April 26, 2006| 8:22 p.m. ET

Snowing the press (Hardball All-Star Bob Shrum)

I don't want to get him in trouble with his new bosses, but I like and respect Tony Snow. I was the token Democrat on the "Fox News Sunday" panel when he was the host. Six months into my Fox stint, I think I offended Newt Gingrich during our 1996 election night coverage; I was exiled from the Sunday show and confined to the Fox News Channel. Tony told me it wasn't his decision and he wouldn't have made it. For a few more months, I regularly offended the 90% of Fox cable viewers who tuned in for their repeated doses of right wing agitprop. When my contract was up, I refused to re-up; I didn't want to be a token -- and for me, it was a sidelight, not a job.

Then and afterwards, I occasionally saw or talked to Tony on the phone. He was a journalist who believed in committing news before pushing his own opinions. Don't get me wrong: he's a conservative, and in conversation we hardly ever met an issue we didn't disagree on. But he's not a flamer who shuts up and shouts down the other side. During the Gore campaign, I was for putting guests on his network Sunday show. He told me he'd be fair and he was. He was kind of an outtake at Fox: He'd decided what he thought, but he reported too. He even asked conservatives tough questions -- at least some of the time.

Tony Snow's entering a White House in or just emerging from disarray; he's been there before. He told me over lunch in the mid-90's that the first President Bush's White House had been a dysfunctional mess until the President's son, a Texas businessman named George W. Bush, stepped in and enforced some changes -- too late, of course, to rescue the 1992 election, which was decided by what was happening in people's lives, not the White House press room, speech shop, or political operation.

That's why Bush is in trouble now; a new press secretary won't matter in the end if his presence is just designed to put a better mask on broken policies. Snow, we're informed, will have access and influence. Will he refuse to accept and repeat reflex denials of official misconduct, which is what Scott McClellan did in the Valerie Plame case, without asking tough questions? Will he tear up the "Mission Accomplished" and "Victory in Iraq" posters and insist on realistic answers about the war instead of repeated rhetorical victory laps? And if he does get to sit in the inner circle and actually speak his mind, will he suggest, for example, that the Administration actually ought to have a domestic policy? So instead of just trying to give the Alaska wilderness to the oil companies, the President could crack down on them for giving consumers the shaft. Or how about a health care plan, modeled on the bipartisan breakthrough in Massachusetts, which relies on tax free markets? Bush, like Nixon going to China, could be the President who guarantees health care to all Americans.

I know -- this wasn't what Tony was hired for, but according to his "contract" he at least gets a say. And on at least one issue, immigration, Bush has shown persistent signs of an outbreak of good sense. Maybe the new Chief of Staff, Josh Bolten, and the new director of domestic policy, who's taken over from the defenestrated Karl Rove, will join in nudging the White House in the right direction. You don't have to be immovable or incompetent to be conservative; as the greatest of all modern conservatives Ronald Reagan often said, "facts are stubborn things."

In the face of those facts, it's not enough to Snow the press. Tony's challenge is to speak the truth to the press and the President. Instead of putting his criticisms in his columns, he can now offer them up in the Oval Office. Or can he? That's the test. If he's just a hem-straightener for a tattered and failing approach, his reputation will be shredded at the briefing room podium. The Tony Snow I've known is better than that. He may actually stand his ground and insist on doing his job right. If that gets him in trouble and the Bush Network -- pardon me, I mean Fox -- won't take him back, perhaps he can come to MSNBC. I'd enjoy debating him on the air. We wouldn't agree, but I'd respect him -- as I have for years.

April 24, 2006 | 6:10 p.m. ET

Senate contender Claire McCaskill gives her pitch (Kemper Ohlmeyer, Hardblogger college all-star)

Claire McCaskill, challenger for Republican Jim Talent's Missouri senate seat, took time out of her campaign to meet with, and beg for money, from Washington University's finest young Democrats last night. She touched on many of the Democratic Party's hot topics: Washington's (read: Republican's) culture of corruption; healthcare/single payer viability; climate change; Bush's fumbling of the Iraq war.

After some brief opening comments, she opened the floor to about 30 students for a town-hall Q&A.

Ms. McCaskill's first questioner asked for her take on Washington's "culture of corruption." She went right at Bush, stating that "it is hard to argue whether or not there is a culture of corruption," citing all the usual suspects: Libby, DeLay, etc. She conceded that the Democrats were not without sin, but went on to attack the Republicans for their arrogance and their attempts to control elections. She argued that Republicans win elections through spending while Democrats try to win though ideals.

It's a nice soundbite, but it's not really true. Noted economist Steven D. Levitt debunks it pretty handily.

In his article, Mr. Levitt explains that money flows to the expected winner of an election, but money doesn't create the winner.  Plus, the Campaign Finance Reform Act of 2001 was, in fact, a bipartisan agreement.

Ms. McCaskill then tried to handle a gay marriage question delicately (she's a Democrat in a red-state).  She said she opposed Missouri's gay marriage amendment but believes gay marriage to be inappropriate.  She does support civil unions.

She tackled healthcare next.  McCaskill said that our current healthcare system creates an adverse-selection situation; uninsured trips to hospitals shift the costs onto the hospitals, then back to the insurers, who then pass them to consumers, who can't afford insurance.  It creates a self-defeating cycle. She is a proponent of more free medical clinics (which creates a moral-hazard: people don't get insurance since they know they can go to the clinics for free; therefore the only ones with insurance are the truly sick who drive costs up and force others out).

She attacked Governor Blunt's cuts to community health centers. She also supports deferring med-school loans for new graduates who work in such clinics right out of school.

Overall, I thought McCaskill was quick to point out Republican faults but slower to give real solutions. If Democrats want to win elections in November, I think they'll have to step it up a little bit better.

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April 17, 2006 | 6:45 p.m. ET

Eight months after Katrina (Jeremy Bronson, 'Hardball' supervising producer)

Just a quick field report from New Orleans, where Chris Matthews is co-moderating the big New Orleans mayoral debate tonight.  

This afternoon Chris's co-moderator, WDSU anchor Norman Robinson, took Chris and me on a really moving tour of the city.  Eight months after the storm, you can still see stretches of abandoned houses, empty, ruined storefronts, and rows of trailers on lawns and open fields.  You can still read spray-painted rescue notes on front doors and garages. You can see anti-FEMA graffiti in bleeding red paint.

But here's the bigger surprise. When you drive around New Orleans, you just don't see a whole lot of rebuilding.  Very few construction crews, very few work trucks. It just feels like a city without a clear plan. That's my visceral impression, at least. 

Despite all the calls to fix a broken city, when you tour these neighborhoods, you really get a sense of the tough choice that many of these families have to make. How do you choose not to rebuild your home if you have the means?  At the same time, who wants to have the only rebuilt home in an otherwise devastated, forsaken street?  

Special thanks to Norman for showing us the big challenges that New Orleans still faces… eight months after Katrina.

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April 17, 2006 | 6:06 p.m. ET

Live from New Orleans Mayoral Debate (Brooke Brower, 'Hardball' producer)

NEW ORLEANS - Preparation for tonight's 9 p.m. ET debate started early this morning.  We've had plenty of phone calls during the last month with people from MSNBC (in both New Jersey and D.C.) and WDSU to get ready for tonight, but this was the first time that we were all able to sit together to hash out our thoughts.  These candidates have debated many times and figuring out the best questions to ask is challenging. 

In the afternoon, we gathered in the studio to get used to some of the production pieces like the camera angles, the timing system, and the flow of the hour.  After our walk through, it was time to do our Monday night edition of 'Hardball'.  It was a good show with former U.N. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke and former FEMA head Michael Brown. 

Tonight's debate will give the national audience a chance to hear from seven of the people who want to lead New Orleans.  The issues that divide them tonight will ultimately give way to one leader who will try to unite this unique city as it continues its recovery from last year’s hurricanes.  It promises to be a riveting night!

Tonight’s debate will be simulcast on MSNBC Cable and on MSNBC.com. Check back here at 9 ET to watch it live. And to read profiles of tonight’s participants and the more than 20 candidates vying to be New Orleans' next mayor, click on our interactive feature .

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April 10, 2006 | 12:42 p.m. ET

This week is our ninth anniversary here at Hardball.  What a rush it has been.

It’s taken me to the Democratic conventions in Los Angeles and Boston, the Republicans conventions in my hometown of Philadelphia and New York.

Watch Chris' vlog below.

Video: Celebrate Hardball's 9th Anniversary with us

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April 4, 2006 | 12:58 p.m. ET

My phone call with Tom DeLay (Chris Matthews)

MSNBC
Chris Matthews

Shannon Flaherty called me at the office Monday to say that Congressman Tom DeLay, her boss, wanted to talk with me in the evening.  It would be around 9:15.  She said he was "not calling to complain."

Despite the heads-up, I was taken aback when the former Majority Leader came on the line Monday night.

"This is Tom DeLay."   "Hi Tom," I responded before reverting to protocol.   The Congressman then told me the stunning news he was dropping out of his race for re-election. 

As I grabbed for a card to write on and a pen, he began running through his reason.   He said he still had a 50-50 chance of winning but that he expected to take a "beating between now and November." It would  be  "very hard to reverse" the bad trend for him that had begun last fall and was continuing. 

Congressman DeLay then said that "any Republican but me" would "walk into the seat."  

As for his future career, he said that he enjoyed "great support from the conservative organizations" in Washington.  "I can do more with them.   I can take my talents and my leadership into this arena."

Two thoughts:

1. When we went down to Houston to cover the DeLay race, which we had targeted as the No. 1 race of the year, the Congressman was concerned about the political outlook down in the 22nd District but as feisty as ever.  He was enjoying the fact that the best candidate the Democrats could muster was a Congressman he had defeated in a different district, as he put it, "a hundred miles away."

That's why I was stunned to hear him say that he was dropping out of the race.  What may have done it, in addition to the dangers of people testifying against him on whatever matters, was the failure of his polling to bounce back even as he was winning the Republican nomination for re-election.

DeLay, who obviously takes polls seriously enough to end his career based on one, believes the November elections will decide control of the House by a few seats either way.  He doesn't want the Texas 22nd to experience a loss he himself incurs.

2. President Bush's relentless drop in voter approval is making it impossible for troubled candidacies like DeLay's and Senator Rick Santorum's to "reverse the trend" in their constituencies. 

Just as Iraq is bringing Bush down, Bush is bringing the Republican party down.

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