updated 3/29/2007 12:41:52 PM ET 2007-03-29T16:41:52

Guests: Sen. Joe Biden, Sen. Kit Bond, Bill Richardson, A.B. Stoddard, Roger Simon, Steve McMahon, Kate O‘Beirne

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST:  A meddler or a mommy?  The president attacks Congress for meddling in his war policy.  Speaker Pelosi says Bush ought to take a deep breath.

Let‘s play HARDBALL.

Good evening.  I‘m Chris Matthews.  Welcome to HARDBALL.  Senate Democrats scored a big victory Tuesday with an agreement to set an exit date for moving troops out of Iraq.  U.S. polls show that 60 percent of Americans back a plan to pull our troops out of Iraq.  President Bush vows to veto it.  If President Bush does veto it, does that make him the man who is keeping us in an unpopular war?  We‘ll talk to Senators Joe Biden and Kit Bond in a moment.  Plus, General Barry McCaffrey, who‘s just back from Iraq, paints a bleak picture of the war.  He‘ll be here to brief us.  And Senator Hillary Clinton is still the Democratic leader of the pack, and today she picked up the endorsements of the National Organization for Women and Billie Jean King.  We‘ll talk to Governor Bill Richardson, another Democratic candidate.

But first, HARDBALL‘s David Shuster has this report on the political battle over Iraq.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DAVID SHUSTER, HARDBALL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  On the heels of the latest vote in Congress approving a timetable for an Iraq withdrawal, today President Bush lashed out.  At a speech in Washington, he accused Democrats of meddling in the middle of a war.

GEORGE WALKER BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  It makes no sense for politicians in Washington, D.C., to be dictating arbitrary timelines for our military commanders in a war zone 6,000 miles away.

SHUSTER:  President Bush calls himself “the decider,” and today he blasted Democrats for interfering and said if the war gets worse, it will be the Democrats‘ fault.

BUSH:  If Congress fails to pass a bill to fund our troops on the front lines, the American people will know who to hold responsible.

SHUSTER:  The rhetoric from President Bush was some of the toughest he has offered in the Iraq debate in weeks, but it was matched today by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE:  The fact is, the president of the United States, as the commander-in-chief, has weakened our military.

SHUSTER:  At a news conference with House leaders, Pelosi spoke about Iraq policy and repeatedly scolded the president.

PELOSI:  On this very important matter, I would extend the hand of friendship to the president, just to say to him, Come down with the threats.  There‘s a new Congress in town.  We respect your constitutional role, we want you to respect ours.

SHUSTER:  And just in case anybody missed the verbal jabs, she charged the president with being over-agitated two more times.

PELOSI:  I just wish the president would take a deep breath and recognize again that we each have our constitutional role.

So I say to the president, You‘re the president, we‘re the Congress. 

Let‘s work together for the American people.  Take a deep breath, Mr.

President.

SHUSTER:  The verbal attacks and counterattacks come in the wake of polls showing that support for the Iraq war is the lowest ever and that a strong majority of Americans support a timetable for withdrawal.  So the Bush administration and key Republicans are scrambling.  One aspect of their strategy involves portraying Iraq as improving, not getting worse.

John McCain this morning on the “TODAY” show.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN ®, ARIZONA:  The fact is, Meredith, we are succeeding.  There are signs of progress everywhere.  We have a new strategy and a new general.

SHUSTER:  President Bush at his speech read Web entries of an Iraqi Internet blogger.

BUSH:  Displaced families are returning home.  Marketplaces are seeing more activity.  Stores that were long shuttered are reopening.  We feel safer about moving in the city now.

SHUSTER:  But Western journalists in Iraq say that while the violence has diminished in some neighborhoods in Baghdad, it has gotten worse in others.  Several military experts say the militias are simply moving away from where U.S. troops are concentrated, and retired General Barry McCaffrey says the situation is now so dangerous for Iraqi members of parliament that not a single one can walk around Baghdad without armed guards.

The other rhetorical device the Bush administration is using is the argument that any conditions imposed on the war are unpatriotic.

BUSH:  Our troops in Iraq deserve the full support of Congress and the full support of this nation.

SHUSTER:  In Florida this week, Vice President Cheney said, quote, “When members of Congress pursue an anti-war strategy that‘s been called ‘slow bleed,‘ they‘re not supporting the troops, they‘re undermining them.

Democrats counter that undermining the troops is actually when you send them to war for reasons that keep changing and with no regard to the majority of American people demanding an end.

PELOSI:  This war is diminishing the strength of our military, not honoring our commitment to our veterans and not holding the Iraqi government accountable.  When the president says he wants to veto this bill, he says, I am vetoing accountability, accountability of my own administration and of the Iraqi government.

SHUSTER (on camera):  By passing an Iraq funding bill for this year that requires a withdrawal next year, Democrats have put the White House in a political bind because while President Bush argues any cut in funds this spring would be the Democrats‘ fault, in fact, it‘s the president‘s veto, Democrats point out, that would now keep the funding from going through.

I‘m David Shuster for HARDBALL in Washington.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MATTHEWS:  Thank you, David.

Let‘s go now to Senator Joe Biden, Democratic presidential candidate and chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee.  Senator Biden, can Congress stop the war or just help start one?

SEN. JOE BIDEN (D-DE), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  It can help stop one.  It can help start one, but it can also help stop one, and it can help change the direction, Chris.  And what people don‘t read about the Senate resolution, the Senate bill we passed, it sets a goal just as the same goal set out by the Baker-Hamilton commission, the Iraq Study Group, to have combat troops out by March of ‘08, except for those left behind to protect the borders, to protect our troops, train Iraqis and go after al Qaeda.  It is not as the president portrays it.

MATTHEWS:  Well, you say a guideline.  I thought it was an exit date.

BIDEN:  It is a goal.  It says that‘s the date picked, assuming military commanders believe it can be met.  That‘s what the Senate side says.  The House side sets an absolute date.

The bottom line here is, Chris, that the president‘s policy, the Bush-McCain doctrine, just will not function.  Think of what the basic premise is.  It‘s they‘re going to establish a strong central government that‘s a democracy.  That‘s not going to happen in your lifetime or mine.  We‘re trying to redefine the mission to enable us to get to the point where we have a political solution everybody calls for, but no one but me and Les Gelb have offered a specific political solution.  Give local control over the local fabric of their daily lives with a weak central government.  Until we move toward that direction, there is no possibility of us doing anything but trading a dictator for chaos.

MATTHEWS:  If the president were to sign some compromise between the House and the Senate versions of these exit dates, would we pull our troops out by next summer?  If the president signed a bill, somewhere—that would effectuate a date of somewhere between March and August, somewhere like July or June, would that mean that we would have to leave—in other words, does this measure really offer an alternative policy, which is, We‘re coming out?

BIDEN:  Well, it actually does offer—it says we are going to come out unless we have to leave troops a little longer in order to do one of four things—one, protect the troops that are there as they are getting out, two, train Iraqi troops, three, provide for taking on al Qaeda in Anbar province, where they‘re trying to set up control.

What it really says is, Get out of the civil war.  Change the mission, Mr. President.  As long as you have us in this middle of a civil war, there is no prospect for success.  None.

And you‘re going to hear from Barry McCaffrey very soon on your program.  I‘ll be dumbfounded if he says anything else.

MATTHEWS:  But he also said in the article today in “The Washington Post”—we‘ll hear from him in a few moments, but he said that it‘s so dangerous for the government officials in Iraq, the people we put up there in that new government—we‘ve stood up that new government—that they can‘t walk the streets.  They‘ll be picked up and killed.  And if—and if...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  ... can‘t walk the streets of its own capital, how can we step aside and say, Carry on, boys?

BIDEN:  Put it another way.  How can we stay if they can‘t even, after four years, provide enough security in the over 180,000 people we‘ve trained in their army to protect their members of parliament as they walk around?  That‘s the other side of the question.

MATTHEWS:  Well, let me get this straight...

BIDEN:  So the question is here...

MATTHEWS:  Hillary Clinton has said—Senator Clinton, your colleague, has said that she thinks we should remain, keep some troops in there after we pull our troops out.  I don‘t understand that.  Are we going to get out of that country or are we going to have a permanent base in that country?

BIDEN:  What we‘re talking about doing...

MATTHEWS:  What‘s your policy?

BIDEN:  My policy is what I set out a year-and-a-half ago, which is to set a goal of getting out by March of ‘08.  Make it a local referendum.  Let the Iraqi constitution work.  Give that Shia control over their areas, the Sunnis over theirs, and the Kurds over theirs in terms of their local police forces.  Have a weak central government that controls the army, the distribution of resources and their borders.  And that‘s the way in which you begin to separate the parties.

Never in history has there been a case, Chris, when there‘s been a self-sustaining cycle of sectarian violence that anything other than a dictator, an occupation or a federal system has ended it.  We need a federal system here.

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Thank you so much, Senator Joe Biden, who‘s the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee and a candidate for president.

Republican senator Kit Bond is vice chairman of the Select Intelligence Committee.  By the way, Senator Kit Bond‘s son, a Marine, is serving now his second tour in Iraq.  We must ask you, have you heard from him?

SEN. KIT BOND (R-MO), VICE CHAIR, SELECT INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE:  Yes, I have, Chris.  But obviously, I don‘t talk about where he is or what he‘s doing.

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Let me ask you about your policy toward the war.  Do you believe that there is a consequence to the Senate‘s vote yesterday to basically effectuate a March 2008 pullout date?

BOND:  Very definitely.  The worst (ph) that we can do in prosecuting the war, which is following the new policy laid out by General Petraeus that largely follows the guidelines of the Baker-Hamilton commission, is to help the Iraqi security forces, both army and police, gain control over their country.

Now, if we set deadlines, and these are political timetables determined by a bunch of would-be generals sitting in the United States Senate or the House 10,000 miles away from Iraq, all we do is tell the enemies, Here‘s the date on the calendar, circle it, just lie low, and you can take the country over when we can withdraw.

Far better, I think, to let the commanders on the ground, General Petraeus and the others, their officers and their troops, determine how well and how fast we‘re moving and draw down forces as the Iraqis are ready to assume control.  The president has said we don‘t have an unended commitment.  Nobody‘s talking about an unending commitment.  But we do need to leave a stable Iraq.  Otherwise, chaos and disaster will ensue.

MATTHEWS:  If your goal is a stable Iraq, then that‘s an unending commitment because you‘re saying we‘ll stay there as long as it takes to do that, aren‘t you?

BOND:  We—I...

MATTHEWS:  Or are you saying something else?

BOND:  General Petraeus made it pretty clear in his testimony that he believes we can make significant progress towards giving the training, the leadership and the assistance to the Iraqi security forces to allow them to take over.  And that is the goal.  And he said he will report back to us later this year how he‘s succeeding.  If it all goes—if it all goes south on him, and on our trips, we should know that pretty soon.

How long it will take to have all of our soldiers and Marines withdrawn, I don‘t think anybody knows at this point.  But I would certainly hope that we are not there on any unending basis.  We‘ve had troops stationed in Korea for 40 years, and I certainly don‘t think that we‘re going to have troops in a fighting war in Iraq for any significant length of the time.  But we here in Washington can‘t give a precise timeline that would give the enemy a clear indication of when he or they can take over.

MATTHEWS:  When do you think you will decide—are you going to go along with this war as long as the president says it‘s good policy, or will you make a judgment at some point, 2008, 2009, where you, Senator, decide, We‘ve given this all way have, we can‘t stay there forever?

BOND:  We will get the best information we have.  I also serve on the Defense Appropriations Committee.  We will be hearing from General Petraeus and the other military leaders.  We have continuing contact through classified briefings by all the—all of the intelligence agencies—CIA, DIA and all of the other agencies, in which we can find out their assessment of progress.

The public assessment that they gave us in January that was clearly laid out on the record was to set an arbitrary short-term timetable would lead to chaos, increased killing among Shia and Sunnis killing each other, the ability of al Qaeda to come in and establish a safe haven, and likely a war involving all of the Middle East region as one side‘s co-religionists start to lose and their supporters in other countries come in to support them.  And I think that is a disaster that would likely bring hundreds of thousands of American troops back to the region.

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Thank you very much, Senator Kit Bond of Missouri.

Coming up: Is Iraq getting even worse?  And is Iran provoking a showdown with the British?  We‘ll talk to General Barry McCaffrey, just back from Iraq.

You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.

While the political battle over Iraq, the war funding and the troop withdrawal issues, heat up between the Congress and the president, General Barry McCaffrey just got back from Iraq, and he says the situation is scary.  He briefed White House national security officials on his findings just yesterday, and he‘s scheduled to brief other senior administration officials, as well as congressional leaders soon.

General McCaffrey, thank you, sir.  If you were just a big (ph) American with a vote right now, would you vote to expedite our departure from Iraq, or would you vote to give it more time, if you were a big voter?

GEN. BARRY MCCAFFREY, U.S. ARMY (RET.), MSNBC MILITARY ANALYST:  I

would certainly not encourage the Congress to set a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq.  I think, first of all, they‘re not going to do it.  Politically, it‘d be a disaster...

MATTHEWS:  They just did.

MCCAFFREY:  Well, no, they haven‘t.  The game is not up.

MATTHEWS:  You mean the president hasn‘t signed it, yes.

MCCAFFREY:  It hasn‘t gone through a conference committee.  It‘s unlikely to me that there‘ll be a binding piece of legislation that‘ll force the president...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  ... depending on what they‘re hearing from the battlefield commanders, right.

MCCAFFREY:  Yes.

MATTHEWS:  But they do have—if you look...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  I do know the Hill, as you do.

MCCAFFREY:  Right.

MATTHEWS:  If you—if the Senate says March and the House says August, it‘ll be somewhere in between.

MCCAFFREY:  Chris, when we‘re done with this, there will be no binding impairment of the president‘s ability to carry out the war.  It‘s never going to happen.  Probably isn‘t constitutional, be a political disaster for the Democrats.  This is a statement of opposition to the war, which is legitimate...

MATTHEWS:  Even though it‘s attached to a spending bill, to the supplemental, the $89 billion?

MCCAFFREY:  Watch it.  Three months from now, six months from now, the president will not be legally bound to pull those troops out.  It‘ll never happen.  And by the way, it‘s a bad idea.

MATTHEWS:  What would you—you don‘t believe it‘s a good idea to even talk about it that much.

MCCAFFREY:  Right.

MATTHEWS:  Is your...

MCCAFFREY:  Well, talking about it‘s OK.

MATTHEWS:  OK.  You‘ve been over there how many times now, General?

MCCAFFREY:  Oh, God.  Four times.

MATTHEWS:  What—give me the progression of...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  I really want to know, like a moving picture, like a Walt Disney wildlife photography picture, how has that picture in Iraq developed over the four times you‘ve been over there?  Where—what‘s it like now, compared to how it was before?

MCCAFFREY:  In the last 45 days since General Dave Petraeus got there, the short-term indicators are immeasurably better.  Murder rate‘s plummeted.  The Maliki government gave us a green light to go take down the renegade Sadr militia.  The Sunni Arab tribal leadership has said, We‘re sick of being marginalized in the political equation.  Our boys are going to be the police.  So there‘s all these short-term indicators that says it‘s better.  The question at hand is, has anything materially changed in a bitter low-grade civil war because we are now negotiated joint Iraqi-U.S.  presence all over Baghdad?  That is the question on the table.

MATTHEWS:  Well, I guess I‘m trying to figure out, is it deteriorating?

MCCAFFREY:  I think that it is an open question. 

I don‘t think the thing is a closed issue.  You have got new U.S.  leadership.  Maybe you have got new spine in the Maliki government.  Questionable.

MATTHEWS:  OK. 

Let me ask you this.  Let me cut to the chase.  Are they better able to patrol their own streets, control their own country, stabilize that country, than they were a year ago?

MCCAFFREY:  Yes, sure.

MATTHEWS:  The people themselves?  If we walked out en masse...

(CROSSTALK)

MCCAFFREY:  No.  There is no question.  They are better off than a year ago.  They were a disaster.

MATTHEWS:  To do it themselves?

MCCAFFREY:  Now they have got real battalions, Cougar fighting—armored fighting vehicles, some helicopters, new weapons coming.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  OK.  You are not in the government anymore.  You‘re not in the service anymore, General.  Let me ask you this.  How many more years are we going to be fighting this Iraq war, years fighting it with combat operations? 

MCCAFFREY:  We are out of there in under 36 months.  The next president of the United States is pulling the plug on this operation. 

MATTHEWS:  But...

MCCAFFREY:  And that‘s the dilemma.

MATTHEWS:  Just—that is a political assessment, though.

MCCAFFREY:  Sure.

MATTHEWS:  But what is the assessment on the ground?  When can we say we have finished the job? 

MCCAFFREY:  I think that it is possible that we would actually get an Iraqi government to try and govern the country in the coming three years.  I don‘t know how it‘s going to come out.  Good leadership, good support, and maybe we will pull this off. 

MATTHEWS:  So, by 2010...

MCCAFFREY:  The situation looks pretty bleak.

MATTHEWS:  ... in March? 

MCCAFFREY:  It is almost a moot point, Chris, because we are not keeping this up, at 20 U.S. brigades, at $9 billion a month.

MATTHEWS:  I don‘t know that.  You don‘t know that, General.  You don‘t know what the next Democratic or Republican president might do. 

MCCAFFREY:  I think it is unlikely the country will tolerate 1,000 killed and wounded a month and $9 billion a month.  This thing is going to get wrapped up in this administration, win, lose, or draw, in my view. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, it is your view.

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  Thank you, General Barry McCaffrey.  Thanks for that report.

Up next:  Governor Bill Richardson of New Mexico, can he be Hillary? 

Interesting. 

You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL. 

Iraq is front and center in Congress and out on the campaign trail. 

Will the president veto a congressional bill to set an exit date? 

We go now to Democratic presidential contender Governor Bill Richardson of New Mexico.  His book, by the way, is called “Between Worlds.”  It‘s now in paperback.

Are you—are you upset tonight, Governor?  

GOV. BILL RICHARDSON (D-NM), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  No.  No, I‘m not upset.

(CROSSTALK)

RICHARDSON:  I‘m happy.

MATTHEWS:  OK.  I want some face here.  I want some happy face.

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask you, Governor, do you disagree with Hillary‘s call for maintaining our troops in Iraq in a fairly lengthy fashion? She said that, after we do the—whatever pullouts are coming up in the next year or so, we could—should keep a remaining force to deal with terrorism and other issues. 

Should we keep our troops, on a long-term basis, in another Arab country, like we did in Saudi Arabia, to...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  ... our misfortune?  Let‘s put it that way.

RICHARDSON:  Chris, I would not leave any troops in Iraq.  I don‘t believe you need a residual force. 

My plan is very clear.  Let‘s say today is March 28.  If I were president today, I would withdraw by the end of this calendar year, depending on what our military says.  But I would also have a reconciliation conference of the three religious groups, forge a coalition government, divide the country into three entities.

And then I would provide security and reconstruction, bring in Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, donor countries.  I don‘t believe you need a residual force in Iraq.  I believe you need any troops that you can deploy from Iraq.  I would put them in Afghanistan, where al Qaeda and the Taliban are serious threats.  I would not keep a residual force in Iran. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask you two questions which I think address your strength as a possible major diplomat for this country, in other words, president. 

One is, do you believe there is any way, in the wreckage of this policy, where it seems to be coming apart, and the streets are not even safe enough for the government officials of the new government we have set up over there in Iraq to walk the streets with any safety, that there might be an opportunity now, in this endgame, to bring in our allies, our historic allies, from Europe and the rest of the world?

Is there any way that they will can come in now and say, OK, we blew it; it is time for the world to act? 

You‘re a diplomat.  Can you do that?

RICHARDSON:  Yes, I...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  ... would you do that?

RICHARDSON:  Yes, I can do that. 

I believe—and I have been there, and I know the region—what is needed is very strong diplomacy that involves the United States and NATO and donor countries to do the two things I mentioned before, force a coalition government—and I know they hate each other, the Sunni, the Shia, the Kurds—into a Dayton-type structure, where there is a division of oil revenues, where there‘s different sectarian groups dividing up the territory, not in the three states.

But, then, Chris, to provide security, to provide reconstruction, you bring Muslim countries that have been left out.  You bring NATO countries.  You bring the Saudi Arabias, the Egypts, the Turkeys. 

But then you also say to Iran and Syria, look, you want stability in the region.  Iran, you want nuclear weapons.  We are not going to let you have that.  But what we might allow you to do is a civilian nuclear capacity.  You don‘t want, at the same time, to have a disruption and sanctions by the United Nations on your oil revenues and your economic policy. 

So, I believe there is a give-and-take—with Syria, too.  I believe sanctions can be put on Syria, and you can bring them in to a broader coalition that involves also dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian issue, just like the Iraq Study Group.  Here are Republican and Democratic foreign policy experts saying that you can‘t isolate Iraq on its own. 

So, I believe a totality of a regional Persian Gulf diplomatic effort, coupled with a withdrawal, use the leverage of withdrawal to bring these diplomatic goals to bear, I believe Iraq would have a chance.  We preserve our interests in the region.  We deploy some of those troops into Afghanistan. 

But we also use the $600 billion that we have spent in Iraq, a large part of it wasted in contractors, in bad procurement policy, and put it on health care, on education, to the domestic needs that this country is—is really crying for. 

MATTHEWS:  OK. 

Thank you very much, Governor Bill Richardson of New Mexico, candidate for the Democratic nomination for president. 

Up next:  John McCain says things are getting better in Iraq.  But what is he saying about his own campaign?

You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MARGARET BRENNAN, CNBC CORRESPONDENT:  In Margaret Brennan with your CNBC “Market Wrap.”

Stocks closed lower, after Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke warned, in congressional testimony, that inflation remains uncomfortably high, in his words, suggesting that the Fed won‘t cut interest rates any time soon. 

That helped push the Dow Jones industrial average down almost 97 points, the S&P down by more than 11.  The Nasdaq lost more than 20 points.

Also hurting stocks today, a lower-than-expected increase in orders for big-ticket manufactured goods.  So-called durable goods orders increased 2.5 percent in February.  That was lower than Wall Street expected. 

Circuit City announced plans to cut costs by laying off about 3,400 higher-paid salespeople and hiring cheaper replacements.  Laid-off workers can reapply for their jobs at the lower salary. 

And oil prices continuing to rise on tension with Iran—crude gaining $1.15 in New York‘s trading session, closing the day at $64.08 a barrel, the highest closing since last September—the one bit of good news here, a smaller-than-expected drop this week in gasoline inventories.

That is it from CNBC, first in business worldwide.

Now back to HARDBALL.  

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.

Both the House and Senate are pushing for timetables, in other words, exit dates, for us getting out of Iraq.  A prominent retired U.S. general just back from Iraq calls the situation there dire.  By the way, his name is Barry McCaffrey.

And Nancy Pelosi tells the president to calm down, because the Congress has a legitimate constitutional role here right now.

For these and other hot political stories, we turn to our HARDBALLERS, Roger Simon of Politico.com, and A.B. Stoddard of “The Hill.” 

Thank you. 

Thank you, gentleman.

And, lady, thank you.

You know, people watching this from Mars may say...

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  ... it looks like the Congress is reasserting its authority over war and peace, Roger.

ROGER SIMON, CHIEF POLITICAL COLUMNIST, THEPOLITICO.COM:  Well, they that authority.  They just haven‘t exercised it, or been allowed to exercise it, since World War II. 

It really does say in the Constitution that the Congress will declare war.  Presidents have just taken over that power.  And now the Congress is saying, it is not just a matter of constitutional privilege.  It is our right. 

They‘re saying—or at least The Democrats are saying, the American public doesn‘t want this war.  This war is not winnable.  Whatever goals it has are not realizable.  And we want out. 

MATTHEWS:  And is that because the Democrats in Congress now feel that they can go home to their districts and states in the next two years, by the next election, in 2008, and feel they are not going to get defeated for being against the war, that that‘s a safe position?

A.B. STODDARD, ASSOCIATE EDITOR, “THE HILL”:  Oh, yes. 

I mean, what—the new polling that suggests that a majority of Americans are for a timeline for withdrawal is—is very big news to the Democrats. 

I think that this is—we will start by saying that the president is going to veto this.  But—but, that said, they have been earning their stripes for three months.  They have been flailing around, while the Republicans held together in solidarity.  Bush was protected by that. 

And now that that is breaking open, the Democrats, this is—I think we will remember this as the beginning of a huge change.  I can‘t say what‘s—exactly is going to happen.  But the Democrats hope is that the pressure upon the Republicans is now—is—is that the pebbles are coming off the mountain.

MATTHEWS:  OK. 

STODDARD:  We‘re not yet at an—at an avalanche.  But they think

that they can come back—and you were talking about this with the general

with something that Republicans will have to support, whether it is timelines with waivers or something, but something that they can pass that the Republicans—that the president wouldn‘t want, but the Republicans will have to join them on. 

MATTHEWS:  You think that is coming; that is the next stage in this? 

STODDARD:  Mm-hmm. 

MATTHEWS:  So, the president vetoes the bill, Roger.  Do you agree with that?  And then the next stage is some synthesis of policy, some kind of compromise comes out, because the president, you‘re arguing, can‘t stand out there all alone now, as the last man holding the war up... 

SIMON:  Well...

MATTHEWS:  ... keeping the war going?

SIMON:  I don‘t think the Democrats are going to compromise on a continuation of what we have seen before, an open-ended commitment to this war. 

They don‘t want it.  Their constituents don‘t want it.  And they believe Americans at large don‘t want it.  And to give in on that point is to fly in the face of what they were elected to do.  And I don‘t think they are going to go along with that.  If it‘s—if it‘s a matter of a constitutional crisis, if it is a matter of withdrawing funding from the war, they will eventually get there. 

MATTHEWS:  So, you think the Democratic Party has the hot hand here...

SIMON:  I do.

MATTHEWS:  ... politically? 

SIMON:  I do, politically, because the American people don‘t want the this war.

The American party doesn‘t want—I‘m sorry—the Democratic Party doesn‘t want this war.  You know, it was only four years ago that Howard Dean gave his famous speech about:  I want to know why the Democratic Party is supporting this war. 

Only four years ago, the Democratic elected leadership was supporting the war.  Now they‘re finally listening to the rank-and-file.  They‘re not supporting it anymore.

MATTHEWS:  Do you agree with that, A.B., even Hillary, all of them? 

Obama, Hillary...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  ... Richardson...

STODDARD:  Yes. 

MATTHEWS:  ... Edwards, all the top runners, Biden, they all want us out of that country?

STODDARD:  Right.  Hillary Clinton...

MATTHEWS:  Do you agree that it‘s...

STODDARD:  ... is running a...

MATTHEWS:  It‘s clear?

STODDARD:  ... general election campaign.  And she is the—the biggest hawk of all of them.

But, yes, even she...

MATTHEWS:  Well...

(CROSSTALK)

STODDARD:  ... she has retreated.

MATTHEWS:  She is moving into the Democratic mainstream, you believe?

STODDARD:  I—I think—I—I do.

MATTHEWS:  You think she is a Democrat on this issue, Roger, Hillary? 

Is she a party person on this?

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Is she with the party on this war?

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Or is she still holding back?

SIMON:  No.  She—she wants out of this war.  And she wants a timeline out of this war.  And whether she was forced there or whether she came there willingly doesn‘t really matter to most Democrats at this point.

But her party is probably farther to the left than she is on this war... 

MATTHEWS:  Certainly.

SIMON:  ... and always has been.

MATTHEWS:  I agree with that, yes.

Well, let me ask you this, because it‘s tactics.  But why, in the news

you know, politicians can talk about anything they want to talk about.

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  You know that.  And 90 percent of politics is picking the topic, because once a Democrat says Social Security, they win.  Republicans say taxes, they win.  If you—if you can get the topic of your choice, you generally win the argument. 

Why do Democrats want to change the argument from this war in Iraq, which all the polls show is unpopular, to this fight over U.S. attorneys?  What is the strategy here?  Why is Schumer beating the drum on this issue more...

SIMON:  Well...

MATTHEWS:  ... than he ever beat the drum on the war? 

SIMON:  Well, because they think both are winners for them.  I mean, it—it—it is.

This is—the only thing the administration has going for them—so many things are going wrong—that the attention of the people is scattered.

(CROSSTALK)

SIMON:  But the attorney thing is a dead-bang loser for them.  I think...

MATTHEWS:  For the Republicans.

STODDARD:  Yes. 

SIMON:  ... the attorney general—for the Republicans.

MATTHEWS:  So, it is an easy shot? 

SIMON:  Yes.  The attorney general, I think, will soon decide he wants to spend more time with his family.

MATTHEWS:  So, we‘re going to see the head of Alberto Gonzales?

SIMON:  Oh, I think so.

MATTHEWS:  Do you think so?

STODDARD:  I do not think he is going to testify on April 17.  I don‘t think he‘s going to last that long.

MATTHEWS:  So, you think he will be out of there by then?  He doesn‘t want to get beat up?

STODDARD:  I think, tomorrow, when Kyle Sampson...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Maybe that‘s the—maybe you have figured out something that the president has threatened him with, basically: “If you don‘t quit, you have got to testify.”

(LAUGHTER)

STODDARD:  Well, he...

(LAUGHTER)

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  I mean, I sometimes think maybe Bush is really smart here. 

That‘s a very insidious way to get your man to say: “Thank you, Mr.  President, for the honor you have given me to serve here.  I will be leaving now.”

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  Thank you, Roger Simon, for the honor of having you here, and A.B. Stoddard of “The Hill” and of Politico.

Up next, the “National Review” calls for Alberto Gonzales to resign.  I think Krauthammer wants him to resign.  The right is falling.  This is hardball, only on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  Today things got worse for Alberto Gonzales.  The “National Review,” the revered and influential conservative journal, represented by our panelist today, said he should resign, because the Justice Department needs a fresh start.  Kate O‘Beirne is that person.  She is Washington editor for the “National Review,” and a HARDBALL political analyst.  And Steve McMahon, of course, is with us as a Democratic campaign consultant.

Are you working with any of these candidates yet, any of these presidential candidates? 

STEVE MCMAHON, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST:  No, none of the presidentials.

MATTHEWS:  Let me know when that happens.

MCMAHON:  Absolutely, full disclosure.

MATTHEWS:  We want bowling shirts worn on this show.  We want to know exactly who you are for.  Look, I do not know, and I don‘t think the story here is Gonzales.  But it is a question.  Tomorrow morning, before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Kyle Sampson is going to come and, to make a Biblical reference, will Sampson bring down the temple?  Kate O‘Beirne?  -- in his testimony tomorrow about this whole mess or firing seven U.S.  attorneys—eight U.S. attorneys. 

KATE O‘BEIRNE, “NATIONAL REVIEW:  I would not expect that Kyle Sampson, the former chief of staff to Attorney General Gonzales—

MATTHEWS:  Recently former. 

O‘BEIRNE:  Yes, exactly, who has resigned since the scandal broke, explaining that he is taking responsibility for failing to properly prepare his superiors for the incredible political blow back to it.  I do not expect him to bring down the edifice tomorrow, if for no other reason, I don‘t think there‘s a there there. 

MATTHEWS:  But there is in terms of—based upon all the recent reporting, their problem, once again, as we were chatting during the break, is the cover-up question.  Did they give honest testimony to the Congress, with regard to why these people were dumped.  That is the question at hand here, right now. 

O‘BEIRNE:  Chris, there might not even be an intentional cover-up.  It has been handled—

MATTHEWS:  How about dishonest testimony?

O‘BEIRNE:  It has been handled so poorly by the department. 

(CROSS TALK)

MATTHEWS:  OK, let‘s have some fun here.  Was Karl Rove involved in these firings? 

MCMAHON:  Yes. 

MATTHEWS:  How do you know?

MCMAHON:  Well, the e-mails suggested he was.  And Tim Griffin, who is a wonderful guy and a very close friend of Karl Rove, was the person about whom this whole Arkansas tempest was all about.  Listen, the president has every right to fire anybody for any reason who serves at his well, or for no reason whatsoever.  What they do not have a right to do is come up before Congress, or before a federal judge or Grand Jury, and tell untruths.  That is apparently what has happened. 

And Kyle Sampson is going to bring down Alberto Gonzales.  Alberto Gonzales is going to be brought down by Alberto Gonzales. 

MATTHEWS:  You believe he will get to testify in two weeks?

MCMAHON:  No, I don‘t, because I don‘t think he will be there in two weeks.  I think this notion that he is going to come in April optimism at its wildest.

O‘BEIRNE:  Well, one problem, Steve, it seems to me, is that he‘s waiting until mid-April to come and explain, on behalf of the Department, what happened. 

MATTHEWS:  Is he waiting for a cooling off period?  Is that what he is doing, waiting for things to cool? 

MCMAHON:  Trying to figure out what his story is.

O‘BEIRNE:  It is characteristic of his passive style.  It is impossible to defend the management of the Department of Justice, this being the latest example.  Therefore, it‘s impossible to, I think, defend the attorney general.

MATTHEWS:  Why doesn‘t the president step in and defend him?  Why doesn‘t he play the political role?

MCMAHON:  Well, he just did.  He‘s done it twice now.  The question is, how many times is he going to do it?  I think the writing is on the wall.  Alberto Gonzales, yesterday, scheduled a news conference in Chicago.  Do you know how long the news conference lasted, 98 seconds.  It was supposed to go 15 or 20 minutes.  It went 98 seconds, because Alberto Gonzales can‘t answer the questions. 

And if he can‘t answer questions in Chicago, at a news conference from what might be local reporters—I don‘t know if the national reporters were all there—he is certainly not going to be able to answer Chuck Schumer and Pat Leahy, and the Democrats who actually know how to ask really tough questions.  He is not going to be able to do it under oath. 

MATTHEWS:  This is what elections are all about, Gentleman and lady.  Because what happened in the last election—I talked about this for a couple of years.  The most important weapon in the hands now of the Democrats is the subpoena.  They‘re able to bring in all kinds of people, Kyle Sampson tomorrow morning, before the Senate Judiciary Committee.  They‘re going to bring in Monica Goodling, although she is taking the Fifth Amendment.  Maybe they will give her immunity.

But this is going to begin to look like a mini Watergate, even if it isn‘t, because of the way the testimony has been coming in.  Right?  Do you agree with that, Kate O‘Beirne?  That the failure to speak candidly has turned something that was not very big, into something that might be big enough to hurt people, to bring down a cabinet secretary. 

O‘BEIRNE:  It‘s already been politically harmful to the administration.  It‘s certainly hurt the credibility of the Department of Justice, which is far more important than the career prospects for Attorney General Gonzales.  The Department is demoralized.  He has lost his ability to defend the Bush administration on lots of fronts that are very important. 

MATTHEWS:  What about the ethnic piece of this?  Everybody‘s very proud in this country, and I think good people are, whenever the door of diversity opens up, and people get jobs their community hasn‘t had before.  Alberto Gonzales is Latino.  Is this helpful in the Republican effort to build its bigger tent, ethnically, to have someone from that community that is not doing well, that has the look of a bad appointment at this point? 

Is that helpful?  Does that say, they took one of our people who did not have the real bona fides, or didn‘t have the stature and the political moxie to do the job, and that ends up humiliating us?  I‘m speaking as a Latino.  Would that be the attitude people would have? 

O‘BEIRNE:  I do not think his ineffectiveness—

MATTHEWS:  You do not think it hurts that deal between Bush and the Latino community? 

O‘BEIRNE:  No—says anything about the broader community. 

MATTHEWS:  I wonder.  You don‘t want it to have any influence.  Do you think it has?

MCMAHON:  I hope not, because I actually think it would be bad for America if it did.  I think this is Alberto Gonzales, who was never really up for the job to begin with.  He was an old crony—

MATTHEWS:  So you agree with me that he may be seen as a person who was not up for the job. 

MCMAHON:  Yes, but not because he is Hispanic. 

MATTHEWS:  No, nobody is saying that.  It‘s when you give the first person from a community the biggest shot that community has had, in terms of status—

MCMAHON:  But I don‘t think he reflects on the community.  I think it reflects on him. 

MATTHEWS:  I think the community might find it reflects on them and they won‘t like that.  How about that thought?

O‘BEIRNE:  I can‘t be embarrassed by every Irish Catholic, Chris. 

MCMAHON:  Nor can I.

MATTHEWS:  I don‘t like it when the Irish cops in the movies are bad guys.  That does embarrass me, because they‘re supposed to be good guys, not geniuses, but honest.  And when they‘re crooks, like in “Witness” --  

(CROSS TALK)

MATTHEWS:  I couldn‘t stand the fact that the Irish cops from Philly were the bad guys.

MCMAHON:  They‘re also always the tough guys though, so that‘s OK. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, that‘s true, McMahon.  But anyway, we‘ll be with Kate O‘Beirne and Steve McMahon.  Well, this is kind of a group here.  You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  We‘re back with Kate O‘Beirne of the “National Review,” and the Democratic campaign consultant Steve McMahon. 

Steve, do remember the good old days when Bill Weld, the Republican moderate, liberal even, governor of Massachusetts, thought he was going to come down to Washington and make himself ambassador to Mexico, because he would be Mr. Pan America in the hi-tech age?  And a man named Jesse Helms, quiet old Jesse Helms, the old codger, came in and said, do you remember, boy, when you made fun of me, and said you would never approve me, never vote for me for chairman of Foreign Relations, or whatever it was, and he bounced him. 

MCMAHON:  Yes, happens every day.

MATTHEWS:  And now we have a case where Sam Fox, who was apparently one of the big contributors to the Swift Boating of John Kerry, has just been bounces as ambassador to something in Europe. 

MCMAHON:  He had just been Swift Boated by John Kerry. 

MATTHEWS:  So, is this what goes around comes around? 

MCMAHON:  Exactly.  I‘m surprised, frankly, that the White House would nominate somebody who had that history—

MATTHEWS:  Did they nominate him before they lost the Senate? 

O‘BEIRNE:  He was nominated earlier this year, nominated in January. 

MCMAHON:  He was sent back up earlier this year.

MATTHEWS:  So they were counting on the kindness of John Kerry. 

O‘BEIRNE:  Well no, he is the kind of major Republican donor, unsurprisingly getting an ambassadorship, who probably writes checks to groups if somebody else says, they‘re doing good work.  Can you help them out. 

MATTHEWS:  But this was a 527, the Swift Boaters.  He was giving money that was going to be used for these nasty --  You can argue they were honest, but they were very nasty against John Kerry.  They questioned his performance as a fighting sailor, and they really were brutal. 

O‘BEIRNE::  Chris, the fundamental problem Swift Boaters and fellow Vietnam veterans had with John Kerry goes back to his 1971 testimony. 

MATTHEWS:  By the way, they are totally within the rights about it.  But the ads suggested, if you watched the ads, as a regular person, that it wasn‘t that they disagreed with him about war policy, or the end of the war, how we behaved.  They challenged his performance in the field. 

O‘BEIRNE:  Correct.  A majority of his fellow Swift Boat officers, those who served with him, did.

MATTHEWS:  Not the ones on the boat with him.  Not the ones on the boat with him. 

O‘BEIRNE: People like Chris Dodd—

MATTHEWS:  You‘re not going to Swift Boat him again, because the guys on his crew were totally supportive of him.

O‘BEIRNE:  Chris, officers didn‘t serve on the boat with him.   

MCMAHON:  OK, give it up.  Even the Bush administration says he was a hero.

O‘BEIRNE:  Senator Chris Dodd has taken up the John Kerry argument against Sam Fox, trying to make it sound really high minded, that Sam Fox is not acceptable to represent the United States of America.  There‘s nothing high minded about this.  It is payback, as you rightly said.  And it is intimidation.  They want other wealthy people not to be contributing to groups that have the kind of effectiveness that this group has. 

MATTHEWS:  I see, so if you want your ambassadorship, that wonderful little bobble at the end of your career, don‘t give to 527s. 

O‘BEIRNE:  What‘s interesting is Jim Webb—

MATTHEWS:  I like the way you get me to say what you are saying, and then don‘t even say, right. 

O‘BEIRNE:  Right, you are right.  I will give you the positive reinforcement you‘re looking for, Chris.   

MATTHEWS:  I need this.

O‘BEIRNE:  Now, what‘s interesting is Jim Webb, of course, serves on that same committee now with John Kerry.  Jim Webb spent 20 years refusing to shake the hand of John Kerry, owing to his 1971 testimony.

MCMAHON:  But the ads weren‘t about the testimony, and John Kerry basically backed off of that testimony. 

O‘BEIRNE:  There would have been no Swift Boat group without that 1971 testimony, Steve.

(CROSS TALK)

MATTHEWS:  You‘re both right.  But the shot against him was that he somehow failed in his duty.  It was not a policy question. 

MCMAHON:  It was an attack on his character.  It was an attack on his heroism. 

MATTHEWS:  Who wins, Steve?  The fact that Sam Fox, one of the money guys behind those Swift Boat ads, has now been bounced from a career move he dreamed of.  Everybody wants to be an ambassador.  It‘s a wonderful honor.  He now cannot have that honor because of what he did. 

MCMAHON:  It‘s a simple rule:  Actions have consequences.  And just as John Kerry had an opportunity to walk away from his testimony after 1971 --

O‘BEIRNE:  Which he never did.

MCMAHON:  Sam Fox had an opportunity just last week to walk away from the Swift Boaters, and he really didn‘t do it. 

O‘BEIRNE:  Vietnam veterans have been waiting 36 years for John Kerry to walk away from his testimony. 

MATTHEWS:  You‘re both right, by the way.  This is one of those

whistling—ships passing in the night.  You are right, the ad unfairly

attacked his performance in the field.  Your right, the motivation behind

the ad was his policy statement rebuking the war in Iraq—war in Vietnam

O‘BEIRNE:  Slandering Vietnam veterans, not opposing the war, slandering every Vietnam veteran. 

MATTHEWS:  You know, Kate, the day that I can actually learn how to lip synch you is where I will be in heaven.  Can I see the end of this.  Oh, we‘re stretching here now.  God, we have an extra 30 seconds.  Is this war in Iraq going to end because of all these deadlines or not? 

MCMAHON:  Yes. 

MATTHEWS:  How so?   

MCMAHON:  It‘s not going to end because the president ends it.  It‘s because Congress listens to the American people.

MATTHEWS:  -- next summer it‘s over.  Do you think that‘s what this could be, or will still be arguing next summer?

MCMAHON:  I think Congress is going to keep his feet to the fire.  They set a date.  They have two dates now.  They‘re going to have to go into conference and figure out what date is going to --  

MATTHEWS:  OK, when will the Republicans break from the president on the war?  When will they stop voting with him automatically, like they are? 

O‘BEIRNE:  When—I think senators themselves will tell you, during the course of the debate—when the facts on the ground, developments on the ground, tell them that, despite our best effort, it is not going to happen. 

MATTHEWS:  Could that be this year? 

MCMAHON:  They broke already.  They broke already. 

MATTHEWS:  No, they haven‘t.  We‘ve got to go.  Chuck Hagel‘s the one that broke.  But I‘m looking for this summer, late this summer, the dog days of August, I think we are going to have a report on what is happening in Baghdad.  Anyway, thank you Kate O‘Beirne.  Thank you Steve McMahon. 

Tonight‘s the radio and TV correspondents dinner, the big Washington annual event, where I met my wife Kathleen 29 years ago.  It was 1978.  I was a mid-level staffer at the White House.  Kathy was a producer at WJLA TV.  We were introduced by Anne Edwards of the White House staff and have been together since.  Kathleen and I are bringing as our guest tonight Darrell Hammond of “Saturday Night Live.” 

Darrel is that uncanny mimic.  He can do the very sole of Bill Clinton.  He brings Dick Cheney to the stage better than Dick Cheney does.  And he does me as good if he is doing them.  He must be pretty good. 

Although I cannot tell, because nobody can tell how someone is doing you.  In fact, you would not know, people watching, what it‘s like to have somebody imitate you, because you do not know what your like. 

Anyway, it‘s a big night in D.C.  It‘s that dinner that William Hurt (ph) and Holly Hunter attended together in broadcast news, most important to us, of course, because that‘s where Kathy and I got together.

Play ball with us again on Thursday.  Notice how I talk different about myself?  We will have the latest on Kyle Sampson‘s testimony to Congress tomorrow.  That‘s before the Senate Judiciary Committee, about those fired U.S. attorneys.  See you tomorrow. 

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

END   

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