updated 3/22/2006 11:36:47 AM ET 2006-03-22T16:36:47

Guests: David Gergen, Willie Brown, Dianne Feinstein, Stephen Hayes, Margaret Carlson, Gavin Newsom

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST, "HARDBALL":  Passing the buck.  President Bush passes blame for Iraq to the press.  Passes the decision to leave Iraq and cut his huge budget deficits to future presidents.  Let’s play HARDBALL. 

Good evening.  I’m Chris Matthews, reporting tonight from San Francisco. 

Today in Washington, President Bush pumped up his P.R. campaign on Iraq, in his second news conference of the year, blaming the press for showing bad pictures of the war. 

In the wake of new polls showing sinking support for Iraq, the president defended his administration’s handling of a war now entering its fourth year. 

We begin tonight with HARDBALL’s David Shuster and this report on the president’s news conference. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DAVID SHUSTER, HARDBALL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  Bannered by the war in Iraq and facing the worst approval numbers since Richard Nixon, today President Bush nonetheless vowed to keep U.S. forces in the fight. 

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  I’m going to say it again.  If I didn’t believe we could succeed, I wouldn’t be there.  I wouldn’t put those kids there. 

SHUSTER:  The president said the U.S. is making progress in Iraq and suggested these images from recent weeks do not tell the whole story. 

BUSH:  Listen, we all recognize that there is violence, that there’s sectarian violence, but the way I look at the situation is that the Iraqis took a look and decided not to go to civil war. 

SHUSTER:  Many Iraq leaders say the president has it wrong, including Iraq’s former prime minister. 

AYAD ALLAWI, FORMER INTERIM IRAQI PRIME MINISTER:  This is, in fact, as a level of a civil war.  We should not deny that. 

SHUSTER:  But regardless of what anybody calls Iraq, the latest NBC News/”Wall Street Journal” poll shows 57 percent of the American people have lost confidence in the war, and the president’s approval rating has dropped to 37 percent. 

The White House strategy is clearly to shift attention from an unpopular policy to the press.  Today, the president alleged that American television organizations, by showing the violence in Iraq, are playing into the hands of Iraq’s insurgents. 

BUSH:  You said, how I react to a bombing that took place yesterday.  It’s precisely what the enemy understands is possible to do.  They’re capable of blowing up innocent life so it ends up on your TV show. 

SHUSTER:  In another attempt to change the topic from the war to the media ...

BUSH:  Helen.

SHUSTER:  ... the president for the first time in four years responded to a question from veteran columnist and war critic Helen Thomas.  She asked a fundamental question:  Why did the president lead the nation into war? 

HELEN THOMAS, HEARST NEWSPAPERS:  What was your real reason?  You have said it wasn’t oil, a quest for oil.  It hasn’t been Israel or anything else.  What was it? 

BUSH:  I think your premise, in all due respect to your question and to you as a lifelong journalist, is that, you know, I didn’t want war.  To assume I wanted war is just flat wrong, Helen.  Excuse me.  Excuse me.  No president wants war.  Everything you may have heard is that, but it’s just simply not true. 

SHUSTER:  The strategy of welcoming sharp questions is a change for this White House, which until six months ago usually kept the president in front of friendly audiences.  The president does excel at fraternity style teasing, like when he towel-snapped a “New York Times” reporter.

BUSH:  Elizabeth was half asleep.  Yes, you were. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  I was not. 

BUSH:  OK.  Well the person next to you was. 

SHUSTER:  But jousting with skeptics day after day carries a risk and in Cleveland on Monday, the president opened himself up to charges of historical revisionism, with an audience member questioned him about his original claims for war. 

QUESTION:  Weapons of mass destruction, the claim that Iraq was sponsoring terrorists who would have attacked us on 9/11, and that Iraq had purchased nuclear materials from Niger—all three of those turned out to be false. 

BUSH:  I was very careful never to say that Saddam Hussein ordered the attacks on America. 

SHUSTER:  But history shows the president did link Saddam with those who were responsible.  Here’s what he said in 2002. 

BUSH:  The war on terror is—you can’t distinguish between al Qaeda and Saddam with you talk about the war on terror. 

He’s a threat because he is dealing with al Qaeda. 

We know that Iraq and al Qaeda have had high-level contacts that go back a decade. 

SHUSTER:  Vice President Cheney claimed that 9/11 hijacker Mohamed Atta met with a senior Iraqi intelligence official in the Czech Republic in April 2001. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  As well, you have said in the past that it was, quote, “pretty well confirmed.” 

DICK CHENEY, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  No, I never said that. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  OK, I think that is ... 

CHENEY:  That’s absolutely not. 

SHUSTER:  But Cheney was captured on videotape almost three years before that interview, just a few months after 9/11, saying exactly that, the very thing he denied saying to the reporter. 

CHENEY:  It’s been pretty well confirmed that he did go to Prague and he did meet with a senior official of the Iraqi Intelligence Service. 

SHUSTER:  More contradictory still, on the eve of the Iraq war, the White House in a letter to Congress telling lawmakers that force was authorized against those who, quote, “aided the 9/11 attacks.” 

In any case, both the president and vice president are presenting themselves as upbeat and seemingly unworried about their credibility problems.  Though the violence in Iraq has gotten worse if recent months, the vice president said today ...

CHENEY:  Progress has not come easily, but it has been steady. 

SHUSTER:  And President Bush added at his news conference ...

BUSH:  We’re making progress because we’ve got a strategy for victory. 

SHUSTER (on camera):  The problem for the White House is the public is increasingly convinced that just because the Bush administration argues it has a plan doesn’t mean it will be carried out well or accomplished,         and today President Bush acknowledged that a decision about a withdrawal from the U.S. forces may be left to his successor, the strongest declaration so far that U.S. troops will likely be staying in Iraq through early 2009. 

I’m David Shuster for HARDBALL, at the White House.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MATTHEWS:  Thank you, David Shuster.

Here to critique the president’s hyped-up P.R. offensive is former presidential aide David Gergen; MSNBC political analyst, Pat Buchanan; and former mayor of San Francisco, Willie Brown.  Thank you all for joining us.

From the left, David Gergen.  Does this administration have its ducks in line to begin this offensive against the media?  Do they have their game plan? 

DAVID GERGEN, FORMER WHITE HOUSE ADVISER:  I’m not sure about that from the left introduction, but nonetheless, I was out to say, you were sitting out there next to Willie Brown.  The—but, nonetheless, no, I don’t think they have their action together on the ground, Chris. 

If you’re going to launch a P.R. offensive—and, by the way, I welcome the fact that the president is taking tougher questions now.  He did that in Cleveland, he did that with Helen Thomas.  All of us ought to welcome that. 

He was shielded too long.  Now I think we get him to really, you know, mix it up and you get better answers for the public and I think that’s—he should be—we should be appreciative of the fact that he’s moving in that direction. 

But beyond that, the facts on the ground are what drive this story, not the press conferences.  You know, what the press conferences will lead to are all the kind of parsing of phrases and going back and showing clips from earlier time as David Shuster just did.  But it’s the facts on the ground, the violence, the lack of a government, that’s really driving public opinion. 

MATTHEWS:  Patrick Buchanan, do you believe the president has his act together?  And I don’t mean that derogatorily, but I saw in that piece, in David Shuster’s piece, that they have to now deal with facts, the factual statements made by the vice president, by the president in the past that suggesting a reason to go to Iraq was to get even for 9/11. 

It was in the public atmosphere, the country music, it was in the polling, most people thought that most of the people on the planes were Iraqis who attacked us on 9/11.  The president let that stand.  His vice president enunciated it, and we caught him in the act right then. 

Did his P.R. people warn the president, when you go out and fight with the press and towel-snap like he was with Elisabeth Bumiller, you’re going to face people that have videotape in their hands and notebooks? 

PAT BUCHANAN, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  I think, Chris, if I may say so, I think a lot of this is irrelevant in this sense.  Clearly what you saw on the president, the message that was conveyed not just in the words but in the manner, is look, I made up my mind, I’ve committed these troops, I’ve done what I believe is right, I’m going to stay this course.

He was confident to the point of being cocky today.  He welcomed the tough questions, and he has a certain serenity in the sense that he has bet everything on this, Chris.  He knows it.  The whole stack is in the middle of the table.

And he has adversaries that he realizes as he dealt with on that national wiretapping thing where he said look, the fellows want to sanction me or censure me or impeach me, why don’t they tell me to stop wire wiretapping folks from Afghanistan into here or here into Afghanistan. 

MATTHEWS:  Right.

BUCHANAN:  Not a one of them hasn’t done it, so what I got was a sense, this.  Here’s a president who has made up his mind, who’s put his chips down, and however it comes out, he’s going to be satisfied and he is ready to fight. 

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Well those chips are human beings. 

Let’s go to Mayor Brown.  Mayor Brown, it looks like the president has decided not to attack the Democrats but to attack the media.  What’s the strategy in that? 

WILLIE BROWN, FMR. SAN FRANCISCO MAYOR:  Well, I think that he knows his numbers are going south quickly.  He also knows that it has not been the Democrats who are responsible for making his numbers go south.  The Democrats haven’t been very good at delivering any message on this issue. 

All of a sudden, the facts on the ground themselves is driving this issue, and the president’s credibility, as demonstrated by that piece you did with Shuster, clearly represents the basis for the sinking and that sinking will continue. 

It is a major mistake to start calling the press liars, to say they’re misrepresenting what was said.  When they show up with those notebooks and that videotape and put those words up there, you’re better off doing what he attempted to do on the wiretapping.  Hey, yes, I did wiretapping.  I thought it was in the best interests of the country.  Do to me what you wish.

What he should say is, yes, I though al Qaeda was in Iraq.  I was wrong.  I thought there were weapons of mass destruction.  I was wrong.  But we are there.  Do to me what you wish.  I’m going to stay the course.  If he said that, he would be showing the kind of courage that has caused him to be admired in America. 

MATTHEWS:  Well that’s the question, David Gergen and you’re an expert on presidents that have gotten into trouble.  Don’t they have to clear the deck before they say move forward?  If they continue to stick to the old positions which have been discredited, all the arguments for the war, and when somebody like Helen Thomas simply asks the question, she said why did you want to go to Iraq and he used that has a setup number to go after her. 

GERGEN:  I agree with that.  First of all, let’s go back to Willie Brown’s point.  I don’t think there’s anything to be gained by essentially needling or attacking the press as he did today.  We’ve seen this tactic used in the past, Pat and I can tell you old stories about Spiro Agnew and how he went of after in Vietnam the nattering nabobs of negativism, you will recall that famous phrase. 

It doesn’t get you anywhere.  What it does do is rally your base, but it doesn’t win over anybody who’s starting to sour on the war.  So it’s more polarizing than anything else.  But beyond that, Chris, I guess my biggest surprise all along here is there’s been no apparent adjustments of policy and there has been no adjustment of personnel that you could say, OK, they understood that they got off track here, off track there, and now they’ve changed it, so we had something to focus on.

I had assumed, when he went out and did the press conference today, that he might bringing up what Jim Hoagland wrote about in the Washington Post column yesterday, and that is, reducing American footprints in Iraq over the course of the next 12 months by moving our soldiers off the streets, out of the cities, into posts outside the cities, turning it over to Iraqis for security purposes inside the cities, reducing American casualties, as a sort of internal retreat if you would like or internal withdrawal.  And it seamed to me if he had a strategy like that and he started talking about who’s he’s going to have to do that, then you’ve got something to defend, but just to sort of say we’re just going to keep on keeping on and then go attacking other people, I don’t think it will get you anywhere. 

MATTHEWS:  Pat, we’ll start with you when we come back and also Willie Brown.  When we come back, this is HARDBALL on MSNBC.  Later in the program, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom is going to be on to talk about his effort to legalize gay marriage.  Is that going to be an issue in the 2008 election?  I think so, based on what we saw down in Memphis a couple of weeks ago.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BUSH:  How do I react to a bombing that took place yesterday, is precisely what the enemy understands is possible to do.  I’m not suggesting you shouldn’t talk about it.  Certainly not being, you know—please don’t take that as criticism, but it also is a realistic assessment of the enemy’s capability to affect a debate and they know that.  They are capable of blowing up innocent life so it ends up on your TV show.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BUSH:  If I didn’t believe we could succeed, I wouldn’t be there.  I wouldn’t put those kids there.  It’s—I meet with too many families who have lost a love one to not be able to look them in the eye and say we’re doing the right thing and we are doing the right thing.  A democracy in Iraq is going to affect the neighborhood.  A democracy in Iraq is going to inspire reformers in a part of the world that is desperate for reformation. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  We’re here with former presidential aide David Gergen, MSNBC political analyst Pat Buchanan and former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown.  Let me go to you Pat, you had a thought there. 

BUCHANAN:  Yes.  I really do, Chris.  I think we’re being very unfair to the president when you say he launched an attack on the media.  What the president was saying was something I think we all agree with.  In modern war with television cameras and instantaneous coverage and explosions going on, the American people are hit with constant pictures of Americans dying, Americans wounded, people being killed, explosions, and this has an effect on morale and that’s all the president was saying. 

He’s saying I’m not blaming you, this is the nature of it and this is one of the reasons wars get so unpopular and it was a very valid point.  That wasn’t an attack on the media, but again the key point here is whatever you say about the president, he has said, look, I believe in it, I put myself on the line, I’m willing to fight on this line all the way through to November and through my presidency and to take the consequences.

That is a strong—moral certitude is a powerful position in politics when the other side is trying to feel around and find which way it wants to stand. 

MATTHEWS:  That kind of moral certitude is certainly desirable.  It’s a question of whether it’s appropriate in this case.  Pat, you don’t believe the president, who is a smart fellow in many ways, especially as a politician, didn’t know what he was doing today when he did the towel snap at Elisabeth Bumiller and said you were asleep, then he fell back and said, oh the person next to you was asleep, didn’t entertain a little jousting with Helen Thomas?  I think it was theater. 

BUCHANAN:  I think it was theater, but I didn’t detect the kind of hostility David and I would see in a press conference you could cut with a knife.  This is the president almost giddy and cocky, being wiseacrish, kidding around.  I think he overdid it a little bit, but I didn’t sense any tension on his part. 

MATTHEWS:  No, I sensed a very cold, calculated effort to make the press the story of today’s press conference.  Do you agree or not? 

BUCHANAN:  In our case, he succeeded, Chris. 

MATTHEWS:  Let’s listen to radio talk show host Laura Ingraham this morning on “The Today Show” attacking the media for its coverage of the war in Iraq. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

LAURA INGRAHAM, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST:  With all of the resources of networks like NBC, “The Today Show” spends all this money to send people to the Olympics, which is great, it was great programming.  All this money, but where in the world is Matt Lauer.  Bring “The Today Show” to Iraq, bring the today show to Tal Afar.  Do the show from the Fourth I.B. at Camp Victory and then, when you talk to the soldiers on the ground, when you go out with the Iraqi military, with you talk to the villagers, when see the children, then I want NBC to report on only the IED’s, only the killings, only the reprisals.  When you guys—

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Wait a minute, Laura.  If you want to be fair, first of all the today show went to Iraq, Matt Lauer was there. 

INGRAHAM:  Did you do a show from Iraq? 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  We’ve got a bureau there. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Mayor Brown, I’m not sure what the argument is there.  I do applaud Laura Ingraham, I so listen to her show every day if Washington and she did go over to Iraq and met with the troops.  I don’t know how many tours she went on, and if she did anything like that I think it’s courageous.

Certainly, on this program we had Richard Engel, and I am so proud of having him on this show, he’s so gutsy.  I fear for him every night.  We’ve had David Bloom over there who died as a result of just being out there in the action of his own—just the physical dangers to people being out there in that kind of rigorous work. 

But I don’t think the media, who has lost 80 people now who have been killed over there, has been slacking in coverage of this war.

BROWN:  I think that the U.S. government, at the outset of this war, included the media at every step of the way.  I think the embedment process, which went on and some people were critical of, including the journalists, that was supposed to be by this administration’s assessment, to their benefit.

And now that it is in fact causing trouble in their opinion, they now want to turn on what was their ally.  I think the press has in fact covered this war, I hope the press will continue to cover this war.  And unlike Pat Buchanan, the reality of what you see on television today and the nature and the quality of all those pictures, paints the appropriate topic for each of us to be a part of.  And we are a part of it, Pat, and believe me...

BUCHANAN:  All right, Willie, let me respond to that, Willie.  You know as well as I do, and the president of the United States is dead right, that the enemy knows that Vietnam was lost in the United States, that the pictures killed the support for the war.

They know if they can get constant pictures of casualties, guys coming home wounded, guys being hauled out, it will break the morale.  And to say they are so stupid that they don’t know that, I think is ridiculous.

That’s all the president is saying.  He didn’t criticize us for bringing the pictures here and showing it.  He says we ought to know that that’s what the enemy is doing and I think he’s exactly right.  And it’s really unfair, I think, to call this an attack on the media from that press conference that I saw.

MATTHEWS:  What is the president’s goal here then, Pat?  Because it seems to me we know we have camera crews, as Mayor Brown points out, the media, as if they needed an invitation, were embedees in this war, they were embedded, that was the term.  That doesn’t mean they’re supposed to be bed fellows, there’s a difference here.

BUCHANAN:  The president is saying, Chris, for God’s sake fellows, “Put this in context, I know they’re blowing us up, but you should know their motives for why they’re creating these kinds of pictures and also cover the other side of the war.”

MATTHEWS:  What is the other side?

BUCHANAN:  You’re getting columnists like David Ignatius who are going over there saying things may have changed, things may be good.  I saw you on last night, Chris, and you’re right.  Those two generals and even I—I opposed the war, I don’t know that historically this is going to turn out to be a disaster.

I know we all don’t want it to be and I do believe the pictures, there is no doubt they have a critical effect on morale.

MATTHEWS:  OK, David, I want to ask you this.  You know, when we went to Vietnam, I didn’t go to Vietnam.  The men who went over there, the women who went over there, built all kinds of installations over there.  They built things for the cities over there.  There’s a tremendous effort, it’s almost like the—what do you call it, the new deal over there in terms of what was put up over there.  That wasn’t the story though.  The story was our guys were getting killed.  I don’t know how you can cover a war and not cover the war itself, and not all this reconstruction.  That’s not a new story, is it?

GERGEN:  Listen, I agree with that.  I spent a little time in Vietnam in uniform and I’ll tell you this, the war in Vietnam was not lost in the living rooms of America.

I disagree with Pat on that.  Many people at the time, there were many soldiers who felt that at the time.  But when people went back after the war and examined that question, like Harry Summers, who wrote one of the best books on Vietnam, what they decided was, this was not about the media.  That was not the reason we lost the war in Vietnam. 

The reason we lost the war in Vietnam was we didn’t have a good strategy.  We didn’t have a good plan for winning and for a long time, public opinion held on Vietnam, for a much longer time than anybody realizes, the public was in favor of Vietnam.  They didn’t get upset because they were seeing pictures of people being blown up, what they got upset with over time and the reason the country turned against the war, was we didn’t have a winning plan to deal with it.  Pat remembers that.

BUCHANAN:  Look, when we pulled out of Vietnam and brought McCain and the POW’s home, South Vietnamese had every provincial capital in their hands.  The enemy was whipped.  It wasn’t until two and a half years later when the North Vietnamese sent their entire army down there, when General Giap himself said the Americans forced the South to fight a poor man’s war, that we lost the war.

MATTHEWS:  Last point, we’ll come back with all you three gentlemen, David Gergen we’ll be back with you, Pat Buchanan and Mayor Brown.  We’ll we back in a moment.  You’re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  We’re back with former White House adviser David Gergen, MSNBC political analyst Pat Buchanan and former mayor of San Francisco, Willie Brown. 

Gentlemen, the president talked about the future in a rather dispiriting way today.  In two regards, he said that it will take a future president perhaps to decide when to remove American troops from that country in Iraq.

And, it will take a future president, he implied, to reduce the deficit substantially, because he said we’ll only cut it in half by 2009, if he gets his way, which is always difficult for a president to do.

Mayor Brown, it seems like he’s passing the buck to future presidents on the most critical decisions of his administration, how to get out of Iraq and how to cut this huge federal deficit.

BROWN:  And that’s because he has no way to convince us that he has a plan and a program to lead us out of each one of those nightmares.  Not Bush, not Cheney, not Rumsfeld.  Neither of those people are believed.

There’s no credibility that can be placed in anything that they say, and that’s why it becomes even more important for the American press to deliver the message.

And then finally, George Bush has taken the surplus left by the Clinton administration, absolutely wiped it out, created a problem vis-à-vis the deficit, that probably will be only resolved by the future president who will replace George Bush.

In those cases, he’s telling the absolute truth, and that is why America ought to begin through its congressional representatives to influence the course of action to exit Iraq as well as the deficit.

MATTHEWS:  OK, David, quickly, I’m sorry, Mr. Mayor.  David, quickly, why did he make those admissions today in the press conference?

GERGEN:  Don’t know, but Pat is going to advance the novel theory that we won in Vietnam, maybe he’ll just declare he won in Iraq.  But I think the president has got an obligation to get this resolved on his budget in Iraq, and I think he’s got an obligation to meet his promise to cut the deficit in half by the time he leaves office.

MATTHEWS:  Pat?

BUCHANAN:  I think the president is going to draw down troops in Iraq. 

Chris, I think with regard to the deficit, I think we’re not going to solve that problem.  When the baby boomers hit 65, that’s the end of the game.

MATTHEWS:  OK, thank you gentlemen, what a great discussion.  Thank you David Gergen, Pat Buchanan, Mayor Willie Brown.

When we return, Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, she thinks the president needs to change course in Iraq and dump Rumsfeld.  That will be exciting.  She’s coming here right away.  You’re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(MARKET REPORT)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL, coming to you tonight from San Francisco. 

Today, President Bush gave his second press conference of the year, defending his administration’s policies on Iraq.  The president is under a lot of criticism from Americans and even fellow Republicans for his decision on Iraq, but a lot of people are asking just where are the Democrats on the war? 

Yesterday, one of the most prominent Democrats in the United States Senate came forward, called for President Bush to cut troop levels and fire Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.  That Democratic senator is Dianne Feinstein of California. 

Senator Feinstein, will removing Rumsfeld remove the problem of where we’re headed over there, if anywhere, in Iraq? 

SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN (D), CALIFORNIA:  I think it’s a start.  I think it’s an admission that there has to be more flexibility.  I think it’s an admission that where we are now, we can’t win it militarily, we’ve got to win it politically. 

And that means getting an Iraqi government, a president, a prime minister, a speaker, a ministry stood up and functioning, infrastructure working, people with electricity and water and sewage and safety on the streets, and doing something about the insurrection, which is the major problem today. 

Over 1,000 people have been killed since the bombing of the Golden Temple, and I’ve really come to believe that, you know, although Mr.  Rumsfeld is a strong leader, he is a stubborn leader and he doesn’t really admit mistakes.  He doesn’t show much flexibility.  He doesn’t listen to many others.  He seems to really know what he wants to do and he’s going to do it no matter what the cost. 

Well, the cost is now substantial.  So my view is, you need a different team, you need a different strategy.  The president should be forthcoming, and share this strategy with the American people. 

And you need to say to Iraqis, you need to affect reconciliation between Shia and Sunni.  Absent that, there is no united Iraq and absent that, the United States is not going to stay there. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me read you something the secretary of defense said yesterday.  Donald Rumsfeld wrote in Sunday’s “Washington Post,” quote, “turning our backs on postwar Iraq today would be the modern equivalent of handing postwar Germany back to the Nazis.  It would be as great a disgrace as if we had asked the liberated nations of Eastern Europe to return to Soviet domination because it was too hard or too tough or we didn’t have the patience to work with them has they built free countries.” 

What do you think of that comparison to both the Cold War, and before that to postwar Germany? 

FEINSTEIN:  Well, I think it’s nonsense basically.  I think this.  As it turned out, intelligence flawed, wrong, bad, this was not a war to rid a regime of weapons of mass destruction.  This was a war of regime change, to take down a regime. 

That regime was taken down now.  And I think it’s up to the Iraqi government.  Nobody is talking about putting Saddamists back in power.  We’re talking about having an Iraqi government—first of all, get the leaders up.  It’s three months after an election.  You still don’t have a prime minister, you don’t have a speaker, you don’t have a president, and get that done.

And then begin—I think we need to downsize our troop presence.  I think we need to change the mission from high prominence to low prominence logistics and training.  I think there are other areas in this war on terror—it’s not going to end, we know it’s going to be with us—that really need attention before terrorists get an extraordinary foothold once again, in Afghanistan, on the Horn of Africa, and in Southeast Asia.

So you know, what is—I guess concerning to me is the absence of flexibility.  Everything is “stay the course.”  If the course isn’t working, we still stay it.  It’s wrong. 

MATTHEWS:  Do you think Secretary Rumsfeld and Cheney to some extent, the vice president, are trapped in a kind of a World War II, Cold War mentality?  They think they are fighting the Nazis.

They think they are trying to liberate Eastern Europe where the people were so glad to throw off the Soviet yolk, they didn’t need any U.S.  troops, and they certainly didn’t need any troops to help them form democracies.  They were crazy to do it.  Do you think they’re trapped in the past, these guys like Rumsfeld? 

FEINSTEIN:  Yes, I think so.  I think this is a huge learning experience about the doctrine of preemption and regime change.  I think fighting a state to state war with armies that are regulated and controlled is one thing. 

I think fighting a war in the shadowy world of insurgency or call it terror, whatever you want to do, where you stop a bus and you pull 45 people off that bus, and you shoot them in the head, that’s a very difficult thing to do with a regulation military. 

And clearly we haven’t been able to really quell this insurgency.  You’re now seeing many assassinations, you’re seeing bombings with far more explosive power, and you’re seeing a restriction on mobility in Iraq that seems to grow with every month.  Clearly, it isn’t safe. 

MATTHEWS:  Is the real war over there now—right now as we speak, March 2006 -- between the Sunni and the Shia, or is it a battle between the United States and the terrorists of the kind that attacked us 9/11? 

FEINSTEIN:  Well, what concerns me is, we become the excuse.  That’s what bothers me.  You know, I said this before, but when Muqtada al-Sadr went to Basra and said you’ve got to cut the head off the snake and the snake is America, and we were responsible for bombing the Golden Mosque—

I mean, that is so bizarre, but it is a symptom of the kind of thinking that really uses the American presence to foment a lot of the trouble. 

If you remove the high profile American presence, you remove the ability to foment the trouble based on America’s back.  And I think the time has come to do that.  Then the government has to face up to what was a very mistaken policy in my view, and that’s standing down the entire Iraqi army and police department, and very heavy de-Baathification, which left critical industries without the supervision and ability to start and control and deliver power, water, sewage, oil, whatever it is. 

MATTHEWS:  Can you—I’m sorry, we only have a little time.  I’m so impressed by the nuance of all of that.  I’m just wondering, do you think the Democratic party could put together a clear-cut position, not something to the far right, not like Lieberman who supports the war and not like Murtha who opposes the war and says gets out quickly, but something in the middle.  Why doesn’t your party speak clearly from the center of the Democratic party where you seem to be? 

FEINSTEIN:  Well, that’s a good question.  I can’t explain this.  I mean, nobody wants to see the United States turn tail and run.  What we do want to see is a strategy, is a plan, is flexibility, is the ability to say the solutions are now political.  They aren’t military. 

If the solutions were military, we would have done it, no question about that.  But we’re in an entirely different dynamic now.  And I think we buffer and prevent a real solution and we’re on the verge of civil war.  I mean, the president was beginning to define this morning, I heard him, civil war.  Well, it’s right there now. 

It isn’t necessarily the dissolution of the military, maybe that determines civil war for some people.  But I think the absolute absence of any security in major portions of the country, a policy of assassination between Shia and Sunni and back and forth, greatly increased explosive devices being used many of them a day.  Just since the Golden Mosque, a thousand people killed, that’s a lot of people killed in a very short period of time. 

MATTHEWS:  Thank you very much, Senator Dianne Feinstein of California.  Up next, will the Bush administration’s P.R. strategy on Iraq help turn the president’s poll numbers around.  This is HARDBALL only on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  Stephen Hayes, senior writer with “The Weekly Standard,” he’s reported extensively on the Iraq war and Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg columnist.  Margaret, you first.  What did you make of the real news that the president made today when he said the decision on removing U.S. troops from Iraq will have to be made by a future president? 

MARGARET CARLSON, BLOOMBERG COLUMNIST:  For the optimist that Bush always is about this war, that was quite an admission.  His attitude during the press conference was oddly upbeat I thought, and at times, you know, the towel snapping that you mentioned earlier, but a little bit off key for something so serious, which is the third anniversary of a war that was supposed to end two years ago. 

MATTHEWS:  Is that the right mood for a president to exhibit, Steven Hayes?  I would say jocular mixed with serenity mixed with resolve.

STEPHEN HAYES, “THE WEEKLY STANDARD”:  Well, look, I mean he’s sort of dammed if he does, dammed if he doesn’t.  You know, one could make the argument that sometimes his forceful answer, and I thought he gave a particularly forceful answer to Helen Thomas, a very compelling answer and then mixed it had up with joking right after that may have been a little disjointed, but he’s going to be criticized for however he acts. 

If he hadn’t done any of the joking, people would have said he’s too somber, he’s in a bad mood, what does he know about Iraq, what’s happening if Iran, so we can overanalyze that a bit. 

MATTHEWS:  Does he really believe there was never an attempt by this administration to connect 9/11 with Iraq.  Margaret, does he believe that’s just part of politics, you know, you play the hand when you’ve got it, if you don’t have the hand, you bluff? 

CARLSON:  If you could just get him and put the quotes up beside him in which he and the vice president have said it numerous times, especially the vice president.  In David Shuster’s lead in to the program, they were all there.  Of course he made the connection and the American people made the connection, and they made it so solidly that people still think that there’s some, you know, some segment of the American population still believes there’s a connection between 9/11 and al Qaeda and al Qaeda in Iraq. 

MATTHEWS:  In fact, further than that, Margaret, there were polls taken after 9/11, on the way to Iraq, Stephen, you picked up on it, that showed the American people believed, were led to believe, that those were Iraqis that killed us, all our people on 9/11. 

HAYES:  Look, as far as I know, the president or the administration has one time made any suggestion of a connection between Iraq and 9/11, any explicit connection.  That was in a letter they sent to Congress shortly before the war.  Actually President Bush was asked about this before the war by “Newsweek” magazine, are you saying that...

MATTHEWS:  Were you watching the program, Stephen, tonight?  Just on this program tonight, we showed pictures of a high administration official actually saying that there was a meting in Prague between an intelligence officer of Saddam Hussein’s administration and Mohammed Atta, who led the attack on 9-11.  Clear-cut, right-in-our-face statement these are connected. 

HAYES:  Well, look, I did not see that, but it was certainly said by the administration, but it was also being said—Vice President Cheney made some comments to that effect in December of 2001, I believe, on “Meet the Press” with Tim Russert.

MATTHEWS:  That’s what I’m talking about.  That’s what I’m talking about.  We showed a scene tonight.

HAYES:  Chris, you have to go look, then, look at the context.  At the same time “The New York Times” had a front page piece—I believe it was a front page piece—in which it quoted several senior intelligence officials saying that the meeting had taken place, but you know, whether it was meaningful or not, we just don’t know.  So I mean, you have to look at these in context at the time that they were stated. 

But I still do not believe the administration ever said Saddam Hussein was responsible for 9/11, and the one time that the president was asked about it, he expressly disavowed that claim, and that was before the war. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, all I know is that the American people came to believe, because of the leadership of this country, it was so clear—the country western music, the whole culture said going to Iraq was payback.  Remember how you felt?  All that culture was to sell us.  We had to get even with the people who attacked us. 

Today, let’s go to today.  The president still refers to our enemy as they.  Anybody out there on the other side who is an Arab, who doesn’t like us, whether people defending their country against us or they’re out-and-out killers like the 9/11 gang, the al Qaeda crowd, he throws them all into one big category, terrorists.  If they’re on the other side from us—

Stephen, you know how he does this.  It’s one big umbrella of the other side, and he uses it in a fungible manner—they, terrorists, all the time. 

HAYES:  Look, Chris, everybody does that.  I mean, look at Hillary Clinton’s October 2002 speech on the Senate floor.  Seh talks about Iraq and al Qaeda several times in the same sentence, in the same paragraph.  Jay Rockefeller did it a number of times. 

MATTHEWS:  Why do they do it? 

HAYES:  Because look, this is a very simple point, I think.  After 9/11, the threshold for what was an acceptable level of threat changed and changed dramatically. 

MATTHEWS:  OK.  I think they’re still doing it in Iraq.  We’re fighting in a civil war over there.  We are trying to play referee.  The Sunni Iraqis are shooting at the Shia Iraqis, and we’re calling people that are shooting while we’re watching terrorists.  When we’re not watching, I don’t know what we call them. 

Anyway, it is disconcerting that we can’t get the language straight about who we’re risking our lives for and giving our lives for.  Are we shooting outside agitators?  Are we shooting Zarqawi people from outside Iraq, from Jordan and other places like that, or are we fighting simply Sunnis who are fighting from a minority position against the superior number of Shias who we’re going to give the country to?  It’s a totally different moral predicament, I would argue.  Don’t you agree, Stephen?  (INAUDIBLE) shooting people defending their country against another element in their country?

HAYES:  Sure, I do.  I do.  I mean, on the one hand, we’re talking about the case that was made for war in 2002-2003, and to a certain extent, the war has changed.  I mean, it’s evolved. 

MATTHEWS:  I agree.  It sure has. 

HAYES:  There is much more sectarian fighting.

MATTHEWS:  I agree completely.  Margaret, your thoughts, are these different people? 

CARLSON:  Chris, Bush calls it the center of the war on terror.  It’s really the center of a war of sectarian violence at the moment.  We don’t know who’s who.  Who are the insurgents, which Sunnis in the Iraqi forces are shooting Shiites within the same Iraqi forces, or police department.  It’s all mixed.  And we’re in the middle. 

What’s happened is that the president hasn’t acknowledged the change.  He’s still fighting the war of 9/11, and we’re in an entirely different war, and he’s going to have to confront that if we’re going to find a way to win or get out, whichever way it’s going to be. 

MATTHEWS:  I think the truth will set us free.  Anyway, thank you very much, Stephen Hayes of “The Weekly Standard,” Margaret Carlson of Bloomberg.  More HARDBALL after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  Gavin Newsom is the Democratic mayor of San Francisco.  He sent shockwaves through the country in 2004 when he defied California law and granted marriage licenses to gay couples.

Mr. Mayor, how do you feel about all this?  The president brought your name up today at the press conference. 

MAYOR GAVIN NEWSOM (D), SAN FRANCISCO:  Yeah, I know.  Hey, I stand by what we did.  I’m proud of it.  No regrets.  And you see what’s happened around the world, Chris.  It’s remarkable.  Who would have thought Spain, England, obviously Canada, and increasingly I think more people recognizing the humanity of equality, and so I’m very proud of what we did. 

MATTHEWS:  We were down in Memphis covering that Republican get-together, Southern Republican Leadership Conference, and the conservatives—I hope you know what’s coming—the conservatives down there are competing to see who’s tougher.  I mean, Mitt Romney is a very intelligent, well educated guy.  He’s saying every child deserves a male and a female parent.  And then to one-up him, Brownback of Kansas comes out and says, every kid is entitled to one male parent and one female parent, as if there’s a battle over numbers of parents. 

What do you think of this?  That kind of controversy? 

NEWSOM:  No, I mean, it’s just stale rhetoric.  I mean, if it’s a world they want to live in where they can get ahead and they feel good about themselves because they’ve gotten in a position by stamping on the backs of other people, that’s not the kind of world we’re trying to build out here. 

You know, it’s a remarkable place, San Francisco, where people are living together across every conceivable difference, and prospering together.  I think we’re an example to others, and I hope people recognize that we’re better off focusing on what’s right as opposed to what’s wrong and try to divide people in order to get a political edge. 

MATTHEWS:  Do you think “Brokeback Mountain” helps? 

NEWSOM:  I don’t know.  I think it did.  I think, again, it just raises a consciousness that it’s about human beings at the end of the day.  It’s about dignity of life in every respect. 

And you know, I think the president gets it.  I mean, he was bold enough to acknowledge civil unions.  And if he can be bold enough to acknowledge a relationship between same-sex couples, I hope one day he’s bold enough to fight for equality, which means treating people equally and fairly based on constitutional protections. 

MATTHEWS:  Do you think your party will stand up for what you just said? 

NEWSOM:  I don’t know.  I mean, I think, you know, a lot of pragmatic people, they want nothing to do with the kind of rhetoric that comes out of my mouth.  At the end of the day, I have got to sleep at night knowing that my conscience is fulfilled.  I cannot stand, Chris, politicians, especially my party, that say one thing privately and another publicly.  I think people will stand for people that they believe in, based on integrity, even when they disagree with the issue.

MATTHEWS:  Well said.  Thank you very much, Gavin Newsom, mayor of San Francisco.

Join us again tomorrow night at 5:00 and 7:00 Eastern for more HARDBALL.  Right now, it’s time for “THE ABRAMS REPORT” with Dan.

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