updated 1/24/2007 11:49:24 AM ET 2007-01-24T16:49:24

Guests: Trent Lott, Steny Hoyer, Chuck Todd, Eugene Robinson

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST:  The State of the Union, a speech vs. a reality. 

We live in a country that every indication tells us wants change.  How else do you explain that Hillary Clinton is a 50-50 bet, a flip-of-the-coin bet against all other contenders to win the Democratic nomination?  You bet the people want change. 

Let‘s play HARDBALL.  

Good evening.  I‘m Chris Matthews.  And welcome to HARDBALL. 

In just two hours, President George Bush will deliver his first State of the Union address to a Democratic-controlled Congress.  His speech will be heard by millions of Americans who strongly disagree with his war in Iraq and made their will known by throwing his party out of power in the last election. 

A new NBC/”Wall Street Journal” poll shows a majority of Americans now think Bush‘s plan to escalate the war will make little or no difference.  And two-thirds believe the United States will eventually have to withdraw without a stable government in Iraq.

But it‘s not just Democrats and a majority of Americans who are skeptical of this president, this president and his policies.  The president and his administration is also facing fierce criticism from some of the most respected members of his party.

Senator John Warner is backing a resolution opposing the troop increase in Iraq.  And Senator John McCain is now blaming Vice President Cheney for what he calls the witch‘s brew of a terribly mishandled war.  If Warner and McCain turn against Bush, can he stop a full-blown Republican revolt against his unpopular policies in Iraq?

We talk about this later with Senator Trent Lott. 

But, first, MSNBC‘s chief Washington correspondent, Norah O‘Donnell, joins us from Capitol Hill. 

NORAH O‘DONNELL, NBC CHIEF WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT:  Good evening, Chris.

Tonight is the president‘s sixth State of the Union address, but it is the first time he addresses a Democratic-controlled Congress.  So, the president will say tonight, we can work through our differences. 

The challenge, really, for this president is that there are questions about whether he is a lame duck.  And not only Democrats, but Republicans, are increasingly skeptical of his plan, not only on Iraq, but on domestic issues. 

The president is going to speak for about 40 minutes, we are told, tonight.  He has been through more than 30 drafts of this speech.  On Iraq, he will defend his policy to send some 21,000 additional troops to Iraq to say—in saying that the—arguing of failure would be grievous and far-reaching. 

But he is also, in some ways, going to try and change the subject, Chris.  And that he why he is going to be spending a lot of time in the speech tonight on domestic proposals.  So, he‘s talking about a way to expand health insurance for more Americans.  There is a big policy proposal on energy. 

In fact, the president‘s advisers—advisers want the headline in the newspaper tomorrow to be about energy.  And that is, the president wants to try and cut gasoline consumption by 20 percent in the next 10 years.  He is going to talk about immigration reform.  He‘s going to try and revive his Social Security proposal. 

But, bottom line, Chris, already, the Democrats up here on Capitol Hill, even though the president is trying to be gracious tonight to the Democrats, have not signaled that they are willing to help the president on any of these domestic issues. 

And, then, of course, Chris, we are going to hear, after the president tonight, from newly elected Senator—Democrat Senator Jim Webb, of course, from Virginia.  And this is going to be a very personal rebuttal to the president.  His son is in Iraq. 

His son‘s deployment will be extended, because his son is part of the surge.  And the debate here up on Capitol Hill for the next couple days is not going to be about these domestic initiatives that the president wants to try and change the subject with.  Instead, it is going to be about Iraq, because, as you mentioned, there is going to be a vote up here in the coming days about whether they support or oppose the president‘s troop-surge plan—and Democrats telling me today they think they have got at least 12 Republicans who will vote and say that they oppose the president‘s plan—Chris.

MATTHEWS:  Thank you, very much, Norah O‘Donnell.

Mississippi Republican Trent Lott is the Senate minority whip.  He‘s number two right now.  He may well be number one fairly soon.

Let me ask you, Senator Lott, is this going to be anything constructive tonight?  It seems to me that Democrats aren‘t looking to help this president in his last two years, and he‘s still acting like he‘s calling the shots. 

Is there going to be a discordance tonight?

SEN. TRENT LOTT (R-MS), MINORITY WHIP:    I think that Congress will be considerate of the president.  He‘s got a difficult job on his hands.  We all know that.  He‘s going to have to talk about Iraq.  And he will do that. 

But he‘s going to try to talk about some other things also.  He is going to talk about the economy.  The economy‘s strong.  Unemployment is very low.  Inflation is under control.  Wages are rising. 

He is going to talk about some of the issues that face everyday Americans in their lives and their families.  Health care, we have got to address that question.  Health care is so expensive now, and not even accessible in some rural parts of my own state and other parts of the country. 

He‘s going to need to talk about energy policy.  I‘m not sure he‘s going to, you know, suggest the solution, but he‘s going to have some ideas out there.  And I think that‘s very important that he do that.  He‘s going to talk about immigration and education.  I hope it won‘t just be a laundry list, but these domestic issues are important, and they affect people‘s lives. 

And, so, he will open the discussion.  And these are issues that we need to address.  And we will try to do that as the year goes forward. 

But there‘s no question, Chris.  You know, I know Iraq is going to be overlaying everything. 

MATTHEWS:  You know how traffic gets on Capitol Hill, how it gets congested, and then nothing gets done.  Does he have to single out one or two domestic issues, if he‘s going to get them done in the next two years? 

LOTT:  I think he needs to.  Obviously, there are some areas where we should be able to get something done in a bipartisan way. 

As you noted in your comments, I don‘t know.  We may see tonight that bipartisanship is dead, before it even gets started.  But, in areas like immigration reform, it‘s got to be done, should be done—and it can be done—in a bipartisan way.  We won‘t all agree with the details of it, but we have got to address that issue—same with energy policy and with health care.  Obviously, the president has worked with Democrats in the past on No Child Left Behind.  And he will try to do that again. 

But I would narrow it down, really, to—to those areas—areas that affect our country, that will affect our future, our economy.  And energy is not just about the cost of gasoline.  It‘s also about national security and, you know, the economy in general. 

MATTHEWS:  Are you backing John McCain for president? 

LOTT:  I am backing John McCain for president. 

MATTHEWS:  Are you surprised he took a wicked shot, accusing the vice president, today, of having a witch‘s brew of advice for the president on the war in Iraq? 

LOTT:  Well, you know, we all say things sometimes that maybe went a little further than we would want to, in retrospect.  But John has also been very strong in saying we have got to go with the president‘s plan to try to change the status quo.  He‘s extremely high on General Petraeus. 

I know he‘s unhappy that we should have done a surge or increase in numbers earlier.  He‘s made that clear for three years.

But he has been very strong in saying we have got to go forward with this plan, to change the status quo, to give General Petraeus a chance.  But he also recognizes, as we all do, the Iraqis have got to step up.  And this is their last chance.  Maliki has got to provide leadership.  They‘re going to have to deal with the politics.  They‘re going to have to get on the point with their own troops. 

This is it.  This is the big test.  And there‘s a lot at stake for everybody involved. 

MATTHEWS:  Do you believe the vice president has been helpful with his advice to the president?  Do you agree with your candidate, John McCain, that he‘s offered bad advice to the president in war policy? 

LOTT:  I‘m not sure we know exactly what the vice president‘s advice has been. 

Obviously, I‘m—I consider myself a friend of Vice President Cheney.  I found him a person that keeps his counsel very close, and doesn‘t step right up, until you really ask him what he thinks. 

But, remember this.  It‘s the president that makes the decision.  Vice President Cheney would tell you that. 

I know he‘s got a lot of different advice.  Sometimes, I have offered my advice.  Sometimes, he takes it.  Sometimes, he doesn‘t.  And I suspect that happened here. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask you about Karl Rove, the president‘s chief political hatchet man, if you will.  I think that‘s what he‘s called. 

What did you think of the fact that Libby‘s, Scooter Libby‘s, attorney today, Ted Wells, aimed directly at—at Karl Rove, and said, he had set up his client, Scooter Libby, to take the fall for that leak of the CIA agent‘s ident—I.D. back a couple years back?

What do you make of the charge by the president‘s assistant, Scooter Libby—he‘s also the vice president‘s assistant—blaming Karl Rove for shenanigans in the White House, aimed at blame—at leaving the blame for all that mess, that leak, on the vice president‘s man? 

LOTT:  I didn‘t see it.  But I had heard it, of course. 

And I‘m, frankly, surprised that that would be what they would say in the opening part of this trial.  I don‘t know whether that‘s accurate or not.  But, certainly, it—it‘s a problem in many ways. 

MATTHEWS:  Do you think your party‘s coming apart now?  You have got McCain, who‘s the leading candidate for the Republican nomination, according to betting odds I‘m looking at—I‘m looking where the money‘s going—it‘s going on McCain—he‘s blaming Cheney, who‘s the chief hawk in the administration.  And now you have got Scooter Libby, who‘s one of the hawks, blaming the chief political guy, Rove. 

These are the kinds of things that didn‘t happen in the first term.  There‘s—it seems like there‘s a breakdown in the—the regimentation of the party. 

LOTT:  Well, that‘s one thing, I think, that‘s attractive about John

McCain.  He‘s a strong leader.  You may not agree with him—and I have

disagreed with him, aggressively, many times—but you know where he‘s

coming from.  You know he‘s going to be working for what he thinks is the -

the correct, principled stand.

And he will—he will—he will go forward.  He will provide real leadership. 

But, in answer to us coming apart, look, Chris, as you know—you have watched this city for at least the last 30 years—and—and so have I.  I was here in the aftermath of the—the 70‘s, of the Watergate.  We went through the—you know, the Clinton years. 

MATTHEWS:  Right.

LOTT:  No, this is—this is temporary.  Parties surge.  They fall back.  You make mistakes.  You get, you know, punished by the voters.  And then you get yourself together.  You come forward with an agenda.  You talk about what you want to do for the country.  And you—you—you rebuild the momentum, and—and go from there.  And it‘s important we do that.

MATTHEWS:  Do you see the irony?  I have one last question, Senator Lott.  Do you see the irony in the fact that Hillary Clinton, who served on the impeachment—the—rather, the Watergate Committee, back when she was a kid, basically, out of law school, is now foregoing federal funding of her campaign, so that she can spend all she wants?

In other words, those Watergate reforms, so-called, back in the ‘70s that came out of Watergate are now being thrown aside by the Democratic candidate, the woman who many people consider a New York liberal now?  Here‘s she, saying:  I don‘t want to conform to the reforms that came about because of the committee I worked on.

LOTT:  I think it‘s ironic.  I‘m disappointed that she‘s doing that. 

Maybe more and more candidates are going to do that. 

But, Chris, when you start talking about having to raise $100 million in a year to run for president of the United States, that is a problem.  And you talk about, you know, people being concerned about, you know, how much money does get involved and cause problems, this is a classic example of why. 

MATTHEWS:  OK.  It‘s great having you on, Senator Trent Lott.

I said you‘re about to be leader.  That‘s way down the road some day. 

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  You will be top man again, I‘m sure. 

LOTT:  Well, thanks.

MATTHEWS:  Anyway, coming up:  Are the Democrats poised to attack whatever President Bush says tonight?  That‘s a good question.  Let‘s have Steny Hoyer answer that question.  He‘s the House Democratic leader, majority leader.  He is going to be on in just a minute. 

And, at 9:00 p.m. tonight, Keith Olbermann and I will have live coverage of the State of the Union from here at MSNBC. 

And, afterwards, we are going to talk to the senator from New York, the junior senator, Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama, the junior senator from Illinois—both, of course, the leading contenders now for the Democratic presidential nomination.  Lindsey Graham is also joining us.  He‘s a big McCain backer.  And John Edwards, who is number three on the list, I must say, in all the polling for the Democratic nomination for president.

And you can get immediate reaction, by the way, from our MSNBC team tonight.  We will be blogging during the speech and all night.  Joe Scarborough, Mike Barnicle, Hilary Rosen, Chuck Todd, and Tucker Carlson will be blogging on our Web site, Hardblogger.MSNBC.com.

You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Coming up:  Can President Bush change the national subject away from the war in Iraq? 

Majority Leader Steny Hoyer will be here when HARDBALL comes back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.

In less than two hours, President Bush will deliver the State of the Union address in the House or Representatives.  It will be the first time he speaks to a Congress totally controlled by Democrats. 

U.S. Congressman Steny Hoyer of Maryland is the House Democratic leader, the majority leader of the House of Representatives. 

Congressman Hoyer, have you guys got any plans to applaud at different times tonight and to sit on your keisters at other times? 

REP. STENY HOYER (D-MD), MAJORITY LEADER:  There‘s no set plan, no. 

(LAUGHTER)

HOYER:  We talked about that today.  There seems to be this game of up and down.  But we‘re going to be respectful to the president of the United States, as we ought to be.  We‘re going to listen.  We hope we hear a message that we want to work together.  And we hope to hear some new directions for our country.  But we will applaud, hopefully, at appropriate times, and not at others. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask you about something that seems to be changing.

You and I know that, for years, that Ted Kennedy dominated health care discussions.  And then Hillary Clinton did for a while.  It seems now that the Republicans are honestly trying to break into that field of doing something for the uninsured working people out there—in Massachusetts with Mitt Romney, with Arnold Schwarzenegger in California. 

Is there a deal that could be struck between the two parties to give millions more people a shot at decent health care? 

HOYER:  Chris, I think the—and the answer is, I hope so.  And I think there may well be. 

You‘re correct.  There are Republican governors, working with Democratic legislators, making definite steps forward toward that end.  And it is an end that we need to achieve.  We know we have 46-plus million Americans with no insurance and some very badly underinsured.  So, we need to move forward together to do that.

MATTHEWS:  And they‘re the working people. 

HOYER:  Yes. 

MATTHEWS:  They‘re not the people on relief.  They‘re the people who work every day that don‘t have health insurance. 

HOYER:  Absolutely.  Absolutely. 

You know, we talked about the minimum wage.  And most of the people on the minimum wage don‘t have health insurance.  We need to make efforts, and hopefully in a bipartisan way, working with the president.  He‘s going to talk about that tonight. 

We will analyze his proposals to see whether or not they help get us to that end.  If not, we will have further discussions.  And, if so, we will try to support him where we agree. 

MATTHEWS:  Can you do something on global warming that limits the emissions problem, or deals with the emissions problem, the carbon emissions and all that—we all know something about it—and still keep John Dingell happy, the chairman of the Energy Committee? 

He‘s from Michigan.  He‘s got a primary responsibility to look out for the auto industry.  But the auto industry doesn‘t have the same interest, exactly, as the people do.  We want clean air.  They want cars that don‘t cost quite as much to make.  We all want heavier cars.  They give us heavier cars.  But that means a lot more emissions. 

HOYER:  Yes. 

Chris, I think the answer to that question—I don‘t want to sound corny—John Dingell‘s first responsibility is to the people he represents, his constituents, obviously to the industries that create jobs that are important to his state and to our nation.  But his responsibility is also to the country. 

And John Dingell is, I think, going to move ahead with a responsible energy policy, in cooperation with Speaker Pelosi and others in the Congress.  It is clear the American public expect us to move forward to meet the challenge of global warming.  And, if we don‘t, they‘re going to penalize us for that.  So, I think the answer to your question is yes.

MATTHEWS:  I was watching the Al Gore movie the other night.  I know you have seen it at least once...

HOYER:  Yes.

MATTHEWS:  ... “An Inconvenient Truth.”  Al Gore makes quite a good sort of Mr. Wizard.  He‘s pretty good at it.

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  Do you think the president believes—with your conversation with the president, does he believe that global warming, climate change, is a problem?

HOYER:  Chris, my conversations with him have—have not been extensive enough on this issue to give you an answer to that. 

However, it is clear that he believes, and his administration believes, that they have got to make initiatives and make proposals to deal with global warming, because they know the American public believes this is a real problem, and a lot of their experts, as—as experts are all over this globe, saying this is a problem that the industrialized world has got to deal with, or we‘re going to be in real trouble. 

MATTHEWS:  Let‘s talk about Iraq for a minute.  It is going to be part of the speech tonight. 

The polling that we are doing at NBC and “The Wall Street Journal” says that the public wants you in Congress to take the lead.  How do you take the lead, if the president says:  I‘m putting troops into Iraq, 20,000 more, and you can‘t stop me? 

HOYER:  Well, he‘s probably right in the short term.  In the long term, he‘s not right. 

We—we can stop him in the long term.  The first step, as you know, that we are taking is, the Senate is leading on a resolution which says, Mr. President, we don‘t agree with you. 

We have just heard a number of generals who were in theater, were in charge of the—the effort over there, have come back and said, this will not work.  This is not a policy we ought to be pursuing. 

I have articulated great skepticism, along with others.  The military doesn‘t agree.  Apparently, the—the Maliki government doesn‘t agree.  The Iraq Study Group did not agree.  The president, frankly, is on his own, because the American public don‘t agree either. 

We will listen to what he has to say tonight.  We‘re conducted hearings.  We‘re going to—we‘re going to pass a resolution through the House in a bipartisan way in the not-too-distant future which says, Mr.  President, we don‘t agree that this is policy that is either change or will lead to success. 

MATTHEWS:  OK, thank you very much, U.S. Congressman Steny Hoyer, who is the House majority leader. 

Up next:  Polls show a majority of voters oppose the president‘s plans for Iraq and don‘t trust him personally.  Can he say anything to change that tonight?

You are watching HARDBALL on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Got the jitters.

Welcome back to HARDBALL.  It‘s just over 90 minutes now.  At 9:00 Eastern -- 9:00 Eastern—the president will enter the U.S. Capitol to deliver his sixth State of the Union address.  It comes at a time when his poll numbers are low, and anger and disapproval on Iraq are very high.

Here to preview tonight‘s speech, MSNBC‘s Pat Buchanan, MSNBC‘s Mike Barnicle, and “The Hotline”‘s Chuck Todd, and “The Washington Post”‘s Eugene Robinson.

Gentlemen, take a look at this poll.  Sixty-six percent, two-thirds, of the country is only somewhat confident or not at all confident that George Bush has the right characteristics to be president. 

Gene, this is about the right stuff.  This gets to the sinews of this guy.  People doubt he has the stuff. 

EUGENE ROBINSON, “THE WASHINGTON POST”:  Yes, people have lost a lot of confidence in President Bush.

And—and, you know, he—I think all he can do tonight is—is maybe try to arrest the fall, try to stop the erosion of his—of support and confidence.  And, you know, he can‘t change the subject from Iraq, which is his big problem. 

But he can at least introduce some new subjects for people to talk

about.  And we can talk about global warming and—and health care.  And -

and maybe that lets him kind of tread water and try to—you know, try to get his head back up again at—at some later point. 

The speech tonight, I think, can‘t really change that picture substantially. 

MATTHEWS:  Mike Barnicle, do you think that people will believe this president on global warming?  He has been one of the main naysayers, or at least quibblers about it, for—for years now. 

MIKE BARNICLE, NBC ANALYST:  Well—well, first of all, Chris, I want to find out where the one-third of the people who responded to that poll live who still support the president, because I don‘t want to be living near them. 

But the president, on—on the environment, I mean, the—given the

way this administration has operated, so inefficiently, so ineffectively,

on—on the most important thing any president can do, the function of the

war, this is going to be the sixth or seventh time—sixth time, I think -

he has mentioned energy alternatives in his speech, ethanol plants.

I don‘t know, given the nature of this White House, whether they think an ethanol plant is something that needs to be watered or something that need to be nurtured. 

But this guy got has a long, long row to hoe here. 

MATTHEWS:  Chuck, you get up in the morning, I‘m sure, about 2:00 in the morning, generally, and look at all the newspapers. 

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  Somehow, you know, by the time I get to “Hotline” every day, all the headlines.  Can this president, given the tricky situation he‘s in, in terms of having or not having the right stuff, according to the people, to tell them the truth, can he even shift the headlines tonight away from Iraq, if he tries to? 

CHUCK TODD, EDITOR IN CHIEF, “THE HOTLINE”:  I don‘t understand how he would, particularly since he is actually going to try to actually make a little news in Iraq, you know, with this idea of creating an advisory counsel, which is of members of Congress.

So, the fact that he is trying to make news with Iraq, well, it

guarantees that Iraq is the lead.  And, frankly, it is what has worn away -

I mean, we know, Iraq is the all—is the center of all his problems. 

And the problem he has got now is, Iraq—before, people were just upset that they disagreed with him.  Now it‘s as if they‘re up—they are taking it personally, that the president won‘t respond to their disagreements on Iraq.  And that is really troublesome for the president. 

MATTHEWS:  Pat, you have written speeches for people like Agnew and Nixon, mainly Agnew.

PAT BUCHANAN, NBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  Uh-huh.

I have worked on State...

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  And you‘re proud of that, I know...

BUCHANAN:  I am very proud of that.

MATTHEWS:  ... because you‘re a loyalist.  But let me ask...

BUCHANAN:  I have worked on State of the Union addresses.

MATTHEWS:  What‘s the—what is the charge of the president here? 

What does he try to do tonight?  What is his goal?

BUCHANAN:  His goal, fundamentally, is, your audience is the—the Congress and that magnificent audience is the backdrop for your communication with the American people.

And you take the major issues of greatest concern to you and the country, and try to bring the country around to your point of view to create momentum for your legislation or your compromise or your policy. 

From the excerpts I have seen that already have been put out of the president‘s address, Chris, this is a pedestrian speech.  He better have saved the best wine for last, because I have seen some excerpts of Jim Webb‘s follow-on address.  And it is moving.  And it goes right to the heart.  It grabs the guts of people out there in the country. 

And, frankly, it‘s—it‘s a very powerful address. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Could this be the first time in history that a State of the Union is bumped by the response? 

BUCHANAN:  You know, I don‘t know that—when you have got a State of the Union of that enormous audience the president has, an enormous number of people just cut off right after he is done.

So, Webb won‘t get the audience.  But I think, on the follow-on commentary, unless the president‘s speech is a lot better than the excerpts, Jim Webb is going to win the night. 

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Our panel is going to be staying with us.

And, later, my MSNBC colleague Keith Olbermann is going to be here to help preview the State of the Union. 

You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

CONTESSA BREWER, MSNBC ANCHOR:  I am Contessa Brewer.  Here is what‘s happening.  President Bush‘s choice to be the new U.S. commander in Iraq had his Senate confirmation hearing today.  Lieutenant General David Petraeus told lawmakers that the situation in Iraq is dire and he urged them not to oppose the president‘s planned troop surge.  The Senate is expected to confirm Petraeus in days.

The military says five American civilians were killed when a helicopter owned by the private security firm Blackwater USA crashed in Baghdad.  There are conflicting reports about whether it was shot down.

Watergate figure E. Howard Hunt has died.  He organized the break-in that led to the greatest political scandal in American history and the downfall of President Richard Nixon.  Hunt‘s son says his father died of pneumonia.  He was 88.

And he may have lost the White House but Al Gore‘s film on global warming

won two Oscar nominations today.  “An Inconvenient Truth” was nominated for

best documentary feature and best original song.  Gore says he is thrilled

by the nominations.

Back to HARDBALL.

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  Just 90 minutes now to the president‘s first State of the Union address before a Democratic Congress.

We are back with Pat Buchanan, Mike Barnicle, Chuck Todd, Eugene Robinson.

Let‘s take a look at this new poll.  According to the new NBC-“Wall Street Journal” poll, 57 percent, that‘s almost three out of five, want Congress to take the lead on policy.

Gene again, you first.  Everybody complaints about the Congress not playing ball with the president.  Is it now their job to lead and set the policy around the world for this country?

ROBINSON:  You though, this is amazing situation, Chris.  Congress can‘t do that.  Congress does have influence, of course.  It can cut off the funding for the war.  But Congress can‘t instruct the secretary of state to negotiate with Iran.  Congress can‘t tell Condoleezza Rice to sit down with Bashir al Assad in Syria.

MATTHEWS:  Did anybody tell the voters that?  They think that Congress ought to do the job of leading right now and I amazed that—maybe it is just hope against reality, things aren‘t going well.  They are hoping to give the ball to somebody who is hotter than the president right now.

ROBINSON:  Maybe what they want is for Congress to hold the president‘s feet to the fire.  To hold the president accountable and to try to strong arm the president into policies that are—that the public supports.  Which are against the war.

MATTHEWS:  Gene, the president‘s feet are in the fire right now.  They don‘t have to hold them close.

ROBINSON:  Sorry about that, Chris.  You are absolutely right.

MATTHEWS:  Chuck, let me bring you in here.  Is there a constitutional challenge now before the people as we watch the president act as if he has got the agenda and it‘s up to Congress to respond to it.  That may be the normal way things done in DC, they have always been done that way, but now you have a Democratic Party, Pelosi sitting behind the president, she has already got her six scalps on the wall, she has already passed a whole bunch of stuff.  She has got her own agenda.

TODD:  Well, I tell you this is actually—Congress can lead a president.  I mean, the 1994 Republican Congress led President Clinton for a period of time.  And President Clinton was smart enough to follow them on some things and it helped him get reelected.  So the problem you have is there is no—you though, if President Bush were in his first term and this happened in his first mid-term, I actually think he would be playing more ball with congress.  He would let Congress lead him to water and try to figure out because he would need to rescue his own.

The fact—the thing that hurts the Republican Party here and hurts the president is that there is no heir apparent.  Right?  There is no reason for the president to sort of follow the lead of Congress and therefore follow the lead of the voters on these issues.

MATTHEWS:  Right.  And the man who is the vice president has just been trashed yesterday or the paper had it today, by the man who is most likely to be the Republican nominee, so they are at war with each other on the inside.  Pat Buchanan, who is supposed to lead right now?  We have two years left of a president.  We will probably be in Iraq for two more years.  Who is the boss?

BUCHANAN:  What the poll says in effect, to me, Chris is that there is no confidence in the president.  The Congress of the United States cannot run foreign policy or war policy.

MATTHEWS:  Why not?

BUCHANAN:  Well, it tried 1974 and 1975 and ended in a complete defeat for the United States and the Democratic Party took the blame.  Congress doesn‘t want to try.  Congress can say yes to a war and no to a war.  It can‘t run a war.

With regard to the McCain-Cheney thing, that‘s what I anticipated when we talk the other height.  The Republican Party is going to be sundered right down the middle because McCain is the most formidable candidate and if this war is the debacle it is a year from now, he is going to have to say it‘s not my responsibility, it was Rumsfeld and Cheney who fouled up what should have been a victorious policy, I have been saying that for your years and we need new leadership.

MATTHEWS:  But in fact he is making the president of the United States the fall guy.

BUCHANAN:  Exactly, he is going to say the administration lost the war and the war was a good idea.

MATTHEWS:  How can a guy who is running for the Republican nomination for president blame the Republican Party for the major failure of our time?

BUCHANAN:  Well, I mean, he has already blamed Rumsfeld for four years, now he has brought Cheney into it.  It‘s one step up to the man who not—who not only got the advise, but took the advice.  That is what he is doing.  This is why, Chris, this party is going to be sundered right down the middle over this war in 2008 if the war is not on its way to a conclusion.

MATTHEWS:  Isn‘t McCain saying the president is a flyweight by blaming it on Cheney?  He is saying to the country, to the reporters, it‘s Cheney‘s fault, as if the president were some figure-head doing what Cheney told him to do.  I mean, you cane blame Cheney for the war in Iraq as much as some people would like to.  It isn‘t his call.

BARNICLE:  Well, that‘s what John McCain said today more or less.  That‘s what he said today.  Cheney, he listened—the president listened to Cheney too much.  Cheney pushed the president to a position where the president, like some automaton just did what Cheney told him of the and here tonight in the State of the Union address, you have this phoniest of all towns because the Republicans will stand and applaud the president when he comes in, Democrats will applaud politely but as if we are all attending something we have all attended at some point in the past.  You know, the crazy family Christmas party where the uncle stands up and starts talking .

MATTHEWS:  Now, let me try a more felicitous metaphor.  Could it be like one of those cartoons we grow up with like the Roadrunner where one of the characters goes off a cliff and he never looks down so he is still out there and then he looks down and drops two miles.  Could the president be that cartoon character that hasn‘t looked down yet for two hours tonight?

ROBINSON:  The W. in George W. Bush could stand for Wile E as in Wile E.  Coyote I guess.  I think the president must realize on some level the trouble that he is in.

MATTHEWS:  You‘re so kind—the president must realize on some level the trouble that he is in.  He lives and breathes the presidency and you are saying it must have occurred to him he is in deep trouble.

ROBINSON:  Look, “State of Denial” was the name of Woodward‘s latest book and there has been a lot of that around the White House.

BARNICLE:  And this all being played out in the backdrop down in the federal courthouse where you have Scooter Libby, the vice president‘s main guy .

MATTHEWS:  Scooting away from responsibility.

BARNICLE:  Scooting away from responsibility.  And you have got Karl Rove being inserted into this thing and Dick Cheney being inserted into the Libby trial and in a sense depending on who you are but a lot of Democrats think that might be the true Axis of Evil.  The three of them.

MATTHEWS:  Have you noticed that Scooter is facing the big house and McCain is facing the White House.  They both decided to turn on their own people.  Have you noticed?

(inaudible) the headlines tomorrow, it will be a battle, won‘t it, between Libby trial and of course the attack by McCains which was in “Politico”, a newspaper basically run now by former “Washington Post” reporters, is this going to battle the president for the headlines tomorrow?

TODD:  No, I think the president gets the headlines but it‘s not going to be pretty headlines.  The thing the Republican Party ought to wish, and I think John McCain ought to wish, the biggest thing that has been thrown at the White House is that they played politics with the war.  That what the whole basis of Libby trial is, they were playing politics in the run-up to the war.

There are a lot of republicans in the chamber tonight that would wish the White House would be playing politics and thinking about politics when it comes to the war because if they were and they were actually thinking about what would be good politics, good politics would be figuring out how to get out of this mess and get the issue off the table because it‘s going to bring down the Republican—as Pat said, it is going to bring down the Republican Party to one of its lowest levels in a long time if they don‘t g4et it off the table.

BUCHANAN:  But what is good politics today might not be good politics in June of 2008.  If you pullout and this whole thing collapses and you have what you could have which is an all-out Sunni-Shia war and this thing going to hell in a hand basket and people being shot in the streets of Baghdad.

MATTHEWS:  It is better we have the Sunni Shia war in two years or now? 

What difference does it make to us?

BUCHANAN:  If it‘s inevitable it‘s better that you have it now rather than later.

MATTHEWS:  I agree.  Why have Americans die to delay the inevitable.

We will be right back with more of Pat Buchanan, who just spoke wisely, Mike Barnicle, Chuck Todd and Gene Robinson.  They are all coming back on HARDBALL as we await the footsteps of the president of the United States on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  One hour and a few minutes from now, President Bush will deliver his first State of Union address before a Democratic-controlled Congress.  We are back with Pat Buchanan, Mike Barnicle, Chuck Todd and Eugene Robinson.

We are looking at that beautiful Capitol dome.  By the lighting up here, I think my reading says they are in tonight.  Congress is in, there is a light is up there, it is a wonderful place to be.  By the way, you feel very good about the country when you take a look at the Capitol dome.  Lincoln put it up, he didn‘t stop because of the Civil War, but here we are, no Civil War in this country.  We‘ve got one in Iraq and I guess going back to Gene again, editor, the columnist who has to do this think big.

The president of the United States is in the last round or two of his administration, if it‘s a 10-round bout, he‘s in like the eighth round or ninth round.  What does he have to do to save his relevance and his leadership?  Ronald Reagan came back strong in his last two years.  Ike came back strong.  What does he have to do?

ROBINSON:  I think the president‘s legacy is so tied to the war this Iraq, that I don‘t think there is anything magical he can do tonight and he seems resigned to that in a way.

MATTHEWS:  So you are turning the candle upside down on this guy and snuffing it out?

ROBINSON:  I kind of am.  He believes history will vindicate him.  He could quote Fidel Castro, at his first trial who said “History will absolve me.”  He believes he will be vindicated, he believes he is doing the right thing. 

And nobody agrees but .

MATTHEWS:  How many years does he have to live after his presidency to make the war in Iraq look good to historians?  Thirty-five, 30 years?

ROBINSON:  I think longer than that.  I don‘t think it‘s going to look good to historians, think it is going to look like a huge strategic blunder by the United States that created a whole lot more problems than it ever solved.  That‘s what I think it‘s going to look like to historians.  So I don‘t think he will be vindicated but he believes he will.

MATTHEWS:  Pat, you disagree with that, don‘t you?

BUCHANAN:  I think that .

MATTHEWS:  Or do you?

BUCHANAN:  Iraq, I think in the near term, Iraq is going to be a complete disaster.  The only way the president survives is if after they go through this revolutionary chaos that democracy does somehow does take root in the entire Middle East and it does sort of evolve into a more democratic .

MATTHEWS:  Which country would likely pick up democracy at this point?

BUCHANAN:  The one that did after 20 years of its revolution was Iran, by the year 2000 Iran .

MATTHEWS:  They keep picking guys they like who don‘t like us.

BUCHANAN:  But the problem is they elected the guys who don‘t like us after we called them an Axis of Evil and invaded the countries of next door.  That‘s how Ahmadinejad got in.

But let me say this about Reagan.  How did Reagan succeed?  In ‘87 and ‘88, he got great Supreme Court battles and eventually he got somebody on.  He got intermediate arms control agreement in ‘87.  He is walking through Moscow in 1988 with Gorbachev arm and arm.  And the Cold War appears to be over.  Russians are slapping Ronald Reagan of “evil empire” rhetoric on the back.  That‘s how you do it.  You do it foreign policy, Supreme Court.  The things that a president alone can do.

If he is expected help from these fellas on the Hill, frankly, I would forget it.

BARNICLE:  Well, to pick up on your fight metaphor, I mean, judges in this

fight have spoken.  They spoke in November and it‘s either a TKO or a

knockout at this point.  If he hugs the other party and holds on, he might

might get to a draw but it looks doubtful.

MATTHEWS:  A Bobo Olson (ph) clinch?

BARNICLE:  Bobo Olson down for the count.

MATTHEWS:  Going with the skinny middleweight white guys of the ‘50s, I‘m sure you enjoyws of their defeats—just kidding.  My problem was always waiting for Sugar Ray, (inaudible) --

And you are comparing to those guys, they had beat-up faces in those days.

BARNICLE:  George Bush looks like Carmen Basillio (ph), the political equivalent of Carmen Basillio tonight.

MATTHEWS:  Right, George Chavalo (ph) was another guy that got feet up.  Some guys win these fights and end up with the worse face.  Le me go to Chuck Todd, who is too young to remember the famous names.

TODD:  I‘m a Haggler guy.  Haggler was my guy.

MATTHEWS:  No mas, no mas.  Who‘s that guy?

TODD:  That‘s Roberto Duran.

MATTHEWS:  No mas.

Let me ask you about this - so we get off this tricky question.  Do you think the president can surprise everybody with a knockout tonight?

TODD:  No.  Because I mean, I guess the only good news is expectations are so low for this speech, as Pat said, the excerpts are lower than pedestrian, so sure, if—because the bar is so low.  But I think no way.  Not with Iraq this badly and more importantly, Chris, no one is listening. 

The things they have to worry about is .

MATTHEWS:  The estimate tonight I bet given the fact they still get a roadblock on the nets and they get the other cable, we are doing it live.  I mean, it‘s a lot of live coverage.  How do they avoid getting 50 million people watching tonight?

TODD:  You got TiVo.  I just think the fact is will people watch or will they—will they listen or will they just watch at it?  They could just watch at it just to boo and that is not a good thing for the president, either.

MATTHEWS:  By the way, that‘s what I think they did with a lot of TV shows.  Watch at it.  It‘s on I guess.  With me either watching or you‘re not—but nobody either watches at me, either turn me off or turn me on.

BARNICLE:  State of the Union tonight is talking wallpaper.

MATTHEWS:  You‘re tough.  We‘re trying to get an audience tonight and you guys are turning them off.  Please watch to spite Barnicle.  Tape his radio show in Boston tomorrow if you want to hear this stuff.

Thank you, Pat Buchanan, thank you Mike Barnicle, Chuck Todd, Gene Robinson.

Up next, MSNBC‘s Keith Olbermann is going to be here to join me to help preview—or I will help him preview the speech tonight.  Watching HARDBALL, or as Mike would say “Hahdball” on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  Tonight I will be anchoring the State of the Union address with my colleague here, MSNBC‘s Keith Olbermann who joins us now to preview not only his COUNTDOWN show tonight which is coming up at 8:00 Eastern but also the president‘s speech later this evening.

I sometimes think, I mean, you have been a very good, I think sound critic of the policy of this war in Iraq and you have been very clear annunciating it to the chagrin of people like, oh, Bill O‘Reilly, people like that.

KEITH OLBERMANN, MSNBC ANCHOR:  Yeah, well .

MATTHEWS:  Do you think that the country has come around the to the view that you hold?

OLBERMANN:  I think as usual the media and the politicians have been behind the country for a long time on this.  You can fool - even though Lincoln did not say it, you can fool some of the people some of the time but not all of the people all of the time.

MATTHEWS:  Were you as sure of your position as the president has been of his?

OLBERMANN:  When I initially spoke it?  No.  Certainly not.  Because some of us leave room for doubt and one of the major problems that the man behind us faces in that place behind us tonight is that he has approached each of these states of the union addresses as if he knew everything and everything that he was going to say was verifiable fact and very little of it has proved to be that case.  I don‘t what‘s his credibility.

MATTHEWS:  Do you think he approaches some of his speeches like a teacher in a madrassa school, that what I‘m teaching you now is actually text truth?  You think he is not .

OLBERMANN:  Do you think the madrassa reference is particularly .

MATTHEWS:  It may not be felicitous, but let me ask you, does he believe his religious beliefs are identical to his political beliefs?  Does he believe that, do you think?

OLBERMANN:  I don‘t know, I‘m not going to speak to that.  I couldn‘t possibly know that.  You can‘t know what is in inn somebody‘s faith or religious beliefs.  But the analogy to the teacher has been made many times before that this is the first grade teacher who now goes and fills in with the kindergarten class and is very frustrated when the kindergarten class does not follow his ideas that he usually expresses at the first grade class.

That has been much the tone of this and for a long time and again and again, every—every responsible Democratic leader, every moderate that I have spoken to, everybody that has ever stopped me on the street has basically said a variation of the same thing about this presidency and about what has happened in the last year particularly.

That after September 11, we all signed off on our natural inherent American skepticism.  Our dubiousness, our he‘s in charge, we should keep an eye on him.  No matter who it has been ...

MATTHEWS:  Right, William Allen White (ph), the great writer from the Midwest called that the “divine dissatisfaction” of the American people which made us a great country.  That we‘re never satisfied with what our leaders tell us.  That we always question it and you‘re saying it was suspended for 2001 .

OLBERMANN:  Wise words from Emporia, Kansas, right?

But we all suspended that because we felt we were in trouble and we gave that—that right of criticism and that right of dissatisfaction as White put it .

MATTHEWS:  That said—but you are covering a lot of territory here.  Is it possible that we have missed something?  How can a president, George W.  Bush, a man that no one claims to be a great order, a great thinker, he doesn‘t have those kind of claims about him for better or worse, why was he able to move a country so successfully that we as a country began to make decisions along the lines of—we are right and everybody else is wrong.  The French, the Europeans have been there in North Africa, they have dealt with the Arabs for years, they are wrong.

French fries, let‘s change the name to freedom fries—The Dixie Chicks, no - this almost total groupthink that we have been involved with up until recently.  How does Bush do that if he is as limited as you suggested.

OLBERMANN:  Because he tapped into something else part of our psyche collectively that we don‘t like to talk about.  My grandmother Schlumbum (ph) came home from school during the First World War and told her parents that sauerkraut had renamed victory cabbage and she was a little bit afraid to use her German name in the middle of First World War.  We have always done things like that.  But the question has become in the last few years .

MATTHEWS:  That‘s how Battenberg, Lord Battenberg became Lord Mountbatten.

OLBERMANN:  And the Windsors from the Hohenzollerns.

MATTHEWS:  Right.

OLBERMANN:  But why—If you are doing that for a good reason, if there is some sort of collective shift in the mind for good reason, for real imperilment as in Second World War.  As in the First World War.  It‘s organic.

What happens if that is manipulated in some way, if that is triggered in some way and I think a lot of people in the country felt like the old Shelly Berman joke where he goes into the room and calls down the hotel room, he calls down to the hotel clerk and says I done have a window in the room.  And the clerk says well all the rooms have hotels.  Why don‘t you come downstairs and talk to me?  And he says well, there is also no door.  How did you get into the room?  I don‘t know, there was a door when I came in, there is no door to get out.

More and more people seem to have gotten this impression that the president got them into a room that didn‘t have an exit door.

MATTHEWS:  That could be the greatest damnation of this policy.

That we now find ourselves as a country, left, right and center, without a clear means of escape from Iraq.  That it was such an unsuccessful strategy it put us in a position like Chinese handcuffs, the we pull hard to get out, and the more we pull to get out, the tighter we are held by the policy.  But that does put us in a conundrum.  Who to you believe when they tell us how to deal with the problem if not the president?

OLBERMANN:  I don‘t know and that‘s where the problem lies and why the last five States of the Union addresses have been what they were and why this one is viewed so suspiciously, I suspect.

MATTHEWS:  Well, we are going to be getting up right now.  It‘s right about time now.  I want to thank you Keith Olbermann, because I am going to be back with you as a partner for much of the evening.  I think we are going for the record tonight although the record is still held by me who stayed up 11 straight hours on that November morning and caught Imus coming in, troll-like at 6:00 in the morning.

I will be right back with Keith in less than an hour and we will be joined by NBC‘s Tom Brokaw.  COUNTDOWN starts right now.

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

END   

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