Guests: Leon Panetta, George Packer, David Ignatius, Ed Rogers, Steve McMahon, Kenny Guinn
CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST, "HARDBALL": First, they predicted a cake walk. Then they said we’d be greeted like liberators. Then it was mission accomplished. Then, the insurgency was in its last throes. Not the president says it’s the next president’s problem. Let’s play HARDBALL.
Good evening, I’m Chris Matthews. Welcome to HARDBALL. President Bush with the polls for him and the conflict called Bush’s war rapidly deteriorating, suggested Tuesday the American troops will likely remain in Iraq after he leaves office, leaving the burden of getting U.S. soldiers out of Iraq to quote, “future presidents.”
This raise the stakes for the midterm elections where Republican candidates were counting on with a withdrawal of at least some troops by the end of this year. And how will this affect the 2008 presidential race? Will Americans look to an anti-war candidate who calls for pullout by then or will voters take a look at a hawk like senator John McCain who vows to fight to the finish? Will the winner of the 2008 presidential race inherit a nation at war and be responsible for two countries, America and Iraq?
Today President Bush spent his fifth straight day pumping for Iraq in an all-out effort to build up support for the war with a town hall meeting with military families in West Virginia.
President Bush is admitting his presidency is on the line, pushing hard to build support for the war and sway public opinion. But are Americans still paying him heed? Later we’ll talk to the Nevada governor who just returned from Iraq, but we begin with the president and this report from HARDBALL’s David Shuster.
DAVID SHUSTER, HARDBALL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): A day after acknowledging that U.S. troops will be staying in Iraq for at least three more years, President Bush spoke to military families in West Virginia and highlighted the importance of the war.
GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I strongly believe that by promoting liberty, we’re not only protecting ourselves, but we’re laying the foundation of peace for a generation to come.
SHUSTER: The large sign saying “Plan for Victory” are part of the latest White House marketing effort. Administration officials believe that in order for an increasingly anxious public to accept that Iraq is getting safer for democracy, the public must first believe...
BUSH: ... We have a strategy for victory in Iraq.
SHUSTER: Having a strategy though does not mean it is capable of making Iraq a stable, far less dangerous country for people living in Iraq, the region and the world. But that’s not part of the president’s message.
BUSH: I can’t ask this good Marine to go into harm’s way if I didn’t believe, one, we’re going to succeed, and two, it’s necessary for the security of the United States.
SHUSTER: The latest polls show that military veterans and families like the rest of the country are losing confidence in the president’s handling of Iraq.
Many critics point to the contradictions between the president’s depiction of the war and what has been said by U.S. military commanders. Just last week, for example, President Bush spoke about the intentions of most Iraqis and argued that many of the IED’s targeting U.S. troops are the result of outsiders.
BUSH: Some of the most powerful IED’s we are seeing in Iraq today includes components that came from Iran.
SHUSTER: But at the Pentagon...
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Do you have proof that they are indeed behind this, the government of Iran?
GEN. PETER PACE, CHAIRMAN, JOINT CHIEFS OF STAFF: I do not, sir.
SHUSTER: Today in West Virginia, unlike the last three presidential events focused on Iraq, all of the questions were supportive of the president.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Again, I thank God you’re our commander-in-chief.
SHUSTER: While the president in his press conference on Tuesday accused the media of giving a distorted picture on Iraq, today he did not have to say a word, because it was the theme articulated by his audience.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It seems that our major media networks don’t want to portray the good. They just want to focus....
SHUSTER: .... After the wild applause died down, the president passed on the opportunity to hammer the mainstream media, though he encouraged the audience to look for the truth from alternatives.
BUSH: There’s word of mouth, there’s blog, there’s Internet, there’s all kinds of ways to communicate which is literally changing the way people are getting their information.
SHUSTER: Still in an acknowledgement today that the information out of Iraq across the spectrum has left the American people growing weary, the president stated he will be increasing the pressure on Iraq’s political leaders.
BUSH: I spoke to our ambassador today and General Casey via video conferencing. And we talked about the need to make it clear to the Iraqis. It’s time to get a government in place that can start leading this nation and listening to the will of the people.
SHUSTER: It’s the people in this country however who are losing patience and so even though President Bush has said that U.S. forces will be staying if Iraq for years to come, the White House is now throwing around the word victory, even as its newly-admitted timetable has it receding further and further into a future that is uncertain. I’m David Shuster for HARDBALL in Washington.
MATTHEWS: Thank you, David Shuster. Joining me now is MSNBC political analyst Pat Buchanan and former chief-of-staff for President Clinton, Leon Panetta, who is also a member of the Iraq Study Group.
Let’s go to Pat, both of you with the same question. Let’s take up the tagline there of the piece by David, the dichotomy, the distinction, the contradiction perhaps, between the talk of victory and all the big signage up there that’s paid for by U.S. taxpayers: plan for victory, victory, victory. And the president’s very quiet admission the other day in his press conference that we’re talking about a war that is going to continue into future presidencies. Pat?
PAT BUCHANAN, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: I don’t think you ought to take that statement really as a definitive statement. What Bush is saying is to the enemy there. He’s saying if you’re going to break me and I’m going to pull out, you’re wrong. The troops are going to be there fighting if they have to be, until I leave this office.
Now that may not be a good political message to send to Republicans and others, but it is certainly, Chris, a necessary message to send to the enemy. As you said last night or as we talked, the only way the enemy can defeat the United States—it’s not going to defeat our guys in the field is to defeat our will at home to where Americans say enough, we paid enough, let’s get out.
MATTHEWS: Who is the enemy here?
BUCHANAN: The enemy is al-Zarqawi’s group and the enemy is quite frankly the folks who want...
MATTHEWS: ... Why do you say that Pat, because I just talked to a general, Barry McCaffrey, who just told me that that’s only a couple thousand people in that country, the outside—that’s the outside terrorist. We are fighting Sunnis who don’t want the Shia to take over. Why do we keep saying terrorists, why do we keep saying outsiders?
BUCHANAN: You didn’t let me finish. We are fighting al-Zarqawi and the terrorists who are probably 10 percent of it. You’re fighting Sunni insurgents, Saddamists and others who would like to overthrow this regime. You have a whole effort there. That’s why Bush...
MATTHEWS: ... How do you defeat people who are going to live in the country? If we stay 500 more years, they’ll still there be the 501st year. Why do you say we’re going to defeat people who are going to always be in that country?
BUCHANAN: Here’s how you defeat them. First I agree that we ought to talk to the Sunnis, insurgents, you can talk to—carve out the al Qaeda types, some of whom are being killed. Put together a government where the Sunnis can say, “Look, you guys aren’t going to run the country, but you can be a part of it,” and then hope the government and the military rebuilt can handle it and pull out.
MATTHEWS: Who says we can do that?
BUCHANAN: I don’t know for sure that we can.
MATTHEWS: Well why are you saying we can?
BUCHANAN: Well look, why do you say we’re automatically failed?
You’re too negative.
MATTHEWS: No, no, I want to talk about the situation we know is a fact, Pat. We know as a fact that country’s divided between about 20 percent who are Kurds, about 20 percent who are Sunni and about 60 percent are Shia.
In any Democratic process you put together, the Shia are going to run the show. Sure they’re allowed to have junior partners to let those people have a piece of the action, but they’re going to be a minority group, a small minority.
Now here’s the question. Who are we to say that that minority group, the Sunnis, shouldn’t rebel against such a system? Suppose they don’t want to be ruled by Shia. Who are we to say they shouldn’t try to rebel against the majority of the people?
BUCHANAN: I don’t think we should have gone in. If that was the objective, I agree with you, but there is this possibility. You’ve got the Kurds and the Shia, who are probably 80, 85 percent of the country. You’ve got Sunni there that don’t want to die forever for nothing, and so there is a possibility.
MATTHEWS: OK, I’m just asking you a simple moral question. The United States government represents the sovereignty of this nation. It is our country. We can tell the people in this country under a system of government and democracy and a Republican form of government, what to do. What right have we got to go in another country and tell those other people what to do.
BUCHANAN: We have no right.
MATTHEWS: That’s what I’m wondering about.
BUCHANAN: Well Bush says we went in for WMD, we went in to do this, we went in to do that. I don’t believe we can march into a country, overthrow a dictator and set up a government of our liking. I don’t believe in Democratic imperialism.
MATTHEWS: Well then maybe a lot of people listening now agree with that because most of the people in the country say that now.
BUCHANAN: They do, that’s why I didn’t want to go in.
MATTHEWS: But I’m trying to get to the facts now. Again the other day and today, the president said we chased those terrorists into that country. We had to get—the terrorists have taken advantage of the divisions within that country since we went in.
BUCHANAN: The terrorists have come in. It’s been a magnet for them.
It’s become a base camp for terror, that it was not before we invaded.
MATTHEWS: Let me bring in Leon, for another point of view. Leon, thanks for joining us. Give us another point of view, when it seems to me that a lot of this is becoming pretty clear to the American people.
There’s a difference between chasing terrorists around the world, which we all agree we should do. In fact, the world believes we should be doing. And going into a country to bring down a government and then continue in that government, in that country, to try to build the government of our liking, a Democratic government where the majority rules. But in this case, the majority simply means one faction overrules the other faction. The faction that’s being overruled is fighting the majority faction. What’s our role then?
LEON PANETTA, FORMER CLINTON CHIEF OF STAFF: Well, you know...
MATTHEWS: ... You’re laughing, but it’s a conundrum.
PANETTA: Well, you pointed out the main problem. You know, I think the president has a very tough sell here. I think, you know, he can give 100 speeches, he can do 100 press conferences, but the problem is the American people just simply don’t believe it anymore. You’ve got a contradiction between the words of the president, the progress that’s being made. And everything else that’s coming out of Iraq indicates that there are real problems there.
Until—you know, words aren’t going to solve this problem anymore. Until you actually see changes on the ground there, until you see a unity government, until you see greater security, until you see the security forces deployed, until you see our troops being slowly withdrawn, I don’t think the public is ever going to support this war.
MATTHEWS: Well, let me ask you a question. You’re a moral guy. Obviously. How do you give the orders to a young American service person, your job is to make sure that the Shia run the show over there and that the Sunnis buckle under and take their minority role, and that’s your job, to risk your life, maybe lose your life for that purpose.
Pat has made it clear, he doesn’t believe in nation building. That is nation building. That’s saying we think there should be a certain kind of country here where majority rules, minority takes orders and maybe gets a piece of the action. And if they don’t accept their little minority piece of the action and start to fight the majority, we take the side of the majority and start shooting to kill them. Is that a moral right of America to be doing that?
PANETTA: Chris, I mean, you’ve obviously defined the key dilemma that’s going on over there, and it’s one of the problems, obviously, you know, before we invaded, we should have been aware of the fact that we would run smack in to that problem.
The real question now is that we’re stuck there. We’ve got our troops there. We’ve made a commitment there. And the real question now is can we go to work and produce the kind of unity government that at least can create a situation where we can begin to pull out. If this president is going to really do it, you know, it isn’t about press conferences, it isn’t about speeches, he’s got to get his people there to work on getting this unity government put together, and they’re going to have to bend arms, they’re going to have to twist people’s views, but they’re going to have to put a unity government in place. If they don’t do that, we’re not going to win this war.
MATTHEWS: Pat, six months from now, a year from now. Are we better off for staying there over time. I know there’s an American sense of stick with it, stick it to them, but the longer we stay there, there’s an assumption that’s more courageous in sticking there a longer time, but isn’t it possible the longer we stay there, the more Arabs we kill, the more he hatred we stir up around the world, we’re actually losing ground in this battle against terrorism?
BUCHANAN: That is certainly possible. It is also possible, Chris, that it may just work. And it may not work. It may collapse into civil war and religious war, in which case it will have been a waste of guys staying in there. But my answer on this one is I don’t know the answer.
And there are military guys over there fighting and dying that say don’t take us out of this game, we can still do it. So I don’t feel confident, you and me sitting here to say get out, it’s all over. That’s what the president has got going for him.
MATTHEWS: Aren’t we better off—aren’t we better on clarity, stop confusing terms like terrorist and insurgent. Say we’re fighting insurgents. They don’t want the majority to rule over there, they’re insurgents. Terrorists are people who come in from the outside, who hate the world and want to get us. Right.
Why does the president continue to put those words together, calling them “them,” calling them “the terrorists?” It doesn’t help us understand the situation. A terrorist isn’t anybody that’s shooting at us. It’s a person who is shooting at civilian populations, to destroy the will of another side. That’s a terrorist.
BUCHANAN: I agree with you and I don’t agree that they’re all terrorists. I think some are insurgents, some are anti-Americans, some are nationalists, some are Saddamists. but I do think the president is correct, there is a possibility, Chris, we don’t know for sure this is going under. That’s why he wants time and who are we to say no.
I think we’ll know by November whether this thing is doable. If this
government collapses and it doesn’t come together and there’s a civil war -
MATTHEWS: I don’t think anybody that’s watching now is going to make a decision to pull our troops out in six months. I don’t think that’s on the table. That was the Murtha proposal that got what, 18 votes?
BUCHANAN: You have a good point. The Democrats do not have any proposal on the table other than negativity.
MATTHEWS: Leon, I’m sorry we pushed you aside in this little fight here, but thank you. Please come back. We just—I just got nailed on the time clock here. Thank you sir and Pat Buchanan as always.
What’s it like on the ground in Iraq and what will it take to win this war? We’ll be joined by a Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, who has been over there, and George Packer, the author of “The Assassin’s Gate:
America in Iraq.”
You’re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BUSH: And I fully understand there’s deep concern among the American people about whether or not we can win. And I understand why people are concerned. And they’re concerned because the enemy has got the capacity to affect our thinking.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL. That was President Bush today acknowledging the growing public concern over the war in Iraq. Is the president’s P.R. marketing offensive having any sway with skeptical Americans right now and does the situation, the actual reality over there in Iraq, reflect what he’s been saying.
Washington Post columnist David Ignatius visited Iraq just last week and George Packer of “The New Yorker” magazine went to Iraq six weeks ago and is now writing an article about the operations in Tal Afar, which the president has recently cited as a big success over there. By the way, George is also the author of a great book, “The Assassin’s Gate: America in Iraq.”
I really respect you guys. I want you to first of all tell us what it’s like over there in the streets for a person that looks like an American, who clearly could be a target. What is it like to walk around over there, David?
DAVID IGNATIUS, WASHINGTON POST COLUMNIST: I have to be honest, I walked around with U.S. military escorts. I was outside of Baghdad in two different places, but the experience of our correspondents every day walking around on their own, I didn’t have.
MATTHEWS: Does anyone go out on their own and sneak around.
IGNATIUS: No, we have armed guards with our people basically all the time.
MATTHEWS: So you can’t go door to door like our political reporter asking people how they feel?
IGNATIUS: Typically now we’re asking our Iraqi staff to do that. They are very brave, they are going out every day and asking those questions. Our reporters do it whenever they can, but it’s awfully dangerous.
MATTHEWS: So you’re embedded?
IGNATIUS: We’re embedded or in our house or going back and forth.
MATTHEWS: Let me ask you, George, your experience when you’ve been over there, what’s it like, because there’s a lot of dispute about whether journalists—I am so impressed by the guts of journalists, we’ve lost 80 people over there so far, journalists around the world who have been killed there so far. What’s it like for you in your experience, your ability to get and connect with people over there?
GEORGE PACKER, THE NEW YORKER: It’s very difficult. In the first year of the war, I could talk to anyone and go pretty much anywhere. This past January when I was in Baghdad, I had to sneak around in an inconspicuous car with another inconspicuous car behind me. They would check the street when we stopped. I would go in to the interview, my driver would stay outside and make sure no one had cased us.
You’re the target, you feel hunted. It’s a pretty frightening experience. Journalists still go out every day to try to get stories and they are doing it at really unreasonable risk to themselves. More journalists have died in Iraq than in the entire Vietnam war. It’s an unprecedented situation for the press.
MATTHEWS: It’s always said by men who have been in combat that it’s very hard for a captain, even, to know what’s going on in the war, that you only see your piece of it. You’re in the Battle of the Bulge, you may know where the hot spot is because you’re right where it’s at, but most of the time, you’re doing your outfit’s duty. You can’t tell how the war is raging.
How—is there anybody over in Iraq right now who can tell us whether we’re winning, meaning stabilizing the situation so that a new government with its new army can run the place?
IGNATIUS: You know, I think the word winning is the wrong word. I found on this trip—and, again, I had several snapshots, I was escorted the whole time, I cannot vouch for this as objective reality—but I saw improvement in a couple of areas from the last time I was there.
This was the 12th trip I’ve made to Iraq since the war began. Politically, I thought Iraqis were beginning to come together more towards some kind of a unity government. I don’t know if they’ll make it but they’re trying. Militarily ...
MATTHEWS: And these were in the villages you saw?
IGNATIUS: No. No, well, I’m talking now in Baghdad among the senior leadership. I found and Shiites and Sunnis were ...
MATTHEWS: So you’re saying there’s some progress.
IGNATIUS: ... you know, I’d go into see Ahmad Chalabi, Shiite leaders have been playing around with Muqtada al-Sadr and Jaafari and sitting with him was the leader—one of the leaders of Tuafaq (ph), which is the biggest Sunni group.
MATTHEWS: OK, what good is happening? Explain it in your words.
IGNATIUS: Well, what’s happening is that, you know, Iraqis really did look into the abyss after this Samarra mosque was blown up. They all felt in their gut we’re about to head into civil war, and in that moment, I think they began to come together a little more.
Khalilzad has done a wonderful job of trying to push these guys toward agreement. So you do find Sunnis and Shias now beginning to say, OK, we’ll accept a very broad unity government.
Militarily—I’m sure George will want to talk about this too, but militarily, I did see some differences. The Iraqi army, which has been in many ways kind of a joke, is finally beginning to come together.
MATTHEWS: Will they stand and fight?
IGNATIUS: They did stand. More important than fighting, they stood and calmed the situation down after February 22nd, the Samarra mosque blowing up, that, you know, the Shia ...
MATTHEWS: Do they look like soldiers?
IGNATIUS: They do finally look like soldiers, they train like them, they march like them. They just look different to me than they have before.
MATTHEWS: George, your review, just a sense, because the words like progress are used, and Americans sitting at home with their TV sets trying to figure out a war with their newspaper and their TV—that’s all they’ve really got. What do you see having been over there in terms of this coming together of a political reality that the majority Sunni, who outnumber the Shia—or the majority Shia who outnumber the Sunni three to one, actually forming a government?
PACKER: You know, one of the really frustrating things is back here people want a sort of once and for all is it working or is it not working. But when you’re there, you’re just surrounded by a kaleidoscopic picture.
I could go to Tal Afar and see exactly what David Ignatius just described, Iraqi soldiers looking very much like soldiers and working incredibly closely with American soldiers who had gotten to know that city through very patient, long, incremental work.
But then I would go elsewhere and I would feel that the Americans were stuck out on these mega bases, weren’t getting out very much, had no idea what was going on in the cities around them, and essentially were leaving it to the Iraqi forces who were really no match for what was going on in the insurgency.
Politically, in the Green Zone, you do feel that the senior leaders are willing to talk to each other and all understand that it’s all on their shoulders and they have to be willing to compromise, but outside the Green Zone, in the streets, I’m not sure those leaders themselves is understand how violent it is.
There is so much sectarian fear and violence in the neighborhoods and cities around Baghdad where there’s mixed populations. There’s ethnic cleansing going on with populations leaving areas for fear of their lives.
And that’s a long-term trend that is extremely difficult to stop and reverse once it gets started, and that is something that journalists and Iraqi politicians alike have a very hard time getting very close to because it’s too dangerous.
MATTHEWS: George Packer, David Ignatius, stay with us. We’ll be right back. You’re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BUSH: I’ll be making up my mind about the troop levels based upon recommendations of those who are on the ground. I’m going to make up my mind based upon achieving a victory, not based upon polls, focus groups or election year politics.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MATTHEWS: We’re back with “Washington Post” columnist David Ignatius, who’s recently returned from Iraq, and George Packer of the “New Yorker” magazine. He is also author of “The Assassin’s Gate: American in Iraq.”
George, try if you can to get into George Bush’s head right now in terms of the decisions he has to make between now and when he leaves office. He says—and let’s take him at his word and start from there—that he has to decide whether this is going to turn into a civil war over there and we have to basically get out of the way.
As John Warner said—the chairman of the Armed Services Committee in the Senate said yesterday—“get out of the war” in terms of the internecine or the sectarian fighting over there between Shia and Sunni. What is in the president’s head in terms of—or is he just stuck over there and he’s going to fight it to the end no matter what happens?
PACKER: I think he’s stuck. I don’t know if he knows he’s stuck. I think Lyndon Johnson knew he was stuck during Vietnam. I don’t know if George W. Bush knows he’s stuck in Iraq.
I don’t know how much information is really reaching him and how carefully he’s analyzing it and how coldly and realistically he’s appraising it. I think that the word belief comes up over and over in his speeches these days.
I believe we can win. I believe we will have victory and I think what he’s going on now is that absolute conviction that people want freedom, and that therefore Iraqis will be free. But we’re a long, long way from that and, in many ways, we seem to be heading in the wrong direction with the prospect of civil war.
MATTHEWS: But that’s messianic thinking, isn’t it? Isn’t that messianic? I mean, that’s believing that your—that your religious commitment has a truth in itself? I mean, a person can have a wonderful religious belief, they can be completely wrong.
PACKER: I think he’s also ...
MATTHEWS: And we all know that because religion is basically a faith judgment.
PACKER: Well, my theory ...
MATTHEWS: It’s not a scientific or a military—if he has a faith belief in what he’s doing over there, that’s a religious belief and the question then is, will that—does that have any objective relevance to the rest of us?
PACKER: Well, my fear is that he’s surrounded by people who are not giving him the really hard truth. I mean, he has a secretary of defense who is still in office after five years, who really, I think, doesn’t want to be in Iraq and who is doing everything he can to sort of pull back and lower our profile, and really prepare the way for withdrawal.
I there’s a giant gap right now between the administration’s rhetoric of staying the course and what you sort of see in the details, which is a gradual pulling away from this project.
MATTHEWS: George just used the very language the president uses, and I’m trying to be very sympathetic to the president. I’m trying to understand his thinking here. The president of the United States said the other day “the men I’ve surrounded myself with.”
That’s a scary notion. If you think about—he surrounded himself with people who were advising him, meaning he’s in an envelope of people whose opinions he listens to, but there’s no penetration from outside.
IGNATIUS: Well, you know, I think that’s scary. The reality is that he’s constrained by his own military. The military is not going to just sit there, you know, for another three years, you know, carrying out the president’s belief that, you know, he’s bringing democracy and etc., etc. They’re not going to do it. The military is determined to reduce the level of troops.
MATTHEWS: How do they win the argument?
IGNATIUS: They win the argument by pushing and pushing and pushing.
I think the truth is, Chris, the president is, I think in a very foolish way, covering a process of drawing down our troops, getting it in line with what it should be, with what the public wants, reducing our footprint, just reducing the chips on the table and covering it with this rhetoric that always sounds the same.
So even as things are changing on the ground, and I did see that on this trip, the rhetoric sounds exactly the same to people, and I think the president has become a completely ineffective communicator of his policy. I don’t know who is going to speak up for it, whether the military will have to address the country directly, which they would hate to do. He sort of discredited the enterprise he cares so much about.
MATTHEWS: The language has lost its value. Words like “them,” “the evil ones,” “terrorists.”
IGNATIUS: Repetition of terrorist terrorist terrorist.
MATTHEWS: They don’t tell us what’s really happening.
Thank you David Ignatius and George Packer. Good luck with the book. Up next, President Bush continues his campaign to sell the Iraq war three years after it started. Who is he trying to convince at this point? you’re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BUSH: I believe we’re doing the right thing. And we’re not going to retreat in the face of thugs and assassins.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL. President Bush pressed on in West Virginia with his push for the Iraq war three years after it started. The president repeated many points he made in the White House press conference on Tuesday, but this time it was for an enthusiastic crowd that included soldiers and military families.
Can the president convince the American people to get behind him in this fourth year of a war that has cost far more than anyone thought it would? In fact, into the trillions of dollars. Could this war cost the president his Republican majority in Congress? Steve McMahon is a Democratic strategist and Ed Rogers, a Republican strategist and former White House adviser to the first President Bush.
Tell me what you see here, in strictly political terms, what the president is doing now.
ED ROGERS, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: What I hope and what I see is what I call the Bush presidency reality tour. Get out there with the president himself, his credibility has been damaged. He has to engage in a direct debate with the American people about what is realistic, what they can expect, what the goals and objective of all these troops, all this death and all this fighting is about now.
And I’m—I think it’s great that he’s doing it, it’s about time, again, reality, manage expectations, put dates off in the future if that’s where they need to be. Quit denying the obvious. Quit saying things are great when things aren’t great.
MATTHEWS: So you find him to be very candid?
ROGERS: I find it refreshing, candid, direct, consistent.
MATTHEWS: He has made statements that are more truth telling than some of the propaganda before the war. Propaganda is what we always do in war, get people to go out, get the morale up.
STEVE MCMAHON, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: I think Ed is right. The question right now is not whether the president is doing the right thing, because he is, and he’s starting to be relatively candid.
MATTHEWS: You mean campaigning for this thing?
MCMAHON: In being candid about what he believes is at stake and how hard it’s going to be to achieve it. The problem the president has, and the problem the administration has, is that just about everything they’ve said about this war from the beginning has turned out not to be true and so he does have a serious credibility—
MATTHEWS: Is he fixing that problem?
MCMAHON: He’s certainly trying to address that problem. The question now is weather it’s too late. His approval ratings have dropped to a level you have not seen since Richard Nixon. People don’t believe this president, they don’t trust this president, and it’s moved over in to character issues.
MATTHEWS: How can you not trust a man who says I won’t be able to win it war in my presidency, I’m leaving it up to other presidencies. It’s a real prevent defense.
ROGERS: He’s moved the goal post.
MATTHEWS: He said I’m not going to win this in the next three years, boys and girls. You have to live with this. Condi Rice was the first to use a generational struggle.
MCMAHON: What people are going to start to conclude is, OK Mr. President, why did you lie to us and for how long have you known that you were lying to us.
ROGERS: The Democrats are quick to go there because they can’t go anywhere else. They don’t have a plan themselves.
MCMAHON: That’s what the facts would indicate. We were told we’d be liberators, we were told the war would pay for itself. We were told there were weapons of mass destruction. We were told we wouldn’t be pinned down for years and we were told there was an exit strategy. There is an exit strategy, it’s going to be up to the next president.
ROGERS: Those goals haven’t worked out. What’s the reality now? Do the Democrats want to cut and run?
MCMAHON: Well, you know, we can’t cut an run, but we can hold him accountable, we can hold his party accountable and we can hold everybody accountable who has given this guy a blank check to go on and stay the course without a plan for—
MATTHEWS: Let me draw the line here. I think you guys know that the politics of this better than I do, it’s really not a choice of staying there another 10 years, it’s not a choice of staying there another seven or eight years.
What we’re really talking about, isn’t it really a choice between beginning to get out of there within the next year or so and staying three or four? Isn’t that the range we’re talking about here?
ROGERS: How long did we stay in Japan, how long did we stay in Germany?
MATTHEWS: But we weren’t fighting an insurgency in Japan. Once the emperor of Japan said we lost, the people said we lost. The Germans, we didn’t lose anybody after WWII.
ROGERS: And we have a new situation here, so the answer is who knows.
MATTHEWS: We weren’t in Germany to defend Germany from the Germans.
We were in Germany to protect them from the communists.
ROGERS: In 1945 and 1946 that wasn’t necessarily the case. But anyway, the point is essentially the same. We’re there for a long-time commitment that is worthy of the cost and is worth of the American presence there. And so in—and so it’s not going to get better for awhile.
MATTHEWS: What do you think’s the longest we can keep a strong force in that country politically, in this country?
ROGERS: There’s a difference between having a fighting force and being involved in having a bunch of troops on bases like we did in Germany and Japan and other places. The answer is years.
MATTHEWS: By the way, if Hillary runs, God knows what we’ll do. Hillary might say put an extra 100,000 troops in there. McCain says more troops.
ROGERS: I’m afraid somebody is going to suggest that. Politically I’m afraid somebody is going to say, “Mr. President, put in 100,000 more troops and win this. That would be a challenge from a different direction.”
MATTHEWS: But that’s where his position has been, more troops.
ROGERS: Somebody is going to go there.
MCMAHON: Politically we’re going to be there until the Republicans in Congress get sufficiently scared and the American people begin to demand the troops to come home. And frankly I think this is an issue where the American people are ahead of the politicians and the politicians are going to get there pretty quickly.
MATTHEWS: Let’s talk what you guys really know, politics, not war.
None of us are commanders-in-chief, not at this table.
ROGERS: You’re right, thankfully.
MATTHEWS: If you look at the president’s poll number, it’s sort of like this. I’m looking at it here.
ROGERS: It sort of comes down, it’s going down. And every once in awhile, he gives a series of speeches like he did right before the holidays this year, and they were effective. They stopped the drop, he held on for a couple of weeks, then the drop started again.
Now he’s going to give a bunch of speeches, he just gave five in a row. He’ll stop the drop a little bit. But the trend line is relentless. It’s relentless. And speeches aren’t going to stop the trend line because people are counting the months we’re in Iraq and this guy loses altitude every month. How do you stop that?
ROGERS: I worry about the trend line. I think the president needs popular support. He needs popular support in order for it to have effective policies. He needs popular support to give cover from Congress.
If you talk to people in the White House, in the administration about that, they will quickly say there’s another reason the president needs to be out there. The president is the morale officer in chief for the troops in the field. They’ve had a bad several weeks, bad couple of months.
So part of the audience the president has and this White House worries about is do the troops and their families see the resolve from the commander-in-chief what they’re doing there is not pointless.
What they’re doing there is for a noble cause and that they are going to win. So quickly, when you talk to the White House about polls, they’ll come back to you very quickly and say it’s not just about that. It’s about the troops in the field, and their morale.
MATTHEWS: But the difficulty and the horrid danger, we just talked to a couple reporters, of just getting in that country and moving around a little bit, if it’s so dangerous that the president can only go in there for that quick fly at the night time—remember he went in there for Thanksgiving a while back.
And he came in in the middle of the night, and that was scary as hell, he come in in the dark, you know with the phony turkey, but he risked his life to some extent go in there. If it’s that tricky that the commander can’t visit the front, isn’t that a statement of how tricky it is over there?
ROGERS: It is and I wonder about that myself. I go to Iraq, I go to the northern part of Iraq frequently, once every three or four months.
MATTHEWS: But that’s the Kurds.
ROGERS: It is the Kurds.
MATTHEWS: That’s just like going to Northeast Philly.
ROGERS: We have people that go to Baghdad and they function and they do business and they conduct themselves in a quasi-normal way. I think it is overstated. I wish the vice president would go there. I wish business delegations would be sent there.
MCMAHON: I wish the vice president would stay there.
MATTHEWS: Hey, Ed, he could take his rifle with him. He’s not a bad shot.
ROGERS: Hey, if somebody needed to be—shoot him.
MATTHEWS: I do think that people have a sense that it’s really dangerous over there and when you hear people like David Ignatius just now and George Packer, who’ve been over there—and I hear from journalists, you can’t go walking around the streets of Baghdad without an armed guard.
We’ll be right back with Steve McMahon and Ed Rogers, and you can keep up with all the action in the hot political races this year, 2006 and the presidential race coming up fast, check out the biographies of the presidential people who wants to be president and cast your ballots in our virtual Republican straw poll. By the way, the count is own. McCain is still ahead, Giuliani is second, and the illegal immigration opponent congressman, Tom Tancredo of Colorado is in third. Cast your vote on our Web site, HARDBALL.MSNBC.com.
MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL. We’re talking about the president’s public relations offensive on Iraq. It’s a campaign to sell America once again on the prospects for victory over there and the upcoming elections, with Democratic strategist Steve McMahon and Republican strategist Ed Rogers. Steve, the problem for the president is that he’s got November coming at him, this November.
MCMAHON: That’s one problem.
MATTHEWS: And that problem, based upon all the polling, not just NBC’s or anyone else in particular, has him in the mid 30’s. It also has a poll out there that shows that people want to vote for a Democratic candidate for Congress. Are the Democrats going to carry the Congress this November because of this war? It’s not the economy that’s killing them.
MCMAHON: Well it’s not the economy that’s killing them, it’s the war. But on economic issues, Democrats have an advantage as well. So to the extent that it’s an election about economic issues, Democrats have an advantage.
And to the extent that it’s an election about change and going into a different direction, Democrats certainly have an advantage. I think there’s a very good chance that—you know, eight months is a long way away. If the election were held tomorrow, Democrats would both houses. The question is, what happens when the elections are held in November? The president understands that, his political team is very good. He’s out there doing all he can. I mean, I frankly don’t think it’s going to be successful because he’s dug himself such a deep hole. But they’re trying to change.
MATTHEWS: Your assessment of November right now?
ROGERS: It’s almost impossible for the Democrats to win the Senate, when you critique it race by race. They have vulnerabilities, we have vulnerabilities. We have the majority. We’ll win.
In the House it’s going to take a downdraft of meaningful proportions. The historical patterns of what a downdraft looks like are not shaping up right now. Is it possible that just because of the conflict in Iraq that this downdraft could be produced? It’s possible, but it’s unlikely.
The president’s saving grace is the economy and, by all accounts, the economy is going to look real good in the fourth quarter of 2006, and that’s historically what produces a political upheaval.
MATTHEWS: I think it’s going to be three votes either way in the House. I think it’s shaping up to a real nail biter. Thank you. You’re great guests. Up next, Governor Kenny Guinn of Nevada, just back from Iraq. We’ll get a politician’s view of what’s happening over there. He’ll tell you what he saw in Iraq.
And today on MSNBC.com, Mike Stucky reports on one area the congress likely won’t touch as it works to tighten lobbying rules: the revolving door allowing lawmakers to slide from regulation to representation. It’s on your Web site, MSNBC.com. This is HARDBALL only on MSNBC.
MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL. Nevada Governor Kenny Guinn just got back from Iraq, Afghanistan and Kuwait where he toured the area and talked with troops, including his own National Guards people from Nevada. He is here to give as you picture of what he saw on the ground. Thank you, sir. If you would just give, pretend we’re all your relatives at home here in Nevada and tell us what you saw.
GOV. KENNY GUINN ®, NEVADA: Chris, first of all, let me say it will be an experience I will never forget. And I wish so many more people like me and others would have a chance to travel there. Especially to visit the troops.
It was a very rewarding element of the program to go there and to actually meet up with young people from Nevada. I might say, along with three other governors, we had the chance to meet many of their National Guardsmen and military people who are on a permanent basis to the Army and the Marines.
It was a fantastic experience. We were uninhibited in term of what we could ask these young people, what they could say to us. And we really, for five days, got an opportunity to pretty much, for about four days at least, to live with them. And to be a part of their lives. And to get responses from them regarding just about everything we could think about in terms of their situation, being either in Kuwait, Iraq, or in Afghanistan. And it was really an eye opener for me and I know the other three governors, also.
MATTHEWS: Let’s run through those countries. Afghanistan, are they fearful the Taliban could be coming back?
GUINN: Yes, they are. We had a chance to meet with a number, along with our ambassador, a number of governors in the various provinces there. And it was very clear to them that they need our help. That they’re very prideful that our forces are there. And we had a chance to just be unique.
We visited a school for only girls. And I must say that we had more security there than we had, at least in terms of the bases where we were in staying with the soldiers and the embassy people.
Out in the rural area where we went to the school for girls, it was really a pleasure to see them in school. And President Karzai, when we met with him, he made it very clear that they need us to help him with the schools, to get started. Their country is really an illiterate state when it comes to the general population. And they’re very poor compared to Iraq.
I saw in Iraq, Chris, what I haven’t seen on television. I saw, as we flew on helicopters, I tried to count the cranes. A number of crane. I got up to 15, 20 real fast counting the cranes in the air. It looked like one of the most busy metropolitan areas of construction in any city in America that we could be so fortunate to have that many cranes.
MATTHEWS: Was that in Baghdad?
GUINN: That was in Baghdad. And we moved down into the Green area, and I would say to all those who are listening, sure, there are some tense times there. In the Green area, I felt very safe and in fact, the driver that normally drivers the individuals from the Iraqi new parliament and government, they were really American soldiers and some of them, National Guards. And one happened to be from our immediate area in Lake Tahoe. And he was a driver for us.
They’re very positive about what they’re doing. The ones that have been there for a year can tell you that they’ve seen a terrific difference. I think there’s more of a difference in Afghanistan.
Because Afghanistan’s infrastructure needs so much help. And President Karzai looked at us and said, we’ve accomplished so much in the last 20 months. And if you don’t get there and see what they’ve been able to accomplish, they’re going to be completing a road pretty soon that will allow them to cut down 13 hours of traversing through mountains to get into the Pakistan border. So they can sell their products.
Right now, they really don’t have a place to ship their agricultural products. They’ll have a road that will be completed hopefully by the end of the summer. And he said that will be a magnificent thing for Afghanistan. It is just items like this.
Six million more children are in school than they were when we became involved in the general areas there. And we saw some of that. Now I’m not here to tell you that it is not tough. There are certain people in the Taliban who would like to blow up every one of the schools for the girls. And that’s why we had so many security people in and about us while we were visiting there.
MATTHEWS: Let me ask you, did you get any contact with the Iraqis when you were in Iraq or is it as dangerous as it seems? I know you’re a political figure. You know what it is like to walk door to door to chat with people in shops. You know, how you do it at home. Can you do anything like that over there?
GUINN: No. We really didn’t. We did take about a 40-minute drive while we were in Afghanistan right down through Kabul, right through the main street. And where there were thousands and thousands of people on each side of the street doing their daily business of their shops, very crowded. Even crowding kind of into the street. And we made that trip.
Chris, I have to tell you. At least from my experience. I was really trying to find out what the atmosphere was there. You can be a little tense. I never once had anybody say go home or to throw anything but a thumbs up.
MATTHEWS: Thank you very much. It’s an honor to have you on, Governor Guinn.
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