updated 3/12/2009 2:41:42 PM ET 2009-03-12T18:41:42

Guests: Michelle Bernard, Mary Thompson, Lawrence O‘Donnell, Pat Buchanan

Kim Gandy, Ari Fleischer, Lisa Depaulo, Chris Cillizza

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST:  We band of Bushies.

Let‘s play HARDBALL.

Good evening.  I‘m Chris Matthews.  Leading off tonight: We just can‘t quit you.  When President Bush left office, his approval ratings were abysmal, with historians ranking him among the worst presidents ever and with the American people basically saying “Good riddance.”  Iraq, torture, Katrina, the sinking economy—you name it, it stuck to Mr. Bush.  But the former president does have his supporters.  Some of his top former aides have been working hard to burnish his legacy.  Big question tonight: Can the Bush presidency be saved?  We‘ll give you one supporter, give him a chance tonight to defend himself, former Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer.

Plus: Did President Obama just declare war on Congress by trashing those cuddly little projects called earmarks?

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  If my administration evaluates an earmark and determines that it has no legitimate public purpose, then we will seek to eliminate it and we‘ll work with Congress to do so.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Or did his fresh signature on that porkipied (ph) spending bill, $410 billion worth, speak louder than his words?  Anyway, don‘t bet on the Congress to say, Yes, siree, Mr. President.  They‘re more likely to say, We were elected by our constituents, we‘re here for them and we‘ll decide where the money goes.  More on this big hot (ph) bombing of the way things are in a minute.

Also, President Obama created a White House council today to give special attention to the economic and health concerns facing women and girls.  Some say, No, it‘s not necessary.  Others say it doesn‘t go nearly far enough.  We‘ve got two women here to debate it.

And what do you make of this?  Michael Steele now says bipartisanship doesn‘t work.  Are these fighting words?  Is it the Republican line?  We‘ll give the new Republican national chairman a stress test of our own in tonight‘s “Politics Fix.”

Finally, big check for Denny‘s, not so big for a presidential campaign.  Backers of Sarah Palin went to a Denny‘s restaurant last night.  The group has raised about $3,000 for a possible presidential run for her. 

Let‘s get the latest on Palin in the HARDBALL “Sideshow” tonight.

But first we begin with the campaign by former aides to President Bush to defend his legacy.  Ari Fleischer was the White House—Ari, what a smiling face to have back on our show!  Thank you, sir.

ARI FLEISCHER, FORMER BUSH WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY:  Thank you, Chris.

MATTHEWS:  What brings you back?  Is this the return from Elba?  Is this the 100 days of Napoleon‘s return from Crawford?  What is going on with this network of former Bushies—current Bushies, I should say—singing the old song?

FLEISCHER:  Well, Chris, I‘m here because you invited me to be here.

MATTHEWS:  Oh, yes.  OK.  I appreciate that.  But isn‘t there a lot of you out there—I called them the “band of Bushies”—who are out there trying to remind us of how good he really was?

FLEISCHER:  Well, there, of course, is a number of people who believe in George Bush, believe in his policies and believe he helped contribute to a stronger, better America, where we haven‘t been hit since September 11.  But what happens after you leave office, Chris—and you know this very well—is there are a lot of cable shows and a lot of people are still interested in your opinions.  And I‘m always pleased if I can go on and talk—mostly, it‘s talking contemporaneously about what‘s happening with President Obama and just my take on events.  And along the way, there are inevitable comparisons or insights you can deliver about what I saw when I was there working for President Bush.  I‘m proud to say what I think.

MATTHEWS:  Well, let‘s talk about the change in parties which occurred last year in November.  You‘re as aware of politics as anybody around.  You speak about it.  You think about it.  You write about it.  It seems to me there were two reasons why Barack Obama was elected president.  First of all, he won the primaries because he was totally against the war in Iraq.  He won the general because the economy sucked.

Now, to put it bluntly, what‘s wrong about that?  Doesn‘t the war still stand as a mistake, as an unpopular war?  Doesn‘t the economy that you left the country when your party left the country in our hands terrible and worthy of a change of parties?  What‘s really changed since November?

(CROSSTALK)

FLEISCHER:  I don‘t think a lot has changed in terms of what you just described.  And I would agree with your overall political assessment.  It was in part because of Iraq and in large part because of the economy that Barack Obama won.

Having said that, I also think Barack Obama should say thank you every day that he inherited a world without Saddam Hussein in it.  Imagine how much worse the Middle East would be if Saddam and his sons were still in charge of that country and how much worse human rights would be in that region of the world.

So it‘s not as simple as just saying that one factor contributed to an election.  That‘s absolutely true in the politics of it.  But now that he‘s governing it‘s a lot more complicated, isn‘t it.  Take today...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  ... the war in Iraq?

FLEISCHER:  Hold on a second, Chris.  Take today.

MATTHEWS:  ... Ahmadinejad, who doesn‘t have a buffer in the region...

FLEISCHER:  Chris, today he issued his first signing statement...

MATTHEWS:  Right.

FLEISCHER:  ... where he put the exact same things that George Bush did in signing statements...

MATTHEWS:  OK.

FLEISCHER:  ... that you and others criticized George Bush for.  My point is that governing is a lot more complicated than mere politics.  And I can point that out when I have the ability to compare what happened under George Bush‘s watch to Barack Obama‘s watch.  It‘s a lot of nuance and a lot of context.

MATTHEWS:  Well, we had the national debt grow from $5.7 when you guys came in to $10.9 when you left.  And many Republicans who now speak very loudly on this subject say the reason is that that man we‘re looking at right now, your boss for those years, President George W. Bush, never vetoed a single spending bill.  He opened the door, the flood gates, to huge spending.

FLEISCHER:  Well, actually, the spending on domestic...

MATTHEWS:  Isn‘t this true?

FLEISCHER:  Chris, the spending on domestic discretionary and non-homeland security went up by 1.3 percent a year.  What happened was entitlement spending, because of prescription drugs for seniors, and then defense military homeland security went way up, then you had the recession of 2001, which we inherited.  That‘s all that contributed to it.

Critics will point to the tax cuts.  I remind people that the tax cuts led to a record-breaking 55 months of economic growth and job creation.  We‘ve never in this country had 55 straight months of job creation.  We had that under President Bush before the bank failures of September.

MATTHEWS:  Are you proud of the economic record of George W. Bush?

FLEISCHER:  You know, I think he came in with a recession, he left with a recession...

MATTHEWS:  No, really.  Are you proud of it?  Is it something to brag about?

FLEISCHER:  Chris, it‘s not a simple one-word answer.  I‘m not proud of the way...

MATTHEWS:  Yes, well, the way we judge success is what you left behind.  The way we judge success in life is if you have a campfire as a Boy Scout and you say—you‘re told, Leave it better than when you found it.  Did you leave the economy better than you found it?

FLEISCHER:  Look, I think when people look back on the Bush years...

MATTHEWS:  Isn‘t that a fair standard?

FLEISCHER:  ... the one thing people are going to remember the most is that he kept us safe.  We have not been attacked against since September 11.  The second is, as I said, Barack Obama should be thankful that he‘s inherited a world without Saddam Hussein in it.  The third part...

MATTHEWS:  Yes, but we were attacked on your watch.  If you start getting into who was attacked when, we suffered the worst domestic calamity in history on your watch.  If you get into this whose watch was good, you guys blew it.

FLEISCHER:  Chris, I...

MATTHEWS:  I don‘t know if you can do it that way.

FLEISCHER:  Chris, how dare you?

MATTHEWS:  But how can you say...

(CROSSTALK)

FLEISCHER:  Chris, if we get attacked again—if we get attacked again, are you going to say we got attacked on Barack Obama‘s watch?  We got attacked by terrorists.

MATTHEWS:  No, no.  I‘m using the word the way...

FLEISCHER:  That‘s who‘s to blame for it, Chris.

MATTHEWS:  ... you‘re using it.  You‘re saying...

FLEISCHER:  And I think what you just did is shameful.

MATTHEWS:  No, no.  I think...

FLEISCHER:  I just said that we can all be proud...

MATTHEWS:  It‘s not shameful to say...

(CROSSTALK)

FLEISCHER:  You were bragging about the fact that we weren‘t hit after 9/11.

(CROSSTALK)

FLEISCHER:  ... proud that we haven‘t been attacked since September 11.

MATTHEWS:  You‘re bragging about the fact we weren‘t hit...

FLEISCHER:  That‘s exactly right.

MATTHEWS:  How can you brag about...

FLEISCHER:  That‘s what people are going to remember about President Bush‘s administration.

FLEISCHER:  Well, they don‘t remember that because his popularity went down to about one of the lowest in American history.  He‘s down near the bottom of American presidents because people believe that he didn‘t do a good job as president.  Let‘s go back to your standard.  I‘m not saying...

(CROSSTALK)

FLEISCHER:  ... people who look at substance.  You‘re in the former category.

MATTHEWS:  Ari—Ari, you can‘t set up a standard and then not live

by it.  If the standard is, We didn‘t get hit...

FLEISCHER:  Who is talking?

MATTHEWS:  What?

FLEISCHER:  Who‘s talking?

MATTHEWS:  If you set up a standard...

FLEISCHER:  Set up a standard and not live by it, Chris Matthews?

MATTHEWS:  Yes.

FLEISCHER:  You know, Chris, I don‘t recall you saying that James Carville, Paul Begala, those people, shouldn‘t be on the air defending their boss, but here you are questioning why people like me would be out there saying things about my boss.

MATTHEWS:  Well, because...

FLEISCHER:  It‘s not a slam-dunk, Chris.  There are two sides to every issue.

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Good.  Fair enough.  Fair enough.

FLEISCHER:  And I get to present that side.

MATTHEWS:  OK, give me the argument that you can make again on a couple of fronts.  The Iraq war—back when we got into the war, you admitted that the evidence presented by the president wasn‘t fair, that the argument that we were facing a nuclear threat, about the yellowcake from Africa and the purchase of it supposedly from—by Saddam Hussein, you said wasn‘t true.  Your words were, That information turned out to be incorrect.  You questioned the president‘s case for the war, I didn‘t.

Are you happy to defend the way Katrina was handled after you left the administration?  Are you generally happy with the economic record of the Bush administration?  These are broad questions.  I think I‘m being fair.

FLEISCHER:  And my point...

MATTHEWS:  And by the way, nobody was tougher...

FLEISCHER:  My point to you...

MATTHEWS:  Nobody on television was tougher...

FLEISCHER:  ... back, Chris, is that we have not been...

MATTHEWS:  ... on President—nobody was tougher on President Clinton than I was, and you know it.  So don‘t accuse me...

(CROSSTALK)

FLEISCHER:  No, I think a lot of people were tougher than you.  You were tough on President Clinton, on his ethics and his morality.

MATTHEWS:  Don‘t say I haven‘t been tough.

FLEISCHER:  Chris, you were tough on...

MATTHEWS:  Don‘t say I haven‘t been tough.

FLEISCHER:  You were tough on his ethics and morality.  How couldn‘t you be?

MATTHEWS:  Well...

FLEISCHER:  But as for President Bush, yes, I am proud of the fact we have not been attacked since September 11, and a lot of people deserve credit for it...

MATTHEWS:  OK.

FLEISCHER:  ... President Bush included.  And despite the fact that we were wrong about whether Saddam had WMD because Saddam lied about it and everybody, included Bill Clinton, believed he had WMD, I believe we are all better off and Barack Obama is better off because Saddam Hussein is no longer in this world or in this Middle East creating more trouble.

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Suppose...

FLEISCHER:  And he should be thankful for that.

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask you this question as a partisan question. 

Suppose you knew that a Democratic president had...

FLEISCHER:  What else do you ask?

MATTHEWS:  ... had gotten a presidential memo, a daily presidential briefing that said, al Qaeda to attack within the United States, and three or four weeks later, they did and killed 3,000 of us.  Would you hold that against the incumbent Democratic president, if you knew he was warned directly of an attack coming and then it came with nothing stopping it?  Would you say that he was shameful, might be a word you‘d use?

FLEISCHER:  Chris, first of all, wasn‘t warned directly.  It was one of those vague warnings about al Qaeda wants to attack in the United States.

MATTHEWS:  Inside the United States.

FLEISCHER:  Well, is that a surprise to...

MATTHEWS:  It was delivered to the president in person...

FLEISCHER:  Sure.

MATTHEWS:  ... in a daily intelligence briefing.  And what did he do with that intelligence?

FLEISCHER:  Chris, and this is the real world.  This is what‘s mind-numbingly frustrating about...

MATTHEWS:  See, I‘m just asking you how you...

FLEISCHER:  Chris...

MATTHEWS:  ... would use it politically.

FLEISCHER:  Chris, do you ever not interrupt your guests, or is that

all you‘d like to do?  Now, here‘s the answer to your question, if you

would let me answer it.  One of the frustrating parts that the presidency -

and Barack Obama is going to find this—is that intelligence reports are mind-numbingly frustrating.  You get a report saying al Qaeda is determined to attack in the United States.  Well, that‘s not a surprise.  Of course they are.  It doesn‘t say where.  It doesn‘t say when.  It doesn‘t say how.

So if you get a report like that, what do you do?  Do you shut down shipping to the United States?  Do you shut down air traffic in the United States?  How long do you do these things?  Do you shut down immigration to the United States?  If you don‘t know the hows, the whens and the wheres, you‘re very limited in what practical steps you can take.

So if Barack Obama were to receive something like that, I would not do what you did.  I would not be critical of the incumbent president.  I would say this is part of the reality of how hard it is to govern in a world of terrorism and that I wish President Obama tremendous success in stopping terrorists who come here.  I wouldn‘t put the blame on his shoulders.  I put the blame on the shoulders of the terrorists who tried to attack us.

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask you to review, as you were playing defense here, and properly so.  The president‘s economic record left this country with a financial crisis like we don‘t even know the bottom of yet.  Is that the responsibility of the administration that left office January 20th or not?

FLEISCHER:  Chris, there‘s no question the administration—the Bush administration left behind a bad recession for President Obama, just as we inherited a mild recession from President Clinton.  As a result of the Bush tax cuts, the 2001 recession was very short, very shallow, and it was followed then by, as I said, record-breaking job creation.

MATTHEWS:  Right.

FLEISCHER:  What I‘m worried about now is I think President Obama has taken a very tough, bad situation that he did inherit, but I think all his spending is making it worse.  That‘s what troubles me.  You listen to Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the House, today say that we need a second stimulus.  Well, that‘s acknowledgement that the first one is a failure.  This is what troubles me.

MATTHEWS:  OK.

FLEISCHER:  We‘re pouring good money after bad, and I don‘t think Barack Obama has got it under control.  We‘re still waiting to hear the specifics of his banking policies from his Treasury secretary on what‘s going to fix the banks.  The Treasury secretary made an announcement three weeks ago with no substance and no details, and we‘re still waiting.

MATTHEWS:  OK..  Let me ask you about the financial crisis which we inherited.  Let me ask you another question.  Do you believe that the administration made an honest case in taking us to war with Iraq?  An honest case.

FLEISCHER:  Yes.  Yes.

MATTHEWS:  Even though you corrected the record afterwards and said that they made a dishonest argument that we faced a nuclear threat.

FLEISCHER:  Chris, how disingenuous are you?  You can just roll back the tape...

MATTHEWS:  I‘m just quoting you!

FLEISCHER:  ... in this interview.  Chris, I said we were wrong.  I didn‘t say we were dishonest.  Dishonest is your word, Chris Matthews.  We were wrong.

MATTHEWS:  Well, how did it happen...

FLEISCHER:  But Bill Clinton was wrong...

MATTHEWS:  ... if it wasn‘t done on purpose?

FLEISCHER:  It was an intelligence mistake.  We were all wrong.

MATTHEWS:  OK.

FLEISCHER:  The United States was wrong.  The United Nations was wrong.  Egypt was wrong.  Israel was wrong.  Bill Clinton was wrong.  George Bush was wrong.

MATTHEWS:  OK.

FLEISCHER:  And don‘t forget the CIA director under George Bush was the same CIA director, a Democrat, under Bill Clinton.  Now, Chris, you‘re in a responsible position...

MATTHEWS:  The problem is you told us...

FLEISCHER:  ... doing what you do.  When you confuse...

MATTHEWS:  ... this was a mistake.  You told us this stuff...

FLEISCHER:  ... getting something wrong with being dishonest, shame on you.

MATTHEWS:  ... was all wrong.  But Ari, you probably got in a lot of trouble for telling the truth back then by saying it was an inaccurate claim, an incorrect claim.  You did so courageously...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  ... and you did so after we got into the war. 

Unfortunately...

FLEISCHER:  George Bush said the same thing.  He said the intelligence was wrong.

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Most Americans...

(CROSSTALK)

FLEISCHER:  And then he had a commission study why the intelligence was wrong so future presidents could benefit from changing the intelligence structure.

MATTHEWS:  Let me go back to where we started...

FLEISCHER:  That‘s what you‘re supposed to do when you make a mistake.

MATTHEWS:  ... before we started quibbling here.  One of the main reasons why this president...

FLEISCHER:  It‘s not a quibble.  It‘s fundamental.

MATTHEWS:  One of the main reasons...

FLEISCHER:  What‘s troublesome is why you would twist my words.  When I said we were wrong, you said I acknowledged we were dishonest.  Chris, that reveals a lot about you and how you...

MATTHEWS:  Let‘s go over it again.

FLEISCHER:  ... cover (ph) the guests that come on your show...

MATTHEWS:  You believe—do you believe...

FLEISCHER:  ... when you twist people‘s words like that.  You shouldn‘t do that.

MATTHEWS:  Just a minute.  Thanks for the—for the correction.  Let me ask you this.  Do you believe that you know for sure that those words were not confected to win the case for the war, that we went into that war with people who really wanted to push the evidence harder than they should have, that they were reckless in making claims that couldn‘t be proven afterwards, as you admitted?

FLEISCHER:  Well, given the fact...

MATTHEWS:  Were they reckless claims?

FLEISCHER:  Given the fact that Bill Clinton also said that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, biological and or chemical...

MATTHEWS:  No, nuclear weapons.

FLEISCHER:  No.

MATTHEWS:  Nuclear.

FLEISCHER:  Nobody ever said he had...

MATTHEWS:  You guys claimed nuclear.

FLEISCHER:  ... nuclear except—no, Chris, we didn‘t.  Dick Cheney made a mistake on one Sunday show and said nuclear and then he took it back.  That‘s the only time anybody ever said that.

MATTHEWS:  Over and over again...

FLEISCHER:  We were fearful—we were fearful...

MATTHEWS:  ... Condi Rice and the rest of you...

FLEISCHER:  We were fearful he would try to develop them.

MATTHEWS:  ... said if we didn‘t go to war with Iraq—over and over again, we heard if we didn‘t go to war with Iraq, if we waited to hear evidence further, we would be—we would suffer a mushroom cloud—Condi Rice.  The vice president went on “Meet the Press” and other programs again and again and again, threatening this country...

FLEISCHER:  Once.

MATTHEWS:  ... if we didn‘t go to war with Iraq, we‘d suffer a nuclear threat from them.  There was evidence presented by your administration there was some sort of delivery vehicle that could deliver a nuclear weapon to this continent.  That‘s what you guys claimed.  That‘s how you got the middle-of-the-road people to back the war.  And now you backpedal.  Afterwards, you admit it was incorrect.  Well, other people have different observations about how hard you pushed.  But you pushed to get us in the war, and now you‘re backing out of it.  Now you‘re coming back and saying, well, you were right even though you took it back.

FLEISCHER:  Chris, we always said that we didn‘t want to let a smoking gun turn into a mushroom cloud.

MATTHEWS:  What did that mean?

FLEISCHER:  We never knew whether he had—we always said he does not have nuclear.  I repeatedly said that.  But he was determined to try to acquire it, just as he was determined to acquire biological and chemical.

MATTHEWS:  Right.

FLEISCHER:  And it‘s wrong for you to say that what we said was wrong, when we acknowledged the intelligence was wrong, but then the inspectors who went over there after the war did report that Saddam had an active intelligence program to acquire biological and chemical weapons.  He never stopped working on them.

MATTHEWS:  Yes.  The problem is, you...

FLEISCHER:  We were wrong that he had them.  We weren‘t wrong that he was trying to obtain them.  And that‘s why I believe, Chris, to this very day that we should all be grateful that we‘ve inherited...

MATTHEWS:  Well...

FLEISCHER:  ... that Barack Obama has inherited a world without Saddam in it.

MATTHEWS:  OK, well, that‘s...

FLEISCHER:  The sanctions were full of loopholes.  He ultimately would have had them.  We were wrong when we said he had them, but it was only a matter of time, Chris.

MATTHEWS:  And now we face Ahmadinejad in Iran with no buffer in the region, no threat to his power, no counter-power to him.  He‘s all alone over there as a main threat to our country and to other countries in the region because we removed the only check on his power, which was Saddam Hussein.  That‘s just as legitimate a strategic argument as the one you just made.

But what you cannot continue to argue is there was any justification for saying there was a mushroom cloud facing us if we didn‘t go to war quickly.  It was an argument for a quick rush to war, to jam us into the war as quickly as possible with the threat of a nuclear attack on this country.  It was made very effectively.  I was there at the time, Ari.  I was challenging it at the time.  And only afterwards did you say it wasn‘t a correct fact.

FLEISCHER:  Chris, I repeatedly said from the podium—and you can find the tape and roll it for your audience—that Saddam does not have nuclear.  We said he would try to obtain nuclear, and that‘s what we believed.

MATTHEWS:  Right.

FLEISCHER:  We do know that he was trying to obtain biological and chemical.  As for your argument about Ahmadinejad, you know, there are some people who believe in the legitimacy of dictator versus dictator and that‘s how you have a balance of power around the world.

MATTHEWS:  Right.

FLEISCHER:  I can‘t dispute that that is one strain of foreign policy.  But when I look at it on balance, I‘d much rather not have Saddam in the world.  I‘d much rather have Libya without its nuclear weapons, much rather have Syria without its nuclear weapons it was developing.

MATTHEWS:  That would be an argument...

FLEISCHER:  Three nations, two of which were trying to develop...

MATTHEWS:  That would be...

FLEISCHER:  ... nuclear no longer have done so under George Bush‘s watch.  I believe that‘s made for a much more safe and secure Middle East.

MATTHEWS:  Well, the truly frightening...

FLEISCHER:  Iran is the last remaining big problem.

MATTHEWS:  ... argument you have just made—the truly frightening argument you just made is anybody in the world we don‘t like is worthy of a war to take them out of power.  And I don‘t believe that‘s a justifiable argument morally, politically, geopolitically or other.  If we don‘t like...

FLEISCHER:  Was there a war against Libya?

MATTHEWS:  ... a world leader, and there are a lot of them we don‘t like...

(CROSSTALK)

FLEISCHER:  Chris, yes or no.  Was there a war against Libya?  The answer is no and Libya no longer has nuclear weapons.  They turned them in.  They dismantled their program.  Was there a war against Syria?  The answer is no.

MATTHEWS:  But your argument is that because...

FLEISCHER:  Israel went in and surgically removed...

MATTHEWS:  ... we didn‘t like Saddam Hussein, we should have gone to war with him.  That‘s your argument, not mine.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Ari, agree to disagree.

FLEISCHER:  ... and I believe this still today.  And of course, you and I disagree with it.  But after September 11, having been hit once, how could we take a chance that Saddam might not strike again?  And that‘s the threat that has been removed, and I think we‘re all safer with that threat being removed.

MATTHEWS:  OK.  And I am glad-

FLEISCHER:  And I‘m proud to take that argument.

MATTHEWS:  ... that we no longer have an administration that uses that kind of argument.  Thank you very much, Ari Fleischer.  And the American people are happier, too.  They are, I can assure you.  We don‘t like that thinking anymore in this country.

Coming up...

FLEISCHER:  Well, Chris, we all know where you stand.

MATTHEWS:  And you, as well, sir.  Thank you for coming on.

FLEISCHER:  Thank you, Chris.

MATTHEWS:  I mean it.

Coming up: President Obama declares war on Congress.  He‘s the new sheriff in town, telling Congress that the old ways of doing things won‘t fly anymore.  He‘s talking earmark reform.  This is a gunfight up on Capitol Hill over earmarks and over who‘s going to call the shots.  We‘ll all of that in a moment when HARDBALL returns.  We got two experts, Lawrence O‘Donnell and Patrick Buchanan, joining us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Well, that was charming.

Coming up:  President Obama creates a White House council to make sure women and girls get fair treatment in this country.  How necessary is it?  Will it work?  And what are the rewards politically for the president to do so? 

HARDBALL returns after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  I am signing an imperfect omnibus bill, because it‘s necessary for the ongoing functions of government, and we have a lot more work to do. 

We can‘t have Congress bogged down at this critical juncture in our economic recovery. 

But I also view this as a departure point for more far-reaching change. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.

That‘s President Obama today talking about the $410 billion spending bill left over from last year.  Can he stop Congress from getting their pet projects in all these bills?  Will he veto spending bills just to prove a point? 

And the—on the bottom of your screen, you‘re listing all the senators who opposed the spending bills, but also put earmarks in of their own, even though they opposed the bill.  So, they got it both ways.  They got credit for opposing a spending bill, but getting the spending in their states. 

We have got the number and amount for earmarks for each senator who voted nay, but got a yea. 

Let‘s bring in MSNBC political analysts Pat Buchanan and Lawrence O‘Donnell.

Gentlemen, I want to show you something right now.  Here‘s the president, like a Catholic school teacher, a sister...

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  ... of the cloth, laying down the law about...

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  ... how this class is going to be run.  This is really strict stuff, guys. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA:  Earmarks must have a legitimate and worthy public purpose. 

Earmarks that members do seek must be aired on those members‘ Web sites in advance.

Each earmark must be open to scrutiny at public hearings.

Any earmark for a for-profit, private company should be subject to the same competitive bidding requirements as other federal contracts. 

That an earmark must never be traded for political favors. 

And, finally, if my administration evaluates an earmark and determines that it has no legitimate public purpose, then we will seek to eliminate it.  And we will work with Congress to do so.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  And there will be no talking in line coming back from recess.

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  And you will fold your hands during class and pay attention to Sister. 

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  Pat and Lawrence, we all went to Catholic school.  I‘m stunned by the ability of this president to believe he can get members of Congress, who get elected on the theory of all politics is local...

PAT BUCHANAN, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  Right. 

MATTHEWS:  ... who love to bring home projects, to brag about they‘re building the highway here or getting the school dedicated here—they love this stuff.  How does he stop it? 

BUCHANAN:  Chris—Chris, that‘s why God put congressmen on this Earth...

MATTHEWS:  Right.  

BUCHANAN:  ... to bring home earmarks for everything.

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  Bring home the bacon.

BUCHANAN:  But, you know, the president had a golden opportunity to take McCain‘s counsel here and show the seriousness of his position. 

He should simply have said, I‘m vetoing this, send it down, get 4,000 of the earmarks out, and send it back, and you pick them.  And I want to show you I mean business. 

MATTHEWS:  So, get rid of half of them? 

BUCHANAN:  Yes, just say get rid of half of them, but at least tell the Congress...

MATTHEWS:  Right. 

BUCHANAN:  ... I will veto it. 

He lost all credibility.

MATTHEWS:  Lawrence, you were a—you were a staff director of a major committee in the Senate.  What would have happened had he done so today? 

LAWRENCE O‘DONNELL, MSNBC SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST:  Well, he would have clogged up business in both the House and the Senate, at a time when he can‘t afford to do that. 

Look, they already cut earmarks in half.  If you cut them in half again, you will get no credit for cutting them in half.  This is a disease that has been pronounced...

(LAUGHTER)

O‘DONNELL:  ... by John McCain as being purely evil. 

(LAUGHTER)

O‘DONNELL:  You know, McCain stands up there, he argues about 1 percent of the federal budget.

MATTHEWS:  OK. 

O‘DONNELL:  OK?  He lets 99 percent of it go. 

(LAUGHTER)

O‘DONNELL:  He doesn‘t say a word about Social Security and Medicare...

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  Lawrence...

O‘DONNELL:  ... which are the giant mountains in the budget.

MATTHEWS:  Lawrence, with your smiling Irish face...

BUCHANAN:  It‘s a disease.

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  ... I must ask you this question.

BUCHANAN:  It‘s like herpes.  It‘s forever.

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  Is this one of those dark milk bottles, one of those sort of lightly dark milk bottles, this venial sin, or is it the dark milk bottle that‘s mortal sin? 

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  Where would you put this?  It sounds like you think it‘s venial sin.  Pork is venial.

O‘DONNELL:  Oh, I think earmarks, no, it‘s not all pork.  There‘s money in there for the New York City subway system.  That‘s legitimate government interests.  There‘s a lot of good earmarks.

I helped jam in good earmarks in my day.  He‘s saying, you can do earmarks, but just...

MATTHEWS:  What is the difference between a good earmark and a bad earmark?  Good pork and bad pork—what‘s the lean meat? 

O‘DONNELL:  Well, I think—I—well—well, I think—I think, for example, Amtrak is a good earmark.  John McCain thinks that‘s a terrible earmark.  I think Amtrak needs money.  It should—it should be supported in the Northeast Corridor and so forth. 

But...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Does Amtrak go through Phoenix? 

O‘DONNELL:  What Obama is saying is...

(LAUGHTER)

O‘DONNELL:  Not—not very often. 

(LAUGHTER)

O‘DONNELL:  What—what—what Obama is saying...

(LAUGHTER)

O‘DONNELL:  ... is, show me—show me the good government purpose. 

And you‘re going to be able to show a good government purpose in a lot of earmarks.  And some of them are going to be embarrassing.  And this process is about embarrassing the bad earmarkers. 

BUCHANAN:  Well...

O‘DONNELL:  And it‘s...

MATTHEWS:  OK. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Just to be fair, less than 2 percent of this $410 billion bill he signed today is earmarks, less than 2 percent.

BUCHANAN:  All right.  It is.

MATTHEWS:  Just to make it clear.

BUCHANAN:  And, when you get down to it, I have seen the biggest—the biggest year of earmarks, I think it was about $26 billion, Chris, which is probably 1 percent of all federal spending.  So, it is not huge. 

I do agree with Lawrence to this effect.  If you can get transparency, if you can get time between the earmark being jammed into the bill and the final vote...

MATTHEWS:  OK. 

BUCHANAN:  ... then you can get people to see it. 

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Let‘s talk John McCain. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  A lot of us like John McCain, and disagree with him sometime, but like the cut of his jib. 

Here he is today—quote—John McCain from Arizona—“The president‘s rhetoric is impressive, but his statement affirms we will continue to do business as usual in Washington regarding earmarks in appropriations legislation.  The president could have resolved this issue in one statement—no more unauthorized pork barrel projects—and pledged to use his veto pen to stop them.  This is an opportunity missed.”

So, Lawrence, he says, McCain of Arizona, if the president really wanted to get rid of earmarks, he would have vetoed that bill today, and—or he should have said, send it back to the Hill; get rid of the earmarks. 

He didn‘t do it.  He just talked.

O‘DONNELL:  It would have—it would have been a—it would have been a complete waste of time. 

And this reveals McCain to not be a serious man of government.  He says nothing about Medicare, nothing about Social Security, these giant mountains in the budget.  He finds one little pebble, the 1 percent earmarks, and says, this is all I care about. 

It‘s—it‘s a very strange approach to government. 

BUCHANAN:  All right, Chris, let me—let me just say, I disagree entirely. 

The president of the United States, if he had vetoed that bill—let‘s say get 2,000 earmarks out of it—or sends it back to them, it is the message of a strong president, I‘m running the show, and you all do the appropriations, but I‘m going to fight and knock down legislation that‘s not in the national interests. 

It would have—against his own party. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, who do you think advised him against doing that? 

BUCHANAN:  Oh, I‘m sure everybody in the White House. 

MATTHEWS:  Rahm Emanuel.

BUCHANAN:  I mean, Rahm has got earmarks in there, for heaven‘s sakes. 

O‘DONNELL:  So...

MATTHEWS:  Well, let me ask this.  Let me ask you, based upon—I worked for Jimmy Carter, who failed in dealing with Congress. 

And one reason why he failed was, the first thing he did when he was elected...

BUCHANAN:  Right. 

MATTHEWS:  ... to the presidency was get rid of all the pork barrel. 

He said, take all the water projects out.

BUCHANAN:  Let me tell you...

MATTHEWS:  And they croaked him on that. 

BUCHANAN:  Let me tell, I urged Ronald Reagan...

MATTHEWS:  And that‘s what happened to him.

BUCHANAN:  I urged Ronald Reagan to veto the entire budget of the United States.  And guys in the White House were saying—because it was all full of this junk, and at least he would have set down a marker:  I‘m for cutting spending, even if I only get $5 billion.  And they are the spenders. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes. 

BUCHANAN:  That‘s what Barack Obama would have established.  He is the fiscal conservative here, and those guys are the spenders. 

O‘DONNELL:  And Reagan...

BUCHANAN:  And those guys are the spenders, Republicans and Democrats. 

MATTHEWS:  Lawrence? 

O‘DONNELL:  And Reagan was wise to ignore Pat Buchanan‘s advice on that one. 

BUCHANAN:  He regretted it, I will tell you.

(LAUGHTER)

BUCHANAN:  He said, he got four things...

O‘DONNELL:  I‘m sure he did.

BUCHANAN:  ... of the five he wanted to do right.  And one of them was, he never balanced a budget, and he regretted it when he went home. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes, because he got defense spending and he got big tax cuts.

O‘DONNELL:  He wasn‘t going to balance it on earmarks.  You cannot balance the budget on earmarks.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  It‘s hard to get it all. 

BUCHANAN:  But there‘s a lot of domestic spending he could have cut, sure.

MATTHEWS:  OK.  What did Ronald Reagan say?  The federal deficit is big enough to take care of itself. 

BUCHANAN:  That‘s...

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  Did you write that line? 

BUCHANAN:  And that‘s...

(CROSSTALK)

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  Did you write that little beauty?

BUCHANAN:  That‘s an original. 

(LAUGHTER)

(CROSSTALK)

BUCHANAN:  The way I figure it, it‘s big enough to take care of itself. 

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  God, he was—he was a cool customer. 

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  Thank you, Pat.  I guess you‘re against earmarks.  Lawrence is for them. 

BUCHANAN:  No, I‘m not against all of them.  But I just say they ought to be transparent. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Could somebody call me shameful?  Could somebody do an Ari Fleischer and calm me shameful for ruling here?  I need another... 

BUCHANAN:  Earmarks are shameful. 

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Thank you.

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  Still ahead on HARDBALL: debating President Obama‘s creation of a White House council on women.  How necessary is it?  Our debate is coming up. 

You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.  

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  When we return:  President Obama creates a White House council to deal with issues pertaining to women and girls.  How necessary is it?  And will it be effective?  We will talk to two women with different opinions about that—coming up next. 

If you think the show is hot so far, well, you can only expect more when we come back. 

You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.  

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MARY THOMPSON, CNBC CORRESPONDENT:  I‘m Mary Thompson with your CNBC “Market Wrap.”

Stocks edging slightly higher, after yesterday‘s big gains—the Dow Jones industrial inching up almost four points.  The S&P 500 picked up less than two.  And the Nasdaq was the big winner of the day, up 13. 

Oil prices tumbled, as U.S. inventories swelled.  Crude fell $3.38, closing at $42.33 a barrel. 

And the Labor Department reports the number of states with unemployment rates above 10 percent grew to four in January.  California, South Carolina, Michigan, and Rhode Island are the four.  In December, only Michigan had double-digit unemployment. 

And days ahead of a major global economic meeting, President Obama called on world leaders to take more aggressive steps to jump-start their own economies.  Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner heads to Britain this week for talks with the finance ministers of 20 nations.  The leaders of those nations will then hold a summit in London next month. 

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

HARDBALL. 

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL. 

Today, President Obama announced the creation of a White House Council on Women and Girls. 

Here he is. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA:  The purpose is very simple: to ensure that each of the agencies in which they‘re charged takes into account the needs of women and girls in the policies they draft, the programs they create, the legislation they support. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Well, back in December, about 50 women‘s groups wrote to President Obama—or president-elect Obama at that time—with this request—quote—“We urge you to create a Cabinet-level office on women that will deal not only with the status of women, but with the many inequities women face in our society, our nation, and our world.”

The council Obama announced today is not Cabinet-level.  So, is today‘s action too much or too little, or what? 

Michelle Bernard is president and CEO of the Independent Women‘s Forum, and she‘s an MSNBC political analyst.  And Kim Gandy is the president of the National Organization for Women, which includes some male members, I‘m told. 

Kim, do you want to have a Cabinet-level office?  And what‘s the importance of having such?  Because the president didn‘t go that far today. 

KIM GANDY, PRESIDENT, NATIONAL ORGANIZATION FOR WOMEN:  Well, I actually was the original drafter of that letter.  And we asked for a Cabinet-level office to address women‘s issues.  And what we got today was the entire Cabinet to address women‘s issues. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes.  The way it‘s set up, it‘s called an office.  It‘s under Valerie Jarrett...

GANDY:  Yes. 

MATTHEWS:  ... the president‘s very close colleague and...

GANDY:  Yes. 

MATTHEWS:  ... and political pal for all those years, a lawyer, a high-level—I think she‘s assistant to the president. 

GANDY:  Yes. 

MATTHEWS:  Is that good or bad for you, to have a White House-coordinated Cabinet-wide effort to focus on issues particular to women? 

MICHELLE BERNARD, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  I—I don‘t see why it‘s necessary. 

You know, from my perspective, all issues are women‘s issues.  And I think that we do ourselves a lot of harm when we say that there are only certain issues that women care about.  A lot of people, when they hear women‘s issues, they automatically think the only thing you care about is sexual harassment in the workplace and abortion rights. 

But the—also, the other interesting thing about this is, our feelings were a little bit hurt, Kim, because a lot of women on the right felt like they were ignored and were not invited to sign in on this. 

So, the Independent Women‘s Forum was not involved.  Concerned Women of America was not involved.  The Clare Boothe Luce Policy Institute was not involved.  So, what—what you find now are a lot of people who call themselves, you know, red-state feminists or limited-government feminists...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  But you didn‘t vote for this guy. 

BERNARD:  ... are—are wondering...

MATTHEWS:  But you didn‘t vote for this guy.

BERNARD:  I actually did vote for this guy. 

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  I had no idea how you voted.  I figured it out.  I tricked you into it. 

(LAUGHTER)

BERNARD:  You got me.  You got me. 

MATTHEWS:  That Michelle Bernard voted for Barack Obama.

BERNARD:  You got me.

MATTHEWS:  You are a conservative woman. 

BERNARD:  I am a free market feminist.  And I want to know now what does that mean.  Who‘s going to define what women‘s issues are, because what they are to me might be different than for him. 

(CROSS TALK)

GANDY:  Well, the president defined it.  He said, both in a statement and a speech, that they were going to look at economic issues, at issues of work/life balance, at pay equity, at child care, at violence against women, at the treatment of women as employees and as consumers of federal government services.  How are women treated across the federal—

MATTHEWS:  Let‘s take a case like that, like a lot of us—I‘m married to somebody.  We have had children.  My wife has had to adjust to that, deal with challenges I haven‘t faced as tough as she has, make sure she meets all her responsibilities.  Suppose there has to be a government-wide effort to let women work 30 hours a week, instead of 40 hours a week, for the federal government, so they can meet some other—suppose there‘s more home leave for women than there is for men.  Maybe some of these things have to be adjusted.

Don‘t they?  Aren‘t their women‘s concerns different from men? 

BERNARD:  One of the famous things we like to say at the Independent Women‘s Forum is June Cleaver (ph) wants flex time.  We believe in flex time.  We believe in all these things.  We fight for it, too, but the question is—

MATTHEWS:  Don‘t you want a cabinet-level office to do it? 

BERNARD:  No, I don‘t, because I feel like I don‘t need government to negotiate that for me.  I can negotiate that with my employer myself.  There are all these efforts, for example, to explain the Family Medical Leave Act.  One of the things—some people are being left out of the conversation.  There are many people who believe that expansion of the Family Medical Leave Act is going to have a negative impact on woman, not a positive impact. 

MATTHEWS:  How?

BERNARD:  Because there are a lot of employers who are going to say my costs are going to go up sky high, so why should I hire women, especially those of child bearing age.  They‘re going to take off for maternity leave.  They take care of families.  It‘s almost giving people silent permission to discriminate against women.  So women who have this philosophy should be part of the discussion. 

GANDY:  They argued that when the first Family and Medical Leave Act passed with what we have now.  The business owners said, oh, my goodness, this will be terrible if we‘re forced to give leave to women, and even to men who want to take paternity leave.  It‘s going to be terrible for us. 

It hasn‘t turned out that way.  It has not turned out that way.  And, in fact, the same people who opposed it back then are now saying this worked out great for us.  It increases our customer—our employee loyalty.  It increases the support that we get.  And it makes it possible for us to keep the best employees. 

MATTHEWS:  Both of you are younger than me, I would bet by a lot.  Let me suggest this.  One of the lessons I learned in the last campaign the hard way is a lot of women my age feel that and believe and know that they got hurt by the system.  Many, many years of getting second class treatment, of being pushed aside for somebody—I watched “Mad Men” on television, which is a great series.  It‘s about that.  It‘s about what happens.  The woman is the genius in copyrighting in an ad agency.  She gets pushed aside.  She has the great idea.  The dumb guy gets the job because he‘s buddies with the other guy. 

It‘s an assumption.  You have to understand—

BERNARD:  I do understand.  I‘m black and I‘m a woman, believe me. 

MATTHEWS:  The earlier generations are still out there in the workplace.  By the way, based on the economy right now, they‘re going to stay in the workplace until they dropped. 

BERNARD:  I worked with a lot of women who graduated from law school and told me that they couldn‘t get jobs in law firms as lawyers, only as legal secretaries.  One woman told me that the only reason her law firm allowed her to practice law was because she was doing her husband‘s legal work. 

MATTHEWS:  Tell me the Sandra Day O‘Connor story, the former Supreme Court justice. 

GANDY:  When she graduated third in her class from Stanford, yes—graduated from Stanford, could not get a job with a law firm as a lawyer.  She was offered law librarian in a law office, legal secretary in a law office, couldn‘t get a job practicing law. 

MATTHEWS:  So Valerie Jarrett, sitting around a council table with the secretary of state there, who is a woman, the secretary of defense and the others, she‘s going to tell them how to straighten out their departments, in terms of this kind of an issue, in terms of family home leave, in terms of flex time.  Maybe that‘s a good thing. 

GANDY:  And making the federal government an ideal employer, setting a model. 

BERNARD:  It could be a good idea.  It may not be a good idea.  But what I am feeling is that we don‘t need a massive explosion or expansion of government to take care of women. 

MATTHEWS:  In the first instance—I shouldn‘t tell you.  You‘re a constitutional lawyer.  But it was federal contract compliance.  It was going after people that did business with the government, and making sure they honored civil rights and equal opportunity.  So sometimes the government has got to use its own leverage.  It doesn‘t have to go into the private sector.  It just has to go to federal vendors to make sure there‘s equal opportunity. 

You‘re the boss.  This is your field. 

GANDY:  That‘s how we start.  We start with setting the example. 

BERNARD:  Why don‘t we have an office that‘s going to look to who takes care of our boys?  Who are our daughters going to marry as our boys are falling behind?  And they are.  We have a boy crisis. 

MATTHEWS:  You two got a job.  I‘ll come back with a men‘s department next year.  Just kidding.  Michelle Bernard, thank you for coming on the program.  I‘m only kidding. 

Up next, are rMD+IN_rMDNM_the knives out for Republican Party Chair Michael Steele?  They may be.  That‘s next in the HARDBALL politics fix.  This whole show has been the politics fix.  This is HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK

MATTHEWS:  We‘re back.  Time for the politics fix.  Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix” for theWashingtonPost.com, and Lisa Depaulo, one of the great correspondents ever, is a correspondent for “GQ.”  She‘s got a big interview with Michael Steele.  I have to tell you, Lisa, I have no idea what this gentleman was talking about, but here‘s an exchange in print.  Michael Steele, “the choice issue cuts two ways.  You can choose life or you can choose abortion.  You know, my mother chose life so I think the power of the argument of choice boils down to stating a case for one or the other.”  Depaulo, “are you saying you think women have the right to choose abortions?”  Steele, “Yes.  I mean, again, I think that‘s an individual choice.”  Depaulo, “You do?”  Steele, “Yes, absolutely.”  Depaulo, “are you saying you don‘t want to overturn Roe v. Wade?”  Steele, “I think Roe v.  Wade is a legal matter.  Roe v. Wade was a wrongly decided matter.”

Depaulo, “OK, but if you overturn Roe v. Wade, how do women have the choice you just said they should have?”  Steele, “the states should make that choice.  That‘s what the choice is.  The individual choice rests in the states.”

I have no idea what this man is saying.  Is he for human rights or states rights?  He ought to know the difference.  Does a person decide or does a state legislature or a state government decide or a state court?  What does he mean, Lisa? 

LISA DEPAULO, “GQ MAGAZINE”:  You see, he went back and forth on it.  At the end, he said it‘s a state issue.  He did the same thing when I asked him about gay marriage.  It was kind of a back and forth, well, you should have this right, maybe you shouldn‘t have this right.  Then, at the end, said it‘s a state thing.  I think the state issue thing is an easy cop-out and an easy way to say I would rather not answer this. 

MATTHEWS:  Look, that‘s an argument we can all have.  This is a developing, evolving debate in this country about gay marriage, same-sex marriage.  On the issue of abortion, where the battleground is clear, where you know what the issue is, to confuse the issue of being for choice—I don‘t even like the word.  But the decision ultimately being in the hands of the woman, who is most involved in this decision, or the state outlawing it or the government outlawing it, where is he? 

DEPAULO:  I think it shows his ambivalence.  I do think that he was trying—

MATTHEWS:  He‘s chairman of the national party. 

DEPAULO:  Well, he was trying to make the point, to me anyway, that, you know, there‘s a choice.  You can choose abortion and you choose to have the child.  That‘s not what a lot of the rank in file are expecting from him. 

MATTHEWS:  What do you make of this politically, Chris?  You‘ve got to analyze this.  Is this stepping into a traffic hazard here?  Has he stepped into a situation where he‘s shown he‘s either unaware of one of the key issues that defines the cultural right or what? 

CHRIS CILLIZZA, “THE WASHINGTON POST”:  Chris, the problem for Steele I think is context.  During the Republican National Committee chairman race, which he won, the criticism of him was he‘s too moderate.  He is privately pro-choice.  This is not as pro-life as he says.  This is going to play in, as Lisa points out—

MATTHEWS:  Not private anymore, Chris.  He‘s on the record interview with Lisa.  He‘s not private anymore.  He said he‘s pro-choice. 

CILLIZZA:  Chris, that‘s the problem, is that he is not in a great position at the moment.  He sort of scolded Rush Limbaugh, then came back and apologized to Rush Limbaugh.  There are critics within his own party who said he‘s not off to the start they had hoped.  He‘s too much of a television pundit, and not enough of a strategist.  I don‘t want to talk down television pundits, don‘t get me wrong.

But he‘s not in a great place as it is.  So this doesn‘t come at a good time for Michael Steele, who is really trying, I think, to go less high profile, to go more behind the scenes, and put the controversy behind him. 

MATTHEWS:  Lisa, a very murky question, murky for all of us.  He asked the motivation of the party—you asked was he named national chair because he was African-American?  What was his answer? 

DEPAULO:  He said I don‘t know.  And he said and I think it says a lot about the state of the party that I can‘t answer that question.  I thought that was a very honest—

MATTHEWS:  I think that‘s a fair answer to me.  How do you know anybody‘s motive?  You don‘t know really.  We‘ll be back with Chris and Lisa Depaulo to talk about Sarah Palin.  What a story.  Everybody goes to Denny‘s?  No, they end up at Denny‘s.  That‘s the question.  Are the Republicans going to end up with Palin as their nominee next time?  You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE W. BUSH, FMR. PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  We cannot wait for the final proof, the smoking gun that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  We‘re back with Chris Cillizza, Lisa Depaulo.  That was President Bush back in 2002.  My point with Ari Fleischer earlier—check me on this, Chris.  This administration that took office eight years ago and left office this January made a very strong case that we faced a nuclear threat from Saddam Hussein.  Did they not? 

CILLIZZA:  Absolutely on the front end, Chris.  I mean, I think weapons of mass destruction will be forever in our lexicon. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me go to Lisa Depaulo on this more interesting and more fun question today.  It‘s much for forward looking.  2012, we‘ve got a draft Sarah Palin movement that met at Denny‘s last night, of course, the place that nobody goes to, they just end up at.  Could it be, Lisa Depaulo, that we‘re seeing the cultural right showing its head in the Republican party and the governor of Alaska is at the top of their list?  

DEPAULO:  Absolutely.  It was funny, I said to Michael Steele, how did you really feel when she was picked?  He said, I was thrilled.  She‘s fabulous.  She‘s wonderful.  Is she your leading star?  Well, there are many leading stars.  But they love her and I think it‘s fantastic that they‘re doing this Denny‘s thing, because it‘s so kind of obvious. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, it‘s Denny‘s.  We all end up at Denny‘s late at night when you have to find some place to eat, because it‘s open late at night.  It‘s kind of fun, Chris, you know how paltry 3,000 bucks is.  It will buy you a lot of cheeseburgers at Denny‘s, but it ain‘t going to buy you a presidential campaign. 

CILLIZZA:  No, but to Lisa‘s point, I do think you have to remember who decides who the nominees of their two parties are going to be.  By in large, though not entirely, it‘s the conservative and the liberal bases of the parties.  While independents, moderates don‘t like Sarah Palin after this election, conservatives love her.  Remember towards the end of the election, she was drawing bigger crowds than John McCain.  John McCain wound up having to bring Sarah Palin everywhere to get crowds. 

She is still a huge draw.  She‘s a big draw on the fund-raising circuit.  People I talk to who know her say she is doing something interesting right now.  She‘s trying to lower her profile, focus on doing a good job in Alaska, perhaps getting re-elected there in two year‘s time, and then start building back up in terms a national profile.  She‘s a little over-exposed at the moment, and they need to bring down the national attention on her, to preserve her viability in 2012. 

MATTHEWS:  Last yes.  Go ahead, Lisa. 

DEPAULO:  Don‘t you think the makeover is already going on too?  Don‘t you think they‘re going to Katie Couric proof her in the next few years? 

CILLIZZA:  Absolutely.  One person I talked to, Lisa and Chris—you‘ll appreciate this—said the one thing, she needs to just go back and study domestic policy, focus on energy, take an issue that she can be really strong on, not appear defensive, not appear as though she doesn‘t know what she‘s talking about.  She can‘t be the Sarah Palin of 2008 if she‘s going to be the nominee in 2012. 

MATTHEWS:  Great way to deal with the depth issue is to get some depth.  It‘s very doable.  We do it every day on this show.  We read everything in sight to get reedy for the show.  It‘s doable.  Just read everything in sight.  That‘s how you learn what‘s going on.  It‘s all there in print somewhere. 

Anyway, thank you Chris Cillizza.  Thank you, Lisa Depaulo.  Great interview.  I‘m sure it will cause a lot of noise for everybody at “GQ.” 

Tomorrow on HARDBALL, the very brilliant, the very funny, one of the heroes of our time, Bill Cosby.  That‘s tomorrow at 5:00 and 7:00 Eastern.  Right now it‘s time for “1600 PENNSYLVANIA AVENUE” with David.

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

END   

Copy:     Content and programming copyright 2009 MSNBC.  ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. 

                Transcription Copyright 2009 CQ Transcriptions, LLC  ALL RIGHTS  RESERVED.

                No license is granted to the user of this material other than for research.

                User may not reproduce or redistribute the material except for user‘s

                personal or internal use and, in such case, only one copy may be printed,

                nor shall user use any material for commercial purposes or in any fashion

                that may infringe upon MSNBC and CQ Transcriptions, LLC‘s copyright or

                other proprietary rights or interests in the material. This is not a legal

                transcript for purposes of litigation.

Watch Hardball each weeknight at 5 & 7 p.m. ET

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,