updated 12/15/2006 11:04:39 AM ET 2006-12-15T16:04:39

Guests: David Gergen, Mark Green, Pat Buchanan, Tony Blankley, Rick Francona, Jim Warren

MIKE BARNICLE, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT:  Tonight, a Democratic senator remains hospitalized after undergoing brain surgery.  Could it change the whole balance of power in Washington? 

Let‘s play HARDBALL. 

Good evening.  I‘m Mike Barnicle in tonight for Chris Matthews. 

Democratic Senator Tim Johnson of South Dakota is in intensive care today after undergoing surgery for potentially life-threatening bleeding in his brain. 

Late today Johnson‘s office released this statement from his doctor. 

“Senator Tim Johnson has continued to have an uncomplicated post-operative course.  specifically, he has been appropriately responsive to both word and touch.  No further surgical intervention has been required.” 

Earlier in the day, the senator‘s doctor said that it‘s too early to determine his long-term prognosis. 

The political ramifications couldn‘t be more serious.  If Senator Johnson has to leave the Senate, South Dakota‘s Republican governor could appoint a Republican senator to fill the vacancy.  That would tip the balance of power in the Senate from the Democrats to the Republicans. 

Tonight, we‘ll get the latest from Capitol Hill.

Plus, the new NBC-“Wall Street Journal” poll shows 71 percent of Americans disprove of the president‘s handling of Iraq and a firm majority want Congress, not the president, to take the lead on setting policy for the country.

We begin tonight with the unfolding story of Senator Tim Johnson and control of the Senate. 

HARDBALL‘s David Shuster has this report. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DAVID SHUSTER, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  At George Washington University Hospital, doctors say Democratic Senator Tim Johnson remains in critical condition following emergency brain surgery early this morning.  The surgery on the 59 year-old targeted blood vessels that had become blocked or ruptured. 

Several hours after the operation, Johnson‘s physician said, quote, “The Senator is recovering without complication... (though) it is premature to determine whether further surgery would be required or to assess any long term prognosis.”

Johnson‘s family issued a statement saying they were encouraged and optimistic, so is Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid. 

SEN. HARRY REID, (D-NV) INCOMING MAJORITY LEADER:  I was in his room with him.  He really looks good.  We‘re all praying for a full recovery.  We‘re confident that will be the case.

SHUSTER:  It was just before noon on Wednesday when Johnson began to show signs of trouble.  In the midst of a conference call with reporters, the Senator stuttered and seemed disoriented. 

SEN. TIM JOHNSON, (D) SOUTH DAKOTA:  The money was supposed to be provided a year ago—second—you know—it just is frustrating—and, and...

JOHNSON:  Johnson ended the call and walked back to his office.  He said he wasn‘t feeling well and staff quickly summoned the Capitol Hill physician.  When the doctor arrived, the Senator was having more trouble speaking and couldn‘t move.  An ambulance then took Johnson to the hospital. 

Johnson is a centrist Democrat.  He avoids national publicity and is four years into his second term.  And while there is great compassion for Johnson on both sides of the aisle, Senate Democrats, thanks to their victories last month, are clinging to a 51/49 majority. 

MORRIS REID, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST:  No one wants to say it, but it‘s because it‘s impolite.  But they are very concerned.  This really speaks to the fact the that they‘re one vote away of losing a majority. 

SHUSTER:  If Johnson were to resign, his replacement would be chosen by South Dakota‘s Republican Governor Mike Rounds.  State law gives him the authority to choose whoever he wants and if he picked a Republican, the Senate would become 50/50.  The tie would be broken by Vice President Cheney, and Republicans would take control.

However, as long as Johnson does not die, state and federal law allows him to stay in office until the end of his term, even if he remains incapacitated. 

In 1969, for example, Republican Karl Mundt, a South Dakota Republican suffered a stroke.  He was unable to attend Senate sessions and was unable pressure to resign.  But when the governor refused to promise the seat to Mundt‘s wife, Mundt stayed in office for four more years. 

Recent history provides other examples of senators who were incapacitated for months at time.  Joe Biden was once sidelined for brain surgery, Arlen Specter for lymphoma.  Old age, poor mobility and difficulty hearing did not prompt the resignation by the late Strom Thurmond.

And today, despite some uncertainty about the prognosis for Johnson, the Senate power shift is moving forward as scheduled. 

REID:  There isn‘t a thing that‘s changed.  The Republicans selected their committees yesterday.  We‘ve completed ours.  The—I‘m—a very busy schedule today going ahead and are getting ready for the next year. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SHUSTER (on camera):  Johnson‘s condition, shared by tens of thousands of Americans, is something he was born with and didn‘t know about until symptoms developed Wednesday.  The key issue now, according to doctors, is whether the bleeding the bleeding in Johnson‘s brain caused significant damage, something neither his doctors nor his family nor his political family will know for several days.

I‘m David Shuster for HARDBALL in Washington. 

BARNICLE:  Thanks, David.

Now, for the latest of Senator Tim Johnson, we go to Chip Reid, who joins us from Capitol Hill. 

Well, Chip, I guess we have the latest from Senator Johnson‘s office in that statement just released from his office.

Let me ask you this: what happens, Chip, if in the first week of January, when the Senate convenes for the new Congress, Senator Johnson is unable to be there, unable to cast his vote?  Do we know what happens then in terms of the mechanics of the Senate? 

CHIP REID, NBC NEWS:  Well, if he‘s simply incapacitated, the Senate remains in Democratic control because he keeps his seat.  Basically, for him to have to give up that seat, he would either have to resign, it would have to be vacant, be thrown out of the Senate by his colleagues, which I can‘t imagine happening, or he would have to, heaven forbid, pass away. 

But at this point, people are hopeful that he will recover, if not fully, at least very well.  This latest statement certainly is a bright spot, saying that Senator continued to have a uncomplicated post-operative course, specifically, he‘s—has been appropriately responsive to both word and touch. 

So, I mean—I hope that—I think everybody hopes that we‘re talking about theoretical possibilities here.  But having said that, Democrats, of course, have made a lot of noise about all the things that they hope to do when they come in here and hit the ground running in January. 

Joe Biden, if he chairs Foreign Relations, is going to weeks and weeks of hearings on Iraq.  Carl Levin wants use his position on Armed Services to push for getting the troops out of Iraq starting in four to six months.  Barbara Boxer wants to really hammer away on the issue of global warming on the Environment Committee. 

Pat Leahy wants to use his position as chairman, if he is chairman of the Judiciary Committee, to block any extreme conservatives, as he see them, coming from President Bush. 

And finally, Jay Rockefeller wants to use the Intelligence Committee to continue that investigation that the Republicans, they think, dropped the ball on looking into whether intelligence was cherry picked for political purposes in going into the Iraq War. 

So, an incredibly aggressive agenda here in the Senate by Democrats hoping to chair committees.  And all that, or at least a large part of it, would go away if they lose control. 

BARNICLE:  Chip Reid, thanks very much. 

REID:  You bet. 

BARNICLE:  How could Senator Johnson‘s health affect the political dynamic in Washington? 

And President Bush continues to get advice in Iraq.  When will he make a course correction?

We‘re joined now by David Gergen of “U.S. News and World Report”, who‘s been an advisor to four presidents.  David, I‘m sure you‘ve given each of those presidents tremendous advise. 

DAVID GERGEN, FORMER PRESIDENTIAL ADVISER:  Never seen one like this, Mike.

It‘s god to see you.

BARNICLE:  What do you mean by that?

GERGEN:  Well, like the Tim Johnson, you know, I think everybody in Washington, their first priority really is Tim Johnson‘s health.  He‘s very popular, as you know.  He‘s well liked.  He‘s been a low-key member Senate.  He was in the House before that.  But everyone sees him as one of the people you really can trust and work with easily.  He‘s a workhorse, not a show horse.  So, I think a lot of the emphasis tonight is not on power, but upon the man himself. 

BARNICLE:  Yes, there is that ghoulish aspect, though, to the coverage of this.

GERGEN:  There is.  There sure is. 

BARNICLE:  David, let me ask you.  You‘ve served in four White Houses under four different presidents.  What would you assume to be the atmosphere in this White House right now, given the context and the way the war in Iraq is going?

What is happening in that White House right now? 

GERGEN:  Well, I think that they are going through a lot of consternation and soul searching because they don‘t—there‘s no easy way out of this.  There‘s no good exit door out of this, the mess that they‘re in in Iraq. 

Obviously, they‘re going to keep one eye on the Senate because that might change the dynamics of what they actually get done in this next year. 

But I have to tell you, Mike, the fact that they—this White House clearly was not ready to make this decision.  The fact that they said the president was going to make a speech before Christmas and then had to switch signals the way they did, you never want to do that at the White House because it gives out such a signal that you don‘t have a firm grip on the wheel and it undermines confidence in what you‘re doing.  People have a sense you don‘t know what you‘re doing when you start switching signals like that. 

So this must have been a very hard move for them to decide to delay until early January.  It really does suggest that they‘re scratching their heads.  And it also sounds like they‘ve got a lot of conflicting advice coming in now from Iraq, from the ground commanders. 

You know, I—this is very strange.  And I think that the degree to which they look like—they are receiving advice from all over the place and don‘t know quite what to do with it.  I really don‘t think it helps them in terms of whenever he comes out, are we going to have full confidence they know where the heck—where they‘re going? 

BARNICLE:  Well I mean, his numbers are plummeting as we speak. 

GERGEN:  Sure are.

BARNICLE:  But when you say, David, that it sounds very strange, what do you mean by that?  What sounds strange about it, you know, the potential lack of control in the White House?  The lack of a compass on Iraq? 

GERGEN:  Well, I think that what‘s been—it‘s been obvious for some time heading into the election that they were probably going to lose the House.  They might lose the Senate.  That was really an upset, but it looked like they were going to lose the House. 

They had a lot of time to get ready for the elections, and then Baker-Hamilton in terms of thinking where they were going to go in Iraq.  They had a lot of time to do a lot of internal thinking, and the fact that, you know, the election was in November, and then Baker-Hamilton comes in early December, and they can‘t make up their minds on policy until really early January, that suggests that they are either loggerheads in there, or they don‘t know what the heck to do. 

BARNICLE:  I mean, you have been around the block more than a couple of times.

GERGEN:  Too many times.

BARNICLE:  Were you like me, a little surprised at what the White House put out clearly—it‘s in the “Post” and the “Times” today—that one of the elements involved in the delay for the speech until after New Year‘s is they wanted to give Bob Gates, the incoming secretary of defense, time to get up to speed?  The guy is the former director of the CIA.

GERGEN:  Not only that, but hey, look, they knew when they fired Don Rumsfeld that they were in a decision-making posture on Iraq.  They could have made up their mind then.  We want to have Bob Gates go to Iraq, take a tour, come back, and then he will be part of the decision-making process.  That may take two or three weeks, and then we‘ll have it for you in three or four weeks, you know, after Christmas or whatever. 

But the fact that they said we‘re going to go—we‘re going to have it for you before Christmas, and they said, uh-oh, we just remembered we got a new defense secretary, it looks like he‘s not at speed, maybe we need to send him to Iraq, I mean, that is a lack of planning. 

That is a lack—and when you—it‘s bad enough we‘ve got problems in Iraq that just seem insolvable, but this was supposed to be the new buttoned up White House.  This is the first time.  Josh Bolten, in my judgment, has done a heck of a job in there as a chief of staff. 

This is the first time I‘ve seen them sort of really drop the ball in the internal process of decision-making.  They always seem so buttoned up, and this time they do not—they seem anything but. 

BARNICLE:  David Gergen, thanks very much. 

GERGEN:  OK, Mike.

BARNICLE:  Coming up, the HARDBALLers, Pat Buchanan and Mark Green on power, politics and who to watch in ‘08.  You are watching HARDBALL on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BARNICLE:  Welcome back to HARDBALL. 

Here to talk about Senator Tim Johnson‘s health, the balance of power in the Senate, and 2008 presidential politics are the HARDBALLers, MSNBC political analyst Pat Buchanan and Democratic strategist Mark Green. 

Mark, let‘s go up to New York and start with you, just to get your brief take, I think, on a subject that‘s been very overworked, Senator Johnson‘s health and the Senate and the control of the Senate.  What do you think the deal is there if indeed it does—if—well, what do you think the deal is?  I don‘t want to...

MARK GREEN, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST:  It is unseemly but necessary to go where you were headed, which is assuming the worst. 

BARNICLE:  Yes. 

GREEN:  What‘s happening is the narrowness of the Democratic majority in the next Congress reflects the narrowness of red/blue America.  It‘s that fragile.  I think the key think to figure out is, would the Republican governor in South Dakota be a profile in courage and pick a Democrat to succeed a Democrat?  I think not.  And then, the majority would shift with Cheney being the tie-breaking vote. 

But, second, unless he—God forbid—should pass or resign, which is inconceivable, I think at this state now, the organizing of the Senate in January will control the Senate basically for those two years even if something bad happened subsequently.  And if he shouldn‘t sit, Democrats would still have a majority 50-49. 

One last point.  The key thing is that at least one of the two chambers is Democratic, so no bill can be railroaded through or no budget can be railroaded through the Congress.  That‘s true no matter what happens.  So, while it would be huge for judicial nominations, for example, for Biden, Boxer hearings, for example, it‘s not 180 degree difference. 

BARNICLE:  Pat, let me ask you, you know, if, as Mark indicated, God forbid, the worst should happen, this is not exactly a great thing for Republicans in the sense that you get Dick Cheney then, whose negative ratings in this country, you know, are pretty high, they now cast him in the potential role of being Doctor No on everything, 50-50 vote on minimum wage increase, Cheney no.  It‘s not the greatest thing in the world. 

PAT BUCHANAN, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  I don‘t think Cheney will be the deciding vote.  For example, I think minimum wage is going to go through.  I think a lot of Republicans are going to support it.

The key thing is, if Tim Johnson appears he‘s going to be incapacitated, if he simply stays there and doesn‘t arrive in the Senate, it‘s 50-49 Democrats vote to control the Senate for the next two years.  If, God forbid, the Senator passes or something, I do believe the governor of South Dakota would be under immense moral pressure to appoint his wife or something like that to the seat.  So he‘s going to have a really tough call. 

Then if he appoints a Republican, Cheney would cast—and this has to happen before January 5th or so—Cheney would cast the deciding vote to organize the Senate.  But on these—I don‘t know that it really makes—

I mean, there is no doubt in terms of committees and investigations and subpoenas, and these things and really whether judges get to the floor, it can make a very, very big difference.  

But right now, the country—I mean, the government is decided anyhow.  The president can stop anything he doesn‘t like.  And the Democrats, they need 60 votes in the Senate to really ram through something they really do like, so you‘ve got a very evenly divided country that I don‘t think will dramatically change even if the composition or the direction of the Senate change. 

BARNICLE:  OK, in this evenly divided country—you mentioned the president.  The next presidential campaign, the ‘08 presidential campaign, ostensibly has already begun.  NBC News/”Wall Street Journal” poll...

BUCHANAN:  Is projecting?

BARNICLE:  Yes, we are projecting a winner here tonight.  It‘s Pat Buchanan and Mark Green.  They are the winners because they came.  They showed up.  But one element of the poll, if we could get it up on the screen for people to see, has to do with who would you pick for the Republican nomination. 

And I was surprised reading the numbers—Rudy Giuliani, 34 percent;

John McCain, 29 percent; Newt Gingrich, 10; Mitt Romney at 8. 

Mark Green, you‘re up there.  Rudy is around all the time.  Did this number surprise you? 

GREEN:  No, it‘s been like that for—since September 12, 2001 if you know what I mean.  Look, once people examine Mayor Giuliani—I‘m not an expert on the Republican politics, I‘ll leave that to Pat.  But clearly his social issues could lead to a decline in numbers.  But also, Wayne Barrett of the “Village Voice” has written a quite definitive, a book with Dan Collins called “The Grand Illusion” where Giuliani said everything right on September 11th and did everything wrong before and after. 

That 34 percent number has to be a reflection of his hero status, which can be easily tarnished if the media start taking a look at it.  Rudy Giuliani, I know him quite well adversarily.  I was the ranking Democrat when he as mayor was the ranking Republican in New York City.  He has the talent to be president, but not the temperament to be president.  We will see how he survives the Republican primary.

BUCHANAN:  Here‘s the problem.  Both Giuliani, who looks great on paper and Barack Obama, who looks great on paper, neither has been vetted.

BARNICLE:  Well, we‘re going to get to both of them when we come right back with Pat Buchanan and Mark Green, they‘re staying with us.

Later, President Bush faces big decisions on Iraq with differing opinions coming in from all corners.  Which strategy will he choose?  We‘ll check in with lieutenant colonel Rick Francona.  You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BARNICLE:  We are back with the HARDBALLers, MSNBC political analyst Pat Buchanan and Democratic strategist Mark Green.  Pat, let me ask you, give me a feel for Republican delegates in terms of John McCain and Rudy Giuliani.  Is there any way that they could get past those delegates?

BUCHANAN:  Oh, I think with Rudy Giuliani, I think it‘s very, very hard.  I think he‘s at 34 percent, I think he comes down the day he goes out there.  He is wrong on every social issue.  He‘s wrong on immigration, sanctuary.

BARNICLE:  For the Republicans?

BUCHANAN:  He‘s never been vetted.  And McCain, whatever you say about him, he‘s—as Novak says, it‘s McCain Inc.  He‘s been vetted.  He‘s moving to coordinate with the people.  I think McCain is further ahead for the nomination than anybody, way out in front. 

Interesting thing about the Republicans is the top three candidates, Mike, have eight wives among them.  How‘s that?

BARNICLE:  Well, I‘m not talking about Mitt Romney.

BUCHANAN:  No, his grandfather had eight.

(CROSSTALK)

BUCHANAN:  Rudy was three and McCain is two, I think.

BARNICLE:  Mark.

BUCHANAN:  Social issues of the party.

BARNICLE:  Let‘s get to the Democrats.

GREEN:  By the way, based on the wives count, I‘m for Pat in ‘08.

BARNICLE:  Yes, absolutely, yes.  They‘re social policies are pretty good.  But the Democrats, let‘s take a look at the Democrats numbers in this NBC/”Wall Street Journal” poll.  Hillary Clinton, 37 percent.  Barack Obama, 18 percent. 

Again, like Rudy Giuliani, you know Hillary Clinton.  She‘s your political neighbor, so to speak in New York.  How loud do you think the Obama footsteps are in her head right now?

GREEN:  Semi-loud.  Look, despite Obama‘s meteoric couple of months, the only way to have a better couple of months politically is to save a family from a burning building.  And that‘s even questionable.

Obama‘s problem of course, to quote Sinatra, is that sometimes love is too hot, not to cool down.  And so he‘s very real because he‘s smart, he‘s authentic, he‘s charming.  He has that million-dollar smile, Monday night football and beyond.  But not much has changed in that it‘s still Hillary Clinton versus a field.  And there are three or four with Edwards, Gore, should he run, Kerry, should he run and of course Obama, who are all in the teams.

Now Hillary Clinton is a very strong, but not prohibitive favorite.   Of course by the normal metrics, her fame and her money are obvious.  She‘s two other things which is she is so personally smart, tough and charming, contrary to the Republican noise machine saying she is icy.  So she‘s better than she sounds.

BARNICLE:  Somebody had a good line, Mike, he said, Barack Obama, the trajectory is too high, he will burn up on re-entry.

GREEN:  Well that‘s a nice metaphor, but we‘ll see.

BUCHANAN:  Well let me talk a little bit Mark, let me just say this.  I think there‘s clear, the guy is—he‘s got great charisma and things like that.  That‘s a wasting asset.  You go out, you speak once, people stand and cheer.  You speak again, wasn‘t he great?  Then, what do you have to say?  As you move down the road, he needs a real issue to take down Hillary Clinton, who has been vetted, who‘s very, very tough.

GREEN:  He‘s got the war.

BUCHANAN:  He‘s the war.  That‘s just it.  That‘s what‘s going to bring the war, that‘s my point.  It will bring the war into the Democratic debate, just like the war, I think is going to be brought into the Republican debate.  But it could be more divisive inside the Democratic Party than the Republican Party because Barack Obama has got to bring her down from that 35 percent.

GREEN:  They won‘t.  My guess is in the next two years, you will not hear one criticism between the Obama and the Clinton camps.  One last thing, Hillary Clinton has this machine with her husband, and all that is incredible and so she‘s a tank.  And the other candidates, as of now, are the Chinese kid in front of the tank in Tiananmen Square.

BARNICLE:  Mark Green, Pat Buchanan,  thanks very much.

Up next, President Bush plans a major Iraq speech after the new year. 

What‘s next for U.S. troops in Iraq?  You are watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(MARKET REPORT)

BARNICLE:  Welcome back to HARDBALL. 

Democratic senator Tim Johnson from South Dakota has undergone surgery for a brain bleeding.  If Senator Johnson were forced to leave the Senate, what would happen to the balance of power? 

Let‘s bring in the HARDBALLers, Tony Blankley of the “Washington Times” and NBC‘s Mike Viqueira. 

Tony, let‘s start with you.  Let‘s talk about Iraq and the sense in this city, this capital city of ours where everything is all about politics.  Has the president lost his grip in terms of steering this ship of state when it comes to Iraq, this delay in his speech, this endless round of talking to this person and that person? 

TONY BLANKLEY, “THE WASHINGTON TIMES”:  He is certainly losing the city.  Now, he has the inherent authority as president and the commander and chief unless Congress decides to cut off or condition appropriations.  My sense is he‘s a man who, once he decides what he‘s going to do in Iraq, that he is obviously struggling to come to his conclusion about what—this is his last big chance to change his strategy in Iraq. 

BARNICLE:  How could the decider be struggling when it comes to deciding? 

BLANKLEY:  Well, because as everybody has said, there are no good choices.  You combine that with if he is leaning towards more troops, which he may or may not be—we hear rumors both ways—and if his—if his generals, Casey, Abizaid are recommending no new troops, then he has the double problem of if he wants that policy, does he need to shift his generals at all?  He go back to Lincoln and he changes the generals when he changed policies.

So he may have personnel challenges as well as policy challenges, and he knows this is the decision.  I mean, this is the point, and having an extra week or two to make the decision makes sense.  I agree with David Gergen‘s earlier observation that it looked very bad to announce they were going to make the statement before Christmas and then have to pull back from that.  That certainly did show confusion in the White House and I‘m sure there must be.

BARNICLE:  Mike Viqueira, what is the sense—and I realize it must be tough to tell in these holiday days, as we approach the holiday, but what is the sense of the frustration within the senate on both the Republican and the Democratic side about this delay in decision-making from the White House? 

MIKE VIQUEIRA, NBC NEWS:  Well, I think on the Democratic side—

let‘s start with that.  I don‘t think there‘s any question in anyone‘s mind

that the tone of the debate on Iraq has completely changed since Election

Day here on Capitol Hill and not only among Democrats, but among a largely

dispirited conference of Republicans on both sides of the Capitol who are,

let‘s be honest, still trying to find their footing after the election on

November 7, after Bob Gates came up here and was brutally honest about the

prospects for—what the situation was in Iraq, and actually was critical

in retrospect on how many troops were sent into Iraq after the March 2003

invasion, and then the next day, the Iraq Study Group largely echoing the -

what most people have assessed to be a desperate and despairing situation in Iraq. 

Now, what will Democrats do about it?  Well, first of all, Nancy Pelosi has said that she is going to start looking at the budget requests that comes up from the administration, as have many of her charges on the House side, attaching conditions, stipulations to how much money will be given to the Iraq war effort from here on out. 

They‘ve complained that there‘s been a lack of oversight, that there is some $9 billion missing from reconstruction money.  They‘re talking about something called a—modeled after a Truman Commission from World War II to look at waste, fraud and abuse in the military and conducting what they call oversight and investigation on where a lot of this money has gone, Mike. 

BARNICLE:  Tony, Mike brought up, you know, the Baker-Hamilton report.  On a scale of one to 10, one being, you know, a very quick dismissal of the report, 10 being, you know, we‘re really going to study this, what do you think the administration has done with this report in terms of dismissing it or paying attention to it? 

BLANKLEY:  I think publicly they have given it a four.  Privately, I‘m guessing—they haven‘t told me—they‘ve given it about a one.  I don‘t think it is a live element in the policymaking decision, beyond what obvious truths it stated that would‘ve been shared by the president and most observers anyway. 

You know, going back to what‘s going on the Senate, vis-a-vis the president on Iraq, there is a little bit of a paradigm mismatch between the White House and Congress on Iraq.  While I‘ll posit that every Republican and Democratic congressman and senator are patriot, they are looking at how do they position themselves for 2008. 

So the Democrats may have a private view of what their policy will be.  They want to keep their hands, their fingerprints off a disaster.  The president doesn‘t have much of a political view of this.  He is now looking at a policy as it‘s all on his shoulders.  He‘s not running for reelection again, and he‘s going to decide what to decide on a policy basis. 

So all the congressional people, Republicans who are trying to protect their skins for 2008, Republicans—Democrats keeping their fingers off it, they‘ll harass him or they‘ll quietly support him as they judge politically useful, but they‘re not forced over the next two years to make the hard policy decision, and he is and that‘s sort of a—quite a mismatch.  Usually a president also has a pretty good political calculation. 

BARNICLE:  Mike, Tony brought up ‘08, politics, Iraq, the sense of pressure in the Senate on Hillary Clinton to be more forceful about Iraq.  Is there any pressure on her? 

VIQUEIRA:  Oh, absolutely.  I mean, she‘s been under pressure for the last three-and-a-half years, ever since the war started, and it‘s progressively turned out worse and worse.  You saw her come down on Donald Rumsfeld, come down hard during Senate Armed Services Committee hearings over the summer and into last spring, but still, her position on Iraq, largely unspoken as to whether she thinks the invasion in 2003 was a mistake or not a mistake.  But she has come out forcefully in favor for a course correction. 

I think it‘s important to note the Democrats have said time and time again up here that the president, as Tony said, is commander in chief.  Yes, they‘ll be critical.  Yes, they‘ll be in a position to scrutinize the funding more carefully.  They have said that they‘ll not cut off war funding. 

They will not get into a position where they can be accused of undermining the troops, and it‘s going to be a very delicate balance that they have to keep.  In order to steer clear of that accusation while exercising what most people expect them to after the November 7th election, and that is try to force the president‘s hand somehow on the Iraq situation. 

BARNICLE:  More from the HARDBALLers in a bit, but up next, we‘ll hear about George Bush‘s options from a military perspective with MSNBC military analyst Lieutenant Colonel Rick Francona.  This is HARDBALL only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  The president is getting advice from all quarters on Iraq, but how will his Iraq strategy change?  Lieutenant Colonel Rick Francona joins us now.  Colonel Francona, there is a report—Michael Hirsh has a report online in “Newsweek” that one of the reasons that they pause it for the delay in the president‘s speech with regard to a new policy in Iraq is that they‘re trying to figure out how to announce or how to talk to a surge, number of new troops put into Baghdad to further protect the city.  So my question to you is A, do you think that will work when bringing more troops into the city of Baghdad is basically house to house urban fighting?  It‘s a city that American forces are not nearly as familiar with, I would imagine, as are the insurgents.  What‘s your take on this?

RICK FRANCONA, LIEUTENANT COLONEL:  Well, I think that‘s probably what we are going to see.  The president is getting a wide variety of advice.  You should say that a lot of it is conflicting.  So he‘s waiting until after—probably after the holiday season because I don‘t think he wants to announce right now that there is going to be a build up of troops, probably as many as 20,000 troops.  And how he‘s going to do that, he‘s going to delay the withdrawal of some of the forces that are supposed to rotate, and he‘s going to speed up the deployment of others.  So you‘re going to get this net increase of troops in there.  Now is it a good idea to put them into Baghdad?  Baghdad is the key right now.  They‘ve got to win the security situation in Baghdad.  If they don‘t do that, everything else we‘re doing is really kind of moot.

BARNICLE:  How many troops do we have in Baghdad right now?

FRANCONA:  I‘m not really sure what the numbers are, but it is not insufficient.  You remember a few months ago, they had this operation forward together that was an abysmal failure.  They moved troops from outside of Baghdad into the city to try and beef up the combat presence there and get their arms around the security situation.  The security situation is being dictated right now by the presence of these sectarian militias. 

And the first thing we have to do is get troops in there, get rid of these militias and all that hinges on the Iraqi government taking that first step.  If they are not going to do that, I think it would be foolish to put American troops in there without some sort of commitment from the Iraqis.

MATTHEWS:  Well let‘s make the leap now.  We‘re going to insert more troops into Baghdad.  How many more troops do you think would be needed to seize that city?  To make that city semi-livable?  And I understand semi.

FRANCONA:  I would say that you‘ve got to at least send the 20,000 he‘s talking about, maybe more than that.  Mike, this is a sprawling city of 4.5, five million people.  As you said, it‘s a warrant of all of these back alleys and the insurgents know it.  They live there.  You‘ve got these militias that are resident there.  It‘s a real problem, but you‘ve got to get in there with the Iraqi army.  But you need more presence than we have.  Somebody mentioned it the other day, we‘re taking the same ground over and over.  We go in, take it and we leave.  The insurgents come back.  We‘ve got to have enough troops there to stand on the ground.

BARNICLE:  You know, to sort of semi-pacify Baghdad, as you‘ve indicated, would require us dealing with the threat that the Mahdi army poses each and every day in Baghdad.  That would also require a political component to the military action, would it not?  A political component that we‘ve got been able to pull off yet, dealing with the president of Iraq.

FRANCONA:  Well, the prime minister of Iraq, Nuri al-Maliki, has so far been either unwilling to or incapable of disarming militias.  He knows he has to do it, but he is so closely allied to the Shia community, that he finds it politically impossible to do that.  You know, this is not a very stable government there and I think he‘s worried about his survival if he tries to go up against the Mahdi army.  Now he could do that if there were enough American forces to back up his fledgling Iraqi army, or his security forces.  But the Mahdi army has got 10,000 people dug in in Sadr City.  That‘s a real mess.

BARNICLE:  So this move, if they do this after January 1st, if it is announced after January 1st that there is going to be a surge of troops into Baghdad, is it more or less this administration, this president, this Defense Department, saying we‘ve tried everything else, we have nothing left to lose, we‘re at 30 percent in the polls in terms of our approval rating.  We can‘t go much lower.  We‘re just going to try this.  Is that part of it do you think?

FRANCONA:  Mike, I think that‘s exactly right.  This is the last stand.  Nothing else has worked.  The situation in Baghdad is as worse as we‘ve ever seen it.  There‘s a raging civil war, but it‘s concentrated in Baghdad.  All the other provinces except for Anbar pretty much have been either ethnically cleansed or there‘s some sort of pacifism there.  I mean, there‘s not as bad as the situation in Baghdad.  That‘s the focus of the fighting right now.  That‘s the capital city.  They‘ve got to get their hands on that.  So I think if we can‘t pacify Baghdad, nothing else is going to work.

BARNICLE:  Given the concentration of troops in Iraq, given the requirement under this new policy that would require even more troops into Baghdad, if anything else happened in the world, would we have enough troops, marines, army, to insert in another hot spot in the world?

FRANCONA:  With great difficulty.  Right now we‘re using the reserves and the national guard to a level we haven‘t seen in decades.  And we‘re going to rely on them even more.  And as we surge these troop levels, we‘re going to rely on them to fill out the ranks. 

Now if something else happens also in the world, they will have to come up with troops somewhere, but it is going to very, very difficult.  As you know, some of the other generals we‘ve had on the air here talked about how thin the army is stretched.  This is just going to exacerbate it.

BARNICLE:  Rick Francona—Lieutenant Colonel Rick Francona, thanks a lot.  Up next, the HARDBALLers are back.  Will the balance of power in Washington hinge on the health of one senator?  Plus, who to watch in ‘08.  And coming up this Sunday on NBC‘s “Meet the Press,” former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.  Check your local listings.  You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

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BARNICLE:  We‘re back with the Hardballers, Tony Blankley of the “Washington Times”, Jim Warren of the “Chicago Tribune” joins us now.  And NBC‘s Mike Viqueira is still here.

Jim Warren, out there in Chicago, the hog butcher of the world.  Barack Obama, everybody is talking about him.  You know, you know him in the sense of having covered him and written about him for quite some time.  Let me ask you something about him. 

Is he for real?  Is what the country sees and has seen for the past month or so up in New Hampshire this weekend, huge media exposure.  Tell us about him.

JIM WARREN, “CHICAGO TRIBUNE”:  Yes, I think there‘s pretty much more there than meets the eye.  And as relevant to you and your viewers, we spent about an hour and fifteen minutes with him today before the “Chicago Tribune” editorial board, and perhaps one of the most expansive interviews that we‘ve had with any political candidate in a long while.  I think the bottom line is that he underscored that he has decided that he is definitely a viable presidential candidate.  He does think he has a distinct program that he can run on, and I think the only question to be answered will be answered at the end of the month in Hawaii on vacation with his wife is whether he wants to put his kids through that. 

He also made clear that he‘s not cowed by the fund raising potential of anybody, notably Hillary Clintons.  He thinks he could raise $40, 50 million pretty easily. 

He‘s also clearly sized up the field.  I mean, he was very interesting on a whole bunch of folks, including John McCain, who he knows in a one-on-one would characterize him as some snot-nosed rookie, who was not battle tested.  And he said that quite clearly.  So he‘s mulled all of this, and at the same time I think he outlined a program, a mix of idealism and pragmatism, and also underscored that, you know, all the talk about his inexperience, this is a guy who has had some pretty productive years in the state legislature, two in the United States Senate.  And when it comes to his international bona fides, you know, that‘s what he majored in in college.  He‘s also lived overseas.  He knows a fair bit.  So he is not lacking in self-confidence. 

BARNICLE:  So, Jim, did he handicap the entire potential field, including Republican candidates?  I guess he did, you mentioned John McCain. 

WARREN:  Yes.  On the Republican side, he just basically sees is right now as McCain versus Romney.  He is very intrigued by Mitt Romney.  I think he‘s a little bit naive about that.  But he was...

BARNICLE:  What did he say?  What do you mean he was naive?  Why? 

WARREN:  Well, personally, I just think that religion would play, a very, very—pose a very, very tough challenge to a Romney candidacy.  That may be grossly unfair, but I think too many people think the Mormons are some bunch of weirdos.  It‘s grossly unfair, but that would hurt him.  And—but in sizing up what McCain would do to him, I think he was right on point.  But he believes that he can run as a sort of a new generation change candidate.  And it doesn‘t seem that he would be cowed by, again, being characterized as snot-nosed rookie at a time that the country needs a battle-tested leader.

BARNICLE:  Tony Blankley, let me ask you, at what point this evening, what time tonight do you think Hillary Clinton goes on ChicagoTribune.com to read this account of Barack Obama?

BLANKLEY:  I‘m sure or position research people have been on top of him for quite some time.  Look, he‘s obviously a bright and attractive man.  He is to the public, at least, a blank slate.  And there‘s going to be a race between him and Hillary‘s people to fill up the pages for the public.  And it will be interesting to see—watch the race occur because if Hillary judges him to be threat, and presumably, to some extent they do, her very experienced team will be doing their expert job at portraying him in a way that will not be beneficial to him. 

And I have to say that even preemptively calling himself a snot-nosed kid is smart.  But on the other hand, he does have that problem.  He obviously understands that.  I mean, people compare him to Jack Kennedy in ‘60.  In 1960, Kennedy had been in Congress for 14 years and he was known to be a war hero.  So by—and Kennedy was considered to have a thin curriculum. 

BARNICLE:  Maybe he‘s depending on people comparing him to George Bush in the year 2000.

BLANKLEY:  Well, it‘s not going to be enough, because Bush isn‘t running.  But I think one of the most interesting things to see is how he comes out on Iraq.  We all recognize that Hillary has an Iraq problem because she supported the president.  Is Barack going to follow on what he said in the past, and be very tough anti-war, or is he going to learn the same lesson that Hillary thought she learned, which is a liberal Democrat can‘t be seen to be soft on defense. 

Now, I don‘t know.  I‘m going to be fascinated to see whether he is an adamant moveon.org anti-war person or whether he will actually vote for appropriations to keep the war going, et cetera.

BARNICLE:  Mike Viqueira, what‘s the vibe around Barack Obama in an institution where 90 out of 100 senators think that they can be president? 

VIQUEIRA:  Probably one of envy.  I mean, as you guys have been pointing out, here‘s man who‘s been in the Senate an incredibly limited amount of time.  Let‘s look at the macro picture here though.  We‘re talking about a 2008 -- from the Democratic Party.  A woman and a man named Barack Obama, whose middle name, incidentally, is Hussein, running for president. 

So there‘s a great deal of diversity we‘re talking about.  And we‘re not even mentioning that that might be the indication of how far American politics have come in that regard, anyway.

Of course Barack Obama is a smoker.  That‘s something that he said is an obvious detriment.  But he‘s going to try to quit. 

I think that—you mentioned McCain and Obama, and the race to define Barack Obama.  You know, McCain had clashed before.  They had an initiative they took up together, a legislative initiative.  And McCain wrote a scathing letter to Obama, quite sarcastic, accusing Obama of toadying to Democratic leadership interests and backtracking on the agreement they had made.  They had kissed and made-up after that, but it remains to be seen whether that‘s going to hold together, if in fact these two men face each other in 2008, Mike. 

BARNICLE:  Jim Warren, quickly, can you tell us the issue of money, fund-raising?  He would seem to have an inroad there that only a handful of candidates would have.  Does he think he‘d have any trouble raising that kind of money to run for president?

WARREN:  Actually, we had a page one story this morning you can find -

I think Mike Dorninger (ph) of our Washington bureau—very, very quickly, in the last week or two, you know, he‘s come up with a million bucks of mostly very, very, very small donations.  Since that Monday night football appearance, of all things, they have also been swamped.  He said unequivocally that he could raise $40 to $50 million pretty darn easy from a lot of untraditional sources.  He doesn‘t have to go to the big fat cats whom Hillary Clinton presumably has got in her corner. 

BARNICLE:  Jim Warren, thanks very much.

Tony Blankley, thanks very much.

Mike Viqueira, thanks very much.

Join us again tomorrow night at 5:00 and 7:00 Eastern for more

HARDBALL. 

Right now it‘s time for Tucker. 

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