updated 12/7/2006 11:25:13 AM ET 2006-12-07T16:25:13

Guests: Sandra Day O‘Connor, Chuck Robb, Evan Thomas, Chuck Todd, Dan Bartlett

MIKE BARNICLE, MSNBC CONTRIBUTOR:  President Bush‘s policy in Iraq is not working.  The situation is grave and deteriorating and it‘s time for a new approach in Iraq.  So says the Baker/Hamilton Commission report.  Let‘s play HARDBALL.

Good evening, I‘m Mike Barnicle in for Chris Matthews, welcome to HARDBALL.  The bi-partisan panel looking for answers to the escalating civil war in Iraq came out this morning with its recommendations.  President Bush came under harsh criticism as commander in chief and America‘s top diplomat.  But will this president take the Iraq Study Group‘s advice and reach out to our adversaries, like Iran and Syria to search for a diplomatic solution to the war in Iraq?

Plus, President Bush says we‘re not leaving but the commission says we can‘t stay in Iraq.  The situation is deteriorating and getting grimmer by the day.  Today a United States military official tells NBC News that 10 more American service members were killed in two separate, catastrophic attacks in Iraq today.  The panel recommends getting most of our troops out by 2008.  What happens until then?  HARDBALL‘s David Shuster has this report.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DAVID SHUSTER, HARDBALL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  After eight months of work, the Iraq Study Group delivered their report, giving their first copy this morning to President Bush.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  We will take every proposal seriously and we will act in a timely fashion.

SHUSTER:  The report says the president‘s Iraq policy is not working, describes the situation in Iraq as grave and deteriorating and makes 79 policy recommendations agreed upon unanimously by the bipartisan commission.

The top three recommendations are remove U.S. combat troops by early 2008; threaten Iraq with the loss of economic and military aid if benchmarks for reducing violence are not met; and talk directly with key Arab states including Syria and Iran.

JAMES BAKER, IRAQ STUDY GROUP:  We do not recommend a stay-the-course solution.  In our opinion, that approach is no longer viable.

SHUSTER:  The idea of talking with Iran and Syria is something President Bush has long opposed, but the commission said not only should the discussions with U.S. enemies begin immediately, but the talks should be direct.  In other words. government to government.

LEE HAMILTON, IRAQ STUDY GROUP:  You cannot look at this area of the world and pick and choose among the countries that you‘re going to deal with.

BAKER:  You talk to your enemies, not just your friends.

SHUSTER:  In a slap at the Pentagon, the commission said there is quote, “significant underreporting on the actual level of violence in Iraq” and the commission says said U.S. intelligence, quote, “still does not understand very well either the insurgency in Iraq or the role of militias.”

HAMILTON:  We believe that the situation in Iraq today is very, very serious.  We do not know if it can be turned around.

SHUSTER:  But for now on the highly emotional issue of U.S. troop withdrawals, the commission warned against a quick pullback or an open-ended commitment.  Instead the commission encourages a decrease in U.S.  combat troops over the next 16 months, plus an immediate increase in the number of U.S. military trainers embedded with Iraqi units.  Currently there are 3,000 trainers with Iraqi troops.  The commission recommends it should be 20,000.

BAKER:  If you implement the recommendations we make, the chances for success in Iraq will be improved.

SHUSTER:  And Democrats and Republicans alike on the commission say the bipartisan recommendations are proof that on Iraq policy, there can be common ground.

LEON PANETTA, IRAQ STUDY GROUP:  Ultimately, you can find consensus here.  This country cannot be at war and be as divided as we are today.  You‘ve got to unify this country.

ALAN SIMPSON, IRAQ STUDY GROUP:  Maybe it‘s corny, maybe it won‘t work but it sure as hell better than sitting there we are right now. 

SHUSTER:  At the White House today, presidential press secretary Tony Snow suggested the panel‘s characterization of Iraq is not new.

TONY SNOW, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY:  We‘ve acknowledged that you‘ve got a deteriorating situation in Baghdad.  We have talked about the al Qaeda problems in Anbar.  We have discussed the importance of trying to come up with a transition where the Iraqis stand up and take greater responsibility.

SHUSTER:  And while Snow would not rule out any of the panel‘s recommendations, he signaled the proposal to talk directly with Iran is a nonstarter.

SNOW:  There may be a difference with one-on-one talks with Iran, which is something that we have ruled out. 

QUESTION:  And that remains ruled out?

SNOW:  Yes, unless Iran verifiably suspends its enrichment and reprosecuting activities. 

SHUSTER:  On Capitol Hill, Democratic leaders today lined up behind the commission proposals including talks with Iran.  Joe Biden noted that success in Iraq will ultimately depend on warring Iraqi factions reaching political agreements.

SEN. JOE BIDEN (D), DELAWARE:  And if they do not arrive at one, all the king‘s horses, all the king‘s men, all the international conferences in the world will be for naught.

SHUSTER:  Still, incoming Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said as far as overall U.S. policy is concerned...

SEN. HARRY REID (D), NEVADA:  The president has his ball in his court now.  It is up to President Bush to implement the recommendations of this commission.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SHUSTER:  Senate hearings on the recommendations will begin tomorrow, putting even more pressure on the White House.  Meanwhile, the violence in Iraq continues.  According to U.S. military officials, insurgents carried out a string of attacks across Iraq today and 10 American soldiers were killed.  I‘m David Shuster for HARDBALL in Washington.

BARNICLE:  Thank you, David.  With us now, two members of the Iraq Study Group, retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O‘Connor and Chuck Robb, the former governor and senator from Virginia. 

Justice O‘Connor, “Time” magazine in its report this week on the commission indicated that you were thought of as being—asking the best questions on this commission.  That‘s in “Time” magazine, so it must be true.

SANDRA DAY O‘CONNOR, RETIRED SUPREME COURT JUSTICE:  But “Time” magazine wasn‘t there, so I don‘t think so.  But you know, as a Supreme Court justice, I guess, we learned to ask a few questions.  That‘s about the only thing we can do in the courtroom.

BARNICLE:  What kinds of questions did you ask and did you get answers that satisfied you?

O‘CONNOR:  Well, we interviewed 200-some people and there was a lot to learn.  And I hope that the questions that my committee mates and I asked were helpful in eliciting views from our visitors.

BARNICLE:  Senator Robb, reading the report today, it‘s a very bleak assessment of the situation in Iraq.  And you get the sense or at least I as a reader get the sense with each page that the clock was ticking in Iraq. 

And my question to you is at the White House this morning you went down, the commission members met with the president, do you think that they get the sense of urgency that is contained in this report?  Does the president understand the sense of urgency?

CHUCK ROBB, IRAQ STUDY GROUP:  I think the president does, and I think that the reception that we got this morning was very positive.  Obviously, he‘s going to consult with others.  He‘s going to get input from other groups, but I think all of us were pleasantly surprised that he was as supportive of the concept and of the unity of the report.

And each of us had an opportunity to discuss elements of the report with him and he seemed to be fully understand what the gravity of the events and or actions that we were talking about, but only time will tell in terms of what decisions he ultimately makes.

BARNICLE:  Was the vice president there this morning?

ROBB:  He was, and as a matter of fact we actually saw him smile at the end of the—wait a minute.  I want to qualify that.  It was after Alan Simpson had told a story.  And Alan and Dick Cheney go back 45 years, so that should not be viewed as an interpretation on how he received it.

BARNICLE:  Justice O‘Connor, how many drafts did you look at prior to the issuance of this report?

O‘CONNOR:  Oh, I don‘t know.  It was a process, a continuing process.  We‘d go over it, we ended up going over every sentence in the draft and thinking there should be changes here and there.  Some grammatical, some, substantive until we had something we were satisfied with.

BARNICLE:  As you got into the report, as the commission began to look at the problem in-depth each and every day, did the staggering dysfunction that is evident in the report with regard to Iraq, did it surprise you, the level of dysfunction?

O‘CONNOR:  It surprised me as I listened to the statements of our various visitors.  It became clear that the situation was worse than I had envisioned from the outside.  And that‘s sad, I wish the report gave a brighter picture than it does. 

BARNICLE:  Were you surprised, senator?

ROBB:  I‘m not sure that surprise would be the right way to describe my reaction, but very much concerned.  I began that exercise knowing that the situation was serious.  We used word dire in our report, and I think that all of us felt that at the end of all of our hearings and discussions that that was the appropriate term to use in describing the situation.  That‘s not hopeless, but it is dire. 

BARNICLE:  One of the things that surprised me looking at it as a layman was the aspect of the report that dealt with the way the budget process works here in the United States of America, if effect saying at the end of this budget process, paying for Iraq, it‘s hard to get an answer to the simple question of how much does President Bush want to spend on the war in Iraq.

How can that happen with all of these oversight committees in the Senate and the budget process ongoing each and every day.

ROBB:  Well the difficulty is that it‘s not all in a single line item.  As a matter of fact, so much of the war effort is funded in the emergency supplemental.  And I don‘t want to bore your listeners...

BARNICLE:  Yes.

ROBB:  ... or viewers with a detailed description of how that works.  But the various actual costs, some of them embedded in long-term costs for benefits for veterans, for instance, some of them are in costs for resetting the equipment.  We‘ve got a huge number of tanks and other armored vehicles and trucks and other kinds of equipment that have come back in need of significant repair.  All of those kinds of costs are reflected in budgets that aren‘t even in the defense budget, much less— some of them are in the defense budget, but some of the so-called benefits packages for veterans are not necessarily there. 

BARNICLE:  Again, reading the report as a layman, you come to that particular paragraph and you can get the sense easily, for someone as limited as I am, you know, that they were hiding, you know, the money.  They were trying to figure out how to hide what they were paying, no?

O‘CONNOR:  I don‘t think that‘s right. 

ROBB:  But I don‘t think any executive branch wants to necessarily put the worst case forward, in terms of the way it presents its budget.  At least that‘s been my experience over quite a number of years, that the executive branch presents a budget that is salable to the Congress and to the American people.  And some of the items that would be discouraging or might cause indigestion are not always highlighted in the same way.  And so you have to hunt and pick a little bit, and you have to know what you‘re looking for. 

BARNICLE:  Justice O‘Connor, you said prior to Senator Simpson‘s eloquent dissertation on bipartisanship, that it‘s up to us, you know, to pull together as a country.  Who did you mean by us?  Did you mean the people?  Did you mean the media?

O‘CONNOR:  I meant the media. 

BARNICLE:  The media.  And in what sense? 

O‘CONNOR:  Let me explain.  I thought it was impressive that this group of ten people, five Democrats and five Republicans, with that very serious, complicated issue could come up with 79-some unanimous recommendations.  I thought it was a remarkable performance, really. 

And what we need to go forward now in this very tough situation is a broad consensus in our country.  The American people must begin to feel like this is a way we should approach it, and this is something that we should support.  I hope that the Congress will feel the same way, or at least most of them. 

And in that regard, the media plays a key role.  You are the people who bring news and views to the American people.  You can put a spin on it that makes the results largely negative, or do the reverse.  Or you can just give very honest appraisals of what‘s out there.  And I hope that at least it will be the latter because this is something that matters to the American people.  And it‘s very important that they help develop a consensus on what we should do because that will make it happen. 

BARNICLE:  That gets us to Senator Simpson‘s comments at the end of the day this morning about bipartisanship and about being—all ten of you getting along and coming forward with this unanimous report. 

Do you think it‘s possible, Senator Robb, in this extremely polarized city, Washington, D.C., that the bipartisanship that you‘ve been associated with, with regard to this report—can it be infectious? 

ROBB:  We hope so.  We hope that our report and the reaction to it—frankly, many members on Capitol Hill came to the briefings that we gave just before we had the full roll-out today.  I cannot say that some of them didn‘t ask some pretty tough questions.  But the general reaction seemed to be positive, we‘ll take a look at it.  The president had a positive reaction to it. 

If everyone takes a look at the report or what they see—not everyone is going to want to read the full—it turned out to be, I think, 97, 98 pages of text, but are going to read the highlights and get some sense that we‘re speaking essentially with one voice on this important matter. 

We‘re not suggesting that debate should be suppressed, but we are suggesting that we need on this particular matter, given the time that‘s been invested, the treasure that‘s been invested and the inability to convince those who don‘t necessarily have our best interests at heart, that we‘re really speaking for America and not just continuing to squabble amongst ourselves and position for partisan advantage. 

BARNICLE:  Sandra Day O‘Connor and Chuck Robb are staying with us.

We‘ll be right back. 

And you can read the full Iraq Study Group report on our website at msnbc.com. 

You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BARNICLE:  Welcome back to HARDBALL. 

The United States Senate has confirmed Robert Gates as secretary of defense.  This comes on the same day the Iraq Study Group released its report saying President Bush‘s policy in Iraq is not working. 

We‘re back with two members of the Iraq Study Group, retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O‘Connor and former Virginia senator and governor Chuck Robb.

Senator Robb, Robert Gates, I guess a bunkmate of yours over in Iraq on this commission report, confirmed as secretary of defense, succeeding Donald Rumsfeld, who when reading the report—it‘s a fairly harsh indictment of Rumsfeld‘s tenure at the Defense Department. 

ROBB:  Well, the report is not intended to be an indictment of anyone or anything.  We wanted to take the situation as it exists today and say what can we do to help make the situation tomorrow better.  And to the extent that it‘s viewed in whatever terms, we made a conscious decision at the beginning of the inquiry not to be judgmental with respect to what happened and not to try to rush the report so that it was available during the political season. 

We wanted to take the politics out of it, frankly.  You get a whole lot more candor in terms of the response and you get a whole lot more buy-in once you release the report if it‘s reasonable, if people haven‘t already dug their heels in and decided that they need to oppose it for whatever reason. 

BARNICLE:  Do you think it‘s possible, Justice O‘Connor, to take the politics out of Iraq at this stage? 

O‘CONNOR:  I hope so, because, as Senator Robb explained, we made a decision early on not to look back, but to look forward.  What can we do now?  We wanted to describe the situation as we found it and see if recommendations could be made to change it and improve it.  And that‘s what we tried to do.  And it truly was not an indictment of anyone or anything.  It was trying to take a fair look at what‘s going on and see what we can do about it. 

BARNICLE:  Did you look at it at all as you got through the commission each and every day working on this as this is a legal case, this is a legal brief that we‘re doing? 

O‘CONNOR:  No.  No.  A little fact-finding, I‘d say, trying to describe the situation accurately to find out what this situation is, in fact, and then set it out and then recommend solutions. 

BARNICLE:  Senator Robb, earlier today I think you said that one of the solutions might be to take the retrained or continually trained Iraqi army and put an Iraqi face, a robust Iraqi face on the military effort.  And yet reading the report and reading the news every day, this is a fairly dysfunctional unit, the Iraqi army.  Your United States Marine Corps in Vietnam, do you see any similarities between Vietnamization, between advisors on the ground with Vietnamese army units and today? 

ROBB:  There are some similarities, there are some dissimilarities.  I don‘t want to catalogue all of the things that might fall on one side or the other.  But what we‘re talking about in terms of putting an Iraqi face on a functional army is right now the army has potential.

Some of the army units and brigades that have been trained by our military are actually better than they‘re given credit for in many cases, not all of them.  And it‘s clearly in need of some leadership. 

What this embedding process, which has already been started and is supported by the joint chiefs and others will do, is provide additional capability, additional leadership, additional examples for those Iraqi troops.  It will also give us an opportunity to know exactly what is happening so that we cannot only provide the support, but if things start to go south in a hurry and we need to make some adjustments in terms of our policy, or strategy, or tactics on the ground, or send in a search and rescue treatment or whatever the case may be, we‘ll be able to do it. 

BARNICLE:  Justice O‘Connor in the few seconds we have remaining, do you have any sense of percentage or a number of the recommendations made in this report that you‘d like to see accepted by the administration? 

O‘CONNOR:  No.  There are 79 recommendations.  And it isn‘t take it all or leave it all situation.  I‘m sure that the administration could leave out certain recommendations and that‘s fine.

But the overall approach has three main thrusts: one is diplomatic initiatives, one is that gradual troop withdrawal as we are able to train the Iraqi military and get embedded better in their brigades and third is the push to get Iraqis themselves to go forward with some of the essential things that they have agreed need to be done.  For instance, reconciliation.  There is such a divide between the Sunnis and the Shi‘ia and every Iraqi citizen has to have a stake in the country, in the government. 

BARNICLE:  1300 years in between Shi‘ias assuming power...

O‘CONNOR:  I don‘t assume they‘re going to reconcile their views on religion or anything else, but they may be able to reconcile on the basics of citizenship.

BARNICLE:  Justice Sandra Day O‘Connor, Senator Robb, thank you very much. 

Up next, Newsweek‘s Evan Thomas will talk about what could happen with the Iraq study group‘s advice. 

And later Dan Bartlett, counsel to President Bush, will be here. 

You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BARNICLE:  Welcome back to HARDBALL. 

Now that the Iraq study group‘s recommendations are out, the question is what will the president do:  ignore them or implement them? 

Joining us now is Newsweek‘s Evan Thomas who is also the author of “Sea of Thunder,” a terrific book. 

Evan, you‘ve covered this president, this White House for a long period of time.  He took a very defiant tone just a few days ago in Jordan.  Do you think, given his nature of what‘s been written about his stubbornness, his defiant language, do you think he‘ll listen to this report, to the recommendations in this report? 

EVAN THOMAS, NEWSWEEK:  I think he has to listen some.  I mean, he can‘t just—he sounded almost petulant last week, when he said, look, if someone is looking for a graceful exit, that‘s not just done. 

There was a kind of a petulant defiant tone, last week.  But I don‘t think he can sustain that.  I think he has to listen.  I think the game here is to at least to let Baker or the Baker Commission get a foot in the door and talk as it were, talk Bush out of the trees.  I mean, just say you have got no choice. 

And I think the political realities and the geopolitical realities is he has to pay attention.  He‘s got a disaster on his hands. 

BARNICLE:  Well, what about the vice president who always lurks in the background here.  What‘s his role going forward given that this report is on the table? 

THOMAS:  It is amazing how little we know, you know.  In a modern American 21st century state that we could be so clueless about the second most powerful guy, some people think the most powerful guy.  He‘s never out there.  You know, I heard I guess Senator Robb say that he actually smiled.  I mean, stop the presses. 

BARNICLE:  That‘s a new bulletin right there. 

THOMAS:  The vice president smiled.  That shows you what a dark and mysterious he is, if we‘re taking notice about whether he smiles or not.  I‘m assuming, based on behavior, that he‘s going to be a hard liner here.

But we don‘t know. 

BARNICLE:  Well, we‘re going to find out with you too.  Evan Thomas will be back with us a little later on. 

Up next, we‘ll talk about the president‘s reaction to the Iraq study group‘s report with Dan Bartlett, counsel to President Bush.  You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(MARKET REPORT)

BARNICLE:  Welcome back to HARDBALL. 

The Iraq Study Group‘s assessment paints a very bleak picture of where the Bush administration‘s policy has gotten us in Iraq.  And some of their recommendations, such as to talking to Iran and Syria, are at odds with the president‘s position. 

So will President Bush embrace the proposals of the Iraq Study Group, even if means doing a 180 when it comes to diplomacy?

Dan Bartlett is counselor to the president.

Welcome, Mr. Bartlett.  How are you this evening?

DAN BARTLETT, COUNSELOR TO PRESIDENT BUSH:  I‘m well, Mike.  Thanks for having me.

BARNICLE:  A long day for you people at the White House.  It began—it began early this morning with the commission members down there.  It‘s wall-to-wall coverage of the commission. 

Do you think that the media is making to much of this one report issued today? 

BARTLETT:  No, I don‘t think so.  It‘s an important report provided by some very esteemed citizens of our country of both Republican and Democratic stripe.  So it is important. 

And it‘s a very constructive meeting this morning and I—with all due respect to Evan Thomas, the commission didn‘t have to talk the president out of the trees.  This is something—that‘s the type of sound byte journalism, I think, that kind of perpetuates the kind of negative commentary here in Washington. 

And we‘ve seen today, actually, with both the commission as well as with members of Congress, later in the day who the president met with, is there is a genuine interest to try to find common ground between Democrats and Republicans to see the way forward. 

No question it was a bleak assessment provided by the ISG.  It‘s a tough situation right now in Iraq.  They also understood some core principals, that the goal in Iraq is a good goal, that is, an Iraq that can sustain itself, defend itself, and not be a sanctuary for terrorism, that we need to train the Iraqi security forces in a better way.  We need to make this Maliki government more capable and hold them to account.  Those are some important principles. 

And as you pointed out on the diplomacy, President Bush recognizes a sense of urgency when it comes to helping not only Iraq get on a better path and what role the neighborhood can play in that, also how important the Middle East peace process can be.  He‘s going to talk to Prime Minister Blair about that tomorrow.  But he arrives tonight.

So these are all very important matters that—we‘re going to take the report, as the president said, very seriously.  There are a lot of recommendations.  And he is listening. 

BARNICLE:  All right.  Dan, you know, with all due respect to Evan, you know, we‘ll take care of him when he comes back on the program.

BARTLETT:  Good.

BARNICLE:  But your indication that was, you know, some glee not glee, wrong word—in the White House about the sense of bipartisanship surrounding this report that you saw evidence this morning when the commission members were at the White House. 

Does this mean that the White House is going to be more open to people like Joe Biden and John McCain, people who have disagreed with your administration?  Are you going to start singing “Kum-Bay-Ya” down there and having everyone in to talk about Iraq? 

BARTLETT:  Well, Joe Biden, John McCain, Carl Levin, all of them were at the White House later today in a bipartisan meeting, where the president listened very intently to their views and their ideas, as he has all along.  And they recognize, as we do, the national security interests that we have in Iraq. 

And the president made very clear in his meeting with them that he understands there is difficulties for people who very strongly believed what he was doing was the wrong thing for our country now to try to find common ground and a common way forward.  It‘s going to require everybody, both Republicans and Democrats and the president, to come together. 

And that means compromise.  That means to listen.  That means to continue to meet.  And he‘s committed himself and our country to doing that because he does believe it‘s in the interest of our country to find that common ground because the stakes in Iraq are too high. 

BARNICLE:  It was another sad day for the country.  As you probably know—I‘m sure you‘re aware ten more Americans died in Iraq today. 

And in the commission study report, this to the country, people in the country, perhaps not knowing this—I‘d like to quote to you, “Congress has appropriated almost $2 billion this year for countermeasures to protect our troops in Iraq against improved explosive devices...”—this is in the commission report—“... but the administration has not put forward a request to invest comparable resources in trying to understand the people who fabricate, plant, and explode those devices.” 

So what does the White House tell the people of this country with regard to the lack of investment in things that could better protect our troops on the ground? 

BARTLETT:  Well, I think it‘s a bit of an overstatement.  This administration and this president and the military leadership has poured billions of dollars and as much know-how and scientific study as you could possibly imagine into the issue of the IED‘s, the mechanics of them, the technology, what we can do for better force protection when it comes to combating IEDs.  And we have gotten a lot better at it. 

The fact of the matter is this is a very complex enemy we‘re facing.  And the fundamental truth of this and the most difficult aspect of this is if somebody‘s willing to take their own life, a suicide bomber take innocent lives or try to take the lives of our troops, makes this one of the most vexing and difficult missions we have faced in a long time. 

But we are working around the clock, military leadership, others in the scientific community, as well as in the intelligence community are working around the clock to try to do everything we can to protect our forces. 

BARNICLE:  Dan Bartlett, thanks very much for your time. 

Up next, we‘ll talk about what Congress and the Bush administration will go with the Iraq Study Group‘s advice with NBC‘s David Gregory, the “Hotline‘s” Chuck Todd and “Newsweek‘s” Evan Thomas. 

This is HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BARNICLE:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  Now that the Baker-Hamilton commission has come out with its recommendations, what is the president going to do about it? 

We go now to NBC‘s chief White House correspondent David Gregory.  David, what has been the mood down they White House with this wall to wall indictment, really, of the administration‘s policy in Iraq?  What‘s the mood today?

DAVID GREGORY, NBC CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT:  Mike, I don‘t think it‘s a great mood.  I think they expected to be hit pretty hard by the report and they were. 

Look, you cannot read this report and hear the comments from the chairman without concluding that this is a rejection of the way the president has been handling the war.  And with that as a starting point, White House officials and you heard Dan Bartlett just a minute ago say, look, they want to try to take this seriously, there is a mood in the country that may accompany this report, where there will be more willingness to come to some kind of solution. 

Leon Panetta, former Clinton administration chief of staff said we owe one last go at this for the American people and for the sake of salvaging Iraq. 

And so, they hope, and the White House shares this hope, that there can be some coming together around some solutions and a little bit of a dialing back of the rhetoric. 

But let‘s been clear here, the administration bears its responsibility for that, the president indeed as well.  Some of these recommendations in the report, indeed some of the ideas that were floated by former Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, were the kinds of ideas that this White House said was cutting and running on the part of the Democrats when they were suggested a while ago. 

So if the temperature is going to be brought down a little bit, it‘s going to be a marked change from where the debate has been over the last many months. 

BARNICLE:  Well David, in addition to that, in addition in there is going to be bipartisanship going forward, that will be an interesting story to watch.  But the commission report has a sense of urgency to it that is almost compelling.  You can hear the clock ticking on Iraq on every page of the report. 

And my question to you in the sense of defining the timing of the administration‘s reaction to this, what is their timing?  Is it going to be weeks that they‘ll look at it, months, or do you have any sense? 

GREGORY:  I think that by Christmas, the president will announce new policy toward Iraq.  There are two other surveys that are going on.  The White House is doing an internal review by the NSE, and the joint chiefs of staff are doing their own review within the Pentagon.  And so the White House says they‘ll take all of that into account and make their recommendations. 

White House officials aren‘t exactly sure how the public will regard this Baker-Hamilton commission.  There has obviously been so much anticipation of the report.  I don‘t know if you‘ve had a chance to go through it, I‘ve started to go through it in a more detailed fashion.  It‘s written in a straightforward, very accessibly way.  It‘s kind of a primer on the difficult circumstances in Iraq.  So I have a feeling that it‘s going to a pretty wide audience and get people thinking about both the problems and the solution in Iraq in a way that maybe they haven‘t thought about it before. 

So—but to answer your question directly, I think we‘ll see in a matter of weeks a new direction.  The report says time is running out.  And I think this administration, this White House wants to get about the business of making some changes.

BARNICLE:  OK.  David, if you can hang in there with us and stay cold out doors, we‘d appreciate that.  I like seeing you get cold.

Let‘s bring in the HARDBALLers now—Chuck Todd, editor-in-chief of the Hotline and Evan Thomas, assisting managing editor of Newsweek.  Welcome back, Evan.  Chuck, always good to see you. 

First, Evan, do you have any response to Dan Bartlett just dropping the hammer on you? 

THOMAS:  He‘s doing his job. 

Look, Bush obviously was in a pretty sour mood last week, and he‘s going to have to change.  I think the gain here—the real gain, is whether Baker and the commission can bring the president around on diplomacy. 

I‘m sure that Baker wants a big diplomatic initiative, I mean, high level.  The president of the United States, the secretary of State, big regional conference.  You know I‘m not sure Bush is going to go for that but that‘s the ball to keep your eye on.  Is there going to be a big diplomatic push to try to bring stability to the region.

GREGORY:  And Mike, can I just add to that, because I think that‘s so important.  And I think what this commission is really saying is you have got to have a holistic approach to the Middle East diplomatically.  And you have to get engaged in the kind of Arab politics and regional diplomacy that is messy and may not produce success, but you have to be seen trying. 

And I think it‘s an objective view of the history of this administration that it has not been inclined to do that.  They got involved in trying to get a Palestinian state off the ground.  And that was not met with success, and they‘ve started to pull back. 

And so that‘s the real issue, whether they‘re going to have a big philosophical and ideological shift about how to engage the interconnectedness of the Middle East and that would be a big undertaking. 

BARNICLE:  Chuck Todd, you look at the report and off of what David and Evan have just said, can see anything in that report where the administration would say, oh, this is crazy, these 13 points, never happen, off the table? 

CHUCK TODD, HOTLINE:  Well, I think because there are 79 of them

right, and I think because there are so many of them that they will sit

there and sort of line item veto some of them just because that‘s the White

this is this White House‘s way, they‘re not going to be told by another group exactly how they‘re to go about it.  And that‘s why they‘re doing this internal review, because they want to come up with their own.  And they will adopt the ones they like.

I think that‘s the only danger of this report is that there are so many recommendations.  And then you also have 535 members of Congress who are going so yes, OK, I endorse the whole thing.  And how are they going to deal with it?  Are they going to introduce resolutions that just support the thing as a whole and adopting it, or are they going to try to go point by point?  That was the only thing I thought that was sort of flawed in this, there‘s is almost too many things to do, that it was the laundry list is to long to digest. 

BARNICLE:  Given our country‘s attention span, it should have been like three. 

Evan, let me ask you the spin in this White House has been just about the best in my political memory.  So how do they put a spin on the fact that the secretary of Defense now, Robert Gates, has said we cannot—we‘re not winning the war in Iraq.  He is replacing Don Rumsfeld who you would listen to every day when he was giving his press conferences, things are going swell.  How do they spin the dysfunction, the corruption, the lack of stability in Iraq? 

THOMAS:  Well the buzz words are the way forward.  But the big problem here is the Iraqi government is a disaster area.  It‘s not a government that doesn‘t control anything. 

Maliki is weak.  He‘s—as the national security adviser himself pointed out in a memo that leaked, Maliki is a pretty slender reed to hang your hat on.  He‘s a pretty slow horse.  And that‘s the real—I mean, the undertone of the commission report is if the Iraqi government doesn‘t get its act together, we‘re out of here. 

Well, I don‘t think the Iraqi government is going to get its act together, which could mean that we‘re out of here.  That‘s the logical conclusion.

But again, the ball to keep your eye on is diplomacy.  And this has to happen fast.  The report calls for a diplomatic initiative I think by December 31.  That‘s the thing to watch for.  Are we going to do something big, some giant peace conference in the region? 

GREGORY:  And Mike, it‘s not just diplomacy regionally but it‘s within Iraq.  And we saw some of that with the president meeting with Abdul Aziz al-Hakim who is—as the commission report points out, the most powerful figures in Iraq are not elected officials, they are al-Sistani and al-Hakim and Muqtada al-Sadr.  And the president started meeting this week with al-Hakim trying to shore up the Maliki government. 

The commission is taking the unusual step of saying, we ought to be as the United States ought to be engaging Muqtada al-Sadr who is arguably in control of 60,000 troops in a militia that is severely undermining the Maliki government and couldn‘t be any more opposed to the United States presence there. 

So this is why the diplomacy matters, it‘s really digging in and doing some things this administration has indicated it does not want to do and deal with elements that it does not want to deal with to help the Iraqi government stand on its two feet.

BARNICLE:  Speaking of not wanting to do it, Chuck Todd, what is the vice president‘s role in this?

TODD:  Well I have a feeling that he‘s going to end up taking a little bit of a step back because this is a repudiation potentially of just his way of thinking when it comes to the Middle East. 

Going back to what the White House is going to do on what Evan was bringing up on the diplomacy front, doesn‘t this smell of the likelihood that they‘re to go and just go reach for a big name, maybe it‘s Baker, maybe it‘s Colin Powell, maybe it‘s the ex-presidents.

You know, anytime this administration is backed against the wall when it comes to some sort of diplomatic effort, they usually do try to go for some name or some sort of—it‘s been the ex-presidents before, but can a President Bush or a Condi Rice do this, or are they going to have to reach to the outside?

BARNICLE:  Bill Clinton?

TODD:  Or bring in Bill Clinton as some sort of almost Middle East tsar?

BARNICLE:  Chuck Todd, David Gregory, Evan Thomas, they‘re all staying with us.  You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BARNICLE:  Welcome back to HARDBALL and we‘re back with NBC‘s David Gregory, the “Hotline‘s” Chuck Todd and “Newsweek‘s” Evan Thomas.  NBC‘s Brian Williams asked James Baker how some of the recommendations conflict with President Bush‘s positions on certain issues.  Let‘s take a look.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BRIAN WILLIAMS, NBC NEWS ANCHOR:  Doesn‘t a lot of this require the president to do a 180 on more than one issue, some of his basic tenets?

JAMES BAKER, IRAQ STUDY GROUP:  We‘ll have to see.  Some of it would, yes.  Some of it would require that.  But presidents have done 180‘s in the past.  I‘m not predicting one way or the other.  I don‘t know what the president will do, but I do know this.

I know the president is conflicted by the situation there.  I know the president would like to approach to this in a bipartisan way and in a matter that would have the support of the American people.  Here‘s a vehicle to do that.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

WILLIAMS:  You can watch more of Brian‘s interview with James Baker and Lee Hamilton tonight on “NIGHTLY NEWS.”

David Gregory, James Baker talking about this particular president.  You know this particular president, you‘ve covered him.  Can they, will they do a 180 on this?

GREGORY:  Well, they‘re certainly capable of doing it if they feel like these are the right solutions.  I think it‘s important what James Baker said that this report is a vehicle for this administration to do some of these 180‘s, to course correct in this way. 

I mean after all, there‘s the president, there‘s his staff, his national security team, the commanders on the ground, who have been formulating and implementing, executing policy.  It‘s not working.  Here‘s an outside group with some ideas that I‘m sure they‘ve thought of, a different formulation, and perhaps some political momentum behind it. 

That may be what creates this as a vehicle.  Look, I think it‘s going to be very challenging in terms of—let me say it this way.  I‘m not certain that the president is going to look at some of these areas that he‘s opposed to and make a big 180 on some of these things, because the history tells of this administration tells us that he‘s been dug in on some of these policy positions, not dealing with Iran unless it suspends its nuclear weapons program, even if Iran could do a lot to stabilize the country.

BARNICLE:  Evan Thomas, staying on the road with the vehicle metaphor that David raised and what Chuck Todd indicated prior to the break, is there anyone in the jump seat of this car with the president?  Is it a Bill Clinton?  Is it a James Baker to help him with this diplomatic initiative? 

THOMAS:  Well, Baker would like to be.  I mean, I think Baker would like to get in there and try to help the president find a way out of this mess.  The president has got himself in a box, and there is sort of no way out except for this way. 

One of the problems here is that Bush doesn‘t want to make it look like he was dictated to, like he was screwing up and as presidents, his father‘s friends came in to save them and they saved the day.  I mean, you can understand in just the most human terms why President Bush wouldn‘t want to make it look like he was being rescued by daddy‘s old buddies.

On the other hand, Baker is about the best negotiator there is.  He has pulled together this bipartisan group.  There is going to be some momentum.  I think it‘s going to get good headlines and I bet you the polls show a lot of popular approval for this.

So Baker used the word conflicted.  I‘m sure the president is conflicted on a lot of things and one of the things is how much to be seen to be embracing the report of this commission.  The game here is Bush has to be slowly, carefully, patiently brought around and there isn‘t much time.  They got to do this fast.

MATTHEWS:  Chuck Todd, at the end of the day when the commission report is issued, do the Democrats have a unified position on Iraq yet?

TODD:  No, they don‘t.  I think it‘s interesting, the incoming House intelligence chair when “Newsweek” came out and had an interview with him yesterday where he said he was potentially in favor of sending more troops to Iraq short term, not less, which was I think a little startling to some liberal Democrats.

So no, but I think what this does provide is cover.  I imagine you will have unity on standing behind these recommendations.  The only thing that does complicate this a little bit are the presidential candidates. 

I saw some interviews with Governor Vilsack and some of these other guys who are trying to differentiate themselves from the Iraq Study Group a little bit because they want to look presidential.  So that can complicate things a little bit, but I think the Democrats are going to largely get behind this.

BARNICLE:  Hey David, the atmosphere in this city with regard to politics has been so poisonous and so polarized.  Evan was talking about you know, James Baker wanting to provide a diplomatic initiative here.  But with regard to James Baker and Democrats and anyone outside the sphere of this White House, is it possible going forward to have a bipartisan effort here?

GREGORY:  I think it‘s possible.  It‘s been very difficult in this climate.  I thought Alan Simpson was quite eloquent today talking about the 100 percenters that are dominating this town, people who have kind of an absolute sense of the truth and an ideological viewpoint on how to achieve all these goals.

That is going to have to go by the wayside if there is going to be some real progress here and I think that was the primary message of this commission.  I think the president has taken one important step forward nominating Robert Gates.  I mean you haven‘t had a defense chief throughout this administration that would admit that they were losing the war the way Gates did.  It‘s a change in tone.

BARNICLE:  OK David Gregory, Evan Thomas, Chuck Todd, thanks very much.  Play HARDBALL with us tomorrow when our guests will include 2008 hopeful Sam Brownbeck of Kansas.  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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