updated 4/25/2006 1:31:17 PM ET 2006-04-25T17:31:17

Guests: Marsha Blackburn, Marty Meehan, Steve McMahon, Susan Molinari, Jon Meacham, Mike Allen, Margaret Carlson

DAVID GREGORY, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT:  Did the shakeup shake out the problems in the West Wing or is the White House in need of an extreme makeover?  Let‘s play HARDBALL.

Good evening everyone.  I‘m David Gregory in tonight for Chris Matthews and reporting from the White House. 

Congress, as you know, is coming back to Washington this week after getting an earful about gas prices, illegal immigration and of course the war in Iraq during its recess. 

And it‘s make it or break it time for President Bush as he directs his new chief of staff to shake up his second term.  Plus, the president is trying to flex his political muscle on the issue of immigration reform, but can he reboot his second term in time for the midterm elections?  More on all of that in just a moment. 

And later “Newsweek” Managing Editor Jon Meacham and the author of “American Gospel” talks about how President Bush can get his religious base from the pews to the polls for the upcoming elections, both the midterms and the 2008 campaign.

But we begin tonight with the politics of oil.  The Republican leadership is calling on the Bush administration to investigate possible price gouging.  Does the Justice Department need to look into this?  What can politicians do to get the price of gas down, if anything?

I‘m joined right now by Democratic Congressman Marty Meehan of Massachusetts and Republican Congresswoman of Tennessee Marsha Blackburn.  Welcome to you both. 

REP. MARSHA BLACKBURN ®, TENNESSEE:  Hi, thank you.

REP. MARTY MEEHAN (D), MASSACHUSETTS:  Great to be here.

GREGORY:  Congresswoman, let me start with you.  Your leadership is calling on the White House to direct the attorney general to investigate price gouging at the pump.  What do you suspect is going on that‘s driving up prices? 

BLACKBURN:  Well, you know, we can go back and look at what has happened over the past 30 years.  To look at three decades of an environmental...

GREGORY: No.  No.  I‘m asking you, is there price gouging?  Why do you suspect there is price gouging? 

BLACKBURN:  Is there price gouging?  You know, I would hope that there is not, but that is the reason to call for the investigations, and actually David, had the Senate joined us in passing the gas act, that we passed in the House last fall, which federalized price gouging as a crime, put in place penalties, then we would not be having to have this discussion right now. 

GREGORY:  Are you aware—or is there any evidence to believe that an investigation is necessary?

BLACKBURN:  Well, let me say this.  Where I am from in Tennessee, we have not seen any instances in my congressional district of what we feel is price gouging.  What we are concerned about is that individuals, service stations, units do not take advantage of the situation that we find ourselves in and participate in price gouging. 

GREGORY:  Congressman Meehan, is there a role for Congress here, is there a role for the administration overall? 

MEEHAN:  Well, first of all, the FTC frankly should have been conducting this investigation months ago.  The fact is I‘ve been in Massachusetts for the last two weeks, and it seems over the last few days that the price is increasing by the hour at the pump, so there needs to be an aggressive investigation. 

Part of the problem is that Congress passed an energy bill that frankly gave more breaks to the oil and gas industry.  What‘s interesting is there are $12 billion of breaks in the energy bill that passed, yet we see that the sixth major oil companies in America last year made $1.1 trillion. So another thing that Congress ought to do is tax this huge, excessive windfall and get it back to the consumers, where it ought to be. 

GREGORY:  And Congresswoman Blackburn, I mean, there‘s certainly a lot of Republicans who have said that the oil companies should have their feet held to the fire here.  Do you believe in some kind of what is called a windfall tax, as a way to try to punish the oil companies? 

BLACKBURN:  You know, that is an easy thing to say, but I‘ll point out that Mr. Meehan voted against the gas act that would have federalized price gouging as a crime.  The price at the pump is something that we are very concerned about.  I‘m concerned about it, my constituents are.

And I will tell you this, one of the things we need to be certain we do is follow through with energy policy going forward that will keep this from happening again. 

GREGORY:  All right.  I want to get to that, but Congresswoman Blackburn, I asked you a very specific question, do you believe in any kind of windfall tax, which is being discussed in both chambers? 

BLACKBURN:  No, I do not.  We have tried that.  It does not work. 

Windfall profits tax does not work. 

GREGORY:  Should the oil companies be held responsible in any fashion for this drastic run up? 

BLACKBURN:  I would like to see them do some more investing in exploration, domestic exploration.  That is a certain way, opening up existing oil fields, drilling in Anwar.  I don‘t know if Mr. Meehan is in favor of that or not.  I certainly am.  Domestic exploration, putting some energy there, that is a place that we can make a difference. 

MEEHAN:  Can I just respond? 

GREGORY:  Congressman, will you pick it up now on what should be done.  In other words, how did it get to this place where it‘s so bad and what should be done? 

MEEHAN:  First of all, I‘m in favor of making price gouging a crime, and in fact, one the reasons I didn‘t vote for the Republican House version was because there were too many breaks for the oil companies.  This administration and the Republican leadership in Congress has given break after break after break to the oil and gas industry, without ever holding them accountable. 

I hear the congresswoman talk about letting them drill. 

BLACKBURN:  But you can have it both ways.

MEEHAN:  Hold on, I gave you your shot. 

She talks about letting them drill.  We‘re letting them drill in federal lands, and they‘re not paying any royalties.  It‘s estimated that that‘s going to cost $20 billion to the federal government in over 25 years, could be as high as $80 billion.  How much are we going to lay over and roll over for the oil companies in this country?

It‘s time for the Congress and the president to stand up to the oil companies with an investigation, number one, holding them accountable with taxes and getting the money back to consumers, and finally I think it‘s incumbent upon the president of the United States to bring in his big buddies from big oil and say look we have a crisis in America.  Americans cannot afford $3, $3.50 a gallon of gasoline.  It‘s at $73 a barrel at the pump now.  We need action on the part of the federal government. 

GREGORY:  All right.  Congresswoman, go ahead, have your piece with it. 

BLACKBURN:  Yes, I tell you, liberal double talk is easy.  It is easy.  They create a problem, then they want to tell you how they‘re going to go and solve the problem.  What we have seen, as I said earlier, 30 years of environmental extremists energy policy.  We‘ve let the environmental extremists the EPA, OSHA, folks like that shut down the ability to put in new refineries. 

We‘ve gone from 324 refineries in 1981 to 148 today.  We need 21 million barrels of oil a day, and we have the capacity to refine 17 million barrels.  I mean, this plus we‘ve had Katrina and Rita.  Plus, we have a booming economy, so we have a need that is there for increased consumption and tight supply lines.

GREGORY:  Congresswoman, let me interject on this point.  Given how high the demand is in this country, to say nothing of other countries around the world, namely as the president likes to talk about, India and China tremendous demand for oil, do you think it‘s appropriate for the American people to start to conserve on gasoline?  Should they consume less right now to try to drive prices down? 

BLACKBURN:  Are you directing that to me, David? 

GREGORY:  I am. 

BLACKBURN:  Because I—listen, I am all for conservation efforts.  I think that there are plenty of things that we can do in our daily lives that will help us to save home heating fuels.  I think there are so many things we can do to look forward to alternative fuels, to look not only to the conservation, but look to the alternative uses. 

And those are exciting opportunities that we should be engaged in.  We have plenty of companies that are working on some of the alternative uses and on the conservation efforts, and there are also companies that are beginning to look at how we use those fossil fuels.  Do we need to use fossil fuels as we are generating electricity?  What are more effective means of generating electricity?  And those are worthy debates. 

GREGORY:  Congressman, let me ask you this question.  Let me ask you a political question here, which is aren‘t both parties looking for some degree of cover here?  It‘s easy to blame Republicans who have been in power, but experts I‘ve talked to say there was plenty of complacency on the Democratic side as well when Democrats were in control and didn‘t see the prices ratcheting up to the degree that they have been. 

Is there an attempt in Congress at political cover when there‘s really nothing that can be done in the short term? 

MEEHAN:  Well, I think there is something that can be done in the short term.  All you have to do is look at the profit margins of these oil companies, look at the CEO leaving Exxon-Mobil with a $400 million retirement package.  Why is it that this Congress, the Republican leadership and the administration, has continually passed energy bills?  The latest energy bill, $20 billion in tax breaks. 

So there is something that could be done here.  We should provide investments in alternative fuel, alternative energy...

BLACKBURN:  And we did, $800 billion worth. 

MEEHAN:  There are a lot of things that we could do.  But the fact of the matter is as long as this oil and gas industry buy and pay for their policies in Washington, the energy bill, then we‘re never going to hold people accountable. 

GREGORY:  Congresswoman, I‘ll give you the last word, but I want it to be on my question, which is, is this just an attempt at political cover when there are no practical solutions on the short term for Congress to pursue? 

BLACKBURN:  David, there are very few things that you can do today or tomorrow that are going to get the gas down at the pump today or tomorrow.  One of the things that we can do is to address the permitting, the way these refineries go in, how quickly they go in, the production of that and certainly, certainly, be investigating the price gouging, have Congress to join in, have the Senate join us and make this a federal crime and encourage our Democratic counterparts to join us in, again, supporting the gas act.

GREGORY:  There is certainly a lot of frustration around the country as people...

BLACKBURN:  Yes, there is.

GREGORY:  ...are getting sticker shock every time they fill up.  Thanks to both of you, Congressman Martin Meehan and Congresswoman Marsha Blackburn.

BLACKBURN:  Thank you.

GREGORY:  And coming up, could high gas prices fuel a Democratic revolt in this November‘s midterm elections.  We‘ll be back with a look at the strategy session.  You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GREGORY:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  I‘m David Gregory in for Chris tonight and reporting from the White House.  Now to President Bush‘s new chief of staff is shaking things up in the White House.  What can the president do to help Republicans maintain control of the Congress in the November elections. 

Susan Molinari is a former Republican congresswoman, of course from New York, and Steve McMahon is a Democratic strategist and top adviser to DNC chair, Howard Dean.  Welcome to both of you. 

Steve, let me pick up with you on the politics of gasoline, because that‘s the hot topic now that maybe not everybody anticipated, but it‘s a new headache for the Bush administration.  Read to me from the Democratic play book on this how it‘s used against Republicans in the White House? 

STEVE MCMAHON, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST:  I think every time somebody goes to fill up their car, they‘re going to understand that it‘s the Republicans who run the government, it‘s the Republicans who are responsible for doing something about this.  And I think if you thought that 36 percent approval ratings for the president couldn‘t get any lower, you just watch as summer goes on and gas creeps closer to four dollars a gallon what the president‘s approval ratings look like then. 

GREGORY:  Susan, it‘s well known around here that this is complicating efforts for the president and his top aides to talk up the economy, it‘s a strong economy right now, but people don‘t exactly feel that when they go to fill up their car. 

SUSAN MOLINARI ®, FORMER U.S. CONGRESSWOMAN:  It is very frustrating, the stock market is doing well, unemployment numbers are low, the economy is as strong as it‘s been in any one‘s recent memory, but clearly pain at the pump is something that has strong electoral implications. 

Now the Republicans have a good argument to make.  They just passed under the leadership of Senator Domenici and Chairman Joe Barton, a pretty aggressive energy policy act with largely the help of Republicans in the White House, the impacts of which haven‘t been felt yet, as your prior guests have indicated, it has been the Republicans have done more to encourage domestic exploration here in the United States.

All in all, can both political parties do more and talk more about conservation and planning ahead?  Absolutely.  The Republicans have an argument they just need to get the message out there. 

GREGORY:  Let me ask you specifically about the president, who talks a lot about alternative fuel sources and wants to invest in that over the future, but he stopped short of what we‘re seeing Governor Schwarzenegger do in California and call for real mandates, call for real pain for business and consumers alike.  Why not do that now? 

MOLINARI:  Who knows where the president is going to go now that we‘re in this political position.  One would hope that with the power of the presidency, sort of this gentle urging over the next few weeks can actually accomplish an awful lot of that.  This is not something that just happened on the watch of the Bush White House. 

This has been something that‘s been going on for a very long time with a real credible lack of imagination towards alternative energy sources, both from a domestic drilling standpoint and conservation and I think both political parties have to stop and say, this is something, again, that the White House can‘t fix overnight, Republicans in Congress can‘t fix overnight. 

Frankly, I think it‘s too big an issue to the American people to play really strong politics.  I think it will only rebound on the Democrats if they don‘t come up seriously with some of their own proposals.  The Democrats say do something better but offer no suggestions. 

GREGORY:  Steve McMahon, what will Democrats tell their constituents this fall that they‘ll do to deal with this sticker shock at the gas station? 

MCMAHON:  Democrats have been talking for a long time about reducing America‘s dependency on foreign oil and alternative energy sources.  The answer, it seems to most Democrats, isn‘t to open up the wildlife reserves and Alaska for drilling, it‘s to look for other sources and pursue those aggressively and to put a little bit of money behind them. 

This administration is, I presume, going to start talking a pretty good game, but where have they been for the last six years.  The energy companies wrote their energy policies, the Republican Congress gave billions and billions of dollars away to oil companies in tax breaks.  Money by the way that at least one oil executive said the industry didn‘t need and this is a policy where what you‘re seeing is, an example of you reap what you sow.  When you let energy companies write energy policy, this is what happens.

MOLINARI: I‘ll be very curious to see the Democrats come up with their five point plan as to how to solve the problem at the pump. 

MCMAHON:  And then, Susan, the Republicans in Congress will block it like they always do.  There is not a single Democratic bill that can even get brought to a vote. 

(CROSSTALK)

GREGORY:  Let me change topics here.  I want to talk about another hot button issue here that is going to be hot for the November campaign as well and that is immigration.  The president out again today, Susan, talking tough, not about border security so much but about pushing his own party, goes to Orange County, California, which is in the belly of the beast for conservatives to say wait a minute, I want to stand up to you and we have to treat the illegal immigrants who are here with respect, with humanity and find a way to keep them here. 

What is he up against, can a bill for immigration reform be salvaged? 

MOLINARI:  I think it can.  I think everybody understands that this is an important issue, that it does have national security implications, as well as the fact that immigration, legal immigration is really the back bone of a lot of the American economy and so I think, you know, President Bush has really struck the right tone in terms of the compassionate conservatism of making sure that we deal with legal immigration appropriately, we allow the people who are here to make their way towards that moment and we tighten up our borders. 

I think it is a win-win for all Americans and something that I hope the president is able to proceed with in terms of bringing together, and true the Republican party as well as the Democrat party, on both wings are pretty far apart on this right now. 

GREGORY:  Steve, is there any appetite among Republicans for anything beyond more money hand more manpower at the border? 

MCMAHON:  Well, it seems to me that the conservatives in the president‘s party aren‘t very compassionate.  Their answer is to build a big fence along the borders, to make felons out of 1 12 million people who go to work every day in this country and not support a process by which they can earn, by keeping a job, by learning English, by obeying the law and playing by the rules and paying a fine, where they can earn citizenship.

Most Americans support that, but the extremists in the Republican party don‘t.  They want to build a fence and make it a felony for a Catholic priest to help an immigrant who is in this country.  I don‘t think that‘s very compassionate, it certainly isn‘t conservative, to the president‘s satisfaction, and it‘s not a very Christian value to do that.

GREGORY:  Susan, quick comment.

MOLINARI:  So does Steve McMahon agree with the president of the United States?

MCMAHON:  Well listen, I think the president, his plan to let people earn citizenship, I think most Democrats support.  There are a lot of Democrats who oppose the guest worker program.  But there‘s nobody who doesn‘t think that these people should be treated with dignity and respect as human beings.

MOLINARI:  And I don‘t think there are Republicans on either side of the debate that think that.

MCMAHON:  Well Susan, the ones who want to criminalize...

GREGORY:  ... All right, we‘re going to leave it there.  You guys, we‘re going to leave it there.  We‘re going to come back—we‘re going to take a break.  On the other side, I want to talk a little bit more about the White House shakeup and how things are going for the president here.  We‘re back in just a moment with Susan Molinari and Steve McMahon.

And don‘t forget tomorrow, retired CIA agent Tyler Drumheller.  He was head of covert operations in Europe before the Iraq war and he says a high-level Iraqi source told the CIA that Iraq had no WMDs and the White House ignored him.  That‘s his charge, and he‘s our guest tomorrow.  You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GREGORY:  We‘re back with former Congresswoman Susan Molinari and Democratic strategist Steve McMahon.  Susan, a lot of activity around here for sure, with Josh Bolten at the helm as new chief-of-staff.  Has he done enough and is it working?

MOLINARI:  Well I think certainly I have tremendous respect, as do most people who know him, for Josh Bolten and what he is trying to do.  And he is in the midst ever making some very important and serious changes at the White House, things that are necessary on every White House when the stakes are this high in terms of creating a presidential legacy and allowing the Republicans to keep control over the next few years.

GREGORY:  Well what else has to happen, Scott McClellan has resigned, you know, there‘s other people who are rumored to be leaving at some point.  But no big change yet.  So what else has to happen? 

MOLINARI:  Well I think just in and of itself that Josh Bolten is now the White House chief-of-staff is a big change.  I think the fact that somebody of the political brilliance of Karl Rove is allowed to dedicate his time and his tenure over the next few months to the political implications of the Republican majority here in Washington D.C. is very important. 

To have a new spokesperson interact with the press, I think is always important, no matter how successful a press spokesperson is.  And I think there‘s going to be some other changes that are going to affect the policy implications of the White House moving forward.  I wouldn‘t second guess Josh, he‘s in the belly of the beast right now and he‘s smart and taken over at the right time.  I have great confidence in the decisions he‘s going to make.

GREGORY:  Steve McMahon, has it been enough?

MCMAHON:  Well I think time will tell, but you‘re familiar with the old metaphor about the deck chairs in the Titanic, I presume, and I think that‘s probably what we‘re dealing with here.

GREGORY:  Why, why so?

MCMAHON:  Well look, it‘s not the person who stands up there and defends the president‘s policies that‘s the problem.  Walking Scott McClellan out and making him resign in front of 15 or 20 or 30 or 500 reporters isn‘t the answer.

The problem is this president‘s policies.  The problem is that this administration hasn‘t told the American people the truth about a wide range of things and I think it‘s all coming home to roost.

The American people fundamentally don‘t trust this administration anymore.  They‘ve lost the people‘s confidence.  And frankly, you know, I think the “L.A. Times” was on to something when it suggested over the weekend that the problem is much higher up.

GREGORY:  Susan Molinari, can the president get any traction if he does not dismiss his vice president or the secretary of defense?  If he doesn‘t do something that large?

MOLINARI:  Yes, I think he does.  I think a lot of times—you know, look, this is new for Washington D.C., where we have a president who doesn‘t make decisions on the basis of such, you know, earth-shaking manifests like school uniforms. 

George Bush is in there for the long haul.  He‘s made some historic decisions in terms of changing quite frankly the face of this world and the security of the United States.  It doesn‘t happen overnight.

The American people do need to constantly hear the message of the historic change that the Bush White House is trying to make for the American people and for our kids.  And I think that does require from time to time, a different set of talking points quite frankly because we‘re not used to seeing change that doesn‘t happen as soon as we snap our fingers and it‘s easy.

GREGORY:  All right, I‘m going to leave it there.  Susan Molinari and Steve McMahon, good to see you both.  Thanks for coming on. 

MCMAHON:  Thank you, David.

GREGORY:  And up next, with the president‘s poll numbers in steady decline, does he need to get back to his conservative Christian base?  “Newsweek” managing editor Jon Meacham joins us, coming up next.  You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GREGORY:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.

With the president‘s approval rating currently at an all-time low of 33 percent, based on a Fox News‘ poll, he starts his week with even more bad news, climbing gas prices.  To stop his downward slide, will he once again turn to his religious base for help? 

Earlier I spoke with “Newsweek‘s” Managing Editor Jon Meacham, who is the author of the new book “American Gospel.”  I asked him whether new White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolten has done enough to turn things around? 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)     

JON MEACHAM, NEWSWEEK:  Well, I think enough is obviously in the eye of the beholder.  I think the celebration to some extent that went on last week in Democratic circles that Rove seemed to be somewhat sidelined might be misplaced.  Karl now has time to focus on what he really does best, which is to figure out tactically how to hold on to the Congress and potentially and of course the great mystery is what will his brain be doing as we prepare for 2008. 

So I think in terms of the policies that people are worried about, I think we still have—it seems to me the White House still has a lot to do. 

GREGORY:  But didn‘t reducing Karl‘s role speak to the bigger issue for Josh Bolten, which is can he really make any kind of splash?  Can he get anybody to notice if big figures, the biggest of the figures, be it the vice president or the secretary of defense are not dismissed? 

MEACHAM:  I think that‘s right.  I think that we have—we‘re fighting a war.  The president seems to have very few domestic initiatives that capture the imagination.  I was struck the other day when he was in California and Governor Schwarzenegger said congratulations on this competitiveness thing, and the president say for what?  He sort of wasn‘t even following what was going on.  So I think that‘s a troubling thing for us. 

The Rumsfeld revolt is fascinating.  It raises fundamental questions about the power—the balance of power between the military and then civilian leadership. 

And you raise the biggest question of all, which is if Cheney doesn‘t have some new insight, some course correction, then I—the metaphor is tired, but Bolten is essentially rearranging the chairs on the ship. 

GREGORY:  Here‘s what I wonder, whether there‘s really been some kind of change in the president‘s attitude.  Your competitor, “Time Magazine,” doing some reporting this week in addition to “Newsweek” on what‘s going on inside Josh Bolten‘s mind as he tries to reshape this second term.  And some of it has to do with different attitude changes, quoting the press war, maybe bragging more about White House accomplishments. 

Do you think there‘s been a fundamental change in the president‘s own viewpoint about how he wants to lead both stylistically and maybe even on policy that says look if I‘m going to do anything in the last 1,000 days, I have got to make some changes? 

MEACHAM:  Well, one would hope, given the fact that he‘s in the 30 percent - 39 percent approval range and the way people feel about the war, it would be uncharacteristic obviously.  You know this better than anybody.  This is a man who doesn‘t change very much or very radically and in his adult life, which really began when he was 40 years old, so it‘s only been about a 20-year period by his own admission.

So has he sort of heard the trumpets of history and realized he needs to do some things differently to go out on a higher note, get his numbers up, lead the country better?  One hopes, but history would suggest, Bush history would suggest, that he‘s probably in a more middle position than a more radical one. 

GREGORY:  Let me turn to the president‘s own faith and how it drives policies, particularly about the war.  Do you think that his faith about the ultimate mission in Iraq and the Middle East trumps the politics of the moment? 

MEACHAM:  Well, he believes that in spreading democracy, he is enabling—America is enabling people to fulfill a divine purpose.  He believes that the—and I‘m paraphrasing slightly.  The almighty has planted the instinct for freedom in every human heart. 

And so there is a kind of zeal to his policy and to his foreign policy.  As he said to Bob Woodward, that he did not appeal to his own father in terms of strength.  He appealed to a higher father.  And we have seen with the bin Laden tape this weekend that obviously bin Laden is playing that card and trying to whip up the Islamic world, by saying that this is a, quote, “crusader Zionist administration” going around the world. 

I think that the president is doing things because he thinks they‘re right.  He believes this firmly.  He has stood by it for three years now, and I don‘t share the view that he is somehow or another talking to God and out of touch with reality.  I don‘t share that. 

GREGORY:  But is there a kind of faith-based certitude about his view of the world, particularly his engagement in the Middle East? 

MEACHAM:  Yes, there is.  I mean, he certainly believes that God has a plan for the world.  We don‘t know what that plan is, he said himself echoing Lincoln in the great speech he gave—I think great speech—at the National Cathedral three days after September 11, that the Almighty has his own purposes. 

But he does believe that there is—that we live in a world governed by providence, and he‘s trying to do everything he can to fulfill that destiny as best he can. 

GREGORY:  Let me turn you back domestically and talk about faith in terms of political tactics for this year‘s election.  “The New York Times” reporting today that 50 prominent religious leaders making a new push to ban gay marriage in Congress.  How important is it for the Republican Party, and for the president who wants to help his party control Congress, turn to social issues and reach back out to his core religious base? 

MEACHAM:  I think it was hugely important.  This is a hugely important moment and move on the part of that group, particularly the Catholic bishops.  Because, as you‘ll remember, in 2004, both in Ohio and Missouri and some other swing states, there were these same sex marriage initiatives on the ballot that were in some ways seen as Republican insurance policy for turnout. 

If, for some reason, it‘s evangelicals who—this isn‘t very well understood, but many, many conservative Christians don‘t trust the world and their political involvement is tenuous.  And, as Karl Rove will tell you, he believes that there was a reduction in turnout in 2000 after the DUI news about then Governor Bush came out.  And some very conservative Christian believers thought, well, this may not be someone we can trust, and they stayed home. 

Rove was not going to let that happen again.  And the same sex marriage initiatives guaranteed in many ways, people coming out to the polls, and if they come out to the polls to vote against gay marriage, they are going to be voting for the Republicans by and large. 

GREGORY:  Right.  Quickly, Jon, in 2006 and again in 2008, do evangelicals carry the same weight politically? 

MEACHAM:  I think so.  Remember the most important indicator of whether you voted for Bush or Gore was how often you went to church, and so this was a force that has to be managed and marshalled.  It‘s not going away. 

GREGORY:  And still very much up for grabs in this election year and beyond. 

Jon Meacham, the managing editor of “Newsweek,” always good to see you, Jon.  Thanks.

MEACHAM:  Thanks, David.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY:  When we return, “Time Magazine‘s” Mike Allen and Bloomberg columnist Margaret Carlson on whether big changes are coming inside the Bush administration.  This is HARDBALL only on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GREGORY:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  From the White House tonight, I‘m David Gregory in for Chris Matthews. 

President Bush‘s poll numbers keep falling, gas prices keep rising and the barbs in the immigration fight keep flying back and forth.  To give us perspective, I‘m joined by “Time” magazine‘s Mike Allen and Bloomberg columnist Margaret Carlson.  Good to see both of you. 

Mike, let me start with you.  Your piece today talking about Josh Bolten, the new chief of staff‘s, five point plan for getting the White House back on track.  What is it? 

MIKE ALLEN, TIME:  Well, David, you‘re seeing Josh Bolten coming and being very aggressive, assertive.  As you know, Josh over the years, and David you‘ve known him for years and years and the people who work most closely with him are extremely methodical, extremely disciplined and in some cases very sharp outlook and that‘s the culture you‘ll see in this White House. 

Josh Bolten is having large groups, meetings of large groups of White House employees in a room they call 450, where the president sometimes does press conferences, and he is saying to them we have 1,000 days to get the job done, that‘s until to the end of the administration. 

He‘s sounding almost like a coach in the locker room or a CEO at an annual meting, and his—so far we‘ve seen the musical chairs.  New People coming and going, but pretty soon we‘re going to see policy changes, we‘re going to see the administration backing a request for more homeland security funding down at the border, something to appeal to conservatives, very important in the upcoming November election.

You‘re going to see the administration reaching out to Wall Street, very aggressively pushing the extension of tax cuts that they want there.  More efforts to talk about successes, for instance, David, you along with some of the trips the president made to promote sign ups for the Medicare prescription drug plan, they got good publicity in the country for that.  You‘ll see more of that. 

Any good news in Iraq, you‘re going to see more focused, disciplined effort to get it out and also there will be courting the press and you‘ll see him in the commander-in-chief, diplomat in chief for Iraq talking aggressively, pushing Iran to end its nuclear program. 

GREGORY:  Margaret Carlson, how much change do you think the president really believes there has to be? 

MARGARET CARLSON, BLOOMBERG COLUMNIST:  Well, if the president believed there needed to be a real lot of change, he would have done more than switch out Andy Card for Josh Bolten, and by the way, Josh Bolten has been there, I think we met him in Austin, David, back in 1991.  So he‘s been around a long time. 

He‘d have to change the big jobs.  Secretary Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney even, although I know that‘s hard to do.  He could still do it and Dick Cheney could plead help and get somebody in who wouldn‘t get a leg up on the nominations, somebody who, you know, a Howard Baker type person, an elder statesman who would come in and provide a real fresh start for the issues that really matter. 

I mean, all of the things that Mike mentioned are important, but look at what‘s gone wrong for Bush.  Would the war be different, would the Social Security overhaul be different, prescription drugs, Dubai ports, would any of that be different if Josh Bolten had been there instead of Andy Card? 

GREGORY:  It begs the question, Mike, whether they can nibble around the edges, become more assertive, become more aggressive, brag more about their accomplishments or do they have to go big?  Who are the voices, if any, telling the president, you have 1,000 days, come on coach, we have to do something drastic. 

ALLEN:  One of this president‘s strengths has been that he can tune out the chatter, they like the expression from Kipling, keeping your head when all about you are losing theirs, and that‘s been a strength for him. 

You‘ve seen him again and again, we thought, OK, this time, his luck has run out.  How many times have we thought that?  And in the end they always bounce back.  People in the White House are beginning to wonder, is there a first time for everything.  Is this the time when the president‘s instinct to keep with plans, policies, people that he believes in, that he needs to change.

The breadth of the authority he has given Josh Bolten, including allowing people to make it seem publicly like Karl Rove has been reigned, I think there‘s a question about whether or not that really occurred, but they‘ve allowed that perception to be out there, perhaps they think that‘s beneficial, but this shows that the president is willing to take some very basic steps. 

GREGORY:  Margaret, that‘s interesting, because I‘ve talked to people as well who say that Bolten and others here were completely fine with the idea that people thought that Karl Rove‘s wings were clipped, even though he said that was not at all the case.  They certainly want the message out that they want to do some things differently. 

CARLSON:  Well, I mean, he becomes the giant killer if he‘s actually reduced Rove‘s influence in the White House.  What really happened I think is that Joel Kaplan, who is totally loyal to Josh, is now in the job and with him for five years and at least on the organization chart, Josh‘s deputy chief of staff will be completely his own man. 

That doesn‘t mean that because you call Karl Rove something else, that he isn‘t going to have a direct line to the president whenever he wants it.  You could call Karl anything and he would have all the power he has always had.

GREGORY:  All right, we‘re going to take a break here.  When we come back, I want to talk to some of the issues here that the president is going to be confronting here as Congress comes back.  We‘ll do that with Mike Allen and Margaret Carlson right after this.  This is HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GREGORY:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  Will there will be more spring cleaning at the White House and what does spring have in store for Congress?

We‘re back with “Time” magazine‘s Mike Allen and “Bloomberg” columnist Margaret Carlson.

Margaret, let me start with you.  Let me pull back for just a minute here.  If you look at all the changes in the White House, and you zero in on Karl Rove, the message there is, if this White House can‘t help his party keep control of Congress, then all the other issues really don‘t matter.

What is this White House now doing and what does it have to do to help Republicans stay in charge? 

CARLSON:  Well, they have to find a way for members of Congress to go out and not be hobbled by administration errors, incompetence, the war, and a whole bunch have other things. 

Karl can help that to a certain extent by focusing on it.  However, some of the policies are going to have to change.  For instance, are some troops going to be drawn down before the fall elections?  What are we going to do about Iran?  Did the president invade the wrong country? 

Here we have a nuclear Iran threatening us.  And then there‘s the economy.  Some people think, it‘s not just gas prices, but that the economy is being held up temporarily.  And that...

GREGORY:  ... And isn‘t that an important point, Mike?  Because it gets back, not just to the politics of oil, but just to pocketbook issues generally, right where the Democrats would like to have the Republicans by the fall.

ALLEN:  You know David, I think that‘s a great point.  And you and I can agree because we studied this in the 2000 campaign and since then, that there is very little that the president can actually do about gas prices. 

But if people are paying $4 at the pump, they‘re going to want to blame someone.  And Margaret made a good point about pocketbook issues.  And I think some Republicans wish that the president had been more out in front about this, had been talking about this early, had been telling people what would be coming.

You saw the president out in California over the last few days talking about gas prices.  And I think that one of the theories of the administration is, like with terrorism, that if he‘s talking about gas prices that that helps them.

But what he‘s saying is there‘s really nothing we can do.  That is probably not what people want to hear.  So what you‘re going to see is a lot of showboating about it today.  There is a bunch of calls on Congress for—the House Energy Committee announced they‘re going to hold hearings. 

You saw the speaker of the House, the majority leader of the Senate are calling for new administration investigation to price fixing.  There may be a show trial of oil executives that they‘re going to bring up there. 

So now there‘s a scramble by Republicans to show that they‘re being tough on this issue and they care about it.

GREGORY:  Another big of course—yes, go ahead.

CARLSON:  I was going to say, on gas prices, honesty is not the best policy.  For the president to say, “Oh, there is nothing we can do about it and let that stand,” I think it‘s a huge problem.

ALLEN:  And that is not exactly what the president had said.  I‘m talking about the impression that someone could get in California, just tuning into what he said.

GREGORY:  Let me ask you about immigration, Margaret, because the president today is out in Orange County, standing up to his conservative base saying, “We‘ve got to treat illegal immigrants humanely.”  That is still not the song book that the Republican leadership or conservatives in the House and Senate are singing off of.  Does he have a shot here by the end of May to get kind of bill he wants?

CARLSON:  Well Mike made a good point in his piece, which is the president is going to have to emphasize now the get tough part of it.  He‘s going to have to look like a minuteman going down to the border and saying, “We‘re going to strengthen the border.  We‘re going to have an orderly way for people to come into the country where we‘re going to police our border.”

And then go to the second point, which is, what are we going to do about the 11 million people here?  The appeal of the Tom Tancredo‘s is that you‘re not going to reward people for having gotten here illegally.  The president has to say, “A, there is no way we could deport this many people.  B, we need them.  And three, they‘re law-abiding citizens who deserve to get somewhere in a line to become legal.”

GREGORY:  But as you saw it, Mike, Bill Frist writes over the weekend, security first.  You‘ve got to get some money passed through the emergency supplemental for the wars, which will be debated this week for extra border security and then we can get to a comprehensive guest worker program. 

Is this all about trying to give conservatives something that they want so they might warm to the idea of giving the president something he wants?

ALLEN:  I think certainly that is the hope.  I think people in the administration are worried that they‘re running out of time.  The president did in California today, make the point that Margaret just made, that you can‘t deport all these people. 

And David, something that hasn‘t been reported is there is a real divide within the White House about whether you emphasize the long term, think in the long term about the importance of growing a party and fulfilling the president‘s compassionate vision and pushing, insisting on, as he does in all his statements, the guest worker program. 

Or do you look at the fact that as you pointed out earlier, without ‘06, there‘s no—if Republicans do not keep control of Congress, there is no legacy.  Do what you need to in the short term, which is excite the conservative base.  Really emphasize the security piece.  So that‘s why you see the president going back and forth.

He‘s going to continue in his statements, we‘re told, to talk about both.  But it‘s not clear how much he‘s going to push for getting a guest worker program and whether they will make Congress do that on the sort of timeline that you suggested.

GREGORY:  All right, Mike Allen, we‘ve got to leave it there, as well as Margaret Carlson.  Thanks to both of you, good to see you.

CARLSON:  Thanks, David.

ALLEN:  Bye Margaret, see you, David.

GREGORY:  And coming up tomorrow on HARDBALL, retired CIA agent Tyler Drumheller.  He was head of covert operations in Europe during the run-off to the Iraq war.  Now he claims a high-level Iraqi source told the CIA that Iraq, quote, “had no active weapons of mass destruction program.”  But he claims the White House ignored that warning.  You‘ll hear his story tomorrow at 5:00 and 7:00 Eastern right here on 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.

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