updated 4/11/2007 11:35:59 AM ET 2007-04-11T15:35:59

Guests: Phil Gingrey, Chris Van Hollen, Eugene Robinson, Tony Blankley, Howard Fineman

GREGORY: NBC News suspends radio talk show host Don Imus. Let’s play HARDBALL.

(MUSIC)

GREGORY: Good evening. I’m David Gregory, in tonight for Chris. And welcome to HARDBALL.

Late today, breaking news, NBC News President Steve Capus has announced that Don Imus will be suspended from MSNBC for two weeks for his comments about the Rutgers University women’s basketball team. In a statement, News President Capus said the following: “Don Imus has expressed profound regret and embarrassment and has made a commitment to listen to all of those who have raised legitimate expressions of outrage. In addition, his dedication—in his words—to change the discourse on his program moving forward, has confirmed for us that this action is appropriate.”

(I)        should clarify that, of course, Imus’s program, which originates out of WFAN in New York, is simulcast on MSNBC. And again, the decision by Steve Capus, the president of the News division here at NBC News, is that he will be suspended for two weeks.

We want to talk about this today, including Imus’s appearance on the Reverend Al Sharpton’s radio program, his apologies and where it all goes from here.

We’re joined by Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson, from the Washington Post, who will be writing about this in tomorrow morning’s edition, as well as MSNBC contributor Mike Barnicle.

And Mike, I think I speak for both of us, we are both, as the audience may know, frequent guests on the Imus program. You have known him and been on the program even longer than I have. And this is a difficult time, not just because of the hurt that he has inflicted and what he said, as he tries to deal with it, but for all of us who are on the program and certainly don’t want to be associated with this kind of thing that he’s done, as all of this plays out.

So, first, your reaction to this as we go forward.

BARNICLE: David, you’re right, it is a difficult thing to endure, it’s a difficult thing to hear for any of us, no matter whether you’re on the program or not. I’ve known Don a long time. I can tell you, as he has indicated several times today and last week, he is a good man, he is not a racist. I mean, it sounds pitiful to have to say something like that, but he’s a good man.

I would hope that if there is anything positive to come out of this, it might be that we continue, or have a discussion about race in this country, something that we sometimes willfully ignore in the media. Gene Robinson is sitting there with you. I think both Gene and myself—I can’t speak for Gene, obviously—will in a couple of minutes—but in the print media, writing newspaper columns, you see it much more often evidenced than you do in the electronic media, the fact that there is a double standard when it comes to dealing with race in this country.

A young white woman can get killed in the inner city and it’s on page one, young black men get killed—fifteen, sixteen years of age—on a Thursday night or a Friday night, go find it in the news. The status of public schools in this country, many of them largely black, urban, poor, of no—they don’t have a constituency of clout, their parents cannot call superintendents of schools to complain. We ought to discuss race in this country. We’ve neglected it for too long.

GREGORY: Let me bring in Gene Robinson, here. First of all, again, the decision by NBC News is to suspend, simulcast of the IMUS IN THE MORNING on MSNBC, starting April 16.

First, your reaction to that.

ROBINSON: Since we’re into full disclosure here, I don’t know Don Imus and I’ve never been on his program. So I’m completely detached here.

It is what you do, if you’re not going to fire somebody, you suspend them for a grave violation. So in that sense, I think it’s an appropriate step. I do not think it ends the controversy, I do not think it will be satisfactory to people who have been calling for him to be fired, to be banished from the airwaves, or whatever.

GREGORY: What is not in dispute—whether you know him or not—no matter where you come from, this was racist, abhorrent language no matter where it is said, on the radio or otherwise. It is magnified that this is a program that is listened to by millions of people. What is the appropriate response here, in your judgment?

ROBINSON: You know, I don’t know. I think every—individuals and companies will make the response that they deem appropriate. People who might have listened to Don Imus may not listen to him anymore. And they’ll to have make that decision. Some people who might have gone on his program in the past will not go on it now, perhaps. Or perhaps they will go on the show.

But I think—I believe in free speech. I don’t believe in censoring people’s speech. But speech does have consequences. And while I’ve heard

I know a lot of people who know Don Imus and think a lot of him, what he said—the ‘nappy headed hos,’ let’s kind of just get it out there—

GREGORY: He was talking about the Rutgers basketball team and said those words and they had tattoos. These are some mean looking girls, he said.

ROBINSON: ‘Mean looking girls,’ and then the producer went on to ‘jiggaboos’ and the whole thing. That came from someplace. He may be even know where it came from. It may have been someplace buried, that is inaccessible to him. But it came out and that is something he will have to deal with, going forward.

GREGORY: Mike Barnicle, I want to ask you a question about whether you think Imus gets it on this one.

But before I do that, let me just bring the audience into some other thing that happened today. Imus apologized on the program this morning.

We might have some tape of that. We’ll be looking for that. And maybe we have a couple of clips, as well, from him speaking on Al Sharpton’s program this afternoon, where he spent about an hour, took some calls and there were some other guests who were on the program as well.

And again, the message throughout, Imus apologized, said he does understand the depth of the hurt, wants to make it right. What he wants to do is meet, he has said, with the women on the Rutgers basketball team, wants to meet with them, wants to apologize to them, meet with their families as well. He’s been in contact with the athletic department at Rutgers, Governor Corzine has met with the basketball team as well and talked about the champions that they are and what remarkable young women that they are as well.

So all of that is going on. We don’t know where it’s going to play and where it’s going to go.

Mike Barnicle, one of the things that Sharpton said, who has called for him to be fired, is that he wants to see how Rutgers and these teammates respond to him as well. So with all of that background, do you think that Imus gets it?

GREGORY: Oh, David, he absolutely gets it. He, more than any of us, more than you, more than Gene, more than myself, more than a lot of people realizes that word are weapons, that the hurt that these words inflicted are deep, lasting, historical in some sense. The historical pain is resurrected here. He certainly understands that. He also knows that something the two of you just alluded to, this is not over, that we live in a nation, given the power of the Internet and bloggers, that we are a nation of 300 million newspaper columnists today and everyone will weigh in on this, from coast to coast. And at some point, some blogger in Pocatello, Idaho, carries somewhat equal weight to, like, George Will.

That’s the country and the culture we’re a part of. He gets all of that.

GREGORY: We’re also joined by Newsweek’s Howard Fineman, who was on the program today, meaning the Imus program, and is also a frequent guest.

Howard, your thoughts tonight as you see the response from NBC News, and just the way the day has unfolded today?

FINEMAN: I think it has been pretty remarkable, David. I think it shows you the power of this issue, and it shows you that Imus was so far over the line that it has caused a shudder throughout the establishment media and throughout the country, especially in the African American community.

To answer your earlier question about whether Imus gets it, I think he does get it. But he said what he said, and there will be consequences for what he said. And NBC made it clear tonight what those consequences are. And I think NBC is hoping, as I do, when I spoke with Imus this morning on the radio, that he uses this as what I call the teachable moment, that he learn from this. And as I think he said at one point this morning when I was talking to him, he said, I need to grow up, at least a little. And that’s a humorous way of saying the obvious truth here, that he does. He’s 66 years old. People learn.

I think the form of humor that he was using is not only risky but has probably outlived its usefulness. I think times have changed, things have changed. But in any era, at any time, to say what he said about those women was, as I think Steve Capus of NBC News said tonight, just reprehensible and outrageous and completely unacceptable in any framework.

So these are the consequences of it. I think NBC is right. And I think, if I understand what Steve Capus says correctly, here, Imus is on notice that he has got to change the tenor, the tone and the content of the show. He has got to think up a new schtick if he is going to continue doing what he’s doing and having us participate. That’s just the way it is.

GREGORY: Let me do a couple things here—I’m going to ask our producers to get a clip from Imus from his apology this morning. But while we’re waiting for that, I want to play a portion of his interview on the Reverend Al Sharpton’s radio program today.

(VIDEO CLIP IS PLAYED)

GREGORY: I also want to play—we’ve got the Reverend Jesse Jackson on the phone, and let’s speak to him first, and then I want to play a little bit of the tape from Imus, from his morning program this morning.

First, let me speak to Reverend Jackson.

Thank you for being with us. First, your reaction to the statement and the action that NBC News and MSNBC have taken, with regard to Don Imus.

JACKSON: Well, two weeks does not correspond to the depth of the infraction, but a pattern of racial infractions and bigotted statements.

This is a kind of cooling-off period. Not only did they refer to these young ladies as hard-core hos and nappy-headed hos, and then a conversation comparing them to the Toronto Raptors men, or even the Memphis Grizzlies, the Bears—that was a very in-depth conversation, but not too different from when Venus and Serena Williams were in Playboy, saying that they should have been in National Geographic, kind of animalizing them. Or when Hillary Clinton spoke in Selma, about three weeks ago, to blacks, and next she’ll be wearing corn rows, with gold teeth and giving Crip or gang signs.

So here’s a rather in-depth pattern of bigotry that puts a tremendous burden on NBC and CBS as to what will be the character of the expectations of the on-air talent.

GREGORY: Reverend, do you think that NBC and others—NBC in this case

-- effectively lets Imus get away with it, as some have said, because he’s part of the establishment? And again, I appear on his program—you know that—there’s many people at NBC who do, and I certainly know that our audience understands that as well.

JACKSON: Well, yes, number one, his show is no longer a shock jock show.

It is a very political show. He said, even today, he would not let Clinton be a guest on his show. When he has people like you on his show, and people like Tim Russert and Harold Ford and Joe Lieberman, it is a political show with a point of view.

The other side of it, there is not one black or Latino host of a show on MSNBC. So there is no sense of balance, no sense of diversity in the programming options. So we cannot settle just for the two-week cooling-off period. We must now look at MSNBC’s hosts and writers and producers and the breadth of its news coverage.

GREGORY: You say that there isn’t any diversity at MSNBC. I don’t know that’s quite a fair charge. There certainly—in other words, there is not somebody who has a program like his—

JACKSON: Is there a show on MSNBC hosted by a black?

GREGORY: Alison Stewart is one of our hosts during the day, yes.

JACKSON: Name one. There’s Scarborough and there is you and there is Chris and there is not a single show on any network, I might add. MSNBC, CNN—all day, all night, all white. It is not fair. We deserve more access to broaden and diversify, more points of view.

So beyond the Imus pattern of rather bigoted statements, there’s the issue of fair access. That’s for all people.

GREGORY: All right. I just want to point out that Alison Stewart is an African American anchor at MSNBC TV. I don’t want that to be overlooked by you or anybody else. But nevertheless, I think you’re trying to make a different point about the overall diversity at MSNBC.

JACKSON: I am. She hosts a show. A show host has writers, producers, guests, content. We had Arsenio Hall on night time comedy show 15 years ago. We had Max Robinson, the anchor for NBC News 25 years ago. That doesn’t exist today. So it really is a cry out, really, for participation and for diversity which represents America, a very diverse population.

GREGORY: Let me ask you this, Reverend: is there an opportunity for somebody like Don Imus, who has the sort of huge platform, as you know and you’ve talked about, who has thrown himself behind causes like his ranch in New Mexico for kids with cancer, like autism, like the fallen heroes fund for Iraqi war vets. Is there an opportunity for him to change the structure of his show, to work this problem, to try to heal this wound by using that platform in a way that you could support?

JACKSON: Well, yes. The question is how long does it take and how many chances does one need for rehabilitation? I mean, for all the good work he does. this bigotry appears to be the fly in his ointment. He makes his money kind of peddling fear and bigotry. And then he does some good things with the money he makes.

We must, in fact, take the prosperity out of bigotry and make it more expensive, so others who are in this lineage (ph) will not ever again use degradation as a way of appealing to people. We must use dignity, not degradation, to appeal to people.

GREGORY: Eugene Robinson, who is also with us here, you’ve heard some of what Imus has discussed today in his apologies, his appearance on the Sharpton program. Do you agree with Reverend Jackson, that he is bigoted and that he doesn’t really understand the attack on the dignity of these young women that he has committed?

ROBINSON: Well, you know, I think he understands, but this is not a first offense. Reverend Jackson is right. There have been previous statements and incidents. And look, lets face it—Don Imus, you know, was one of the original shock jocks. And this is his schtick. By being outrageous, by being politically incorrect, he became a big star.

He went way over the line and over the cliff this time, and you know, is facing the consequences, which I think are, you know, are justified in this case, and are not over.

GREGORY: Reverend Jackson, I just want to be very clear on your point of view on this. You believe that he should be fired?

JACKSON: Absolutely. And I think that there must be some punishment that corresponds to the infraction. And we must have it extended (ph) that all of us can live with. Now the burdens is upon NBC, how it handles this, and upon CBS radio, how it handles this. It says something about the character and the expectations of the networks that are his foundation. He is not just playing shock jock now. He is, in fact, represent a political point of view that has influence, and there is no corresponding balance in programming and hosts on that show. And that offends me as much as his right to say what he said, even though I disagree with what he did say.

GREGORY: You’re saying there is no balance on his program.

JACKSON: On MSNBC’s programming. There is Chris Matthews and there is Scarborough and there is name it—there is no African American host that can operate with a point of view and have guests that represents a broader point of view. That’s important, too.

GREGORY: All right. Reverend Jackson, I know you have a flight to catch.

I do appreciate you taking a few moments to share your views with us.

We are going to continue here on MSNBC with Eugene Robinson and Mike Barnicle. We’ll get the latest from our WNBC reporter outside the Rutgers Athletic Center, where I mentioned there are some meetings going on tonight with the athletic department and with the young women, the national champions from Rutgers University, the women’s basketball team, who of course were the victim of these remarks, after all. And we’ll have the very latest on that and continue our conversation.

Again, MSNBC suspending Don Imus, the simulcast of his morning program on MSNBC, effective April 16th.

You’re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC. Don’t go away.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GREGORY: We’re back on HARDBALL, covering the news today by NBC News that it has suspended the simulcast of IMUS IN THE MORNING here on MSNBC, effective April 16th, for two weeks. The reaction to his racist comments last week referring to the Rutgers lady basketball team.

We’re joined now by Michael Gardiulo, of WNBC, who has been outside Rutgers, where there has been a meeting taking place with Governor Corzine and members of the Rutgers women’s basketball team.

Michael, what can you tell us about what Governor Corzine has said? And we know that Imus wants to meet with the team. Any news on that?

GARDIULO: He does. As a matter of fact, David, we were able to see some members of the team leaving what they call the RAC, here, the Rutgers Athletic Center. They had no comment today. They said they may be making some comments tomorrow. So no word as to whether they’re accepting his apology or will plan to meet with him. Governor Corzine, left with a statement for members of news organizations. And in the statement, he said—this is quoting the governor, here—“I strongly I condemn his words”—Don Imus’s words—“There is absolutely no excuse for his conduct and he is right to apologize.” The governor goes on to say, “Only the Rutgers women’s basketball team, however, can decide whether or not to accept his apology.”

So the governor is saying, really, it is up to members of the team—member of the team saying that they may let us know, in the coming hours, whether or not they are willing to accept his apology.

GREGORY: All right, Michael. Thank you very much.

Eugene Robinson also with us, from the Washington Post.

This was a key part of his conversation with Reverend Sharpton today.

And Reverend Sharpton, who has called for him to be fired, also wants to see whether the team will accept his apology, and whether that is a starting point for Imus to do something on the program to keep his job and to be able to have some kind of conversation to heal this wound.

ROBINSON: Yes. As everyone said, that is a decision that is up to the team. I can tell you if it was me, I would see this as a step in Imus’s, perhaps, in his own self-healing, but certainly in his public rehabilitation. And I would not be inclined to participate in it. I would say no.

GREGORY: Because you think it’s not worth it, because you think it’s not going to happen? You think there’s posturing on his part? What?

ROBINSON: Well, my attitude would be, well, he has already said what he feels about me. And you know, to the extent that my appearing with him or my meeting with him would help kind of paper it over, I would not be inclined to participate. But again, the members of the team will have to make their decision.

GREGORY: I’m asking our producers as well—Nightly News tonight aired a piece about this, including a sound bite from Clarence Page, who some years back, actually made Imus, on the air, pledge that he would never use any racist language again. And he had a reaction to this today, which we will try to show you in just a moment.

For now, however, I want to turn to Armstrong Williams, who is a radio talk show host and syndicated columnist who joins us now.

Armstrong, thank you. Give us your reaction to the decision by our company here, NBC News and MSNBC, to suspend Imus for two weeks, the simulcast of his show here on MSNBC, effective April 16.

WILLIAMS: Obviously, David—thank you for having me—NBC did not see a need to suspend or fire Imus until there was a public outcry, and they realized they could not bring this under control. So they felt they did the best thing, was to suspend him. I think what he said is outrageous.

I remember when they said, a couple years ago, referring to Venus and Serena Williams as apes, I remember what they said about Gwen Ifill and others. But you know, he also uses the same derogatory remarks and says things about Jews and others. This is his shtick. He also talks about his bosses, the people who write his pay checks, and he has gotten away with it.

I believe in freedom of speech, and I think it is outrageous. I’m offended, but I don’t think a person should be fired or suspended. I think the marketplace should decide; if people don’t want to listen to Imus anymore, there’s 24 hour programming, people can always turn to somewhere else. I just believe in the ultimate in freedom of speech and for people to express themselves.

And my outrage would be, that I would never want to listen to him again.

Of course, you guys are his bosses, you have the right to make that decision. But I never would advocate firing someone or suspending someone because they were exercising their freedom.

GREGORY: Do you think there is an opportunity here, Armstrong, for Imus to take on this issue of his hurtful words, to make it a part of his radio program—what I mean, by making the healing a part of his radio program, and throwing himself, whether it is the issue of race relations or racist speech, in the way that he has thrown himself behind his camp for kids with cancer or autism or the treatment of Iraqi veterans and so forth?

WILLIAMS: You know, I tell you what, look, I think sometimes, you have to take the whole of a person. I will never forget during Hurricane Katrina, Don Imus was one of the few people in the country with a national audience to talk about the fact that a lot of these people were neglected because they were black and it was unfair, it was an outrage.

He repeatedly said this on the airwaves. So many people’s hearts were warmed by his comments about Hurricane Katrina. So as we condemn him and criticize him about his racist and bigotted and divisive remarks, let’s also remember the good that he has done when those people were affected by Hurricane Katrina.

I believe that Imus is sincere. I think, for the first time in his career, he has realized that he has, at age 65, to change his rhetoric on the air waves because words can be very painful. They can hurt people in ways that he could never imagine. But I also believe, from the things that he’s said in the past, if you look at his entire history, that he’s deserving of forgiveness, he’s deserving of another chance. And I sincerely believe that he can use the airwaves to uplift people and find more socially redeeming value in this issue on race, and say, I’ve been reformed, I’ve made mistakes, I’ve been punished by the public. And there is nothing like being punished by the public. And I think he can learn and do a lot of good on this issue.

GREGORY: Eugene, I know firsthand that Imus is a good man. I know the good work he does. I have a relationship with him. I’ve been on his program now for six years. But Reverend Sharpton said, this is not a debate about whether as he good man. It is a debate about the words that he used, the way he expressed himself, the hurt that he cause, and what the consequence of that should be.

Should you evaluate Don Imus as the whole guy? Can we make a judgment about whether he is a racist in this case?

ROBINSON: We can’t look into somebody else’s soul. We don’t know. I know you know him. But where did that come from? Where did that eruption come from? It came from someplace. It was in there. And we don’t know where it came from. He may not know exactly where it came from.

But just, one thing that Armstrong said, I believe in freedom of speech, too. But MSNBC’s product is words. And its medium is words and pictures.

And so there is a corporate responsibility here to react to something that was really, really beyond the pale. And I think CBS radio has a similar responsibility to react in some way, and we’ll see what they do.

GREGORY: Final comment, Armstrong, before a break.

WILLIAMS: I think it is always best for the marketplace to decide on issues like this. We don’t need to start citing precedents, in terms of censoring people, no matter what they say. This is a country that we separate ourselves from everybody else by the freedom of speech.

I think Don Imus deserves another chance. I’m offended, I found it just to be incredible, what he said. But I also believe that he can learn from this. He can grow from it. And I remind people about his remarks, about Hurricane Katrina. He was one of the few people out there saying, this is a racist situation. America is better than this. Where is America? Where are the people while these people are suffering? I can’t forget that also.

GREGORY: We’ll leave it there.

Mike Barnicle, on the phone, Eugene Robinson, and Armstrong Williams, thank you to all of you for appearing.

We’re going to take a break here. More HARDBALL right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BRZEZINSKI: I’m Mika Brzezinski with breaking news.

NBC News announced tonight, radio host Don Imus is being suspended. His national radio program won’t be simulcast on MSNBC for two weeks—hat begins next Monday—because of comments he made about the Rutgers women’s basketball team. NBC News called his remarks racist and abhorrent and said Imus has promised to change the discourse on his program. Imus has apologized repeatedly for his comments, and expressed his embarrassment.

(NEWSBREAK)

GREGORY: Welcome back to HARDBALL.

As we enter the fifth year of the American occupation of Baghdad in Iraq, Congress is still debating how to bring our troops home.

Congressman Chris Van Hollen, a Democrat of Maryland, is the chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and sits on the Ways and Means Committee as well. And Congressman Phil Gingrey, a Republican from Georgia, who is a member of the member of the Armed Services Committee.

Welcome to you both.

REP. CHRIS VAN HOLLEN (D), MARYLAND: Good to be with you, David.

REP. PHIL GINGREY ®, GEORGIA: Thank you, David.

GREGORY: This is another somber milestone in the war in Iraq. And I want to start off your debate with a simple question.

And, Congressman Van Hollen, I will pose it to you first.

Is the war in Iraq salvageable?

VAN HOLLEN: Well, I think it is potentially salvageable, but only if we learn the mistakes of the past four years and begin to hold the Bush administration accountable.

And, as you know, salvageable is a quite—is an issue that has many interpretations.

GREGORY: So, how you hold them accountable?

VAN HOLLEN: Well, I think by doing something like the Congress has done.

Both the House and the Senate, they have slightly different version, but what we have said is, for the first time in four years, we are going to give the president the money he has asked for, but, this time, we are going to ask him to hold the Iraqi government accountable for meeting the benchmarks that the administration and the Iraqi government themselves have said are absolutely necessary if you are going to achieve any kind of political reconciliation in Iraq.

That is a starting point. When you have failure for four years, and you ignore failure, you are going to get more failure. We think it is time to hold the administration and the Iraqi government accountable for the progress that they themselves have said is necessary, if we‘re going to achieve some kind of stability in Iraq.

GREGORY: Congressman Gingrey, respond to that. And you weigh in on whether the war is salvageable.

GINGREY: Well, look, David, it‘s not just the money with strings attached. It‘s the money with a rope tied around General Petraeus‘ hands and his hands handcuffed behind his back. This is no way to conduct a war.

And what the House and the Senate have done is atrocious, to say that, no matter what, March of ‘08 in the Senate bill, that we got to come home—in the House bill, August of ‘08 -- no matter what, no matter whether we have got the bad guys on the run, that we have to pull our troops out.

That makes no sense. We need to give this new way forward a chance, victory a chance. And I think that‘s the bottom line.

And I think, frankly, I don‘t know what we‘re doing back home here in the District right now. Chris could drive to Washington in 45 minutes from his district. I could be on a plane from Atlanta in two hours. And the whole House could be in Washington tomorrow to let Ms. Pelosi, Speaker Pelosi, go ahead and appoint a conference committee, send this bill to the president, let him veto it, as he darn well will and must.

GREGORY: All right.

Let me ask you this, though, Congressman...

GINGREY: And, then, as Senator Levin said, let‘s go ahead and be responsible about this.

GREGORY: All right.

But, Congressman Gingrey, what Senator Levin wants is also more leverage on the Maliki government.

Tell me why—justify your position. Why doesn‘t it make sense for Commander Petraeus to say to the Iraqi leadership: “Look, I‘m getting a lot of pressure here from a Democratic Congress in Washington to hold you accountable, to get together with Sunnis, to get together with Kurds and to make this idea of a national government work. If you can‘t do this, if you can‘t shut down the militias, if you can‘t end the sectarian violence, America is going to pull out here. Get your act together”?

GINGREY: Well...

(CROSSTALK)

GREGORY: Why doesn‘t that make sense at any level to you?

GINGREY: Well, David, that does make sense. And, actually, if you look at the new way forward...

GREGORY: But that‘s—well, that‘s what—that‘s what the intent of these bills is.

GINGREY: This is—this is just—this is not just a surge of troops.

Now, let me make this point.

The Dems want to say that this is just surging troops forward. It‘s bringing Iraqis into the fight. It‘s making sure that the Iraq government and Maliki puts up $10 billion for infrastructure repair.  It‘s making sure they have provincial elections with a date—a date certain.

So, this is all part—these are benchmarks. And they‘re in this new way forward. I don‘t think we need to further tie the president‘s hands or General Petraeus‘ hands.

GREGORY: Congressman Van Hollen?

VAN HOLLEN: Look, this is just more happy talk. And the president‘s had his way with Congress for four years. And now he‘s got a Congress that is beginning to hold him accountable.

You had the president go aboard the Abraham Lincoln back in 2003 with the “Mission Accomplished” banner. You had Vice President Cheney say, in 2005, that the insurgency was in its—quote—“final throes.” You had the president‘s so-called plan for victory in November 2005.

The administration has lost credibility. The only way to regain credibility and provide some accountability is for us to say to the Iraqi government, “You have said that you need to do certain things in order to achieve political stability and reconciliation.”

We didn‘t pick these accountability benchmarks out of a hat. These are the issues that the Iraqis themselves, as well as the Bush administration, have said are absolutely necessary.

GREGORY: But are you...

VAN HOLLEN: And...

(CROSSTALK)

GREGORY: But, Congressman, are you prepared—by that date certain of next March, if Iraq is no better, if Baghdad is no more secure, you‘re prepared to pull American forces out? And then, what about the consequences of that?

VAN HOLLEN: Well, under the House bill, you are talking about August, 2008. And at that point, you would still have American forces there to continue the training of Iraqi forces. After all, the president has said the strategy from the beginning is as they stand up, we stand down. And it would leave forces in Iraq for anti-terrorism activities, to go after al-Qaeda type threats. Those are the sort of missions that the Baker/Hamilton report said would be important to continue.

But we do think that if you continue to ignore the failure of the Iraqis to meet the objectives, which we and they have said are necessary, you are simply rewarding failure, and looking the away, and that‘s been a failed policy.

GREGORY Take about 15 seconds for the final word.

GINGREY: Well, they want to bring that same old rhetoric, talking about what the president said, mission accomplished, and all of that, that we‘ve got them on the run. The point is we have a new secretary of defense. We have General Petraeus, who was confirmed by the Senate unanimously. And we have a new plan, and it makes no sense not to give victory a chance. We owe that to the American troops, to those who have given their lives, to their families and their loved ones.

Let‘s give victory a chance. And then, in August of 2008, if it is not working, then, indeed, this president and the Republican majority from the last Congress, we do have a plan B. But we are not going to give it to the enemy.

GREGORY: And Congressman Gingrey, if by this fall there‘s no measurable progress, do you think that the president has to change course?

GINGREY: I think adjustments, absolutely, have to be made, depending on what‘s going on on the ground.

GREGORY All right, I‘m going to leave it there. Thank you to Congressman Chris Van Hollen and Congressman Phil Gingrey for your views.

Up next, with as many as 20 states moving their primaries up to February 5th of next, which presidential candidates benefit most from a mega-primary so early in the campaign? This is HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GREGORY: Welcome back to HARDBALL. The early bird gets the worm. States are now competing hard with one another to have the earliest presidential primary. It is a scramble for power that could very well shake up the entire presidential nominating season as we know it.  HARDBALL‘s Jeremy Bronson has some background.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JEREMY BRONSON, HARDBALL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): In an effort to boost their clout in picking the next president, as many as 20 states could move their primaries up to February 5th, essentially creating a mega-primary, with over half the country voting in a single day. In the past, primaries were spaced out through the summer. Candidates raced from state to state, winning one contest at a time.

Traditionally, early states, like Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, attract the most campaign attention. Doing well there gets you major media attention, not to mention the deluge of campaign dough. But plenty of primaries occur after a candidate has already locked up the nomination. And voters in those states are tired of being an afterthought.

New York and New Jersey just passed bills to move their primaries up to February 5th. And last month, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger brought that same muscle to California.

GOV. ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER ®, CALIFORNIA: Up until now what has happened is that all those candidates came out here to do fund raising, collected millions and millions of dollars, and they left. And they could care less about what our important issues are in this state. Now they are concentrating on the issues.

BRONSON: The big question is: Which candidates stand to gain the most?  Would New York‘s move from March to February 5th help New Yorkers Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani? Would an Illinois move boost Barack Obama? Kansas, Sam Brownback; North Carolina, John Edwards; New Mexico, Bill Richardson; Arizona, John McCain; and Utah, Mitt Romney.

The fight to be first is already changing the way candidates are campaigning. With the biggest media markets, New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, holding early primaries, candidates need major, expensive advertising blitzes. They also need to build bigger campaign organizations in more states, and that means they need more cash.

It also means that doing well in Iowa, Nevada, and New Hampshire could be more important than ever. If a candidate places poorly in those states, there may not be enough time to bounce back before the mega-primary right around the corner. So is all of this good for democracy?

JENNY BACKUS, DEMOCRATIC CAMPAIGN CONSULTANT: I think that a longer primary season makes candidates better candidates. For example, 2004, John Kerry would have been a much stronger candidate in the general election had he had a couple more weeks of fighting with Edwards.

ED ROGERS, REPUBLICAN CAMPAIGN STRATEGIST: We are going to have much more intensity. And I think that brings more people into the process, so probably a good thing.

BRONSON (on camera): The front loaded primary schedule also means that a candidates have time to introduce themselves door to door, living room to living room. And that could give an advantage to the better known candidates.

Jeremy Bronson, MSNBC, Washington.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

GREGORY: Jeremy Bronson, thank you. Let us bring in Eugene Robinson of the “Washington Post” and Tony Blankley of the “Washington Times.” Welcome to you both.

Tony, let‘s pick up on this point. You‘re talking about this mega super Tuesday. It does place more importance on the early states. Is this just a matter of money though? In other words, you are going to need a lot of money, not only for the early states, but to spend your way out of a poor showing there?

TONY BLANKLEY, “THE WASHINGTON TIMES”: Well, it is never just a matter of money. I mean, money is necessary, but a lot of money does not guarantee that you can sell your product to the voters. I don‘t know how you play this game without having a whole lot of money, but having raised that money—There‘s also no chance for momentum to build and more money to be raised off of the increased momentum, because it is all so compacted that you can‘t sort march through over several weeks, and do well in one, get momentum, raise money, do well in the next one.

It‘s all compacted in. And, in and odd way, if somebody doesn‘t break out—if you have three—say on the Democratic side—three relatively strong candidates, in Edwards, Obama and Hillary, I mean, we always talk about it, but it is conceivable that with all those votes going in and being divided up evenly, you might get past that and not be decided yet.

GREGORY: Right, and Eugene, voters are not going to be have a real chance to digest everything. It is incumbent upon voters to start paying attention now and start forming their opinions.

EUGENE ROBINSON, “THE WASHINGTON POST”: Yes, so, you know, we think of this as a tremendously early starting primary campaign process, but, in fact, it is time to start paying attention, because by the time we get to February 5th that could be the whole ball game. People need to start knowing what they think about Obama, knowing what they think about Hillary, knowing what they think about Edwards. And it definitely favors the candidates that have proven they can raise the money to compete in those big states.

BLANKLEY: I don‘t know what raising a lot of money means in this context. You have got to run a three-month media campaign in California.  That alone could cost 40 million dollars. New York another 30 million. I mean, as much money as they are raising, you may not be able to run a full media campaign in these states that have five, six, seven, eight large media markets and the huge costs.

So, I don‘t know if we‘ve ever been here before.

GREGORY: Let me turn to a political question about Iraq, and something that‘s interesting, that we‘ve been talking about now for several days.  We know about the impact of the Iraq war on Senator McCain, principally.  And yet, if you look at all of the polling, despite the funk that Republicans are in, a Republican, in a head-to-head battle, in a lot of the polling, is still beating a top Democrat. Eugene, what does that say?

ROBINSON: I have no idea. I have no idea. I don‘t understand it, because everyone agrees the war is the big issue.

GREGORY: Is a matter that Democrats have not yet sold the deal with the American public about being able to take over the reigns of foreign policy or management of the war?

ROBINSON: It could be. It could be that voters are waiting to hear a Democrat, the Democrat, enunciate, to use President Bush‘s phrase, the way forward, and preferably, by the country‘s likes, the way out of Iraq. I think that voters probably have not heard that yet. I mean, the timetables, benchmarks, whatever you call them, there is a little vagueness there.

GREGORY: Tony, how do you explain this?

BLANKLEY: Well, I don‘t know, but I‘ll give it a shot. With McCain and Giuliani, who are the two Republican who can match or beat any Democrat in a nationally head to head, they have real resistance within the Republican ranks because they are to the left of the Republican party, and probably dead center in the broader American electorate.

The Democratic leaders are on the left side, not Hillary so much, although historically she seems to the left. So they are actually better positioned to win a general election, and arguably poorer position to win the Republican primary.

GREGORY: All right. We are going to take a break here. We are going to come back with Eugene Robinson and Tony Blankley, talk some politics, as well as some other issues of the day. You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GREGORY: We are back with Eugene Robinson of the “Washington Post,” and Tony Blankley of the “Washington Times” to talk some more politics and also to take up this other hot issue of Don Imus as well.

Tony, let me start with you on the issue, on the Republican side, of Mitt Romney. There is a question about authenticity in this race, obviously, and a lot of questions about Romney‘s evolution as a conservative. And so he got in some trouble here recently talking about being a lifelong hunter, when, in fact, he had been just a couple of times in his life. including in Georgia, which was actually a fund-raising event for Republicans. A problem for him?

BLANKLEY: Can Mitt Romney mitigate his appearance in authenticity? Look, inauthenticity is not a monopoly of either party. Most candidates are relatively inauthentic. The ones who can fake authenticity get elected president. Yes, he has a problem because he has been all over the map over time, claiming things. So has Giuliani. So has Gore and Edwards on energy consumption, given their lifestyles.

It‘s a very tricky business to be able to live out your authentic personality as a presidential candidate, because you are pulled from so many different ways to respond to the different pieces of the American electorate, and very few politicians succeed at it. So far, I don‘t see many who are.

GREGORY: You saw John Kerry get caught in this a little bit back in 2004, as well. Does this start to fit a narrative, a pattern for Mitt Romney?

ROBINSON: I think Romney is writing his own narrative. I mean, he seems to be going out of his way to create this problem for himself. Why did he have to say he was a life-long hunter? Why didn‘t he, kind of, dial that down a little bit?

BLANKLEY: He just joined the NRA last year.

ROBINSON: Exactly, and he‘s been a couple of times, and he hunts, you know, small varmints, or whatever. So I think that‘s a real problem.

GREGORY: All right, let‘s talk about Don Imus and his comments on the air about the Rutgers Women‘s basketball team. He appeared on Al Sharpton‘s radio program apologizing today and is trying to meet with members of the team. Eugene, you are going to write about this, and say what?

ROBINSON: Well, you know, I—philosophically, I think people should—

I believe in free speech. People should be allowed to say what they want

to say. I think it was a terribly racists thing to say. And people will

have to make their decisions about whether to go on Imus‘ show, whether

to listen to Imus‘ show, whether to continue to broadcast Imus‘ show.

I mean, these are all decisions that people will make, as Imus tries to get back in the game.

GREGORY: The question is about sanctions though. Should he lose his job or should he do something else? What is the something else, if you think he should not be fired?

ROBINSON: Well, you know, I don‘t know what the something else is. He has lost me. And I suspect he lost a lot of people. To gain them back, you don‘t do that immediately. You do it over time. I‘ll tell you one thing, if I had a daughter on that team, and, you know, she was being approached by Imus‘ people for a meeting of some sort, I would say, you know, don‘t you dare go meet with them, and he has already said what he thinks of you.

BLANKLEY: I like the Imus show. I always have. I listen to it. This is what he does. He is outrageous regarding every ethnic group. I don‘t see how he can self-censor his show, and still have the show that get millions of listener and hundreds of thousands of viewers. So if he becomes a straight-forward, sincere lovely fellow, I think his audience leaves him.

GREGORY: All right, we‘re going to leave it there. My thanks to Eugene Robinson and Tony Blankley. Join us again tomorrow for more HARDBALL.  Our guests include former CENTCOM Commander Anthony Zinni. Right now, time for “TUCKER.”

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