updated 4/24/2006 10:25:36 AM ET 2006-04-24T14:25:36

Guest: Kate O‘Beirne

NORAH O‘DONNELL, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT:  A long week for the West Wing winds down just as Congress comes back to town.  Can the White House staff shuffle help the GOP keep control of Capitol Hill?  And if they do hold on to power, can they get anything done?  Let‘s play HARDBALL.

Good evening.  I‘m Norah O‘Donnell in tonight for Chris Matthews. 

Welcome to HARDBALL. 

A lot of White House staffers who survived this week‘s shakedown are probably bolting for the bars tonight, but rumors of more cuts coming Monday could take some of the gas out of their weekend, like instead of the Supreme Court, will Bush confidante White House Counsel Harriet Miers get the supreme shaft next week? 

The polls are down, oil prices are up to $75 a barrel, and tonight we‘ll take you through the highs and lows with our Friday night Hot Shots,  MSNBC hosts Joe Scarborough and Tucker Carlson and MSNBC political analyst Craig Crawford. 

But first, David Shuster has the lowdown on this very long week for the West Wing.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)        

DAVID SHUSTER, HARDBALL CORRESPONDENT (voice over):  The president headed to the West Coast today amidst new signs that fewer Americans can actually afford to go themselves, thanks to sky rocketing gas prices.  Officials in California confirm the average in the Golden State now tops more than $3 a gallon.  Prices are rising all across the nation. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Way too expensive and it‘s unnecessary. 

SHUSTER:  And it‘s yet another factor on top of the problems in Iraq and issues of trust and competence, driving down the president‘s poll numbers to levels not seen since Richard Nixon during Watergate.  The latest survey by Fox News shows President Bush‘s approval rating at just 33 percent.  Even more troubling for the White House, nearly a third of Republicans are giving the president a thumbs down.

Regarding the gas prices...

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  That the government has a responsibility to make sure that we watch carefully and investigate possible price gouging, and we‘ll do just that. 

SHUSTER:  But it‘s a tough issue for a president and an administration long associated with oil companies and energy conglomerates.  And no matter what the White House tries to do these days, nothing seems to goes as planned. 

During welcoming ceremonies Thursday for Chinese President Hu Jintao, the heckling went on for three long minutes before the secret service could get at and remove the protester, a credential reporter linked with spiritual group banned in china.  The woman had been cleared in by the White House press office, even though a Nexis search shows that five years ago she slipped into an event in Europe and shouted at China‘s former President. 

President Bush assured President Hu, you‘re OK.  But the incident came on the heels of the White House announced introducing the Chinese anthem, using a term that normally refers to China‘s enemy Taiwan.  Later, when President Hu tried to leave the stage via the wrong staircase, President Bush tugged at his jacket prompting an awkward diplomatic moment, and the photos were splashed around the world. 

This was the first Josh Bolten was on the job as the new White House chief of staff.  Bolten‘s arrival prompted Press Secretary Scott McClellan‘s resignation. 

SCOTT MCCLELLAN, OUTGOING WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY:  The White House is going through a period of transition.  Change can be helpful.  And this is a good time and a good position to help bring about change. 

SHUSTER:  Moments later, after the president and his spokesman walked to Marine One, ironically a communication system on board failed, and for the first time anybody could remember, the presidential entourage was forced to abort the helicopter ride and wait for a motorcade. 

The headaches in the White House got even worse today as Josh Bolten‘s desire for other personnel changes led to some nasty remarks by Republicans in “The New York Times” about Harriet Miers, a longtime Texas friend of the president.  When Miers‘s Supreme Court nomination failed last year, she continued working in the White House counsel‘s office. 

Bolten allegedly described Miers recently as “indecisive, a weak manager, and slow in moving vital paperwork through the system.”  It‘s not clear if the comments were intended to get Miers to leave the White House on her own, but today White House officials said Josh Bolten spent part of a meeting this morning on the defensive, claiming “The New York Times” story about Miers was not true. 

Meanwhile, the White House is waiting to hear if Fox News anchor Tony Snow will take the job of White House press secretary or generate one more P.R. headache by turning it down. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SHUSTER:  It‘s not clear if the president will have all of his new team in place by the time Congress returns next week, and even if he does, there are still questions about whether it will make any difference to Republicans who see the White House adrift and consider President Bush to be an election year liability. 

I‘m David Shuster for HARDBALL in Washington. 

O‘DONNELL:  And thank you, David Shuster.

So will there be more changes at the White House?  Are the changes so far enough to make a difference for the president?  Bob Shrum is a HARDBALL political analyst and joins us from New York.  But let‘s begin with Kate O‘Beirne, the Washington editor of “The National Review” and a MSNBC political analyst.  Tonight it‘s ladies first here on HARDBALL.

Let me ask about what was in David‘s report, that new poll out that shows the president‘s approval rating at 33 percent. 

KATE O‘BEIRNE, NATIONAL REVIEW:  It seemed to indicate, Norah, largely this recent dip owing to falling support on the part of Republicans.  He‘s below in the Fox poll, 70 percent for the first time in his presidency, which spells obviously, heading into November, real trouble with respect to motivating a base to turn out. 

O‘DONNELL:  And his approval ratings are lower than Don Rumsfeld‘s. 

O‘BEIRNE:  Don Rumsfeld edges out George Bush in the latest.  So there is some good news there for the administration.  Don Rumsfeld winds up being more popular than George Bush in that Fox poll. 

O‘DONNELL:  Bob, what are we to make of this, the president‘s approval ratings?  I‘m sure you‘re happy that there‘s been some fallout among Republicans, but what does this signal for his party? 

BOB SHRUM, HARDBALL POLITICAL ANALYST:  Oh, well, I think they have real trouble going into the 2006 election.  Normally, presidents in their second term, sixth year, do have a difficult time in the midterm, but I think right now, with Katrina, with gas prices, with what‘s happened in Iraq, with the series of disasters that have hit this administration, the American people are going to use the midterm as an opportunity to send a message. 

O‘DONNELL:  Kate, what if he goes lower? 

O‘BEIRNE:  What I think—well, you know what they say.  What goes down must go up or did I get that wrong?  You know what I think...

SHRUM:  It could just keep going down. 

O‘BEIRNE:  What I think Republicans ought to be particularly concerned about, not so much the polls, but the sluggish response on the part of Republicans in the White House, to what I think have been a few months of clearly bad news.  I mean, post Katrina, post the Harriet Miers‘ nomination, even when gas prices spike last fall, post Dubai Ports, there doesn‘t seem to have been a sense of urgency on the part of Republicans. 

There has been a lot of denial.  Oh, people still like their individual congressman.  You know, we can try to localize these elections, and there is still no agreement on the kind of policy, aggressive policy, that could be pushed to begin rallying a Republican base. 

O‘DONNELL:  But why hasn‘t that changed this week?  I mean, the message that‘s coming from the White House is change is afoot, a lot of change is afoot, at least with new faces, that Josh Bolten is going to make big changes.  Scott McClellan pushed out.  Harriet Miers possibly pushed out.  Why doesn‘t that help with people‘s fears or why haven‘t poll numbers rebounded? 

O‘BEIRNE:  Norah, it should be mentioned that in that same poll, Congress only get got a 25 percent approval rating.  They‘re less popular than George Bush, only 28 percent of Republicans approve of this Republican Congress.  In fairness to the White House, he can‘t do it all on his own. 

As the Republican members complain, how come the Bush administration doesn‘t do a better job explaining Iraq?  They are not doing a very good job of explaining Iraq themselves, as Republican allies.  Why don‘t they talk more about the economy?  Well, why don‘t Republican members of the Senate and House talk about the economy more? 

What did they do when they came back this January?  They sort of killed lobbying reform and budget reform.  And the Senate has launched this divisive debate and fight over immigration.  These are not policies that are designed to rally an enthusiastic Republican base in November. 

O‘DONNELL:  Bob, you are a strategist.  Will the American people respond though when they see that changes are being made inside the White House, to suggest good change is a foot, this is not stay the course? 

SHRUM:  The reason the week didn‘t work and the reason this strategy isn‘t going to work unless it goes much further is people are mad at gas prices not Scott McClellan.  People are mad at what‘s happening in Iraq, not that Karl Rove had too many duties.  People want to get rid of Rumsfeld.  They don‘t want to get rid of Harriet Miers. 

Look, people this week—we have heard a lot of observers talk this week about changing the deck chairs on the Titanic.  This is really a case of changing the deck hands on the Titanic, and unless you change direction here, unless we go in a new direction, the administration moves on some policy fronts. 

And Kate and I probably wouldn‘t agree with what they should be, but he has to got to get out there.  He has got to look like he cares about domestic policy, has something to say about it, can respond to the pain people are feeling with gas prices and some other factors in the economy.  And he‘s got to face up to the truth on Iraq. 

O‘DONNELL:  Kate, what about Karl Rove, was he demoted? 

O‘BEIRNE:  Norah, I don‘t think he was demoted.  He‘s a rare individual in my experience.  He‘s extremely good, everybody broadly acknowledges the politics, and he‘s also extremely good on policy, very well versed on policy.  Tough to get that combination in one person.

O‘DONNELL:  But there are a few ways to look at this.

O‘BEIRNE:  So he‘s been doing both. 

O‘DONNELL:  But the president thought he was stretched thin perhaps needed to be focusing on politics, not policy, or could this be viewed as a power grab by Josh Bolten? 

O‘BEIRNE:  No, Norah, just because somebody is really good at both, is skillful at both, doesn‘t mean he ought to be doing both.  Even Karl Rove, like the rest of we mere mortals has 24 hours in a day.  I assume—and policy given what Bob and I agree on, there ought to be one.  And they ought to be pushing it more aggressively.

I think it needs somebody‘s full time attention.  It is an election year.  Karl Rove‘s full time attention on politics is probably good news for Republicans, so I think it was lateral move to use him where he‘s most needed at the moment. 

O‘DONNELL:  Bob, that was what some senior administration official had told me, and said look it‘s obvious we have some problems coming up in the midterm elections.  We have got to put our star pitcher back on the mound. 

SHRUM:  Well, if you were really Machiavellian, you could say they‘re putting him on the line, because if things go badly in November, that‘s his job, now he‘s going to be held accountable.  I agree with Kate.  He was stretched too thin, he should have never accepted or sought the role he had. 

The fact is, this president didn‘t have a domestic policy.  He had Karl Rove in charge of it, and voters out there, families who are feeling the cost of healthcare, the cost of gasoline, have been asking, where is this president?  And he‘s been missing in action. 

O‘DONNELL:  Bob, let me ask you about some breaking news tonight that NBC first reported, and that is that the CIA has fired the individual who apparently leaked to Dana Priest of the “Washington Post”—of course, she won that Pulitzer Prize just this week for her reporting on the CIA‘s rumored secret prisons in Eastern Europe.  Was this appropriate or does this show that this administration is cracking down on those who leak sensitive information? 

SHRUM:  Well, first could we fire the president for leaking classified information from the national intelligence report to cover up the lies they were telling on the way into Iraq?  Look, I—this person is obviously—

I don‘t know whether this person did it or not. 

O‘DONNELL:  Kate, is there a double standard? 

O‘BEIRNE:  This CIA officer is not authorized to declassify documents.  It seems to me the administration may have treated this leak in a particularly ...

O‘DONNELL:  But nor is anyone in the administration allowed to reveal the identity of a covert CIA agent. 

O‘BEIRNE:  This CIA officer—I think the administration‘s attitude was this is a particularly harmful leak to national security.  The so-called secret prisons in Eastern Europe embarrassed Eastern European allies, Poland in particular, if there is any such cooperation going on.  They‘re enormously helpful to us in Iraq.  It was an example of a leak that embarrassed important allies. 

O‘DONNELL:  But bottom line ...

O‘BEIRNE:  I think the administration took this leak particularly seriously. 

O‘DONNELL:  And it‘s going to create a sense of fear inside the CIA about talking to reporters, if they‘re going to prosecute. 

O‘BEIRNE:  Well, if CIA officers are discouraged from leaking classified information that damages national security, I think that‘s something that the public would be more than happy to see. 

SHRUM:  It wasn‘t the leak that damaged national security.  What damaged national security was having the secret prisons and torturing people in them. 

O‘DONNELL:  There you go. 

All right.  Well, we‘re going to continue this because we‘re going to come back with Bob Shrum and Kate O‘Beirne to talk more though about the White House changes, what they‘re going to do for the president on Capitol Hill.  Will all these new faces take his agenda to better places? 

And later, it is Friday night, so that means it‘s time for HARDBALL Hot Shots.  You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O‘DONNELL:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  I‘m Norah O‘Donnell sitting in for Chris Matthews. 

What can the new White House faces do for the president‘s relationship with Congress and his agenda on Capitol Hill? 

Well, let‘s ask HARDBALL political analyst Bob Shrum, and “National Review” Washington editor Kate O‘Beirne. 

Kate, what about gas prices?  This president has had a lot of problems.  Iraq has clearly been the ball and chain according to pollsters, but now we have today gas hitting $75 a barrel and in a lot of places $3 a gallon.  In Beverly Hills, it‘s $4 a gallon. 

O‘BEIRNE:  Norah, what we‘re seeing in the polls --  despite the—

Bob‘s worried about the base.

(CROSSTALK)

O‘BEIRNE:  Norah, despite the really solid economic news, we‘re now seeing, of course, gas prices, aren‘t surprisingly are effecting people‘s views of the economy.  In fact, that same poll we‘ve been talking about says people‘s dim view of the economy is largely driven by what they‘re paying for gas at the pump, yet another issue—not unlike Iraq—that is largely outside the president‘s control and, yet, he‘s paying a heavy price, I think, with respect to his support in the polls owing to high gas prices and the ongoing news from Iraq.

O‘DONNELL:  What, is that the answer, Kate though, is for the White House to say, well, this is beyond my control, these high gas prices? 

O‘BEIRNE:  No, what he‘s going to have to, of course, do isn‘t as much truth to this.  He has been hoping to get Congress to go along with, you know, increasing our refining capacity, doing more domestic exploration, the kind of things that the Democratic party fights tooth and nail. 

So sure he‘ll make that case, but meanwhile, frustrated motorists are still paying what they‘re paying at the pump and it puts them in a really sour mood. 

O‘DONNELL:  Yes, it does. 

Bob, how much do you think this affects his approval ratings in the coming weeks?  More than what may happen in Iraq?

SHRUM:  Sure, that‘s why I think they can go lower—well, not more necessarily, because Iraq is still very, very serious.  I mean, they may be able to form a government we hear today, but the administration is going to be tempted to take another process moment and turn it into another victory lap, which I think would actually hurt them, because what‘s going to matter in Iraq is the situation on the ground. 

The president is going to be held accountable for gas prices.  He comes from the oil industry, Dick Cheney comes from the oil industry.  The problem with their energy policy is it is consistent for most of the past few years with a demand to drill in the Alaska wilderness, which would give us another month or two of oil. 

They have not come up with a serious policy on alternative energy.  The president talked about it in the State of the Union message and it was the last we heard of it. 

O‘DONNELL:  Kate, if the president can‘t do anything about gas prices, does this mean we‘re going to spend this entire summer, through Memorial Day and then Labor Day, with $3, $3.50 gas? 

O‘BEIRNE:  Hopefully not, Norah, for the sake of Congressmen running for reelection. 

O‘DONNELL:  Right.

O‘BEIRNE:  As I said, it really sours the public mood and it affects their view and in this case, the economy.  The economy under President Bush‘s leadership—in no small part owing to his tax cuts where an argument has to be made to make sure they don‘t expire—they lose credit for the economy and the good economic news, owing to the drag from gas prices. 

O‘DONNELL:  So you guys think that when Congress comes back from a recess next week, there are going to be some oil executives up on Capitol Hill that they‘re going to flog for their record compensation packages and others, that Congress has got to be seeing that since they can‘t really do anything about the cost, they can at least beat up on oil executives who are making hundreds of millions of dollars? 

O‘BEIRNE:  Oh, that‘s a terrible thing to be doing and I would hope

that Republicans don‘t fall into that trap of beating up oil company

executives as though we‘re being—as though we have robber barons.‘

O‘DONNELL:  Speaker Hastert today said he was concerned about the compensation package of the head of ExxonMobil.

O‘BEIRNE:  Wrong, wrong, wrong as a remedy to gas prices, and it‘s even wrong politically, I would think.

SHRUM:  No, no.  The compensation package at Exxon is obscene, obscene, obscene.  And there is in fact something that can be done about gas prices by the president.  He could announce that next year, say, instead of proposing to spend another $200 billion in Iraq, we‘re going to spend $200 billion on a Manhattan-like project to create alternative energy.  The oil futures markets would understand that.  It would have an impact on oil prices.  But this president, who is beholden to the oil industry and who helped them write his energy policy sitting in the White House, is not going to do that.

O‘DONNELL:   All right, gas prices, the cost of the war in Iraq, also immigration are all going to be huge issues next week when Congress comes back.  Thank you, Bob Shrum and Kate O‘Beirne.  And up next, the politics of the bird flu after Hurricane Katrina.  Can we handle an outbreak?  And later, it‘s the HARDBALL Hot Shots: Joe Scarborough, Tucker Carlson and Craig Crawford on the hottest stories on the week.  You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O‘DONNELL:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  President Bush is reportedly close to approving a national response plan in the wake of a bird flu pandemic.  But in the wake of the government‘s failed response to Hurricane Katrina, many Americans are questioning the government‘s ability to handle an outbreak of the deadly avian flu.  Dr. Sue Bailey is a former assistant secretary of defense for health affairs and an MSNBC analyst.  Let me ask you Dr. Bailey, how unprepared are we?

DR. SUE BAILEY, MSNBC ANALYST:  We‘re real unprepared and I think if you look at how we‘re doing with the mumps outbreak in the Midwest, where you have a vaccine for something that isn‘t very deadly, for which a lot of people have immunity, it really scares you about the possibility of a pandemic with bird flu.

O‘DONNELL:  How soon could bird flu be in the United States?

BAILEY:  Well we think the birds will come in the United States with the bird flu probably in this year.  Whether or not a pandemic develops, that‘s yet to say.  If it mutates to go to the easily transmittable form from person-to-person, then we have the possibility of a pandemic.  The real possibility, the real threat, and that could be tomorrow, heaven forbid, because we‘re not ready.  Or if it were a few years from now, we might be.

O‘DONNELL:  Well who is to blame?  Why are we not ready?

BAILEY:  Well I think we‘ve let our public health system deteriorate in recent years and we saw that in Katrina.  So that‘s part of the problem, but I also think our organization is lacking.  We really need to think about who‘s in charge and how to get them to move more quickly to get the vaccines ready, the medications there, get the hospitals prepared to deal with what‘s going to come our way sooner or later.

O‘DONNELL:  You know what‘s interesting is all this discussion certainly on NBC and MSNBC all day is about the avian flu and you think, “Oh, this is good.  We‘re bringing attention to this; we‘re bring attention to the fact that government hasn‘t done enough and everybody needs to get serious about this.”  But even though we‘re getting serious about that now, is that enough time to be ready if we‘re going to have birds with bird flu in the United States in weeks or within this month?

BAILEY:  Well remember Norah that a bird being here with the bird flu and that happening in that way is not really the big problem.  It‘s that next step, if it changes to go from person to person very easily, then you have the possibility of something that could be as bad as 1918, the Spanish flu that killed 50 million or something more like the Hong Kong flu, which would not be as serious, but still would affect many lives in America.

O‘DONNELL:  I was stunned to read that federal officials are saying according to their worst-case scenario plan, that as many as 90 million people in the United States could get sick from the bird flu and that two million could die worldwide from a pandemic.  I mean, those are really, really scary numbers.  But given that there have been just over 100 people worldwide that have died from the bird flu, is this somewhat of an exaggeration, these numbers?

BAILEY:  Not at all.  The bird flu is a different thing.  It has a high mortality rate, but that‘s just getting it from the bird and that‘s a different strain than the mutated form that we‘re looking forward, unfortunately to. 

When that change occurs, it will go again more easily from person to person, and like other pandemics, and we‘re overdue for one.  We have them consistently throughout the years.  In fact, there is a high mortality rate and a lot of people get sick.  Spanish flu, 2.5 percent of people that got it died, so that sounds relatively low.  It‘s just that so many people are infected by a pandemic.

O‘DONNELL:  All right.  Thank you, Dr. Sue Bailey.  And you can learn more about the bird flu on “Dateline” on NBC, 7:00 p.m. on Sunday night.  And up next, it‘s Friday, so it‘s the HARDBALL Hot Shots and this week we‘re talking about the big R‘s: Rove, Rumsfeld and Rudy, and the religious right.  You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(MARKET REPORT)          

O‘DONNELL:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.

In just a moment, I‘ll be joined by the “HARDBALL HOTSHOTS.”  But first Iraq‘s ruling Shiite alliance has nominated a prime minister.  And the move may end the four-month deadlock over the formation of a coalition government.

NBC‘s Richard Engel joins us now from Baghdad—Richard. 

RICHARD ENGEL, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT:  Norah, it seems very likely that we have a political development here.  The main Shiite alliance has said that it supports the candidate of Jawad Al-Maliki to replace the current interim Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari.  Tomorrow there is likely to be a meeting of the Iraqi parliament, and during that meeting, we could have the confirmation of Al-Maliki to this post of prime minister. 

Also, it is expected that we will have the Jalal Talabani reconfirmed for a second term as president.  This would be a major political breakthrough after four months of deadlock. 

What we know about Maliki at this stage is he‘s from the Dawa Party. 

He is considered a very pragmatic leader.  He‘s something of a negotiator.  He‘s considered a very highly skilled politician.  Over the last four months, it‘s been Maliki who‘s really been driving the negotiations with the Kurdish parties, with the Sunni Arab parties and attending these daily talks.  That is where he gained their trust. 

However, there are some downsides to Maliki.  He is a Shiite politician from the Dawa Party.  He‘s not expected to take a hard line against the Shiite militia groups here.  He has also spent a considerable amount of time in Syria and Iran, and he was a member of the de-baathefication committee, which has been accused by Sunni Arab groups of actually running basically witch hunts against former members of the Baath Party.

So from the Iraqi perspective, there are some pluses, some minuses.  From the American perspective, this is certainly a positive development, because at least now the Americans will have someone to talk to.  The process will move forward.  For the past four months, the Americans have been in this awkward position of trying to transfer authority to an Iraqi government that basically didn‘t exist. 

Now the American administration can say that it—there soon will be, if everything happens, which is expected to happen tomorrow, a full legitimate full-term Iraqi government.  And once that happens, the U.S. can start negotiating with this government, try and continue to transfer authority to it, and ultimately transfer more security authority to the new Iraqi government, which could mean a reduction in overall U.S. troop strength—Norah. 

O‘DONNELL:  And that‘s probably the headline, certainly here in the United States. 

Richard Engel in Baghdad, thank you. 

That there has been what appears to be a breakthrough that the Iraqi government could be close to forming, and that means transferring of course more over to the Iraqi security forces. 

And now to the “HARDBALL HOTSHOTS.”  It is time for our special Friday feature with my MSNBC colleagues, Joe Scarborough, Tucker Carlson and Craig Crawford.  They get to set the nail to the winners and the losers, the heroines and the villains from this past week. 

So first up, Rove, now and forever.  They call him the mastermind the may berry Machiavelli.  They call him Bush‘s brain, but now they call him down sized.  The White House announced this week that Karl Rove would be giving up his domestic policy to focus exclusively on politics.  Rove is the man who brought you George Bush‘s victory in 2000, the Republican upset in the 2002 midterms and a big White House win in 2004, despite the war in Iraq.

He is the man who set out to build the permanent Republican majority in this country, but most of all, he‘s the man who has been George Bush‘s ear on everything, which begs the question, is this job change for real or is it the president trying to convince us that he responds to criticism, that he knows how to change course? 

Joe, is this for real, Rove‘s demotion?  Or do you see it more as a shifting of resources? 

JOE SCARBOROUGH, MSNBC HOST:  Well, it depends on what you consider a demotion or a promotion.  If you consider the most important job for the president of the United States a promotion, this is a promotion, because all that matters to George Bush and Karl Rove right now is that they keep Democrats out of control of the Senate and the House in the last two years of their presidency. 

If that happens, if Democrats take control of the Senate or the House, they get subpoena power, and it‘s going to be a very, very bloody two years for George W. Bush.  So there is not a more important job for a Republican in Washington, D.C., than ensuring that Henry Waxman and Ted Kennedy and Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi never get a chance to subpoena George Bush or his administration. 

O‘DONNELL:  Tucker, it‘s interesting, because with Karl Rove‘s new job change, if you will, although he maintains the title of deputy chief of staff, clearly the president thought or might have thought that he was stretched too thin, that he needed to focus on politics, do you think there is any truth that this may have been a power grab by Josh Bolten, the new chief of staff? 

TUCKER CARLSON, MSNBC HOST:  Maybe, you know, we‘ve heard a ton of theories, that maybe Rove lost his security clearance because of the Valerie Plame matters, so he could no longer work on policy.  I tend to agree with every single word Joe just uttered.  That the two most important words in the next—seriously, in the next six months, subpoena power.  That‘s what matters. 

If the House or the Senate goes to the Democrats, it‘s going to be so profoundly unprecedentedly—if that‘s an adverb—ugly for the Republican Party.  I mean, you just can‘t even imagine how bad it is going to be.  It‘s going to be 1997 squared.  They despise George W. Bush.  There are so many unanswered, some of them legitimate, questions the Democrats have about how this government has been running.  And everybody is going to get subpoenaed.  That would essentially end President Bush‘s presidency. 

O‘DONNELL:  Right.  So but with Karl Rove‘s new job, is he going to save the Republican Party and save the Republicans from losing control of Congress?

CARLSON:  I don‘t know.  I mean, no matter where you are in the political spectrum, if you‘re thinking of the one guy who could prevent what looks like an inevitable switch, changeover in the midterm elections, who would it be?  It would be Karl Rove.  I mean, I think John Kerry himself would hire Karl Rove if he could. 

SCARBOROUGH:  Yes, if anybody can save them, it‘s Karl Rove.  There‘s not even a close second in Washington. 

O‘DONNELL:  Craig, do you agree with that? 

CRAIG CRAWFORD, CONGRESSIONAL QUARTERLY:  Well, as a “HOT SHOT” understudy, I support the ranking members here.  I mean, Joe is right.  I mean, the one good thing about this is Karl Rove is going to spend more time with the president, because the president presumably will be very, very focused on the midterm races coming in. 

One thing Karl Rove probably won‘t have to do is schedule the vice president or the president very much on the road, because we‘re hearing a lot of these Republican congressional candidates are saying they don‘t want them.  They don‘t want the photo ops.  They don‘t want them campaigning for them.  They do want their money.  They want them to raise money for the candidates, but stay on the phone. 

O‘DONNELL:  Exactly.  All right.  Next up, no way to treat a lady.  She almost got pushed up to the Supreme Court, now she‘s almost getting pushed out the door.  “The New York Times” today quotes on influential Republican with close ties to the president.  He says that new Chief of Staff Josh Bolten wants White House Counsel Harriet Miers gone for good.  Bolten thinks she is indecisive and a weak manager. 

This is the same Harriet Miers who has been very close friends with George Bush for years, talking lots of time with him in his ranch in Crawford, Texas.  Is this White House shakeup about to get shakier? 

And, Tucker, what do you make that in “The New York Times” there‘s a leak about what the new White House chief of staff thinks, that he thinks that Harriet Miers is too slow? 

CARLSON:  It‘s very un-Bush like.  I can‘t think of many times over the past six years where you‘ve read something about this kind of staff level fighting in “The New York Times.”  It just hasn‘t—they haven‘t leaked a lot of stuff like this.  I think Bolten is on to something.  I know a lot of people who know Harriet Miers well personally, everyone of them says she‘s an awfully nice woman.

But the writings of Harriet Miers that were released when she was up for the Supreme Court were so banal, so aggressively trite...

O‘DONNELL:  Remind us.  Repeat them.

CARLSON:  They were mind numbing.  Literally, I can‘t even remember the words, but I know they gave me chills, that I can understand concerns about her ability to be an effective White House staffer, yes.

O‘DONNELL:  Joe, what does it say?  Because, you know, usually some White Houses have operated this in the past, which is leaking that somebody ought to leave to the “New York Times.”  That‘s not the vindictive style, if you will, of this White House.  What does it suggest that things are going to change? 

SCARBOROUGH:  Well, I‘ll tell you what it screams and I‘ve just got to say, if anybody really believes that Josh Bolten leaked this story to the “New York Times” without the approval of George W. Bush, or a wink or a nod, then they are too naive to report the news in Washington, D.C.  The saddest part of the story for Harriet Miers is—hold on a second.

CRAWFORD:  Hey, Joe, but what if he‘s just trying to put pressure on the president?

CRAWFORD:  He might be trying to pressure the president.

SCARBOROUGH:  No, it doesn‘t work that way.  In the Bush White House, it doesn‘t work that way.  Josh Bolten is a Bush loyalist, he would never leak without the president knowing he was leaking, and—or maybe they were talking in a conversation when he came on board and Bush said yes, maybe it‘s time for her to go, but gee, she‘s a close personal friend. 

What is sad for—why I feel sorry for Harriet Miers is, she‘s been there for six years, she knows leaks don‘t happen in the Bush White House, she knows that Josh Bolten would never leak without the president giving her the go-ahead.  This is George W. Bush pushing her out the door and having Josh Bolten do the dirty business for him.

CRAWFORD:  I mean, Joe, Bush is so—he‘s so close to her, that I see what you‘re saying, Joe, but it‘s hard to follow.  I mean, I ...

SCARBOROUGH:  It‘s not hard to follow.  That‘s how it works in Washington. 

(CROSSTALK)

CRAWFORD:  It also works when aides want to pressure the principal to do something he doesn‘t want to do or doesn‘t want to talk to him about, they leak it, and they don‘t put their names on it.  That works in Washington too.

SCARBOROUGH:  No, to, no.  That‘s the Clinton White House, that‘s the Reagan White House, that is not George W. Bush‘s White House. 

CRAWFORD:  Well, I think this has become a very different White House.  I agree that was the pattern in the past but I‘ll tell you, if you‘ve seen the madness of King George lately ...

SCARBOROUGH:  So you think Josh Bolten ...

O‘DONNELL:  All right, all right, all right.  This is getting very ...

SCARBOROUGH:  You think Josh Bolten becomes the chief of staff and then two weeks later breaks the six year ban on leaks?  No way.  It doesn‘t happen.

CRAWFORD:  I think getting of Harriet‘s going to be—it would be—

I would say it would be harder to get rid of the twins. 

O‘DONNELL:  All right, hotshots, next up—next up, right crowd, wrong feeling.  President Bush‘s job approval numbers have been steadily sliding for months while it‘s clear that most Democrats have had enough of the Bush administration. 

What‘s now beginning to bust through is the Republican anger.  The latest poll by Opinion Dynamics and Fox News finds one-third of Republicans saying they either disapprove or don‘t know how they feel about the president‘s job performance. 

Today, the president met with rock star Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who is comparing California‘s levee system to pre-Katrina New Orleans, and blaming the president and Washington for a lack of funds to fix it. 

The “Chicago Tribune” reported last week that some Republican candidates for 2006 are asking the White House to not send President Bush or Vice President Dick Cheney to campaign for them, but instead, more consistently popular, First Lady Laura Bush.  Could the anti-Bush feeling among moderate Republicans help Democrats in 2006?  Have conservatives used up their compassion for the president? 

Craig, what are we to make of this?  I mean, I heard Kate O‘Beirne earlier, she said that‘s the big drop, is Republicans. 

CRAWFORD:  Yes, Bob Shrum was a happy man, and that said, I noticed, you know, we‘ve been seeing a pattern for some time now—going back to last fall, we saw some slippage among social moderate Republicans on Iraq as well.  That‘s why we saw the Senate put some pressure on the president to create a withdrawal plan. 

What‘s changed lately, and we saw it in the immigration debate, is the harder line, right wing conservatives are starting to bolt from the president and questioning whether he‘s a true red conservative, and so you have both camps now within—and I think that‘s what‘s driving these numbers down with Republican support. 

O‘DONNELL:  Tucker, given that, that there‘s a falloff among even the president‘s base, which has always been rock solid, because Karl Rove has kept it rock solid, does that mean that the Republicans really are in trouble in November? 

CARLSON:  Oh, yes.  I mean, this is the very thing, the precise thing, that Republicans are really worried about for November, is that Republicans won‘t vote.  And I think that the dissatisfaction is almost purely ideological.  I think Republicans—conservative Republicans, and they are the ones who vote on the Republican side. 

Moderate Republicans get a huge amount of attention but they don‘t vote as faithfully as, say, evangelicals do, but the dissatisfaction is with the size of government.  This is a big government conservative or at least a big government president, in any case, and I think that‘s very dispiriting to people who see themselves as Reaganites, and there still are some. 

O‘DONNELL:  And, Joe, we haven‘t seen numbers like this, low approval ratings for Congress, since 1994, of course, when you were elected to Congress.  Is the mood the country out there so anti-majority party that the Republicans will likely lose control of one if not both houses? 

SCARBOROUGH:  It is.  It is, and I‘ll tell you what.  The president has made some decisions in the past two months with already low ratings, that certainly earned him praise from the “New York Times” editorial page but just eviscerated support among conservatives. 

Whether you want to talk about immigration, whether you want to talk about the port deals, or whether you want to talk about runaway spending, I mean, the president—you know, people that got out, Norah, with me in 1994 and walked door to door, and gave their lives up to get Republicans in control of Congress, people who I saw praying for George Bush‘s victory in 2000 and 2004 and weeping after he won both of those years, these people are saying, tell me. 

I really don‘t care.  It doesn‘t make any difference whether they‘re Republicans or Democrats, I‘m having a hard time finding rank and file, conservative Republicans who give a damn whether Republicans maintain control of the House or the Senate in 2006, because they don‘t think it makes a difference.  George Bush and the Republicans in Congress are not conservatives.  They are big government Republicans and this is not the party that got elected in 1994. 

O‘DONNELL:  It looks like ... 

CRAWFORD:  As long as they got something passed—I mean, if they got something passed that conservatives like, social conservatives, maybe the ban on gay marriage before the midterm election, that might help, but I don‘t see why conservative Republicans would support this president.  He‘s not done anything for them except ... 

(CROSSTALK)

SCARBOROUGH:  The only thing he‘s done—the Supreme Court nominees, those are two great fiscal conservatives. 

CARLSON:  Right, that‘s right.

CRAWFORD:  And we‘ll see how that works.

SCARBOROUGH:  But that ain‘t enough.  That ain‘t enough to hold the Congress.

O‘DONNELL:  Now it looks like Karl Rove‘s portfolio has just gotten a lot bigger.  Maybe it wasn‘t a demotion, but he certainly has a lot more responsibility with trying to help the Republicans in Congress.  I‘ll be right back with much more.  You are watching “HARDBALL Hotshots” only on HARDBALL on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O‘DONNELL:  Welcome back to HARDBALL Hot Shots with Joe Scarborough, Tucker Carlson and Craig Crawford.

Next up, old soldiers never die.  When most Americans think about Donald Rumsfeld, they think about the man who led an unpopular war in Iraq.  Last week, six retired generals called for Rummy‘s resignation.  This week, he fought back.  In a live press conference, Rumsfeld fielded tough questions about his future and his past.  Here‘s NBC‘s Jim Miklaszewski with a HARDBALL question for the embattled defense secretary.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JIM MIKLASZEWSKI, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT:  You twice offered your resignation to President Bush, which he rejected, even though there was no evidence that the activities there worked its way up the chain of command, certainly to the Pentagon.  Yet here, there are questions about decisions in which you were directly involved regarding the war in Iraq and you said you don‘t even consider resignation.  Why in one case and not the other?

DONALD RUMSFELD, DEFENSE SECRETARY:  Just call it idiosyncratic.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O‘DONNELL:  Tucker, that is what you call vintage Rummy, right?

CARLSON:  It‘s hard not to be kind of in love and I say that as someone who strongly disapproves of his conduct in the war.  From the very beginning, I think he mishandled it when he sort of blew off in the most blase way that the looting in Baghdad right after the liberation of Baghdad, et cetera, et cetera, you could go on and on and on.

But his personal style is so compelling.  This is a lesson to every one in public service in Washington D.C., how to handle the page one “New York Times” story that says everyone hates you.  You hold a press conference like that and you present yourself as he did.  I mean, just on style points alone, he wins, I hate to say it.

O‘DONNELL:  Craig, you know that Rumsfeld of course called into Rush Limbaugh and I think the line from that interview was he said, “This too will pass.”  Will it pass?

CRAWFORD:  Such a brave move for him to go on Limbaugh.  I think Rumsfeld is not going anywhere.  Because for him to leave, it would really undermine the whole theatrical premise of this administration, which is kind of the OK Corral.  I think Bush and Rumsfeld giving up here, it would like Wyatt Earp and Doc Holiday running behind the women folk at the OK Corral or something.  I don‘t see it happening.  I know Joe doesn‘t. 

O‘DONNELL:  Joe, quick answer, will he leave?

SCARBOROUGH:  Yes, I don‘t see it happening.  He has George Bush‘s confidence, and I‘m like Tucker.  I absolutely love his style.  But there‘s no way to look at the facts and not conclude, like so many soldiers on the ground over there, that he didn‘t give our army and didn‘t give our Marines what they needed to win. 

Didn‘t give them enough troop strength and that‘s something that he‘d been pushing from the very beginning.  You know, right after George W. Bush got elected, he came to the Hill, and spies on the Armed Services Committee.  And he was talking about transforming the military and he had some pretty wacky ideas if we intended to be the 911 of the world, which is what we are right now.

O‘DONNELL:  All right, Joe, more in a moment.  But first, in one of our segments last night, we discussed whether the Bush administration cherry picked prewar intelligence gathered by various government agencies.  One of those agencies was the Defense Intelligence Agency, however it was not our intent to suggest that the DIA cherry picked, only that some of the DIA‘s intelligence appears to have cherry picked by the administration.  That correction for you, and I will be right back with much more.  You‘re watching HARDBALL Hot Shots, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O‘DONNELL:  Welcome back to HARDBALL Hot Shots with Joe Scarborough, Craig Crawford and Tucker Carlson.  Next up, 2008 presidential prospects.  Who‘s hot and who‘s not? 

On the Republican side, John McCain said in an interview this week that he understands his support for the war in Iraq could end up being a political liability.  Rudy Giuliani gets set to headline a fundraiser for Abramoff buddy Ralph Reed.  Virginia Senator George Allen graces the cover, get this, “Martial Arts World.”  He said there is a certain trust you can have in someone who‘s trained in the martial arts because you know what they‘ve gone through.

Now on the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton enmasses a $20 million war chest from donors around the country.  Former vice presidential candidate John Edwards told a Dallas audience that poverty is a great moral issue facing this country.  And Vice President Al Gore hired a former political aide to help his global warming campaign.  He says, “I‘m not planning to be a candidate again.  I haven‘t reached a stage in my life where I‘m willing to say I will never consider something like that.”

Joe, who‘s the clear winner this week?

SCARBOROUGH:  Well the clear winner on the Democratic side is Hillary Clinton because that $20 million keeps Al Gore from jumping back into the race.  It‘s been very obvious this Gore since 2004 has been moving to the left to try to get that energized Democratic base that right now is pretty passive about Hillary Clinton.  But $20 million will make Al Gore think long and hard about jumping on the race.  On the Republican side, it‘s all John McCain.

O‘DONNELL:  Tucker, the winner?

CARLSON:  Let me just say, I agree with Joe.  I think John McCain.  He‘s spending his time now trying to mend fences with Evangelicals who hate him.  I‘m not sure quite why they hate him, he‘s pro-life, he is conservative on the social issues more than he gets credit for being.  I think he‘ll be successful in gaining back their support.

O‘DONNELL:  Craig?

CRAWFORD:  I‘d like to talk about John Edwards because no one else does.  He‘s sort of a stealth winner to me.  I have followed him.  He‘s all over the country.  Washington pays no attention to him, that‘s not a problem.  He had a three-dayer out in Iowa recently that went well where he called for Bush‘s censure.  I think this man is going to be a comer in this race and I‘m looking for him to be the first to take on Hillary.

O‘DONNELL:  All right, well thank you to Joe Scarborough, Tucker Carlson and Craig Crawford, the Hot Shots.  Join us again Monday night at 5:00 and 7:00 Eastern for more HARDBALL.  Right now it‘s time for “THE ABRAMS REPORT” with Dan Abrams.

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

END   

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