updated 12/4/2006 12:11:46 PM ET 2006-12-04T17:11:46

Guests: David Gergen, Dana Milbank, John Harwood, Kate O‘Beirne

DAVID SHUSTER, MSNBC HOST:  The “Washington Post” reports the Iraq Study Group will recommend pulling our troops out of Iraq in 2008, just in time for the next presidential election.  Let‘s play HARDBALL.

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

Today the “Washington Post” reported the Baker Iraq Commission will recommend that U.S. troops be pulled out of Iraq by 2008 barring unexpected developments.  Considering the political significance, 2008 is an interesting target date.

Is this bipartisan group‘s recommendation an attempt to take Iraq off the table as a major issue in a presidential election year?  More on the politics of this decision later with our HARDBALLers, Kate O‘Beirne and Ron Reagan. 

On the diplomatic front, the White House announced today President Bush will meet with a top leader of Iraq‘s majority Shiites on Monday and a Sunni vice president next month.  If President Bush stays directly involved in diplomacy, can the president himself change the course of the war in Iraq?  We‘ll ask NBC presidential historian Michael Beschloss. 

But while the diplomatic and political efforts go on, here in Washington, the violence in Iraq continues and, of course, the discussion continues in Iraq and here in Washington.  General Barry McCaffrey is an NBC military analyst.

And, General McCaffrey, some military commanders said today that they are already implementing what they expect to be some of the recommendations from the Iraq Study Group.  Specifically, military commanders say they‘re taking combat troops away from northern Iraq.  Is this a matter of those troops are no longer needed or they are needed more in other parts of the country like Baghdad? 

GEN. BARRY MCCAFFREY (RET.), MSNBC MILITARY ANALYST:  Well, I think the latter.  There‘s a huge chaotic, dangerous situation developing in Iraq.  The only thing holding it together right now is U.S. Army and Marine Corps special operations troops.  They‘re shuttling their forces around.  I don‘t think the U.S. Armed Forces can dominate Baghdad, seven million people, but they‘re going to have to try. 

SHUSTER:  And, General, when Prime Minister Maliki said, as he did yesterday, that he believes his security forces will be ready by the spring of 2007 to take over, I realize we may be depending on the definition of take over, but is that sort of claim credible? 

MCCAFFREY:  No, probably not.  You know, right now the Iraqi army is miserably under-resourced, ill-equipped.  They don‘t have an air force, they don‘t have a helicopter list, they don‘t have artillery, they don‘t have armored vehicles to speak of.  It‘s a very challenging situation.  That‘s got to happen.  That‘s what Secretary Gates‘ first responsibility will be. 

And then, secondly, the politics of it.  I don‘t know how—I don‘t think we have much leverage over the Maliki government.  It‘s basically dysfunctional.  It‘s hard to imagine how he‘s going to pull this together. 

SHUSTER:  And David Gergen, thanks for joining us.  Abdul Aziz al-Hakim is a top Shiite leader with connections to Iran.  What does a meeting at the White House being given to him say about the state of affairs inside the White House right now? 

DAVID GERGEN, FORMER PRESIDENTIAL ADVISOR:  Well, listen, everybody is scrambling after a very disappointing week.  I think that the U.S.  officials, while they‘re not saying so publicly, have to be disappointed with the results of their meetings there.  The president got nothing out of his meetings with Maliki they‘re saying on background. 

You know, Secretary Rice goes in and talks to the Palestinians.  The Hamas effort is falling apart, and I think from back home here, the point of the president‘s visit was—you know, the big question has been, since the elections, whether the president would heed the voice of the American voters, would heed the Baker-Hamilton Commission, and really bring a fundamental change of course in Iraq. 

And I think the president‘s answer back from his trip this week was an emphatic no.  He plans to stick to the course.  We‘ll have to see if that remains true in the next couple of weeks, but the answer so far is not only no, but hell no. 

SHUSTER:  But, David, do you think there‘s any chance that when President Bush says we are staying in Iraq until the mission is complete, that he is offering the sort of wiggle room, perhaps, that he might have thought in his own mind he had when he made a declaration that Donald Rumsfeld would be staying at secretary of defense for the next two years? 

GERGEN:  No, I don‘t think so.  He said repeatedly now—and I think to say, as he did, while he was overseas, just as the Baker-Hamilton Commission leaks were coming out in the “New York Times” and elsewhere that they would recommend a withdrawal, he said there is no such thing as a graceful exit. 

I think the president is saying no to withdrawal, no to talking directly to Syria, no to talking directly to Iran which is the heart and soul of what the Baker-Hamilton Commission is proposing, insofar as we know it right now. 

So I have to say at the end of this week I think it is very unclear whether there‘s going to be any real course change.  This is a pretty tough situation right now.  This is a very, very tough moment. 

SHUSTER:  General McCaffrey, one of the things that the president highlighted yesterday was that the Iraqi security forces have not been given enough of the equipment, enough artillery, armored vehicles, close air support for them to do their job. 

Do you think, though, there‘s a level of trust that‘s necessary for the Iraqis to be able to use that equipment and not have the equipment uses to simply settle old scores? 

MCCAFFREY:  Well, I mean, that‘s one of the pushbacks and it‘s a legitimate one.  What if we‘re just arming both sides of the civil war?  But, again, you know, it‘s a simple equation to me.  If you anticipate success, if you think Maliki can pull a government together, then you have to have an Iraqi security force that can deal with maybe 120,000 people shooting at them. 

Our divisions wouldn‘t dream of operating without several thousand up-armored Humvees, tanks, Bradley fighting vehicles, lift helicopters, AC-130s.  We‘ve got to equip the Iraqis or we‘ll never be able to withdraw. 

SHUSTER:  Do you think that we‘re doing enough now to equip the Iraqis? 

MCCAFFREY:  No.  I think General Abizaid has been at this from the start.  He correctly said we‘ve got to draw down the U.S. combat forces, we‘ve got to stand up the Iraqis.  It‘s been miserably under-resourced by the Pentagon. 

By the way, another thought, if you allow me to put this on the table, David...

SHUSTER:  Sure.

MCCAFFREY:  ... you know, if we withdraw in 2008, the worst outcome possible would be, in my judgment, leave 40,000 to 60,000 trainers, logistics troops, intel guys, air power with almost no combat capability.  We should not stay in Iraq unless we‘ve got six or seven combat brigades or we‘ll end up with 5,000 U.S. troops hostage in that country two or three years from now. 

SHUSTER:  So General McCaffrey, just to be clear, you‘re suggesting that if the recommendation is that combat units get out in 2008, the recommendation ought to be that all U.S. forces get out in the next year, right? 

MCCAFFREY:  Absolutely.  What I‘m hearing is, well, we‘ll just leave a brigade or two to guard these troops.  They would be all over Iraq and 27 million people, 80 percent of whom don‘t want them there, so—we have got 17 combat brigades now.  We ought to get down to 10 rapidly.  We could go down to maybe seven, and that‘s the floor. 

We‘ll see a Mogadishu, only instead of one ranger company and 120 casualties, we‘ll have a disaster if we leave a bunch of Americans in there without direct combat power. 

SHUSTER:  David Gergen, President Bush said yesterday that we will stay until—as long as we are welcome.  Is it possible that the president is trying to create a scenario whereby the Iraqis, essentially, invite the United States to leave Iraq?  That would provide the president some cover so he‘s not having to react to either the Baker-Hamilton Commission or the Democrats.  Instead, he can say, look, we‘re done, the Iraqis want us out of there, so we‘re leaving. 

GERGEN:  Well, I guess I‘ve wondered about that myself.  But as you think about it and you hear General McCaffrey lay out that very compelling case, why you just can‘t leave people in there to train the Iraqis, you know, that is—the idea of just having the Iraqis ask us to leave, I think, is very, very dangerous. 

The Shiite government—Shiite-led government—is only going to ask us to leave if they feel they have got the sufficient armaments and weapons in hand that they can carry out a slaughter of the Sunnis.  You know, and it puts us in a really awkward situation. 

Do we really want to leave and leave the Sunnis this unprotected minority?  I‘m not sure what we can do right now.  I‘m just—I‘m curious what General McCaffrey does this is the answer now, because it seems to me all the options are pretty bad. 

SHUSTER:  General, what is the answer? 

MCCAFFREY:  Yes, well, actually, I think David Gergen, as usual, got it right.  I don‘t know.  We‘ve passed too many off ramps.  We‘re in a tricky situation.  It seems to me you‘ve got to stay, hope for success for 10 years, stay in there with some U.S. military capability. 

You have got to equip the Iraqi security forces, you‘ve got to talk to the surrounding country, you‘ve got to talk to the Syrians, the Iranians, and then you‘ve got to hope that the country gets—Iraq gets scared and presses back from the abyss that they‘re about to step into. 

GERGEN:  Right, and it does seem to me—General McCaffrey just put his finger on something very important, and that is we need to get the region involved.  We need to get the neighborhood involved in order to stabilize this as much as we can to minimize the damage on this thing. 

We could more easily stay in there if the rest of the countries are helping us and helping to stabilize Iraq than we can doing this alone.  And I think he‘s right about that.  But even with that, there is a very real danger now that this thing is going to continue to deteriorate, that we are caught in the middle of a civil war, and that there are—we—that the best we can hope is to try to get out in a way that keeps the region fairly stable and we can all get a region-wide civil war.

SHUSTER:  But, David, if you were advising the president today—and you‘ve been in that situation before—and there you have the incoming defense secretary saying we need to deal with Iran, you‘ve got the Baker-Hamilton Commission saying we need to deal with Iran, and you have a president who has said, through his secretary of state yesterday, we are not going to talk with Iran, how to you advise him to begin that process given that he‘s already put himself in a corner.

GERGEN:  Well, presidents in the past would have started back-channel communications in a furious way already.  There would be a lot of efforts to work through the Europeans or to work through other diplomats, including some of our own, to meet in places other than U.S.-Iranian sort of official places. 

And to start exploring what might productively come from more direct public talks and begin to lay the groundwork for that.  I don‘t see any evidence of that so far in this case.  I see a continued recalcitrance.  But the other thing I have to tell you David in terms of—in the White House now, it seems to me what is so absolutely critical is for the administration to give us an unvarnished understanding of what‘s happening in Iraq. 

There is a real sense right now that the administration is continuing to look through rose-colored glasses, publicly, even as Mr. Hadley writes private memos that are quite critical, the public stance remains sort of upbeat. 

SHUSTER:  But, if they‘re not even then willing to acknowledge that it is a civil war, as even Colin Powell has suggested, that gets right to the problem. 

GERGEN:  That‘s right.  But it seems to me what we need is an unvarnished look at what‘s happening there and then an attempt to form something bipartisan in here so we‘re more unified.  Our troops deserve unified support from back here. 

I don‘t think we can ask them to keep fighting in a situation unless they know that America stands behind them in a more unified way.  And it does seem to me at this point that we‘re in a tough situation.  We‘re in the ditch and we‘ve got to get the whole country behind finding some very tough answers. 

SHUSTER:  One of the things we‘re looking for of course is the Baker-Hamilton Commission, which will report on Wednesday.  And I think one of the things that will be so interesting in it, is exactly how they describe the situation in Iraq today and whether they use the word civil war.  In any case, General Barry McCaffrey and David Gergen, we appreciate it.

GERGEN:  Thank you.

SHUSTER:  Coming up, the “Washington Post‘s” Dana Milbank and CNBC‘s John Harwood will be here to examine whether the Baker-Hamilton Commission is really interested in solving Iraq or more concerned about protecting the Republican and Democratic parties in 2008.

Plus,  some intriguing developments with a few presidential contenders.  You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SHUSTER:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  Is the Iraq Study Group recommending a troop withdrawal by early 2008 to take Iraq out of the headlines for the presidential primary season?  And should the solution in Iraq be dictated by political calendar instead of core principles of foreign policy.

We‘re joined by Dana Milbank of the “Washington Post” and the “Wall Street Journal‘s” John Harwood, who is CNBC‘s chief Washington correspondent.  And John, the timing that is being laid out by the Iraq Study Group, what do you make of it? 

JOHN HARWOOD, CNBC CHIEF WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT:  You know, we‘ve been at this war now longer than the Americans were in World War II, so it is bumping up against the ‘08 presidential race, but I don‘t think that it‘s bumping up for that season.  I think it‘s a matter of this thing has gone on a long time and Jim Baker, Lee Hamilton, and a whole lot of people in the U.S. Congress want to find some way to change course.  The question is can they get the president Bush to do it. 

SHUSTER:  But Dana Milbank, there are some very politically-connected people on this panel, whether it‘s Leon Panetta, Vernon Jordan.  I mean, it would seem to me that they have 2008 in mind.  Is that unfair? 

DANA MILBANK, “WASHINGTON POST”:  It is a little unfair.  I mean, certainly they had 2006 in mind.  And they were quite clear about that and I think Jim Baker put one over on certainly on the Democratic commissioners in not having things come out this fall. 

But when you think about it, the 2008 campaign is already well underway.  You know, everybody‘s jumping in the race and campaigning already.  There‘s no time which you can do something in the American political system anymore, where it isn‘t part of some election cycle.  So whatever the actual motive is, you can‘t escape the politics here either way.

SHUSTER:  Dana, you are one of my favorite wordsmiths.  And I want you to react to something we just talked about in the previous segment.  The president said yesterday that we will stay in Iraq as long as we are welcome. 

Is it reading too much to suggest that maybe that is the opportunity for the president to essentially say, OK, when the Iraqis invite us to leave, then we get out of there? 

MILBANK:  Yes.  You‘ve got the right look at it there, I think.  And you‘ve got to be careful with the way the president says things, because often he will tell telegraph something new with just a slight change in a formulation there. 

So, I think what he‘s talking about is you know, no timetables, no precipitous withdrawal, but he‘s not saying anything at all about what the Iraq Study Group is actually apparently talking about, and that is a massive change away from combat and towards training, which allows for the withdraw.  It‘s really not contradictory at all.  He seems to be leaving the door wide open to that.

HARWOOD:  But I will say David, that that door has been open for some time.  He said in the past that he was going to be reacting not just to generals on the ground, but what this new Iraqi government wanted to do.  So, that trap door has been there and he hasn‘t taken it so far.

SHUSTER:  Except yesterday, in a very public way, there was Prime Minister Maliki suggesting June of 2007, our security forces will be ready.  He has apparently said that before, but the timing was curious. 

HARWOOD:  Yes.  Interesting timing and it‘s also interesting in what he said was obviously not true.  The Iraqi security forces are not capable of controlling the violence, which is the reason why nobody knows what the right answer is. 

The U.S. military doesn‘t seem capable of stopping the violence and certainly if you withdraw the U.S. military, almost everybody agrees the situation is going to get worse.  So the question is, how do you manage some kind of a phased drawdown in a way that doesn‘t make it catastrophically worse? 

SHUSTER:  And Dana, what do you make of this meeting the president is going to be having on Monday with a Shiite at the White House.  This is somebody who has apparently strong connections to Iran? 

MILBANK:  Well, we‘ve—at the “Post”, my colleague here have been talking an awful lot about the prospects of the United States saying, look, the idea of some sort of national reconciliation hasn‘t worked and is not going to work and it‘s time to realize that it‘s time to take sides here and realize that there‘s got to be a winner here in what does amount to a civil war. 

Now, of course, that‘s a dangerous proposition, because you run the event, the possibility of having an all-out regional conflagration.  So presumingly the president is doing what he can to test the waters there on the Shiite side and also find a way to involve Iran and Syria without seeming to to reverse himself on his principles of not doing so.

SHUSTER:  And Dana, smart politics for the Democrats right now just to be sitting back, as Chris Dodd and Byron Dorgan and all the rest just say well let‘s just wait a couple days and see what the Baker-Hamilton commission does? 

MILBANK:  What have they got to lose?  I mean, and that‘s what Jack Reed was doing earlier this week.  He comes in, his big idea was, oh let‘s have a special envoy, which basically means another punt.  The whole idea is, this is their problem, let‘s let them deal with it. 

HARWOOD:  There will be some grumbling about the content and the pace suggested by the Iraq Study Group, but mostly Democrats are going to want to hug Jim Baker as closely as they can and use him to carry out their disagreement with the Bush Administration.

SHUSTER:  Now, John, you were in Iowa the other day for Tom Vilsack, the former governor of Iowa, kicking his presidential campaign.  How did Iraq influence, either his remarks, or sort of what he was talking about as far as America‘s foreign policy? 

HARWOOD:  Well, it was interesting his formulation.  He talked about a foreign policy that would take our troops out of harm‘s way.  He didn‘t say bring the troops home, he was talking about redeployment. 

Remember, Jack Murtha is also talking about redeployment—pulling troops back, say to the border areas, out of Baghdad where the violence is the worst. 

So Democrats are being cautious about this.  And the polls give them reason to be cautious.  We‘ve asked in our Journal/NBC Poll repeatedly, do you want our troops out in an immediate and orderly withdrawal from the country?  And the majority of people say no, with don‘t. 

SHUSTER:  John Harwood and Dana Milbank are staying with us.  On the other side of this break, the latest the developments involving all of the 2008 presidential contenders, including Barack Obama. 

Later, we will talk about the political mood in Washington with the National Review‘s Kate O‘Beirne and MSNBC‘s Ron Reagan.

And this weekend on “Meet the Press,” join Tim Russert for an exclusive interview with the leaders of the Senate Armed Services Committee, outgoing chair John Warner and incoming chair Senator Carl Levin.  They will lead confirmation hearings on Tuesday for Defense Secretary nominee Robert Gates.  You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SHUSTER:  And we‘re back with the Washington Post‘s Dana Milbank, and CNBC chief Washington correspondent John Harwood.  And I want you both to watch some tape we have of Barack Obama, Illinois senator, getting ready for a presidential run, we think.  Watch what he said today at an evangelical church in California. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. BARACK OBAMA, (D) ILLINOIS:  My Bible tells me that when god sent his only son to Earth it was to heal the sick and comfort the weary and feed thing hungry and clothe the naked  to befriend the outcast and redeem those who had strayed from righteousness. 

Living his example is the hardest kind of faith, but it‘s surely the most rewarding.  It is a way of life that can only light our way as people of faith but guide to us also to a new and better politics as Americans.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SHUSTER:  John, your reaction, mixing politics and religion in the way that he did today? 

HARWOOD:  Well, it‘s smart.  Democrats need to do more of that.  You know, one of the problems Democrats have is they‘re seen as the secular party, not the party of faith, which makes some candidates sort of have to lean over backwards too far to try to prove otherwise. 

Barack Obama is somebody by going to this church and by using the language, the cadence of a preacher that you saw there, it‘s something that can only help him. 

SHUSTER:  Dana Milbank, is there any chance that somebody like Barack Obama with the social positions that he has, can make any inroads among evangelicals? 

MILBANK:  Well, not necessarily.  I mean, but that‘s not who he needs to win in a Democratic primary.  Sure, in a general election that‘s entirely possible.  A large number of evangelicals went with the Democrats this time around. 

And John is right, it‘s nothing but good politics for him to be doing that right now.  He also has the ability of appearing genuine when he does it, which certainly Al Gore didn‘t do well and John Kerry when he made these efforts, it was just about as awkward as his wind surfing. 

HARWOOD:  Remember David, evangelicals are not monolithic.  First of all, a significant number are black.  But there are also a significant number of centrist evangelicals.  Those are the people the Democrats might be able to make some headway with.

SHUSTER:  We‘re going to talk about Barack Obama little bit more in our next segment, but I‘ve got to ask you both about the story that‘s been developing out of London: the pulonium poisoning.  Dana, we had some guests on yesterday who suggested this is deliberate effort to embarrass Vladimir Putin.  And the reasoning was that the Russians would have done some more nefarious way of killing the guy.  They would have simply done it in such a way so that nobody knew he had been poisoned. 

MILBANK:  That‘s entirely possible, David.  I must say, I‘m not very good on my British-Russian conspiracy theories. 

SHUSTER:  John?

HARWOOD:  I don‘t think Vladimir Putin needs any help embarrassing himself in terms of the human rights dimension.  He‘s been under some criticism over that for some time. So, who knows.  It could be a triple bank shot, but Putin has a record that‘s dubious on the score. 

SHUSTER:  OK.  Thank you Dana Milbank and John Harwood.  We appreciate it.

Up next, the National Reviews Kate O‘Beirne and MSNBC‘s Ron Reagan will dig in to what Congress can do about Iraq. 

And coming up later, presidential story Michael Beschloss will talk about President Bush‘s legacy.  Will it be completely defined by what happens with Iraq? 

And on Monday, Tom Brokaw is our guest in the HARDBALL college tour at Fordham University in New York.  You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(MARKET REPORT)

SHUSTER:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.

It‘s not every day that you will see a rising Democratic star embrace the opportunity to mix politics and religion at a large, conservative evangelical church.  But that‘s what Senator Barack Obama did today.  NBC‘s George Lewis joins us now with the details. 

And, George, how was Obama received by the church? 

GEORGE LEWIS, NBC NEWS:  He was very well-received.  It was kind of an interesting trifecta at the Saddleback Church in Orange County, California today.  Two presidential possibles—Barack Obama and Republican Senator Sam Brownback from Kansas—hosted by the evangelical pastor Rick Warren, the guy who wrote the best-seller “The Purpose-Driven Life,” all there to talk about combating AIDS on the occasion of World AIDS Day. 

Now, Reverend Warren came under fire from some of his fellow evangelicals for hosting Obama, because Obama is in favor of abortion rights.  One conservative radio host and blogger, Kevin McCullough, wrote, “Why would Warren mar the moral equivalency of his pulpit, a sacred place of honor and evangelical traditions, to the inhumane, sick, and sinister evil that Obama has worked for as a legislature?” 

All three men were submitting to AIDS tests today.  All, of course, tested negative, even as they were foregoing negative politics for one day.  They all talked about working together on the problem and the question for a lot of AIDS activists is, do the evangelical churches really believe in working on the AIDS problem, given their view that homosexuality is a sin. 

But Warren and the two senators all said they were putting aside every political difference to speak out against the disease that has devastated many countries with 40 million people in the world living with HIV.  The Reverend Warren said “If you can‘t work with people you don‘t always agree with, you can‘t get anything done.” 

In his speech, Obama called on the country to embrace the idea that what binds us together is greater than what drives us apart.  Later, they had a news conference.  Both Obama and Brownback were asked about their presidential ambitions, and both declined to comment, saying they didn‘t want to distract attention from AIDS issue.  So it was a pretty interesting day and a day not filled with president politics, but everybody being nice to each other. 

SHUSTER:  George, I want to play some of the sound from that, in which Barack Obama is talking about condoms and AIDS.  Let‘s watch.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D), ILLINOIS:  I also believe we can‘t ignore the fact that abstinence and my fidelity, although the ideal, may not always be the reality, that we‘re dealing with flesh and blood, men and women, and not abstractions, and that if condoms and potentially things like microbicides can prevent millions of deaths, then they should be made more widely available. 

That‘s my belief.  I am happy to work with those who don‘t believe that, on the things we agree on, but I would be dishonest if I did not say that here today. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SHUSTER:  George, that‘s a pretty interesting approach, and you heard the applause there.  Was there any point in the speech, though, where the audience either seemed uncomfortable or seemed upset? 

LEWIS:  No.  Obama seems pretty at home in church.  At one point, Brownback delivered a little bit of a zinger.  He said welcome to my house, and Obama had replied, this is my house, too.  I‘m a Christian, I‘m a believe, and this is the house of God, and he got a big applause out of that. 

SHUSTER:  All right.  George Lewis reporting from Los Angeles.  Thank you very much. 

Let‘s bring in the MSNBC HARDBALLers, MSNBC political analyst Ron Reagan and Kate O‘Beirne of the “National Review.” 

And first, Ron, to you.  Sort of an interesting move today by Barack Obama.  What did you make of it? 

RON REAGAN, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  Well, I think it was a good political move.  Some people have said that the Democrats need to reach out to religious folks.  I think that‘s true up to a point.  The important thing to me is that it was a sincere move on his part.  These are genuine religious feelings.  He‘s a genuine person of faith, and so this counts. 

On the other hand, I would like to point out that our founding fathers anticipated a secular government and society in the United States, and so I‘d like to stick up for that a little bit for that too.

SHUSTER:  Kate, there‘s your opening. 

REAGAN:  Go for it, Kate.

KATE O‘BEIRNE, “NATIONAL REVIEW”:  I think it‘s enormously useful and sincere on the part of both Senator Barack Obama, and enormously useful to the Democratic Party.  Polls show that a majority of Americans think the Democratic Party is hostile to religion, however unfair that might be.  So it‘s extremely important to them to have somebody who is so comfortable.

Look what George Bush was able to do in 2004.  He almost beat, among Catholics in Massachusetts, a former alter boy.  You know, as unfair as that might be, John Kerry seemed so because of the sentiments expressed by people like Ron, I‘m afraid, so uncomfortable talking about his own faith that it made people think that it was somehow less than sincere.  As I said, it might be unfair, but I think for that reason, Barack Obama is a real asset. 

SHUSTER:  One of the things the Republicans said earlier about Barack Obama is he made an issue of his middle name.  He said Barack Hussein Obama.  Is that an issue for you? 

O‘BEIRNE:  It‘s sort of a little jarring, shall I say. 

SHUSTER:  But do use it when you‘re talking about him, the way some Republican strategists already are?

O‘BEIRNE:  No, I don‘t see any reason to be using it.  And it will be another fact about the senator people know so little about that they‘ll digest, and it will probably lose its ability at the moment to cause people to wonder. 

SHUSTER:  Ron, you have a great radio show in Seattle.  What are your listeners saying about both 2008 presidential politics, but also their reaction to the Bush-Maliki summit this week? 

REAGAN:  We haven‘t talked a lot about the Bush-Maliki summit, although, you know, what struck me about the whole thing was how delusional both leaders seem to be on separate occasions. 

Maliki is saying that his military, his law enforcement, is going to be ready to stand up by June of ‘07.  That‘s clearly not the case.  And we have President Bush saying that al Qaeda is responsible for the majority of violence in Iraq, and that‘s not true, either. 

Two things are clear, though.  Henry Kissinger has said it, Zbigniew Brzezinski has said it, I believe.  And that is that a military victory is not possible in Iraq.  Well, a military victory is not possible, then you have to ask yourself how long and for what reason will our troops remain there. 

And the other thing is that we, as a nation, are losing the ability to direct events there.  We‘re losing our influence there daily.  And where that will end up, anybody knows. 

SHUSTER:  But, Kate, isn‘t there a benefit, I suppose, to the president if events are being dictated by the Iraqis and we get back to the point of what the president said yesterday, that as long as we‘re welcome we‘ll stay.  Well, at a certain point the Iraqis will say you‘re no longer welcome.  The president therefore has his cover to get out, right?

O‘BEIRNE:  David, the administration has been saying for years now that fundamentally it‘s going to be up to the Iraqis.  The most we can do is try to create the space for them, the stability for them to do that which they have expressed a desire to do. 

So, many of us have said it‘s always been up to the Iraqis.  And Don Rumsfeld has said there will not be a military victory in Iraq.  What we can do is hopefully quell the violence enough to give this young government a chance. 

SHUSTER:  How do we quell the violence though when we‘re giving more weapons to the Iraqi government who may, in turn, then use those weapons to settle more scores?

O‘BEIRNE:  Well, it seems the challenge is—and I‘m the first to admit I‘m not sure how to do this, but it certainly seems the challenge is to somehow quell the Sunni insurgency that gives rise to the Shia militias in retaliation, trying to defend Shia populations.  Then there would be less of a role for the Shia militias.  It‘s awfully difficult to try to have Maliki disarm them now when the Shia population is suffering these attacks from the Sunnis.  So if the Sunni insurgency, and it seems the administration is now reaching out to Sunni allies in the area, to see if they can somehow be helpful—Saudi Arabia, recently as you know, and Jordan. 

If they could help reduce the Sunni violence, there is less of a reason to have the Shia militias and that could bring down violence on both sides. 

SHUSTER:  Go ahead Ron.

REAGAN:  David that raises an interesting point.  I mean, the administration likes to talk about victory and likes to talk about winning in Iraq, but winners imply losers and that implies us taking sides.  Are we willing to take sides against the Sunnis? 

O‘BEIRNE:  Presumably the losers would be, because they don‘t represent as you know Ron, the whole Sunni population—the losers would be those who want to take violence into their own hands, who want ...

REAGAN:  That‘s an awful lot of people, Kate. 

O‘BEIRNE:  ... to get involved in sectarian fight between each other. 

Those who are violently not committed to having a unified, stable Iraq. 

They hopefully would be the losers. 

REAGAN:  Well, of course, one thing we could do is just turn the Shiite militias lose on the Sunnis?  They‘ve been asking us to do that for awhile and I don‘t think we will but...

O‘BEIRNE:  Well, except they‘re not a legitimate force.  They don‘t represent the elected government. 

REAGAN:  Does our military represent the elected government? 

O‘BEIRNE:  The formal Iraqi military is the arm of the duly elected government, not al-Sadr‘s Shiite militia

REAGAN:  The Iraqi military has been infiltrated by the Shiite militias. 

O‘BEIRNE:  Some of whom apparently he doesn‘t even control.

REAGAN:  Oh, I‘m sure, yes.

SHUSTER:  But Kate, there has been a reporting, in fact the “Washington Post” today, some reporting by Tom Ricks of the “Washington Post” that there‘s this idea floating up at the Pentagon that we should pick a winner.  That we should abandon the idea of reconciliation and try to align ourselves to the extent we can with the Shiites and reconfigure the government. 

Isn‘t that exactly giving the Shiites the opportunity to go in and slaughter the Sunnis if we don‘t have control over the situation? 

O‘BEIRNE:  No.  I think what that speaks to is what—I‘ve been hearing from the State Department for some time now too.  If Maliki‘s government is too dependent upon al-Sadr being a key piece of it, maybe somehow his coalition could be fine-tuned to make al-Sadr less important.  I just think that calls for a level of fine-tuning that it seems to me to be extremely difficult for Americans to pull off. 

SHUSTER:  Ron, we‘re going to get to you on the other side of this break.  Kate O‘Beirne and Ron Reagan are both staying with us.  Later we will be talking with presidential historian Michael Beschloss about the war on terror, the war in Iraq, and the possible legacy for President Bush.  This is HARDBALL, only on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SHUSTER:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  We are back with political analysts Kate O‘Beirne, the Washington editor of the “National Review” and MSNBC political analyst Ron Reagan.  And Ron, just before the break, I cut you off.  You were talking about fingerprints and fine-tuning.  Finish your point. 

REAGAN:  Well, the point  was going to make that Kate raised about fine-tuning the Iraqi government is, the more the U.S. has it fingerprints on the Iraqi government, the less credibility the Iraqi will have to the Iraqi people, which is just part of the Catch-22 that we find ourselves there—in there.

SHUSTER:  One of the senators who is going to have a difficult time perhaps with this issue is Senator Evan Bayh who is now preparing, according to the Associated Press, to declare that he is starting an exploratory committee next week to run for president. 

This is news being reported by the Associated Press.  It will not come as a huge surprise, but Evan Bayh apparently now being willing to make it official.  He‘ll be forming an exploratory committee for 1008.  This is the first initial step.  And Kate, your reaction to Evan Bayh? 

O‘BEIRNE:  I think he‘s extremely talented.  Former governor, which certainly helps.  The Senate of course, isn‘t a big plus, but he has plenty of company there with the Senate—with the negative of being the United States Senator.  He of course, supported the authorization to go to war with Iraq, but like John Kerry and like John Edwards, he‘s already clearly said, if he knew then what he now knows.  So he‘s walked away from that vote.  So that leaves, I think, the only one who hasn‘t walked away from that Iraq vote—Hillary Clinton. 

SHUSTER:  And Ron, a lot of fund-raisers we‘ve been talking to, who may not be so impressed with Evan Bayh‘s speaking style—he‘s very stiff, or at least it has been for many years, are nonetheless impressed with the amount of money he‘s raised.  I think he‘s second only to Hillary Rodham Clinton as far as the amount of money that he‘s put together.  How significant do you think that will be as far as getting him some traction? 

REAGAN:  Well, it‘s not going to hurt, of course.  Money is important. 

But, I think he‘s really going have to make an impression on the voters.  He is going to have to step up in the first debate, which I believe is going to be in May of next year. 

You know, he‘s going to have to deliver the goods.  Any of these dark horse candidates, Vilsack, Bayh, any of the others, are going to have to make an impression that will sweep Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, John McCain, those sorts of people, out of the way.  People are going to have to be talking about Evan Bayh or Vilsack or any of the others more than they are talking about Obama or Hillary Clinton or John McCain for this to work.  Otherwise he‘s just an interesting figure and a dark horse.

SHUSTER:  Speaking of Mitt Romney—he and John McCain were both at the Republican Governors Association meeting in Florida, as were you, Kate.  Tell us what it was like. 

O‘BEIRNE:  Well, Mitt Romney, governor of Massachusetts, was far more in evidence at the meeting than was John McCain.  Mitt Romney is the outgoing chairman of the RGA.  He‘s a very popular figure among his fellow Republican governors.  He raised 50 percent more for the RGA, for his governor candidates this year than ever before, even though they, as you know, took losses given the bad math.

So, he was very much in evidence.  John McCain was present, but less in evidence.  There was a lot of meeting going on—meeting with governors.  They are enormously important allies.  John McCain took the opportunity to come down to Miami and meet with individual governors, making his case.  Governor Romney was doing the same and Mayor Giuliani had representatives there doing the same on his behalf. 

SHUSTER:  So, not surprising that McCain would go there.  I mean, some people had spun this, oh John McCain is essentially crashing a Mitt Romney party, but that doesn‘t sound like that that was ...

O‘BEIRNE:  No.  Of course, it‘s not surprising David.  There were 14 or 15 governors there.  So, with one simple trip to Miami you got facetime with people of course he knows, he‘s a well-known figure.  of course, both candidates, all three know all these individuals, but it was an opportunity to talk in a serious way about ‘08 and ask for their support.  Now most governors seem to be waiting, but I think it was a good opportunity for all the candidates. 

SHUSTER:  And Ron Reagan, now a lot of people as far as Mitt Romney have been concerned, have been talking about at a certain point Mitt Romney, a Mormon, who might have some difficulty with the evangelical community there on the right.  Needs to give some sort of speech addressing that issue.  How significant do you think the religion issue would be to a guy like Mitt Romney, when you have somebody like John McCain, who is really not very religious at all.

REAGAN:  Yeah, I tend to think it‘s not going to be a big deal.  I mean, we‘re used to Orin Hatch being in the Senate.  I don‘t think his Mormonism is going to be a huge thing.  You were talking earlier about Barack Obama‘s middle name, Hussein being an issue.  We know Keith Ellison who was just elected to congress from Minnesota the first Muslim elected to Congress. He‘s become an issue.  He‘s going to swear an oath on the Koran instead of on the Bible.  Well, that‘s got a lot of right-wing, you know, radio talk show host up in arms, which seems to be a very unAmerican thing.

But the Mormonism, you know, I don‘t think that‘s ultimately going to be a huge problem for him.  But he will have to address it in some way at some point. 

SHUSTER:  Kate, 10 seconds.  Is Mormonism going to be an issue for Mitt Romney? 

O‘BEIRNE:  I think it‘s an issue.  But he won‘t be running in a vacuum.  But he‘s hoping—what they‘re hoping is, evangelicals who might have some reservations, will appreciate that he agrees with them on an awful lot of issues of importance to them. 

SHUSTER:  All right.  Kate O‘Beirne and Ron Reagan, thank you both very much. 

Up next is President Bush‘s legacy already written?  Can it change if Iraq chances?  We‘ll talk about it with presidential historian Michael Beschloss.  You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SHUSTER:  And welcome back to HARDBALL.  Following a big week in which he met with the Iraqi prime minister, President Bush will get a lot of advice this week about how he should proceed in Iraq.  Given his track record, will he take it?

I‘m joined by NBC News presidential historian Michael Beschloss. 

Michael, thanks for being with us.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, PRESIDENTIAL HISTORIAN:  Delighted, David.  Thanks.

SHUSTER:  Mike, the Iraq study group will come back with a report on Wednesday.  Robert Gates, who is expected to be confirmed as defense secretary, he has hearings on Tuesday.  Both, of course, have endorsed the idea of talking with Iran. 

Do you believe the president will continue to dig in his heels?  And if so, are we looking at another chapter of the Bush legacy? 

BESCHLOSS:  Well, I think we are looking at another chapter, but he may be talking directly with Iran, but he‘s going to be having a rather important meeting with an important Shiite leader on Monday. 

So, President Bush—I think he has got this reputation of sort of getting his heels dug in on things.  But he can turn around very quickly. 

As you know, just before the election he said he would hold on to Don Rumsfeld.  Just after the election, he let him go.  If you think about it, you know, he has let go, or forced out—a secretary of state, a secretary of defense, two treasury secretaries, one attorney general—this is not a president who really gets his feet as sunk in concrete as, I think, his reputation sometimes suggests. 

SHUSTER:  But is he still somebody who likes to do things on his terms?  In other words, is this a choice between pragmatism, which would suggest you listen to the Baker Iraq study group vs. hoping that the events on the ground ultimately convince the president, OK, based on what I see in Iraq, that‘s where the decision is made? 

BESCHLOSS:  I think that right.  He may very well take some of these recommendations that come from the Iraq study group next week, but I think the one thing we can rule out is that you‘re going to have a president essentially eating humble pie, saying I was wrong.  Here are these advisors who were right.  I‘m going to change my policy. 

If there is a big change, I think what you will see is rhetoric that sort of covers that.

He said, for instance the other day, there‘s not going to be a graceful exit.  That sort of depends on what you call a graceful exit. 

SHUSTER:  You know, some have suggested that the Iraq study group, because it‘s not elected, bipartisan, doesn‘t really have much accountability, I suppose, other than their body of work, that it‘s bad for the president‘s legacy if he‘s seen as reacting to this group.  Do you buy that argument?

BESCHLOSS:  I really don‘t, because I think what really is going to countdown is the result.  Whatever he does in Iraq, if it meakes things better, if somehow we pull out a result that‘s good in history, that‘s only going to help him.  No historian, no American 30 years from now is going to say, gee in the end, he did the right thing in Iraq, but I‘m going to subtract pionts because he did it on the advice of the Iraq study group.

SHUSTER:  For the president, based on everything you‘ve written about President Bush, do you think the situation would be different if we were at the—if we were, say, halfway through a first-term as opposed to a second term.  And I guess the point that I‘m getting at is, he‘s got two more years, he‘s invested so much of his presidency in this policy that why bother essentially listening to the Democrats or listening to the Baker-Hamilton commission now? 

BESCHLOSS:  The answer is because he‘s got Democrats in control of Congress.  He was, as you know, David, in Texas as governor, dealing with Democrats in the state legislature.  He really did that very well.  He had this famous relationship with his lieutenant governor, Bob Bullock, a Democrat who actually wound up supporting George W. Bush for re-election. 

George W. Bush didn‘t do that because he loves Democrats, he did it because he had to, and also because he‘s pretty good at it.

So he knows that if during the next two years, he somehow is able to work with Democrats among other things on a way of winding things up in Iraq in a way that doesn‘t look too terrible, that only helps everyone and he knows that. 

SHUSTER:  While you‘re here, I want to take the opportunity to ask you about something that you‘ve written a lot about—and that is the Kennedys and in relation to Barack Obama.  A lot of people suggested that Barack Obama may be similar in some respect to Robert F. Kennedy, 1964 a lot of people said he didn‘t have enough experience to run, middle of a war, that he should have waited—I‘m sorry, 1968, that he should have waited until 1972.  Is that comparison to Barack Obama fair? 

BESCHLOSS:  I think maybe in one particular respect.  And that is a lot of people who were advising Robert Kennedy in early 1968 were saying, you know, it‘s really not your time, it‘s too early.  You‘ll be criticized for this.  You‘ll have to run against an incumbent, President Johnson.  And Robert Kennedy essentially said this really is my time.  I‘m against the war, if I don‘t run now, that time may never come again. 

And I think probably Barack Obama is taking the same kind of advice, which is, yes it‘s early, he‘s only had two years of experience the senate in a national office, but this is a moment at which he might run and win that nomination, that might not come again in politics. 

SHUSTER:  Well Michael Beschloos, always a pleasure to have you on, thanks very much for being with us. 

BESCHLOSS:  My pleasure.  Thank you, David.

SHUSTER:  Play HARDBALL with us on Monday for the next stop on the HARDBALL College Tour with NBC‘s Tom Brokaw at Fordham University in New York City. 

And of course, coming up, if is Tucker.  And then we will have, of course, HARDBALL once again at 7:00 Eastern time. 

But again, Tucker is just ahead.

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

END   

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