updated 1/11/2007 11:54:34 AM ET 2007-01-11T16:54:34

Guests: Pat Buchanan, David Gergen, Chuck Todd

CHRIS MATTHEWS, MSNBC ANCHOR:  In two hours, the president sells America on an escalation of our part in Iraq‘s civil war. As we wait to hear his plan, NBC News reports the first troops in the escalation have already arrived in Iraq.

Will Americans follow him into battle?  Let‘s play HARDBALL.

Good evening, I‘m Chris Matthews.  Welcome to HARDBALL.

At 9 p.m. Eastern, just two hours from now President Bush will deliver a 25-minute address to unveil his new plan for fixing Iraq. He is expected to call for over 20,000 more U.S. troops, and billion more in U.S.  dollars. But does President Bush have the credibility to gain support for his plan? Or are Americans wary of getting even deeper into the war in Iraq? Is a troop increase really the answer to a fundamental problem in Iraq?

Meanwhile, Democrats are ramping up their rhetoric. But are they prepared to do what it takes to stop the so-called surge? Are they looking to end the war? Are they too scared with the 2008 campaign on the horizon of being branded McGovernites?

Tonight, join me and Keith Obermann (ph) for the president‘s address at 9:00 p.m. We begin tonight‘s coverage with HARDBALL‘s David Shuster, who has this report.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DAVID SHUSTER, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT, HARDBALL (voice over):  This afternoon, President Bush met with congressional leaders at the White House and made it clear he was informing them of his decision, not consulting them. At the driveway microphones, frustration.

SEN. HARRY REID, (D-NV) MAJORITY LEADER:  We have the conversation today that has no impact on what he is going to say.

REP. NANCY PELOSI, (D-CA) HOUSE SPEAKER:  But it is just really unfortunate that we cannot have real consultation between the legislative and the executive branch when it comes to protecting the American people.

SHUSTER:  Ignoring the advice of Congress rejects what top Republicans have been telling the president for weeks. And today, in another sign of GOP discomfort, Indiana Senator Rich Lugar, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said that despite face-to-face meetings with President Bush, the logic behind the escalation plan is still unclear.

SEN. RICHARD LUGAR, (R-IN), SENATE FOREIGN RELATIONS:  The president and his team need to explain what objectives we are trying to achieve, if forces are expanded.

SHUSTER:  Democratic leaders are convinced at least a dozen Republican senators are ready to abandon the president‘s Iraq policy and to leverage their views the president‘s proposal will be put to a vote in the House and Senate next week. That vote will be a powerful message to the president, the country, and the world. 

And while it can‘t the stop the escalation, a war-time rebuke by the Congress would be unprecedented and a big blow to the White House.

It all raises the stakes for tonight. This evening, for about 20 minutes, the president will try to explain why an increase of 17,000 in Baghdad, 4,000 in Anbar Province and a new construction and jobs program across Iraq, is now the answer to a war that has stretched on nearly four years and is getting deadlier by the day.

This will be the president‘s third prime-time address to the nation about Iraq in the last two years. Just over a year ago, the president declared—

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:   My fellow citizens, not only can we win the war in Iraq, we are winning the war in Iraq.

SHUSTER:  In another prime-time speech a year and a half ago, the president said a troop escalation in Iraq was a bad idea.

BUSH:  Sending more Americans would undermine our strategy of encouraging Iraqis to take the lead in this fight. And sending more Americans would suggest that we intend to stay forever.

SHUSTER:  The president spoke, then, of his deference to military commanders.

BUSH:  As we determine the right force level, our troops can know that I will continue to be guided by the advice that matters, the sober judgment of our military leaders.

SHUSTER:  And the president spoke of that deference again this fall.

BUSH:  That‘s the way I will continue to conduct the war. I will listen to generals. They know what they‘re doing. And I‘m going to tell you, I have great confidence in General John Abizaid and General George Casey.

SHUSTER:  General Abizaid then testified to Congress that an increase in troops would be a mistake.

GEN. JOHN ABIZAID, FMR. COMMANDER U.S. CENTRAL COMMAND:  No, I do not believe more American troops, right now, is the solution to the problem.

SHUSTER:  Abizaid has since then been replaced. General George Casey, who also opposed the troop increase, was replaced as well. The president‘s decision to increase the number of combat troop goes against not just his former military commanders, but also bucks the prime minister of Iraq. Just six weeks ago, in a meeting with President Bush, U.S. officials acknowledge Nouri al-Maliki‘s suggestion for Baghdad was to lower the U.S. profile, not raise it.

But the Bush escalation also totally disregards the message in the bipartisan Iraq Study Group. Two months ago, the panel urged the gradual combat troop decrease. The commission also said it was crucial that any new plan reflect a national consensus.

SHUSTER (on camera):   But tonight, President Bush will be forging ahead, almost all alone. Only a minority in Congress support his escalation, and some of those lawmakers say the troop increase will not be big enough to make any difference. So leading into a speech, the president is getting hit from both sides. Meanwhile, the violence in Iraq grinds on with no end in sight. I‘m Dave Shuster for HARDBALL, in Washington.

(END VIDEOTAPE) 

MATTHEWS:  Thank you, David Shuster.

What will the president say tonight?  Can he convince the skeptical public to back sending in more U.S. troops?  Pat Buchanan is an MSNBC political analyst. We‘ll have David Gergen on; he is editor at large for “U.S. News & World Report” and a former advisor to four U.S. presidents.

Pat, you first. Who believes that an increased complement of 20,000 troops, to a field of troops—we already have 140,000 or so, over there.  Is it going to change the color of this war?

PAT BUCHANAN, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  I think the president is betting that a surge and an increase in combat by American troops over the next six months will give Maliki‘s government one final chance to get this under control.

MATTHEWS:  Who believes that that‘s—where did this idea come from?  Did it come from the president? Did it come from the military? Who came up with the idea that sending in a larger number of troops is going to solve a war that‘s not going well already?

BUCHANAN:  Well, the process—well, it seems there is a certain logic to it. But look, by a process of elimination, the president believes, I think correctly, that the Baker Commission report is a recipe for defeat.  If you take out 15 combat brigades in a year, you‘re going to loose the war.  The Baker Commission is designed not to save Iraq but to save the establishment.

The other course is, the stay the course, if you will. Don‘t do anything. We all agree that if we are not losing, we are certainly not winning.  That leaves one option, and that‘s an increase in troops now.

I think the president is probably skeptical it‘s going to work, so is McCain.  But it‘s like, Chris, they‘ve got all their chips on the table, and they‘re going to try to draw to an inside straight by pushing everything they‘ve got in there. 

MATTHEWS:  But the cards are people here.

BUCHANAN:  The cards are people and it‘s for lack of an alternative.  And the president, I think, does sincerely believe this:  If we lose this war, it will be a calamity for the United States in terms of the victory for the terrorists, and in terms of what‘s going to happen in the Middle East and what‘s going to happen to Iraq. I think in that, he may very well be right.

MATTHEWS:  Dave Gergen, the odds on an inside straight are very long.

DAVID GERGEN, FMR. PRESIDENTIAL ADVISOR:  They sure are.

MATTHEWS:  Is the president right to take a gamble like this with the lives of soldiers.  Just say, we‘re going to put 20,000 soldiers, three quarters of them knocking down doors in Baghdad in the Sunni neighborhoods, where they‘re facing insurgency.  Is that a good bet for the American people? Is that worth the lives of the men who will be lost?

GERGEN:  Well, I have to tell you, Chris, I think a lot of people in the country are going to be sympathetic that the president wants to win.

All Americans would like to win.  And if it takes more troops on the ground

MATTHEWS:  What does that mean, though, David?

GERGEN:  Well, if it—if it means—we would like to leave behind a secure Iraq, where we don‘t have to be in there indefinitely.

But I think also people are so angry at this administration for bollixing up this war, for making an absolute hash out of it. There is very little confidence right now in the group of people who are prosecuting the war in Washington.

And there is a real sense, in the military, that this is not going to work. I mean, after—the military and the president have flipped sides.  Before we went in, it was the military, like Rich Shinseki (ph), the head of the army, General Shinseki (ph), who was arguing we need far more troops in there, and the White House and Don Rumsfeld resisted. 

MATTHEWS:  Right.

GERGEN:  Now it has flipped. Now, it‘s the military saying it‘s too late.  We ought to wind this thing down and protect our military—

MATTHEWS:  But the military could be correct.  It‘s possible the military is correct.

(CROSS TALK) 

GERGEN:  Of course the military is correct.

MATTHEWS:  If Shinseki (ph) said, back when he was wasted by Paul Wolfowitz and basically drummed out of the military because he said we needed hundreds of thousand of troops. It could be the military was right then, and are right now.

GERGEN:  Exactly.

MATTHEWS:  But no one would claim that the president was right then.

Would they? 

BUCHANAN:  Right.

MATTHEWS:  Would anybody say that?

(CROSS TALK) 

GERGEN:  The only difference, I think Pat‘s analysis is absolutely right about the options are. I do believe that the Baker-Hamilton Commission had a somewhat different view in mind than what he has.  It was a winding down. But remember, they were intending to leave 40,000 or 50,000 troops in place, for the indefinite future.

They weren‘t pulling everybody out. They were saying, look, we can‘t win this the way it is envisioned. You can‘t put the troops in there long enough. What is wrong with the president‘s plan right now, from the point of view of a lot of people want to see escalation is, it is too little.

(CROSS TALK) 

MATTHEWS:  (INAUDIBLE) Kagan (ph) people who were pushing this. Who gave the idea with former General Jack Kean (ph), to the president, they‘re talking about not a surge.  They‘re talking these extra compliment of troops, Pat, for 18 to 24 months.

BUCHANAN:  Well, listen, some of them would stay there a lot longer than that. Some of them would stay five to 10 years.

MATTHEWS:  I think a lot of those (INAUDIBLE) don‘t ever want to leave the Middle East.

BUCHANAN:  Here‘s the thing, the neo cons were dead wrong about the war, about going in, about all their predictions and projections. They may be right about the consequences of defeat. As I say, Chris, this isn‘t—the president is not talking here about a victory. He is talking about staving off a defeat.

Now, let me say this. The United States, we have lost the war in the United States with the American people.  In American politics, America has been defeated. The president thinks there is a long shot chance that Maliki and the present government may be able to stand up to the enemy, if they‘re given six to 12 more months. I don‘t think it will work.  I‘m a deep skeptic about—

MATTHEWS:  What would you bet Maliki?  A dollar?

BUCHANAN:  I would not bet much.

GERGAN:  That‘s right.

BUCHANAN:  I think the other two alternatives mean certain defeat, certain defeat.

MATTHEWS:  But you believe there is a plausible possibility, Pat Buchanan, that at the end of a year or two, by the end of this president‘s presidency, that we will have stabilized Iraq to the point where we can leave?

BUCHANAN:  I think that there is a possibility. There is no possibility with the Baker plan as far as I‘m concerned.

MATTHEWS:  David Gergen, I know it is tough to make you make a decision, but do you believe that in two years, at the end of this presidency, that there will be a stable country we can leave behind?  Because if we can never leave Iraq, we ought to leave right now?

GERGEN:  I think there is a remote possibility that will happen. I think there is a small possibility. Let remember, we are gambling a lot more American lives. In the briefings today, at the White House, they say this is going to be bloody. We‘re going to be putting people out on the streets. The alternative is not abject surrender. That‘s the only thing I‘m trying to argue. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes.

GERGEN:  The alternative was the idea of winding this down was, look, you can‘t solve all the Iraqis‘ problems for themselves. Try to stabilize those pieces of as best you can, keep 40,000 or 50,000 in there. Put a lot of your effort into trying to stabilize the region. The bigger fear here is not that Iraq is going to get into a civil war. But you‘re going to pull in Iran and Saudi Arabia, and others, if this keep going. And that we must prevent.

MATTHEWS:  What are the (INAUDIBLE) of Americans, which is going to happen, as you just said, it is going to be bloody, kicking down doors and we know what the pictures look like. We know what the casualty numbers look like. They‘ve ballooned back in this past month of December.  If we take on the responsibility of deploying out troops in downtown Baghdad, in the worst, most insurgent neighborhoods, we‘re going to take a lot of kills, a lot of KIAs.  And there will be a lot of hell in this country and sorrow and grieving.

And for that, will we in any way reduce the tendency of that country to go to civil war? I just don‘t get it. When Americans take bullets, how that stops the country where the people want to fight with each other.

BUCHANAN:  The purpose of this is to give the Maliki government time to prevent it‘s collapse and our defeat there, which will be a calamity and a nightmare—

MATTHEWS:  Why is it a defeat for us if the Maliki government goes down?  They elected them?

BUCHANA:  Chris, we started the war. We went into that country, we invaded. It is our war. It is Bush‘s war and all the Democrats who went along with him.

MATTHEWS:  The war between the Shia and the Sunni is our war?

BUCHANAN:  That came as a consequence of America‘ war. But what the president is doing is trying to stave off a defeat. There is a nightmare scenario, which if this country breaks apart, Sunni, Shia and all the rest, the Iranians will aid one side. Jordanians and Saudis, another -- 

MATTHEWS:  Pat, you have just made the argument against our ever going in. Because that was warned—

BUCHANAN:  We should never have gone in.

MATTHEWS:  We were warned of exactly that scenario when we went in, and now you‘re saying help the president somehow—do what?

BUCHANAN:  The point is, Chris—all right, look, David and I have said—

MATTHEWS:  If he‘s been wrong six for years, why do you think he‘s right now?

BUCHANAN:  David and I agreed, there is a remote possibility this will work. I think there is a certainty that the Baker Commission report—

MATTHEWS:  When will you decide—three months from now, six months from now, the president is right or wrong?

BUCHANAN:  Six months from now, we‘ll find out one question. Will Maliki join the Americans in running down—

(CROSS TALK) 

MATTHEWS:  Will Maliki bring in the eight brigades he promised to bring into Baghdad if we put in our brigades?  Will he?  Will he convince Kurds—

GERGEN:  I don‘t think we can count on him at all.

MATTHEWS:  Will he convince Kurds to come down from Kurdistan and fight the Sunni insurgents? 

BUCHANAN:  The Shia?  Will he fight the Shia?

MATTHEWS:  He‘ll never fight the Shia. 

BUCHANAN:  Well, if he won‘t do that, he‘ll lose the war.

MATTHEWS:  He is a Shia.

GERGEN:  I agree with that.

(CROSS TALK) 

GERGEN:  Pat, if it is so important, if it is so important—and I agree it is important—then we ought to be willing to have a draft. We ought to be willing to send in the kind of troops that really matter. The counter-insurgency, the manual that General Petraeus has come up with, which everybody is praising.  We have a terrific general who is now going in. The best thing about the president‘s plan is putting Petraeus in there.  But if you‘re—

(CROSS TALK) 

MATTHEWS:  What is the main point of the Petraeus handbook, David?

GERGEN:  The main point you is just don‘t go out and kill the insurgents one by one by one. You just multiply the insurgents.  You have to go into the neighborhood, you‘ve got to flood the neighborhoods, you‘ve got to build respect among the Iraqi people, for Americans. You have to build that up. To do the Petraeus plan with the kind of ratios they‘re talking about, and the counter-insurgency manual, it takes 250,000 additional Americans. We‘re not doing that.

BUCHANAN:  Would you adding even (ph) that much, David?

MATTHEWS:  You don‘t have though ratio, David, going back to Vietnam days, you always need more regular troops to fight insurgents.

GERGEN:  This is not enough to do the job.

(CROSS TALK) 

BUCHANAN:  David, the home base in the United States will not sustain a long-term Petraeus plan. It isn‘t there, for a draft—

GERGEN:  I agree with that.

BUCHANAN:  For moving in 250,000 troops. That is out. The last option you‘re left with is what we‘ll hear tonight.

GERGEN:  But Pat—Pat, if you think—

MATTHEWS:   It may be better to leave Vegas, than to play this last hand. We‘ll be right back.

BUCHANAN:  Not if everything is lost.

MATTHEWS:  We‘ll see. It may already be lost. Pat Buchanan, we‘ll be right back.

Coming up later, will Congress try to stop the president? Will they

even vote against him even if it doesn‘t matter, just to show their

strength and their rebuke?  You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) 

MATTHEWS:  Coming up, can the President Bush‘s speech make the public think he has a plan for Iraq?  And will they support it, more with the Nixon—get that out of there!  Get that out!

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) 

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  As we get ready for the president‘s speech tonight, with the Nixon boys, here. It is coming up, by the way, 9:00 Eastern. 

NBC is reporting that the first new troops have already arrived.  They‘re setting up headquarters. That‘s the 82nd Airborne, in-country, itself. NBC Jim Miklaszewski joins us now from the Pentagon—Mik.

They‘re in there already, huh?

JIM MIKLASZEWSKI, NBC PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT, HARDBALL:  Well, it‘s an advance element from the 82nd Airborne that we had identified some time ago. They got to Kuwait just after Christmas and the final elements of the 82nd got into Kuwait this week. 

It will take several more weeks before they are able to hit the ground. They are definitely going into Baghdad. And as we‘ve talked about this before, this so-called surge is going to take some time, in fact, five months, essentially through a series of troop extensions. Those forces already in Iraq will have to stay longer, an acceleration of those who are going to deploy anyway, they‘ll get there sooner.

It will add up to about a brigade a month. It will take some five months before you get those five additional brigades on the ground there in Baghdad. And by that time, the U.S. should have a pretty good idea of whether this new plan, this new strategy is going to work.

And Richard Engel, to address a question that you had raised earlier about the commitment of Maliki.

MATTHEWS:  Yes.

MIKLASZEWSKI:  Richard Engel had reported earlier that Maliki has in fact told Moqtada al-Sadr‘s Mehdi Army that they are going to have to lay down their arms or face attacks from Iraqi and American forces.

MATTHEWS:  Wow!

MIKLASZEWSKI:  Well, the big question is, just how far the Iraqis are willing to go to make that commitment. Ultimately, the U.S. wants a total of 18 Iraqi brigades inside Baghdad. That‘s a mixture of both army and police. According to the plan, the Iraqis themselves will be the one at the forefront of any operations aimed at Shia militias, particularly the Mehdi Army.  But according to one senior administration official, look, we know in the end that it is going to be the U.S. forces that will have to do the heavy lifting.

MATTHEWS:  You mean, the American forces will have to take down Moqtada al-Sadr, who is one of the biggest backers of our government over there?

MIKLASZEWSKI:  Well, it sort of depends.

MATTHEWS:  That‘s ludicrous.

MIKLASZEWSKI:  If Maliki is able to strike any kind of deal with the Mehdi Army, we‘ll see what happens there. But I have to tell you, that even though—even though, all the senior military leaders have signed on to this new strategy, I can tell you, those who we talk to, here in the Pentagon and even in Iraq, are saying that they have serious doubts that—

MATTHEWS:  I would, too.

MIKLASZEWSKI:  That ultimately—that ultimately, this plan will work. But they say that it is the best thing going now in—well, deference, or opposition to what hasn‘t worked so far.

MATTHEWS:  Thanks a lot. Jim Miklaszewski, over at the Pentagon.

Let‘s go back to Pat Buchanan and David Gergen. 

David Gergen, you heard it there. We all know that we face a civil war situation over in Iraq. We can argue about the degree of it but we‘ve got the Shia majority of 60 percent of the country, who will win under a democratic process. They‘ve got the prime ministership, of course, with Maliki. But behind Maliki is this guy Moqtada al-Sadr. He is the mean looking, nasty little guy you see in all the pictures.

How in the world can Maliki take on his godfather?

GERGEN:  I don‘t see how he can. The only thing we can welcome about this, Chris, though—

MATTHEWS:  There they are.  That‘s the guy in Iraq that‘s got the guns.

GERGEN:  It does really suggest we‘re going to have a showdown, doesn‘t it?  There is a real chance Maliki could fall over this.  I mean, Sadr might be able to take Maliki out, before all of this happen.

MATTHEWS:  Right.  Did you catch Jim Miklaszewski saying, in the end, we‘re going to have to take on the guy with the hat on the left there?  There he is. 

GERGEN:  That‘s exactly right.

MATTHEWS:  Because Maliki is not going to do it.

GERGEN:  That‘s right.  Listen, what this is doing, it is putting us firmly—we‘re trying to assert real control over, now, this democratically elected government. We‘ll call the shots. We‘re telling Maliki, you have to do this, you have to do this, or we‘re out of here.  We‘re not setting hard conditions, but it is very clear now, the heavy lifting will be up to the U.S. troops.

MATTHEWS:  Pat, you our war buff, I want to ask this question, if you like.

BUCHANAN:  Yes.

MATTHEWS:  The Iraqis arrived in the middle of the battle of Gettysburg, and started shooting at both sides. That‘s the position we‘re in.

BUCHANAN:  Except we‘re sending in the best troops in the world. And I‘ll tell you this:  I think we will—with support from Maliki—go after Moqtada al-Sadr‘s forces and we will shoot the living day lights out of them.  My guess is—

MATTHEWS:  With the permission of Maliki?

BUCHANAN:  I don‘t give a—

MATTHEWS:  You might want to do it, but do you think our troops will do it?

BUCHANAN:  Let me say this, I think Moqtada al-Sadr will go earth. I don‘t think he wants to fight the United States for the next six months.  And if I were him—

MATTHEWS:  OK.

BUCHANAN:  Because the Americans will kill him.

MATTHEWS:  Have you noticed—David, have you noticed that all these months now, we‘ve known that al-Sadr is the most dangerous man in the world.  He‘s on the cover of “Newsweek” and everything, that Maliki has kept us away from attacking him.

GERGEN:  Well, he sure has.  And the other possibility, Pat, of course, is that they will just sort of disappear us on. They‘ll fade away and wait for to us leave.

BUCHANAN:  That‘s exactly what they‘ll do.

GERGEN:  Yeah, some of them will stand and fight.

BUCHANAN:  They‘re not going to take on the American army.

GERGEN:  Right.  They‘ll stand—some of them will stand and fight.

BUCHANAN:  They‘re not going to stand up to the 82nd Airborne walking around looking for them.  

MATTHEWS:  That gets back to the hard question here, David Gergen.  Think big here, as you can. If all we‘re going to do over there is delay the civil war, because they‘ll wait us out, or they‘ll maintain the arsenals of materiel and ordinance, and they‘ll get ready for the big fight that comes after we leave, what is to stop anything like going to hell the minute we leave that country? 

If we don‘t leave now, we leave in two years, we leave in five years.  At that point, the country goes to hell in a hand basket. What stops everything that would happen now from happening when we leave? I don‘t get what we are doing, finally, here.

GERGEN:  Well, the gamble that Pat and I are describing, the long shot, the remote possibility is, that you bring enough peace to Baghdad.  You begin to get some reconstruction going. The loyalties, the people of Baghdad no longer feel they need—the Shiites don‘t feel they need these militias, from Sadr.  You weaken Sadr and it begins to disappear.

I think it is extremely unlikely to happen. The military looked at this and said it is not likely to happen.

(CROSS TALK) 

GERGEN:  But if it is the best shot you‘ve got. Go ahead, Pat.

BUCHANAN:  Let me say this, if the United States pulls out, there is a civil war. And I think the Shia will be aided by the Iranians, who will send a lot of folks in. At that point, a lot of the Americans in this country, and the Israelis and others, will say you have to take down the Iranians. We have the air power, the naval power, not with ground troops.  And that is one way this war spreads. And then you have a firestorm in the gas station of the world.

MATTHEWS:  What did you say, David?

GERGEN:  I just don‘t  accept that scenario. I dots—

BUCHANAN:  I think it is almost a certainty, Iran will help the allies in a civil war.

GERGEN:  Oh, well, the civil war may well take place in Baghdad. But if we keep some troops on the ground, as we should, if you keep enough in there, Iran is unlikely to come in, in full force.

BUCHANAN:  Oh, not full force. 

GERGEN:  As the Saudis are unlikely

BUCHANAN:  They will put people in.

GERGEN:  They‘ve already—yeah, there are some Syrians on the ground in there now. We know that. There are some people in there. But you‘re right, you want to keep Iran out of there, and you have to keep the Saudis out of there. That‘s absolutely right.

BUCHANAN:  How do you do that if you follow Baker plan, and take out 15 combat brigades?

GERGEN:  No, they‘re not talking about everybody out.

(CROSS TALK) 

BUCHANAN:  Vacuum, who fills it?

GERGEN:  No, no, no, Pat.  That is not what the Baker plan proposed.  It proposed keeping a lot of people on the ground. It was to take the majority of our combat forces out of there over the next year. That is true. But it was also accompanied by a very serious stepped up effort to get the Iraqis trained. You do not see that effort in this plan. It was accompanied by a very serious effort to try to stabilize the region.  Talking to various parts, you do not see this in this plan. This is relying primarily upon the backs of American soldiers.

BUCHANAN:  I think if you take the American combat brigades out, you have a vacuum and everybody pours into the vacuum. 

MATTHEWS:  OK.

GERGEN:  If you take them all out, that‘s right.

MATTHEWS:  It may be what we‘re watching here tonight is a failure of the imagination.  The president says it is the only alternative—

GERGEN:  It is a failure of leadership over the last four years.

MATTHEWS:  The only alternative is to send in 30,000 troops? Or 20,000 troops?  I think that is a hard argument.  There are a lot of options here.

Thank you very much, Pat Buchanan.  Thank you, David Gergen.

Up next, what is the worry like at the White House tonight? Does President Bush have a winning sales pitch tonight, to give us?  You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  Let‘s go to NBC‘s chief White House correspondent David Gregory who is at the White House right now to give us a preview of the president‘s speech tonight.

David, my favorite political question is, whenever I ask about a principal like George W. Bush, who is in the room with him when he makes big decisions?  Can you tell the genesis, the providence of this policy of 20,000 more troop in Iraq?

DAVID GREGORY, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT:  Well, I think it is worth saying that the president is isolated on this.  But he is isolated within his administration.  I think still with the vice president and other conservatives who have been pushing for the president to do more, not less, to engage further.  To throw more troops into this problem.  There are people like Ken Edelman and other neoconservatives who were supportive of this war all along, and have been critical of the execution of the war, who said you have got to have a momentum changer here.  And the only way to do that is by securing Baghdad and giving Iraqis a sense that the Maliki government can actually survive.  So whether it is fantasy or not, and that depends upon how you view this policy, the president is banking on Nouri al-Maliki standing by him, and saying this is the guy who has to put up or fade away or fail and I‘m backing that guy.

MATTHEWS:  Let‘s try to game it out a bit.  Because it is life and death for so many Americans over there and families of people over there.  Let me ask you this.  Will we know in a couple weeks, even, whether Maliki will put up the number of fighting brigades in the streets of Baghdad that he has promised?

GREGORY:  We should.  And you and I have talk about this.  And I think it is an intriguing question.  What are the metrics here?  How do you know if it is working or not?  The way the build-up goes, this is really a surge.  Sources are telling us it is more like a stair.  A step program where you get an initial wave of troops.  Iraqis are supposed to match that with their own forces in Baghdad.

But here is what‘s important.  It is not just that they show up which they haven‘t done before.  But that they‘re actually there to fight and fight everybody.  Fight all the bad guys.  Not mix and match the rules of engagement to suit their own political interests.  This is about Nouri al-Maliki who is a Shiite, who is affiliated with the same political parties as Muqtada al-Sadr and other standing up to those guys and saying, no more.  And doing it through the barrel of a gun which he has not been willing to do before.

MATTHEWS:  Have you heard this thing that Mick just told us that Maliki has promised our president that he is going to go after Muqtada al-Sadr, the bad guy behind all this death squads and killing by the Shia militia?

GREGORY:  Well, this is the real point.  And the White House has been pushing him.  Not only to take that step but in order to do that, to reform his political coalition so that he has a ruling coalition that gives him enough cover politically to actually do that.

Because I think as you‘ve been talking about it, and some others who have been on the program tonight.  That is so key here.  The Mahdi Army is the real muscle in Baghdad.  To get past that, you have to deal with Muqtada al-Sadr.  This is all the, we‘ll see.  Right?  And this is what the president is saying tonight is that if Maliki doesn‘t step up in a way he hasn‘t done before, the American people are gone.  And he knows, the president knows his neck is out on this one.  And the American people have left him already in terms of supporting him generally.  And they‘re not supportive of this kind of increase in troops.  Iraqis themselves have to demonstrate some progress.

MATTHEWS:  I think this might be the second to the last chance for the president.  He has one more chance and that can‘t to be ask for more troops.  Six months, it will be hang in there with me.  I think this still might work.  But I think this is the second to the last chance for the president.

Let me ask about the process of getting the speech out tonight.  Why has there been so much leaking?

GREGORY:  It is unusual.  Somebody like me who covers this place, I wonder who is running the store.  They never put out this much advance word through leaks, through background briefings and the like.  I‘ve thought about this and my conclusion is they really wanted to try to soften the blow.  They wanted to debate about this increase in troops to go on before in advance of the speech so there might be, just might be more attention on the rest of what the president is saying.  The economic aid, the pressure that he is putting on the Iraqi government.  He knows that American want to hear that.  And the question of, what is the alternative?

The president wants to put more appreciate our Democrats who oppose this to say what would you do?  To make this bottom line argument to the American people that as bad as you think things are, as much as you may want the United States to disengage, the consequences of doing that would be so catastrophic that you wouldn‘t like the results.  And somewhere along the way, you would think that I was right to put the stake down and say, no, we are not going to retreat from this.  We have to stick it out.

MATTHEWS:  Great report.  We‘ll see you after the speech tonight and our coverage right after the president is finished.  David Gregory at the White House.  He‘ll be back later after the president has spoken.

Up next, Mitt Romney says he supports Bush‘s plan.  So does Rudy Giuliani.  John Edwards is now calling in the McCain plan.  What‘s that about?  The McCain doctrine.  Boy this thing is getting partisan.  You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(NEWS BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  The president will call for a military build-up in Iraq but will he clearly define the mission to the American people when he talks live to the country?  At 9:00 p.m. Eastern?  And how strained is the U.S. military?  Where are those new troops going to come from?  And when will Iraq finally take control of its own destiny?

Let‘s turn to our Hardballers tonight.  Chuck Todd is editor-in-chief of “The Hotline.”  And MSNBC contributor Mike Barnicle.  I want to start with Chuck.

I‘m watching the politics of this and I know we‘ll talk about the substance at 9:00.  Lets talk about the pregaming going on.  Rudy, Romney and McCain.  Solid phalanx for the president tonight.

CHUCK TODD, “THE HOTLINE”:  Absolutely.  And it has been led by McCain.  What is interesting, we see criticism from McCain on this, it will be he didn‘t send enough troops.  This isn‘t enough.  This isn‘t what he was looking for.

What is interesting in watching both Romney and Rudy, they are basically hiding behind McCain.  McCain is for this thing, so are we, we aren‘t going to have any distance between us.  We are not going to let Iraq divide us.  It they know, the Republican Party owns this war.  It doesn‘t matter whether Romney is the nominee in ‘08, Rudy or McCain.

MATTHEWS:  Do you agree with that, Mike Barnicle?

MIKE BARNICLE, MSNBC ANALYST:  I think .

MATTHEWS:  Is it a Republican war and they‘re stuck with it?  They might as well get in line?  Elephant behind elephant for this war position tonight.

BARNICLE:  I think there is that, Chris but also, on the other side.  Even John Edwards, Chris Dodd, Joe Biden, all of them running for president.  They are going to be asked when they are out there in Iowa, in New Hampshire or anywhere in this country within the next six months, one of two questions.

How could you have gone along with this guy on this scheme?  Or hey, things are looking up in Iraq.  Now the betting is it will be the first question they‘re going to be asked and they‘re going to have to have an answer for that.  Because Iraq is going to be the front burner issue in ‘08.

MATTHEWS:  How does Hillary hide then?  She seems to be hiding tonight already.  It is a little early to say she is hiding but I‘ve seen no evidence that she‘s issued a statement to a speech that‘s already pretty much public record now.

BARNICLE:  Does she know where Iraq is?  She hasn‘t said anything about it in months.  She hasn‘t said a thing about it in months.  It is amazing that she‘s been able to get away with what she‘s gotten away with.  Saying nothing.

MATTHEWS:  Does her silence imply support for the war?

BARNICLE:  I think her silence implies the fact that she is so solidified into the mechanics of a campaign, rather than the emotion of the campaign, that she has forgotten what it is like to run for president of the United States when her husband ran for president and she didn‘t, but she is so involve in the mechanics and the consultancies around her candidacy, that she‘s forgotten, that this war has given this country with great emotion.  The president of the United States has lost the country on this war.  And if she remains silent, she‘s going to lose a good chunk of her support for presidency.

MATTHEWS:  Can Hillary Clinton win the Republican, or rather Democratic nomination without being a passionario, someone with a strong passion against the war which see has shown no evidence of yet, so far?

Can she get away with winning it as a professional who says, all thing considered, I believe the president‘s policy needs to be changed and adjusted.  Can she get away with that kind of dispassionate view?

TODD:  Not if it is the number one issue.  Not if it‘s the frontrunner issue.  She won‘t.  I think there is too much passion.  It is between John Edwards and Obama.  The both of them are trying to touch that.

MATTHEWS:  Two out of the three frontrunner are clearly against this war.

TODD:  She is in a box, though.  The problem, is whenever now she come out with her Iraq position, when she give her first major Iraq speech, the fact is they are all going to have to do it.  Whether it is at Georgetown, Council on Foreign Relations stuff.  We know what they have to do.  It will get picked apart by the left and the right.  And it is they know it.  So I actually think they‘re avoiding this because they know whenever they come out with something that is going to be big, they might as well do it on their terms.

MATTHEWS:  Mike Barnicle, I know that the conventional wisdom is to say we can‘t leave Iraq now.  Although I keep asking people who say that, what will be different five years from now that is not true today?  What logic is there behind a presidential policy of increasing our complement of troop from 130 to 160, or 50 something.  And saying that is a dramatic change in strategy.

BARNICLE:  Well, I mean, Chris, you‘re exactly right.  A year ago, we had 150 to 150 to 155,000 troops in Iraq.  We‘re now down to anywhere between 125 and 130.  So this uptake of 20,000 is just bringing it back to where it was a year ago.

Now, the trick here is the definition of what this mission is.  Are we going to continue to be enabler of an incompetent government in Baghdad?  Is the mission of these young men, these young men and women, soldiers and marines going back to Iraq or being kept in Iraq for an extended period of time, are they going to be knocking down the doors of the Iraqi families along Haifa Street and other places in Baghdad?  Or are they going to be sealing off the street?  And the Iraqi army going in to deal with Iraqi insurgents?  Is it going to be all on us or all on the Iraqis?

MATTHEWS:  Miklaszewski, and we just had him on, Jim and it sounds like they‘re make us go after the Shia bad guy, Muqtada, the worst guy in the country and we‘re going to have take him on because he is too close to Maliki, our prime minister over there.  What do you think, Chuck, don‘t we end up looking like we‘re going back to the door kicking business and we‘re out front with them, cowering up in Kurdistan somewhere.  The Iraqi army.

TODD:  And that‘s what-on about how this is being rolled out.  Is that the other thing that was missing and how they‘re rolling it out, why I still want to watch the speech even though we supposedly know everything.

MATTHEWS:  They‘re putting out a lot from the White House.

TODD:  We haven‘t defined victory.  I don‘t see anywhere .

MATTHEWS:  Victory is not leaving this week.  That seems to be what the president is saying.

TODD:  I think that the country won‘t listen to him on Iraq until they hear what victory is.

MATTHEWS:  You know what struck me, Chris Carney talking about Scranton, Pennsylvania, Wilkes-Barre, that area there.  Culturally conservative.  Not exactly Jane Fonda country.  Turned against the war.

TODD:  They‘re done.

MATTHEWS:  Chuck Todd, Mike Barnicle staying with us and coming up later, MSNBC‘s Keith Olbermann is going to be here to talk about what President Bush plans to say tonight.  This is HARDBALL only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  We‘re back with “The Hotline‘s” Chuck Todd and MSNBC contributor Mike Barnicle.

Mike, we just got the word from London on Reuters.  It just moved on the wires that the Brits are sending home 3,000 of their troop.  They‘re cutting their force level in Iraq.  At the same time we‘re building ours up.  I think the phrase, coalition forces is getting strained a bit.

BARNICLE:  Chris, I mean, the coalition of the willing?  There was never any coalition.  There was never any coalition.  There is about this war, Chris, something I‘m sure you sense as you go around the country.  There is a combination of sadness and frustration.  And you‘re talking about Scranton, Pennsylvania before the break.  When the president loses a place like Scranton, as you said, not exactly a hot bed for Jane Fonda activists.  The sadness and the frustration in this country over this war is so overwhelming.  I can‘t measure it against anything other than the latter stages of the war in Vietnam.

MATTHEWS:  At least in the war in Vietnam, we were fighting world wide communism which really was circling the globe at that point and we were lucky to get a break when they fell apart in Russia.  We got our big break.  Communism failed so badly.

I find from the very beginning, the war in Iraq was not about the truth.  They didn‘t have a nuclear weapon they were going to deliver to the continental United States.  These mushroom arguments were made up.  Fear talk.  Selective use of intelligence.  The war in Vietnam wasn‘t selective.

TODD:  The political thing they‘ve lost here is you go into this Scranton

thing.  It is now just as patriotic to be against this thing as it is to be

it you‘d to be, you could play this patriotism thing that the administration would play.  And it they no longer can do that.  There are too many Republican that are done with this thing.  You‘ll have a bunch of them on later tonight.  From every one of them that is up in L.A., that represents a blue state.

MATTHEWS:  We keep hearing name like Voinovich is not up.  And we hear from Hagel of course all the time.

TODD:  So many of them.  You‘ll have John Sununu.  We haven‘t heard from him.

MATTHEWS:  Trent Lott last week on HARDBALL said he wasn‘t sure he would vote for this.

TODD:  Mitch McConnell has been trying to be supportive.  Even he is saying let‘s see the plan.  He‘s no dummy.  He wants to keep the 49 senators he has.

MATTHEWS:  This gets back to my theory.  This may be subversive, that if this war had been fought by Bill Clinton, the true conservatives.  I don‘t mean the idealogues, the neocons and those people, the true conservatives out there.  The Barry Goldwater people.  The George Wills.  Let say the Bill Buckleys.

They would have said this is some stupid ethnic war.  This is complicated.  What are we doing in that part of the world?  They would have laughed at this war.  The only reason they supported this war in Iraq is because their guy, George W. Bush believed in it.  They followed bush.  When he blew it with Katrina and he war went badly, they said wait a minute.  He may not be as smart as we thought he was.

I don‘t believe the conservative heart was ever in this war.  I don‘t believe it was their kind of war.  It was a war of adventure and ideology and democratization in the world.  Since when do conservatives believe in going around the world turning people into democratic voters?  I never heard that conservative philosophy in my life.

BARNICLE:  Chris, they followed the president.

MATTHEWS:  That sounds like Wilson, Woodrow Wilson or somebody.

BARNICLE:  They followed this president on this war because they bought into his messianic belief that we should do this and that we could do this because we were the United States of America.  The most powerful country in the world.  And knocking off Saddam Hussein would be a lay-up, as George Tenet said.  And now all of these senators, not necessarily just the guys who followed them.  But ordinary guys with common sense.

Like Hagel of Nebraska.  Like Sununu of New Hampshire are going home and being asked this question at shopping centers and coffee shops all over the states.  Why is my son in Iraq?  Why might he die?  Why are we there?

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Thank you very much.  Well said.  Mike Barnicle, Chuck todd.  Thank you, gentlemen, for joining us.

Tonight we‘re about an hour away from the president‘s speech to the nation. 

Has America closed its ears, however?  Are they still listening tonight?  What will the president say?  Can he really convince the country that sending in 20,000 more troops on top of 132,000 is the best we can do right now.

MSNBC‘s Keith Olbermann will be here when we come back.  Anyway, you‘re watching HARDBALL only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  In just over an hour, President Bush is expected to explain his plan to send more than 20,000 additional U.S.  troops to Baghdad mainly.  MSNBC will have live coverage of the president‘s speech beginning at 9:00 p.m. Eastern, anchored by myself and COUNTDOWN host Keith Olbermann who joins us right now.

Keith, this is a hard sell for the president.  We have had so many leaks. 

We know the news value.  We know the facts.  What can he do to gussy it up?

KEITH OLBERMANN, MSNBC HOST:  I don‘t know.  Because how many times have you and I sat in our respective chairs and talked about what the president was going to say that was going to change the facts when the facts weren‘t changing to the way the president wanted them.

You and I have sat in these chairs dating back to at least May 1, of 2003 with these decisive, conclusive, course changing events coming from the president‘s lips and nothing has truly changed events.  He will even tonight say according to the advanced releases from the White House, the new strategy I outline tonight will change America‘s course in Iraq.  Which only I think will serve to remind people of that familiar phrase “stay the course.”

MATTHEWS:  It‘s interesting that Mike Barnicle, who is not known to be a military analyst, just a general assignment columnist pointed out tonight that we‘ve had the number of troops that he‘s about to increase to as recently as last year.  We‘ve been here before literally.  We‘ve been up to 150 some thousand in country.  Here he is taking us back from 132 to over 150 back to where we were a year ago when we were not doing well.

OLBERMANN:  And so much of this is I feel sometimes like we‘re doing a series together, Chris.  That we‘re analyzing the same speech week after week.  Like this Bush‘s anatomy that we‘re doing instead of the news.

MATTHEWS:  It‘s more like “Groundhog‘s Day” I‘m afraid.  I think we‘re seeing de ja vu.

OLBERMANN:  Exactly.

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask you about the quality of the presentation.  We‘ll be talking about it afterwards of course together but he does have to be definitive, doesn‘t he on the mission of these new troops?

OLBERMANN:  Yeah, what we have seen so far that would be the part that they would not release in advance.  And that‘s understandable.  If it‘s just trust me again, the trust bank is pretty thin.  One thing I noticed that jumped right out at me of these advanced releases, there will be no surrender ceremony on the deck of a battleship, describing the future.  I‘m wondering if somebody at this last moment is thinking that referencing the deck of a battleship when we go back May 1st and the Abraham Lincoln, the USS Lincoln events of “Mission Accomplished” and that banner might be coming back to somebody‘s mind here as an unfortunate analogy.

MATTHEWS:  Yeah, and the other thing the president is going to use the terminology, lessons learned.  Which is the flip side of mistakes made.  Of course we all learn from our mistakes.  Apparently he won‘t go up to the very edge, the brink of saying this war was a blunder or blunders were made in putting in too few troops or anything that lines.  He will say we‘ve learned some things.  Will get that ramified by the media to I blew it?

OLBERMANN:  I don‘t know.  Doesn‘t it see to you that it‘s an attempt to split the difference and have it both ways.  To admit a mistake, but not say it‘s your mistake.  It hasn‘t worked for the president for the last four years.  It has been greatly deteriorating his popularity and his support for this adventure in Iraq all that time.  I don‘t know why it‘s going to be different tonight.

MATTEWS;  The country will be watching with - I don‘t think with an open mind but they will be watching and paying attention.  Looking for signs of hope and the president will have to deliver that very product tonight.

Thank you Keith Olbermann.  Stay with MSNBC for more on the president‘s speech.  I‘ll be back at 9:00 p.m. Eastern along with Keith for live coverage on MSNBC.  COUNTDOWN starts right now.

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

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