updated 9/14/2007 2:33:11 PM ET 2007-09-14T18:33:11

Guests: Sen. Jeff Sessions, Sen. Claire McCaskill, David Gergen, Bob Herbert, Bob Herbert, David Gergen, Ross Douthat, Marsha Blackburn, Ross Douthat, Marsha Blackburn, April Ryan, Ezra Klein

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST:  ... about mission accomplished and being greeted as liberators, then coming home, the worst fears of the Arab world were right.  We‘re not leaving Iraq ever.  We‘re setting up a permanent U.S. security pact with the government in Baghdad and sticking to it.

Let‘s play HARDBALL.

Good evening.  I‘m Chris Matthews.  Stunning news out of the White House tonight.  President Bush has briefed news people that he will call tonight for a permanent U.S. security pact with the government in Baghdad.  Our protection to that government henceforth will be similar, he said, to the U.S. military presence along the DMZ in Korea.  We‘ll guard the weak new government in Iraq with the same degree of commitment as we do the government in Seoul.

What a strange and bizarre development.  For years, the Islamic world has feared that the West, led by the United States, has been out to invade and grab the land of Islam, that we have our eye on a permanent military presence in the Arab lands, that we are, indeed, the crusaders once again set on aggression in the land of the Bible and of Muhammad.  Has President Bush now handed the jihadists and the al Qaeda recruiters the greatest possible recruitment poster by saying we‘re not only going to keep our presence in Iraq, but stay there the half century we‘ve already kept troops in Korea?

Our second story tonight: How will President Bush sell this new commitment to a permanent military arrangement in Iraq?

Let‘s go now to NBC‘s Washington bureau chief and moderator of “Meet the Press” Tim Russert.  Tim, what did you learn today about the president‘s long-term commitment to Iraq?

TIM RUSSERT, “MEET THE PRESS”:  Well, Chris, if there‘s going to be one.  He talked about how the leaders of Iraq had gotten together and the one thing they agreed upon was to ask the United States to enter into a long-term strategic relationship.  And he‘s going to talk about that tonight, that he wants to go forward with this long-term strategic relationship, the kind we have, as you mentioned in Korea, with Pakistan, India, Israel.  What form it will take is uncertain, but it certainly means that there will be a significant commitment of U.S. assets in that region for a long time.

MATTHEWS:  This doesn‘t follow from earlier pronouncements going back to 2003, when we first went into Iraq, about the insurgency being in its last throes, about the mission being accomplished, the military mission.  How did he talk about it—if you can, how did the president explain how his thinking developed, if it has?

RUSSERT:  Well, his thinking is as follows, that this is necessary to calm the nerves of the Arab states, who he believes are quite concerned about the—Iran and some of their activities, and that the only way to meet the request of the Iraqi government that‘s in place now is to have this kind of relationship, strategic relationship.

It‘s going to be quite striking and interesting for me to hear how the

Democrats, particularly the Democratic candidates for president, are going

to respond to this.  Some people who have spoken to the president will say,

Well, we‘re trying to get this resolved and stabilized for them.  And yet

when you understand what the president is saying, after his initial

drawdown by Christmas of some 5,000 troops, and perhaps another 20,000 by

July, at the end of 2008, by the best calculations, there will be anywhere

from 90,000 to 110,000 troops still in Iraq.  And if, in fact, there is

going to be this long-term strategic relationship that number will probably

it will necessarily have to go down, but it indicates that we are in Iraq for the long, long haul.

MATTHEWS:  We have, of course, as you know so well, troops along the DMZ, along the 38th parallel in Korea.  They are, in fact, a trip wire, they are to keep the North from doing anything across the border, coming through the tunnels.  Do you think the president will—let me ask you, did he give you any indication of how many troops he would use to support the commitment, as he described to you today?

RUSSERT:  No.  Or whether they‘d be based specifically in Iraq or the region, no.  Nothing other than this entering into this strategic relationship.  But Chris, to give you a sense of his mindset, when he is asked to talk about common ground—I want to find common ground with the Democrats in Congress—and asked what that means, the response is, Accepting the Petraeus report.

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  So that‘s the common ground?

RUSSERT:  That‘s how he views this.  Another point, for example. 

Senator Jim Webb, who‘s been on your program, who talks about limiting the amount of time Americans can be sent to Iraq for, in terms of the duration of their assignment and their tours, and he‘s trying to get that into legislation and has attracted some Republican support—the president‘s thinking on that is, If that passes, I‘ll just call up more Guards and Reserves...

MATTHEWS:  Wow.

RUSSERT:  ... that the primary focus is the mission, not the strain on the military.

MATTHEWS:  Bring ‘em on.

RUSSERT:  And he‘s still very much—he‘s still very much focused on this notion we can win this thing, we can win this mission.

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Thank you very much, Tim Russert, moderator of “Meet the Press” and Washington bureau chief for NBC News.

Republican Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama is a member of the Armed Services Committee of the U.S. Senate, and Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri is a Democrat who also sits on the same Armed Services panel.

Senator Sessions, what do you make of the president‘s word tonight, it‘s already out, he‘s told the bankers (ph) today he‘s going to push some idea of a permanent military security pact with Baghdad?

SEN. JEFF SESSIONS (R-AL), ARMED SERVICES COMMITTEE:  I don‘t really know what that‘s about.  You just told me about it, frankly but...

MATTHEWS:  Doesn‘t it scare you?

SESSIONS:  Well, it is—I‘m not sure it scares me.  I think it probably is a result primarily of the threat of Iran and the instability that Iran is having in Iraq.  The Iraqi leaders, many of them, are worried about that.  And maybe that will give some sort of confidence.  I certainly do not hope that—I hope that it does not indicate a very long-term heavy presence of American troops.  I have always believed that our goal should be to reduce our presence as soon as feasible.

MATTHEWS:  Senator McCaskill, your view of a permanent U.S. military security pact with the government in Baghdad?  Whatever that government might be, by the way.  We don‘t know what it will be in five years.

SEN. CLAIRE MCCASKILL (D-MO), ARMED SERVICES COMMITTEE:  Well, that‘s part of the problem here.  When you‘re dealing with North Korea and South Korea, there‘s a line.  There‘s good guys and bad guys.  We‘re not sure who the good guys and bad guys are even in Iraq at this point.  It‘s a civil conflict between various sects, and we‘re stuck in the middle of it.

But this president clearly has a tin ear about what needs to be done diplomatically.  You know, we‘re building the largest embassy that we‘ve ever built in the world in Baghdad.

And you know, I‘m—Chris, I‘m coming from a state where they made a decision last November.  They had a senator that supported the president on every step of this failed policy, and they decided they wanted a different senator.  So I feel a frustration and a sense of urgency.  We‘ve got to start getting some Republican votes because this president clearly thinks we should have a long, long, open-ended commitment that, frankly, we can‘t afford the loss of lives or the loss of money that we are putting towards this effort.

MATTHEWS:  Not to accuse us as being the British or the French or later the Russians, but these Arab people had experience with Westerners coming in there from the north, from Europe, taking over their countries, saying that, We‘re here for communism, or, We‘re here for monarchy, or, We‘re here for some Western development.  We‘re here to help you.  And we bring our armies with us.  And they have accused us of doing that in Iraq. 

Doesn‘t this make it look like they‘re right, we‘re there for the long haul

SESSIONS:  I think there is a far more sensitivity to troops in Iraq than has been in Germany or Korea...

MATTHEWS:  By the people themselves.

SESSIONS:  Yes, the people themselves.  And there‘s a deep suspicion of foreign troops greater than Germany would have had toward American troops or South Korea would have.

MATTHEWS:  What happened to the Southern...

SESSIONS:  So I think that‘s a real...

MATTHEWS:  You come from the South and you represent the people.  I know the South is always very pro-military.  I don‘t think that‘s the issue here.  People do care about what happens to our troops, being stuck in 120-degree weather permanently.

But the idea of entangling alliances and what George Washington warned against—don‘t get stuck over there, getting caught up in this Web of animosities and getting on the side of the Shia against the Sunni, or the other way around.  Doesn‘t it look like if we permanently identify with the Maliki government, we‘re on the side of the Shia against the Sunnis?  Now, the Sunnis are Saudi Arabia.  They‘re Egypt.  They‘re Jordan.  Why are we taking sides in the middle of permanent ongoing strife in the Middle East?

SESSIONS:  Well, we‘re not taking sides...

MATTHEWS:  (INAUDIBLE) the president‘s going to announce tonight that we‘re going to have a permanent military security pact with Baghdad.

SESSIONS:  Our policy is a (inaudible) strong effort to try to hold this country together, to not let it fracture, and to create a stable government that has Shia and Sunni...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  How long would you commit to that?  How long should American troops stay in this foreign country?

SESSIONS:  I can‘t predict that...

MATTHEWS:  OK...

SESSIONS:  the question is how...

MATTHEWS:  Sixty years...

SESSIONS:  Sixty years...

MATTHEWS:  The president is talking about Korea.  He‘s talking about a Korean-style commitment.

SESSIONS:  Well, we certainly had 40,000 troops just—we‘re now at 33,000 in Korea.

MATTHEWS:  And you know what the casualties have been in the last 50 years?

SESSIONS:  Forty years—that‘s the...

MATTHEWS:  Hardly any.

SESSIONS:  The question is...

MATTHEWS:  Except for one year, ‘66.

SESSIONS:  ... the cost, the number and the nature...

MATTHEWS:  You know how many casualties we‘ve taken in Germany since ‘45?  None!

SESSIONS:  Well, my question—the answer to your question is, What is—how long will we be there, what presence should we have?  As small as possible.  And absolutely, it will be affected by the number and by the threat that they face and the risks that they incur.

MATTHEWS:  Senator McCaskill of Missouri, what will your caucus say tonight, if this is the words of the president, he‘s as clear tonight as he was with the anchor people today?

MCCASKILL:  Well, I think we‘ll be very troubled by any idea that we‘re entering into right now a long-term, open-ended commitment backing a governor that is precarious, at best.  I think a lot of people that are very close to it aren‘t sure how long Maliki can hold on.  And it looks like to me we‘re trying to prop him up because he‘s—they‘re incompetently...

MATTHEWS:  Right.

MCCASKILL:  ... trying to bring everyone together right now.  This isn‘t what we should be doing.  I think our caucus is going to continue to say to Republicans, particularly those who are going to be accountable to the voters next year, Take a look at what has happened.  The president‘s going to ask for a do-over.  He‘s going to ask the American people to look at this with a fresh eye.  We‘ve lost over 3,000 lives.  We‘ve spent a half a trillion dollars.  And we‘re in no better shape today than we were five years ago.  In fact, terrorism is more of a problem.

You know, there has to be an end to this.  And we‘ve got to do more than just draw down the troops that we have to draw down anyway because of our military strength and rotation requirements.

MATTHEWS:  I guess the big question, Senator—and you‘re a conservative—is what right does the United States government have to be in Iraq on a permanent basis?  What right do we have?

SESSIONS:  Well, first of all, as a conservative, I think I should have been more sensitive to the fact that this is very, very difficult, to take a country that had an un-functioning, non-functioning government and create one.  That is not easy.  That is very...

MATTHEWS:  I always wondered why you traditional paleo-conservatives, like you and George Will and Pat Buchanan and—from all across the country, even like William F. Buckley—went along with this new ideology of spreading democracy by force, this Napoleonic notion...

SESSIONS:  Well...

MATTHEWS:  Where did you guys buy this—what store did you pick this in?

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  And George Will, I heard him the other day speak against it.  But these neos came along, these experts on the world, and they talked the president into it, and you guys went along with it.

SESSIONS:  Well, I think we were too optimistic and failed to realize the difficulties.  Afghanistan went better than people thought.  We got over-optimistic...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Senator, the West—read history.  You read history.  The West, the British, the French, the Russians, the Americans always wins the first round in these struggles.  They go into these little third world countries, they kick butt, and everybody cheers maybe for about an hour or two.  And then the natural forces of the country take over.  The insurgencies begin.  The horror begins.  And eventually, the outside power is forced out.

SESSIONS:  Well, we certainly want to get out, in my view.  I just want to say this.  General Jimmy Jones, he reported his commission last week...

MATTHEWS:  Right.

SESSIONS:  ... to our committee.  I asked him, General Jones, do you believe we have a reasonable chance to be successful in Iraq?  He said, I do, Senator.  I said, Did any member of your 20-person commission, Congress requires them to go look, disagree with that, he looked around, none of them disagreed.  General Petraeus told me to my question just the other day, Do you think we have a realistic chance to be successful in Iraq?  He said, I absolutely do, Senator.

And so I think we can—there is a danger of being too negative here.

MATTHEWS:  Right.

SESSIONS:  And we have seen progress.  We are talking about drawing 30,000 troops down.  Deaths in Iraq, civilian deaths are down 55 percent, 70 percent in Baghdad.  Now, whether those numbers hold, I can‘t say.  But don‘t say that‘s not progress...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Nobody‘s saying we‘re losing, but the message of Korea back in ‘52, Senator, and Senator McCaskill, the message of Korea in ‘52 and the message of Vietnam in ‘68 -- if you‘re not clearly winning, you are clearly losing because, eventually, you have to leave.  And that‘s how you have to look at these things.  If you‘re not winning—the other side doesn‘t have to win.  Maliki can go hide in Iran for three years or 20 years and come back and take back his country.  Eventually, we leave, don‘t we?  Maybe we‘re—am I wrong, Senator McCaskill?  Are we going to stay in that country so long that we can outwait the bad guys on the other side?

MCCASKILL:  Well, you know, if—you know, Jeff said we can‘t be negative.  This isn‘t about being negative.

SESSIONS:  Not too negative.

MCCASKILL:  This is about being brutally honest about where we are...

SESSIONS:  We need to be honest, Claire.  You‘re right.

MCCASKILL:  ... be really honest with the American people.  And we have—you know, it‘s what General Powell said.  You break it, you own it.  And we‘ve gone from a president who campaigns he didn‘t want to nation build to now saying we‘re going to be there indefinitely forever.

And I just think that the diplomacy is so failed here, and I think the hearts and minds war we are not winning, I just think it is so important that we send a signal to the rest of the world that we‘re going to prioritize fighting terrorism and not propping up a government that can‘t get its act together.

MATTHEWS:  Senator Sessions, it‘s an honor to have you over here.

SESSIONS:  Thank you...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  ... for coming over here from Mississippi.

SESSIONS:  Alabama!

MATTHEWS:  Thank you, Senator McCaskill.  Alabama.  I‘m sorry.  I apologize.  I know that really matters.

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  Anyway—I knew it was somewhere down there near the Gulf. 

Anyway, thank you.  We were watching weather reports together.

Coming up—Senator McCaskill, thank you, as well.  Coming up:

President Bush makes his case for staying in Iraq again.  David Gergen and Bob Herbert on what Bush will do and won‘t say tonight.  And be sure to watch another live edition today of HARDBALL.  We‘re going to have a totally different show.  I‘ll have a different jacket on at 7:00 o‘clock tonight to prove it.

You‘re watching HARDBALL only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  Our second story tonight, and it‘s very much related, how will the president sell this new commitment to a strategic military arrangement with the government, such as it is, in Baghdad?  David Gergen‘s a former presidential adviser, and Bob Herbert‘s a columnist for “The New York Times.”

David Gergen, you‘ve served so many presidents.  I have to tell you, I‘m stunned by this one, a strategic military pact with a very weak government over there that we stood up.  It looks to me an ongoing relationship to me.

DAVID GERGEN, FORMER PRESIDENTIAL ADVISER:  Well, Chris, if that‘s what the president does tonight, as Tim Russert has reported here, that‘s going to cause a storm.  You know, he will not have Democratic support, and I think many Republicans will abandon him on that.  And you know, it‘s one thing and it‘s bad enough this president‘s going to leave a mess in Iraq and probably Iran, it‘s unbelievable that he would also try to make a long-term commitment to a country that basically hardly exists.

You know, the security pact in Korea was one to defend South Korea from an invasion from the north.  This kind of long-term security pact looks more like we‘re going to try to just prevent chaos within Iraq...

MATTHEWS:  Right.

GERGEN:  ... on a long-term, permanent basis.  And I cannot imagine that the Congress will let that go without challenge.  I think the Congress will assert itself under the Constitution to say, You got to get that through us.  And that‘s going to require an affirmative vote, and I cannot believe the president can get the 60 votes in the United States Senate on something he has to affirmatively get.

MATTHEWS:  Right.  He might even need two thirds, if it‘s a treaty, if he goes into...

GERGEN:  Of if it‘s a treaty.  That‘s right.  That‘s why I‘ve been trying to check since you said this about Korea.  You know, how did that happen in Korea?  Who—what role did Congress play?  I don‘t have that history, but I can guarantee all of us are going to be scrambling to figure out—I don‘t think the president has that authority under the Constitution to make a long-term commitment like that.  He will need Congress, and I think he‘ll have—I just don‘t think he‘ll get it.

MATTHEWS:  Two concerns, Bob.  One is length of time.  We have been told from the beginning of this campaign in—into Baghdad that it was going to be short-term, maybe two, three years, maybe five.  It has gotten longer. 

But no one before has talked about it being a strategic partnership or a strategic with the government that now stands, the Maliki government, standing there against Muqtada al-Sadr, standing against Hakim, perhaps, standing against anyone on the Sunni side.  And we‘re saying, we‘re taking their side in a future fight. 

BOB HERBERT, COLUMNIST, “THE NEW YORK TIMES”:  What surprises me Chris, is that the president, if this happens, would be going public with it. 

But we have already—we‘re already in a more or less permanent military situation.  I wrote years ago that the whole idea here was to establish this military footprint in the Middle East.

In the last segment, there was a reference to the fact that we‘re building this largest of all embassies there.  We have these so-called enduring bases across the country.  The kids who are in the military now were 12 years old when September 11 happened, and only 13 or 14 when we went into Iraq. 

We have been there a long time.      

MATTHEWS:  Right. 

HERBERT:  And I never thought it was going to be of short duration. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, you know, back—David, back in the Vietnam War, one of the things that was lampooned about our military commitment to—to Vietnam was the building of bowling alleys and these giant American recreation installations in South Vietnam, as if we were going to be there for 1,000 years. 

GERGEN:  Well, that‘s right. 

And Bob Herbert has been pressing it on—on—on many aspects of this war, and he may well be right.  I think there has been a widespread assumption that this was going to happen in stages, that we would first draw down to 80,000 to 100,000 troops.  We would keep them there for a while, until things got sort of stabilized, and then we would pull back to Kuwait.  We would not, in fact, you know, play into the hands of those jihadists and Arabs who have been arguing all along that we were there for permanent reasons, in order to have the oil bases—to have access to the oil. 

That—I think there had been a sense that, over some interim period of time, we would actually draw back to Kuwait and to—and to aircraft carriers and to other places in the Gulf. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes. 

GERGEN:  Yes. 

So, this—this suggests something much more permanent, and I think is going to be extremely controversial, if this is the direction the president takes.  And I do think it puts a whole new cast on what is—what—what the long term strategy is. 

HERBERT:  But, Chris, I think that, if he goes through with this, it will make it more difficult for the president to—to maintain—for the Republicans, for the president, for the administration, or whomever, to maintain that kind of a long-term commitment, because David is right.

It will set off a firestorm.  It will empower and embolden the Democrats.  It will give the Democrats what they have been seeking for so long and been unable to get, I think, which is substantial Republican support to fight this thing. 

GERGEN:  Right. 

HERBERT:  So, I think this is actually, if this occurs, would ultimately be harmful to the administration. 

GERGEN:  I agree with that.

MATTHEWS:  Bob, you are very optimistic about the strength of the opposition on key issues. 

(LAUGHTER)

HERBERT:  Well, I haven‘t been, with the Democrats, so far.

MATTHEWS:  Are you confident that your—that your junior senator, who is the leader for the Democratic nomination for president, Hillary Clinton, would actually stand up?

I mean, I have noticed her trying to do the pyramid play, the Betty and Veronica number, on this war issue...

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  ... for months now, saying, I want a residual military force over there.  I don‘t want to talk to Ahmadinejad, all that kind of hawkish talk, to go along with the anti-war sentiments of her party. 

Do you think Hillary Clinton would really stand against a strategic arrangement with Baghdad? 

HERBERT:  Look, I can‘t speak for Hillary, but I...

MATTHEWS:  Can you predict her? 

HERBERT:  But I do think that the Democrats would—would stand against that. 

And the Democrats have had so much trouble, politically, because they have been in an untenable situation.  This idea that the Democrats could do something to start—to stop this war after their victories last November was always unreasonable.  Their majorities are too slender. 

But, if the president goes through with this, as you are suggesting, that will, in fact, embolden the Democrats. 

MATTHEWS:  OK. 

Again, what we‘re talking about—we‘re talking about it with Bob Herbert and David Gergen—we‘re talking about the word from the White House today, during its briefing for the anchormen and anchorwomen, pointed out that the president‘s going to say tonight—in fact, he said he‘s going to say tonight—that he‘s looking for a security pact with the government in Baghdad, which raises the question of duration, and also the nature of our relationship. 

Again to David. 

What happens if that government topples over there?  Do we defend the government against a Shiite move by one of the factions, like the one led by Muqtada al-Sadr?  Do we fight him in the streets, if we‘re tied to the current government? 

(CROSSTALK)

GERGEN:  Well, that‘s exactly the problem with this proposal at this particular time. 

It seems to me there is some question whether, over time, if there is a true government in Baghdad, whether we might have some kind of relationship.  But we don‘t have a true government there.  The whole failure of this surge has been that we have not—it‘s not produced a government that can actually govern.  It‘s still dysfunctional, as Ambassador Crocker said. 

MATTHEWS:  I know.

GERGEN:  So, you know, just as General Petraeus said we should wait a few months to see what our troop pull-down should be, it seems to me most reasonable people would say, well, let‘s wait about making any long-term arrangement with anybody until we see there is a government. 

But, for goodness‘ sakes, what are we—there are so many different horribles that one can imagine.

MATTHEWS:  Right. 

GERGEN:  What kind of commitment are we making, without knowing who we‘re dealing with?

MATTHEWS:  And how about this question, Bob?  If the government in place over there now is so tottering, so fragile, that we have to stay there to protect it, does it really have the legitimacy to invite us to do so? 

HERBERT:  It does not. 

MATTHEWS:  I mean, maybe that‘s a circular question, but...

HERBERT:  I—I—I don‘t think it has much legitimacy at all.

And one of the things that‘s really been overlooked—we have had all this attention this past week on Iraq.  But the thing that‘s been overlooked is the condition of the Iraqi people.  It‘s the farthest thing from a democracy.  And they are suffering tremendous poverty. 

(CROSSTALK)

HERBERT:  Seventy percent of the population does not have clean water.  Unemployment is high.  It‘s a dreadful, horrible, horrendous situation; 2.2 million Iraqis have already left the country. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, we should have never promised...

GERGEN:  And we also know...

MATTHEWS:  We should have never promised them the Great Society. 

That‘s our problem. 

(LAUGHTER)

GERGEN:  What we also know, Chris...

MATTHEWS:  How did we get to be the one responsible for delivering the goods and the electricity...

GERGEN:  Yes. 

MATTHEWS:  ... in Baghdad?  We can‘t even run Amtrak. 

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  I mean, I wonder. 

I stole that idea from George Will, as David knows, but it‘s a good one. 

(LAUGHTER)

GERGEN:  Yes. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  And, as he said the other day in a session we had, he said, if the American government can‘t run Amtrak, how can it run the Middle East? 

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  It‘s still a good line, George. 

Anyway, thank you, David Gergen.

Thank you, Bob Herbert. 

HERBERT:  Thanks, Chris. 

MATTHEWS:  Up next:  Rudy Giuliani sounds soft on illegal immigration. 

What‘s he up to? 

And, tonight, at 7:00 Eastern, come back here for a live edition of HARDBALL.  I will be wearing a blazer, not this thing, for our preview of tonight‘s speech.  It‘s going to be an interesting new edition tonight at 7:00. 

You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.  

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL. 

Here‘s some more news in politics.

Republican candidates for president are LOTT:  pouncing on Rudy Giuliani for comments he made on talk radio about illegal immigration.  He said that being in the United States illegally should not be a federal crime—quote—“because the government wouldn‘t be able to prosecute it.  We couldn‘t prosecute 12 million people.”

Well, his position puts him at odds with top supporters, like Peter King of New York, who want the law enforced. 

Excuse me, but how can a law-and-order conservative think it‘s OK for the first thing a person does in entering the country to break the law? 

In the new NBC/”Wall Street Journal” poll, Giuliani has seen his lead over Fred Thompson shrink from 13 points to six points.  It will keep shrinking if he keeps sounding soft on illegal immigration. 

No more Straight Talk Express for the third-place John McCain.  He has been touring Iowa this week in a bus with a “No Surrender” sign instead, no surrender on the failing Iraq war, and I guess no surrender in his struggling presidential campaign.  McCain‘s problem is that Bush‘s policy is now no exit from Iraq. 

We‘re sticking there forever, apparently, with this new strategic military commitment of his with Baghdad. 

Remember that first lady of the night—they call her the D.C. madam

who fingered Republican Senator David Vitter, you know, the one before the New Orleans prostitute who fingered Vitter last week, and dared him to take a lie-detector test?  Well, this gentle lady is now calling herself a victim of—catch this—political bondage and is declaring war on the U.S. Senate. 

Finally, Jay Leno—Jay Leno has more love for David Vitter than anyone.  Here he is last night. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, “THE TONIGHT SHOW WITH JAY LENO”)

JAY LENO, HOST, “THE TONIGHT SHOW WITH JAY LENO”:  A New Orleans prostitute has come forward and said that she had sex with married Louisiana Senator Dave Vitter two or three times a week over a four-month period. 

And this is actually good news for the Republicans, finally a sex scandal involving a woman. 

(LAUGHTER)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Up next, tonight‘s HARDBALL debate:  Is Fred Thompson flopping? 

And, tonight at 7:00 p.m., come back for another live edition of

HARDBALL. 

You‘re watching it, HARDBALL, only on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

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

Stocks rallied today on positive news from McDonald‘s, General Motors and mortgage giant Countrywide Financial.  That company has had a lot of problem of late.  Good day today, though.  The Dow Jones industrial average saw a triple-digit gain of 133 points.  Broad-market S&P 500 picked up about nine.  And tech stocks, they also gained about nine points—or—excuse me—S&P up 12. 

Now, McDonald‘s shares hit an all-time high after the fast-food giant announced a 50 percent dividend increase.  Shares up 6 percent. 

And Countrywide Financial shares surged almost 14 percent after the mortgage lender announced that it lined up $12 billion in new financing. 

Crude oil closed at a record high of $80.09 a barrel in New York‘s trading session, after gaining 18 cents for the day. 

Meantime, another worrisome sign that the labor market is weakening: 

First-time jobless claims rose for the sixth time in the past seven weeks. 

And 30-year mortgage rates dropped this week to a nationwide average of 6.31 percent.  That‘s the lowest level in four months. 

That‘s it from CNBC, America‘s business channel—now back to

HARDBALL. 

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL. 

It was just last week, in fact.  I thought—I was going to say a couple of weeks ago.  It was last week that former Senator and actor Fred Thompson announced his bid for the White House on Jay Leno‘s “Tonight Show.” 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, “THE TONIGHT SHOW WITH JAY LENO”)

FRED THOMPSON, REPUBLICAN PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  I‘m running for president of the United States. 

LENO:  All right!

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE) 

LENO:  There you have it, ladies and gentlemen.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE) 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  And he‘s been playing catchup with his Republican contenders ever since. 

Today, some influential columnists have been blasting the Thompson brand.  One of them is conservative George F. Will, who compares him to the launch of the new Coke.  Remember that product in 1985, a product that flopped miserably two months later?

So, the HARDBALL debate tonight:  Has Thompson‘s rollout been a failure or a success?  And we can tell already.

Republican Congresswoman Marsha Blackburn represents the fine people of Tennessee, the Volunteer State.  And Ross Douthat is with “The Atlantic” magazine. 

Congresswoman, we always let the negative go first, you.

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  Has he blown it? 

ROSS DOUTHAT, “THE ATLANTIC”:  I wouldn‘t say he‘s blown it.  I think he‘s running a great campaign, in the sense that he‘s doing well in the polls.

But his campaign has absolutely no justification.  He‘s far less qualified than any of the other candidates running for president at the moment.  And, if he gets the nomination, it will be an embarrassment for the Republican Party. 

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  Congresswoman, what do you make of the first week of your candidate‘s launch? 

REP. MARSHA BLACKBURN ®, TENNESSEE:  Well, you know, it‘s always so interesting to me to get the take from the inside-the-D.C. crowd, and then the Americans that are across this country. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, we‘re Americans, too, Congresswoman. 

BLACKBURN:  And one of the things that they—I know.  I know. 

MATTHEWS:  We‘re Americans, too.  I know that was a nice try there, but...

HERBERT:  I know, Chris.  I know, but, you know, people around the country—let me tell you something.  Fred Thompson is not only...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Oh, you speak for the whole country.  Oh, the whole country you speak for now. 

BLACKBURN:  He‘s not on a D.C. clock, Chris.  He is on the American people‘s clock. 

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Yes. 

BLACKBURN:  And his rollout, I think, has been consistent.  It has been very reliable.  It is Fred Thompson.

And what people are going to see in Fred Thompson is a good , solid, consistent leader, somebody who is an independent thinker. 

DOUTHAT:  So...

BLACKBURN:  And I—I don‘t think it‘s going to flop at all. 

DOUTHAT:  Well, what—what—what are some—Congresswoman, what are some examples of his independent thinking? 

BLACKBURN:  Oh, independent thinking.  You know, one of the things I think that he did there was McCain-Feingold.  I don‘t agree with him on it, but, you know, you can look at what he did.

DOUTHAT:  But he‘s been—but he‘s been away from it, Congresswoman, ever since. 

BLACKBURN:  Well, that‘s right. 

DOUTHAT:  He‘s been saying, oh, I...

BLACKBURN:  And what he did was say, let‘s find a way to deal with all of this money coming from labor unions.  Let‘s deal with that impact into campaigns.  This is the direction they went. 

DOUTHAT:  But, at this point, he‘s...

BLACKBURN:  Like I said, I don‘t agree with the legislation, but there, again, that is Fred Thompson kind of getting out there on his own. 

DOUTHAT:  But he‘s admitted that he‘s—so—so, the Fred Thompson way is to say, I don‘t agree with the legislation, but I‘m going to support it anyway? 

BLACKBURN:  No.  The Fred Thompson way is to say, let‘s find an answer to this and then to try it. 

And what you will state with Fred Thompson...

DOUTHAT:  But, since then, he has admitted that it was the wrong answer. 

BLACKBURN:  Oh, I think what you‘re going to see is him...

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask you, Congresswoman, to name a—name a—name a program that he‘s come out with that‘s new and you agree with. 

BLACKBURN:  Oh, goodness, a program that he has come out with in this campaign.  I don‘t know.

But I will tell you what I do agree with him on, is that he agrees that he knows the—the issue of illegal immigration has to be addressed.  And, wherever you are in this country, that is probably the...

DOUTHAT:  But all the Republican contenders...

BLACKBURN:  ... number-one issue that people say, let‘s agree with it; let‘s enforce the law. 

DOUTHAT:  Absolutely. 

BLACKBURN:  He is also a steady hand.

DOUTHAT:  But, Congresswoman, all of the Republican candidates have said exactly the same thing.  What is Fred Thompson saying that distinguishes him from the rest of the field?

BLACKBURN:  They are not saying that. 

We were just looking at a clip with Rudy—Rudy Giuliani, who is really having some problems because of that.  And you look at how Fred Thompson has moved up in the—the polls.  Fred is predictable.  He is reliable.  You are going to continue to see.

DOUTHAT:  He is predictable. 

BLACKBURN:  . a good-schooled leader there.  I know—you know, it doesn‘t matter, I think right now the American people are looking for a solid leader, you all keep talking about there‘s a void.  Can Fred fill it?  The American people will fill that void when they are ready to. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask you, Ross, if you are—you are kind of snarky on this guy.  But the bottom line is there is some appeal to this guy, that a lot of other guys have been running now, oh, for a year or two and they don‘t have anywhere near the support this guy has gotten in a week. 

DOUTHAT:  No, absolutely.  And the appeal of Fred Thompson is he is a very talented actor, he has done a very good job of playing.

MATTHEWS:  No.  But people are voting for him for president.  They are saying they like him for president, not for acting. 

DOUTHAT:  They are saying that they like him for president, but part of that is just he has more name recognition than anyone else in the field.  I mean, I think it‘s interesting to compare and contrast Fred Thompson to, say, someone like Mike Huckabee, who is, you know, a fellow from the South, a governor of a southern state with a much more impressive record than Fred Thompson. 

MATTHEWS:  Would you vote for either of one these guys? 

DOUTHAT:  Sure.  I would vote for Fred Thompson, because he is better than anyone the Democrats are going to put out there.  But I would be disappointed if I had to vote for him, in the same way that... 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Let‘s stop the debate for a second.  You are wonderful, Congresswoman, I love having you on.  So, Marsha, would you just give me a sense, is there a different cadence down in Tennessee?  I think you are trying to explain that the southern charm and the speed at which this guy speaks shouldn‘t be confused with some wisecracker from New York or D.C., and therefore you are on a different score card.

BLACKBURN:  I wouldn‘t say it is a different score card, Chris.  And it doesn‘t matter where I am in the country.  What people want is a leader who is going to uphold the law.  They want a leader that is going to think out loud with them and is going to be a person of action. 

What I like about Fred Thompson, he doesn‘t talk about wanting to be president, he talks about what he would do when he was—if he were president.  And he.

(CROSSTALK)  

DOUTHAT:  Congresswoman, can you give me another example of something he has said that he will do.

BLACKBURN:  Yes, I will, absolutely.

DOUTHAT:  . when he is president besides enforce immigration law. 

BLACKBURN:  Well, immigration law is one.  And it doesn‘t matter where you go around the country, Ross.  In talking to my colleagues on the Hill, number one issue that continues to come up around the country is securing that border and dealing with the issue of illegal immigration. 

When it comes to government spending and reducing government programs, Fred Thompson is somebody who‘s going to roll up his sleeves, get out a clean sheet of white paper and start whittling away at where you can reduce what the federal government spends.  That has been a huge disappointment. 

DOUTHAT:  Is there anything in Fred Thompson‘s record.

BLACKBURN:  You know, and one—I know what you want.

DOUTHAT:  No, Congresswoman, I‘m sorry, I have to ask you this.  Is there anything in Fred Thompson‘s record that makes you think that he would be better able to do any of the things you say he‘ll do than, say, Rudy Giuliani, who cleaned up New York City when it was one of the worst points in its history; or Mitt Romney, who was a successful governor, a successful businessman, ran the Olympics; or John McCain, who has been a leader in the Senate for decades? 

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Let her finish. 

BLACKBURN:  Well—and they all are fine people.  And they have fine resumes and we have some great candidates in this race.  Fred has sat there with the Government Operations Committee and he has looked at that broad array of federal programs, of agencies that cannot get clean audits, and he knows that frustration and he knows that you begin to work on things incrementally. 

The old approach of Ronald Reagan, I‘m going to come today and get a half loaf, I‘m going to come back tomorrow and get the rest of that loaf because I know I‘m not going to get the whole loaf today.  And I think it is an approach, a form of leadership, the way you work with people, the way you take action, and that is what sets him apart.  That‘s what the American people see when they are—when he is out here and about around the country. 

MATTHEWS:  All right.  One last question, Congresswoman.

BLACKBURN:  Sure, Chris. 

MATTHEWS:  You made a good case.  Does he have the juice to knock out Hillary Clinton in three or four primetime debates?  Can he knock her out in three nights running? 

BLACKBURN:  OH, I think that he can because he is very consistent, he is very steady in his approach.  And he is going to work his way through this.  You know, the thing that would have been different in watching—listening to you all and watching the clips, if Fred Thompson had come out cheering and just all high energy, I think that would have surprised a lot of us who have known him for a long time.  We know.

(CROSSTALK)  

MATTHEWS:  I was hoping he would come out—I thought he would on roller skates.  But you know, he didn‘t want to come out on roller skates, that would have been my way.  Anyway, just kidding.  Thank you.  He is obviously doing it his way.  And you are your way.  Thank you, Congresswoman, from.

BLACKBURN:  Absolutely.  Thanks, Chris.

MATTHEWS:  Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee.  And Randy—not Randy, I knew a Randy Douthat, Ross Douthat from The Atlantic. 

Up next, a HARDBALL roundtable on Bush‘s speech tonight, and the Democrats, what are they going to say?  This is HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  We are back with a hot topic.  This strategic security pact between the United States and the government, such as it is, in Iraq.  What‘s that going to be about?  How many years is that going to bind us to supporting Iraq.  And what is it going to mean in terms of our relations with the Arab world?  The roundtable tonight, NBC News political director Chuck Todd; April Ryan of the American Urban Radio Networks, and Ezra Klein of The American Prospect. 

April, have you heard about this?  Were you watching this show earlier?  We talked about this with Tim Russert, the Washington bureau chief of NBC.  He got briefed on the record today, to the effect that the president is talking about some kind of strategic pact with Iraq. 

Strategic, not just one of these temporary things, not just an expeditionary force like we have had, but an ongoing relationship to protect that government. 

APRIL RYAN, AMERICAN URBAN RADIO NETWORKS:  You know, Chris, yes, we were briefed as well.  Tim Russert got his briefing before the press corps as a whole but you have to remember, we are not just going to be in Iraq for this year or next year.  It‘s going to be a long haul. 

And you have people like Republican Congressman Chris Shays, who is very upset with President Bush right now for that.  They are saying there should be a deadline and we should be withdrawing troops once a month.  This is a Republican congressman, not a Democratic congressman.  So word is already coming in from the Hill as to the dislike for the president‘s statements tonight. 

MATTHEWS:  Is Chris Shays going to change his party identification to Democrat? 

(LAUGHTER)

RYAN:  He didn‘t say.  But he was very outspoken on how he felt about what the president is talking about, 2,200 Marines this month, and then 5,700 U.S. troops coming out by the end of the year.  He‘s not happy with that.  He wants more.  Once a month with a deadline. 

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Let me go to Ezra.  It seems to me that that is—I don‘t even want to talk about that.  That to me is a tchotchke, is a giveaway, is something to talk about, it is a party favor.  I don‘t care about these.  This is the normal troop redeployment, the standard rotation, who cares?

The president of the United States is talking tonight about an enduring security pact with the government in Baghdad against all matter of folk, whoever challenge it, inside or outside, we‘re defending that government.  Where does he get the license to do this?  How did the United States get stuck as a Middle Eastern power?  We are North American power.  How did we get to be a Middle Eastern power? 

EZRA KLEIN, THE AMERICAN PROSPECT:  Well, we got it because we had a new ideology that expected to come in.  It is amazing that we are going to have this.  That he is going to come in after the Petraeus testimony, after he had a boost, after he had some more confidence in the country, and say to the American people, listen, I would like you to give me license to be in there forever. 

I mean, you wonder if he‘s doing it for history.  If he expects at this point that we will pull out, there will be a bloodbath and he doesn‘t want to be blamed.  Because this seems impossible, unconstitutional, unpopular, he will not get congressional support.  He is going to squander everything he got over the last two days or three days of testimony.

MATTHEWS:  Well, Chuck, he is—if he says it like this, it is going to sound like he is the crusader that the people in the Middle East fear, that we are going back in there as the West, as the Christian powers, if you will, the way they look at it, going back to reclaim the Holy Land.  We are back over there in Baghdad grabbing a permanent relationship with that government. 

Anyway, we will wait and see what he says.  But, Chuck, why would the president want to make news tonight when he has already got the week owned it looks like? 

CHUCK TODD, NBC POLITICAL DIRECTOR:  Well, look, you are right, I mean, I think that if this is the news rather than the troop drawdown, even if it is a very small one, he is stepping on something that was not—it is not smart politically.  But going to that—I mean, on one hand we shouldn‘t be surprised that we‘re going to have some sort of permanent—you know, we are still in Korea.  That has been 50 years.

MATTHEWS:  Yes, but don‘t confuse the two. 

TODD:  And he is just.

MATTHEWS:  That is the administration line, I know. 

TODD:  But he does compare the two.

MATTHEWS:  Look, you can‘t compare the two.  We have not had—we had casualties—since 1953 when we had the armistice between two Koreas, we have had like one bad year, in ‘66.  The rest of the years have been difficult but they have not been bloody. 

TODD:  Well, that is the problem, is that if you do something like this, I mean, I don‘t think that you are going to somehow have a Korea-like situation where you will not have troops be in harm‘s way.  Here it is hard to imagine troops won‘t be in harm‘s way for a long time in some sort of permanent capacity. 

MATTHEWS:  What about the politics of this?  Again, let me go back—we will come back and talk more about this.  But let‘s talk about the speech tonight and what he will try to do tonight.  I also want to talk about this Fred Thompson thing. 

I thought the most interesting question, Chuck, and everybody, this fall was will Fred Thompson measure up as a first rank candidate?  Will he really take on Rudy, really take on Romney?  Will he be the guy that sort of leapfrogs McCain?  That question is very much in the air today after a couple of trouncings today by the “Prince of Darkness,” Bob Novak, and George F. Will, the king of the conservatives, all trashed him today in their columns. 

What is that about?  Are these old grudges we are watching here?  Or is it a real profound statement of this guy‘s failure.  We will be right back and start with you, Chuck.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  (INAUDIBLE) we have got for the roundtable‘s consideration, a preview of what the Democrats are going to say tonight.  Jack Reed, who is, of course, the former Marine, I believe—he is a former Army officer, I‘m not quite sure.  But he is definitely a combat veteran from Rhode Island.  He is the senator who has been designated by the Congress, the Democratic side to respond to the president. 

Here is his key language, ladies and gentlemen: “Democrats believe it is time to change course.  We have put forth a plan to responsibly and rapidly begin a reduction of our troops in Iraq.” 

What do you make of that, Chuck?  Has that got the lift of a driving dream? 

TODD:  Yes.  Well, it doesn‘t.  And it is also not very threatening.  I mean, the thing about Jack Reed is he is a very—on one hand he will look like a very calming, soothing Democrat.  He won‘t look like a firebrand, some sort of anti-war liberal.  But it also sounds like very wishy-washy language, that they don‘t quite have that, oh, we have a difference of opinion with the president on this and we have it, but it doesn‘t sound strong.  You know, I think the anti-war left is not going to like it. 

MATTHEWS:  Right.  What do you think, Ezra? 

KLEIN:  I think it is probably correct.  I mean, you saw in The Washington Post today that the new plan among the Senate Democrats is to be a little more calm in the language so as to get moderate Republicans on.  So they are going to.

MATTHEWS:  And no longer focusing on a pullout for Iraq but more on questions of troop rotation and assignment. 

KLEIN:  Right.  They are trying to get a single thing through so you break the logjam of not getting anything through.  I think the idea is if you open the flood gates once, then you can get harder legislation through.  If that is correct, I don‘t know. 

MATTHEWS:  Chuck, give me the next two-day outlook.  The president speaks tonight.  He may talk about a security pact with Iraq.  He may bluster into that or blunder into that.  He may still get his headlines from the conservative press, friendly press that he wants to cut the troops down there by some amount over the next couple of—next year or so.  What is more likely—what is most likely to develop as the dynamic coming out of this week? 

TODD:  I think it is going to be the fact that you are going to see a fight break out on the Democratic presidential candidates, to try to be tougher than the congressional Democrats. 

And I think that this is the problem the Democratic Party has right now, is you are going to have presidential candidates wanting to sound much tougher and much more anti-war, and the congressional Democrats who are just getting blistered here in poll ratings because they are not getting anything done, and they don‘t seem to be able to be a stopgap at all to the president.

MATTHEWS:  But why have they stopped talking?  It seems like I understand they are short of the votes.  They have only got 49 effective votes in the Senate because they don‘t have Lieberman, they don‘t have—well, I guess, Tim Johnson.  But why don‘t they keep barking at least at the passing bus?  Why did they stop barking against the war? 

TODD:  It is an “I don‘t know.” And I think on one hand maybe they feel like Harry Reid hasn‘t been a good spokesperson, so they need to find another one.  It is surprising, we will see if Jack Reed does a better job being the face of the Senate Democrats. 

But I think that has been their problem.  And I think a lot has to do, Chris, with this Democratic presidential primary.  Because, you know, you are going to have John Edwards tonight just railing.  I mean, he is—their campaign is ecstatic that the Senate Democrats are rolling over because it thinks that it plays into their message of being able to say, see, look at the Washington establishment, they won‘t shake things up, I will. 

MATTHEWS:  This reminds me so much of Vietnam, guys, back when the liberals were weak and the anti-war left said they failed.  And that is where McGovern came from. 

TODD:  It may—look, it could happen.  I think that is.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  And it is not healthy to either party to have this happen, to have one party splintering up. 

TODD:  Yes, but I don‘t think there is a McGovern in the race this time.  I mean, I don‘t think the dynamic is the same.  I think that the people there are responsible.  And it is a weird thing, by the way... 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  OK.  We have got to go.  Chuck Todd, thank you.  Ezra Klein.  I will be right back at 7:00 with another live show with a new coat on to prove it.  We will be right back.  We have a preview tonight at 7:00 of this very important presidential speech.  And then Keith Olbermann and I will co-anchor afterwards the president‘s speech itself.  And later we will talk about what he said.  It is time now for “TUCKER.”

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

END   

Copy: Content and programming copyright 2007 MSNBC.  ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.  Transcription Copyright 2007 Voxant, Inc. (www.voxant.com) ALL RIGHTS  RESERVED. No license is granted to the user of this material other than for research. User may not reproduce or redistribute the material except for user‘s personal or internal use and, in such case, only one copy may be printed, nor shall user use any material for commercial purposes or in any fashion that may infringe upon MSNBC and Voxant, Inc.‘s copyright or other proprietary rights or interests in the material. This is not a legal transcript for purposes of litigation.

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