updated 3/5/2009 12:21:56 PM ET 2009-03-05T17:21:56

Guest: Pat Buchanan, Lawrence O‘Donnell, John Heileman, Chris Cillizza, Chris Cillizza, Joan Walsh, David Rivkin, Charles Mahtesian, Ed Gordon

High: Right-wing radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh challenges President Obama to come to his studio and debate him.

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST:  Radio waves.

Let‘s play HARDBALL.

Good evening.  I‘m Chris Matthews.  Leading off tonight: Pomposity on parade.  Not since Snoopy challenged the Red Baron in the “Peanuts” cartoon have we witnessed an episode of such preposterous pomposity.  Rush Limbaugh today challenged the president of the United States to come and debate him in his Palm Beach radio booth.  What‘s the radio man thinking of?  What were the Democratic wags thinking of when they invited themselves and the president into this walrus wrestle?  Was it poll data that convinced them of the smart politics in matching themselves against a man with the mike, passing over such other dashing conservatives of Congress like John Boehner and Mitch McConnell?

However it‘s started, it‘s come to this, to what happened today, to this ultimate jumping of the shark.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RUSH LIMBAUGH, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST:  If these guys are so impressed with themselves, and if they are so sure of their correctness, why doesn‘t President Obama come on my show?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Rush has been very clear about this.  He wants President Obama to fail.  Senator Harry Reid said yesterday that the Republican Party wants President Obama to fail.  But is that what we call news?  Whatever it is, let‘s get to it.

And Senator John McCain has been banging away again, attacking the latest Capitol Hill spending bill like a grizzly bear going after a picnic basket.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ), FMR PRESIDENTIAL CND:  My constituents are really angry when they see this kind of corruption taking place with the misuse and corruption of their tax dollars!

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Well, maybe not like a grizzly bear.  Anyway, McCain has had a nastily high profile for a defeated presidential candidate.  Usually, they retire from the field after a presidential defeat.  How much did we see of Al Gore or Bob Dole or Mike Dukakis after they lost?  We know McCain wants to eliminate earmarks.  Is that what‘s going on?

And should there be a truth commission to investigate whether the Bush administration‘s national security policies violated the law?  We‘re talking torture, wiretapping, perhaps worse.  This is what the Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, Pat Leahy, pushed for today.  But some of his colleagues on the committee won‘t even touch the topic.  But we will.

Also, can you name Minnesota‘s two U.S. senators?  Of course you can‘t because the Norm Coleman/Al Franken election still hasn‘t been settled.  Now Coleman, who lost the recount, may ask for a new election to decide the matter.  That‘s in the “Politics Fix” tonight.

And British prime minister Gordon Brown told Congress today that Senator Edward Kennedy has been made an honorary knight of the realm—Sir Edward.  We‘ll have that in the HARDBALL “Sideshow.”

But we begin with Rush Limbaugh‘s challenge to debate President Obama.  Pat Buchanan and Lawrence O‘Donnell are MSNBC political analysts.  Pat, with a do you make of this?  Is this macho, girls‘ lunch?  What do we call this thing?

(LAUGHTER)

PAT BUCHANAN, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  I think Rush is having just about the time of his life, and I think the White House has really played into his hands.  They‘ve elevated him and made him the principal adversary and he says he‘s Mr. Republican.  So he says, Come on and debate me.  I think it‘s been a big boost to Rush Limbaugh.  I think some Republicans have gotten themselves wrapped around the axle.

But Chris, I think the White House is making this serious mistake.  This is campaign fun and games.  We‘re all having a lot of laughs.  But in the first two months of this year, the American people had the greatest fall in their wealth in their history, 25 percent of what was left of the stock market wiped out.

MATTHEWS:  Right.

BUCHANAN:  And these guys are going back—I mean, it‘s fun playing games with Rush Limbaugh.  The question is not whether they can campaign well.  They‘re very good at it.  Can these guys govern?  Because they don‘t seem to be very good at that.

MATTHEWS:  Lawrence, is true, as Pat suggests, that the White House is truly distracted by this sideshow with Rush?

LAWRENCE O‘DONNELL, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  Oh, no.  This is the sideshow of their making, Chris.  They want this.  This is very helpful to the White House, and it‘s very helpful to Rush Limbaugh.  It‘s disastrous for Michael Steele and it‘s very harmful for Republicans in Washington.  Limbaugh is not popular out there in the country.  He‘s very, very unpopular with voters under the age of 40.  He has, like, an 11 percent approval rating with them.  And so associating Republicanism with Limbaugh is a losing proposition for Republicans at the ballot box.

All of the Rush Limbaugh ideas were rejected in the last presidential campaign and in the congressional campaign before that.  So this is a guy whose notions are rejected at the ballot box repeatedly, and he has come out and said he wants the president to fail.  That‘s the kind of language no one wants to hear out there in the mainstream of American politics.  So it‘s working beautifully for the White House and for Rush, who is making the most of it.

I mean, this is—you know, for Rush fans—and I call myself a fan.  I‘ve listened to the show a lot.  I know the way he works and I know where he goes for his entertainment.  This is gold for him.  He‘s never had a moment like this before.

BUCHANAN:  Chris—Chris, let me say, if this were the campaign, I would agree with Lawrence 100 percent.  I would say, Terrific, they‘re going to make Rush the adversary, rather than McCain and Palin, make him the face of the Republican Party.

They‘ve been elected, Chris.  For heaven‘s sakes, they‘ve got the government of the United States, and Barack Obama has come out with four proposals—the stimulus package, the housing bill, the budget and the bank—the Geithner bill—and they‘ve caused the American people to run from the market in a statement that they don‘t believe they‘re going to work and they‘ve got no hope in the future, and the White House is here playing this game with Rush Limbaugh and the folks that we‘re all enjoying?  This is serious stuff, Chris!

MATTHEWS:  Right.

BUCHANAN:  This is not a joke!

MATTHEWS:  Right.  But we‘re talking about Rush Limbaugh.

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  Let me go back to Lawrence here.  What was this you know where he goes for his fun and games?  What was that?

O‘DONNELL:  Well, this is the kind of thing Rush loves.  If you listen to the show regularly, engaging, getting feedback from the outside world is incredibly important to the show.  Otherwise, it‘s this thing that‘s occurring just in the Limbaugh bubble.  So when the White House press secretary reacts to him, when all of us in the media react to him, this is what he needs.

MATTHEWS:  OK.

O‘DONNELL:  He‘s trying to provoke these segments on these shows, and he‘s doing...

(CROSSTALK)

BUCHANAN:  ... doing this, fine.  But the president of the United States?  I mean, what is going on?

MATTHEWS:  Let‘s go to your point, Pat.  Here‘s the “Politico” report today how this thing got started.  And it looks like it got started in the White House.  Quote, “The seeds were planted in October after Democracy Corps, the Democratic polling company run by James Carville and Stan Greenberg, included Limbaugh‘s name in a survey and found that many Americans just don‘t like him,” as Lawrence said.

“By February, Carville and Begala were pounding on Limbaugh frequently in their appearances on CNN.  Neither Democrat would say so, but a third source said the two also began pushing the idea of targeting Limbaugh in their daily phone conversations with Rahm Emanuel,” the chief of staff to the president.  “Conversations and e-mail exchanges began taking place in and out of the White House.  The White House needed no more convincing after Limbaugh‘s hour-plus performance this Saturday.”

So Pat, your point is that this sideshow fight, this mud fight is distracting from the business of leading this country out of economic chaos and it‘s a bad move by the White House?

BUCHANAN:  Chris, if this were October 2010, I‘d have said Carville and Begala and these guys really got us wrapped around an axle.  They‘ve drawn us into this battle.  But Chris, they are in the White House.  They‘ve been elected.  This battle has probably antagonized the Republican Party, united the Republican Party.  It‘s now a political party...

MATTHEWS:  United the Republican Party?

BUCHANAN:  Oh, the Republican Party is as hostile as it can be right now.  Chris, he‘s not going to get a single vote...

MATTHEWS:  OK.

BUCHANAN:  ... for that budget.  How does he—how is he...

MATTHEWS:  So you, Pat, are now joining in this genuflection chorus towards Rush.

O‘DONNELL:  Chris...

MATTHEWS:  He is the Republican Party.  If you get him mad at you, like an angry bear, then the whole Republican Party is opposed to you.  Is that what you‘ve done here?  I‘m talking Limbaugh talk here.

BUCHANAN:  OK, let me tell you what my view is.  I want to see...

MATTHEWS:  You just said that Limbaugh speaks...

BUCHANAN:  I don‘t want to see the president fail in Afghanistan.

MATTHEWS:  Right.

BUCHANAN:  I don‘t want to see him fail in Iraq or the Middle East or with Russia.  But I‘ll tell you this, if that budget is his belief of what‘s good for America, I don‘t want him to fail, I believe we ought to defeat him...

MATTHEWS:  OK.

BUCHANAN:  ... and knock those taxes out, knock the knockout of the deductions...

MATTHEWS:  OK.

BUCHANAN:  ... and go after that carbon tax and all the rest of it and win that battle because I believe that‘s best for America and our president is on the wrong course!

MATTHEWS:  Well, let‘s take a look at Rush Limbaugh responding to the story I just read you.  Here he is today on the radio.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

LIMBAUGH:  It is on the record, thanks to Politico.com.  Since last fall, the White House, led by Rahm Emanuel, the chief of staff to Barack Obama, has been targeting me, your host, your harmless, lovable little fuzzball.  Their standard operating procedure, they need a demon to distract and divert from what their agenda is.  They need a demon about whom they can lie so as to persuade average Americans that they‘re the good guys, the benevolent good guys, and the mean SOBs are their enemies stopping—trying to stop this great young little president from doing miraculous and wonderful things.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Let me question this, Lawrence, because I don‘t agree with you.  I don‘t think it‘s classic Barack Obama politics to have an enemy.  It is, not to knock them, the Clinton strategy to always find an enemy out there because they love the word “fight.”  Senator Clinton was very good at that, “I‘m fighting for you.”  They love to have an apparent enemy.  It‘s classic Carville politics to have a clear-cut enemy.  Is it good for Barack Obama to engage in this mud fight?

O‘DONNELL:  Well, it‘s not good for Barack Obama...

MATTHEWS:  Is it good for him?

O‘DONNELL:  Not good for Barack Obama, and he‘s not in it.  There‘s no one in the White House...

MATTHEWS:  He‘s not?

O‘DONNELL:  ... or the administration who has a policy job who spends a minute thinking about Rush Limbaugh.  This is a thing for Gibbs.  This is a thing for the spinners in the White House to deal with, and they‘ve dealt with it well.  They don‘t have to push this story at all.  We do these segments without getting anyone from the White House to add to the fire.  It‘s all Rush and Michael Steele.

MATTHEWS:  But what about—Paul Begala‘s a brilliant guy in many ways.

O‘DONNELL:  It‘s within the Republican Party.

MATTHEWS:  Carville is a brilliant guy.  Why are they helping the president engage in this, if this story is true...

O‘DONNELL:  Because what pat...

MATTHEWS:  ... and it hasn‘t been knocked down—that Emanuel is party to this?

O‘DONNELL:  Yes.  Because what Pat‘s talking about, which is opposition to the president‘s agenda, is a serious thing and the president is going to encounter real opposition to his agenda among Republicans.  What they want to do is spin that opposition to appear as if it‘s coming from nothing but the nutty Limbaugh section of this party.  If they can associate it with that, then that will help them overcome that opposition.  So they are—this is about governing and it is—which is what they‘re...

BUCHANAN:  Chris, let me get in here.  Look, I think what the president had going for him is enormous goodwill.  All of us didn‘t want, frankly, the president of the United States...

O‘DONNELL:  He still does.  Take a look at the polls.

BUCHANAN:  All of us didn‘t want the president to fail.  We want him to succeed.  What they have done with this and what they have done with this budget is throw us all into the point where we‘ve got to fight for what we believe in.  He has united the conservative opposition...

MATTHEWS:  Right.

BUCHANAN:  ... and divided—I think he‘s dividing these blue dogs away from himself when his idea, his best approach is get the center and bring in part of the Republican Party and have the liberal wing basically a little bit unhappy, as they are in Iraq, but to have part of the Republican Party.  He‘s destroying that two months in!  And that‘s been, as you said, his whole approach!

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Lawrence, is this post-partisan politics we‘re getting from the president‘s people here?  Are Carville and Begala serving the president‘s interest in a post-partisan era?  Are they serving his interest?

O‘DONNELL:  Well, look, Rush started this.

MATTHEWS:  He promised post-partisanship.  Is he delivering it?

O‘DONNELL:  Rush is the guy who said, I want the president to fail.  That‘s where the story begins.  And the story this week is Rush in an attack on the chairman of the Republican Party, not on Obama.  That‘s what gives this thing legs.  It‘s Michael Steele on the “Today” show today, you know, genuflecting to Limbaugh.  And so it‘s about the question of the Republican Party being in disarray.

BUCHANAN:  Lawrence, but the big...

O‘DONNELL:  And the Democrats should definitely exploit that.

BUCHANAN:  But the big story today is Rush has called out—I‘m being attacked by Rahm, all these Democrats, the White House.  OK, I‘ll take the challenge.  Bring Barack Obama into my studio.

MATTHEWS:  Pat!

BUCHANAN:  That‘s the big story.

O‘DONNELL:  That‘s not a story, Pat.

BUCHANAN:  Well, you‘re...

MATTHEWS:  Pat!

O‘DONNELL:  That‘s a circus act.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Would you please admit, Pat, that that is pomposity nonpareil?

BUCHANAN:  Well, of course it is!  Look...

MATTHEWS:  There‘s no limit to the pomposity of a person who asks the president of the United States...

BUCHANAN:  But the point is...

MATTHEWS:  ... to fly down on Rush Limbaugh‘s airplane...

BUCHANAN:  I know.

MATTHEWS:  ... to some place in Palm Beach...

O‘DONNELL:  It‘s a joke.

BUCHANAN:  Why are we...

MATTHEWS:  ... and go in his radio booth with him.  Is that a serious challenge?

MATTHEWS:  But why, Chris...

(CROSSTALK)

O‘DONNELL:  It‘s a joke.

BUCHANAN:  Why, Chris, are we talking about Rush‘s challenge to the president of the United States?  Because they‘ve drawn Rush out.

MATTHEWS:  OK.

BUCHANAN:  They‘ve gone for his bait, just like Steele went for theirs!

MATTHEWS:  OK, let‘s watch Steele here.  Here he is—here‘s Rush going at Michael Steele again today, the Republican Party chair.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

LIMBAUGH:  I guess I should tell you what has—Steele called me Monday night.  He told me what happened.  He apologized.  He said, We‘re on the same page.  I want the same things you want, da, da, da.  I said, Mr.  Steele, look, I understand.  It‘s time to move forward.  This—I don‘t take these kind of things personally.  I thought you gave up an opportunity or two to—you know, to say some really brilliant things when you‘re on the D.L. Hughley show on CNN, but you know, we put it to bed.  That‘s why I haven‘t talked about it much because as far as I‘m concerned, it‘s over.  And these guys are still focusing on it.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  Hey, Pat, is he—is he on the level?  Is Rush really a kind of a...

BUCHANAN:  He‘s having the time of his life!

MATTHEWS:  ... funny guy, this is all kind of funny?

BUCHANAN:  He‘s a tremendously funny guy.  There‘s wit in everything he does.

O‘DONNELL:  Right.

BUCHANAN:  And he‘s...

MATTHEWS:  Does he know who he is?

BUCHANAN:  Yes, he knows who he is!  He‘s going to 30 million.  Yes, he has a sense...

MATTHEWS:  It was 20 million yesterday.  Jesus!  This guy‘s doing well!

BUCHANAN:  ... of who he is...

(LAUGHTER)

BUCHANAN:  But look, it is going up.  If the White House keeps...

MATTHEWS:  Thirty million, Pat?

BUCHANAN:  I‘ll bet you today and tomorrow, every journalist in America is tuning in to the guy.  He is loving this, Chris!  He‘s in a battle with the president of United States, with the White House.  You wouldn‘t love this for day in and day out, all week?

MATTHEWS:  I know.  I told you it‘s Snoopy and the Red Baron.  There‘s no doubt about it.  Nothing like it.  He‘s up there flying around with his goggles on and his hat.

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  He‘s Snoopy.  He thinks he‘s taking on the Red Baron.  I‘m not going to stop with that one!

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  Lawrence, last thought.

O‘DONNELL:  Rush Limbaugh is not in the business of electing Republicans.  He‘s in the business of keeping the fuel tanks on his Gulfstream full.

MATTHEWS:  OK.

O‘DONNELL:  And so, you know, he‘s not helping them one bit and they know it.

MATTHEWS:  He‘s unbelievable!

BUCHANAN:  He‘s having a great time!

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  Anyway, walrus wrestling.  Anyway, thank you, Pat Buchanan. 

Thank you, Lawrence O‘Donnell.

Coming up: John McCain‘s actually turned into a vocal critic of the man who beat him for the presidency.  This isn‘t usually done this way.  By the Marquess of Queensberry rules, you usually take about a few months off before you go back at the guy who beat you.  He‘s got a lot to say about President Obama, especially on the subject of—that very exciting topic, earmarks.  Excited already, aren‘t you.  Anyway, we‘ll be back to talk about John McCain with a couple smart people.

You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  Senator John McCain has become a vocal critic of the man who defeated him for the presidency.  He criticized President Obama‘s economic recovery plan, and earlier this week, he laid into the president for supporting a spending bill loaded with pork after pledging, according to him, to do earmark reform as a candidate.

Here‘s what McCain said today about earmarks in that new spending bill.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MCCAIN:  It‘s been reported by some that I was, quote, “angry.”  I‘m not nearly as angry as my constituents are.  I want to tell you, my constituents are really angry when they see this kind of corruption taking place with the misuse and corruption of their tax dollars that they worked so hard for.  Yes, they‘re angry, and I‘m hearing from them by the thousands.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Well, does McCain have a case against President Obama when it comes to pork barrel spending?  That‘s the question right now.  Is it unusual to see, however, a defeated presidential candidate get so quick into the criticism business?

John Heileman‘s with “New York” magazine and Chris Cillizza‘s with the Washingtonpost.com.  John, first point.  Does he have a case?

JOHN HEILEMAN, “NEW YORK“:  You know, I...

MATTHEWS:  Is there a lot of crap in these bills that Congress puts in?  I saw Thad Cochran, the chief of the appropriators, from down South, what, Mississippi, tons of stuff in there just for his state.

HEILEMAN:  Well, I mean, there is—there‘s always been a pork problem in Congress, and there‘s a lot of pork in this...

MATTHEWS:  But didn‘t this presidential candidate say he was going to go through it line by line and get it out?  Didn‘t he?

HEILEMAN:  Well, you know the White House line, right.  This is not his budget.  This is not his set of appropriations.

MATTHEWS:  It‘s not your line, though, my friend.

HEILEMAN:  You know, he...

MATTHEWS:  It ain‘t your line.

HEILEMAN:  I think there‘s—the reality of transformational politics and real politics have kind of come to—come to...

MATTHEWS:  Well, let‘s...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  You really believe they got a case for pork?

HEILEMANN:  I don‘t—no, I don‘t think—look, I think, on the substance of the matter, there‘s a lot of pork in this bill.

MATTHEWS:  Well, let‘s get it out.

HEILEMANN:  And it would be great to get it out.  I think what Obama would say—and I don‘t—look, there‘s an argument here, which is...

MATTHEWS:  Why didn‘t he veto the bill? 

HEILEMANN:  ... let‘s move on and do it right in terms of my budget next year...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Why didn‘t he veto it and aid, take out the—OK.

Let‘s go to Chris. 

Simple question.  The president has a veto pen.  He promised to go through these bills line by line.  The country would be with him 1,000 percent.  Why doesn‘t he do it? 

CHRIS CILLIZZA, “THE WASHINGTON POST”:  You know, Chris, believe I think—to John‘s point, I think he wants to move this off his plate. 

I think it‘s—it‘s—he‘s going to say, this is of the past.  We‘re going to reform it going forward.  And he knows—in truth, he knows he‘s got a lot of huge, pressing things, the economy, the Dow dropping day by day. 

Is earmark reform popular?  Absolutely, the bridge to nowhere...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Don‘t you think the Dow would stop dropping if we had a president who would stop signing pork bills? 

CILLIZZA:  Well, Chris, I—as much as earmark reform is popular, I don‘t think earmark reform is the way in which the economy is going to be fixed. 

And maybe I‘m wrong about that, but I—I do think that what Obama is doing is prioritizing. 

He‘s saying, look, there‘s a lot of things I could do.  The economy is the most pressing.  You have seen him move on any number of ways to bail out the economic stimulus package, home foreclosures.  I think he‘s focusing on those things and essentially saying:  OK.  This isn‘t perfect, I‘m signing it.  We‘re going to try and get it right next time. 

We will see whether that‘s acceptable to the people who put him in office.  My guess is, at least in the beginning, he‘s going to get a little bit of a pass because of the crisis we‘re in financially. 

HEILEMANN:  But, Chris, you know...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  You know the old expression even a broken clock is right twice a day?

(LAUGHTER)

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Let‘s listen to McCain.  He‘s not a broken clock, but let‘s listen to this, because I think he has got a really good point.  Let‘s listen to him.  He lost the election.  I don‘t think he lost this argument. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN ®, ARIZONA:  President Obama said during the debate in Oxford, Mississippi—quote—“We need earmark reform.  And when I‘m president, I will go line by line to make sure we‘re not spending money unwisely.”

Not surprising, the measure has over 9,000 unnecessarily—and wasteful earmarks. 

So much for the promise of change, Mr. President.  So much for the promise of change. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Well, that‘s a tough indictment. 

HEILEMANN:  Well, look, but, Chris, this is—this is—this stuff is such small potatoes compared to the stuff that is on the president‘s agenda to actually...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  More than...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Four hundred and 10 billion dollars.

HEILEMANN:  ... to actually fix the economy. 

MATTHEWS:  Four hundred and 10 billion dollars.

HEILEMANN:  That‘s—that‘s—that‘s half of the original TARP, as you know, and probably about a third or a quarter of what we‘re eventually going to put in...

MATTHEWS:  This is actually government spending, by the way.  This isn‘t loan guarantees. 

(CROSSTALK)

HEILEMANN:  ... we‘re going to put in to put—to fix the base. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  I‘m failing to make my point here.

HEILEMANN:  But it‘s not—it‘s just that, from Obama‘s point of view, it‘s like, let‘s move on and fix the big stuff. 

And to your point about Wall Street—and you know this is true—

Wall—the—the stock market doesn‘t care about the—about the earmarks in the bill.  The stock market cares—the stock market cares about Tim Geithner and fixing the credit system.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Let me go back.  Let me try this one more time. 

The argument made this past campaign was that we had irresponsible spending by the federal government for eight years.  The Republican Party has confessed to that sin.  They have admitted, even at their CPAC convention—Rush Limbaugh and the rest of them admitted it.

If that was a sin under the Republicans, irresponsible spending, why isn‘t it a sin when you are looking at a bill left over from that administration?  And if you‘re given part of that irresponsible spending to correct, why don‘t you correct it when you get a shot at correcting it? 

My simple question to you, Chris, why not do what you promised to do, go through it line by line?  Why isn‘t he doing it? 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  And, by the way, it‘s a technical question.  I don‘t know why he‘s not technically doing it.  Call in his brilliant OMB director, Peter Orszag, and say, Peter, go through this and pull out the crap.  Separate the wheat from the chaff, and then I will sign it after they clean it up. 

He would look great doing that. 

CILLIZZA:  I don‘t disagree with you, Chris, but, again, I think this is about priorities. 

His priorities and your priorities may well be different.  And I‘m not trying to minimize the spending in this bill and the fact that, yes, in fact, as John McCain points out—just as a side note, by the way, I love the return of the old John McCain, the more in sadness than anger tone that he has.

MATTHEWS:  Well...

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  Well...

CILLIZZA:  But John McCain—as John McCain rightly points out, Barack Obama did say...

MATTHEWS:  You guys are cynical. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  I will say it again. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  A broken clock is right twice a day. 

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  I don‘t care if he lost the election.  He‘s right on this one. 

CILLIZZA:  A broken clock being—twice a day is the philosophy that kept me employed all these years. 

(LAUGHTER)

CILLIZZA:  So, I‘m...

(LAUGHTER)

CILLIZZA:  I‘m 100 percent in favor of that philosophy. 

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  So, here‘s McCain going after President Obama on the cost of his helicopter. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MCCAIN:  Your helicopter is now going to cost as much as Air Force One.  I don‘t think that there‘s any more graphic demonstration of how good ideas have—have cost taxpayers an enormous amount of money. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  By the way, I have already talked to Gates about a thorough review of the helicopter situation. 

(LAUGHTER)

OBAMA:  The helicopter I have now seems perfectly adequate to me. 

(LAUGHTER)

OBAMA:  Of course, I have never had a helicopter before. 

(LAUGHTER)

OBAMA:  So, you know, maybe—maybe I have been deprived and I—I didn‘t know it. 

(LAUGHTER)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Nicely parried.  But there you saw a first-line item veto of this administration, conducted, Chris Cillizza, by John McCain.  He just line-itemed the helicopter right then. 

CILLIZZA:  Yes.  He—he chose a nice forum to do that in, Chris. 

That was after the conclusion of that fiscal responsibility summit...

(LAUGHTER)

CILLIZZA:  ... where every reporter—every reporter in the world was paying attention.  So, he thought, now is the time. 

One quick thing about McCain that I think is fascinating, right after the election, he seemed like he was going to be the guy who was going to be the bridge for Obama to Senate Republicans. 

MATTHEWS:  Right.   

CILLIZZA:  All of a sudden now, though, he clearly—this is an issue he has stayed with for a long time.  He‘s not taken up earmark reform.  This has long been an issue...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  You mean principle? 

CILLIZZA:  Exactly.  And I think that he has gone from someone who was...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Are you shocked? 

CILLIZZA:  I am a little bit, Chris, because, right after the election, I thought he was going to reach out. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  You‘re a young man.  Don‘t be shocked by the sight of principle. 

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  It‘s not that startling. 

Anyway...

CILLIZZA:  No, I‘m not shocked by principle.  I‘m shocked by the fact that McCain has gone from someone who could help Obama bridge the gap with Senate Republicans to being the accountability-ist in the Senate. 

MATTHEWS:  He can do both.  Well, let‘s pray for that.  He can do both.  A good man can do both helpful and hurtful things at the same time, yes? 

HEILEMANN:  Well, look, I think the guy sees an opening. 

I mean, I think he looks at the Senate...

(CROSSTALK)

HEILEMANN:  ... and says, where‘s the leadership of the Republican Party?  Who‘s bigger than me? 

And he has leverage. 

MATTHEWS:  He‘s the only man whose name we recognize on the Republican side. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Try to get Mitch McConnell even recognized in a police lineup, or John Boehner.  Nobody knows who they are.  They know who Rush Limbaugh is and they know who John McCain is. 

John Heileman, they know who you are, Mr. New York. 

Chris Cillizza, young man, thank you, sir.

Up next:  Ted Kennedy is already one of the great senators of modern times, both conservatives and liberals agree.  But now we can call him, if you‘re a real Brit, Sir Edward—his honorary knighthood established today, a tribute by the visiting prime minister of Great Britain.  And I think they still say Northern Ireland, don‘t they? 

Anyway, you‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Back to HARDBALL.  Time for the “Sideshow.”

First up:  Do clothes make the man? 

President Obama got mocked by President Bush‘s chief of staff for taking off his suit coat in the Oval Office.  Now the estimable “New York Post,” keeper of the city‘s top-drawer decorum, has reported umbrage at the picture of the Empire State governor, David Paterson, in “Runner‘s World.”  The governor said he‘s promoting the importance of exercise and an active and healthy lifestyle. 

But are we really to believe, as “The Post” reported, that people are really complaining about this?  With the stock market, the New York stock market, in tatters, maybe the New York governor should be dressing down. 

Time for the “Big Number.” 

In 2007, business was looking good at the investment banks.  That year at Merrill Lynch, the top 10 highest paid employees made $201 million.  Then, in 2008, last year came the credit crisis, leading to a massive taxpayer-backed bailout of the big banks.  Amid all that, how much did Merrill‘s top 10 earn last year?  Two hundred and nine million.  Looks like the execs got an average raise of $1 million apiece for a horrible piece of work.  They made even more in 2008 than they did in 2007. 

Merrill‘s top 10 bank, 2,000 -- $209 million in 2008 -- tonight‘s big, bad number. 

Finally, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown paid special tribute today to a member of the U.S. Senate. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GORDON BROWN, BRITISH PRIME MINISTER:  And I know you will allow me to single out for special mention today one of your most distinguished senators known in every continent and a great friend.  Northern Ireland today is at peace.  More Americans have health care.  Children around the world are going to school.  And for all those things, we owe a great debt to the life and courage of Senator Edward Kennedy. 

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

BROWN:  And today, having talked him last night, I want to announce, awarded by Her Majesty the Queen, on behalf of the British people, an honorary knighthood for Sir Edward Kennedy. 

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Well, Senator Kennedy wasn‘t in the chamber today, but he released this statement in response to his knighthood: “For me this honor is moving and personal—a reflection not only of my public life, but of things that profoundly matter to me as an individual.  I accept this honor in the spirit in which it‘s given, with a continuing commitment to be a voice for the voiceless and for the shared ideals of freedom and fairness, which are so fundamental to the character of our two countries.”

So, a Scotsman gets to give an English knighthood to an Irishman. 

Only in America. 

Up next:  The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee calls for a truth commission to investigate whether the Bush administration‘s national security policies broke the law.  Should the Bush crowd be investigated, or should the Democrats move on?  That debate next. 

You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.  

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

JULIA BOORSTIN, CNBC CORRESPONDENT:  I‘m Julia Boorstin with your CNBC “Market Wrap.”

Stocks rallying today, snapping a five-day losing streak.  The Dow gained 149 points, the S&P 500 up 16, and the Nasdaq up 32.  The rally came as the Obama administration unveiled its mortgage modification program.  It‘s designed to help some nine million troubled borrowers avoid foreclosure. 

On the negative side today, the Federal Reserve‘s latest snapshot of business activity nationwide showed the economy worsened in January and February.  And no improvement is expected until late this year, at the earliest. 

Also, a report out today shows the private sector lost a higher-than-expected 697,000 jobs in February.  It would be the biggest monthly job loss since the recession began. 

The government reports official unemployment figures for February on Friday. 

And oil prices rose to a five-week high.  Crude gained $3.73, closing at $45-38 a barrel. 

That‘s it from CNBC, first in business worldwide—now back to

HARDBALL. 

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL. 

Today, the Senate Judiciary Committee took the first step in what could become an investigation into Bush war policies and their legality or illegality. 

Senator Patrick Leahy, the chairman of the committee, is pushing the idea of a truth commission. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY (D-VT), JUDICIARY COMMITTEE CHAIRMAN:  Vice President Dick Cheney and others from the Bush administration continue to assert that their tactics, including torture, were appropriate and effective. 

I don‘t think we should let only one side define history. 

How did we get to a point where the White House could say, if we tell you to do it, even if it breaks the law, it‘s all right, because we‘re above the law? 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Well, Republican Senator John Cornyn of Texas dismissed the idea of a nonpartisan inquiry. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOHN CORNYN ®, TEXAS:  To me, the idea that this so-called truth commission would somehow resolve the good-faith disagreements that I think many of us have had and have divided the country over this subject is, I think, just asking us to believe in the Tooth Fairy. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Wow. 

Well, Joan Walsh is the editor “Salon.”  And David Rivkin is a former Justice Department official who testified at today‘s hearing. 

Joan, John Cornyn is a fairly reliable defender of all things Bush, being the Texas senator. 

JOAN WALSH, EDITOR IN CHIEF, SALON.COM:  Right. 

MATTHEWS:  What did you make of his denial that there‘s any chance for a truly just truth and reconciliation commission that looks into bad behavior by the previous administration? 

WALSH:  You know, I just don‘t buy it, Chris.  I think that there is a way to do it. 

Our Mark Benjamin has been on top of this story going back to August, has interviewed a ton of experts.  Nobody says it will be easy, but people say it‘s possible.  They say it should be nonpartisan.  They say members of Congress shouldn‘t do it themselves, because there is the possibility for too much partisan playing to the cameras, et cetera. 

They say that it should be separate from the idea of prosecutions and that they should possibly just punt on the idea of prosecutions, leave that for the Justice Department.  If wrongdoing is uncovered, figure that out later. 

Many, if not most people, don‘t think there should be immunity.  People on the right and the left think that for different reasons, but most people think that immunity isn‘t terribly useful. 

The Church Committee, for example, never had to give one grant of immunity.  It didn‘t get the big shots.  And the—the little shots were pretty convinced that they wouldn‘t be prosecuted if they told the truth. 

So, there are lots of ways to do it.  Everything we do in our society, Chris, our conversation here today, is predicated on the—on the belief that there‘s some basis, there‘s some kind of factual basis to go forward. 

And I think, you know, Senator Leahy made the point.  We cannot believe that the president is above the law. 

I feel like I‘m young and back in the Nixon administration.  If the president does it...

MATTHEWS:  Well...

WALSH:  ... it‘s not illegal. 

We don‘t believe that.  We‘re a nation of laws. 

MATTHEWS:  What would be the problem with a thorough investigation as to whether this previous administration broke the law with regard to torture, wiretapping, et cetera? 

RIVKIN:  Chris, it‘s a fair question.  Let me give you my answer.  Let‘s set aside the debate whether or not the policies of the last administration were horrible enough to warrant this kind of investigation.  Let‘s set that entirely aside. 

In my view—and I think there are compelling arguments that privatizing what essentially a law enforcement function is fundamentally unconstitutional, fundamentally unprecedented.  There‘s an irony here; law enforcement gets driven, from a Constitutional perspective, either by the Executive Branch, operating in a constitutional and statutorally constrained way, or by Congress exercising its oversight function. 

Privatizing law enforcement, which this commission would do, would, in effect—excuse me.  Let me finish.  Privatizing law enforcement would violate due process rights of the individual.  And they still have a Constitutional provision.  What‘s ironic is the Bush administration has been accused of violating the rights of aliens overseas.  Here we‘re talking about running rough-shod over rights of individual who are American citizens.  It‘s the process that‘s wrong.  That‘s what I said to Chairman Leahy and others. 

It‘s your job to investigate.  If you want to investigate it 20 more times, fine.  Have the Justice Department Public Integrity Division, National Security Division do it.  This is extra-Constitutional.  This is fundamentally abhorrent to our system.  And this is dumb, frankly, for reasons that people who want political accountability in doing this. 

MATTHEWS:  What‘s wrong, both of you, starting with Joan, with a rigorous use of the judiciary process to go after criminal behavior, if there has been any, with regard to the points we made?  Torture, wiretapping, surveillance, et cetera, et cetera.  Anything to do with the war effort that was illegal.  What‘s wrong with having the Justice Department, under Eric Holder, do the job they‘re supposed to do, enforce the law, punish the guilty? 

RIVKIN:  No problem. 

WALSH:  I think the—there‘s nothing necessarily wrong with it, Chris.  I think one of the things that‘s going on here is that the Obama administration has not said whether it‘s willing to do that.  In fact, President Obama, like it or not, has seemed to indicate that he would rather look forward than back.  So you‘ve got Pat Leahy and the senators exercising their own prerogative to say, we would like to get to the bottom of this.  If the Justice Department is too busy or doesn‘t think it‘s important or whatever, we would like to have a fact-finding commission. 

MATTHEWS:  Why can‘t the Senate Judiciary Committee do it?  The Watergate Committee did it with Nixon?  Why can‘t a Senate committee, a special committee, do this thing you want them to do, which I think is a good idea? 

WALSH:  They could.  They could.  At this point, they may.  They‘re looking at what to do.  They‘re taking advice even from people like David.  But the point I want to make, to respond to David, is it isn‘t necessarily outsourcing a law enforcement action.  It‘s not necessarily a law enforcement action. 

David is jumping to the conclusion, which I‘m not necessarily, that laws were broken.  We think they were.  But this is a fact-finding commission.  So it‘s not privatizing law enforcement. 

RIVKIN:  Let me tell you very briefly.  If it quacks and walks like a duck, it‘s a duck.  If you have a body which is tasked with looking at the applicability of criminal laws—remember, there are criminals law on the books banning torture and dealing with warrantless surveillance.  Looking at a finite number of individuals, looking at whether or not they broke the law, it is called a criminal investigation.  Any aspect—

WALSH:  It is not called a criminal investigation.  It‘s not.  You‘re a lawyer.  I can‘t believe you‘re saying this. 

RIVKIN:  In your universe it may not be called that.  But I can assure you the prosecutorial decisions don‘t just include indictment.  It includes selecting targets.  It includes allocating resources.  It includes deciding on immunity issues, deciding on subpoena issues.  We‘ve never in American history privatized those types of decisions to private individuals, not operating within the context of our constitutional system. 

MATTHEWS:  David, are you concerned by this—

(CROSS TALK)

MATTHEWS:  Let me first of all say this, two-thirds of the American people, in a recent poll, say they want to see some sort of investigation as to whether the Bush administration committed war crimes; 40 some percent say it should be a criminal investigation.  That added to the people who just want it to be some softer truth and reconciliation, non-criminal investigation. 

Let me take you here; former Vice President Dick Cheney was asked by Chris Wallace if the president during war decides that there‘s something to protect the country, is it legal?  Cheney, “general proposition, I‘d say yes.  You take the oath to support and defend and protect the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.  There‘s no question about what your responsibilities are in that regard.  Again, I think there are”—

It‘s as if he‘s saying everything‘s legal if it‘s in the defense of the country. 

RIVKIN:  Chris, first of all, it‘s an overly broad statement.  He is not a lawyer.  I would say to you the following: it is absolutely not true.  It‘s Nixonian to say everything the president does is legal. 

MATTHEWS:  Doesn‘t that suggest the need for an investigation as to what he did, given that mindset? 

RIVKIN:  To the same token, the president has a lot of formidable powers.  But let me stipulate, I have nothing against an investigation, preliminary investigation, in private, as most things are done, driven by career, I emphasize career people at the Justice Department. 

Think about it for a second.  The Bush administration was slammed for having politicized law enforcement.  Do you really want political appointees of one administration investigating political appointees of another?  I would absolutely stipulate on this program that if the career people in the Justice Department decide to prosecute, I would think it‘s regrettable, but I see no Constitutional policy problems.  The commission is a different animal entirely. 

MATTHEWS:  Here‘s the moral inequality of that; look at the past administration and the way they disgraced and dishonored people like Max Cleland and their honor and their patriotism.  They had no problem doing that in public in Georgia television advertising.  They didn‘t have any sensitivity about people‘s patriotism or their reputations.  So there‘s a little inequality here in this sense of justice. 

RIVKIN:  I agree.  But law enforcement is the most formidable power of the federal government. 

MATTHEWS:  There hasn‘t been a nice approach in the last eight years to concerns about people‘s reputations.  Let‘s go with that one.  Thank you, Joan Walsh.  Thank you, David Rivkin. 

Up, Rush challenged President Obama to a debate.  Has the Democratic strategy of making Rush the face of the Republican party succeeded beyond their wildest dreams or nightmares or whatever?  The politics fix coming here.  This is HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  I‘ve heard administration officials deride superficial food fight political reporting.  But you‘ve repeatedly engaged in the podium here with cNBC reporters, as well as Rush Limbaugh, which seems to feed that very process you‘re criticizing.  Seems a little hypocritical. 

ROBERT GIBBS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY:  It may be counter-productive.  I‘ll give you that. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  I‘ll give you that.  Welcome back.  Time for the politics fix with the “Politico‘s” Charles Mahtesian and Ed Gordon, host of “Our World” with Black Enterprise.  Let‘s go to Charles to start with.  Charles, there you have Robert Gibbs, who impresses me as a pretty smart guy.  He seems to know how to parry with the reporters every day, keep on message.  There he is admitting that their message is fight with Limbaugh.  Or is he? 

It seems like he is. 

CHARLES MAHTESIAN, “POLITICO”:  Definitely picking a fight with rush Limbaugh.  I mean, take a look at the message coming not only out of the White House, but also out of a bunch of different third-party groups.  So I think they‘re having some traction with it too, because you really haven‘t seen a very effective response from the Republican party.  They‘ve really been knocked back on their heels by this and haven‘t figured out an effective way to respond.  So yes, it‘s working. 

MATTHEWS:  Whose strategy—it seems like a Clinton strategy, not knocking the Clintons.  But isn‘t this the kind of thing they would do?  Pick an enemy, call everything a fight, make everything you do a fight?  Fight, fight, fight, that‘s what everything in politics is.  One side against the other.  Is that a way to get a bipartisan health care bill, a bipartisan energy bill?  Is this the route to bipartisan success?  Is it?  Or is it off—

MAHTESIAN:  Chris, I think you‘ve identified the flaw in the plan right there.  Sure, short term it‘s a pretty effective plan. 

MATTHEWS:  What does it get you? 

MAHTESIAN:  Well, it puts the Republicans back on their feet right now, back on their—

MATTHEWS:  They are on the back of their feet.  Charles, I think they lost the election.  Now you‘re fighting with a guy you just beat.  I don‘t get it.  I think the smart move is to try to find moderate Republicans in the middle, people you can deal with, like Voinovich, people like that, try to talk with Tom Donahue of the Chamber of Commerce, and put together a health care bill, so at the end of this year, have a health care bill. 

Let me go to Ed Gordon.  Ed, my strategy would be get something done this year, bring the economy back and do a—you know, a little hot dog dance in the end zone. 

ED GORDON, “OUR WORLD”:  I think you‘re absolutely right.  I think this whole Rush Limbaugh strategy, if you will—and the White House is trying to distance itself from it as best they can—is the wrong way to go if any of them buy it.  Certainly Obama is not going to.  I would hope that the White House, including Rahm Emanuel and others, will stay away from the Limbaugh thing, and do just as you suggested, Chris, find a way to stay above the fray.  This whole sense of I‘m challenging the president to a debate is almost laughable. 

MATTHEWS:  What do you make of that, Charles?  You‘re on base here right now.  Here‘s Rush Limbaugh.  I compare him to Snoopy, thinking he‘s fighting the Red Barron up in the skies in World War I.  This pomposity, this notion that the president of the United States is really going to come down to your radio booth at Palm Beach, and sit there and talk to you because you invited him in this macho man number, is only not funny to the people who call themselves Ditto Heads.  They take this guy seriously.  Don‘t they?  They believe this is a serious sort of challenge, throwing down the gauntlet or whatever, you know? 

MAHTESIAN:  That‘s the downside risk of the White House strategy and the Democratic strategy.  You don‘t want to diminish the power of the presidency and the bully pulpit by taking an a radio commentator.  The other down size risk is this: this is a guy who—you know, he has 13 million listeners every week, and a lost of hours to fill on the air.  You don‘t fight with people like that for the same reason that you don‘t fight with people that buy ink by the barrel.  In the long run, it‘s a losing proposition. 

MATTHEWS:  I think the old line is don‘t get in a peeing match with a skunk, right?  We‘ll be right back with Charles Mahtesian and Ed Gordon for more of the politics fix.  You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  We‘re back with Charles Mahtesian and Ed Gordon for more of the politics fix.  Let‘s—we could talk about that race in Minnesota.  Let‘s do just a minute on the race in Minnesota right now.  What do you make of this issue right now that Norm Coleman is trying to get another election out there?  Ed Gordon?

GORDON:  He‘s trying to do anything he can.  He‘s going to do that, try to take it to the Supreme Court.  He lost, it seems, by 200 some odd votes.  He‘s talking about anything he can find, errors at the polls, even though the judge threw the testimony of a poll worker out, saying it wasn‘t necessarily admissible or credible.  He‘s going to do anything he can.  The Democrats are just going to hold steady.  I think they believe they‘re going to have this seat if they take it easy. 

MATTHEWS:  You know what I find interesting, Charles, Al Franken, who can get a national audience in two seconds on this show or anywhere else, has chosen to fight this fight inside and in Minnesota.  He‘s not going to the national airwaves. 

MAHTESIAN:  Well, he has to.  He‘s limited in what his options are.  If you take a look at the guy‘s favorable and unfavorable ratings in Minnesota they‘re not very good.  I think his unfavorables are higher than his favorables.  That‘s amazing for an incoming senator, assuming he ends up being the senator.  So he really has to tamp it down and polish his image before he even takes office, assuming he‘s the winner. 

MATTHEWS:  His unfavorables are higher than his favorables?

GORDON:  I don‘t think they‘re going to have the money, quite frankly, to run another election in Minnesota, even though Pawlenty suggests—the governor there suggests that Norm Coleman would have a good shot.  I think he‘s looking at what it would cost the state if they run an entire election. 

MATTHEWS:  It‘s a big issue now, because, you know, gentlemen, we‘re looking at the possibility of a lot of big votes coming up, energy, education, health care, 60 votes necessary.  One of those votes, the 59th vote, is Al Franken‘s.  The Democrats need that vote to get a couple more, probably those Maine Republicans to join them and get something done. 

Thank you for joining us tonight.  I think we‘re going to have an award tomorrow night, a HARDBALL award tomorrow night.  I think everybody who‘s watching knows who‘s going to get it for dominating the news the last week, somebody whose never been elected to anything, has no responsibilities on this planet except talking, who has no duties whatsoever except to talk, has dominated the world stage.  He has dominated the debate with the White House.  He as made himself bigger than he was before.  I mean, in every way bigger.  We‘re going to give a HARDBALL award tomorrow night to somebody really big in more ways than one. 

Charles Mahtesian, thank you.  Ed Gordon, thank you.  Join us again tomorrow night, the big awards ceremony tomorrow night for guess who, at 5:00 and 7:00 eastern for more HARDBALL.  Right now, it‘s time for “1600 PENNSYLVANIA AVENUE” with David Shuster.

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