updated 12/14/2006 10:56:01 AM ET 2006-12-14T15:56:01

Guests: Dennis Kucinich, Gordon Smith, Jenny Backus, Ed Rogers, Chris Cillizza, Roger Simon

CHRIS MATTHEWS, MSNBC HOST:  Tonight, the president fiddles while Iraq burns.  He said he will not be rushed into changing policy.  Meanwhile, a new poll shows most Americans now think we‘re actually losing in Iraq.  And we can‘t do more to stop the civil war.  Let‘s talk a Republican senator who says its criminal to keep on this way.  Let‘s play HARDBALL.

Good evening, I‘m Chris Matthews and welcome to HARDBALL.  Tonight, bad news from Iraq and no news from the president.  The U.N. says sectarian violence is killing more than 120 people a day over in that country.  At least two dozen were killed today in Iraq.  The violence is out of control.  The killing indiscriminate, suicide bombers are targeting soldiers and civilians alike.  Roadside bombs, car bombs are blowing up people, even in residential neighborhoods.

The sectarian violence includes the murder of an entire family of nine today when gunmen stormed their home.  But even with the spike in violence, President Bush said again today after meeting with top Pentagon officials, he will not be rushed—that was the word he used—rushed into a decision on his strategy for Iraq. 

But Republican unity is breaking, with one U.S. senator calling the war, criminal.  That senator joins us tonight. 

Meanwhile a new poll shows the majority of Americans now say we‘re losing in Iraq.  A new NBC/”Wall Street Journal” poll says we Americans can‘t do anything more to end that civil war as long as we stay there.  HARDBALL‘s David Shuster has tonight‘s report.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DAVID SHUSTER, HARDBALL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  Three and a half years into a quagmire that is getting worse, a month after it cost Republicans control of Congress, and a week since the bipartisan Iraq Study Group urged immediate changes, President Bush said today at the Pentagon he needs at least another month.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  I will be delivering my plans after a long deliberation, after steady deliberation.  I‘m not going to be rushed into making a difficult decision.

SHUSTER:  Some critics think putting off any changes is absurd, because the killing in Iraq is getting worse by the day.

SEN. GORDON SMITH ®, OREGON:  And I for one am at the end of my rope.

SHUSTER:  Since the Baker/Hamilton Commission issued its bipartisan recommendations, including some that could have been implemented already, the Pentagon has announced the deaths of 35 more U.S. soldiers.  Nebraska Republican Senator Chuck Hagel is calling the president‘s delay, quote, “unpardonable.  Every day that goes by, we are losing ground.” 

Democratic Senate Leader Harry Reid said, quote, “waiting and delaying in Iraq serves no one‘s interests.  Last week, when the Iraq Study group issued its report saying the president‘s policies had failed and time was running out, the president held the report in his hand and suggested that action would be taken quickly.

BUSH:  We will take every proposal seriously and we will act in a timely fashion.

SHUSTER:  Press Secretary Tony Snow added:

TONY SNOW, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY:  I think it offers a very promising way maybe for everybody to be able to say, OK, campaign‘s over, the business of governing has begun.

SHUSTER:  This week, however, after White House officials suggested President Bush would address the nation before Christmas, the president did a u-turn.

QUESTION:  It had been the president‘s own desire to do the speech prior to Christmas, right?

SNOW:  Right.

QUESTION:  So this wasn‘t a staff decision? 

SNOW:  Right.

QUESTION:  So some might infer that the delay means he doesn‘t know what to do.

SNOW:  Well that would be the wrong interference to make.  You probably—as we‘ve said all along, it‘s a complex business and there are a lot of things to take into account.  This is not not knowing what he wants to do.  This is out of an absolute determination to do this right.

SHUSTER:  The irony of course is that in the build-up to this war, thinking hard about consequences was not an administration priority.  Condoleezza Rice, for example, helped sell the rush by arguing we cannot wait for the smoking gun about Iraq to be a nuclear mushroom cloud.  Now despite U.S. troops getting killed in Iraq nearly every day at an average of 120 Iraqis getting killed daily in sectarian violence.

CONDOLEEZZA RICE, SECRETARY OF STATE:  It only makes sense for the president to take whatever time he needs to have confidence in the course that he will put forward for the American people.

SHUSTER:  Whether it makes sense or not, administration officials say the president is focused on two major issues.  First, should more U.S.  troops be sent to Baghdad to try and secure the city?  Second, should the administration pressure the Iraqi government with deadlines for confronting the militias and reducing the violence?

DAVID GERGEN, FORMER PRESIDENTIAL ADVISER:  The big dilemma he faces is about whether to wind this war down or whether to go to victory.  It increasingly looks like he‘s resolved that and he‘s going to go for victory come hell or high water.

SHUSTER:  And today, President Bush seemed to rule out any proposal that sets a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops.

BUSH:  I‘ve heard some ideas that would lead to defeat and I reject those ideas—ideas such as leaving before the job is done.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SHUSTER:  But most Americans are now unsure what the job really is. 

And with each passing day, the president‘s standing continues to erode.  According to the latest “Washington Post” poll, approval for the president‘s handling of the Iraq war is now down to just 28 percent.  That‘s lower than the worst approval rating registered during the war in Vietnam.  I‘m David Shuster for HARDBALL in Washington.

MATTHEWS:  Thank you, David Shuster.  Republican Senator Gordon Smith of Oregon had long been a supporter of the Iraq war until last week when he did an about face on the Senate floor.  Let‘s listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SMITH:  I for one am at the end of my rope when it comes to supporting a policy that has our soldiers patrolling the same streets in the same way, being blown up by the same bombs day after day.  That is absurd.  It may even be criminal.  I cannot support that anymore.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Senator Smith, welcome to HARDBALL.  Thank you for joining us.  Are you dismayed by the president‘s fiddling around, his refusal to come out with any adjustment in his war policy until sometime early next year?

SMITH:  Well the sooner he does, the better, Chris.  But I want him to come up with a policy that works.  What I was speaking about was no person in particular and certainly not our troops.  I was referring to a policy that does not have a strategy that leads to victory as we‘ve defined it and to tactics that are needlessly costing us the lives of our soldiers.

MATTHEWS:  Well, the latest poll, you must have seen on the front page of the “Washington Post” today.  The “Washington Post” poll said that most Americans now believe we‘re losing the war in Iraq and a new NBC poll out tonight also reports that the American people believe that our role in trying to deal with this civil war over there is never going to get any better.  We‘re just going as much as we can, and it isn‘t much.  What‘s your reaction?

SMITH:  Well you know, I think it has to be said about our troops that the conquests of the tyrannies in Afghanistan and Iraq, these were textbook operations.  They did a remarkable job. 

I‘m just not sure we had a chapter two to win as is the American tradition, to leave it better.  We have unleashed, opened a Pandora‘s box of ancient hatreds which has devolved or mutated into a civil war. 

If you conclude that we have as our business to fight an insurgency where we are essentially the traffic cop and everybody is shooting at us while they shoot at one another, I have to tell you that civil wars are ugly affairs and they ultimately are about answering political questions, and we cannot answer these questions for the Sunnis.  And I don‘t want to be the shield that gives them more time to answer those questions.

MATTHEWS:  In other words, you‘re saying that the longer we stay in  there, the longer we create an artificial situation, it simply slows down the political process?

SMITH:  Exactly.  This is about political decisions.  They have had three inspiring elections.  They‘ve elected people to make decisions.  They are not making decisions relative to the rights of minorities, to the distribution of oil and whatever system of federalism they have, they must make these decisions sooner than later.  I will support that.

But that is not what‘s happenings.  The people in charge now are the militias with the guns.  And then when we go to actually trying to make a difference, well what happens?  They make us release the leaders of these militias or to take down our checkpoints.  In the meantime, another Oregonian, many other Americans are being killed and that is what I think we must stop doing.

MATTHEWS:  Could it even be worse than you describe?  Could it be President Talabani, a Kurd said earlier this week that it‘s not—that we have actually allowed because of the recruitment policies of the Iraqi government that we‘ve stood up over there, have infiltrated our ranks of the Iraqi government army which we have supported with Shia militia people whose loyalties are primarily sectarian and therefore, even if we put American sergeants and junior officers on top of these people, we‘ll be in effect supporting the militia efforts in terms of ethnic cleansing.  We‘ll be part of the bad, really bad stuff going over there.

SMITH:  We can‘t be a part—that is not the American fight.  We can‘t fix it.  And that part is not our fault.  But at the end of the day, the brutal truth, Chris, is that they have to fight it out so we know who‘s in charge.  And in the meantime, I don‘t want our soldiers being caught in the crossfire. 

Now, I am very much committed to the war on terror for the safety of the American people.  But I think we manage that in a much different way than we are currently. 

And I hope whatever time the president takes, I hope ultimately he is forthcoming with a policy that can—around which Americans, Republicans and Democrats, can get around and support.  But clearly, they do not support this now and I don‘t either, this current strategy. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, reading, Senator, your speech on the floor of the Senate the other day, it seems that you believe that the only residual role remaining for us in Iraq is to fight al Qaeda and the international terrorists who come in there and to stay out of the way of the civil war. 

SMITH:  These are the people that would come to us and would kill us.  Ultimately, the jihadists that come out of Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iran, these are the guys we want to take on and these are the guys that will ultimately destabilize the Middle East. 

What we can‘t solve is Iraq‘s government.  They have to make those decisions and I don‘t want to spend another American life giving them cover to delay those decisions. 

MATTHEWS:  Is the president or any of his people like Steve Hadley, the national security advisor, are they listening to you?  Have you got any sense of response from them to what you said and what you‘re saying now? 

SMITH:  They‘ve reached out to me and, you know, those are—I need to keep those confidential.  I know they‘ve heard me.  And I—believe me, Chris, I take no pleasure in what I‘m saying.  What I say is in sorrow, not in anger.  But I believed the time was now to stand up and say what‘s been simmering in my soul for a long, long time. 

MATTHEWS:  Thank you very much, Senator Gordon Smith, Republican of Oregon. 

Coming up, how long can President Bush wait to decide?  Will the Democratic Congress agree with the military‘s call that just came out today to send more troops into Iraq?  We‘ll dig into that with former Bush 41 aid Ed Rogers.  Remember him?  He‘s the one who just loves Barack Obama‘s middle name Hussein—and Democratic strategist Jenny Backus. 

And later, anti-war Congressman Dennis Kucinich is coming here to talk about the fact that he‘s running for president this time again. 

You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.

Well, when will President Bush tell the American people his plans for Iraq?  Will he use any of the advice he‘s been gathering all this week?  When will U.S. troops leave Iraq‘s civil war?  Ed Rogers is a Republican strategist and former advisor to the first President Bush, and Jenny Backus is his counterpart, a Democratic strategist.

Ed, you made some news here the other night.  Let‘s take a look at a tape of what you said.

ED ROGERS, FMR. BUSH 41 AIDE:  Oh, come on. 

MATTHEWS:  No, no—of what you said in my absence.  When the cat‘s away, the mouse will play. 

ROGERS:  Where were you?  Where were you?

MATTHEWS:  Let‘s take a look at what you said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ROGERS:  Held me down as somebody that underestimates Barack Hussein Obama, please. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Well, you know, in an American life, the only time we start using three names for a person is when they‘re an assassin, you know, John Henry...

(CROSSTALK)

ROGERS:  There‘s some truth to that.

MATTHEWS:  ... Lee Harvey Oswald.  Why did you invoke the middle name of Barack Obama out of nowhere? 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  What are you up to, sir? 

ROGERS:  Mostly teasing him as a lightweight and somebody that‘s just not ready. 

JENNY BACKUS, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST:  No, no, no. 

ROGERS:  But I hope he runs .  I want him to run.  There‘s more...

MATTHEWS:  Well, Hussein is his middle name.  Do you believe that invoking that name, that it will hurt him? 

ROGERS:  OK, I‘m not going to tease him again about his middle name, at least not tonight. 

BACKUS:  Look it‘s—you can tell that you‘re really scared of him. I mean, you‘re bringing out all the same old cards that you do, the politics of fear which didn‘t work in ‘06. 

ROGERS:  We know...

BACKUS:  I mean, when are we going to start talking about John Sidney McCain?

ROGERS:  Sidney‘s kind of a...

(CROSSTALK)

BACKUS:  Or Willard Mitt Romney? 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  I remember all those years kept saying to J. Danforth Quayle to stick it to him, but let‘s get serious. 

ROGERS:  Or George Herbert Walker Bush.

MATTHEWS:  Obviously the use of the word Hussein by you is smarter than that.  You think it brings up the idea of terrorism, or Mideast dangerous people, Saddam being Saddam Hussein.  You think it‘s a menacing name that‘s going to hurt him, don‘t you? 

ROGERS:  Well, I certainly...

MATTHEWS:  You‘re a smart guy.

ROGERS:  ... don‘t think he is Hussein-like, and I‘m not going to go where you want me to go. 

MATTHEWS:  To the truth?

ROGERS:  Look, if the guy is thin-skinned it proves my point.  But come on.  I want him to run.

BACKUS:  But it‘s not being thin-skinned.

ROGERS:  I want more confusion on their side.  Bring him in. 

BACKUS:  But you‘re not...

(CROSSTALK)

ROGERS:  He‘s a Cinderella candidate where everybody projects their views of what they want. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Let‘s go back to the serious business, but your grin gives your away.  You are delighted.  You dropped that...

ROGERS:  My what?

MATTHEWS:  Your grin gives you away.  Let‘s talk about what‘s happening today.  We had Gordon Smith on just now, and Gordon Smith was a very quite kind of guy and he says he feels that when he watches American servicemen and women over there basically playing Officer Krupke just getting shot at in the crossfire.  And he believes that‘s not the proper role.  He said the only reason to keep troops in Iraq is to fight al Qaeda, the outside elements.  What‘s your view? 

ROGERS:  My view is a little off message with the administration, I‘ll admit it.  I‘m for what I call a modified Holbrooke.  Richard Holbrooke wants to pull troops out and have a loosely federalized Iraq.  I want to put troops in and have a loosely federalized Iraq. 

MATTHEWS:  More American troops? 

ROGERS:  But Bush gets banged on for not listening, for being impulsive, for being impetuous.  Now, we all wish he listen and hurry and do something.  So it‘s an anguishing time.  It‘s unflattering for the president to be on this course. 

BACKUS:  But what has he been doing for the past year?  I mean, this is stagecraft.  This is all of a setup.

(CROSSTALK)

ROGERS:  Hey, we had an election, you guys won. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Move off the election point.  Everybody knows the elections helped.

ROGERS:  OK. 

MATTHEWS:  It‘s Republicans we‘re talking about today.  The most impressive voices today in the news—you know, the news works.  The man bites dog, when Republicans talk they‘re hurt.  The fact that Gordon Smith of Oregon, a Republican, a loyalist to the president, generally, and Hagel, who is a maverick, is out there calling this presidential delay in making a decision “unpardonable.”  These are significant people with the press. 

ROGERS:  Yes, and it‘s unflattering, it‘s not good but it is what it is and this president has got to have a plan.  The Democrat leadership of Congress has got to buy in.  There‘s no more faking it now.  They have a real responsibility. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  ... that when the president does come out with a plan, an adjustment in January, he says, will the Democratic leadership have to buy into that, reject it or offer their own alternative?  What are their options they have to do.

(CROSSTALK)

BACKUS:  Well, I think their options are the following.  First of all, the question is will the president really offer a plan or is it just going to be another slogan?  I mean, he‘s changed.  He‘s got different rhetoric every time.  He says it‘s not going to...

MATTHEWS:  What is the Democrats‘ position on the war in Iraq?  Is it the Kucinich position? 

BACKUS:  No, it‘s closer. 

MATTHEWS:  Is it the Edwards position? 

BACKUS:  No, it‘s Baker-Hamilton-Edwards, somewhere in there.  I think that...

MATTHEWS:  You mean stick around for awhile and see what happens?

BACKUS:  No, the withdrawals.  Start to put down some hard lines that we‘re going to get close to the withdrawal.

MATTHEWS:  Why do the Democrats support fighting this war for another 13 seconds without a reason to be there?  What reason do we have—for the Democratic Party, tell me why the Democrats believe we should stay in Iraq at all, ever?  Why shouldn‘t we just leave?

BACKUS:  Well, I think that most Democrats are probably close to where Murtha is, which is like... 

MATTHEWS:  But you‘re saying the Democrats are for this blah, blah, blah.  What is the position? 

BACKUS:  It‘s not blah, blah, blah.  It‘s calling for...

(CROSSTALK)

BACKUS:  ... no they do have—they said they wanted change and they want...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  .. bringing the soldiers home.

BACKUS:  Bringing the soldiers home and doing what you just described earlier with...

ROGERS:  That‘s a talking point, Jenny.  Come on.

BACKUS:  It‘s a talking point, bringing home soldiers so you don‘t.... 

ROGERS:  When?  Under what conditions? 

BACKUS:  Under the conditions of now, start bringing them home. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: .. Kennedy‘s at a disadvantage because you don‘t have a leader of the Democratic Party to say what the party position is.  You would have to take that position here. 

BACKUS:  Right. 

MATTHEWS:  You would have to be the leader. 

BACKUS:  I‘m happy to be the leader. 

MATTHEWS:  We‘ll be right back with Ed Rogers and Jenny Backus and where we‘re headed over there.

And later, Dennis Kucinich.  Say what you will about Dennis Kucinich, he was against this war from the beginning.  He‘s had a clear position.  He‘s the opposite of President Bush.  They both know where they stand.  One says stay the course.  One says get out, I believe.  We‘ll hear him say it himself. 

You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL. 

We‘re back with Bush 41 expert Ed Rogers and Democratic strategist Jenny Backus. 

I wish we could—let‘s take a look, if we can, at what John—at what Gordon Smith said on the show earlier because I think this puts us in the situation of understanding.  At least from moderate, where you don‘t have it.  But basically what he said was, I, for one, am at the end of my rope when it comes to supporting a policy that has our soldiers patrolling the same streets in the same way, being blown up by the same bombs day after day.  This is absurd.  It may even be criminal. 

In other words, he says we‘re in the role, as I kidded about it, as Officer Krumpky (ph) between the Sharks and the Jets.  We‘re walking the streets of Iraq, our guys and women, with guts, walking around with rifles and helmets on and some kind of protection and they‘re basically looking for Sunnis who are out to kill Shiia and Shiia out to kill Sunni. 

ROGERS:  Yes.  

MATTHEWS:  And we haven‘t really taken sides.  And he says, let‘s get out of—and that reminds me of the job we gave our troops back in Lebanon back in 1983, which was to go guard the airport against Hezbollah. 

Should American soldiers who swear to defend this country be deployed to referee a civil war?  Is that part of their oath of office, even as soldiers to do that? 

ROGERS:  The short answer is simple.  The short answer is no.  The short answer is no.  The longer answer is what are the consequences of us not being there? 

MATTHEWS:  Somebody wins the civil war. 

ROGERS:  And the Democrats have got to...

MATTHEWS:  Somebody wins.

ROGERS:  You‘re right.  You‘re right. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  ... get out of the way and let somebody win that war. 

BACKUS:  And then we deal with that, in terms of... 

ROGERS:  The Democrats have to think about that.  Bush is going to have a plan sometime in January.  He‘s going to call the Democratic leadership to the house.  He‘s going to lay it out.  And he‘s going to say, please vote on this.  And then what are they going to do?  What are they going to do?

MATTHEWS:  But if the plan includes more troops, that makes it very difficult for someone to support. 

BACKUS:  And they‘re going to lose Republicans like Gordon Smith and Hagel.  It‘s not just Democrats.  This is like—the problem with what the Bush administration is doing on the war, they look at it as that one party versus the other... 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  But let me ask you this.  The president of the United States now enjoys the support of one-fifth of the American people, in terms of believing—this is an amazing statement.  Only one-fifth of the American people now, according to the poll that came out yesterday, believe he‘ll do the right thing in Iraq. 

How does he use that kind of weakness to leverage what you say is going to be a showdown?  You‘re saying hold this showdown on floor of the Congress. 

ROGERS:  He has no choice, given those poll numbers, to post a remotely correct, I‘ll concede the point.  He has no choice of trying to build some modicum of consensus here in Washington with the new Democratic leaders. 

BACKUS:  Can I ask a question then?

ROGERS:  Please.

BACKUS:  If you want a modicum of bipartisan consensus, why did the White House lackies spend all last week trashing Baker-Hamilton, which was a place to start? 

ROGERS:  A mistake.  I think it was a mistake to trash Baker-Hamilton. 

BACKUS:  Well, that was a place...

ROGERS:  It was a mistake.  We ought not to have done that.

BACKUS:  Well, he‘s sending a signal that he doesn‘t want real dialogue...

BACKUS:  OK.  Well, that was last week.  That was bad.  It‘s going to come.  The president‘s going to have a plan.  He‘s going to solicit Democratic input.  It‘s going to be public, everybody‘s going to...

MATTHEWS:  Let me about your part again, and you jump in after he‘s finished.

It seems to me if this war is still hot six months from now...

ROGERS:  It will be.

MATTHEWS:  ... and if the president has his way, we‘re still going to be fighting it.

That it‘s going to put a lot of pressure on John McCain, who looks like the Republican front runner—along with Rudi Giuliani, they‘re front runners—to either break with his strategy of being for a stronger force over there or stick with it and accept the heat he‘s going to get from people in your party, who say, wait a minute, we need a change. 

BACKUS:  Yes.  McCain at least has an intellectually honest position.  We have purged ourself of stay the course rhetoric, but not stay the course policy.  He at least that‘s not  stay the course.  But there may come a time when...

(CROSSTALK)

ROGERS:  Sure.  If he stays with it, there may come a time, where for political reasons other reasons—wait a minute, wait a minute --  he may say, well, that was then.  Now, we just are...

BACKUS:  No.

MATTHEWS:  Jenny, what do you say?

ROGERS:  ... we‘ve got to do something else. 

BACKUS:  John McCain was Mr. Maverick, Mr. Revolutionary.  Everyone wanted to look at him.  He made a political...

ROGERS:  You‘re a (INAUDIBLE) John McCain.

BACKUS:  I am not.  He made...

(CROSSTALK)

BACKUS:  I am not.  I have left now.  He made a political calculation to hold Bush‘s hand with the war.  It was a bad miscalculation. 

MATTHEWS:  OK.  By the way, you were suggesting that he did it to look like a Bushy? 

BACKUS:  Yes. 

MATTHEWS:  I don‘t think that‘s clear.  I think he may do it—in fact, I‘d like to believe to believe he did it because he believes in this war like he believed in the Vietnam War.  And he may well be wrong politically, but I wouldn‘t assume he‘s a complete...

BACKUS:  Go back to the tape. 

MATTHEWS:  You‘re saying he‘s a charlatan. 

BACKUS:  No, look at the tape.  He was going against the war.  And he was Bob Graham in the beginning and right before he made the decision, when he was flirting with John Kerry about whether he wanted to be vice president, he had Bob Graham‘s position that we didn‘t fight the war the right way.  He was very critical of the war, and then all of sudden he got on the train.

(CROSSTALK)

ROGERS:  Your talking points are in order on McCain.

MATTHEWS:  Mr.—what‘s your middle name? 

ROGERS:  I don‘t want to tell you. 

BACKUS:  It‘s an M.  It starts with an M.  I looked it up online.  

Matthews:  What is your middle name?

ROGERS:  My middle name is French, Maurice. 

BACKUS:  There you go.

MATTHEWS:  Maury? 

ROGERS:  Better than Maurice, sure.  I‘ll take that.

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Ed Maurice Rogers, which we will now refer to—like all assassins, will be called by the same name.

Thank you, Jenny.

Up next, more on the president‘s plans for Iraq and what Congress can do with “WashingtonPost.com‘s” Chris Cillizza.  I haven‘t seen him in  while.

And the great Roger Simon of the “Politico”. 

You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(MARKET REPORT)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.

The president‘s continuing to solicit advice on Iraq but where is it getting us and why is the president waiting until the new year to announce his plans for Iraq?  Here to talk about Iraq and about presidential politics are the HARDBALLers tonight, WashingtonPost.com‘s Chris Cillizza and Roger Simon, now a columnist with the new venture, “Politico.” 

You know, I was just kidding but we were just talking about the fact that I gave a little pop quiz to these guys.  You know, I would think—somebody would think that would be Mickey Mouse and I‘ll take that criticism.  But, you know, last time around we picked President Bush.  The American people did or the Supreme Court did. 

You know, he didn‘t know anything about the world, it seemed.  And that one reporter up in Boston put some questions to him and he didn‘t know the answers.  And maybe we should have paid more attention to that. 

ROGER SIMON, THE “POLITICO”:  Well, I think voters might pay attention more this time to whether the candidates really have a grasp or the big issues, that they can argue knowing who the prime minister of this country or that country is maybe isn‘t a big issue.   

MATTHEWS:  We can find other ways to probe. 

SIMON:  That‘s right.  Well, I was going to say, they have advisors who can tell them, but how much a president grasps what‘s going on seems to be important to me. 

MATTHEWS:  What do you think, Chris? 

CHRIS CILLIZZA, WASHINGTONPOST.COM:  I was going to say if you look at

it‘s actually interesting.  If you look at two out of the top three contenders in ‘08, you‘ve got Hillary Clinton, you‘ve John Edwards, former North Carolina senator, and you‘ve got Barack Obama at the moment, two of those three have served a total of eight years in the Senate, six years for John Edwards and two years for Barack Obama.  I mean, it‘s going to be hard for them, I think, for making a case. 

As Roger pointed out, we do live in a world where foreign policy is extremely important in a way that it wasn‘t before September 11.  It might be hard for them to make the case.  I know Democrats privately fret about what would an Obama-McCain match up look like? 

On the one hand you have got McCain with this depth of experience and personal experience as well as political experience, versus a guy who‘s been in the Senate for two years and before was a state senator in Chicago. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, let me your balloon.  Let me pop that analytical balloon you‘ve just constructed.  Let me just say this.  Instinct may be as important as history and Obama grew up in a third world country, Indonesia, where his stepfather is Indonesian.  His African father had split long ago and he was taking care of by this guy.

He sees America, having grown up that way, the way the world sees us.  That‘s a perspective and an instinct I think would be helpful, don‘t you think? 

CILLIZZA:  Well, I think that...

MATTHEWS:  It‘s not like he was just hiding out over there.  He was growing up in the world and seeing us.

CILLIZZA:  No, I don‘t disagree with you, Chris, but I do think that there‘s something to be said—and I think his opponents will say it if he decides to run that, you know, four years ago this guy was in the state Senate debating potholes and now we want to put him in charge of the free world.  I mean, I understand your point but I still think that‘s going to come up. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes, well, isn‘t it funny, Roger—and I love the way you cover politics.  You get the richness of it.  You have fish fry dinners with Jesse Jackson in the middle of the night and write about it.  Here we are with a president—who most people who are honest about it would say came to the office pretty much unprepared to deal with the third world. 

He listened to a bunch of jughead neoconservatives who talked him into a war that doesn‘t quite make sense now, and most people say he‘s not a bad guy.  He just was totally naive and unprepared for the ideologically and tribal mess we‘re in over there now right now. 

So now we go looking for the freshest faces we can find to replace him.  Are we crazy?  Why don‘t we look for the long-headed guys, the Jim Bakers and the Hamiltons to do it?

SIMON:  Well, for one reason, Americans distrust people who are too smart.  Remember, Adlai Stephenson ran into this problem.  If you seem too intelligent—Dukakis had this problem.

MATTHEWS:  Are you serious? 

SIMON:  Some people thought Kerry was too ethereal.

MATTHEWS:  Bill Clinton has an I.Q. of 170 or something.  What are you talking about? 

SIMON:  We want it both ways.  Clinton was smart enough to hide his intelligence.  He ran as a good old boy, the boy from Hope.  He ran as a nice guy that you want to live next to. 

MATTHEWS:  So we don‘t want the guy like Al Gore who looks like he actually reads “Foreign Policy” magazine? 

SIMON:  Well, that was a problem, remember, when Bush went head-to-head with Gore.

MATTHEWS:  Yes.

SIMON:  Yes, I mean, the American people did, in fact, choose Gore by the popular vote.  We learned how important that was.

MATTHEWS:  Are we going to keep, Chris, looking for the most popular kid in class or the smartest kid in class? 

CILLIZZA:  Well, I think it‘s a stylistic thing more than it is sort of what your I.Q. is.  I mean, I think the reality was that Al Gore was perceived by many people as pedantic, that he was telling you why you should vote for him, and the main reason was he knew more than you.  You know, I think people—it‘s not so much you don‘t want...

MATTHEWS:  That wasn‘t Bush‘s strategy. 

CILLIZZA:  I don‘t think people don‘t want to elect smart people.  I think they don‘t want is to have someone else‘s intelligence thrust into their face and said you should vote for me because of that. 

MATTHEWS:  But in a world that we—OK, guys, let‘s turn the page. 

We now live in a world that we know is more complicated than the Cold War.  We now live a world where we have something called al Qaeda out there.  We don‘t know whether there‘s 10,000 members or 10 million members.  We don‘t know anything about it.  It‘s like that elephant you can‘t find. 

We also know that we‘ve got a civil war going on in Iraq and the American army is stuck in Iraq, in Mesopotamia, on the other side of the world.  Our army is there and we need somebody pretty smart to get us out of there.  Isn‘t it time to stop looking for the coolest kid in class and maybe going for the one with the most moxie? 

SIMON:  Right, and the decider is not deciding.  I mean, if the decider does not decide, he‘s dithering and you can call him a ditherer.  I think there are two things slowing down President Bush‘s decision. 

The main one is that he can‘t get his head around the fact that in order to change policy, he has to admit explicitly or implicitly that he made a tragic mistake starting this war.   He doesn‘t like to admit any mistakes.  I don‘t think he‘s about to admit this one. 

And the second one is more minor, but it has to do with stagecraft.  They don‘t want to do a major speech at Christmastime.  You know, they want the perfect speech in the perfect setting.  They want people thinking about the holidays and football and spending time with their families.  The trouble is, people are dying and maybe that would be a reason to speed things up a little bit. 

CILLIZZA:  And remember, Chris, and we talked about this before the 2006 election—the president is about preserving his legacy.  He understands his legacy is about Iraq.

MATTHEWS:  His what?  His what? 

CILLIZZA:  Is about preserving his legacy.

MATTHEWS:  What did you say he‘s trying to preserve? 

CILLIZZA:  I think he clearly understands that the war in Iraq will define him going forward in the future. 

MATTHEWS:  Oh, that‘s true.  That‘s true.

CILLIZZA:  Now, the question is, how does he do that?  I don‘t think he‘s on the timeline, the political timeline, that we think he‘s on.  He‘s wants to do it in a way that if he‘s going to make a change of course, he‘s going to do it one time and that‘s going to be it. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, let me ask you the question that came up during Lebanon back in ‘80‘s.  How many—what justifies continuing to have Americans killed?  What justifies another day in Iraq, another month in Iraq, another year in Iraq? 

Chris, you have—the Democrats—this is a political question.  The Democratic leadership believes they can sit and not answer that question.  They‘d rather wait for the president to offer some sort of deal and they‘ll go along with it vaguely, meanwhile criticizing him, which is a very safe position. 

Who is out there willing to say I think from this day forward—forget all the mistakes of the past.  From this day forward, it‘s worth 2,000 more Americans to be killed in Iraq to justify what we‘re going to get done in there from this day forward.  Who‘s going to make that kind of hard calculation?

CILLIZZA:  The only person who‘s said anything like that, and I‘m not putting words in his mouth, but it‘s Arizona Senator John McCain.  He‘s said I think we need more troops.  That‘s the only way that we can win there.

MATTHEWS:  Does he mean more KIAs, more people without families?

CILLIZZA:  Does he say that outright?  No.  But I think that‘s implicit in it.

MATTHEWS:  Is it?  You think that‘s fair?  If McCain agrees that we‘re going to take a lot more casualties in the next year or two if we stay there, but it‘s worth it?

SIMON:  Yes.  He‘s a soldier.  But he doesn‘t see that as a terrible choice.  He sees death of anyone as a terrible thing.  And he doesn‘t want U.S. soldiers to die, but as a soldier, he knows when you go into a war, soldiers die.

MATTHEWS:  But this day forward, knowing the situation over there, knowing it‘s a civil war, knowing we may not be able to end that civil war for a thousand years because those people have been fighting for a thousand years, you still say it‘s justified to see Americans killed?

SIMON:  He does.  He says it is worth it to win this war, it is critical to the stability of the Mideast and to the protection of the United States.

MATTHEWS:  He is a firm man.  Thank you.  You‘re staying with us.  Roger Simon, Chris Cillizza, stay with us and later Democratic presidential candidate again Dennis Kucinich of Ohio.  He‘s the former mayor of Cleveland.  He‘s running for president again.  Let‘s talk to him about it.  He‘s the man who opposed the war in Iraq from day one.  In fact, before day one.  This is HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JOHN EDWARDS, FORMER PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  I think the war is a mess.  The Iraq Study Group report makes that very clear.  It‘s a very sobering indictment of what‘s happening in Iraq right now, and a desperate need to change policy.  It‘s amazing to me and completely unacceptable that the president of the United States, after having led us there, helped create this mess along with the help of others, is not taking responsibility in changing course.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  We‘re back with the HARDBALLers.  “TheWashingtonPost.com‘s” Chris Cillizza and the “Politico‘s” Roger Simon.

Roger, you know, that man we just saw there, that young guy, looks great.  He‘s No. 2 right now in the polls, in all the polls I‘m looking at.  He‘s right behind Hillary.  He‘s ahead of Obama, despite all the hoopla about Obama, he‘s No. 2 in these races.

SIMON:  He‘s a good candidate.  He‘s attractive, he‘s good on the stump.  On those last days of the Iowa caucus, he was the best stump speaker there was.  If it had gone on another five days, maybe he would have won Iowa.  Maybe he would have changed things. 

He‘s got some negatives, though.  I mean, there are two things.  One, his promise in 2004 was that he was going to to take southern states.  He was the Democrat who could win in the south.  He‘s a southerner.  It didn‘t happen.  Now he can always say he wasn‘t at the top of the ticket, but that‘s about all he can say.

And the second thing is that he‘s picked an issue of poverty as his main issue.  All the other candidates are going to say we want to help the middle class.  There are a lot more middle class people than poor people.

MATTHEWS:  Yes, than the working people.  The jobs—but he‘s also for people that aren‘t unionized.

Chris, the question is can this guy beat the two big ones, that‘s Obama and that‘s Hillary?  The quote out there that I heard is “Don‘t tell mama, I‘m for Obama.”  Are those two crowding out everybody else?

CILLIZZA:  Well look, I mean, I rarely disagree with Roger, that‘s bad business for me.  But I do actually think that—I think Edwards‘ message, the message of poverty, I think if you think of it more broadly, it‘s really a message of economic populism, which I think is actually a pretty resonant message.

If you look at the 2006 election, Sherrod Brown, the congressman who beat Mike DeWine in Ohio, he ran almost entirely on sort of an economic populist, Democrats are for the middle class message.  There was a lot of that similar message in Missouri, where Democrats want a Senate seat.  I actually think that that message could resonate.  I think that two America speech which we heard him give, any reporter heard him give a whole bunch of times in 2004, I think he‘s refined that a little bit.

And I think the poverty issue sort of him fills him out.  I still think his biggest problem is that he is a single-term United States senator.  He didn‘t really do anything of real note while he served in the Senate.  I think he‘s going to be hard-pressed to prove to voters that he can be trusted on foreign policy issues.  That‘s a big lift for him.

MATTHEWS:  OK, let‘s turn the next page.  Next year the economy goes down, perhaps, halfway through next year.  We‘re headed towards a recession.  All of the sudden people who have jobs and are happy are not.  All of the sudden the idea is somebody is getting all this money, who‘s getting it? 

Is it the hedge fund guys?  Is it the equity people?  Is it the mergers and acquisitions?  There‘s a lot of billionaires in this country, but there‘s a lot of people working hard who aren‘t living as well as they used to.  Are they going to say, wait a minute, somebody‘s getting the gravy, it ain‘t me, and then that populist message will then sell?

SIMON:  It hasn‘t worked yet. 

MATTHEWS:  But the times are not as terrible as they could be.

SIMON:  I mean, economic populism has been a popular Democratic issue for a long time and candidate after candidate after candidate loses with it.  The party hates that message.

MATTHEWS:  Why?  Because—you know why?  The contributors hate it. 

The people with the money say that‘s what we‘re talking about.

CILLIZZA:  And Chris, one note, the people with the money includes John Edwards.  I mean, this is a multi-millionaire trial lawyer making up an argument that you know, I understand your concerns.  He did come up from very little in terms of family wealth.

MATTHEWS:  That‘s true.

CILLIZZA:  But he is not exactly someone who at this point in his life shares the concern about single moms on minimum wage.

MATTHEWS:  You‘re getting to analytical for me.  Cillizza, you‘re getting very analytical.  You‘re going through each of these resumes like you‘re taking applications to Harvard here.

CILLIZZA:  Hey, that‘s what they pay me for.

SIMON:  There is one thing that‘s going to be a challenge which can go either way on.  He has the advantage of being able to attack Hillary Clinton unlike a lot of the Democratic pack who wants to be her vice president, they‘d be very happy to settle for that.  So they‘re not going to attack her much.  But the trouble for Edwards is, remember, last time, he was the guy who didn‘t attack.  He was the nice guy candidate.

MATTHEWS:  But how do you attack a woman? 

SIMON:  Well, you attack her for something other than being a woman, Chris. 

(CROSSTALK)

CILLIZZA:  You don‘t do what Rick Lazio did and confront her at a debate.  We know that doesn‘t work.

MATTHEWS:  But you don‘t serve her with divorce papers, whatever the hell he was trying to hand her there.  Remember that paper he was trying to give her?  You also don‘t wear khakis, Chris.  That‘s why Lazio lost to her last time.

CILLIZZA:  I never do.

MATTHEWS:  Don‘t wear khakis to work.  Let me ask you about—let me look at the Republican side for Senate.  Is Rudy Giuliani playing a game here, guys?  Is she just trying to get more speaking fees, more business, or is actually going to make the leap here?

SIMON:  It‘s hard for me to believe he‘s going to run, although all signs point to yes.  I went up to New Hampshire several weeks ago and caught his act, and it‘s not a bad act.  His position is basically this to Republicans, speaking to Republican audiences.  He says, look, on smaller government, I‘m with you.  On strong defense, I‘m with you.  On lower taxes, I‘m with you.  And all those other little things, he doesn‘t name them.

MATTHEWS:  Like abortion, gay marriage.

SIMON:  Gay marriage, gun control.  So we can still disagree on that and still be friends.  The trouble is the social conservatives of the Republican Party.

MATTHEWS:  Is he running or just trying to raise his value on the market, Chris? 

CILLIZZA:  I would have said up until a few days ago probably just trying to raise his value on the market.  I actually—he made an interesting hire today.  He hired a guy named Mike DuHaime, he‘s the political director at the Republican National Committee, to run his exploratory committee.  DuHaime is a really well thought of guy and I don‘t think he would have committed to Giuliani if he didn‘t have some sense that Giuliani was going to do something beyond just think about it. 

MATTHEWS:  OK.  I believe he‘s running for one reason: his wife is

dressing more and more like Nancy Reagan.  OK.  She wants to be first lady,

her name is now Giuliani, it‘s Judy Giuliani.  I think she was to be vice -

I‘m sorry, first lady.  I think he‘s running. 

Anyway, thank you, Chris Cillizza.

Thank you, Roger Simon.

Pros, one analyst and one old pro. 

Anyway, up next, Dennis Kucinich running for president in ‘04 because of Iraq.  Now he‘s running again because of Iraq. 

You‘re watching HARDBALL only on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL. 

With just about a year till the Iowa caucuses, the presidential field is shaping up quickly.  The latest candidate to throw his name into the game is Democratic Congressman Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, former mayor of Cleveland, longtime congressman.  He ran in 2004 with an anti-war platform.  He‘s doing it again.

Congressman, why are you trying again for president, sir? 

REP. DENNIS KUCINICH, (D) OHIO:  I‘m on a quest for integrity, Chris. 

I think the American people need to know the money is there to bring the troops home right now.  Democratic leaders have said that they‘re going—they‘re ready and prepared to approve of $160 billion supplemental in the spring that would enable the president to keep the troops in Iraq through the end of his term.

We won the Senate and the House with a promise to the American people to take a new direction in Iraq.  The American people want that direction to be out.  And so I‘m running to give the American people a voice in this process, to let them know someone has been consistent, has stood with integrity on this issue of Iraq, and that you cannot simultaneously say that you oppose the war and vote to fund it. 

MATTHEWS:  Do you think everyone else in the Democratic Party is being too political on this?  That they‘re afraid to say what they believe because they want to keep their contributors happy, their more conservative voters happy?  And they‘re afraid the media will jump on them if they say, let‘s get out of that country now?

KUCINICH:  I...

MATTHEWS:  Is it fear or is it thinking that keeps them from joining you? 

KUCINICH:  Well, you know, my candidacy is a call to courage.  And I think Democrats were encouraged by the voters in November.  We should...

MATTHEWS:  How come you‘re the only one saying get out of there? 

KUCINICH:  Well, I think there will be more.  And I think that as the American people—we have to look at what the American people told us in November.  That election was about Iraq.  And if we look at the encouragement the American people gave us, then we should be ready to tell the president the money‘s in the pipeline right now, Mr. President, to bring those troops home.  Let‘s bring the troops home and we don‘t have to appropriate another $160 billion in the spring. 

MATTHEWS:  But you know that Pelosi and Harry Reid in the Senate are going to buckle, you know that.  They‘re all going to end up buckling and trying to finesse this thing, like they‘ve been doing for four or five years now, finessing it.  The Democrats voted for the war, to finesse it.  They backed the president out of fear they might be called traitorous.  They‘re so afraid, the Democratic Party to take on this president who‘s not exactly Ronald Reagan. 

Why are they so afraid of a president who‘s so diminished that only one in five Americans now believes he will do the right thing in Iraq? 

KUCINICH:  Chris, my candidacy is about the end of fear and the beginning of hope.  We have to challenge our fellow Democrats—or my fellow Democrats to understand what the people said in November.  If the Democrats had, going into the November election, had told people, look, we‘re going to vote to continue to fund the war, I doubt very seriously we would have gained control of the House and the Senate. 

So we‘re at an important moment here and a turning point in the war.  We need to call the troops home.  And we also need to say, no more money for the war, Mr. President.  The money‘s there to bring the troops home right now.  And also, we can simultaneously provide for a plan for the security of the Iraqi people.  But we cannot do it as occupiers. 

MATTHEWS:  What do you think we can do about the al Qaeda crowd that‘s been going in there since we‘ve been in there? 

KUCINICH:  Well, our presence there as occupiers has helped to fuel al Qaeda, it‘s helped to fuel the insurgence.  The truth of the matter is that neither the Sunnis nor the Shiites want al Qaeda in there.  Al Qaeda is a disruptive force to people who are basic—who are native Iraqis, so I think that the al Qaeda situation will dissipate once the United States occupation ends. 

MATTHEWS:  What do you make of this proposal to deal with this through a regional approach, to have a slow withdrawal?  What do you make of all those proposals? 

KUCINICH:  Slow withdrawal leaves our troops even more vulnerable.  We need to get out and get out fast. 

And my candidacy is to let the American people know, first of all, that the money‘s there to bring the troops home.  And we need to bring them home as quickly as possible.  We need to simultaneously have a plan that enables and provides for the security of the Iraqi people by reaching out to, yes, Syria, yes, Iran, and others and try to ameliorate the conflicts that keep building and look at a broader scale of peace proposal.  We need to stand for peace, not just be against war.  And we need to look at the capacity of the Democrats to be a co-equal—to establish Congress as a co-equal branch of government. 

MATTHEWS:  I keep going back to 1972.  And you remember that, too, Congressman.  In 1972 the Democratic Party was split between George McGovern, who with all his weaknesses, he came—he wasn‘t a big name or anything.  He went into the race against Ed Muskie, one of the most respected people in the country, but Muskie wasn‘t clearly against the war.  And he was somewhere in the middle, lost in the middle, you could argue. 

And along came McGovern and said, well, at least I have a clear position. 

I may be perceived as being on the left, but I have a clear position.

Do you believe that the Democratic Party may split in your direction because of that? 

KUCINICH:  I think people want clarity.  They want integrity.  They want leadership.  I had the foresight years ago to say, it‘s wrong to go in, it‘s wrong to stay in.  So, yes, I think that it‘s quite possible that Democrats are going to move towards supporting my candidacy precisely for the same reasons that you identified, the rise of George McGovern in 1972. 

MATTHEWS:  Can you pull an upset in the Iowa caucuses? 

KUCINICH:  Let‘s say I‘m going to be working in Iowa.  I‘m going to be working everywhere.  My intention here is to call the Democrats to a higher condition.  We as Democrats can finally give the American people the alternative government they‘ve been looking for by showing the strength of Congress.  People voted for Democrats, for us to take us out of Iraq.  And I‘m...

MATTHEWS:  I‘m sorry.  I‘m sorry, Congressman. 

Is Hillary a hawk or a dove on the war in Iraq?

KUCINICH:  You know, I‘m not going to criticize any other Democrats. 

MATTHEWS:  I‘m just asking you to describe your opposition.  Hillary Clinton‘s the front runner.  Is she a supporter of the war? 

KUCINICH:  I think that‘s been established. 

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Thank you very much.  U.S. congressman Dennis Kucinich, running for president of the United States. 

Play HARDBALL with us again Thursday.  We‘ll have the latest on the fight over in Iraq. 

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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