updated 8/21/2006 10:58:39 AM ET 2006-08-21T14:58:39

Guests: Robert Gard, A.B. Stoddard, Chuck Todd, Jim VandeHei, Darrell West, Gen. Barry McCaffrey, Gen. Wayne Downing

CHRIS MATTHEWS, MSNBC ANCHOR:  Tonight, what do the generals think about Iraq?  We‘ve got the Sunni insurgents attacking the government, and we‘ve got the Shia militias attacking the Sunni and praising Hezbollah.  Are we winning this free-for-all?

Let‘s play HARDBALL.

Good evening.  I‘m Chris Matthews, and welcome to HARDBALL. 

With the election just 81 days away, the political battle lines are being drawn on the war in Iraq.  Yesterday, a group of 21 former generals and national security advisers sent President Bush a letter calling on the commander-in-chief to reverse his course on Iraq and on Iran.  The letter states the administration‘s hardline policies have undermined America‘s security and made the country less safe. 

In a moment, we‘ll talk to one of the men who signed the letter, Lieutenant General Robert Gard. 

Plus the top brass of the HARDBALL war council will be here to talk about the politics of war and the hot spots:  Iraq, Iran, the Middle East, and of course North Korea. 

Later, the HArMD+BO_rMDNM_rMDNM_RDBALLers on Decision 2006.  Are the security moms—that‘s what they‘re called—who supported Bush, now swinging over the Democratic side? 

It‘s August in Washington, and we have a hot show tonight. 

But first, Lieutenant General Robert Gard is one of those generals who signed a letter to the president, critical of foreign policy. 

General, thank you. 

It‘s unusual for generals to speak their mind, but you‘re now in civilian clothes and you‘re in mufti and you can say what you want.  Was going to Iraq a mistake? 

LT. GEN. ROBERT GARD, JR., SENT LETTER TO PRESIDENT BUSH:  Yes. 

MATTHEWS:  What are you, Mike Mansfield?  How about a little—he‘s the senator famous for short answers.  But elaborate, sir. 

GARD:  We had them contained, we went in, we conducted the mission badly, especially the post-conflict mission.  We‘re bogged down, our troops are extended too thin.  It takes away our capability to deal with and focus on other problems. 

MATTHEWS:  Is there anything that‘s happened in Iraq since 2003, when we invaded, that we couldn‘t have foreseen? 

GARD:  I don‘t think so.  The problem is that there was an assumption that there would not be an insurgency.  We would be greeted with sweets and flowers.  There was no preparation for what to do after Baghdad fell. 

MATTHEWS:  So what pencil nut (ph) came up with that assumption? 

GARD:  Well, it was an assumption, of course, of our civilian leadership, as stated by the vice president. 

MATTHEWS:  Do you think it was prejudiced by policy, that they wanted to go in, so they said it will be nice when we get in there?  They just wanted us to invade Iraq, period?  People like Wolfowitz, Feith, people that—the vice-president‘s office, the vice-president himself, they just wanted to go in for so many reasons that they just thought up—they couldn‘t think of anything that wasn‘t going to be nice about it? 

GARD:  They were looking for a pretext.  They have had long wished for the overthrow of Saddam, regime change in Iraq.  Part of a grander plan. 

MATTHEWS:  And what was the plan?  What is their goal?  If it wasn‘t the true belief in WMD, and it certainly wasn‘t the true belief in a nuclear threat, what was their ambition in Mesopotamia? 

GARD:  It was to get in, establish a presence, develop a democracy, which would be contagious and would, in a sense, neutralize other threats in the area, as they became more democratic. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, that sounds like Napoleon. 

GARD:  It sounds like a...

MATTHEWS:  That‘s what Napoleon did, went around the world, starting wars with every country in Europe, supposedly spreading democracy by gunpowder. 

GARD:  I‘m not supporting it.  I opposed it. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, why did they think this would work? 

GARD:  Because they had certain preconditions—preconceptions of what would occur when they went in.  They did not take any heed of warnings that were contrary to what they expected the outcome to be. 

MATTHEWS:  General Scowcroft, who was now security adviser to the first President Bush; James A. Baker, who was secretary of state for the President Bush; with the president, the first, former President Bush—the former President Bush.  All decided that going into Iraq would create a division in that country, that the Sunni, the Shia, the Kurds would all fight with each other and it would be worse for the region than leaving them alone.  Was there any new information on that subject that the second President Bush had? 

GARD:  I don‘t think so.  There were warnings, even within the Department of Defense, that we could expect a lot of trouble if we went into Iraq and attacked them. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask you about the maintaining of our military vigilance and strength over there.  When we went in, we went in in a lightning strike.  We were—Tommy Franks was able to take our forces right to Baghdad relatively quickly. 

Was there anything that should have been done then?  Given the fact it was a mistake to go in, is there any better way we could have gone in that would have protected our troops.  We‘ve lost so many men now and women.  We‘ve lost -- 20,000 wounded, many of them amputees now.  Is there any way we could have fought this war better? 

GARD:  Certainly.  First, we could have gone in with more troops, so we could have kept order.  The first responsibility in occupying power is to keep order and protect the people within the country.  We had too few troops, we had no training or preparation to face an insurgency that was predicted.  There was no phase four plan annex to the war plan.  The military had no instructions on what to do after Baghdad fell. 

MATTHEWS:  Was it a mistake to disband the Iraqi army? 

GARD:  Yes. 

MATTHEWS:  Why? 

GARD:  Because they could have been a source of being able to maintain order among their own people in a way that an occupying party can‘t do. 

MATTHEWS:  Where do you think the belief—I want to go over some old territory here.  I just—where came the belief that we would not face resistance?  It seems to me if you look at European colonization of the Third World, especially Africa, North Africa—the French or the English, especially the French—that every time a European power went in somewhere, the people resisted.  They may not have resisted immediately, but they got around to it.  What country has, in history—has openly accepted an occupation? 

GARD:  Not one I can think of at the moment. 

GARD:  So why would these neocons, as they‘re called, of the mind that this Iraq people would just start handing out flowers to our troops and just lay down and accept our orders?  Where did that idea come from? 

GARD:  Well, from the Gucci (ph) exiles, the Chalabis and the people in his camp.  He was discredited by the Defense Intelligence Agency and the CIA, but the people in the Pentagon responsible for the conduct of the war and responsible for the aftermath—first time since World War—the president gave it to the Pentagon, not to the State Department.  And they believed Chalabi.

MATTHEWS:  Let‘s talk about Iran, because the progress of this policy goes on, and the policy of forward-leaning, aggressiveness, going into Iraq, going to Afghanistan.  I read so much in the neoconservative press, and I read it every week.  It‘s very well-written.  It‘s argued very strongly.  We‘ve got to go to Iran, and if this president leaves office—

I read the “Weekly Standard” every week, I read people like that who think like that.  Robert Kagan. 

They‘re very strong.  They hit very strongly that this president will have failed if he has not brought down the potential nuclear power, nuclear weaponry, of Iran.  So I think that policy is very much sitting there.  Do you support it?  We‘re going into Iran militarily to blow up any potential nuclear facilities? 

GARD:  That would be nonsense, counterproductive. 

MATTHEWS:  Why?

GARD:  It would be a big mistake. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, how do you stop Iran from lobbing even the stupidest bomb, the least organized bomb, something of two-thirds of a failure, but it‘s still there, into Tel Aviv tomorrow morning?  How do we stop them from doing it? 

GARD:  Because you accept their offer to negotiate a comprehensive agreement.  There was an overture made in May of 2003 that would have addressed every one of the issues that we‘re concerned about.  It was a serious offer, afforded to us by the Swiss ambassador.  The administration‘s reaction was expressing displeasure to the Swiss ambassador, who had the audacity to forward it to us. 

MATTHEWS:  Why did we refuse to talk to Iran? 

GARD:  I have no idea.  It‘s a great mistake.  What‘s wrong with talking with them?  The President Ronald Reagan spoke with, negotiated Stark 1 (ph), with the evil empire.  Why can‘t the current administration negotiate with one member of the axis of evil? 

MATTHEWS:  Well, let me ask you about the future now.  We‘re in Iraq, we have a civil war around us, apparently.  We‘ve got the Sunnis in the insurgency.  They‘re the ones that are about to lose power forever to the majority Shia.  They‘re never going to like this.  They‘re the ones who benefited from the old regime over there.  We‘ve got this Shia majority who are with Hezbollah, who support Hezbollah on the northern border of Israel, rather excitedly.  They seem to really root for these guys. 

The president was surprised at a meeting this week to—he expressed surprise that this Shia were root (ph), and they had 10,000 people out rallying for Hezbollah.  He seemed surprised at that.  Were you surprised that the Shia support the Hezbollah people in the northern border of Israel? 

GARD:  Not a bit.  Here was an Arab-Shia force that could stand up to Israel after Israel had humiliated Arab armies since...

MATTHEWS:  Yes, I know.

GARD:  ... their founding. 

MATTHEWS:  But there‘s nothing good to say for Hezbollah, is there? 

GARD:  No, I am no great supporter of Hezbollah.  And part of that overture from the Iranians, which we declined to address, was that they would stop supporting Hezbollah and even convert it into a social and political organization.

MATTHEWS:  Do you think the president was deceived in all the advice he‘s gotten about going into Iraq, getting very aggressive with regard to Iran, all this conversation we‘re hearing, all this chit-chat that goes on and on, this war talk, do you think it‘s bad policy or people are just bad?  They‘re trying to do something to the president that is in no country‘s interest or are they just thinking they‘re doing the best thing and they‘re just wrong?  How would you describe them?

GARD:  I would say the latter, that they‘re just wrong.  They have had this predisposition for regime change.

MATTHEWS:  Cheney, the vice-president, his people, the people at the Defense Department, the civilians. 

GARD:  Yes. 

MATTHEWS:  All them are wrong. 

GARD:  Doug Feith, Cheney. 

MATTHEWS:  And who has been right about this thing from the beginning?  Who has seen it clearly that this was taking us into a swamp?  Who has been prescient?  Scowcroft? 

GARD:  Scowcroft. 

MATTHEWS:  James Baker? 

GARD:  James Baker. 

MATTHEWS:  The former President Bush. 

GARD:  The former President Bush. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes well I think that‘s smart.  Anyway thank you General Gard.  You said what I think so I guess I think you‘re right. 

Coming up, the HARDBALL War Council will see if they agree with two of us at least.  President Bush says America is safer, but not yet safe.  Well is it safer because of what he‘s done or less safe because of what he‘s done?  Let‘s talk about it.  You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC. 

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MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  Is President Bush making America more or less safe?  That‘s a hell of a question.  We‘re going to try to get to it right now.  With a violent war in Iraq, never ending Mideast turmoil and tough talk on Iran, is America‘s position in the world getting better or worse. 

Tonight our HARDBALL War Council, that‘s what we‘re calling it, General Barry McCaffrey, General Wayne Downing and Colonel Jack Jacobs. 

Let‘s go right now to General McCaffrey, you‘re looking at me.  Let‘s talk about the situation in Iraq right now.  I tried to lay it out, but it‘s so complicated, but basically we have got the Sunni insurgents, who continue to fight it, the I.E.D.‘s, the trouble for our soldiers, the trouble for the Iraqi government and its forces.  We have got these militia out there who are sort of on the side of the government, but they tend to fight it once if a while.  They‘re with the majority Shia people.  How are we doing? 

GEN. BARRY MCCAFFREY, U.S. ARMY (RET):  Well then you‘ve also got the foreign Jihadists and a massive criminal problem, which is probably the biggest threat to an Iraqi mother, day to day.  The place is a mess.  It‘s going in the wrong direction.  There are thousands of Iraqis being killed or injured each week.  We‘re losing a battalion a month killed and wounded, 500, 600, 700 soldiers and marines and we‘re spending $7 billion a month and it‘s going in the wrong direction. 

MATTHEWS:  Somebody just said come on Barry.  Who was that?  Was that General Downing? 

GEN. WAYNE DOWNING U.S. ARMY (RET):  Yes, that was me.  I don‘t think 500, 600, 700 a month we‘re losing.  Although I do agree that the situation is serious. 

MCCAFFREY:  Wait, this is a number we‘re talking about.  There were 563 wounded and 39 killed in action last month, for god‘s sake.  This is not an arguable point.  We‘re losing a battalion a month killed and wounded in Iraq.  22,000 killed and wounded during the war.   

DOWNING:  I think many of those are going back to duty and I certainly don‘t disagree with Barry‘s point that we have got a very, very tough situation over there. 

MATTHEWS: Tough or un-winnable?

DOWNING:  I don‘t think we‘re in a civil war, but we certainly have a very tough security situation. 

MATTHEWS:  Would you have taken our armies into Iraq, General Downing, if you had known it was going to come to what we‘re facing now? 

DOWNING:  Well Chris, I think they should have been brought in differently.  There wasn‘t a lot that Bob Gard said that I agreed with, but I said all along that we didn‘t have enough forces and we should have had a plan for phase four.  The C.P.A. (INAUDIBLE) were not a good idea.  The military should have run it.  I think we could have had a different outcome had we handled it differently. 

MATTHEWS:  So you disagree with him on what point, General Gard, when he was here?  What points didn‘t you agree with? 

DOWNING:  Well I think some of the points he makes.  He has no way of knowing what went on in the war councils, what different people told the president or did not tell the president.  I think the role of Chalabi has been vastly overstated, certainly by you Chris, all along, where, you know, Chalabi gets painted as a guy that did all this.  There was a lot of sources that put this thing together.  

MATTHEWS:  Who had an interest in selling America on the overthrow of Saddam Hussein if it wasn‘t Chalabi?  Who was in there pushing with the I.N.C. all along there, the Iraqi National Congress, to try to get in there, who made all of these promises? 

DOWNING:  Chris, there were all kinds of people.  Listen, the world is a better place for the Baath party regime in Iraq being out of there.  It‘s a better place for Saddam Hussein being in prison right now and being tried.  There‘s just no doubt about that. 

MATTHEWS:  So you would, I guess, sort of bottom line this general.  General, its‘ fine you‘re taking me on, I‘m fair game, but let me ask you this.  Do you think the United States is in a better position now in Iraq than we were before we went in there? 

DOWNING:  Yes, Chris, I do.  Because we have taken out this regime.  You know, one of the things you keep asking is what has President Bush done.  The thing you‘ve got to realize, there‘s an enemy out there, in fact, there‘s more than one enemy.  We don‘t control all the decisions. 

There are people out there like al Qaeda, the al Qaeda franchises, there are the Sunnis, there are the Shias, there‘s Iran, there‘s Russia playing their deal, there‘s China playing theirs.  Then you have the dynamics of these old Sunni regimes, who have been our friends for years, like Saudi Arabia and Egypt, you know, from which many, many of our Jihadists, who are trying to kill us now, come from, so it‘s a very complex puzzle, and you just can‘t simplify it by going after just one element.  The thing is—

MATTHEWS:  Well, I‘m just questioning whether it‘s an incremental advantage to have killed 50,000 Arabs on television in the last three years, for worldwide television to watch us killing Arabs.  I just think that enrages people who are willing to give up their live because they feel they‘re being humiliated nationally and I think that‘s what‘s going on in the world.  This hatred level keeps rising against us and I think it‘s rising against us for objective reasons.  You may not agree with them, but they‘re there. 

DOWNING:  Listen, there‘s a lot going on out there.  I mean, one of the things, the Middle East peace process has been totally ignored for six years.  I mean, it just basically has.  It‘s gone off the table.  A decision was made to marginalize Iran and to marginalize Syria.  That‘s coming back to haunt us now. 

COL. JACK JACOBS, MSNBC MILITARY ANALYST:  I think our single biggest problem in Iraq is an operational one.  When we decided to start the campaign, we didn‘t start at the end and work backwards, decide what it is we wanted to do and then throw adequate resources at it, in order to accomplish it.  And that‘s why we have what we have today.

MATTHEWS:  Well let‘s go back to what General Gard said to start the program tonight, and I want you, General McCaffrey, was there an adequate realization that we would face a resistance in Iraq by the civilian leadership in the Defense Department?

MCCAFFREY:  Of course not.  By the way, I disagree with Bob Gard.  I thought the right thing to do was take down Saddam and try to end the regime, which was a threat to the neighbors, a threat to their own people.  But going into a country of 27 million people with a million-man active and reserve army with one marine division and one and a half army divisions and no follow-on effort to maintain stability, to provide human resources to an impoverished country, it was crazy.  It was a failure of the Pentagon civilian leadership.

MATTHEWS:  Did they believe it was going to be easier, in other words?

MCCAFFREY:  Yes, sure, they just didn‘t listen to the feedback they were getting from people.

MATTHEWS:  Well let‘s take a round on that.  Let me go to General Downing and then Colonel Jacobs on that first question.  Do you think there was a smart realization, what we would be facing in Iraq, General Downing? 

DOWNING:  To, I—and Chris, I‘ve already said this tonight, I said it earlier on your shows.  We did not have an adequate force.  We needed more, and we needed a plan for phase four.

MATTHEWS:  And who told us it would be easy?

DOWNING:  And we didn‘t need the CPA—the military should have run the reconstruction.

MATTHEWS:  And who was selling people at the Defense Department civilian corps over there on how easy it was going to be once we got in there?  It was Chalabi.

DOWNING:  Oh, Chalabi was just one person.  And not everybody in the DOD, I believe thought that was true.  They knew...

MATTHEWS:  ... Who objected? 

DOWNING:  John Abizaid and CENTCOM knew how tough this was going to be.

MATTHEWS:  Right, but he‘s wearing a uniform.  I‘ve never criticized the guys in uniform.  It‘s the guys like Feith and Wolfowitz, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera, and all the rest that fell for the argument.

DOWNING:  Of Chris, you‘ve got to have your boogeymen.  Your boogeymen are the neocons.

MATTHEWS:  Yes, I do.  Yes, that‘s right, you‘ve got me nailed.  You have nailed me, the people that month after month wrote articles endorsing this invasion and bought the Chalabi line hook, line and sinker because they wanted to believe him.  If you object to that thinking, fine, but give me another explanation about why a president of the United States was sold on this war.

JACOBS:  Well you can‘t put it all on Chalabi.  At the end of the day, the buck stops someplace.  The president of the United States, the secretary of defense has to make a decision.  Think about this a little bit though and at the risk of being really irritating about it, you have a very large number of four-star generals with a great deal of experience in the Pentagon who had ample opportunity to say no, this can‘t be done this way and they didn‘t say it.

MATTHEWS:  OK, We‘ll be right back.

MCCAFFREY:  Well, Rick Shinseki said it.

JACOBS:  One guy.

DOWNING:  And we don‘t what they said, Jack, and you know, they may have said it.

MATTHEWS:  And by the way, there‘s a rich record.  Just read the columns of those who endorsed us going into Iraq and the cases made in public for those like Larry Lindsey who said, “Oh, it will all be pay for by Iraqi oil” and Wolfowitz saying the same thing.  We‘d get cheaper oil and Ken Adelman who said it would be a cake walk and the president who said there will be happy Iraqis there and the vice president who said we‘ll be greeted as liberators.  It‘s all in the public record, General Downing.  We‘ll be right back with more with the HARDBALL war council on Iraq, Iran, North Korea and the Mideast generally.  And later, the HARDBALLers weigh in on how security moms, that‘s what they‘re called, could push Republicans out of power in Congress.  You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.

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MATTHEWS:  We‘re back with the HARDBALL war council, General Barry McCaffrey, General Wayne Downing and Colonel Jack Jacobs.  General Downing, what do you think we should do with Iran?  Let‘s move onto the next war front.

DOWNING:  Well I‘ll tell you, Chris, we have tried to marginalize Iran for the last three years.  They popped out of this thing.  I think we‘re going to have to engage them.  I do agree with Bob Gard on that.  And I—

I think the same thing about the Syrians.  I believe you have to talk to people.  They‘re going to be very, very difficult, they‘re riding a real crescent now, but the thing that we‘ve got going for us, Chris, is we‘re going to get a lot of help from some of the Sunnis on this, because the Sunni nations are very, very concerned about this so-called Shia crescent that they see.

MATTHEWS:  Yes, they believe that we created it—they believe that we created the crescent by connecting Tehran to Beirut through Baghdad.  They hold us—people like King Abdullah believe we created that crescent by our actions in Iraq.

DOWNING:  Well, that‘s true.  I mean, this is the rise of the Iraqi Shias.

MATTHEWS:  That would be my larger context for looking at this.  Let me ask you, do you think we should ever nuclear attack—attack nuclear facilities by air in Iran?

DOWNING:  Chris, this is a very serious subject, and I would not rule it out.  I would not like to do that, it would not be a solution, but it might buy us some time.  The problem that we have with the regime, is Ahmadinejad and what he represents, Khomeini, these people are not people that we can reason with.  We cannot get a balance of power with them—nuclear power as we did with the Soviets.  The conditions are not there.

MATTHEWS:  Let me go to—the thing is, I do see the neoconservatives behind this thing because I read the newspaper every day and they‘re pushing for it again.  It‘s relentless.  We‘ve got to do something with the nuclear threat from Iran, we‘ve got to attack.  It‘s not about diplomacy.  General Downing just talks about diplomacy.  I never hear diplomacy being discussed by the idealogs.  The neoconservatives say we have to attack before this president leaves office because he‘s their—the last guy they trust to do it.

JACOBS:  The problem with attacking nuclear facilities in Iran is we don‘t know where they are anymore.  We used to know, we had an opportunity to do something about it years ago, we didn‘t do it.  It‘s too late now and they‘re all dispersed and there‘s no way we can attack them now.

MATTHEWS:  And they‘re too deep to hit, right?  You know?  We don‘t have a bunker buster capable of blowing up enough of the city block to hit whatever is there?

JACOBS:  Oh, I think we‘ve got the ordinance, somebody has just got to tell us where this stuff is and it‘s not anyplace we can get it easily.

MATTHEWS:  General McCaffrey, this question, should we even be thinking about an attack on Iran?

MCCAFFREY:  Of course not, for god‘s sakes.  I see Secretary Rice trying to do the right thing, we have to build alliances, coalitions among the Persian Gulf partners, we‘ve got to isolate Iran and bring them into compliance.  They‘re going nuclear.  But attacking them with conventional air power would be absolutely insane.  As Jack Jacobs says, we don‘t know where the targets are, it‘s the wrong thing to do.  They‘re going nuclear, we have to contain them with a new alliance.

JACOBS:  You‘ve got an additional problem, one last thing.  You‘ve got an additional problem here and that is while most of the Arab world and Muslim world is Sunni, you‘ve got a small number of Shia and the Shia in Iran and Iraq are hooked up, and my fear is you‘re going to have Muqtaqda al-Sadr, who‘s a client of these guys rising to power in Iraq and then we‘re really going to have some problems.

MCCAFFREY:  He‘d go after the Persian Gulf.

MATTHEWS:  General Downing, last thought from you, sir?

DOWNING:  Well no Chris, I think the Iraqi Shias and Iranian Shias are totally different.  You have got Arabs, you have Persians, you have a common religion, but that doesn‘t necessarily mean that they‘re going to come together.  I don‘t want to see nuke weapons in Iran, but I‘m not sure, and I‘m not advocating this as a number one thing, but believe me, we‘ve got to have an option to go in there, as distasteful as that might be, because these guys are just going to be tough to deal with. 

The other wild card is we‘ve got the Israelis.  You know, when this guy Ahmadinejad gets out there and he‘s done it twice now, he‘s denied the holocaust, he said he‘s going to wipe Israel off the face of the earth, there is not a more insensitive thing that you can say to an Israeli than that and of course this was even before we‘ve had this latest dustup now with Hezbollah in Beirut and that‘s changed a lot of perceptions and a lot of psychology within that region. 

MATTHEWS:  I just wonder whether we can rely on the people who have done the thinking that got us into Iraq to think any further.  Anyway, thank you very much, Colonel Jacobs, General Downing, General McCaffrey. 

Up next, the battle for control of Congress rages on.  Democrats are fighting to take power and Republicans are fighting to talk about anything but Iraq.  The HARDBALLers will be here to break it all down.  You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC. 

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(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:     With hard work and wise policies, we‘ll meet every challenge that comes and in so doing we‘ll help more Americans realize their dreams, continue to make this country a land of great opportunities. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  President Bush focused on the economy today, but polls show the country is focused on Iraq.  Can anything quiet the growing anger about the war.  Is the economy really the answer, politically?  The cost of education, health care, housing, gas, the role in the rise, no good news out there economically except the economy is sort of OK right now. 

The HARDBALLers are here to dig into it all and decide whether I‘m right or anybody‘s right about this thing.  Jim VandeHei reports for the “Washington Post,” Amy Stoddard reports for the “Hill,” which covers Capitol Hill, and Chuck Todd is the editor in chief of the most important organ in this city, the “Hotline,” he‘s also a political analyst for us.  Let me go to, first of all, to you, let‘s take a look, all of us, at these polls that have came out from CBS just this week. 

Number one the top issue in the country, no matter what anybody talks about, terrorism or anything else, is still the war in Iraq as the CBS poll earlier this week.  I want you to all look at that and decide what you think.  Jim VandeHei, take a look at that number.  We got a 28 percent for war if Iraq, terrorism 17, the economy 11.  The war hangs in there as numero uno for some reason. 

JIM VANDEHEI, THE “WASHINGTON POST”:  Has been and will remain so.  I mean, I think because it‘s such a big news story and it affects so many people‘s lives, it‘s undoubtedly driving a lot of these races.  I just got back from Ohio.  There‘s a lot of talk about it in Deborah Price‘s congressional race and a ton of talk about it in that Senate race.  And you have Democrats who are very anti-war doing very well in Ohio and granted Ohio has its own unique politics, but the fact that you have got these very vehemently anti-war candidates doing quite well shows that that message is starting to resonate with voters. 

MATTHEWS:  So, the Democrats who are challenging incumbents have the nerve to put their money on that one number, right.  They are one to say let‘s argue about the Iraq war.  Are the Republicans willing to face them on that war or do they change the subject? 

VANDEHEI:  Well, they are.  I mean, the thing is it goes state by state.  In Ohio, you do have Democrats willing to challenge them, but then when I was in Pennsylvania or New York, you have Democrats who are trying to play in the middle and essentially sound a lot like Republicans. 

MATTHEWS:  Why? 

VANDEHEI:  Well, because there‘s a lot of Democrats, especially in moderate districts, who are not sure that being anti-war is the best political decision right now, so what you have are Republicans and Democrats saying we‘re not happy with the war, you know, we wish we weren‘t there, but, you know, we have got to stay there and we just need a plan for success.  Well, a plan for success, I think everybody is for a plan for success.  The thing is you don‘t see a lot of candidate detailing what that is. 

MATTHEWS:  Here‘s where I don‘t get it.  If 80 percent of the Democratic party, four out of five Democrats, are totally against us even being in Iraq, it‘s got to be that one quarter out there, the fund raisers, the more hawkish people.  Somebody is putting their thumb on the scale here and stopping Democrats from being Democrats.  What is it, Jim? 

VANDEHEI:  Well, I think there‘s a difference here.  There‘s a difference between being anti-war and being pro pulling all the troops out, which is what a lot of Democratic activists would like to see done, but the polls don‘t show that a predominant number of Americans want the troops pulled out right away.  Essentially, they don‘t want to be there.  They would like to have a timetable, but they‘re not at that point of wanting an immediate withdrawal and that‘s a conundrum.

CHUCK TODD, EDITOR IN CHIEF, “THE HOTLINE”:  Here‘s the problem the Democrats have.  You‘ve got about half of them are anti-Iraq and the other half are anti-war. 

MATTHEWS:  What‘s the distinction.  Some are pacifists?

TODD:  That‘s right, you have the pacifists, the dove liberals part. 

MATTHEWS:  Who would be against any war.

TODD:  That‘s right, they will always be against it.  But then you have this sort of middle ground. 

MATTHEWS:  The smart people in the middle. 

TODD:  Which is, right, whatever, the east coasters, whatever you want to call them.  The east and west coasters are anti-Iraq and they‘re all trying to make this distinction.  The problem is Republicans take that and they say see, you know what, they don‘t know what they‘re, they just want to cut and run and they try to lump an anti-Iraq into the anti-war and that makes these anti-Iraq guys, who you know, say I was pro—

MATTHEWS:  Why can‘t the Democrats think of a way to say something that‘s the counter to cut and run?  Why can‘t they say this stay the course thing isn‘t working?  Put the focus on the government in power? 

A.B. STODDARD, “THE HILL”:  They‘ve tried, but what Jim just pointed out is that a majority of Americans who want, who believe that the war is a disaster, are not willing to get behind a timetable.  It‘s the I‘m furious, but I don‘t know the answer.

MATTHEWS:  We‘ve had four months now, ladies and gentlemen, we have four months now until this war in Iraq is as long as our role in World War II.  This is a long war by America‘s standards. 

TODD:  A very long war.  And to hear General McCaffrey say earlier that we‘re losing—I think it said a battalion a month.  I mean, that‘s big numbers.

MATTHEWS:  There‘s a general by the way, a former general who I‘ve listened to now for many years now and he is getting tougher and tougher in his criticism of the policy, and its effectiveness than he ever was before.  He‘s not somebody who started off as a critic of this war, from what I remember.

TODD:  Well here‘s the other thing, we‘ve got to—Republicans are starting to splinter on this.  You know, the president has lost George Will.  This is a very influential conservative commentator who completely now is completely turning on this Iraq war, not necessarily realizing that this isn‘t working.

MATTHEWS:  I think we‘s lost Will Buckley too, William F. Buckley.

TODD:  He‘s losing all those...

(CROSSTALK)

TODD:  That‘s right, the only ones left are the neocons.  You know in the last week, Chris, we had a Republican member of Congress call for the resignation of Rumsfeld, another Republican member of Congress saying sending out...

MATTHEWS:  ... But there‘s only 20 real neocons in the country, they all write columns.  Why do we keep listening to them?  Name a neocon who doesn‘t have a column he writes for a newspaper.

STODDARD:  But they‘re not facing reelection in the fall.  We‘re talking about the members of the House who are trying to run and keep their seats in the fall and this is the No. 1 issue.  And for them, I think at this point, even if they don‘t come up with a specific policy, a timetable, I think that you have nothing to lose with 11th-hour conversions.

MATTHEWS:  Jim VandeHei, I love the fact you‘ve written some new ground here, broken ground as a journalist, a reporter covering this war debate.  Security moms, define them and tell me which direction they‘re going in this election cycle?

VANDEHEI:  These are the married mothers that in 2002 and 2004 voted Republican, a lot of them for the first time, because of the terrorism issue.  They were worried and they felt Republicans were the party that could keep them safe.

What we did is we took a study of those polls from 2002-2004 and compared them to today and there‘s a dramatic swing.  You now see what was like a 20-point advantage for Republicans, now about a 10-point advantage for Democrats among married mothers and the reasons are is because it‘s sort of the politics, in some ways, returning to the normal where you have people concerned about the economy or concerned about gas prices, but it‘s also Iraq.

You know, they link those two together and while they might feel like they President Bush‘s terrorism fighting ideas, they don‘t like the war in Iraq and it‘s really coloring their views of this election and they‘re starting to move to Democrats.  And it‘s a big deal because a lot of these races are going to be fought and won in suburban districts and communities, that‘s where these married mothers are and that‘s where this election is going to be decided.

MATTHEWS:  Well are women more sensitive to the casualty level in Iraq than men?

STODDARD:  Well that‘s what the polls show, but I also think these are the—these people, these voters I believe are just as scared as they were in ‘02 and ‘04, maybe even more and because of the Iraq war, they believe the policies of this administration are not succeeding in the war on terror.

And so they remain as afraid.  When you—when the administration tries to link the two, Iraq and the global war on terror, I think these voters are as afraid as they were about terrorism before, but because of Iraq, they‘re been running into a wall.

MATTHEWS:  You know what makes your poll?  Look at this poll now, a new CBS poll, shows a gap in the president‘s job approval rating on Iraq and terrorism.  Only 30 percent approve of his job in Iraq, compared to 51 percent on terrorism.  So Chuck, just looking at that, people do see a difference.  They have a different reaction.

TODD:  I‘ll tell you, and that was the big thing I think this week.  Post this London, thwarting this London terror plot, we saw four national polls come out after it.  None of them showed a bump for the president because I think now the public has separated Iraq from terrorism and that‘s the first time that‘s happened.

MATTHEWS:  So even if we get another threat, and it‘s a horrible threat about our planes blowing up in sequence over the Atlantic, they still don‘t say, “Oh, well that means I should be for the war in Iraq.”  They don‘t read it that way?

TODD:  Not only that, they also see that this was law enforcement type that were able to thwart this attack, which is what the Democrats have been saying, that you know, it‘s going to take some, that it‘s going to take some...

MATTHEWS:  ... The president and those in the office don‘t treat this as a criminal act, treat it as an ideological.

TODD:  They said law enforcement is what worked.

MATTHEWS:  But there‘s one route for the Democrats, and they‘ve been -

Arlen Specter is another one, a Republican, very critical of any attempt to sort of abridge civil liberties in terms of tapping without warrants.  Doesn‘t the British success argue for a much tougher action in terms of wiretapping and things like that?

TODD:  Well I‘ll be honest, I think you‘re going to see when these guys come back to Congress, that the sort of election year bills are going to be all on this sort of...

MATTHEWS:  Getting tougher?

TODD:  ... that‘s right, terrorist surveillance program, the way the White House likes to call it.

MATTHEWS:  I think a lot of people wouldn‘t mind a little tapping around, in fact, they would support tapping if the alternative was airplanes crashing.  We‘ll be right back with Chuck Todd, A.B. Stoddard and Jim VandeHei.  They‘re staying with us.  And later, we‘ll talk about Senator Lincoln Chafee‘s primary problem up in Rhode Island.  He could be the next Lieberman.  Could Chafee be the next one?  And this Sunday, be sure to watch “Meet the Press” with Tim Russert.  He‘s got an exclusive interview with John McCain.  We were just with him yesterday, chatting with him in his office, interesting guy.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  We‘re back with HARDBALLers tonight, Chuck Todd, A.B. Stoddard, Jim VandeHei.  Jim, when are your going on your tour out there, checking out the elections, I want to ask you about one first of all, I‘ll push this one.  Rhode Island, Rhodey as they say up there, we‘re coming up to that Republican primary, I think the 12th.  Do you think the link might get beaten by the conservative guy up there?

VANDEHEI:  Oh, I think he very well get defeated there.  I think there‘s this whole feel of anti-incumbency and I don‘t think it really matters what your position is sometimes on the war, not on the war.  I mean, I think people are hungry for some change and you saw it in Connecticut, you see a very similar dynamic now playing out in Rhode Island.  And if Linc Chafee gets beat in that primary, that‘s a seat that‘s almost definitely going to go democratic and makes the Democrats chances of winning back the Senate a whole heck of a lot easier.

MATTHEWS:  Do you think this could be the year—I‘ve been waiting, I‘m older than you, I‘ve been waiting this for 100 years now.  When are the people actually going to throw the bums out?  And I looked at Pennsylvania this year, at all those state senators that got knocked off, Jubelirer, all those people.  I mean, I‘ve never seen so many incumbents get bounced and I look—and I think part of getting Joe bounced, Joe Lieberman wasn‘t so much ideological.

He was just in there too long, took it for granted, the people thought and they‘re in the mood finally lot to be such boot lickers that they have to re-elect every guy whose name they recognize.  Let‘s take a look at this ad that the Club for Growth, a very conservative group is running against Lincoln Chafee.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Lincoln Chafee‘s wide world of wasteful.  Chafee voted to spend $200 million on the bridge to nowhere in Alaska, $50 million for an indoor rain forest in Iowa and a half million on the Montana Sheep Institute.  Then, Chafee voted for higher income, social security and gas taxes, over a trillion dollars in higher taxes.  Lincoln Chafee‘s spending is just too taxing.  Club for Growth PAC is responsible for the content of this advertising.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Well those guys tried to bounce Arlen Specter a cycle ago. 

Chuck, can they bounce this guy? 

TODD:  It‘s interesting, you know, Rhode Island is such a small state. 

Everybody knows everybody.

MATTHEWS:  How many Republicans, registered Republican are there? 

TODD: I think three or four.  To be honest, they expect literally, maybe 35,000 total votes in the Republican primary.  I mean 35,000 total statewide. 

MATTHEWS:  And they‘re conservatives? 

TODD:  Most of them are conservatives, and don‘t forget, Lincoln Chafee did not support George W. Bush.  He wrote in, he made a big deal saying he was voting in Bush‘s father in the 2004 election, that he hadn‘t decided what he was going to do. 

MATTHEWS:  And he didn‘t vote for the war resolution.

TODD:  No, I mean, he really does vote his constituency.  His constituency ...

MATTHEWS:  But could he get whacked because he‘s a Republican, no matter how he voted. 

TODD:  It would be.  I think the only thing I would caution folks on, that is his biggest problem, he‘s not conservative enough, but it‘s more the incumbent, is that Rhode Island is such a small state.  They know everybody and actually know the challenger and that‘s what Chafee is trying to do, saying, you know, this guy is a little unstable, do you really want Laffee.  I mean, that‘s sort of the Chafee campaign.  I don‘t know if it‘s going to work. 

MATTHEWS:  A.B. what do you think?  You cover the Hill.  Is there a fear that the incumbents up there are going to get whacked? 

STODDARD:  The center is a lonely place and it always has been and it‘s so interesting to watch the Lamont/Lieberman race.  He was the big loser, now he‘s 12 points ahead of Lamont.  Because Connecticut wants Lieberman.  The coalition for Lieberman just might be larger and then you look at Rhode Island and Rhode Island wants to be represented by Chafee.  He‘s representative of Rhode Island voters across the board, but he‘s probably going to lose his job. 

MATTHEWS:  Who‘s that? 

STODDARD:  Senator Chafee. 

MATTHEWS:  So you‘re betting on Lieberman against Lamont?

STODDARD:  I think that ...

MATTHEWS:  I thought you just did.

STODDARD:  I think Lieberman is ahead by 12 points. 

MATTHEWS:  We just caught you.  We mouse trapped you.  You think Lieberman is going to win? 

STODDARD:  I think that at this point, if it was held today, I think he‘d win. 

MATTHEWS:  Well yes, but we know it‘s not.  It‘s going to be held in November, we can bet on that part.   

STODDARD:  I think he had 48 percent of the Democrats in the primary.  I think he has a stronger hold on the blue collar voters and I think he has Republicans and independents, Lieberman. 

MATTHEWS:  I agree with you.  And Lamont, if he‘s going to win, has got to win back the working class Democrats. 

STODDARD:  He‘s been there for 18 years. 

MATTHEWS:  I tell you though, Lamont is moving up among Democrats.  He is gradually increasing.  He‘s got to become the Democratic candidate and once he gets that, he‘s going to be hard to beat and I don‘t believe independents tend to be pro-war.  I may be wrong.  Jim, thank you, what do you think about that Connecticut race?  Can you speak? 

VANDEHEI:  I think that Lieberman is obviously in a good position now, but there‘s going to be so much Democratic money dumped in there against him.  He‘s essentially going to have to run as a quasi-Republican.  You see Republicans railing around him.  I‘ve never seen anything like this where you have the Republican party essentially endorsing him without endorsing him and completely dissing the Republican candidate.  That‘s the way he‘s going to have to win.  He just hired a Republican pollster.  He knows the path to victory.  It‘s independents, republicans, a couple democrats.

MATTHEWS:  And I don‘t think Chris Dodd is going to be very happy living with a guy who ran against the party, lost to the party, and then runs against the party and wins.  Anyway, thank you very much, A.B.  Stoddard, a great group tonight.  Chuck Todd, thank you sir.  I read your thing every day.  Jim VandeHei, you‘re the best.  Security moms, the hottest news story. 

Up next, we‘re going to talk about what‘s going on in Rhode Island with a man who knows all about Senator Lincoln Chafee.  His nickname is Link, maybe that‘s the problem.  Big primary fight coming up.  We‘re going to have Darrell West of Brown University, an expert on this race.  We‘re going to know what the next Joe Lieberman race is going to look like this September.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL, as the midterms are fast approaching, we turn our attention tonight to another interesting battle in the northeast of this country, the state of Rhode Island, especially incumbent Senator Lincoln Chafee, one of the most liberal Republicans in the senate, has found himself in a tight primary race against Steven Laffee, a populist Republican, who‘s backed by national conservative groups.  Polls show both Republican candidates trailing behind the leading Democratic candidate, former Attorney General Sheldon Whitehouse. 

Let‘s get some analysis now form Brown University professor Darrell West, political scientist on that department.  Darrell, thank you very much for joining us.  Link Chafee, could he be caught here in a crossfire?  The conservatives don‘t like because he‘s not conservative.  The people who don‘t like the war don‘t like because, even though he voted against the war, he‘s a Republican incumbent.  Does he have anything going for him? 

DARRELL WEST, BROWN UNIVERSITY:  He has the Chafee name and, of course, he could be the next Joe Lieberman, in the sense that he is a moderate facing a grass roots revolt within his own party.  He voted against Iraq, he voted against the tax cuts and as your panel pointed out, actually voted against George Bush in 2004.  But the one thing you have to keep in mind is Rhode Island has an open primary.  And if only Republicans show up, Laffee clearly is going to beat Chafee in this primary.  But we‘re expecting a big independent vote, probably a record turn-out and, ironically, it may be the independents who turn out to save Lincoln Chafee. 

MATTHEWS:  Why did he vote against Judge Alito‘s nomination for the Supreme Court?  He‘s a Republican, he had that cover and it‘s a state which is very heavily Italian-American,  or as we said in Philadelphia growing up, Italian.  Why would he abuse that community, which is so large and I would think relatively independent politically.

WEST:  I think Chafee has been pursuing a general election strategy, meaning he knows he faces a very tough primary, he knows he has to get past Steven Laffee, but he knows even if he does get past Laffee, he faces an even tougher general election battle.  And so, I think on several of his votes he has been playing to independents and Democrats.  One of the interesting things about this primary, there have been 14,000 Democrats who have disaffiliated so they can cross over and vote in that Republican primary.   

MATTHEWS:  So he‘s trading primary votes for general election votes so far.  Will he have to stop trading that way if this gets closer between now and September 12th, and start going back to being something of a Republican? 

WEST:  Well there have been two debates so far in this campaign, just

in the last couple weeks, and in neither one of those debates did he move

right.  In fact, if anything, Laffee has such a stronghold on the

traditional Republican base, the conservative base within that party that

Chafee has really focused almost entirely on getting that independent vote,

defending his opposition to the Iraq war, which Laffee, by the way,

supported initially and really trying to courage those independents to turn

out in record numbers.  If he doesn‘t get that, he‘s going to be the next

Lieberman

MATTHEWS:  And the big difference up there in Rhode Island, where you live at Brown University, is that unlike the situation in Connecticut where they have an almost laughable Republican candidate, this guy who is known more at the gambling halls than he is by the people, you‘ve got a strong Democratic candidate in Whitehouse, right?

WEST:  Absolutely.  He‘s a former attorney general in Rhode Island, so he‘s been elected statewide.  He‘s moderate to liberal, which makes him have the perfect profile for a general election, does not face a serious Democratic primary, has already raised about two million dollars, which by Rhode Island standards is a lot and so he‘s really been able to focus all of his attention, since May, on the general election.

MATTHEWS:  Professor Darrell West of Brown University, thank you for joining us tonight to talk about Rhode Island politics.  Play HARDBALL with us again Monday night.  Our guests will include Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and U.S. Congressman Harold Ford, who‘s running for the Senate in Tennessee.  Right now it‘s time for Tucker.

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

END   

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