updated 3/28/2006 10:19:34 AM ET 2006-03-28T15:19:34

Guests: Philippe Sands, John Podesta, Craig Crawford, Susan Page, Charlie Cook

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST:  Shoot first, ask questions later.  New hard evidence that President Bush made his decision to attack Iraq before going to the United Nations even before completing the weapons inspections.  And new testimony that the vice president targeted Iraq far earlier.  Let‘s play HARDBALL.

Good evening.  I‘m Chris Matthews.  Welcome to HARDBALL.

As the Bush administration scrambles to paint a hopeful portrait of Iraq, events on the ground are getting bloodier every day with fresh evidence that the insurgency is not in its last throes as the vice president once said it was. 

Today, 40 Iraqis were killed by a suicide bomber at an Army recruiting center and Shiite leaders are blaming American troops for killing at least 22 people Sunday in a raid they say took place in a mosque.  In a statement, the U.S. says, quote, “no mosques were entered or damaged during the operation.”

But America‘s image has been badly damaged by the war in Iraq, and President Bush‘s popularity among Americans has been devastated.  It‘s also ripped off the scab of why the Bush administration decided to go to war.  Today “The New York Times” reported on a confidential British memo, which sheds new light on the president‘s determination to invade Iraq.  More on this in a moment. 

And later back at home, the president faces a political battle within his own Republican Party on illegal immigration.  Well, we begin with Iraq and this report from HARDBALL‘S David Shuster. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)       

DAVID SHUSTER, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT (voice over):  As the president and his staff argue parts of Iraq are getting safer and that political progress is being made, the latest violence suggests just the opposite.  In the last two days, more than 60 Iraqis have been found murdered, most of them beheaded. 

On Sunday U.S. forces targeting a Shiite militia killed 16 people.  According to the Associated Press, the site of the attack was a neighborhood mosque complex, prompting Shiite leaders to pull out of ongoing political talks. 

And today in northern Iraq, insurgents bombed an Iraqi army recruiting center, killing more than 40 people just east of Tal Afar.  That‘s the city President Bush recently highlighted as a success story. 

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  People of Tal Afar have shown that Iraqis do want peace and freedom. 

SHUSTER:  In the raid on the Baghdad mosque complex, U.S. troops say they killed members of a Shiite militia during a mission, quote, “focused on a compound of several buildings” and that “no mosques were entered or damaged during this operation.”

But Iraqi Shiites claim that worshipers were killed during afternoon prayers.  In any case, the political talks that have now been suspended were part of the negotiations aimed at forming a new Iraqi government.  All of this comes as the Bush administration as recently as Sunday expressed optimism that some U.S. forces in Iraq may soon be able to withdraw. 

CONDOLEEZZA RICE, SECRETARY OF STATE:  So Iraqi forces are getting better.  American forces are receding territory, and I think it‘s entirely probable that we will see a significant draw down of American forces over the next year. 

SHUSTER:  But U.S. commanders still doubt Iraqi forces are up to the job.  In Baghdad, for example, in recent weeks more U.S. troops, not less, have been leading security patrols and trying to stop the sectarian violence. 

Polls show the Bush administration is clearly in a tough spot in terms of credibility, and now another prewar document has emerged, raising questions about how and why our country went to war.  In recent speeches, the president has spoken repeatedly about his prewar diplomatic efforts. 

BUSH:  So for anybody out there in West Virginia who thinks it‘s easy to commit troops, it‘s hard.  It‘s the last option of the president, not the first option. 

SHUSTER:  But according to a British government memo reported by “The New York Times” and confirmed by NBC News, six weeks before the war started in 2003, President Bush told British Prime Minister Tony Blair he was determined to invade Iraq, whether the U.N. approved it or not and regardless of the results of international arms inspections. 

According to David Manning, Blair‘s chief foreign policy adviser at the time and now the British ambassador in Washington, quote, “our diplomatic strategy had to be arranged around the military planning.”  Paraphrasing President Bush, Manning added, “the start date for the military campaign was now penciled in for March 10.  This was when the bombing would begin.”

The president‘s discussions with Blair in January of 2003 came before Secretary of State Powell went to the United Nations to argue that Iraq posed an international threat and the U.N. should approve a resolution for invasion.

Today, the White House argued that focusing on the memo takes the Iraq war decision out of context. 

SCOTT MCCLELLAN, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY:  Saddam Hussein was given every opportunity to comply.  And he continued to defy the international community, even when he was given one final opportunity or faced serious consequences, so let‘s not rewrite history.  It was very clear what was going on at the time. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)       

SHUSTER:  But what‘s clear today to many Americans is that the Bush administration decided to invade Iraq, even before the last thread of WMD inspections began.  The latest revelation could further damage the president politically and it might make it even tougher for the public to believe what the people who took us into Iraq say about the situation there now. 

I‘m David Shuster for HARDBALL at the White House. 

MATTHEWS:  Thank you, David Shuster. 

As we mentioned earlier today‘s, “New York Times” reports that a secret memo shows President Bush and Prime Minister Blair were set on an unswerving path to war, even as they publicly kept the door open to negotiations at least six weeks before the war began. 

The memo is a summary of a meeting between President Bush and Prime Minister Blair, on January 31, 2003.  Highlights of the memo appear in the new edition of the book “Lawless World” by Philippe Sands.  This new edition is out in Great Britain, but currently not here in the U.S., as of yet. 

Philippe Sands joins us now from London.

Mr. Sands, thank you for joining us.  The implications of this are strong.  If we were telling Saddam Hussein to lay all his weapons out, all on a lawn somewhere where we could see them before we would call off the dogs, and he didn‘t have the weapons to show us, how was war to be avoided? 

PHILIPPE SANDS, AUTHOR, “LAWLESS WORLD”:  Well, Chris, that‘s a very powerful point.  I think what the memo makes clear is two things.  Firstly, the decision to go to war was taken by the end of January 2003, as your report said, irrespective of whether or not weapons were found. 

And secondly, more significantly, I think, the report—the memo makes clear that the president and the prime minister had no real hard evidence of their own as to weapons of mass destruction.  And that‘s why they began to engage in discussions as to possible ways of provoking Saddam Hussein into, for example, attacking U.S. planes painted in U.N. colors.

And all of this suggests that the actual material that the president, the prime minister had was very limited indeed. 

MATTHEWS:  Why do you believe Bush and Blair, based on your reporting

why do you believe those two heads of government wished to go to war? 

SANDS:  Well, that is a terrific $64 million question, and here in London, there is still a great deal of puzzlement as to why the British prime minister joined in.  As far as the United States is concerned, it seems clear that a decision was taken very early.  Some reports suggest in the hours after 9/11.  And having been in New York on 9/11, I can quite see the passions were high.

But as passions cooled and the cool light of day emerged, those feelings were promoted.  And I think by March 2002, a decision had been taken probably I think to show that the U.S. was tough on terrorism, tough on the causes of terrorism.  And the easiest target was Iraq, as it turned out, it was the wrong target. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, our president, as you may have noticed in the last week, has denied ever claiming an Iraqi participation in 9/11.  Were you surprised that he is now denying that he ever implied that Saddam Hussein had something to do with 9/11? 

SANDS:  Well, I mean, this is a president who seems to have a rather selective memory and a rather selective relationship with issues of competence.  One of the most striking things I discovered in the memorandum was that when asked by the British prime minister what his plans were for once the real war was over, the U.S. President Mr. Bush replied, that he didn‘t think there was going to be any strive, there wasn‘t going to be any sort of insurgency.

So what we‘re having here—and I listened to what Scott McClellan said—is a rewriting of history and when all of the material emerges, it will I fear not show either the U.S. president or the British prime minister in a very good light. 

MATTHEWS:  Well let‘s talk about—let‘s do these things in order, because you‘re an expert now, having written this book and updating it now with this new full look at this memorandum. 

What struck me in the memorandum again today was that the vice president—rather, the president of the United States, George W. Bush, had decided to go to war with Iraq before completing the inspections, had decided to do so before sending the Secretary of State—and a skeptic, I must say—Colin Powell, to the United Nations. 

What is the significance of that?  That he made the decision as recorded by David Manning, who was working for the prime minister at the time, before either of those events occurred, the U.N. presentation, which was apparently to sell Europe on the fact that there were weapons of mass destruction, and the completion of the weapons inspections themselves. Both were not waited for.  The president decided to go to war before that and so did Tony Blair apparently. 

SANDS:  Well, there‘s now no shred of doubt and there‘s been no denial, you will have noticed, as to the contents of the memorandum, that the decision was indeed taken in January before Colin Powell went. 

In fact, one other aspect that I‘ve described in my book, “Lawless World” that hasn‘t emerged so much in “The New York Times” is another memo, which records a conversation between Colin Powell and his counterpart in the United Kingdom, Jack Straw, which makes it clear that in Colin Powell‘s eyes if there wasn‘t enough evidence for a second security council resolution, then there wasn‘t enough evidence to justify the U.S. going in alone.

So Colin Powell was spot on, but it seems he was overridden by a president others in the administration, who were absolutely committed to taking the United States to war, tragically in erroneous circumstances, irrespective of what the inspectors found. 

MATTHEWS:  The second thing you point out is that in that conversation they had in January 31, of 2003, several months before we went to Iraq, was that they had no notion whatever that there was going to be this incipient civil war we‘re watching right now in Iraq.  That they were—were they told by people like, oh, who were the people over there, was it the Iraqi National Congress folk who were telling this, the neoconservatives, who was telling the president that Iraq would naturally come together as one country of after the fall of Saddam? 

SANDS:  Well, this is a very important question, Chris, and this goes to issues of competence and why, frankly, I think in both Britain and The United States, there needs to be a full investigation of the road to war, which has not happened. 

It is not correct to say they had no notion that there wouldn‘t be an insurgency and there wouldn‘t be internecine strife.  The memo reports the view of the president to that effect, but in fact, we know that they had received clear advice from people who know the region in the State Department, from people who know the region in the Foreign Office, in London, that precisely what has happened was going to happen. 

I can direct you to reams of document in the public domain of people saying this is where it‘s going to go wrong, so it‘s not that the president hadn‘t been advised.  He had been told and he chose to override. 

MATTHEWS:  He may have had some help in this regard, Mr. Sands.  A passage in a new book, your book is called “Lawless World.”  This other book by Bernard Trainor, “Cobra Two,” describes a phone call from then Vice President Elect Cheney to then Defense Secretary William Cohen regarding Iraq.  This phone call came soon after the debate by the Supreme Court when they gave the election to President Bush after the Florida dispute. 

Here‘s what Cohen received, a call from the vice president, Cheney.  Here‘s what he said.  He said that he wanted to see one thing.  He did not want to see a tour of the world or all the potential threats to our country, he wanted to get a briefing for the new president, his partner, George W. Bush, on one topic, Iraq.  That‘s all he wanted.”

I talked to Bill Cohen a number of times on this, and he said it was breath taking.  All the vice president wanted to know about, he didn‘t care about the world all around the globe, the only thing he cared about was Iraq.  He was already honing in on that decision in December of 2000.  What does that tell you? 

SANDS:  Well, I think it tells us that all of this is completely consistent with the materials that emerged, the Downing Street Memo of July 2002, and now this White House meeting memo of January 2003, that an early decision was taken, and I think what it raises is fundamental questions about competence. 

It raises, in my view, fundamental questions of legality, but also more importantly perhaps for the president‘s purpose, incompetence.  We face other threats.  I‘m absolutely convinced, for example, that the situation in Iran is altogether more serious than it ever was in Iraq.  But what we now have is two leaders, Mr. Bush and Mr. Blair, who have effectively taken our two countries to war on a false prospectus and now have undermined the trust that is needed at a time of real threat for the United States and real threat for Britain, and that‘s why I think the situation today is extremely serious. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, in this country, we have been given so many reasons for this war, that have turned out not to be accurate, so many prediction that have turned out to be inaccurate that we still wonder really deep down, why did this president go to war in Iraq. 

We know the vice president was raring to go, we know that Wolfowitz was raring to go.  We don‘t know, by the way, whether Rumsfeld was even asked by the president, because I asked him once, did the president ask your opinion, and he said, funny thing, he‘s never asked me whether we should go to war or not. 

It‘s still tricky to figure out when and why our president, much less your prime minister over there, decided to go to war, because all the reasons they have given and all the predictions they have made, have not come to anything.  Anyway, thank you for very much.  The book is called “Lawless World.”  Is it going to be on sale over here soon? 

SANDS:  It‘s coming to the U.S. in the new additional.  So, absolutely, with more material I hope. 

MATTHEWS:  Great.  “Lawless World” by Phillipe Sands.  Thank you, sir, from London.  Coming up, Pat Buchanan and former Clinton chief of staff, John Podesta, on the Republican split over illegal immigration and why Democrats are feeling good about their chances in November.

You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  With more bloodshed in Iraq this past weekend, Americans are asking the most fundamental questions about the war in Iraq.  How bad can it get?  There‘s a good one.  Has the war already failed from our point of view and when are the troops coming home?  Another American question.

A new Pew research poll shows that a whopping 66 percent of Americans now say the United States is losing ground in preventing a civil war, that is up 12 points since January.  Fifty-one percent say we‘re losing ground in defeating the insurgency, up 13 since the beginning of the year, and 38 percent say we‘re losing ground in establishing a democracy, another 12 percent shift since January. 

Anyway, here to dig into the war numbers are MSNBC political analyst, Pat Buchanan, and former Clinton chief of staff, John Podesta.  Good to have you two guys together here. 

There is a fact-based reality to this whole thing, and we‘re getting it in dribs and drabs, including this new memorandum from London with the two top leaders of the war, Blair and Bush, chatting away, deciding they‘re basically going to war in January.  We didn‘t get in until two or three months later, deciding it even before the inspections regime was completed, even before Colin Powell had put together, with the help of the CIA, his presentation to the U.N., which apparently he didn‘t believe in.  What does it tell you, John? 

JOHN PODESTA, FMR. CLINTON CHIEF OF STAFF:  Well, it‘s clear from those notes that they intended to go to war with out without the inspections. 

MATTHEWS:  Why?

PODESTA:  I think it was an obsession of this administration from the very get-go, from coming into office.  Maybe it was cleaning up the unfinished business they thought of from Bush 41‘s term, but it was an obsession and I think it is a huge strategic mistake for this country and I think the public clearly wants a new direction now.  But the president‘s credibility, you know, this is just one more drip, it‘s in shreds now. 

MATTHEWS:  What do you make, Pat, of this new thing?  He told me it a couple times, but he didn‘t tell me on the record, Bill Cohen, and I called him today, said can I say it on the record, he was defense secretary under Clinton, he left office at the end of January.  He got a call from vice-president elect, Cheney, who said I want a briefing on one country only.  I don‘t care about the rest of the world.  I want to know what‘s going in Iraq right now.  That‘s all I want for the new president.

He took it as strong evidence of where they were headed.  Do you think that‘s a reasonable assumption, that they were already targeting Iraq when they came in? 

PAT BUCHANAN, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  It‘s certainly a reasonable assumption for the neoconservatives, Cheney, Rumsfeld.  Rumsfeld had signed a PNAC letter in 1998.

MATTHEWS:  That‘s the Project for the New American Century.

BUCHANAN:  The president of the United States, in my judgment, was the converted by 9/11, that‘s when he decided that he‘s got a brand-new foreign policy.  I think he after Afghanistan was done, he said the decks are all cleared. 

MATTHEWS:  Who did that the president and when?

BUCHANAN:  I think the president—I think what the president decided himself, Chris, he was pushed on it by the neocons, by Cheney, I‘m sure, and Rumsfeld.  I think around January or February of 2002....

MATTHEWS:  ... Rumsfeld told me on camera, Pat, he never was asked by the president whether we should go to war or not.

BUCHANAN:  He was never asked about it?

MATTHEWS:  Never asked.

BUCHANAN:  Look...

MATTHEWS:  ... Maybe that sounds odd, but he laughs with he tells you it.  He says, “This funny thing, he never asked me and I‘m the Pentagon chief.”

BUCHANAN:  Well we were doing a show here on MSNBC with Bill Press.  Every single day, you look at the president of the United States, look at what‘s moving over there.  They‘re going into Iraq.  The only thing that would have prevented this war, in my judgment, is if Saddam Hussein and his sons and his family had gotten on a plane and gone to Mauritania.  That‘s the only thing that would have stopped it, in my judgment.

MATTHEWS:  A reasonable point, because the president was at that time saying, in the spring of 2003, “I don‘t care if we have inspections from here to kingdom come, I‘m still going in,” because we had them.  And he said “Call them off, it‘s enough.”

He was saying, “I want Saddam,” this is the real war hawk said, “I want him to come out and lay all the weapons he‘s got out in public and let us count them.”  If he didn‘t have the weapons, what was he supposed to do?  It‘s a catch 22 here.  John?

PODESTA:  Well, you know, it turns out he didn‘t have the weapons. 

And I think the president‘s own inspectors after the fact proved that.

MATTHEWS:  What was he supposed to do?  But what was a bad guy, Saddam Hussein, supposed to do to prevent a war?  What could he have done, besides flee the country?

PODESTA:  You know, in the end of the day, I think that Pat is right, but I think that this was an administration that was determined to go to war and I think...

MATTHEWS:  ... And by the way, we didn‘t give them—we didn‘t say “Go to Mauritania, we‘ll leave you alone.”  We never said that.

BUCHANAN:  The United States has got an agenda here.  Look, this agenda, Chris, weapons of mass destructions, I think they thought they had some. 

But he‘s going in here to put American force in Iraq, between Iran and Syria, dump over Saddam Hussein, get control of that oil in there, put American power in the Middle East.  Democracy was involved, the whole thing was there, we‘re going to get all this done.  Democratic imperialism all the way and the best argument we got is, “He‘s probably getting a nuclear weapon, let‘s use that, it worked for his father.”  I think that‘s why they went in. 

MATTHEWS:  That was Cheney‘s argument.

BUCHANAN:  It is an unnecessary war, it was a war of choice.

PODESTA:  Well, I think—we‘re finding ourselves...

MATTHEWS:  ... No, I don‘t mind that.

PODESTA:  For the first time in history in agreement.  But that I think is exactly right.

MATTHEWS:  We‘re going to be right back and talk to both of you about something you will had disagree, that‘s the Democrats and the Republicans this fall and what‘s going to happen in this election this year.  You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  We‘re back with MSNBC political analyst Pat Buchanan and former Clinton chief-of-staff, John Podesta, who‘s the president of the Center for American Progress.  John, you first, are you for Hillary?

PODESTA:  Sure.

MATTHEWS:  OK, Hillary is now apparently, according to “The New York Times” today is going to do the old Jack Kennedy number of rolling up her Senate re-election numbers to impress the world.  Are you confident she can do that?

PODESTA:  Well look, Hillary‘s out.  She‘s been a great senator for New York and I think she‘s out campaigning and one after another of her opponents in New York seems to kind of sink under the weight of just thinking about it.  Now this woman who claims that they‘re spying on her.  It‘s amazing.

MATTHEWS:  Do you think Hillary has any problem getting like three quarters of the votes in New York, Pat?

BUCHANAN:  Three-quarters are awfully high, I‘d say 70 percent.  I wouldn‘t be surprised at all if she gets that.  It‘s going to be a huge victory, she‘s piling up all that money and she‘s probably not going to spend it all, Chris.  She might have some other purpose for it.

MATTHEWS:  I have a hunch, I‘ve going to test it by you two different points of view.  I have a hunch that next year is going to be Hillary‘s best year of her whole life, if Bill doesn‘t cause distractions. 

Sorry about that, but I couldn‘t offer the thought without offering the caveat.  If he stays out of the act completely, she‘s going to roll up the score next year because she‘ll spend all next year working the base, minorities, liberals, gay people.

Anybody in the party that will help that‘s naturally in her constituency and come out in 2007 with the most enormous advantage within the party you ever saw, including the money.

BUCHANAN:  Here‘s the question.  The right wing knows Hillary is the probable nominee.  The question is do they go in with all guns a blazing in 2007 or do they say, “Look, she‘s a nominee, we think we can beat her, let her win, don‘t rip her to pieces.”

Her second problem is going to, Chris, she‘s going to get an anti-war candidate out there, that 60 percent vote.  Feingold is out there, whatever people say about him, his resolution helps two people, Bush and Feingold.  They both like the idea.

MATTHEWS:  First of all, if the Republicans decide to turn their swift boat guns, on their 507 guns on her and all the allies, does that hurt or help her win the nomination?

PODESTA:  Well I‘ll tell you one thing, she won‘t wait three weeks to respond.  And, look, she‘s smart, she‘s tough, she‘s an idea politician...

MATTHEWS:  ... because he was attacked in 1966 by Johnson.

PODESTA:  I think that she will be attacked by the Republicans of all stripes, I mean, I think that she is a person who at least for a core of the right wing, you know, they kind of breathe fire when they think about her.  But I think for the vast majority of the American public, they want someone who can be a leader in this country and I think she can make up for that.

MATTHEWS:  So you think she‘s better off being shot up by the right.

PODESTA:  I think that people are kind of sick of the cheap shots they take.  And I‘m telling you, she‘s not going to take them.

MATTHEWS:  Is she better of having a shot from the left, from Feingold.  Is her position to be somewhere in the middle and have a leftie on her left, someone really anti-war?

PODESTA:  In the end of the day, this is going to be a nomination that‘s going to be fought for by Feingold, by Mark Warner, by a lot of different people. 

MATTHEWS:  So you‘re not going to tell me whether it helps her to have someone on her left.

PODESTA:  I don‘t think it helps to have somebody on the left.  I think what helps her is to be out there with good ideas.

MATTHEWS:  He wants to be the Mr. Scoop Jackson, he‘ll go nowhere without one, but he‘s going there.  And Russ Feingold does have a great chunk of the anti-war loyalists. 

BUCHANAN:  He does.  And as a matter of fact, because I don‘t think he‘s got the charisma.  I do think an anti-war candidate with real charisma and ability could carry it.  I think he could beat Hillary because she‘s static.  She‘s sitting there, not moving, playing it safe.  I don‘t think Feingold has the charisma. 

But the key thing here, I think the Republicans are going to be more divided than I thought, Chris.  I think McCain blew it down there in Memphis.

MATTHEWS:  Why don‘t Republicans like McCain?

BUCHANAN:  Because they don‘t think he‘s a loyal guy and personally they don‘t like him and they think the guy scores points off him and he scores points with the media at their expense. 

MATTHEWS:  There‘s a tissue rejection, isn‘t there?

BUCHANAN:  Initially a lot of people liked John McCain and don‘t like him anymore.

MATTHEWS:  But not Republicans.  Republicans don‘t like him.

BUCHANAN:  They did like him a great deal.

MATTHEWS:  They don‘t like you either, because you‘re a maverick.

BUCHANAN:  Well, I mean, I‘ve left the party. 

MATTHEWS:  Right, that‘s a good reason not to like you.  Well, if you had to explain in one sentence why Republican regulars, who work for the party, who vote Republican every time, don‘t like McCain, what is it?

BUCHANAN:  They think he panders to the media at their expense. 

MATTHEWS:  So he‘d be better off picking fights with people like me over the next year to help him out politically, to pick fights with people like me? 

BUCHANAN:  No, no, he‘s got—look, why would you give up that base? 

He‘s got that.  And frankly if he looks like a winner...

MATTHEWS:  But if the media is your base, Pat, you can‘t win with conservatives. 

BUCHANAN:  Yes, you can.  See I think he goes as far left as you can go in the Republican Party, and that‘s why he‘s down there.  He‘s down there in Memphis.  He‘s working Christian Coalition.  All those folks calling him.  He‘s got that.  You don‘t want to give that up.  He‘s in very good shape.  But I think if you had a conservative out there, the immigration issue, the war issue, you could give him a run for the money. 

MATTHEWS:  I think the immigration issue is red hot, and if somebody doesn‘t take it, I‘ll be surprised. 

Anyway, thank you Pat Buchanan.  I think George Allen is going to do it.  Anyway, John Podesta, thank you. 

Up next, with President Bush hurting in the polls right now, will he be a liability for Republicans looking to hang on to control of the Congress this November?  You are watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.

(MARKET REPORT)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.

While the Bush administration faces increasing violence in Iraq and growing public concern over the war over there, it‘s also contending with a political battle within the Republican Party, as the Senate this week takes up illegal immigration. 

All of this comes at a time when new poll numbers paint a dismal picture for the president and his party.  The latest “Time” magazine poll, by the way, that is out this week has the president‘s approval rating—that is job approval—at just 39 percent.  They‘re all in the 30s now, all the poll numbers on him.  And 50 percent want Democrats to control Congress with Republicans at 41 percent in the party match up.

What are the odds of the Democrats taking Congress back?  And how big of a liability is the president for congressional Republicans up for reelection this year. 

Susan Page is the Washington bureau chief for “USA Today,” which is everywhere, and MSNBC political analyst Craig Crawford is a columnist for “Congressional Quarterly.”  He is also the author of “Attack the Messenger.”

Anyway let‘s talk about this, a couple of things.  This latest development here that we have a British memo out that says the president decided to take us to war.  Now it is all against the context of the war is unpopular now.  But now we have a permission slip to say we‘re opposed to the war, right, for most people?  How do you read it?

(INAUDIBLE) 

CRAIG CRAWFORD, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  In some ways, it doesn‘t tell us anything that new in that they were going to go to war whether they had a U.N. resolution or not. 

MATTHEWS:  Or if they had WMDS.

CRAWFORD:  And we know they did go to war without the U.N. resolution.  And that they thought there were—but, yes, at the end of the day, I don‘t think it adds a whole lot to the table.  It just confirms what everybody always suspected. 

MATTHEWS:  But doesn‘t it give—well, I don‘t want to argue this.  What does it say to the person who had an open mind and listened to the president back in 03, and said I‘m going to go to war because you told me all the facts and I believe all the facts, now I find out the facts were irrelevant that you were going for another reason you never told us about?

SUSAN PAGE, USA TODAY:  You know, I think, the Downing Street memo was more revelatory. 

MATTHEWS:  It is a memo.

PAGE:  Well, no, this new memo came much later.  It came out in January of 2003.  That was just—that was two months before the invasion was launched, and I think the dye was pretty clearly cast. 

MATTHEWS:  What was the Downing Street? 

PAGE:  It was in July of 2002.  Anybody who did not realize at that point we were going to war wasn‘t pay attention. 

CRAWFORD:  You know what was most striking to me is how they didn‘t even have much of a discussion apparently about their belief that it would be an easy invasion, not easy, but that it wouldn‘t be anything like it turned out to be. 

MATTHEWS:  They both, Blair and President Bush, thought it would be a cake walk. 

CRAWFORD:  They thought it would be quick, you know, and kind of tough, but they would mop it up pretty quick.  And what was interesting to me is apparently there wasn‘t even much discussion about that. 

MATTHEWS:  In other words everything we‘re watching in the headlines today, this day, Monday, is what they said wouldn‘t happen.  And they considered it.  They said would there be a big fight between the Sunni and Shiite.  And they decided there wouldn‘t. 

CRAWFORD:  Good policy making is about doubting your own infallibility and listening to other points of view.  And they didn‘t even seem to entertain any other points of view. 

PAGE:  Well, there were people in the administration, including at the state department, saying it won‘t be that easy.  There were a lot of people outside the administration saying, look, learn the lessons of previous...

(INAUDIBLE)

CRAWFORD:  ...and the prime minister when they‘re meeting, you know, almost on the eve of war, they would have had a good discussion about hey, maybe we‘re wrong about this.  Let‘s look at some of the other—and the memo suggested that didn‘t happen. 

MATTHEWS:  I‘m still trying to find out through good reporting and I think we‘re getting closer and closer to that decision point, because remember we grew up with the—maybe you too—with the Muhammad Ali fight with Foreman.  And you could never see the punch, you know, that knocked him out so fast.  I‘m waiting to see where the punch was. 

What was that moment of impact when the president, yes, I‘m going to war and this is why, and when did that happen?  Did it happen after 2001? 

CRAWFORD:  I actually think it was before 9/11. 

MATTHEWS:  Do you think it was before 9/11?

CRAWFORD:  I mean, there was a “New York Times” story that I still keep and find so interesting in the week just before he took office, inauguration, the president met with the joint chiefs of staff, and this story quoted sources from the joint chiefs as surprised at how much the president, this president, was asking about Iraq and Saddam Hussein. 

I think something like 45 minutes of the 90-minute session and they came away with the belief this president is going to war. 

MATTHEWS:  Who is they? 

CRAWFORD:  The joint chiefs of staff. 

MATTHEWS:  I will tell you, Bill Cohen just told me on the phone, the former secretary of defense under Clinton, said he got a call from the vice president after they got the winning in Florida—the Supreme Court decided to give it to them after all the argument. 

He gets a call from the vice president saying I want a briefing on one country only.  I don‘t want to hear about the world, I want to hear about Iraq.  And the way he took it was they‘re interested in doing something there. 

CRAWFORD:  And here we‘re talking about almost two years before 9/11. 

PAGE:  And Cheney had a lot of history with Iraq.  He already knew a lot about Iraq, and maybe he already also felt that there had been some bad call at the end of the first Gulf War. 

CRAWFORD:  I think he wanted to prove...

(INAUDIBLE)

MATTHEWS:  I think he is a thinking kind of guy.  Let me ask you about this new poll.  You follow these things.  A new poll said would you rather see the Republicans or the Democrats control Congress?  And it is a basely partisan thing that connected the war and peace, but I am going to do it.  About 11 points more people say Democrats.  I don‘t really trust that number exactly.

If you are against the war and you‘re thinking you could be as conservative as Pat Buchanan or as liberal as Russ Feingold, you can be against this war.  It really doesn‘t tell you what your politics are, it tells you if it wasn‘t in our national interest. 

Now, how does an issue which seems to have us all over the place, you know, I sympathize with Pat‘s views about America and American interests a lot, I sympathize to some extent with Feingold, but I really think it‘s not an ideological thing.  It‘s about what do you think is America‘s interests. 

How do people who have all kinds positions on health care and things like that, how do they come down on the issue of the war, how do they vote.  Do you vote Democrat like a monkey, to prove that you‘re against the war, like OK, there‘s candy in that bowl, that‘s against the war.  Do people vote that automatically?  I need to know this.  Do you vote Democrat if you‘re against the war, is that the way you register your opinion? 

CRAWFORD:  The way I put it, is I think people don‘t like how it‘s being managed.  They weren‘t necessarily against the war. 

DOBBS:  Let me just read it to you.  Was the United States right or wrong to go to war?  No, it‘s more dramatic than that.  Was the United States right or wrong to go to war.  The poll taken by “Time” magazine this week, 53 percent say it was wrong, 42 percent say it‘s right.  They don‘t say badly managed.  They say it was wrong to go. 

CRAWFORD:  My point is people think we‘re losing war.  That‘s what‘s changing these polls.  It‘s not that they were against going in.  If we were winning, if this news wasn‘t so bad coming out of there, we wouldn‘t see these numbers.

MATTHEWS:  If you bought a car and the car blew up because it was a lemon, you made a bad decision to buy the car. 

CRAWFORD:  I don‘t think it‘s wrong to say people suddenly become pacifist.  This is all about people feel like we‘re not winning the war.

MATTHEWS:  Winning the war would be what? 

CRAWFORD:  That‘s a good question.  Anything that showed that we were taking the initiative.  Part of the problem is we‘re not being seen as taking the initiative on the ground. 

MATTHEWS:  When you try to cross walk a vote like 49-38, I think the Democrats should win the Congress this year, how do you cross that over to who will actually win? 

PAGE:  I think there‘s a pretty good history in that.  When we last had numbers like this it was in 1994, a terrible year for the people who controlled Congress.  In the USA Today-CNN Gallup poll, we see the landscape very much like it was in 1994.  It‘s never been that way since.  So the table is coat for the Democrats to win big. 

Now if you look at it in terms of attitudes toward the war, it‘s hard to imagine Democrats don‘t win big.  If you look at it district by district, it‘s hard to see how they get over—

MATTHEWS:  People go to vote this November, you know this as well.  When I go to vote, I know who my congressperson is.  And I always voted for this woman out in Maryland for years, because I know her and like her, a moderate Republican.   I always voted for her.  Then if I knew somebody running against her personally, I‘d vote for them. 

It‘s the way I look at a lot of the elections.  I think Bush is OK the first time, then he changed I thought, so I didn‘t like him the second time.  I‘m a thinker about this.  Or do people just vote the party who my parents voted. 

CRAWFORD:  I don‘t think they‘re going to do it unless this is nationalized.  The Democrats have to nationalize this, and a couple things are missing it seems to me.  In 1994 when the Republicans successfully nationalized that race and overtook the House, they had Newt Gingrich as a face, someone to rally around, they had the Contract with America—

MATTHEWS:  Would you vote against somebody you like, like Chris Shays in Connecticut because you‘re going to vote Democrat as a matter of—

PAGE:  I think you might.  I think if you were concerned about the war enough and you do see huge concern about the war, I think so, because you want to send a message if you feel like Bush isn‘t hearing it and it‘s the only way to get your point of view across. 

CRAWFORD:  I think Democrats have to get more in place to make that happen, to overcome some of the numerical disadvantages they have. 

PAGE:  Although, remember, the Contract with America came out in September, so Democrats, who haven‘t articulated a message yet, do have some time to do it. 

MATTHEWS:  I love to figure out how people think.  We‘ll be right back with Craig Crawford and Susan Page.  You can keep up with all the action in the political races this year and the presidential race in 2008, check out bios of the presidential contenders and cast your ballot in our virtual Republican straw poll. 

By the way, this has been dead consistent since the beginning.  John McCain leads it.  Giuliani, who everybody says can‘t win the nomination, is in second.  And the illegal immigration opponent, that‘s Congressman Tom Tancredo, of Colorado, he‘s out there at number three.  So something‘s hot on illegal immigration.  Vote on our Web site, HARDBALL.msnbc.com. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BUSH:  A temporary worker program is vital to securing our border.  By creating a separate legal channel for those entering America to do an honest day‘s labor, we would dramatically reduce the number of people trying to sneak back and forth across the border.  That would help take the pressure off the border and free up law enforcement to focus on the greatest threats to our security, which are criminals and drug dealers and terrorists. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back, that was President Bush speaking today at a naturalization ceremony where people become citizens.  We‘re here with Susan Page, Washington bureau chief for USA Today, and “Congressional Quarterly”‘s Craig Crawford, who is also an MSNBC political analyst. 

Craig, tell me, is this going to end up with nothing, this whole debate over illegal immigration? 

CRAWFORD:  I think we‘re going to see some enforcement, they‘re going to stress enforcement and not the undocumented workers. 

MATTHEWS:  So there won‘t be anything on punishing employers for illegal hiring?  There will nothing on guest workers, just tougher border patrol.  Would he sign that bill? 

PAGE:  I don‘t think so.  I think even people who advocate tougher enforcement, but want a guest worker program, might well try to stop a deal like that, because then you never get a guest worker program. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask you a value judgment here, I know you‘re straight reporters.  I‘m a commentator as well, but I‘ll try to be straight on this.  Is anybody trying to be a reasonable person on this and saying, we got 12 million people here illegally, we have to deal with that.  We can‘t send them all back.  They‘re people.  They‘re regular human beings like us.  And we also have a border which is porous.  No matter how many cops we get on the border there is going to be a porous border.  There is going to be somewhere in Phoenix or somewhere in Arizona you can slip across in the middle of the night.  There is desert out there, where you can‘t even tell what side you are on.

And we have to do something to stop people from hiring them cheaply just because they‘re cheap labor, exploiting the situation.  Is anybody going to do something that deals with all three and really honestly deal with all three? 

So that we have a regulated liberal immigration policy, which allows people to come into this country.  Let‘s face it they are going to stay no matter.  And also, stops the illegal and stops the illegal hiring.  Is anybody really going to do that? 

PAGE:  You know, I think President Bush came into office thinking he wanted to do that in 2000, do something very sensible on immigration.  He had the kind of broad perspective on immigration coming from Texas, but I don‘t think he can do it with a war in Iraq and with approval ratings. 

CRAWFORD:  The midterm elections will make it impossible I think for the Republican Party to do anything other than what the Republican leaders are doing.

MATTHEWS:  Because they will lose the Hispanic vote if you are too tough, right? 

CRAWFORD:  The base—midterm elections are low turnout elections.

MATTHEWS:  Why can‘t they get anything done?

CRAWFORD:  In order to win midterm elections you have got to turn out niche audiences, and that‘s what these Republicans are finding out in these races.  They have got voters who are just blah about this president on the issue of immigration. 

(INAUDIBLE)

CRAWFORD:  This has been penned up for a long time now. 

MATTHEWS:  But why does everybody complicate this?  Most Americans don‘t want anymore illegal immigration.  They say it over and over and over again.  And yet we have these conversations.

CRAWFORD:  Even a lot of immigrants say that.

MATTHEWS:  But every time we have a conversation it gets complicated.  Why don‘t they just say first thing we are going to do is make it impossible to come into this country illegally and get a job here?  We are going to make it impossible if we have got to kill ourselves to do it.  Start with that.

But they won‘t do that.  They have got to talk about guest workers. 

PAGE:  Because is that realistic with a state—a country with borders like ours? 

MATTHEWS:  No.  You tell an employer he is going to face a $40,000 fine if he cheats.  What is wrong with that Susan?

CRAWFORD:  In this political environment...

MATTHEWS:  Why doesn‘t that work?  It would scare me.

PAGE:  Why doesn‘t that work?  It would probably scare a lot of employers too, but here‘s the reason that there isn‘t a simple answer, because there isn‘t a simple answer. 

MATTHEWS:  Why doesn‘t that work? 

CRAWFORD:  And you definitely can‘t do complex things in a midterm election.

(INAUDIBLE)      

MATTHEWS:  ...if you don‘t you go to jail.  That‘s why we do it.

Anyway, thank you Craig Crawford and Susan Page. 

Up next, can the Democrats win back control of the Congress?  NBC political analyst Charlie Cook is going to be here with the latest on the HARDBALL hot races this November.  He is going to go to some real hot races like Pennsylvania.  This is HARDBALL only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.

Election day 2006 is actually getting closer every day.  Are Republicans nervous about losing to Congress?  Should they be? 

Charlie Cook is an expert.  He is an NBC News Political analyst and a publisher of the “Cook Political Report.” 

Charlie, let‘s go through some fun races.  Because I like to let people know they‘re all coming.  There is going to be—it is just like the NCAA basketball thing. 

By the way, go, George Mason.  Because that‘s our local team here. 

But Katherine Harris, everybody got to know this woman during the big reelection fight.  And a lot of Democrats didn‘t like her because she had a hand in the victory for Bush down there.  She wears St. John Niche.  Look at her.  She‘s very stylish.  She‘s a very attractive woman.  She‘s a big figure on “Saturday Night Live.”  Look at her there. 

She is up for the Senate, and she said I am going to spend $10 million in my own money to win this race. 

CHARLIE COOK, NBC NEWS POLITICAL ANALYST:  Well, and then she said, well, it‘s my inheritance.  Well, no, actually I am going to sell some stuff back and forth. 

MATTHEWS:  Did you inherit $10 million? 

COOK:  The thing is that she‘s become a caricature.  And just like Hillary Clinton has to a certain extent.  Newt Gingrich has to a certain extent.   

MATTHEWS:  So has Bill Clinton. 

COOK:  Right.  And when you become a caricature it is hard to transition beyond that and as a result... 

MATTHEWS:  But you also become a celebrity. 

COOK:  Right.  But she‘s so symbolic that nobody can beat her in a Republican primary, so nobody will take her on.  But at the same time, it is really, really hard to see her in a general election.  Bill Nelson is vulnerable.  You know, just sort of an OK to pretty good Republican candidate would give Bill Nelson fits down in Florida.  But can Katherine Harris beat him?

MATTHEWS:  I‘m not so sure. 

COOK:  Wow.  That‘s a hard one.

MATTHEWS:  I think she‘s got some flash. 

COOK:  Oh, it‘s flash.  And the other thing is $10 million.  She has got to be able to raise a lot more than that.  She‘s got to turn around some numbers. 

MATTHEWS:  So Pennsylvania is the hottest race in the country of the United States, and Rick Santorum is a fire brand of the Conservative right.  He is smart.  He is quick.  He has got a point of view, and he sticks to his guns, even if those guns are a bit from the right.  He‘s up against Bob Casey, son of the former governor.  A man who has been reelected in his own right—elected in his own right as state treasurer. 

Who is winning that one? 

COOK:  Right now, Casey is ahead by 10, 15 points.  Now, I think Santorum is a stronger candidate, but the thing about it is—a liberal, moderate Republican can win easily in Pennsylvania, but someone that far over... 

MATTHEWS:  As Specter, etc.

COOK:  I‘ve only seen one incumbent senator fall this far behind this long and come back and that was Jesse Helms who did it twice.  This is a one way...

MATTHEWS:  And he did it with kind of interesting advertising. 

COOK:  Right.

MATTHEWS:  Like the white hand that was crumpled up, the job application, you needed that job.  Remember? 

COOK:  Oh, yes. 

MATTHEWS:  The tagging of affirmative action.

COOK:  This race is going to tighten.  No question about it.  But does it tighten enough for Santorum?  I don‘t know.   

MATTHEWS:  Let‘s talk about Harold Ford Jr.  We profiled him this week.  We went out there and covered him.  He took—he is an African-American guy, well, good schooling.  Very advanced schooling and he is a very polished fellow...

COOK:  He is better than you and I am, anyway. 

MATTHEWS:  He is a pretty polished fellow.  He knows his way around the country.  He‘s a bit of a glamour candidate.  He took us to a hangout for Memphis State, which is very much in the NCAA fight.  Mostly white people there.  He seems to know his way around in a cross culture.  I hate to use terms like this.  I‘m no anthropologist.  Can he win? 

COOK:  In a really good Democratic year, he might.  But he‘s got some other things that he‘s got to—he has an uncle that is going on trial in October for some bribery charges.  He‘s got an aunt that is in some legal problems.

MATTHEWS:  Yes, but he is clean isn‘t he?

COOK:  He is clean.  He couldn‘t be more different than a lot of his family members, but he‘s held back.  I mean, the thing is of the six seats that Democrats need to win to get the majority of the Senate back, this is the sixth one.  This is the hardest one. 

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Do you think he would have made this run if he didn‘t have numbers, a poll that showed him he had a good chance? 

COOK:  Oh, yes.  But I don‘t think he had any --- I mean, his uncle gets—does the perp walk the day after he announces his candidacy.  I mean, wow, what are the odds of something like that happening?  He can win but boy it is a tough one.  And that could be the sixth seat for Democrats.  That‘s the hardest.

MATTHEWS:  I think it is a disgrace that we have like three African-Americans in the history of the country in the U.S. Senate.  I think it is a disgrace. 

Well, anyway, thank you Charlie Cook. 

Join us again tomorrow night at 7:00 -- 5:00 and 7:00 Eastern for more HARDBALL.  Right now it is time for “THE ABRAM‘S REPORT” with Dan.

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

END   

Copy: Content and programming copyright 2006 MSNBC.  ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.  Transcription Copyright 2006 Voxant, Inc. (www.voxant.com) ALL RIGHTS  RESERVED. No license is granted to the user of this material other than for research. User may not reproduce or redistribute the material except for user‘s personal or internal use and, in such case, only one copy may be printed, nor shall user use any material for commercial purposes or in any fashion that may infringe upon MSNBC and Voxant, Inc.‘s copyright or other proprietary rights or interests in the material. This is not a legal transcript for purposes of litigation.

Transcript

Watch Hardball with Chris Matthews each weeknight at 5 & 7 p.m. ET

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,