he said again today through his bureaucracy, the president say very clearly, he supports the policy of, what he calls preemption, of attacking other countries before they attack us.

HACKETT:  I mean, what does that have to do with solving terrorism in the world?  What does that have to do with that?  What strategy is that?  I support preemption, what does that mean?  How does that translate on the ground to the military leaders on the ground?  How does that enable them to craft a plan and a solution and a strategy to these problems?  It doesn’t.

MATTHEWS:  Well doesn’t it mean that if—I think what the president means based upon what he’s written and his people have written us, is that if you know there’s a camp of al Qaeda people based in Afghanistan and you’re smart enough to know what they’re up to, through intelligence, you blow the hell out of them before they blow us up in New York. 

If you know that Saddam Hussein is going to come after us with weapons of mass destruction, you go in and attack and take over his country before he can.  That’s what they mean, that’s I think what they mean.

HACKETT:  That may very well be what they mean.  That’s treating a symptom, it’s not attacking the underlying problem of what causes terrorism.  The military is a part of that solution.  It is not the sole solution to terrorism.

MATTHEWS:  What causes terrorism?

HACKETT:  We, it’s culturally based, it’s politically based and it’s socially based.  We cannot eliminate all of those who espouse terrorist ideals, but we can eliminate the vast majority so that they lose critical mass. 

Che Guevara, the idea lives on, of Che Guevara, and he was killed back in what, 1972?  We cannot kill enough terrorists, we cannot take enough ground to solve the problem.  The military is a part of it.  We’ve got to attack the social causes, the economic causes and the political causes of terrorism and the military is a part of that solution.  It’s not the only part of that solution.  It’s too simplistic to believe that the military can go in and kill enough bad guys and rid us of terrorism around the world.

MATTHEWS:  Thank you very much, Iraq war veteran Paul Hackett.

HACKETT:  Thanks.

MATTHEWS:  Up next, a special St. Patrick’s Day edition of the HARDBALL Hotshots with Joe O’Scarborough, Ron O’Reagan, and Norah O’Donnell.  You’re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC, O’HARDBALL.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(MARKET REPORT)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to O’HARDBALL.  It’s time for our special Friday feature, O’HARDBALL “Hotshots.” 

My MSNBC colleagues this week are Joe Scarborough, Norah O’Donnell—now there’s a legitimate O’Donnell, even though her name should be Tracy, her husband’s name, anyway—and Ron O’Reagan.  Let’s get set to nail the winners and the losers, the heroes and the villains, the brilliance and the buffoonery from the past week. 

First up, Ms. Simpson goes to Washington.  Remember this month, HARDBALL reported that sexy singer sensation Jessica Simpson dined with New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson while he was in town filming her new movie “Employee of the Month.” 

This week, Jessica makes another cameo in the world of politics, this time straight from the nation’s Capitol.  Yesterday, she lobbied Congress on behalf of Operation Smile, a very good cause, by the way, the nearly 25-year-old non-profit volunteer medical organization that performs free facial surgery around the world.  Here she is. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JESSICA SIMPSON, SINGER:  It was a very spiritual moment and it made me realize that the purpose in life is to walk through it smiling and it—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:  But catch this, Jessica turned down an invitation to meet with President Bush because according to her spokesman, “she didn’t want to politicize her visit.”  Just one word comes to mind, ouch!

Joe O’Scarborough, I guess people keep telling me today—maybe I’m out of it in popular culture.  You can read that back, I know you’re out of tune, but this is the biggest movie star of our time, even though she doesn’t actually act in movies much. 

Is this like fun or what?  What’s this?  And, by the way, she has got a great cause, this Operation Smile.  I know the guy that does it, amazing work.  They go to the African villages where a person is born with a face split open the middle and they fix him up, and amazing work. 

JOE SCARBOROUGH:  Yes, I actually saw her struggling for words, and was just—could only think of one thing.  The reason why George Bush wanted her there is because she’s the only person that speaks worse in front of a bank of microphones than George Bush. 

She was just sitting there stammering and you’re sitting, wondering, watching it, why in the hell would George Bush or any politician want her around anyway?  But it’s that star power.  Washington is so funny, Washington politicians want to be around Hollywood stars and Hollywood stars for some reason want to be around.

MATTHEWS:  You know why, Joe?  Because I’m looking at this picture here, and they’re normal, that’s why.  Because she’s beautiful and fun and sexy and I don’t see any harm done by what I’m looking at right now, looks like fun to me.  Who do we have here else.  Ron Reagan, a man from the show business world.

(CROSSTALK)

SCARBOROUGH:  Wait, wait, Chris.  You say that’s normal, what you’re seeing?

MATTHEWS:  You’ve been too rough.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  I’m calling foul here.  I think she’s beautiful, and you’re calling foul.  Ron O’Reagan? 

RON REAGAN:  Yes, Chris O’Matthews.

MATTHEWS:  A real Irishman.  What do you make of this snub by this Hollywood figure of our president?

REAGAN:  Well, I don’t know about that.  But do you think Bill Richardson remembers what he had for dinner when he was eating with her?  And do you think that any of the Congresspeople that she met with are going to remember what Operation Smile is after she leaves? 

Having their picture taken with Jessica Simpson is about as close as many of these people will come to an erotic experience in their lifetime.  And they were going to make the most of it, that’s for sure. 

MATTHEWS:  Fair enough.  Norah O’Donnell, you’re up, you’re the only female here.  What do you think?  Look at these pictures. 

NORAH O’DONNELL, MSNBC CHIEF WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT:  I’m the only true O’Donnell here for O’HARDBALL.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  But go ahead.

O’DONNELL:  Well, hats off to her.  I mean, clearly she’s 25 years old, she’s going through a divorce, and she wanted to put the attention on Operation Smile, which is a good program, and not distract from it by politicizing her visit here in Washington.  But of course, a lot of Republicans I talked to were crushed that she couldn’t go to the big campaign dinner with all of them. 

MATTHEWS:  It probably beats out an afternoon with John Boehner.  What do you think?  Anyway, thank you.

Martin’s major mess-up, the failure of pre-9/11 intelligence, the failure to plan for the Iraq insurgency and the failure to respond to Hurricane Katrina have exposed the Bush administration to charges of incompetence. 

Now comes the latest episode.  The judge in the case to execute Zacarias Moussaoui, the only living convict connected with the 9/11 attacks, has ruled that government lawyer Carla Martin improperly coached witnesses for the trial.  For the 9/11 families, it’s a devastating setback. 

Are perceptions of incompetence becoming a big liability for this administration.  I ask you, Norah O’Donnell? 

O’DONNELL:  Well, in this particular case it’s egregious, her action, and the Justice Department is trying to play cleanup and hopefully Moussaoui will still be convicted or sentenced to the death penalty.  But as for larger questions of incompetence, I don’t know that this particular case draws, you know, more questions about the president. 

MATTHEWS:  That’s up there high enough to do it.  Let’s go to Joe.  Here’s a lawyer, a middle level lawyer in that case, who went around coaching witnesses.  You think you’d be a little more careful in the trial of the decade here. 

SCARBOROUGH:  A lot more careful with a suspect this important and it does have an impact.  If I were campaigning against a Congressional candidate in 1994, a Democrat, I would talk about the incompetence of the Clinton administration and tick them off one after another. 

Now if I’m a Democrat running against a Republican if 2006, I can say you know what?  These people claim that we should trust them in the war on terror?  And then I’d bring up the port deal, I’d bring this up that they can’t even prosecute a case properly.  And then of course, you bring in the post-Iraq war, the handling of all of that, and it paints a very ugly picture.  And again, it is incompetence that counts in this campaign, where you’re painting them.  You’re going to take a story from Katrina and move it forward through this, and it looks—that’s very hard for Republicans to defend on the stump, throughout the campaign season, so I do think it’s important.

MATTHEWS:  Ron Reagan.

REAGAN:  Chris, there was more coaching going on here than during March Madness.  Judge Leonie Brinkema said it was the worst case of lawyer tampering with a witness that she’d ever seen in her years on the bench. 

I guess you can say that this is an issue of competence.  But it’s—it’s also something else, I think.  There’s an ethic within this administration, it seems to me, that if you can’t win playing within the rules, then break the rules.  If you can’t spy on people without a warrant, well, break the law, and do it.

And that’s—it’s just another smudge on this administration.  I’ll be interested to see what she says in her defense.  Does she defend herself by saying, I wasn’t really coaching these witnesses or will she say, I was pressured by higher ups?

MATTHEWS:  You know, Ron, someone has found green books to put behind tonight, you today, I’m so impressed.

REAGAN:  We’re trying very hard.

MATTHEWS:  We’ll be right back with—much more on O’HARDBALL O’Hotshots, you’re watching MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL Hotshots with Joe Scarborough, Norah O’Donnell and Ron Reagan.  Up next, the sound of silence.  A brand new NBC/”Wall Street Journal” poll shows a majority disapproving of the president’s handling of Iraq, and a majority saying the war wasn’t worth it, giving this crystal-clear portrait of American frustration.  Why was the anti-war movement so conspicuously absent?  No huge national protest, no condemnatory speeches on the evening news among the country’s leadership.

Is there a distinct voice for the opposition?  I want to go to Ron Reagan on that.  Ron, what happened to the idea of during a war, there’s a debate and usually there’s an opposition?  I have a hard time finding out which Democratic leader is playing that role?

REAGAN:  Yes, well, I guess you could say that Russ Feingold steps out occasionally into that role, Jack Murtha, people like that have spoken out.  But you’re absolutely right, there don’t seem to be many Democrats who are really taking the president on this issue.  And when a Jack Murtha speaks up, when a Russ Feingold speaks up as he did this past week, a lot of Democrats seem to run in the opposite direction.

I think the public is way ahead of the politicians and the media, I must say, on this, but I think they’re getting tired and cynical out there in the public.

MATTHEWS:  You know, Norah, the other day with Hillary Clinton, somebody tried to grab her at the elevator at the Senate to say, what did she think of the censure resolution against the president.  She he tried to hide behind Barbara McClosky, it’s not a big effort to hide behind.

O’DONNELL:  Right, well Senator Clinton has not given too many press conferences and certainly many of the Democrats didn’t want to talk about Feingold’s resolution. 

But the issue, and we learned this from the NBC News/”Wall Street Journal” poll.  Iraq is the ball and chain for this president, 57 percent thinks that there’s going to be a less successful conclusion in Iraq.  This is a pessimistic country.  The president’s got to turn that around and you’ve got to do it before the Democrats come up with an alternative proposal, that the American people buy.

And I think that’s why you saw the president saying on Monday that by the end of the year, he wants Iraqi security forces in control.  We heard from the commanding general of the multinational forces today, who said the goal this summer is to have the Iraq security forces control 75 percent.  If that’s true, this is the beginning of the exit strategy.

MATTHEWS:  Unless we’re always there in reserve.

O’DONNELL:  Yes.

MATTHEWS:  Joe Scarborough, what can we do, what can the president do?  Let’s go back to the Democrats and have some fun here.  They don’t have a leader on the war issue.  I don’t know who they’d put on TV—for example, if we gave them a half hour free to respond to the president, who they would put on.

SCARBOROUGH:  They don’t have a leader on the war strategy, they don’t have a leader on foreign policy, and they don’t have a leader on domestic policy.  But I think there’s some people out there in the Democratic Party who’ve calculated we need to just step back, let the president continue to be pushing for America to stay in Iraq and I think they’re calculating that his numbers are going to keep going down and the only time they hurt themselves, are times when like Russ Feingold goes to the Senate floor and tries to censure the president for the NSA wiretapping scandal. 

I mean, you look at the war, most Democrats in the Senate voted to get America into the war.  I don’t see any Democrats supporting Murtha’s resolution to get us out in 60 days or six months.  You look at wiretapping, which Ron Reagan brought up earlier.  I don’t see Democrats running to the floor to get rid of that program either. 

So they’ve calculated that it’s dangerous for them to appear to be sort of these 1960 throw back anti-war types, and so they’re going to just sit there, let the president’s poll numbers continue to go down and they’ll have to make policy once they take control of the Senate and the House after the ‘06 elections.

MATTHEWS:  OK, Hotshots, let’s take a look back to the summer of ‘84 when Ronald Reagan, the president, took a trip back to the village of his ancestors.  County Tipperary, Ireland, he drew loud cheers for coiffing a Guinness at the Ronald Reagan Pub, despite widespread European disapproval of his policies in Central America at the time.  But as it were, the pub has since been purchased by Reagan loyalist Fred Ryan, he bought the bar’s interior for the Ronald Reagan Library out in California.  The old Irish saying, I guess, could be true.  It is better to spend money like there’s tomorrow than to spend tonight like there’s no money.  Ron, have you been in that pub out there to take a taste of it, or whatever?

REAGAN:  I have not been in the relocated pub at the library.  We’ll have to out there and hoist a jar, as they say, at some point.  I was by the pub when it was in Bali Corine, but I didn’t actually go in.  I was on my way somewhere else, doing a little genealogical research there a few years ago.

MATTHEWS:  So this is like moving the London Bridge, isn’t it?

REAGAN:  Yeah, the whole—I don’t know how they did that, but thank God they did.

MATTHEWS:  Brick by brick.  Thank you, guys.  Thank you, “Hot Shots,” on this hotshot day.  Joe Scarborough, Norah O’Donnell and Ron Reagan. 

When we return, the director of the new movie “Thank You for Smoking,” which is opening right now and cutting lots of satire about Washington lobbyists. 

Plus, Kathleen and I hosted the American Ireland Fund gala last night.  We’ll have the highlights after the break.  This is HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  We’re back.  Sleazeball lobbyist Jack Abramoff showed the country the dark side of Washington lobbying.  Jason Reitman’s new movie, “Thank You for Smoking,” takes a wickedly funny look at the merchants of death, the lobbyists for tobacco, firearms and of course smoking.  Let’s take a look.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Every week, we meet her at Burt’s.  Together, we represent the chief spokespeople for the tobacco, alcohol and firearms industries.  We call ourselves the mod squad—M.O.D., merchants of death. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  So my day is ruined. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Why?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  “Dateline” is doing a segment on fetal alcohol syndrome, thank you. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Polly works for the Moderation Council.  A casual drinker by the age of 14, Polly quickly developed a tolerance usually reserved for Irish dock workers.  In our world, she’s the woman that got the pope to endorse red wine. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  We’re going to get creamed.  Any ideas? 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  I don’t know.  Deformed kids are tough.  I’m lucky my product only makes them bald before it kills them. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Jason Reitman directed the movie.  Welcome, Jason.  Thanks for joining us.  How do you make a guy who is an apparent sleazeball into a sort of winning character? 

JASON REITMAN, DIRECTOR:  Well, first, you got a fantastic book by Christopher Buckley, and then you hire Aaron Eckhart, who is just brilliant at being subversive and funny at the same time. 

MATTHEWS:  What did you learn about Washington while you were putting this film together, about the way the lobbyists really do operate here?

REITMAN:  You know, I learned most of it just from reading the book, so I have to admit, that’s probably what I take for honesty, and I spent a few days in Washington.  What I learned most is that they loved that book.  That book was carte blanche for us to go into any building we wanted. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask you about lobbyists, how they reacted.  I mean, I guess you haven’t bumped into Abramoff or anybody who’s really in the toilet these days, but one of the regular guys who bumped into you at the thing we were at, that social thing together, you bumped into any real guys who said, God, you’re tough?  Or you made us look better than we deserve. 

REITMAN:  No, no, they love it.  They love—they love the book, they love the movie.  I’ve had a couple of alcohol people come up to me and said, yeah, you know, all my guns and cigarette friends can’t wait to see this thing. 

MATTHEWS:  You mean they like to be the villains.  It’s exciting.

REITMAN:  Well, I think they’re self-aware and they have a sense of humor about it.

MATTHEWS:  How is this going to sell outside the world where people think lobbyists are sort of these big fat guys with the whatever—I don’t know what the image of a lobbyist is these days.  Money coming out of his hands, a tan from the latest deal he’s been at, or a Florida vacation. 

But what is the lobbyist notion compared to the very smart notion you have got, and wickedly witty notion of a lobbyist in this film? 

REITMAN:  Well, you know, the character in this film is more of a spokesman.  He’s a guy who goes on television, a guy who goes and talks at live events.  He’s not really the backroom dealer who’s trying to move legislation. 

And I think people are very excited to see that, because this is a film that has a sense of humor, and is saying, relax a little, let’s have a good time.

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask you about the popularity of the film.  You’re talking, I think we chatted one night, you talked about kids, people your age I should say, people in their early 20s, earlier than you, are getting a giggle out of this because it’s showing them the real world in the sort of the Jon Stewart fashion, the tongue-and-cheek, my God, it’s not on the level. 

REITMAN:  Well, it’s putting up a mirror to both sides and telling everyone we need to relax a little.  I think the current generation, as in college, they’ve been spun to since the cradle, and they’re very tired of political correctness, and this film takes a really nice stab at that. 

MATTHEWS:  Because it’s so libertarian, the way it looks at things. 

REITMAN:  Yes, and it just relaxes.  I think we’ve all gotten a little too uptight.  I mean, look, you’re doing this special today where you’re putting the letter O in front of everyone’s names.  And tomorrow, you will probably get a response from the Irish-American Coalition.  And they’re going to be railing on you for it.  We have all become a little too sensitive, and I think that’s why people really like the sense of humor of this movie. 

MATTHEWS:  I think the smart people will say we’re not taking things seriously enough.

Anyway, Jason, your movie is funny, it’s tight, and it’s sort of like “Dr. Strangelove,” a brilliant satire. 

REITMAN:  Oh, wow, thank you.

MATTHEWS:  “Thank You for Smoking,” by Jason Reitman, the auteur. 

Last night, my wife Kathleen and I hosted the American Ireland Fund gala here in Washington.  Let’s take a look.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KATHLEEN MATTHEWS:  So there we were on our first date at (INAUDIBLE), and already the contest had begun.  I think you all know it well.  The contest was, who is more Irish?  I was convinced that I had won.  Chris was convinced he had won, until he looked up behind the bar, and there was the placard, there was the coat of arms of the Cunningham family, my maiden name. 

MATTHEWS:  (INAUDIBLE) for Kathy, and then on our last trip to Ireland, we were up near the border, we found a little town (INAUDIBLE) called Newtown Cunningham.  Score another one for Kathy.

K. MATTHEWS:  To be honest, I am half-Celt, half-German, and Chris pointed out that that’s the same combination as Grace Kelly.  And that’s how he won my heart. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Isn’t she something?  My job last night was to introduce the honorees, Senator Joe Biden included. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOSEPH BIDEN (D), DELAWARE:  They were telling stories.  I guess that’s what Irish do when they get together.  And I was reminded of a time when my sister went to my grandpa’s up in Scranton, and I was out in the back alley and I got the living hell kicked out of me by a guy named Johnny Finstemacher.  A little bit bigger than me.  And I came walking in, holding my head.  My mother said, “I saw what happened, Joey.”  Expecting her to put her arms around me.  This is a God’s true story.  She said, “I want you to go back out there and listen to me, bloody his nose.”  And I looked at her, and she said, “So you can walk down the alley tomorrow.”

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  That’s how the Irish talk when we’re together.  More HARDBALL Monday night at 5:00 and 7:00 Eastern.

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