updated 3/2/2009 10:45:34 AM ET 2009-03-02T15:45:34

Guest: Michelle Bernard, Perry Bacon, David Leonhardt, David Corn, John Soltz, Lt. Col. Steve Russell, Roger Simon, Mike Barnicle, Jim Miklaszewski, Margaret Brennan, Michael Smerconish

MIKE BARNICLE, GUEST HOST:  The end of combat in Iraq.

Let‘s play HARDBALL.

Good evening.  Welcome to HARDBALL.  I‘m Mike Barnicle, in for Chris Matthews, who‘s out tonight but will be back on Monday.

Leading off tonight, getting out of Iraq.  As a candidate, Barack Obama promised to get the U.S. out of Iraq within 16 months, and today at Camp LeJeune, North Carolina, President Barack Obama made it official.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  Let me say this as plainly as I can.  By August 31st, 2010, our combat mission in Iraq will end.  As we...

(APPLAUSE)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BARNICLE:  That timeline is 19 months from when he took office, not 16.  But the president said he will leave only a residual force of 50,000 troops.  The announcement comes with some irony.  John McCain is on board, while much of the criticism is coming from President Obama‘s left, from Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid.  Our question for tonight: What does this withdrawal mean?  Did we win the war?  Did we lose it?  Or will it take years to know?

And the troop drawdown wasn‘t the only big news coming out of the White House this week.  President Obama‘s budget proposal represents a fundamental break from the last 30 years of Reaganomics, the philosophy that tax cuts for the wealthy will benefit the rest of us.  The new game in town, taxing the wealthy to pay for health care, the environment and education.  President Obama is risking his presidency that he can do it.  Can he?

Also, we‘ll admit it, we here at HARDBALL just love watching what‘s going on at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington.  Face it.  Can you really beat Congresswoman Michelle Bachman saying to the new African-American chairman of the RNC, Michael Steele, quote, “Michael Steele, you be da man!  You be da man,” unquote?

And take a look at the states President Obama has visited since taking office.  What do they all have in common?  With just two exceptions, they‘re all red states that turn blue in October.  Is President Obama quietly laying the groundwork for his reelection campaign?  We‘ll look at that in the “Politics Fix.”

And the Iraq war may be winding down, but not for Donald Rumsfeld. 

That‘s in the HARDBALL “Sideshow.”

But we begin with the president‘s plan to withdraw troops from Iraq. 

NBC‘s Jim Miklaszewski is at the Pentagon—Jim.

JIM MIKLASZEWSKI, NBC CORRESPONDENT:  Mike, this was a remarkable speech today.  That sound bite you just played from the president standing before an audience of Marines at Camp LeJeune, declaring that the combat mission in Iraq would end August 31st, 2010, drew applause from that Marine Corps audience.

You recall during the campaign, when he was talking about drawing troops out on a timeline, that he was pretty roundly criticized by Republicans, of course, but by many quietly in the military community, who always insisted that you could not set a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq.  But here he is.  He did it.

And what was also remarkable is how definitive and confident he sounded about doing it during that timeframe.  Now, there‘s a lot of distance and a lot of possibilities between now and August 31st of 2010, not the least of which is the war.  Although violence is down remarkable, the war, according to military officials there in Iraq, is far from over and certainly not won—Mike.

BARNICLE:  Mik, at one point in the withdrawal, before the final withdrawal of the last American troop, there is a plan not really spelled out yet that there‘s going to be about 50,000 troops on the ground within Iraq.  Do we know yet where those troops are going to be placed?  When you‘re wearing the American uniform in Iraq, you‘re automatically a combat soldier, as you would know.  Where are these troops going to be placed?  Do we know what their function will be?

MIKLASZEWSKI:  Well, most of the troops are going to be withdrawn from the urban areas, where many of them are at forward outposts now.  They will not be conducting combat missions, and they will be withdrawing to the larger military bases.

Their primary mission will be, of course, to support the Iraqi military not only in training, but to accompany them still on some of their combat missions.  So it will be, as you alluded to, impossible to separate any U.S. force, any U.S. troop, Army or Marine, inside Iraq from potential combat.  So therefore, among that 50,000 who are thought to—that approximate number who will remain on the ground there in Iraq, there will be the equivalent of about two brigades of combat soldiers and Marines, about 7,000 to 10,000 combat forces.

But what‘s important here, as far as President Obama is concerned, is his emphasis that combat missions, the day-to-day combat missions for U.S.  soldiers will end.  But again, it‘s impossible to separate them completely from potential combat.

BARNICLE:  Yes, until the day that the last American soldier does leave Iraq, Jim, I mean, they are still, all of them, whether it‘s 50,000 or 500, still in harm‘s way, correct?

MIKLASZEWSKI:  That‘s right.  That‘s exactly right.  And even his declaration that all U.S. troops will be out of Iraq by the end of 2011, that in line with a status of forces agreement, SoFA agreement, with the Iraqis signed, sealed and delivered that says all U.S. troops will be out.  But I can tell you that U.S. military officials are already counting on renegotiating that deal at the request of Iraqis before the end of 2011.  And even Secretary of Defense Gates said today in a conference call with reporters that, you know, Americans should be prepared for the possibility that at least a modest force will remain on the ground in Iraq after that 2011 deadline.

BARNICLE:  Jim Miklaszewski from the Pentagon, thanks very much, Mik.

MIKLASZEWSKI:  OK, Mike.

BARNICLE:  Let‘s turn now to two veterans of the Iraq war.  Jon Soltz is with Votevets and Steve Russell is with Veterans for Freedom.  Gentlemen, thanks for joining us.  Steve Russell, what did you think about the president‘s plan?

LT. COL. STEVE RUSSELL, U.S. ARMY (RET.), VETS FOR FREEDOM:  Well, I think—I‘m glad to see that he‘s listening to Secretary Gates and certainly General Odierno and the commanders on the ground and making adjustments.  I do think he has to be careful about setting a date and saying, No more combat.  We saw our previous commander-in-chief made such a claim, and that was problematic.

BARNICLE:  Jon Soltz, your thoughts?

JON SOLTZ, VOTEVETS.ORG:  Well, I mean, I think he brings up a point, in a sense, for President Obama to say August 2010, there‘s going to be no more, you know, quote, “combat” in Iraq based on, you know, what we heard Jim Miklaszewski just report, you know, it‘s hard to isolate the troops in combat inside of Iraq.

But I do think that it was a great speech today because you heard the president for the first time in a long time talk about things other than troops.  He talked about diplomacy.  He talked about ending the war in Iraq.  He talked about taking care of our veterans when they came home.  He talked about a pay increase.

So I think he basically ended the war today, but you know, I would caution that after August 2010, there could be troops left in Iraq and there could be casualties.  And I do think the real test will come if there‘s an uptick in violence that he can‘t want to send more troops in and he cannot renegotiate the SoFA agreement or he‘s going to lose his left in America.

BARNICLE:  Well, speaking about the speech, President Obama today tried to paint a realistic picture about Iraq, gentlemen.  Let‘s take a look and a listen here.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA:  But let there be no doubt, Iraq is not yet secure and there will be difficult days ahead.  Violence will continue to be a part of life in Iraq.  Too many fundamental political questions about Iraq‘s future remain unresolved.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BARNICLE:  Steve Russell, Iraq is basically a violent country.  Its history is violent.  It‘s present is violence and it would lead someone to believe, anyone to believe that it‘s going to continue to be violent in the days ahead.  So going forward, with the withdrawal plan as it is announced today, what do you anticipate might happen with regard to American troops on the ground up until the last moment they‘re there?

RUSSELL:  I think you‘ll continue to see them carrying out their missions.  I had the privilege to be there just a few months ago and went out on patrols in the Rashid district of Baghdad with three different combat units.  What I saw was a remarkable resilience of our troops to work with local Iraqis, to get out into the communities.  We also interviewed a number of Iraqi soldiers and police.

And the thing that I was struck by was how much Iraq is taking over its own security forces.  We even went by civilian car from Baghdad to Tikrit, 160-mile trip one way.  Only saw two patrols.  One was on the outskirts of Baghdad and the other was in the vicinity of Tikrit but not in the city.  Everything else was patrolled by Iraqis and it was quite safe.  So I think you‘ll continue to see some cooperation with the training, with the supply and logistics, with intelligence and other things.

BARNICLE:  Jon Soltz, if someone asked you today—and I‘m going to ask you right now—do you think we won the war in Iraq?  Can you define win in Iraq?  What do you think has happened there?

SOLTZ:  Well, I think that was what was great about the president‘s speech today is he gave the troops and the Marines and the soldiers and the airmen and the sailors all the credit in the world.  He said, You guys did your job.  You took out Saddam Hussein.  You went in, you gave the Iraqis a chance.

So look, America was obviously never defeated on the battlefield in Iraq, not even close, never in one single battle.  And I think what I really enjoy about the president‘s speech today is he gave a tremendous amount of credit to the military, to their families, and he really showed, as a man who‘s never served, how he could reach out to the military community and the troops who fought there and really honor their sacrifice and their commitment to their mission and admitted the problems and failures in Iraq had come at the political level, many political problems that could still arise.

I‘m not quite sure we can write that page in history.  There are still a lot of problems on the ground in Iraq our troops can‘t fix.  Our troops can‘t figure out what‘s going to happen in Kirkuk.  The Kurds have said they‘re going to fight for that ground, although it‘s a split city.  Our troops on the ground cannot deal with what‘s going on with the Sunni oil law (ph), whether or not the Sunnis are going to get a piece of the profit from all over the Shia and Kurd areas.

So these are political problems, and his engagement with Iran and Syria and his engagement with the Iraqi government and understanding that that‘s the real issue here, I felt, was an excellent message.

BARNICLE:  Well, you were just talking about the troops, and President Obama spoke about the troops today.  Let‘s take a listen to what he had to say.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA:  You make up a fraction of the American population, but in the age when so many people and institutions have acted irresponsibly, so many of you did the opposite.  You volunteered to bear the heaviest burden.  You and your families have done your duty.  Now a grateful nation must do ours.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BARNICLE:  Steve Russell, is the president of the United States speaking the truth about the troops and about many of the rest of us here at home—they did their duty and a lot of us just sat back here and bought another barbecue grill for the back yard?

But my question to you is—and maybe you‘d have difficulty answering it.  I don‘t know.  Out there in the country, there are many families who have been fractured forever by the loss of a loved one in Iraq.  Do you think it‘s been worth it?

RUSSELL:  I think it‘s always worth it when we defend freedom.  We have to remember that this isn‘t just about abandoning Iraq that we view as an enemy and leaving.  It‘s about looking at Iraq as an ally and continuing to sustain them.

I lost soldiers in Iraq.  I‘ve lost friends.  I have had to bury a couple at Arlington National Cemetery.  But I think what you see is what speaks to a greater thing, that the president said that our soldiers have acted responsibly.  It‘s time that politicians now act responsibly.  The president has listened to Secretary Gates.  He‘s listened to commanders on the ground.  He‘s made adjustments because he sees the need to continue to have strong forces until the elections at the end of December.

Now I hope that politicians on both sides of the aisle will not abandon our troops, will listen to those ground commanders, and give the president the leeway to make sure that we win in Iraq and that we come home with success.

BARNICLE:  Steve Russell, Jon Soltz, thank you both for your service, and thanks for joining us tonight.

RUSSELL:  Thank you.

BARNICLE:  Coming up: It‘s 2009, but it feels a lot like 1981.  President Obama is presiding over a philosophical shift, a sea change, just as President Reagan did.  And just like President Reagan, President Obama is rejecting what came before him, in this case 30 years of smaller government.  But is President Obama‘s embrace of big government the right move for right now?

You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BARNICLE:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  When President Obama unveiled his budget plans Thursday, it marked a sudden and unmistakable break from 30 years of Reaganomics.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA:  Now, I know that this will not always sit well with the special interests and their lobbyists here in Washington who think that our budget and tax system is just fine as it is.  No wonder.  It works for them.  I don‘t think that we can continue on our current course.  I work for the American people, and I‘m determined to bring the change that the people voted for last November.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BARNICLE:  With us now, “The Politico‘s” Roger Simon and “The New York Times‘s” David Leonhardt, whose headline today above the fold, front page “New York Times,” “A bold plan sweeps away Reagan ideas.”

David, I‘m reading the story this morning, and I—almost laughed out loud because I know the guy, Larry Summers—certified public genius.  And here‘s the paragraph.  “Before becoming Mr. Obama‘s top economic adviser, Lawrence H. Summers liked to tell a hypothetical story to distill the trend.  The increase in inequality, Mr. Summers would say, meant that each family in the bottom 80 percent of the income distribution was effectively sending a $10,000 check every year to the top 1 percent of earners.”

DAVID LEONHARDT, “NEW YORK TIMES”:  Yes.

BARNICLE:  It sounds to me, David, as if there‘s a lot of nervous rich people in this country, never a bad thing.

(LAUGHTER)

BARNICLE:  But how could this be anything but a winner, if what Larry Summers postulates is anywhere near the truth?

LEONHARDT:  It‘s funny.  When Summers first told me that story, the number was $7,000, but inequality kept rising, so it ended up at $10,000.

I think what we‘ve had here is a 30-year period in which two main things have happened.  One, we‘ve had pre-tax incomes increase much, much, much more quickly for the top than the middle and the bottom.  And we‘ve had tax rates fall more for the top than the middle and the bottom.

And so you combine those two things, and that really explains how we‘ve had this situation where people in the middle have had only meager increases, pay increases relative to inflation, and people at the top have had huge ones.  And the Obama administration can‘t really go too far in the short term to affect the pre-tax stuff, but it‘s clear that they‘re going to try to go after the post-tax stuff and reverse part of those trends.

BARNICLE:  Roger, in Washington, you have the Conservative Political Action Conference being held, I guess, today and tomorrow.  We haven‘t heard many ideas postulated from the conservative side.  We‘ve heard a lot of yelling, a lot of nay-saying, a lot of people saying no.  But in an economy like this, with so many people so outraged at what is happened just within the last six or seven months—the perception of the rich getting richer while the middle class stays stagnant—what is Eric Cantor‘s position?  What does he say to compare to what—to President Obama‘s plan?  What‘s their plan?

ROGER SIMON, POLITICO.COM:  You didn‘t think Bobby Jindal‘s speech was full of hard issues?

(LAUGHTER)

SIMON:  I mean, they don‘t have a plan.  The response is, This is no time to be raising taxes because we‘re in a recession, and also that soaking the rich is class warfare.  But the Obama White House, as you saw by reading Summers‘s comment there, is not selling this as soaking the rich.  Actually, we don‘t want class warfare in America.  We want fairness.  And we‘re saying people should pay their fair share.

And now it‘s time, as David‘s article pointed out, where the fair (ph)

have been getting a break for decades now, now it‘s time for them to step

up and pay their fair share.  The difficulty comes really in defining the

rich.  People today—if you make—if you‘re a family making $250,000 or

more, you‘re going to pay more in taxes

A two-income-earner family making $250,000 today, with maybe  a couple of kids in college, paying off their mortgage, who have seen their life savings cut in half, if not more, by a falling stock market, probably don‘t consider themselves rich.  They probably consider themselves the middle class. 

I‘m sure the White House would rather have said, millionaires only get taxed more.  The trouble is, if you tax just people making $1 million a year, you wouldn‘t raise enough money.  You have to reach into the middle class to get the real wealth of America.  And that‘s why it‘s being defined pretty slow, at $250,000. 

BARNICLE:  Well, David, off of Roger‘s point...

DAVID LEONHARDT, “THE NEW YORK TIMES”:  Yes. 

BARNICLE:  ... one of the obstacles to economic health in this country, it would seem to be, is the budget-busting health care costs endured by state governments and certainly by the federal government. 

Where does this plan, the budget, as he outlined it yesterday, where does this make a dent in health care costs?  Where will it make a dent in health care costs? 

LEONHARDT:  Well, it starts.

And—and, as far as it goes is pretty good.  But, boy, it leaves a lot still to be decided.  And, so, it leaves a lot of big fights down the road. 

The key problem here is, we spend massive amounts of money on health care that doesn‘t actually make people healthy.  There‘s fabulous research on this that shows health variations—variations in health spending, and they don‘t at all correlate with outcomes.

And—and, so, what we want to do is, we want to go out there and cut some of that spending that isn‘t actually making a difference.  What the Obama plan will start to do is collect some of the information that will allow them to figure out what works and what doesn‘t.

But the hard stuff is down the road.  It‘s—it‘s saying to that hospital, no, we are not going to reimburse you for that, because it doesn‘t make a difference.  And that is going to be a whopper of a fight.  And—and we‘re not yet there.  And—and they‘re not doing that yet.

But—but that‘s—that‘s clearly huge. 

BARNICLE:  Hey, Roger, back to the politics of the budget—and it‘s

all politics, I would assume, at some level, the budget—but, again, the

Republicans, they—they constantly talk about Reagan and the—and the -

and the great years of Ronald Reagan‘s presidency.  And they want to restore Reaganomics to the country. 

How many Republicans leaders, do you figure, realize that President Reagan left office in 1988?  There‘s a whole new generation of people...

SIMON:  Right. 

BARNICLE:  ... voters, parents, young parents, first-time homebuyers out there who President Reagan is—is history to them? 

What‘s their—when are they going to get up to speed on the fact that it‘s 2009? 

SIMON:  Well, they‘re still looking for another Ronald Reagan.  I mean, he is the Republican icon. 

The trouble is, the era of small government, of deregulation hasn‘t worked.  We are paying for it now.  And Barack Obama, as he said in the clip you showed, is not a pig in a poke.  He—he presented a clear difference between his Republican opponent, John McCain.  Remember John McCain.  There was a bright line between these two guys. 

One guy offered: large government.  The government is on your side. 

There‘s nothing wrong with big government if it helps people. 

The other guy, John McCain, wanted small government.  He wanted to cut taxes, especially on business people.  And Barack Obama said, the wealthiest in the nation will have their taxes increase.  People made a choice in November.  And they chose this path. 

Now, Barack Obama still has to sell the details to Congress and the American people, but, you know, it was two years ago today in Springfield, Illinois, where he announced for president.

BARNICLE:  Yes. 

SIMON:  And he said:  I‘m not just running to hold office.  I‘m running to transform a nation. 

He promised transformative politics.  And this budget is transformative. 

BARNICLE:  Yes, it is. 

Hey, David, quickly, what, if anything, surprised you in this budget proposal, as it was outlined yesterday? 

LEONHARDT:  Boy, it is hard not to be surprised by the top-line deficit number.  I mean, it is just enormous.  I mean, it‘s—as a share of the economy, it‘s bigger than anything we have had since World War II.

And—and, so, clearly, what they‘re betting on is that, in the long term, they are going to be able to bring that down, and in the medium term, start to bring it down.

But you look at that first number and you think to yourself, wow, we‘re going to have a deficit that‘s 10 percent of GDP. 

(LAUGHTER)

LEONHARDT:  It‘s unbelievable. 

BARNICLE:  Yes, I can‘t even balance my checking account.  So, I can‘t...

(LAUGHTER)

BARNICLE:  I have no follow-up questions there. 

Roger Simon, David Leonhardt, thanks, both. 

LEONHARDT:  Thanks, Mike. 

BARNICLE:  Up next;  The Iraq war may be coming to a close, but not for Donald Rumsfeld.  That is next in the “Sideshow.”

You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.  

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BARNICLE:  Just about my favorite song. 

Back to HARDBALL.  Time for the “Sideshow.”

First up;  What‘s the best part of going to conventions?  The stuff.  The souvenirs.  The knickknacks, the chotchkies, the junk no one needs, but must have. 

Just take a look at the stuff from today‘s Conservative Political Action Conference?  We have got “Ron Paul Was Right” bumper stickers being handed out, some retro ‘08 buttons, “Joe the Plumber for John McCain.”  There‘s the “Not Just Evil, Just Wrong” Al Gore posters.

And, looking ahead to 2012, there‘s that life-size cutout of Sarah Palin.  Hey, it‘s never too early.  There you go. 

Next up: a blast from the past.  Check out this nasty nugget about Don Rumsfeld in today‘s “Washington Post”—quote—“The former defense secretary was waiting for a long-delayed bus when a man in his late 30s with a young son got just inches from his face and started berating him over his handling of the war in Iraq.  Rumsfeld stood stoically, not responding.  Then the man‘s bus arrived—Rumsfeld was waiting for a different one—and that was that.”

The real question is, Don Rumsfeld taking a bus, what‘s up with that? 

Speaking of the old team, former first lady Laura Bush, a wonderful woman, gave her first post-White House interview to ABC News last night.  From the sound of it, the Bushes could use a few housewarming gifts. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, “ABC WORLD NEWS”)

LAURA BUSH, FORMER FIRST LADY:  We have very little furniture.  I—friends loaned me a kitchen table.  And, the other night, I had 16 people for dinner, and I had to borrow chairs from the Secret Service next door. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BARNICLE:  Here at HARDBALL, we‘re sending the former president and his wife a toaster. 

Mrs. Bush also said that she—quote—“totally forgot” to watch President Obama‘s address to Congress on Tuesday. 

Now for tonight‘s “Big Number.” 

Talk about preserving a piece of history.  For 17 years, President Obama got his hair cut at Chicago‘s Hyde Park Hair Salon.  Well, the now famous barbershop has taken President Obama‘s chair, which features his autograph, and covered it in glass.  And how much did the glass case cost?  Nearly $10,000. 

How‘s that for a tribute?  Ten thousand dollars to preserve President Obama‘s barbershop chair—that‘s tonight‘s “Big Number.” 

Up next, much more on the CPAC conference and the long road ahead for conservatives.  Can Republicans rebound just by saying no to President Obama?  Can they do it by bashing George W. Bush?  Or do they need a few new ideas of their own?

You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.  

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

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

Stocks tumbling again, after more dismal economic news today, finishing a bleak month for stocks.  The Dow Jones industrial average closed 119 points lower on Friday.  The S&P 500 dropped 17, and the Nasdaq shed 13. 

Revised figures show that the economy contracted in the final quarter of last year at a larger-than-expected 6.2 percent pace.  That‘s the worst showing in 26 years. 

The Treasury Department has agreed to give Citigroup up to $25 billion more in federal bailout money.  Under the deal, the government‘s stake in the struggling bank could increase to 36 percent.  It‘s currently 8 percent. 

And General Electric, the parent of MSNBC and CNBC, announced that it will cut its dividend starting in the third quarter from 31 cents a share down to 10 cents.  The move is expected to save the company $9 billion a year. 

That‘s it from CNBC, first in business worldwide—now back to Chris and HARDBALL. 

BARNICLE:  Welcome back to HARDBALL. 

Today, some of the conservative movement‘s most influential leaders gave their prescriptions for how to get the Republican Party back on track.  It is all happening at an event called CPAC, short for Conservative Political Action Conference.  But will the movement return to its Reagan-era glory days? 

David Corn is Washington bureau chief for “Mother Jones” magazine.  Michael Smerconish is one of the three greatest living American radio talk show hosts...

(LAUGHTER)

BARNICLE:  ... and an MSNBC political analyst.

Michael, in reading about and looking at some of the visuals from the CPAC conference—well, before we get into the question, I want you to listen to new Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele.  He spoke to the conference today, speaking at CPAC. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MICHAEL STEELE, CHAIRMAN, REPUBLICAN NATIONAL COMMITTEE:  Tonight, we tell America, we know of the past.  We know we did wrong.  My bad. 

(LAUGHTER)

STEELE:  I‘m charging conservatives to get your head out of the sand and put your head in the business of sharing the message of leading. 

Let‘s get busy. 

(APPLAUSE)

STEELE:  Let‘s go out there and fight for those things that we believe in. 

God bless America. 

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE) 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BARNICLE:  So, I mean, Michael, part of this conference, you know, I was wondering whether all these people had gathered from Roswell, New Mexico, or were a bunch of Trekkies or something. 

(LAUGHTER)

BARNICLE:  I mean, I just don‘t get it.  I admit it, I don‘t get it. 

But, listening to Michael Steele there, I‘m wondering.  He said, it‘s time to get busy.  We have heard the message.  We did bad.

And, yet, several days ago, we had every Republican member of the House of Representatives in Congress, every single member, vote no on the stimulus package, as if there was nothing of any good in that package.  I don‘t get it.  Where are they coming from?  Can you explain it to me? 

MICHAEL SMERCONISH, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  I will certainly try.  I

used to attend the CPAC conference.  As a matter of fact, all throughout the ‘80s, it was at the Mayflower Hotel.  And, Michael, my recollection is that Ronald Reagan, as president, came every year but the year that he was shot.  So, at least in that era, I knew the group well. 

They‘re uncompromising.  And, so, it makes total sense that you have the Republican members of the House all saying no to the president on the stimulus package, not a single one of them willing to break ranks.

And that‘s a mind-set that you would find represented at CPAC.  This is a group of individuals very necessary to the success of the Republican Party.  But they are not big-tent-minded.  These are the folks with the litmus tests that I would argue, on the social issues, are preventing a Republican victory.

And they don‘t want to compromise.  And they would tell Barnicle that the reason that John McCain lost is, he wasn‘t conservative enough. 

And I think that‘s the wrong idea. 

BARNICLE:  Hey, David, let me ask you, off of what Michael was saying about, you know, social policies and the Republican Party, do you buy into the theory—I have heard it espoused by some people—that we might be witnessing the fracture of the national Republican Party between a congressional wing of the party, the aforementioned members of Congress, who universally, unanimously voted no on the stimulus package, and stand for election every two years, almost all of them unopposed, from safe congressional districts, and another Republican Party made up of some governors and many—and some Republican mayors, who have to deal on a day-to-day basis with the aforementioned problems that brother Smerconish referenced? 

Do you think there‘s a possibility of that happening? 

DAVID CORN, WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF, “MOTHER JONES”:  I think fracture may be putting it lightly.

And you could say there‘s a division between the reality-based Republicans and those living in their own marginal districts.  I mean, when Michael Steele made those comments that you showed saying, when he said, “our bad, my bad,” what he was referring to was that, during the Bush years, Bush hadn‘t cut back government spending enough, in fact, that he expanded—expanded spending.  And that‘s the bad that Steele is confessing to. 

But what‘s at the heart of conservative ideology?  It‘s a fetish for the free market and for small government.  Now, look at what‘s happening in the world around us now.  How many Americans out there who are hurting, who are looking at the—the shrinking economy, who are unemployed or fear losing their jobs, don‘t have health care, are saying to themselves, we should let markets have more power and more freedom and decide our fates more so than they have had in the last 20, 30 years?

I mean, so, when he talks about getting back to the roots of conservatism for the Republican Party, I still have to wonder whether they‘re detached from reality, because those roots, it‘s a problem—the problem isn‘t what just happened on the surface.  They have a fundamental issue for conservatives. 

And I would love to hear Michael talk about this.  And that is what they—their gut beliefs, at least for now, have been proven wrong. 

BARNICLE:  Yes, Michael, before you talk about that, here‘s another Republican, famous Republican, long gone, in terms of holding office, Newt Gingrich.  Here he is, talking about George Bush and Barack Obama. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

NEWT GINGRICH, FORMER SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE:  The great irony of where we are today is that we have a Bush-Obama big-spending program that was bipartisan in its nature.  We got big spending under Bush.  Now we have big spending under Obama. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BARNICLE:  So, you have the former speaker of the House, Republican, compact with America, 1994, or whenever it was, 19 -- yes—now whacking President Bush, out of office five weeks. 

Who‘s the leader of the Republican Party?  Is it Newt Gingrich?  Is it Eric Cantor?  Or is it Rush Limbaugh? 

SMERCONISH:  I would hope that it‘s none of the aforementioned. 

And I—I think that, you know, to respond to David‘s point, as—as well as to what the speaker, or the former speaker, Newt Gingrich, had to say, it‘s hard to main ideologically pure in a foxhole. 

And with what‘s going on in this economic climate, frankly, I hear very few people saying there ought not to be any government intervention. 

You know, you always wonder, Mike Barnacle, who are those 20 percent, 25 percent who continue to support George W. Bush?  They‘re in that room or at least they‘re represented in that room.  So it was pretty significant today that Newt took on the former president. 

BARNICLE:  You know, one of the things they did today, again, I mean one of the things they love to hammer at is the media.  Tucker Carlson, he spoke to the convention earlier.  Do we have that clip from Tucker Carlson?  Here‘s Tucker Carlson defending the “New York Times.”

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TUCKER CARLSON, MSNBC SENIOR CORRESPONDENT:  The “New York Times” is a liberal paper, but it is also—and it is to its core, a liberal paper.  It‘s also a paper that cares about whether they spell people‘s names right, by and large.  It is a paper that actually cares about accuracy. 

Conservatives need to build institutions that mirror those institutions.  That‘s the truth.  You don‘t believe me? 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BARNICLE:  So the—they‘re booing Tucker, David.  You know, they hate the media.  But there‘s a lot of other enemies out there that they could be focusing on, I think, that would resonate more with people, although lawyers, bankers and the media are at the bottom of the shelf.  I understand that.  But why do they continue to beat this? 

CORN:  They have to blame somebody.  And they can‘t blame themselves or worse blame their ideas.  I still think that the problem is that, at the core, their solutions and their notions, their ideology, is out of step with what‘s happening in the world today, not just with public opinion. 

And Sarah Palin, You know, there was a documentary, some clips came out a couple of weeks ago, in which she was blaming the media.  Well, they showed that documentary a couple of times at CPAC the last few days.  And she goes on and on about how the media sabotaged her campaign.  Her performance, her inability to address issues or have voters feel confident with her, none of that mattered.  All that mattered to her was that the liberal media went after her. 

Listen, this is good news for Democrats.  If they are going to sit around blaming the media and thinking they‘re right in the essential matters, it is going to take a lot longer for them to get out of the wilderness than otherwise. 

BARNICLE:  Michael Smerconish, one thing about conservatives, thoughtful conservatives, is that they‘ve actually thought about some of the issues and problem that confront America, and they have actual counter-proposals in opposition to President Obama and the Democratic administration. 

What do you like or dislike?  What would be—what path would you take, instead of the stimulus, or out of the stimulus plan?  What do you dislike about it?  What would be your alternatives? 

SMERCONISH:  Michael, I don‘t profess to have the answer.  I‘m so shocked by the level of certainty that I see on television and hear from others on the radio, as if they have all got it sorted out.  To which I respond, where the hell were you two years ago?  Why didn‘t any of these rocket scientists, who now absolutely know how we‘re supposed to get out of this, well, why didn‘t they see it coming then. 

It seems to me, if you‘re asking me, a little counter-intuitive that where our problem is one of over-leverage, we are now going to exacerbate that and take on a two trillion dollar debt.  To me, it is like monopoly money.  I can‘t even comprehend what we‘re talking about. 

But I don‘t profess to have the answers.  I really don‘t.  I hope Obama is right.  I really pray for the country that he is correct. 

BARNICLE:  I do, too.  Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann, we have heard from her in the past.  She was off camera, I believe, complimenting Michael Steele, the new Republican chairman, on his speech.  Listen to this. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GOV. SARAH PALIN ®, ALASKA:  Michael Steele, you be the man.  You be the man. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BARNICLE:  I mean, David, what can you say about that?  I mean—

CORN:  You know, she is her own story.  What can I tell you?  She came on air and she said that Barack Obama wanted to—hated America.  And also, the other night, Michael Steele was sending slum love out to Bobby Jindal.  These guys, they‘re trying to be hip, trying to be cool, and they‘re making all sorts of faux pas. 

Bottom line is, I don‘t think they‘re addressing what people are going through or experiencing in their own lives, as they look at the crumbling economy around them.  And until they start to do that, they‘re going to be in a big hole. 

BARNICLE:  I‘m telling you, I think the convention‘s being held in Roswell, New Mexico.  I‘m sticking with that.  David Corn, Michael Smerconish, thanks very much. 

Up next, President Obama goes on the road to announce the draw down of troops in Iraq.  And there‘s something telling about where he chose to go.  The politics fix is next.  This is HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BARNICLE:  We‘re back and it is time for the politics fix with MSNBC political analyst Michelle Bernard, and the “Washington Post‘s” Perry Bacon.  President Obama‘s former opponent, Senator John McCain, lined up behind his plan for withdrawal from Iraq.  Take a look at this. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN ®, ARIZONA:  Now, I believe the president‘s withdrawal is a reasonable one.  I‘m cautiously optimistic that the plan, as laid out by the president, can lead to success. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BARNICLE:  Perry, the only ripples of dissent that I have picked up thus far in the less than ten hours since President Obama spoke down in Camp Lejeune to the withdrawal plan have been from the left, from Speaker Pelosi, a muted dissent, but it is there, and from Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader. 

President Obama‘s approval ratings now hover around in between 65 and 70 percent, depending on the poll you read.  Do you think it‘s possible, given Pelosi and Harry Reid‘s dissent from the withdrawal plan of Iraq, that President Obama‘s approval rating could hit 90 by the end of the weekend? 

PERRY BACON, “THE WASHINGTON POST”:  That‘s a funny way to phrase that question.  Yes, I don‘t think the opposition in this case is going to be very significant to this.  There are a lot of Democrat who are concerned about the number of troops and want it to be lower.  I‘m not sure they‘re going to be able to change the plan fundamentally that Obama‘s laid out already. seems to have found a lot of support among Republicans, as you noted. 

I think he‘s very popular right now, which makes his influence much stronger than the leadership on the Hill. 

BARNICLE:  Michelle, did you get a chance to read or see any portions of the speech today at Camp Lejeune?  

MICHELLE BERNARD, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  I did.  I did.  I thought it was a good speech.  I thought it was measured.  I think he‘s been doing what the American public has been asking for for a very long time, and being very measured in his tone, giving us a sense of confidence, and also making people feel that he has heard what the American public is saying.  He is sticking to basically the vows he made when he was campaigning for president, but he is withdrawing from Iraq in a way that seems to be reasonable.  And that‘s what most people want. 

I think all of the dissension that we hear, only from Democrats, really on the left—far left side of the Democratic party, I think people are going to be asking themselves what else do you want?  Because he clearly is demonstrating, I think, very good leadership skills, whether you agree with all of his policy decisions or not. 

BARNICLE:  Yes.  I‘ve got to tell you, there has certainly been a lot of chatter on cable and certainly a lot of ink spills in the newspapers across this country about the president‘s speech before the joint session the other night.  For my money, today‘s speech down in Camp Lejeune, given where it was given, down at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, with so many young Marines have gone to war over the years, and the tone of the speech, the tenor of the speech, the fact that he cited the tremendous sacrifices made by military families at a point in time in our country‘s history when so few of us have been asked to make counter-sacrifices.  I just thought it was a stunning performance. 

Did you get a chance to watch it or read the speech, Perry? 

BACON:  I did.  I did.  It‘s an important thing politically.  This is one of the things he promised throughout the two years running for president.  He promised, I‘ll take the troops out of Iraq.  So he actually is implementing that now, which I think is very important in a political sense, you know, in terms of people are very tired of having troops in Iraq.  I think that‘s something, that he‘s fulfilled his campaign goal that he pledged over and over and over again. 

BARNICLE:  It is just—you keep wondering what the definition of win is in New York, as that word was tossed about so much during last fall‘s campaign, for the past few years.  It was interesting watching him speak today down there.  On another—on another topic, I mean, the president‘s travel plans over the past several months have taken him to various states that he carried last fall.  Prior have been carried by the Republicans, Nevada, North Carolina, specifically.  He was in North Carolina today, obviously, Nevada a few weeks ago.  He‘s been in Virginia.  He‘s been in Indiana. 

What do you think that‘s about?  Do you think it‘s politics, Perry?  Or do you think it‘s just the fact that he went there and made commitments to people who were hurting during the campaign, and now he‘s back to show them that he‘s not forgetting them.  What do you think it‘s about? 

BACON:  His location was logical today, in terms of going to a place close with a military base.  That said, yes, he‘s going to these states intentionally.  These are states that don‘t traditionally go Democratic, went Democratic in 2008, and states that he wants to win again in 2012.  I think the overall—I‘m not sure about today, but I think the overall plan is to make sure to visit those states.  He had his economic stimulus visit in Indiana, particularly.  I think that was very targeted, a state they want to keep in Democratic control in 2012. 

BARNICLE:  We‘re going to be back with Michelle Bernard and Perry Bacon for more of the politics fix in just a minute.  You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BARNICLE:  We‘re back with Michelle Bernard and Perry Bacon for more of the politics fix.  Today, “Rocky Mountain News,” Denver, Colorado, 150 years old, last paper, today.  Here is part of the message from the paper‘s editors: “to have reached this day, the final edition of the ‘Rocky Mountain News,‘ just 55 days shy of its 150th birthday, is painful.  We will scatter.  All that will be left are the stories we have told, captured on microfilms or in digital archives, devices unimaginable in those first days.  But what was present in the paper then, and has remained to this day is a belief in this community and the people who make can what it has become and what it will be.  We part in sorrow, because we know so much lies ahead that will be worth telling, and we will not be there to do so.” 

Here are some of the other big papers in trouble, Michelle, the “Enquirer” and “Daily News” in Philadelphia, the “Chicago Tribune,” the “Minneapolis Star Tribune,” Perhaps the “San Francisco Chronicle,” with leaving San Francisco with no daily newspaper.  Did you ever think you‘d see this day, Michelle, when major cities would be without a daily like San Francisco? 

BERNARD:  (INAUDIBLE) I don‘t know what this means for the future of media.  There‘s something I really enjoy about holding on to my newspapers and reading them every single day.  You know, with the advent of the Twittering and the e-mail and people reading their newspapers online, it means something new for media.  But I really am somebody who is always going to want to hold on to a real book and a real newspaper and read them page by page on a daily basis. 

BARNICLE:  Perry, you‘re a young guy.  I‘m an old guy.  I‘ve been in the newspaper business nearly all of my adult life.  The thought of a major American city like San Francisco and several other cities in danger of losing their newspapers is almost unimaginable to me.  You work for the “Washington Post.”  Tell us what happens, in your mind, when a city loses a daily newspaper?  What happens to politics?  What happens to the community? 

BACON:  I think Lynn Down (ph), who used to be the editor of the “Washington Post,” has spoken about this a lot.  The biggest worry is that the newspapers are doing investigations, really look into, you know, corruption and scandals and sort of influence pedalling with governments.  They are really watchdogs.  If you don‘t have the kind of big newspaper, you‘re going to lose some of that is my biggest concern. 

The one positive that we‘re seeing, in general, the things are happening because the Internet is sort of expanding and taking up advertising.  You do have more access to information than ever before.  That‘s one benefit of this.  But I‘m worried at times the information you‘re getting is not the kind of journalism that is held as public accountable, more than it was ten years ago. 

BARNICLE:  You‘re right.  Michelle Bernard, Perry Bacon, thanks very much.  You‘re not going to get that kind of information in today‘s Times and “Wall Street Journal,” about the financial crisis online.

Chris returns Monday night at 5:00 and 7:00 Eastern for more HARDBALL. 

Right now, it‘s time now for “1600 PENNSYLVANIA AVENUE” with David Shuster.

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

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