updated 6/19/2006 12:06:05 PM ET 2006-06-19T16:06:05

Guests: Louie Gohmert, James Moran, Mark Barnicle, John Fund

DAVID GREGORY, MSNBC HOST:  Tonight, House Republicans provoke a fierce election-year fight over the war.  This after the president turns up the political heat with a secret trip to Baghdad.  What does it all mean for Decision 2006?  Let‘s play HARDBALL.

(MUSIC)

GREGORY:  Nice nod from Dan Abrams.  Thanks very much. 

Good evening, everybody.  I‘m David Gregory, in tonight for Chris Matthews. 

Iraq is the single most important issue in this election year.  Today the House, after a bitter partisan debate, passed a resolution rejecting a timetable for U.S. troop withdrawal in Iraq and linked the conflict to the larger war against terrorists.  Does this put Democrats at a disadvantage or could the strategy backfire on Republicans in the midterm elections this fall? 

The latest NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll shows 54 percent of Americans say they would be more likely to support a congressional candidate who favors pulling the troops out of Iraq within the next 12 months.  We‘ll talk to two house members fresh off the fierce fight in just a moment. 

And later, the HARDBALL HotShots are here:  they weigh in on President Bush‘s successes and Vice President Cheney hitting the airwaves.

But first, it is, of course, Friday, and with Father‘s Day two days away, who better to have on than best-selling author Tim Russert.  His new book, “Wisdom of Our Fathers,” is currently number one on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.  He is the moderator of “MEET THE PRESS” and NBC News Washington bureau chief.

Hello, boss.  Good to have you here. 

TIM RUSSERT, NBC NEWS:  Great to be here, David.

GREGORY:  Tim, I want to ask you about “Wisdom of Our Fathers,” because as I was spending some time with the book this week, I found it to be a particularly emotional book, and I didn‘t know that I really expected to have that reaction.  It was emotional for you, too.

RUSSERT:  Very much.  After I wrote “Big Russ” about my dad and his war experience and working two jobs as a sanitation man and a truck driver to send me—the first kid in the family to go to college—and my three sisters, these letters started pouring in -- 60,000 letters and e-mails.  And they were so emotional and so passionate, particularly from the daughters, and they wanted to say, Let me he tell you about my dad.  And every letter, David, kept the same theme—it‘s better to see a sermon than it is to hear one.  And that‘s what my dad allowed me to do—watch him live his life. 

One of my favorites, a daughter, she broke up with her fiance, she never thought she was ever going to get married.  And her dad was not feely/touchy—there was no Dr. Phil back then.  But he plopped down on the couch next to her and he wrapped his big steel-worker‘s around her and he said, Honey, I just love you so much, I wish I could marry you.  And she said that was the nicest thing that anyone has ever said to her. 

Story after story—Mr. Mom, lost his wife when his daughter was three years old.  He said I‘m going to be your mom and dad.  He had two jobs, yet taught himself how to cook, how to sew.  Sacrifice, discipline, love—it just pours through the pages.  As I went around the country, there‘s a silent goodness in this country that is so prevalent and the vast, vast majority of dads are loving, caring, dedicated pops. 

GREGORY:  People want to talk about their fathers, too, don‘t they, whether people come up to you in response to this book or shows you‘ve been on? 

RUSSERT:  There‘s not a day that‘s gone by where someone has not sent me a letter, an e-mail, a phone call, stopped me on the street in an airport, saying, Can I tell you about my dad?  And Barbara Bishop, from Minnesota, gave me a great idea, David.  Her dad, Dutch Bialki (ph), turned 75.  She said, We never know what to get dad for Father‘s Day or for a birthday.  He wears the same hat, the same belt, the same shoes.  So we all sat down—eight of us in the family—and wrote 75 reasons why we loved him.

So I went to my publisher and I said, Can I keep the front page of this book blank?  And I want sons and daughters to write their dad this Sunday, their own letter.  Dear Dad, this is what you mean to me; this is what I‘ve learned from you.  And mothers were coming up with young sons and daughters, at these book signings, showing me letters they had written their dad.  And you talk about emotional! 

My favorite was, the other day, in Chicago, right at the very bottom, one of the little girls had written, Dear Dad, can I have an allowance?  Sweetheart, this is not your day, this is Dad‘s day.  But this has been, of all the things I‘ve done in my professional life, this has been by far the most fulfilling journey I‘ve ever undertaken, and the most rewarding, because I see people bonding with one another. 

There‘s a chapter here on forgiveness and reconciliation.  I had a father and son who hadn‘t spoken together in eight years, came together because they had read these stories and said, you know what?  This is crazy.  Pick up the phone and talk to one another.  We have a father and son relationship. 

GREGORY:  Something about taking the time to write a letter to you in response to “Big Russ and Me,” and to think about your relationship with your father, the ups and the downs, gets people emotional. 

RUSSERT:  Very emotional—and even the tens of thousands that I had to write back and say, you know, “I only have a couple hundred letters here, I can‘t use yours,” to a person, they said, that‘s okay.  I feel so good having written this letter.  And the vast majority of them gave it to their dad, because they wanted him to know before he left this earth how they really felt about him. 

There is such a bond between fathers and sons, fathers and daughters -

a lot different.  I have three sisters—and you know; you have two sons and a daughter—Ava (ph) has you wrapped around her finger.  There is such a thing as ‘daddy‘s girl‘ and boy, do they write about it here. 

GREGORY:  I hit you up for parenting advice, because I‘m a parent of young kids.  What is it about dads that they‘re so important?  I mean, each relationship—mother to son and daughter, dad to son and daughter—is so unique.  What is it about dads that make it such an influential relationship? 

RUSSERT:  Moms are nurturers, and they‘re tender and they‘re real.  My mom used to put teabags on my eyes because they would get irritated from living near the steel plant.  Dads were the hunters, the providers.  And yet, when you start writing about them, you also realize, they teach you how to be a man or how to be a woman.  There‘s an element of tough love. 

I combined a lot of popular sayings from dads.  One of my favorites was, he would say to his kid, God loves you and I‘m trying.  That is an important message to remember over and over again.  Charles Barkley, the NBA all-star, told me that his dad left his family, and it was devastating to him because no one taught him how to be a man.  And now that he has his own daughter, he is absolutely playing a role of being present there all the time.  It‘s so essential. 

If there‘s one lesson, David, it‘s not the expensive vacation, it‘s not the material gift, it‘s time.  It‘s so precious.  You can always make a little more money, you can always get another little job if you need it to help support your family, but when you give time, you can never get it back, and kids know that.  Not quality time; it‘s being there day in and day out. 

GREGORY:  You obviously were so close to your father all along and remain so close to Big Russ, and yet you write in the book about, he worked two jobs, he wasn‘t there, he wasn‘t there to see all your Little League games.  There was a great story about him coming to see one game that went late and you slid into home without a belt and you hurt yourself, and he said, Don‘t worry about your bun, you scored a run. 

RUSSERT:  Dropped my trou.

GREGORY:  But the point is, how is it when you had that kind of upbringing, and that, when you became a dad, when you had Luke—you and Maureen had Luke—it was instinctual to you that you were not only such a present dad, but you were the kind, unlike your father, the kind of father to say “I love you” all the time.  How was that? 

RUSSERT:  I believe—and I do now know—that I did miss not having my dad at the games and at school activities.  I knew he was working.  I knew he wasn‘t out carousing, but still there was a little twinge there, and I said to myself back then, if I‘m ever blessed to have a child, I‘m going to be there and I‘m going to find—and thank god for rMD+BO_rMD-BO_Blackberrys and cell phones and NBC, where all of us can say, hey, I‘m going to be at my son‘s game.  If there‘s an emergency, find me and I‘ll come back.  My dad did not have that opportunity.

The second thing is the verbal one that you talk about.  My dad never said to me, “I love you.”  I knew he did by the way he worked.  I say to my son every day, You‘re always, always loved, but I add You‘re never, never entitled.  And I know that is an extension of what Big Russ taught me.

Thanksgiving of ‘04, I was packing up the car after a great dinner—and my dad and I have perfected this handshake and kind of half a hug, saying, Take care, big guy.  This—he hugged me—big bear hug—and he said, “I love you.”  I said, “What did you say?”  He goes, “You heard me.”  I got one.  It took a book, but I got one. 

GREGORY:  Tim Russert is going to stick around with us.  We‘re going to talk a little politics when we come back, especially about the debate in Congress over the war and what it all means for Decision 2006, and whether this will work for Republicans.  You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.  Don‘t go away.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GREGORY:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.

To honor fathers everywhere, we‘re back with Big Russ‘ son, Tim Russert, who is, of course, the moderator of “Meet the Press” and the author of the great book, “Wisdom of Our Fathers: Lessons and Letters from Sons and Daughters Everywhere,” an emotional book that‘s just terrific. 

Tim is back to talk a little politics as well.  Tim, let‘s just talk about this week a little bit that the president has had.  Coming off of the killing of the terrorist Zarqawi, the secret trip to Iraq, a press conference where I and I think others found the president to feel a sense of momentum.  What did all of these things together mean for the president?  

RUSSERT:  Policy, politics, and public relations, and he put them all together basically saying to the American people, give me some time.  Stay patient.  This is going to work out in the end.  We‘ve had some bumps, things have been more difficult than we though, but the end goal is worth your patience. 

And if he can convince the American people that he‘s making progress until the end of the year, they think it will get him through the midterm elections and, in fact, the Iraqis may have a military that can secure the country.  No one knows whether it‘s going to work or not, but the president is following what he thinks is his best decision. 

The interesting thing for me, David, is how aggressive the Republicans have become with this vote in Congress.  Karl Rove, top political adviser to the president‘s speech in New Hampshire Sunday night, saying the Democrats are the party of cut and run, and that if Democrats like Congressman Murtha had, in fact, had his plan implemented of withdrawing troops, we would have never captured Zarqawi.  I mean, that‘s taking the offense in a very political way. 

GREGORY:  Is it more complicated to try to do that in 2006 than it was in 2004 and 2002, simply because of what‘s happened in Iraq, what‘s gone wrong in Iraq? 

RUSSERT:  That is a great question.  It worked in 2002 being the stronger party on national security, 2004 the stronger party on national security, the daddy party as they like to call themselves.  2006, you‘re going to have that political argument measured against events on the ground. 

If in November of ‘06 the situation in Iraq is similar to what we‘re seeing today, it‘s going to be very hard for the Republicans to make that case.  If, in fact, there‘s real progress, this new prime minister cracks down, the insurgency begins to dissipate, then they‘ll probably be able to make the case successfully. 

GREGORY:  If you look at the vote in the House today, a vote that was a non-binding resolution that we‘re essentially going to win the war, so it seemed like an election year debate for sure, 42 Democrats voting for this.  What‘s the significance? 

RUSSERT:  I was taken by that number and they‘re largely from the Midwest and South, involved in tough reelection campaigns, and so they‘re very careful to distinguish themselves from the majority of the Democrats.  But when you have one out of every five Democrats voting, in fact, with a Republican resolution, it‘s an indication that the Democratic view is not monolithic.

Although in our polling data, David, 81 percent of Democrats say it was wrong for us to have invaded Iraq, only 18 percent of Republicans.  These parties now are really split on this war. 

GREGORY:  If it‘s so clear that the base of the Democratic Party is opposed to this war and wants troops out—and indeed, it‘s not just the Democratic Party if you look in our polling, the majority view in the country—why is it that Democrats can‘t agree on a strategy for going forward? 

RUSSERT:  Because in some of these swing districts where the Democrats rely on crossover Republican votes or independent votes, there‘s much more of a mixed view, and so they have been very reluctant to have a Democratic Party position. 

They put out a paper, a Contract with America, if you will, Democratic style.  It didn‘t even mention Iraq.  It was all about domestic issues like education, energy, and so forth, because they can‘t come to an agreement. 

GREGORY:  You talked about how aggressive the campaign—P.R.  campaign by the White House.  The vice president spoke to Sean Hannity on his radio program this week and he said the following about the importance of invading Iraq.  Let‘s listen to that. 

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

DICK CHENEY, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  Taking down Saddam Hussein was exactly the right thing to do.  It‘s also, I think, in part responsible for the fact that we haven‘t been hit again in nearly five years.  That‘s no accident. 

(END AUDIO CLIP)

GREGORY:  The vice president saying it‘s no accident.  What do you think he means? 

RUSSERT:  Well, I‘m sure that there will be a lot of bloggers tonight saying, is he suggesting that in any way Iraq was involved with September 11, and there would be a replay of that attack? 

My sense is—and I have not had a chance to talk to the vice president‘s office—he was talking about taking the battle to the terrorists other there, and that because a lot of foreign fighters are so preoccupied over there it will contain them. 

And probably part two, by going into Iraq, we are showing that group of people that we mean business.  We‘re not afraid to whack them in necessary.  But my sense is, there will be a lot of debate about the vice president‘s comments. 

GREGORY:  All right.  More to come certainly.  Tim Russert, thank you very much. 

Be sure to watch “Meet the Press” this Sunday on your local NBC station.  Of course, Congressman Jack Murtha—John Murtha of Pennsylvania will talk about the future of Iraq and the U.S. presence in Iraq with Tim Russert. 

And up next, most Americans favor a candidate who wants to pull U.S.  troops out of Iraq within a year.  How will a House vote today rejecting a timetable affect both parties for decision 2006? 

You‘re watching HARDBALL only on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GREGORY:  And welcome back to HARDBALL.  Today, the House passed a resolution that rejects setting a timetable for U.S. troop withdrawal.  It also says that the war in Iraq is part of the global war on terror.  Are Republicans playing a political game of dare?  Can they used today‘s vote to peg Democrats as weak on national security or could it back fire in the coming elections this fall?  HARDBALL correspondent David Shuster has the latest. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DAVID SHUSTER, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  It was the vote house Republicans had wanted. 

REP. DENNIS HASTERT ®, SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE:  On this question, the yeas are 256, the nays are 153, with five members recording as present, the resolution is adopted without objection. 

SHUSTER:  The resolution declared support for U.S. troops, but it also said the war in Iraq is part of the global war on terror.  And that a date for a troop withdrawal is not in the national interest.  So Republicans now have an issue for the coming fall elections.  Democrats, who oppose the resolution, may be vulnerable to charges they don‘t support the troops and are soft on terrorism. 

REP. JOHN BOEHNER ®, OHIO:  The American public deserves to hear how they‘re elected leaders will respond to international terrorism and those enemies who seek to destroy our American way of life. 

SHUSTER:  Democrats were given no opportunities to introduce alternative resolutions or amendments that would have narrowed the debate to whether U.S. should stay in Iraq for the long hall. 

REP. JOHN MURTHA (D), PENNSYLVANIA:  We have sectarian violence, which is, in my estimation, a civil war and we‘re caught in between.  Our troops have become the targets in a civil war. 

SHUSTER:  At many points, the exchanges were highly charged.  John Murtha is a Marine combat veteran, but his advocacy for withdrawal from Iraq prompted this. 

REP. LOUIE GOHMERT ®, TEXAS:  Thank God he was not here and prevailed after the blood baths at Normandy and in the Pacific, or we would be here speaking Japanese or German.  Thank you. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  The gentleman‘s time is expired.

The gentleman from Pennsylvania. 

MURTHA:  I yield myself one minute.  I ask the Speaker, was the gentleman at either at either of those locations?  Was the gentlemen either at Normandy or either of those locations? 

GOHMERT:  The gentleman yields.  You want to know which locations? 

MURTHA:  Yes. 

GOHMERT:  Normandy was a horrible blood bath. 

MURTHA:  I say were you there? 

GOHMERT:  No I wasn‘t. 

MURTHA:  Were you in Vietnam. 

GOHMERT:  No, sir, I wasn‘t. 

MURTHA:  Were you in Iraq? 

GOHMERT:  I‘ve been over there, I haven‘t been fighting. 

SHUSTER:  Republicans said this week their political strategy is to present a united front and try to take advantage of Democrat division, but with polls showing most Americans believe the war in Iraq was a mistake, neither party seems certain how the politics will play out.  And Democratic leaders have signalled they don‘t believe they need a unified position on Iraq. 

This week, they released a new direction platform they hope will convince Americans to vote for Democrats.  While the platform includes hiking the minimum wage and slashing interest rates on student loans, there is no stated policy on the Iraq war.  Meanwhile, the Bush administration is echoing the effort by house Republicans that tamp down public concerns about Iraq by linking the war with security here at home. 

DICK CHENEY, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  Taking down Saddam Hussein was exactly the right thing to do.  It‘s also, I think, in part responsible for the fact that we haven‘t been hit again in nearly five years.  That‘s no accident. 

SHUSTER:  Democrats counter that U.S. troops are being hit repeatedly. 

REP. NANCY PELOSI (D), MINORITY LEADER:  The Bush administration is so obsessed with the effort to paint on optimistic picture of the situation if Iraq that it refuses to face the facts.  The facts are these.  More than 2,500 American troops have been killed. 

SHUSTER (on camera):  Against all of this, over a 10-day period that saw a string of good news for the White House, including the formation of a new Iraqi government, the death of terrorist Zarqawi and the president‘s surprise trip to Baghdad, there was a stark reminder of just how much work lies ahead for President Bush as he tries to turn around his political standing.  The latest poll taken after the president‘s return from Baghdad shows his approval rating has only gone up one point. 

G.O.P. strategists believe it‘s crucial for Republicans in Congress that President Bush‘s approval rating get up to at least the mid 40‘s ahead of the November elections, but the president has been stuck in the 30‘s for the last 10 months and there are deep concerns among many Republicans that when it comes to the Iraq war, no matter how it‘s framed, voters have already made up their minds.  I‘m David Shuster for HARDBALL in Washington. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

GREGORY:  Thanks very much, David Shuster.  And up next, we‘ll get into this.  Was the House‘s vote more about affirming support for the war or shoring up support for election day.  And by the way, what‘s stopping Democrats from a unified call to pull troops out of Iraq?  You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

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GREGORY:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  I‘m David Gregory in tonight for Chris Matthews. 

Today, Republican leaders painted Democrats into a corner.  The House approved a measure that affirmed both commitment to victory in the war on terror and that invading Iraq was justified.  In the end, 42 Democrats joined Republicans in supporting the resolution. 

But with polls showing that most Americans think removing Saddam was a bad idea, and that most favor a candidate who supports removing troops from Iraq, will the vote ultimately help or hurt Republicans? 

Congressman Jim Moran is a Democrat from Virginia, and Congressman Louie Gohmert is a Republican from Texas.  Welcome both.  Your colleague, Charlie Norwood of Georgia encapsulated a lot of the debate on the floor.  Let‘s listen to what he had to say. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. CHARLIE NORWOOD ®, GEORGIA:  Many, not all, of the other side of the aisle lack the will to win.  The American people need to know precisely who they are.  It is time to stand up and vote.  Is it al Qaeda or is it America? 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY:  Congressman Gohmert, is that really the choice in your mind? 

Is it as simple as that, al Qaeda or America? 

REP. LOUIE GOHMERT ®, TEXAS:  Well, I know there‘s differences on what these things mean, what the resolution means, but I think it was critical to have the resolution because there‘s so many people who have been saying it‘s time to exit, it‘s time to pull out and Charlie, I think he got a point there. 

When the message is going abroad, as we saw in the al Qaeda memo yesterday—when the message is going abroad that even though you think it‘s a crisis and you think things are bleak, here in America, we‘ve got a lot of people in Congress that are ready to pull out, so don‘t give up. 

That‘s the subliminal message that‘s going, and this resolution sought to deal with that, to let them know that two-thirds of this body, including Democrats, are voting to let you know we‘re going to stay until we win. 

GREGORY:  But can you be opposed to the war, believe in troop withdrawal, and still be opposed to al Qaeda? 

GOHMERT:  Well, I‘m not going to really address that. 

GREGORY:  It sound like you think he was a little harsh in his assessment there. 

GOHMERT:  Well, I love Charlie. 

GREGORY:  You wouldn‘t put it that way? 

GOHMERT:  I wouldn‘t necessarily put it that way. 

GREGORY:  Congressman Moran, why this resolution?  Was it necessary? 

REP. JAMES MORAN (D), VIRGINIA:  Of course not.  It was a political ploy on the part of the Republican majority.  Zarqawi had just been captured.  That‘s why the Pentagon issued a large brief of talking points, a spin memo, if you will.  What was it?  Forty-one pages that the Pentagon issued.

And then, of course, John Boehner passed out spin suggestions on how to paint the Democrats into a corner, how to suggest that they‘re weak on defense, et cetera.  This was all about politics.  It had no substance. 

We talked past each other for 10 hours, but many of us did talk to our constituents and I think that was appropriate.  We need to be debating this war in Iraq, even if none of our colleagues are listening to what we have to say. 

GREGORY:  Congressman Moran I meant to say—excuse me for misstating that.  Isn‘t this all about politics?  Again, the Republicans are in a position where the country has moved against the president, moved against the party in its handling of Iraq.  Is this not an attempt to shore up support? 

GOHMERT:  Well, first of all, I‘m hurt.  I didn‘t get any of those memos you‘re talking about from the Defense Department or Mr. Boehner.  But no, this isn‘t about politics.  This is about life and death.  This is about troops out there fighting people who have shown by their memos the situation is bleak.  They‘re in a crisis, they don‘t know whether to give up or not and the message that came after ...

GREGORY:  You think the troops don‘t know whether they should give up or not because of this debate over here?

GOHMERT:  The troops have asked me when I‘ve been over there, why don‘t they get it, that we‘re doing good over here?  The al Qaeda folks know, the terrorists know that they are in trouble.  That‘s why the memos say what they do. 

And so this is a message that needed to be sent, not for politics and that‘s why some Democrats voted, not for politics, but to let the terrorists know, we have a will to win and despite what bin Laden said, we do not only have the heart and soul, we have the stomach to stay there until we win. 

GREGORY:  Our polling found this week that 54 percent of respondents to our poll said they are more likely to vote for a candidate who supports removing troops within the next 12 months. 

Congressman Moran, what does that say, do you think, for the fall campaign? 

MORAN:  I‘m not sure that it says a lot, because that‘s a national poll.  You have to look at individual districts where there are competitive races.  The fact that 42 Democrats voted for the resolution shows that there are a number of districts where the war is still very popular, particularly in the Midwest and the South.

But I do think that the American people get it, get it more than the majority in the Congress get it, that this war was ill-advised, unjustified, and that it is not only undermining our own military strength, but the fact is our credibility is at the lowest level it‘s ever been apparently in American history.  People rank us around the world down with Russia in terms of trust and respect. 

It is undermining the morale of our troops, and the fact is, that it‘s playing to the strength of the terrorists.  It‘s the terrorists who are using our presence in Iraq as a recruiting tool and a rallying cry.  Our entry into Iraq served al Qaeda‘s interest. 

They weren‘t in Iraq before we went in there, and now, they have a front that they didn‘t have.  So I voted against it in the first place and I‘ve never had any question it was the right thing to do, because Saddam had nothing to do with 9/11. 

GREGORY:  But 42 Democrats voted for the resolution today. 

MORAN:  That‘s right.  Yes.

GREGORY:  What does that tell you? 

MORAN:  Well, it shows that we‘re a big tent party, that we respect other people‘s points of view, and there is a substantial number of Americans that believe that this war is in the best interest of America. 

The majority of Democrats though, three out of four, know that this was the wrong thing to do, want to bring our troops home, want to stop the loss of life and the serious injuries, because it is not in pursuit of a sufficiently noble objective. 

GREGORY:  We played on the program before Vice President Cheney‘s remarks on a radio program yesterday that the invasion of Iraq is a factor in the fact that we haven‘t been hit in five years.  Do you agree with that? 

GOHMERT:  I do.  Absolutely.  Now, regardless of whether we went in for proper reasons or not—I wasn‘t in the Congress then, I was a judge at the time.  But regardless of that, the fact is the insurgents, the terrorists, al Qaeda, realized that in order to win in the Middle East, and even in America, they have got to fight the democracy that‘s about to take place and is already blooming in Iraq. 

If that democracy gets a foothold there in the middle of the Middle East, then they are toast.  Iran is in trouble, Saudi Arabia, our friends there, they are worried about us—Syria—a democracy right there means curtains for the terrorists. 

They had to pour in there.  They had to make that the battleground.  They cannot allow a democracy to take hold hand and so, yes, they want to come in and they‘re trying, but that had to be the battleground. 

GREGORY:  We‘re going to have to leave it there, a debate certainly that will continue.  Thank you both.  Thank you to Congressman Jim Moran and Congressman Louis Gohmert of Texas. 

HARDBALL will be back in just a moment.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GREGORY:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  Yes, it is that time for our special Friday feature, HARDBALL hotshots.  Our lineup, hotshots I should say.  Our lineup this week, John Fund of OpinionJournal.com, MSNBC chief Washington correspondent Norah O‘Donnell and Mike Barnicle of the “Boston Herald.” 

First up, no victory lap.  In the past two weeks, the U.S. military killed terror mastermind Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.  Carl Rove got himself a clean bill of health in the CIA leak case and George Bush rallied support for the war during a secret trip to Iraq.  So, where is al all the bragging?  Has the president gone from bring it on to keep it down?  If the White House believes happy days are here again, wouldn‘t we hear about it? 

Mark Barnicle, let me start with you, because a lot of people thought the president had his swagger back at this press conference the other day after the trip and after getting Zarqawi.  I noticed something else, and that was that he was a lot more cautious, even chiding himself for speaking the week before about the tide turning if Iraq.  What‘s going on? 

MIKE BARNICLE, “BOSTON HERALD”:  Yes, well, I think the other day at the press conference, sleep deprivation and caution, it was a good mix for the president.  It worked.  I think on Iraq, David, and the tone of the White House, just hooking at it from the outside, from outside Washington, it would seem that a combination of Josh Bolten, new chief of staff, Tony Snow, new press secretary, new perspective on Iraq, maybe he pick up the phone and Jim Baker was on the line, who knows, and reality therapy and the difficulty of Iraq, all of it combines to have this president now taking a rather moderate approach if terms of what we are doing if Iraq. 

GREGORY:  Well, he may moderate just a little bit, but Norah O‘Donnell, if you listen to the vice-president talking to Sean Hannity, if you listen to the tenor of the debate in the House or you heard Karl Rove earlier in the week, Republicans have really put all of this together for another very aggressive election strategy on the war. 

NORAH O‘DONNELL, MSNBC CHIEF WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT:  They have and I think the strategy from the White House is not to over-promise, if you will, and over-brag about, or just brag, if you will, about what‘s going on.  So you see more measured tone from this White House rather than promising they‘ll be greeted with flowers or mission accomplished, so they know that this is steady or take along time, but clearly, David, you‘re right, when it comes to 2006, this White House believes on Iraq, let‘s make it black and white. 

Let‘s make it clear as can be, the Republicans are for staying the course, sticking it out, the hard fight and the Democrats are for retreat and cut and run.  That was the message all towards the end of this week. 

GREGORY:  But, John Fund, can they pull that off in 2006, the way they did in 2004 and 2002? 

JOHN FUND, OPINIONJOURNAL.COM:  It depends on events if Iraq.  We can have surprises that are good and surprises that are bad.  One surprise that hasn‘t been talked about enough, we found documents in Zarqawi‘s safe house in which he himself said look, the insurgency is in trouble.  Time is on the American side, so I think, and if those documents are apparently authentic, we may not know how much trouble the other side is in.  We know how much trouble we have but now we‘re beginning to sense that things aren‘t rosy for them either. 

GREGORY:  Certainly taking out Zarqawi is a very important score.  Next up, the sound of silence in the new NBC-“Wall Street Journal” poll.  A whopping 80 percent of Democrats say that the war wasn‘t worth the cost, and a majority of all Americans agreed, but this week house Democrats unveiled a new direction for America plan, that dodges the one issue that matters the most to voters, the war in Iraq, without a unified position on the war, can Democrats exploit the president‘s vulnerability and are they still reluctant to look like post 9-11 doves?  Mike Barnicle, where is the talk about Iraq? 

BARNICLE:  Well, you know David, the Democrats, the poor things, they sound as if they either have no beliefs or they can‘t articulate their beliefs and yet on the other hand, we had a full day‘s viewing on MSNBC and other outlets of the debate, if you want to call it that, in the House of Representatives today, which was akin to political pornography in a sense.  When you have people, elected members of the House of Representatives basically saying that this is a vote for al Qaeda or a vote for America, the resolution on the war in Iraq, that is far removed from reality. 

The reality is that a great many people, despite the polls, are deeply concerned about the direction this country is taking in Iraq and they‘re looking for leadership.  They‘re not getting it in Washington. 

GREGORY:  It‘s interesting, John Fund, you have 80 percent of Democrats thinking the war was not worth the cost and yet even this resolution today, which a lot of people thought, a lot Democrats thought was a sham debate, you still have 42 Democrats voting for it.  Why? 

FUND:  Because they‘re worried that the war actually might improve or they might be caught on the wrong side of this.  Look, there‘s a lot of cynicism to go around.  Democratic strategist Bob Beckel today said “we‘re winning the war, we‘re just not winning it fast enough.”  I‘m sorry, I heard of nit-picking, but that‘s ridiculous. 

GREGORY:  Norah, is that nit-picking or is it going to be complicated for Republicans to mount this P.R. campaign against Democrats after the three years we‘ve seen in Iraq? 

O‘DONNELL:  Well clearly, and this White House acknowledges, the nation is weary about Iraq and it is true that a majority of Americans want troops to return home, but that‘s why the White House has set up this very clear divide in 2006. 

The problem for the Democrats once again is they made this big deal out of the fact that they‘re putting out their play book, their contract with America for 2006 and it‘s stunningly absent that there‘s any discussion about Iraq, and that vacuum leaves them open to strategists, Republicans, critics, anybody saying there is no Democratic plan for Iraq, and it‘s something that John Kerry struggled with and now the party is struggling with, as they approached the 2006 elections and I think it‘s going to be difficult for them to make that message if they don‘t give a clear alternative to what the president and Republicans are proposing. 

GREGORY:  Alright, we‘re going to take a break right here and come back with more, including a grand jury that‘s decided not to indict Congresswoman Cynthia Mckinney in connection with a confrontation with a Capitol police officer.  Hotshots will be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GREGORY:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.

We have some breaking news tonight.  A grand jury has decided that it will not indict Representative Cynthia McKinney for hitting a Capitol Police officer back in March.  The incident sparked a slew of late-night mockery, but it also exposed some very serious legal and racial issues.  McKinney had called the incident a case of racial profiling.  Was she right? 

John Fund, your reaction to the fact that there is going to be no indictment in this case? 

FUND:  I think this is a great day for America, because you had two events on the same day.  On the one hand, Congressman William Jefferson, a black Democrat, thrown out of the House by a voice vote, because everyone knew that there were tapes of him taking money. 

On the other hand Congresswoman McKinney, who‘s not a particularly nice person, but she didn‘t injure anyone when she struck that police officer, so I think there was proportionality here.  The grand jury declined to indict, Congressman Jefferson thrown off the Ways and Means Committee.  It shows there can be justice, and not everything that happens to a black Congressman is racist. 

GREGORY:  Norah O‘Donnell, there was not a great deal of support for McKinney in Congress for her behavior in all of this? 

O‘DONNELL:  And that‘s because the Capitol Police work very hard to protect the lawmakers up there, and this was viewed as a lawmaker sort of acting out, if you will, and abusing a Capitol Police officer.

While she said that this was an issue of racial profiling and set this up as an issue of race, it is important to point out that she also did not have on her lawmakers pin.  Most of the lawmakers wear a pin so that the Capitol Police and others up on the Hill can tell who is the lawmaker and who is just, you know, a visitor coming through. 

GREGORY:  Mike Barnicle, would this have happened to a white Congressman? 

BARNICLE:  Well, I don‘t know, David, but it must be a relief for Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney, because she now will have ample time to spend quality time with Dr. Phil for all her assorted problems. 

But it points to the larger issue of what has happened to elected politics in this country, especially the House of Representatives, 435 men and woman, probably most of them self-loathing individuals, who hold jobs that don‘t pay a whole lot of money. 

They have to eat a pig knuckle sandwich at someone‘s picnic this weekend, they never get to go home, they have to raise money every single day of the week.  Who would want these jobs? 

GREGORY:  Well, you know, but they got to come to the White House this week for the congressional picnic, and Josh Bolten, the chief of staff, he played music for them.

(CROSSTALK)

O‘DONNELL:  And David, they were not serving pig knuckle sandwiches there, were they, at the White House? 

GREGORY:  No, no.  

BARNICLE:  David and Norah and John, I would submit to you that the maitre d‘ at Morton‘s at Georgetown is a more pivotal figure in Washington than any member of the House of Representatives. 

GREGORY:  Mike, you‘re forgetting all the psychic income a member of Congress gets.

BARNICLE:  Yes, exactly.

GREGORY:  Everybody kowtows to them.  Everybody.

OK, next up, Cheney backs up his boss, and then some.  Since the lead up to the war in Iraq, the administration has drawn a connection between 9/11 and Iraq.  Today the House voted on a bill the Republicans hope will put Democrats in a political bind—either acknowledge the connection between Iraq and terrorism or suffer the political consequence.  The war‘s original salesman, Dick Cheney, stepped it up on Sean Hannity‘s radio show this week.  Listen to that.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

CHENEY:  Taking down Saddam Hussein was exactly the right thing to do.  It‘s also, I think, in part responsible for the fact that we have not been hit again in nearly five years.  That‘s no accident.

(END AUDIO CLIP)

GREGORY:  It‘s no accident, Norah O‘Donnell.  What‘s the argument you think—the larger argument that the vice president is making? 

O‘DONNELL:  Well, I think what some of the critics of the vice president will argue today and tonight is that, once again, the vice president appears to be making a link between Iraq, Saddam Hussein, and 9/11.  And this has been a blurred line for many years. 

In fact, I think there was a recent poll, not recent but in the last couple years, that more than 60 percent of Americans thought the hijackers on those planes on 9/11 were Iraqis, when in fact most of them were Saudis. 

But this is the vice president speaking once again to the base on the Sean Hannity program where he has several times, and this has been a White House effort.  We saw Condoleezza Rice also address the Southern Baptist convention this week too, in South Carolina.  I think you see emerging this White House strategy once again.  They know they have lost a lot of support, but first thing they have got to rebuilt is the Republican, the conservative base. 

GREGORY:  Mike Barnicle, why it is a legitimate argument to make, that to the extent we engaged the al Qaeda movement in Iraq and beyond by doing it in that theater of war, that they are not organized to attack us in other places? 

BARNICLE:  Oh, I think it‘s entirely legitimate, David.  I think one of the great unwritten stories thus far of this particular war, this particular period in history is the courageous work being done around the globe by anonymous people who we will never know, working on behalf of the United States government to kill, detain, whatever you wanted to call it, terrorists in various capitals around the world.  I think it‘s a huge, huge story that we don‘t know about and might never know about. 

GREGORY:  John Fund?

FUND:  David, if all of us had been sitting around this broadcast on September 12, 2001, and we had been asked what do you think the chances are the homeland is going to be hit by terrorists again in the next five years, over 90 percent of us, I suspect, would have said absolutely.  It hasn‘t happened.  Now, knock on wood, it could happen tomorrow, but let‘s give people some credit and let‘s give the vice president at least half a point.   

GREGORY:  OK, but why did the invasion of Iraq, why has that prevented a follow-on attack? 

FUND:  Well, you know, we are now learning more and more about what Saddam had, and might have smuggled out of the country from those documents.  We‘re also learning about Zarqawi and how much trouble the insurgency is in. 

We don‘t have perfect knowledge, and I will tell you, when the history books write this up, we may yet discover that the blurred line that Norah talks about might have been a little bit brighter than we think. 

GREGORY:  All right, but what we do know about, John, is that al Qaeda was certainly not operational in a way that it us today within Iraq, and we know ...

FUND:  No, but ...

GREGORY:  ... quite plainly with the history of al Qaeda, that they are operating outside of Iraq in terms of plotting to hit the United States, so my question is ...

FUND:  What we do know ...

GREGORY:  ... what about the invasion has prevented an attack?

FUND:  We do know the terrorists, not necessarily al Qaeda, but including some—Abu Nidal and others—were using Iraq as a base of operations.  We know that.  We also know that Iraq was fomenting violence in the Middle East that also hit American targets.  The bottom line is, we don‘t have perfect knowledge.  The history books are going to sort this out, but let‘s say this, no one would have predicted five years no attacks after 9/11. 

GREGORY:  Do you think, Mike Barnicle, that the invasion of Iran has cowed such enemies as Iran or emboldened them? 

BARNICLE:  Oh, I think that it—you know, I don‘t think emboldened is the right word.  I think it has made our enemies around the world much more watchful of how we have been weakened by the war in Iraq, weakened military.  There is no question that our military strength has been depleted. 

On the Iraq link that Cheney continues to mention, I think a theory that will be borne out by history is that if we focused on Afghanistan, and Osama bin Laden, still at large this evening, that would have been much more damaging to al Qaeda than our invading Iraq. 

GREGORY:  We have this breaking news banner that I think speaks to our conversation right now, a new audio tape that‘s showing a key insurgency leader calling Zarqawi‘s death “a great loss.” 

Norah O‘Donnell, there can be no question whether it is psychological and partly tactical, these are very important games when you take out a leader like Zarqawi, to not just al Qaeda movement in Iraq, but beyond. 

O‘DONNELL:  That‘s true, and while it‘s important, I think as someone said, to cut the head off the snake, which is what they were able to do, terrorists organizations are, by themselves, set up so that there can be different, disperse groups that can—cells that can lead on their own.

And even though Zarqawi is gone, the insurgency continues, and I think this one again—one of the things that‘s hard to understand about Iraq, is that we sometimes believe that the entire insurgency is led just by al Qaeda. 

And what that doesn‘t tell us is about the Sunnis, who are not necessarily related al Qaeda and, in fact, are now the minority in Iraq. 

And there‘s a lot of anger with the Sunnis that this new unity government -

which we are all excited about, that they‘re together—that the Sunnis have to feel that they have some participation in the government, they have to feel that they are invested.  And that will help in some of this guerrilla war that‘s going on.

GREGORY:  John Fund, just about 10 seconds left.  Make a final point.

FUND:  Al Qaeda was the most—is the most sophisticated group of terrorists in the country.  Of course if you get rid of al Qaeda they are going to be problems still, but they‘re the ones who have the weapons and they‘re the ones who have the most cash. 

GREGORY:  All right, John Fund, thanks very much.  Norah O‘Donnell and Mike Barnicle, thanks to you as well.  

Join us again Monday night at 5:00 and 7:00 Eastern for more HARDBALL.  Guests include one of the former Guantanamo Bay prisoners.  He will give an inside look at what goes on in probably the famous prison in the world. 

Right now, it‘s time for the “ABRAMS REPORT.”

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

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