updated 6/8/2006 11:33:15 AM ET 2006-06-08T15:33:15

Guests: Howard Fineman; Ken Mehlman; Tony Perkins; Pat Toomey; Charlie Cook; Joe Biden

CHRIS MATTHEWS, MSNBC HOST:  Marital politics.  Democrats accuse Republicans of exploiting the gay marriage scare.  A conservative accuses 9/11 widows of exploiting their husband‘s deaths.  Let‘s play HARDBALL.

I‘m Chris Matthews.  Welcome to HARDBALL.  Yesterday voters in eight states went to the polls and the results are in.  The biggest political headline today is Republicans pulled off a victory in that hotly-contested race to fill disgraced Congressman Randy “Duke” Cunningham‘s seat out in California.  How did they do it?  We‘ll talk to Ken Mehlman, the chairman of the Republican National Committee.

And later, the Senate voted today not to consider a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage.  And some conservatives are asking if values issues like gay marriage will really mobilize Republicans come November. 

Plus conservative author Ann Coulter has been on the attack against those 9/11 widows we have often.  And tonight we‘ll get their response.  But first we do politics on HARDBALL, so here‘s David Shuster with a full report on Tuesday‘s election and what it means for the upcoming midterms in November.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DAVID SHUSTER, HARDBALL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  In California‘s 50th Congressional District, it was the result Republicans had wanted.

BRIAN BILBRAY ®, CONGRESSMAN ELECT:  I don‘t think any time in the history that I know of that we‘ve ever seen any district have to make so many decisions so quickly.

SHUSTER:  Brian Bilbray beat Democrat Francine Busby by four points.  That means a heavily Republican district is staying Republican despite Duke Cunningham‘s bribery and resignation which forced the special election and despite tough attacks on what Democrats called the Republican culture of corruption. 

Democrats said today they were happy national Republicans had to spend nearly $5 million to save a safe seat and impressed that Busby got as close as she did despite a major gaffe at the end.  Last week in a speech to a Latino audience recorded on audio tape, Busby seemed to encourage illegal immigrants to vote.

FRANCINE BUSBY, RAN FOR CALIFORNIA OFFICE:  You can all help.  You don‘t need papers for voting.

SHUSTER:  Busby said she misspoke, but talk radio hammered the Democrat and may have jacked up the Republican vote.  And despite the national mood over problems in Iraq and continued high gas prices, Brian Bilbray told an interview the election came down to issues like illegal immigration, that the district considered vital.

BILBRAY:  I just think that we‘ve got to remember that parties be damned.  It‘s about the people of the 50th having their fair share of representation in Washington.  And their congressman is the only one, the only single person that represents them and only them.

SHUSTER:  In other races, Montana‘s Republican senator Conrad Burns won 72 percent of the vote in his primary race.  Burns has been hurt by the Jack Abramoff investigation.  The question now is whether 72 percent is a sign of strength or vulnerability heading towards the general election.  Burns will face Jon Tester, a favorite of liberal Internet blogs and Web sites.  Tester won the Democratic nomination by beating John Morrison.

And California‘s Democratic gubernatorial primary Phil Angelides edged Steve Westly in a race that saw both men spend millions of dollars on advertisements slamming each other.  Now Democrats in the Golden State will try to unite behind Angelides for a general election battle against Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. 

In Alabama‘s Republican gubernatorial primary, incumbent governor Bob Riley defeated former Judge Roy Moore.  A few years ago, Moore refused to remove the Ten Commandments from his courthouse.  Yesterday he lost by three times that amount as Riley coasted to a 30-point victory. 

And in Iowa, the winner of the Democratic gubernatorial primary was Chet Culver.  In the general election, he will be running for governor against House Republican Jim Nussle.  Heading towards November, candidates across the country now have one less national issue to worry about, gay marriage.  Two days ago, President Bush declared his support for a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  Our policy should aim to strengthen families, not undermine them.  And changing the definition of marriage would undermine the family structure.

SHUSTER:  But today the Senate defeated the president‘s proposal, failing to deliver the votes need to keep the amendment going. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SHUSTER:  Even some Republicans said pushing for a constitutional amendment now wasn‘t such a good idea, given that the White House hasn‘t cared about it for two years.  In any case, both parties are looking for issues that will resonate with their core supporters over the summer and fall. 

And the bottom line from the elections this week is that while Democrats are making headway and charging Republicans with corruption, a safe seat is still a safe seat, even though the margin has narrowed.  I‘m David Shuster for HARDBALL in Washington.

MATTHEWS:  Thank you, David.  We‘re joined right now by the chairman of the Republican National Committee, Ken Mehlman.  Ken, give me an assessment.

KEN MEHLMAN, RNC CHAIRMAN:  Well I think that the Democrats have claimed from the beginning that the environment would be so bad that they would win in seats Republicans had won before.  This seat was a perfect storm.  You had a Republican congressman that resigned and went to jail.  You had a Republican primary that was divisive.  You had $60 million that was spent by the Democrats in their gubernatorial primary. 

The same day as our primary, what happened?  The Republican won.  And the reason the Republican won, I think, was that he made the election a choice, not a referendum.  A choice on taxes, a choice on border security.  There was strong unity, the vice president and Laura Bush went out and did events. 

And finally the 72-hour effort that we at the Republican National Committee helped lead produced 185,00 volunteer voter contacts in the last week.  We ended up winning on absentee ballots.  So when the Democrats say that they‘ve got this incredible environment, they had a perfect storm, they weren‘t able to win.  You look around the country and it‘s hard for them to win the House of Representatives, I think, given what happened in this election.

MATTHEWS:  How did you manage to get Francine Busby the Democratic nomination in that seat?

MEHLMAN:  We didn‘t have anything to do with that, but look...

MATTHEWS:  ... What did you make—we just showed the tape, David Shuster just showed that tape of a woman candidate in the United States openly advising people in this country illegally to vote illegally.

MEHLMAN:  It sounds like she may have been an adviser to that Washington state candidate for governor or some other places around the country where this has happened in other cases with Democrats. 

But the fact is, one thing we know, the American people believe that legal voters should vote and they believe that their right to vote ought to be protected from people that don‘t have the right to vote.

MATTHEWS:  How come your party and you sound tougher on illegal immigration than the president does?  The president sounds like he‘s going down the middle, trying to be all things to all men on this.  And you have a clear position that illegal immigration should not be allowed.  He says give them some form of way to become legal and let more come in by the truck load as guest workers.  And by the way, really don‘t enforce any of these sanction laws.  I mean, that seems to be his message.  You, on the other hand, are very tough.

MEHLMAN:  Well I don‘t think that‘s his message.  I think exactly where the president is on this.  I think that we need to deal with border security.  We need to do it comprehensively.

MATTHEWS:  Are Republicans going to punish Republican business guys for hiring people legally?

MEHLMAN:  With the president‘s proposal, with the worker card is to make sure that we know who is working in the location.  Absolutely business will be held accountable. 

MATTHEWS:  And you‘ll put Republican business people in jail for hiring illegal people? 

MEHLMAN:  This administration is imposing penalties right now for people hiring illegals.  And what the president‘s proposal does is actually make it enforceable.  So I think where the president is...

MATTHEWS:  ... You think it‘s wrong to hire illegal people?

MEHLMAN:  Absolutely. 

MATTHEWS:  You really believe it‘s morally wrong?

MEHLMAN:  I believe that there‘s laws about who you should hire.  You should follow those laws.

MATTHEWS:  The president never talks like that.  He never says that.  He says we‘ve got a problem because we‘ve got to legalize all these people.  We don‘t have a problem because they are here illegally.  We‘ve got a problem because there‘s so many people here without paper, so let‘s give them  paper.  That‘s a totally different view than you just took.

MEHLMAN:  I think what the president understands and what I recognize is we‘re at war.  And you need to know who is coming into the country.  At the same time, he recognizes as I do that family values don‘t stop at the Rio Grande.  That the reason people are here is for work.  So we need to figure out a way to meet our economic needs without encouraging illegal immigration.

MATTHEWS:  Don‘t you think we should keep fighting over gay marriage or drop it for awhile?  Don‘t we need a little period of benign neglect on this issue for a while?  Drop it for awhile?

MEHLMAN:  I think that the Senate has voted this year.  I don‘t know that they have plans to bring it up again.  I think that it‘s an important issue.  People have a right to be heard and they were.

MATTHEWS:  Do you think it‘s something we should have, a ban on gay marriage?

MEHLMAN:  I think that obviously the big question here is fundamentally do you believe that the courts or the legislatures ought to decide this question?

MATTHEWS:  Should we ban gay marriage?  Should we really ban it?

MEHLMAN:  Well again, I think...

MATTHEWS:  Do you think we should ban it?            

MEHLMAN:  ... I think what the constitutional amendment did going forward was to say that people have a right through their legislatures to vote on it.

MATTHEWS:  But there are so many people who are gay who are Republicans, so many.  So many who want lower taxes, less government, live more Libertarian lifestyles.  And shouldn‘t they be represented by your party? 

MEHLMAN:  They are, and their support is welcomed in the party.  As you know, there is a lot of different positions of leadership in our party.  The vice president has a position, the president has a position, Senator McCain has a position. 

MATTHEWS:  Except you have a different position on the fundamental question to so many, which is the right to get married.

MEHLMAN:  Well, when you say we do, that‘s where the party platform of the president is.  The vice president is in a different place.  Senator McCain is in a different place.  One of the good things about our party, Chris, is that we‘re a big 10 party.  And on a lot of these different issues, Republicans agree on some things, disagree on others.

MATTHEWS:  Did you find it interesting that Senator Arlen Specter, who‘s been my senator when I was growing up in Pennsylvania for all these years, who really seems to be a bellwether, who‘s now come out for—he voted against cloture.  He is taking basically a position we should allow gay marriage.  I mean, it‘s sort of what he‘s positioning so far.

MEHLMAN:  Certainly, that was an interesting change.  I thought that also Senator Gregg changed and Senator Sununu changed.  Part of why I think these individuals changed was that they believed it perhaps wasn‘t necessary at the time because of the fact that they don‘t think that any more of the courts represent a threat to perhaps what‘s happening in the legislature.

MATTHEWS:  You don‘t think the defense of marriage act will succeed?  You don‘t think states like Pennsylvania will be able to protect themselves from the court rulings in Massachusetts?

MEHLMAN:  I don‘t know the answer to that question.  I‘m a lawyer, but I‘m not an expert on that area and people disagree about that question, which is why some people supported the amendment and others opposed it.

MATTHEWS:  Why not wait for the hell to break loose before passing the amendment?  Why not wait and see if the courts start pushing people around and it‘s not just voters?

MEHLMAN:  Again, that‘s the fundamental debate you saw in the Senate this week.

MATTHEWS:  Yes, but it failed.

MEHLMAN:  It did.

MATTHEWS:  Are you going to get votes out of it for making the good fight? 

MEHLMAN:  I don‘t think that‘s the way I look at it.  I don‘t think that‘s the way the president looks at it.

MATTHEWS:  You don‘t think it was a political move?

MEHLMAN:  Certainly the president and I think said what he said and stood where he stood because of what he believes is right.  The president is opposed to discrimination, he believes people ought to be treated respectfully.

MATTHEWS:  I don‘t think he has his heart in it.  Do you think he has his heart in this?

MEHLMAN:  I think the president believes it is wrong to redefine marriage through courts.

MATTHEWS:  But, does he really oppose gay marriage, the President of the United States?  When you look him in the eye, do you think this is one thing, I know he cares about Iraq.  I know he cares about terrorism. 

MEHLMAN:  I take the president at his word.  I don‘t think the president goes out and says things he doesn‘t believe. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, it‘s not Karl Rove pushing to do this?

MEHLMAN:  You may not always agree with what he says.  I think he‘s a guy that speaks his heart. 

MATTHEWS:  You don‘t think it‘s Karl Rove pushing to do this? 

MEHLMAN:  I do not. 

MATTHEWS:  Ok, thank you Kevin.  I can only ask you twice, that‘s all I got here. 

Coming up, will fights over gay marriage bans and other conservative causes really help Republicans hold onto Congress?  And later, Senator Joe Biden plays HARDBALL on Iran, Iraq and Decision 2006.  He‘s going to make some news here. 

You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Coming up, the Senate‘s gay marriage fight is over, or is it?  Will losing a battle today help Republicans win the war on election day?  When HARDBALL returns.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  The constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage was rejected today in the Senate, and the question remains why did the president support it when it was clear it would be defeated?  The answer may lie in his falling approval numbers among conservatives. 

A new poll this week by the Pew Research Center suggests the decline of Bush‘s core base is steep.  Support from Republicans who describe themselves as moderate or liberal dropped 25 percent.  From 81 percent down to 56 percent today.  That‘s a two-year drop of 25 percent.  Support from conservative Republicans dropped, that‘s conservative Republicans, 15 points since the election of 2004, from 93 percent down to 78 percent.  He‘s still high among conservatives. 

So did Bush‘s strategy to push gay marriage light up his base?   For answers we turn to former Republican Congressman from Pennsylvania and president of the Club for Growth, Pat Toomey and Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council. 

Pat, where is the president‘s biggest weakness among Republicans?  Is it the failure to push the cultural cause, abortion rights, opposing it, gay marriage, opposing it, or is it the failure of the Republicans to keep their fiscal house in order? 

PAT TOOMEY ®, FORMER U.S. CONGRESSMAN:  I think it‘s the latter, especially when you consider that social conservatives have one very big win, which is two new conservative supreme court justices.  Economic conservatives, two years of lower taxes with the extension of the dividends and capital gains, but spending has been out of control, big deficits, and a very high likelihood that taxes are going up in the future. 

From the Republicans I‘m talking to all across the country, there is a very high level of frustration that Republicans in Washington have abandoned the idea of limited government.  They have let spending get out of control, worse than the Democrats did.  And they are fed up.  It‘s starting to manifest itself in elections. 

MATTHEWS:  Tony? 

TONY PERKINS, FAMILY RESEARCH COUNCIL:  Well, I ...

MATTHEWS:  ... Do you buy that there is a lot of unrest, insurgency, if you will, among Republicans because your party is always, I don‘t know, I can‘t classify you as a conservative, maybe you‘re a Republican, maybe you‘re not.  But, among conservatives, being fiscally conservative meant being conservative. 

PERKINS:  Yes.  Most of the social conservatives are both fiscally and socially conservative.  So, they are just as concerned about the fiscal policies as well.  I don‘t disagree with Pat that there is a lot of discontent over the fiscal policies, but I do not think that will be the downfall of the Republicans.  I think it challenges them, but I think when you look at who is the, who is the base that turns out, who works in these campaigns, who knocks on doors, who makes the phone calls, who was energized in the 2004 election cycle, it was the social conservatives and a lot of it surrounded the issue of protection of marriage. 

MATTHEWS:  Do you think yesterday‘s debate and today‘s vote will help your conservative cause in getting out the vote this November? 

PERKINS:  You know, I don‘t know how it‘s going to impact.  I know there is a lot of anger.  There is a lot of discontent even with the vote.  I mean, what we had here, especially with the backdrop of what happened in Alabama, where 81 percent of voters approved the marriage amendment yesterday.  You have had now tens of millions of Americans that have voted to support marriage and it‘s still at risk today because of 48 United States senators.  It shows that the Senate is clearly out of touch with the American people. 

MATTHEWS:  Don‘t you think, just so people don‘t get too worried here who are conservatives on that issue, it‘s half the country at least who don‘t want to see gay marriage.  You have the Defense of Marriage Act, a statute passed by the congress and signed by the president that says that Massachusetts judges can‘t shove their interpretation of rights on to another state. 

PERKINS:  You have two states in which that‘s being challenged in court.  You have in California and in Washington state.  And by the time that the Congress acts, if a court hands down a final decision on that, it will be too late. 

MATTHEWS:  What would they do?  What would those courts be able to do? 

PERKINS:  The court can overturn the Defense of Marriage Act.  They can impose same-sex marriage on other states. 

MATTHEWS:  But California has never voted for same-sex marriage. 

PERKINS:  They have, they have a challenge against their provision that‘s in their, it wasn‘t a constitutional amendment, it was a voter proposition.  Washington State is more of a threat because they do not have a ...

MATTHEWS:  ... Yes, but I haven‘t heard, is there a  state legislature in California that‘s pushing for gay marriage? 

PERKINS:  There has been a measure introduced there. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes, but it‘s only a threat.  It‘s not happening.  Name a state where gay marriage is becoming a reality. 

PERKINS:  Well, you have it in Massachusetts there.  You have Washington State.  I mean, you actually have seven or eight states where the state law is being challenged in court that could be overturned by a judge and marriage opened up any time. 

MATTHEWS:  Pat, what would be the biggest issue?  If you figure voters have three issues on their minds coming in.  Will it be the cultural questions that Tony Perkins is involved with, gay marriage, abortion rights, opposing that, the economic issues, the fiscal policy or the failure to balance the budget, the big deficits, the big spending of appropriations craziness in Congress, or is it the war in Iraq?  What is going to be the voting issue for most people in Pennsylvania, where you have run? 

TOOMEY:  In the general election, I think it‘s going to be Iraq.  It‘s going to be spending, economic issues.  Perception of corruption, that issue. 

MATTHEWS:  They are all pro-Democrat positions.  That‘s going to hurt Republicans, all three of those. 

TOOMEY:  What‘s really, really the big problem is, one of them in particular, is devastating to Republican turnout, and that‘s the spending.  If Republicans have lost the brand of being the party of fiscal discipline, the party of lower spending and less taxes, then what do they have left to drive their voters to the polls with?  That‘s something I think Republicans ought to be real concerned about. 

PERKINS:  They have got to do something to distinguish themselves from the Democratic party.  I think Pat is right in terms of the fiscal side.  I think they have lost it.  You can‘t get back the money you have spent.  What they can do on the social issues, which they have not addressed, is address those and show there is a difference. 

MATTHEWS:  What can the Republicans do between now and November, Tony, to rouse your troops. 

PERKINS:  The house is going to take up the Marriage Protection Amendment next month.  There are a number of life issues that remain in the Senate that have not been addressed.  Hopefully we‘ll see the president sign the broadcast indecency measure here in the next few days which the house should be taking up, the Senate has passed.  Those are some issues that will distinguish them. 

MATTHEWS:  Will the new court, the new Supreme Court with two members on it, two new or pro-Republican, judged on it appointed by the president, will that support the ban on partial birth abortion?

PERKINS:  I think so.  I think the votes are there. 

MATTHEWS:  Well that will be a big issue for your side. 

PERKINS:  It will be, but we don‘t know if that will come before the election in terms of the decision from the court. 

MATTHEWS:  I think that‘s a big one if your side wins.  What can the president do about economic issues? 

TOOMEY:  If Denny Hastert, Bill Frist, and the president had a press conference in the White House where they said this year no earmarks, we‘re going to cut spending and give the president the line-item veto he requested—

MATTHEWS:  Power tends to corrupt. 

TOOMEY:  The problem is Republicans won‘t go along with it.  Jerry Lewis will have none of that. 

MATTHEWS:  I was impressed a third of conservatives said they want the Democrats to take over the Congress.  They are so mad at the people in power.  Thank you.  Pat Toomey, almost was a senator.  Tony Perkins, a man of God. 

Up next, what do this week‘s primary results mean for November?  Why are the Republicans and the Democrats so interested in what San Diego voters had to say yesterday. 

NBC political analyst Charlie Cook will be here.  And later Delaware U.S. Senator Joe Biden, who is running for president, will be here.  You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Tuesday was a huge primary day across the country for decision 2006.  Voters in eight states gave us a taste of what the country is thinking right now, just five months before election day. 

The biggest news of the day was how Republicans held onto that seat we talked about last night of convicted former Congressman Duke Cunningham. 

How did they do it?  Here to make sense of that and more is Charlie Cook, NBC political analyst and publisher of the “Cook Political Report.”

You‘re the best guy at numbers.  That race turned out to be about a four-point margin, much narrower than the time before.  The challenger Busby, the woman, went from 38 last time to 45 this time.  Is that enough of a signal of the Democrats‘ pre-eminence this time? 

CHARLIE COOK, COOK POLITICAL REPORT:  Certainly it was a signal.  Of course we didn‘t need a signal, but it was one.  But on the other hand, it‘s hard to push this too hard.  After all, how many districts do you have where the Republican congressman is being sent to prison so they bring a Republican candidate who was a congressman someplace else and has been a Washington lobbyist ever since to be the candidate. 

MATTHEWS:  Not exactly a virgin entry. 

COOK:  Exactly.  But on the other hand, this Democrat was a very weak candidate.  To be honest, she would have come a lot closer or won this thing had she not opened her mouth and made a huge faux pas last week. 

MATTHEWS:  My point, I believe illegal immigration is a huge issue in this country.  It‘s not just a Republican issue, it‘s a national issue.  Protecting our identity as citizens is serious business.  It is in every country. 

This woman, this candidate of the Democratic Party came out and told Hispanic voters go ahead and vote, you don‘t need papers.  She was encouraging illegal voting right on - we heard it on the mike. 

COOK:  Either it encouraged it or it sounded awfully close to it, but it was a stupid thing to say.  To be honest, she was running basically even, even slightly ahead in the polls going into that statement.  Frankly, I think it blew the race wide open. 

MATTHEWS:  You‘re being kind.  She said you don‘t need papers.  What else could she have meant?  She was urging people to break the law.  They are breaking law getting in the country.  Now she says break the law again by voting it and she is carrying the banner of the Democratic Party. 

COOK:  It was a stupid thing to say. 

MATTHEWS:  She is running again in November. 

COOK:  Here‘s the danger for Democrats.  This is the best political mood for them since Watergate.  Yet, they don‘t have that many really good candidates around the country.  They have got a lot of people that are fairly inexperienced candidates, like Francine Busby, who are capable of screwing up even when they have a golden opportunity to win.  You just saw it. 

MATTHEWS:  If I were writing a Republican platform right now, I would take that quote from her on tape and use it in all those races.  Say the Democratic Party believes in voting illegal immigrants to get more votes. 

Let me ask you about that Schwarzenegger race.  We don‘t talk much about it out here.  But on the West Coast its huge.  Arnold Schwarzenegger is coming back, isn‘t he?  He faces a weaker opponent now, Angelides, because of yesterday.

COOK:  Six months ago I was having lunch with one of his consultants.  This guy said look, this is going to be really, really tough.  If it‘s Angelides on the Democratic side, we have some chance.  If it‘s Westly, I don‘t know. 

MATTHEWS:  We got Angelides winning with 47.8.  Is he going to be an easier opponent for Arnold? 

COOK:  He‘s more of a traditional, old-fashioned liberal.  It is going be a lot easier target for Schwarzenegger to go after than if Westly the former eBay, new Democrat moderate had won.  This is going to be a very tough race for Democrats. 

MATTHEWS:  I know he‘s a liberal.  I know it‘s not popular to say liberals are cool.  One thing about Angelides, he is what he is.  He is an old-style Walter Mondale, ethnic, interest group Democrat.  You collect the money from different groups, back up their causes, add it all up and hope it comes to 50 percent. 

COOK:  If there is a year an old-fashioned liberal Democrat can still win, it‘s this year.  They still would have been better off with someone that would have been a little closer to the 50-yard line and a little less controversial. 

MATTHEWS:  I watched his debate this weekend on the NBC channel out there in L.A.  I found him a tad synthetic.  I wondered about whether this guy is for real, whereas Angelides, even though he‘s a liberal and its harder to get elected, seemed like the real thing. 

COOK:  I think you say that a lot of times with moderates. 

MATTHEWS:  Moderates cook it up sometimes. 

COOK:  They don‘t have a whole lot of soul, but on the other hand they are closer to the 50-yard line. 

MATTHEWS:  If the 50-yard line is real, it‘s OK.  If it‘s just put together, it‘s called positioning.  Thank you.  Up next, Senator Joe Biden plays HARDBALL.  You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(MARKET REPORT)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.

With decision 2006 running at full speed now, Democrats are cheering their chances to win control of Congress.  If that happened in the U.S. Senate, Delaware‘s Joe Biden would be back as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, which could mean a shift in national direction on Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan. 

Senator Biden, thank you for joining us.  Let me ask you a constitutional question.  If the president decides to attack Iran, its nuclear facilities, because the talks break down, does he have to go to the Congress to get approval before he takes that act of war against Iran? 

SEN. JOE BIDEN (D), DELAWARE:  Absolutely, yes. 

MATTHEWS:  Will you insist on that? 

BIDEN:  Yes.  I have made it clear in discussions with my colleagues in the Senate, even with the White House, that if that were to be the case, he decided that he would need the support of the Congress, and I believe that he would be making a serious, serious constitutional as well as political mistake if he did anything absent that. 

MATTHEWS:  If he did go to Congress for support, would you give him the authority yourself to attack Iran?

BIDEN:  No, I would not.

MATTHEWS:  And—because of what?  Explain your thinking.

BIDEN:  Because there is no imminent threat.  I have gotten all the detailed briefings about Iran‘s capability and Iran‘s—how close Iran is to acquiring the capability of having a nuclear weapon.  There is nothing imminent about it.  They are a long-term danger.  It‘s not imminent, number one.

Number two, there is no plan I‘ve seen put forward, Chris, that could, quote, “take out” their nuclear capability.  At best, you could slow it up some.  It is already going relatively slowly, in my view. 

Number three, we have 10 of our 12 divisions occupied, coming or going from Iraq, which is an awful quagmire right now, and Iran is 71 million people, not 27 million like Iraq.  It is much more sophisticated.  It is much more consequential.  And the fact of the matter is, the only way you‘re going to unite the Iraqi people against a government they already don‘t like is attack them.

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask you about the situation in Iraq.  What impact—you‘ve been home there in Delaware.  What impact has the Haditha episode had on support for the war in Iraq?

BIDEN:  It has just reinforced the fact that we don‘t have much of a policy.  It‘s reinforced the fact that there‘s chaos there.  It‘s reinforced the fact that even though no one is excusing what the marines allegedly did, it is evidence of the fact we sent people there not trained to deal with this kind of insurgency and/or occupation, we sent too few troops, we sent them not fully equipped. 

Ninety-nine percent of our troops over there are acting nobly and honorably.  And I think the American public understands that unless the Defense Department and the Justice Department move swiftly, swiftly to deal with this and let the whole world know we‘ll not tolerate this kind of behavior, it is going to do even more damage than Abu Ghraib did. 

MATTHEWS:  Tell me about that.  How will this affect opinion in that part of the world? 

BIDEN:  Well, look, Abu Ghraib, as the president has acknowledged now, has—was a serious, serious blow to American prestige and credibility throughout the entire Arab world; I would argue throughout the whole world, the whole Muslim world. 

And now, if there is not a clear accountability for what appears to have been some savage action on the part of American marines—and not only holding the marines in question accountable, but their superiors, for failing to move forward on this and the Defense Department and the secretary of defense failing to move forward on this. 

Knowing this in ‘05 and now only beginning to really focus on it, if there‘s not accountability up the line, I think it‘s going to further damage the credibility of the United States of America with friend and foe alike. 

I mean, it is in our clear interest to own up to what happened, hold fair trials and hold people accountable.  And hopefully, there‘s going to be some honor in this administration for some of the responsibility to step forward and say, it happened on my watch.  It happened on my watch, I resign.  I resign.  There‘s no accountability here.

MATTHEWS:  How high up should that should go, Senator?

BIDEN:  To the secretary of defense.  He shouldn‘t be in his office today.  And I know I‘m a broken record now on this, Chris, but it‘s not anything personal about the secretary of defense.  It‘s the notion that no one in the world wants to work with us as long as he‘s running the show.

I mean, I mean that sincerely.  You know, everybody...

MATTHEWS:  You know we have—I‘m sorry go ahead.  We have congressional elections coming up this November and the people really have the usual choice of one party or another, it‘s binary.  You don‘t get to pick and choose, you just say yes or no basically to the way things are going. 

We‘ve gone into Afghanistan, we‘ve gone into Iraq.  We‘re threatening, in many ways you could say, Iran.  Ideological—a lot of people around the president, I think, are still pushing for action there.

How are the Democrats different, on all three fronts in the Middle East?  Is there an essential difference between what your party‘s offering in this election and what the president‘s party has been offering us.

BIDEN:  Yes, there‘s a fundamental difference.  First of all, I don‘t know anybody in the Democratic Party, with maybe one or two exceptions, who would have proceeded like the president did in Iraq. 

I don‘t know anybody in the Democratic Party who would have really shifted our focus in a fundamental way away from Afghanistan, which is now in jeopardy, to Iraq, which wasn‘t an imminent threat.

I don‘t know anybody in the Democratic Party out there with notable, maybe one exception, who is prepared to, at this moment, think we can use force in Iran, rather than exhaust diplomacy.  And I believe that the Democratic Party—I think the only plan offered out there as an alternative to the president‘s plan in Iraq, is the one I have put forward. 

I know—you know, you had the national security adviser—no, I guess it was one of your competitors had the Iraqi national security adviser on asking about my plan of giving them some breathing room, bringing in the new national community to set up a contact group to keep the neighbors out of the region, allow more autonomy and give the Sunnis a piece of the action in terms of the oil revenues.

And the national security adviser of Iraq said no, that‘s the only idea.  Look, this administration has an idea.  they said we‘re going to stand down when the Iraqi army stands up. 

You‘ve heard me on your show repeatedly telling you that the Iraqi army is increasingly made up of members of the militia of each of the sectarian groups.  The people pulling people off the buses are dressed in police uniforms and are our police.  They‘re beheading them, they‘re shooting them. 

I mean, there is no—we‘ve done nothing to help the Iraqis stand together.  There‘s no plan, no plan other than said, “Oh, look, they‘ve elected a government, unity government.  Now we‘re going to be ready to move.”  There is no unity government with the capacity to control that country.

MATTHEWS:  Former President Bill Clinton told me this weekend that he would never have taken us into Iraq.  Does that sound right to you?

BIDEN:  That sounds right to me.  I think he probably would have still asked for the authority to keep sanctions on Iraq, to demonstrate to the world that the Congress and the president were united, giving the president the authority to use force if he thought it was needed.  But I don‘t think he would have ever gone into Iraq.

MATTHEWS:  Would any Democratic president have done that, had there been one after 2001?

BIDEN:  I honest to God don‘t believe they would have.  I think they would have used that authority to reason where we gave them the authority, and that was to rally the rest of the world, to keep sanctions on Saddam, keep the inspectors in there, and try to work out agreement with our European friends that if, in fact, Saddam Hussein did not allow them to stay or go in, that they would join us in sanctions.  If military force were needed, it would be a joint operation with the world behind us.

MATTHEWS:  So as a once and perhaps future...

BIDEN:  That was a perfect resolution.

MATTHEWS:  Right, but as a once and perhaps future chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee and perhaps president of the United States someday, you believe that it‘s a fair vote for a person who goes into the voting booth this November to vote Democrat because they believe we should not have gone to Iraq.  Is that a fair decision by somebody?

BIDEN:  I think that‘s a fair vote.  No, I think that‘s a fair decision.  I think that‘s a fair decision.  Or let me put it another way.  They go to the booth and conclude that this administration is incompetent in the way in which the civilians in this administration have led the effort to protect our interests. 

They announced an axis of evil four years ago.  That axis is more dangerous now than it was then.  We‘re worse off than we were then.  They should be judged by their own standards and ruled and judged to be not—not be competent to wield that power.

MATTHEWS:  Should the primary voters in the Democratic primary up in Connecticut in August, should they vote that way as well against Lieberman because he pushed the war and still does?  Should they vote against him?

BIDEN:  Well, I don‘t—well, I—that‘s a judgment—I think not.  I think you look at the totality of what Joe has said.  Joe wasn‘t ...

MATTHEWS:  But you said it‘s good to vote against—vote Democrats who have voted against the war.  Why shouldn‘t people who don‘t like the war vote against Senator Lieberman who supports the war?

BIDEN:  Well, I think people who don‘t like the war are going to vote against—probably vote against Senator Lieberman. 

MATTHEWS:  Right.

BIDEN:  But there‘s a different circumstance.  Joe Lieberman is—what Joe has said, and people are angry about, is they backed the president.  He‘s backed the president because the president has 130,000 troops there.

MATTHEWS:  Right.

BIDEN:  Joe‘s made the judgment that there‘s no alternative, but Joe has—I believe if Joe had been president, I don‘t believe Joe would have taken us into war the way the president did.

MATTHEWS:  Whoa, well we‘ve made news with that.  Thank you very much Senator Joe Biden of Delaware, perhaps the future chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, perhaps president one of these days. 

(CROSSTALK)

BIDEN:  It‘d be nice to be back there again.  Thank you.

MATTHEWS:  Up next, MSNBC‘s Norah O‘Donnell and “Newsweek‘s” Howard Fineman will talk about what happened in that defeat of the gay marriage ban today and what it means for conservatives in these coming November elections. 

Was the debate itself enough to get out the Republican vote in November?  Did they make enough noise on the issue to help the Republicans, and what do Tuesday‘s primary results tell us about what voters are thinking generally?  This is HARDBALL only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL. “Newsweek”‘s Howard Fineman, an MSNBC political analyst and Norah O‘Donnell is MSNBC‘s chief Washington correspondent.  Ann Coulter, dare we mention her, has attacked the 9/11 widows, including Christian Brightwister (ph) who fought for the creation of the 9/11 commision.  She has accused them of enjoying their husband‘s death.  Here is a clip of Coulter on the situation with Tucker Carlson last night.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) 

TUCKER CARLSON, MSNBC ANCHOR:  People who know people people who perished in 9/11 or average Americans are going to think Ann Coulter is wack-job and a bad person and I‘m not buying her book and I‘m not listening to her ideas.  Isn‘t it self-defeating to say things like that? 

ANN COULTER, AUTHOR “GODLESS”:  I guess we‘ll see by my book sales.  I don‘t think they will say that.  If people are going to use a personal tragedy in their lives to inject themselves into a national debate.  I‘m sorry, you can‘t just say, oh we‘re off limits.  Oh, now we‘re going to invoke the fact that our husbands died and you can‘t criticize us.  They were specifically using their husbands‘ deaths.  And There were hundreds, in fact, thousands of widows. 

CARLSON:  That doesn‘t mean they‘re enjoying it.  Presumably they‘re going home at night and their husbands are gone, their kids are there.  Where is dad.  It‘s so depressing. 

COULTER:  And so are the thousands of widows who were not cutting campaign commercials for Clinton.  These women got paid, they ought to take their money and shut up about it. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  She also said something else.  I have to read it.  I want to read this first.  This is something else she said.  And by the way, this is Ann Coulter.  “How do we know their husbands,”  this is the husbands that were killed in 9/11, “weren‘t planning to divorce these harpies?”  Anyway, we‘ll move on here.  In her book, some more, we have a statement from the wives as well. 

Let‘s hear the statement from the wives, let‘s read that statement.  “We are forced to respond to Ms. Coulter‘s accusations to set the record straight because we have been slandered.  Contraty to Ms. Coulter‘s statements there was no joy in watching men that we loved burn alive.  There was no happiness in telling our children that their fathers were never coming home again.  We adored these men and miss them every day.  It is in their honor and memory that we will once again refocus the Nation‘s attention to the real issues at hand: ou lack of security, leadership and progerss in the five years since 9/11.”

Howard Fineman, your view about this point, counter-point, one in a book, one responding to that attack by Ann Coulter.

HOWARD FINEMAN, “NEWSWEEK”:  Well, I think Ann Coulter is getting exactly what she wants. 

MATTEWS:  She is number three on amazon right now. 

FINEMAN:  Which is attention.  She got the gift of all time when Hillary Clinton responded now.  So she has got the whole world arguing over her, especially in New York, America‘s biggest media market and so forth.  I think Ann Coulter often has interesting and provocative things to say about the clash between liberalism and conservativism.  I think some of the stuff she said here is over the line, and I have a pretty high tolerance for this kind of stuff because I believe the that more we argue, the better we are as a country, but I think some of the personal comments were just over the line. 

MATTHEWS:  Norah O‘Donnell, your assessment of the news value.  I know you can‘t take sides, but I just want to quote something again.  I was impressed, I‘m using measured language, by her going, as Howard suggests, over the line when she says not only are they making a case against some policies and the administration, given the platform they were given by tragedy, I must point out.  But then going further and saying by the way, how do we know their husbands weren‘t planning to divorce these harpies.  I don‘t know where that exactly comes from, but it‘s different from what we usually hear from someone arguing politics. 

NORAH O‘DONNELL, MSNBC CHIEF WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT:  That‘s clearly vitriol is what that is.  But Ann Coulter is a provocateur.  She does have a new book out, and she is trying to sell that book.  That‘s part of her shtick.  That‘s who she is. 

The question is did she overstep the line by saying these 9/11 widows are enjoying their husbands‘ deaths so much.  Which I think anybody who has had a spouse die, no matter what, would have trouble with that statement.  And especially with 9/11 and given the emotions surrounding that.  This is a very charged statement that Ann has made. 

In many ways, too, it‘s—it‘s like saying something bad about our troops.  We would never say about those who put themselves in harm‘s way every day.  And those 9/11 widows, people who have suffered so, so much because of this tragedy. 

While many of the women that she is specifically mentioning are, in fact, Democrats and are in fact liberals and did, in fact, campaign for Senator John Kerry, they did become public figures, but they are also very much responsible for finally pushing the government to actually have a 9/11 Commission to issue many of these recommendations, and they do beat the drum every day to say look, by the way, that statement you just read, it‘s a long statement. 

What they go on to say in that statement.  By the way, here is the 10 other things our government hasn‘t done in terms of keeping our ports secure, et cetera. 

MATTHEWS:  It amazes me how many nebishes that work on Wall Street buy these kind of books and walk around to show them off to show how hot they are.  We‘ll be right back.  Nebishes are the kind of people why buy these books.  Howard Fineman, Norah O‘Donnell, this is HARDBALL only on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  We‘re back with Howard Fineman and Norah O‘Donnell.  Norah, you‘re political assessment of this vote today.  The Senate failed to bring out, because they voted against bringing up, this issue of the gay marriage amendment of the Constitution of The United States, it seems like there‘s enough in the middle to keep this thing from ever coming to a vote. 

O‘DONNELL:  That‘s right.  We know that largely this vote was brought up to rally the president‘s conservative, the Republican Party‘s conservative base in the mid-term elections.  What‘s interesting is that I got a memo today from the Republican National Committee citing the Gallup Poll which shows the president‘s approval ratings among conservatives has jumped eight points in recent weeks.  There seems to be some suggestion that a lot of this pandering, if you will, or politics is actually working to the benefit of the president. 

MATTHEWS:  So it is working to bring up the issue, the numbers show. 

O‘DONNELL:  It is bringing up an issue that is important to his base.  Many of the evangelical leaders who have been saying to this White House, you have forsaken us.  You have not done what you said were going to do.  Most of them were pretty pleased that at least this came up to a vote even though the outcome did not move the ball forward. 

MATTHEWS:  I love that biblical verb, forsaken.  I love that that popped out there. 

O‘DONNELL:  That‘s why I chose it. 

MATTHEWS:  You were speaking old testament there.  Have the conservatives felt forsaken by this president on these issues that matter much to them? 

FINEMAN:  I don‘t think—I think the conservative base of the party is worried and upset about a lot of things.  They don‘t like the immigration deal that George Bush is trying to put together.  A lot of those people are pretty hard line on that topic.  A lot of them don‘t like the run-away spending they see out of this government.  Those two things bother them a lot.  And I think they, while all people like to be pandered to, this notion that they‘re just pandering.  People like to be pandered to. 

MATTHEWS:  I like pandering.  it‘s tough out there. 

FINEMAN:  Norah is right.  But I don‘t get a sense of excitement about George Bush anymore.  Why would they be excited?  The guy has approval rating in the mid 30‘s.  They can read the polls like anybody else.  And I don‘t think this 49, 48 vote to shut off debate, which is what it was, is a very powerful statement of anything by the Republican Party. 

MATTHEWS:  Is there a shift toward accepting gay marriage?  Norah, I looked at the, certainly a generational issue.  Certainly younger people in their 20‘s are more open to it than people in the 50‘s or 60‘s.  I watched today as a couple of senators flipped.  Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, who I pay a lot of attention to.  I grew up in that state with him. 

He flipped to a pro—he may not say it this way.  A pro gay marriage position.  He didn‘t want to bring it to a vote.  He didn‘t want the constitutional amendment to ban it to come to a vote.  And also, Judd Gregg, I guess you call him a moderate in New Hampshire.  There is sort of an erosion going on here.  Isn‘t there?  Although Bobby Bird and Ben Nelson still voted against it on the other side. 

O‘DONNELL:  And as time goes by, attitudes change.  You can attribute it to two things.  One, the issue is less in your face because of Massachusetts and what was happening in San Francisco than it was perhaps in 2004.  And the second thing is also, younger people, it is shown, the studies show younger people are more accepting of gay marriage or same sex marriage. 

One of the interesting things is that there are a lot of senate races where a lot of strategists believe this vote is important.  Pennsylvania, Ohio, in very tight races where it could make part of a difference.  There will be some really tight races. 

FINEMAN:  What the Republicans are doing in Pennsylvania, at the local level, is that the House of Representatives in Pennsylvania just passed a state constitutional amendment.  So they‘re trying to keep it going for that senate race and governor‘s race in Pennsylvania. 

MATTHEWS:  Is that going to be on the ballot? 

FINEMAN:  No, it won‘t be on the ballot.  It has to be approved twice.  They‘re just stirring the pot up there, trying to help Santorum and Lynn Swann, the governor‘s candidate.  What fascinates me is New Hampshire.  The license plates do say, “Live Free or Die.”   And now you have a situation where both Senators Sununu and Gregg kind of join hands, dare we say, to oppose a vote on the constitutional amendment.  They‘re taking the libertarian position.  John McCain has always been in that position. 

MATTHEWS:  I think just the news.  If you go back to television news, Norah, for the last two or three years, maybe, and don‘t see a lot of gay pride parades and don‘t see a lot of kissing on the step of city hall between people of the same gender.  That makes people more open to it.  I think. 

Your thoughts Norah, last thoughts? 

O‘DONNELL:  I think I read today that when you ask voters what is the top 10 concerns, gay marriage is not in it this year.  There are other big concerns like gas prices and Iraq and the economy and lots of other things.  They‘re at the top of everybody‘s lists because that‘s what‘s affecting them every day.

MATTHEWS:  Benign neglect.  Daniel Patrick Moynihan may be working for this issue as well.  Thank you very much Norah O‘Donnell and Howard Fineman.  Tomorrow we‘ll have an exclusive debate between the two democrats who want to knock off Senator George Allen of Virginia.  A big hot debate here between former Navy secretary Jim Webb and businessman Harris Miller.  Right here a hot debate that counts.  We do politics. 

Right now it‘s time for “THE ABRAMS REPORT” with Dan.

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

END   

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