updated 7/20/2009 10:30:24 AM ET 2009-07-20T14:30:24

Guest Host: Lawrence O‘Donnell

Guests: Kelly O‘Donnell, Julia Boorstin, Chris Cillizza, Andy Barr, John O‘Connor, Andy Barr, John O‘Connor, John Danforth, Cliff Sloan, Maria Teresa Kumar, Roger Simon

LAWRENCE O‘DONNELL, GUEST HOST:  The president strikes back.

Let‘s play HARDBALL.

Good evening.  I‘m Lawrence O‘Donnell, in for Chris Matthews.  Leading off tonight: The president pushes back in the health care debate.  As the cost argument rages on Capitol Hill, conservative opponents of President Obama‘s plan to reform the nation‘s health care system have hit upon a new weapon to help defeat it, abortion.

Kansas Republican Todd Tiahrt took to the floor of the House last night and said federal financing of abortions could give some women an incentive to end pregnancies.  Then he went one very ugly step further.


REP. TODD TIAHRT ®, KANSAS:  Our president grew up in those similar circumstances.  If that financial incentive was in place, is it possible that his mother may have taken advantage of it?  Clarence Thomas, Supreme Court Justice, if those circumstances were in place, is it possible that we‘d have been denied his great mind?


O‘DONNELL:  You heard right.  Congressman Todd Tiahrt is suggesting that Barack Obama‘s and Clarence Thomas‘s mothers might have chosen abortion if the procedure simply had been free.  We‘ll have more on that virulently racist logic, plus the relentlessly vexatious problems of navigating the costs and financing of health care reform, in just a moment.

And never mind the affair, now Mark Sanford‘s reputation of being tight-fisted with taxpayer money is in jeopardy.  There are reports that Sanford has a history of treating himself to first-class travel and hotel accommodations on the public dime.  Will that be the straw that breaks the back of his Republican support?

Also, what have the Sonia Sotomayor hearings taught us about Affirmative Action?  Is her nomination proof that Affirmative Action works or that it unfairly discriminates against white men?

And if you need proof that having 60 Democrats in the Senate guarantees nothing, look no further than the failure of the unions‘ top priority, the employee Free Choice Act, or “card check.”  Why 60 doesn‘t always equal 60 in the United States Senate in tonight‘s “Politics Fix.”

Plus, we‘ll have the latest tweets from Sarah Palin in the HARDBALL “Sideshow.”

We begin tonight with that battle over health care reform.  NBC‘s Kelly O‘Donnell joins us from Capitol Hill, and also with us is Washingtonpost.com‘s Chris Cillizza.

Kelly O‘Donnell and Chris, let‘s listen to what President Obama had to say this afternoon.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  Now we‘ve got to get over the finish line.  And part of this process is figuring out how to pay for it.  I‘ve said that health insurance reform cannot add to our deficit over the next decade.  And I mean it.


O‘DONNELL:  Now, it seems to me that this was a direct response to what CBO director Douglas Elmendorf, testifying on Thursday, had to say.  Let‘s listen to that.


DOUGLAS ELMENDORF, CONGRESSIONAL BUDGET OFFICE:  We do not see the sort of fundamental changes that would be necessary to reduce the trajectory of federal health spending by a significant amount.  And on the contrary, the legislation significantly expands the federal responsibility for health care costs.


O‘DONNELL:  Kelly O‘Donnell, the president came out with an unscheduled statement about health care today.  Was it in direct response to this guy that no‘s has ever heard of but that you know very well, the CBO director, who came out with estimates that indicated the health care reform plan was indeed going to add to the deficit and not, as they say, bend the cost curve downward?

KELLY O‘DONNELL, NBC CORRESPONDENT:  Well, watching this unfold today (INAUDIBLE) president was his own rapid response team because what you just heard, the CBO director talking about the problems with cost, really took the air out of some Democrats here in the Senate and gave Republicans new ammunition to try to derail what‘s going on with health care reform.

One of the things that it has really brought to light is the question of timing.  Could there be more time to try to resolve these differences?  And so the president—as you pointed out, this was not on his public schedule.  They made the plans for him to come out and really hammer at a couple of key points, wanting to make clear that his deadline, which is August, is something he will not move off of.

And that is important to know because there has been a parade of lawmakers going over to the White House in direct meetings with the president and with the chief of staff and in letter form, asking for more time, Democrats and Republicans.  The president is saying no.

O‘DONNELL:  Chris Cillizza, let‘s look at what the chairman of the Finance Committee had to say about the president‘s involvement in this.  He‘s actually quoted in “The New York Times” in commenting about what Obama‘s willing to do and not willing to do in terms of the health care plan.  The Finance Committee is thinking about possibly taxing some health care benefits that people get, which is to say removing the exemption of that.  And so the chairman of the Finance Committee said, basically, The president is not helping us.  That‘s what he told reporters outside his office.  He said, “The president does not want the exclusion.  That‘s making it difficult.”

This is very familiar.  This is starting to feel very much like 1994.  I was working for the chairman of the Finance Committee at the time.  He had his tensions with the White House.  They tended not to be as public as what we just saw with Chairman Baucus.  Is this starting to look like 1994 all over again?

CHRIS CILLIZZA, WASHINGTONPOST.COM:  You know, Lawrence, I don‘t think it‘s there yet, though I think there are parallels, but I don‘t think it‘s there yet.  Remember, on that part, I think you had members of Congress feeling as though they were excluded largely, and therefore, there was months and months to build up their particular dislike of the fact that a plan was being crafted in secret.

The Obama administration has worked in opposition to that and said, Look, we‘re open to suggestions.  But I think time—Kelly made this point and I think it‘s the most important thing—time is critical.  The White House knows that the more time that politicians have to hear from constituents, to sort of raise electoral worries, that works against getting something passed.

Remember, think back to when Sonia Sotomayor was nominated by the president.  Republicans said, We can‘t possibly do this before August recess.  There‘s no way there can be a vote.  And the White House said, There will be a vote.  We are sticking to this.  They will never have enough time or as much time as they would like.

The White House knows that August recess is a potentially dangerous time.  If health care reform is still flailing out there, nothing‘s been done, you have statements like from the CBO director that Republicans can use to politically beat up Democrats.  They know that that‘s a dangerous political time.  That‘s why they want to get this done before.  It‘s why you saw the president come out today.  It‘s why, my guess, you‘re going to see him focus very heavily in his opening statement on Wednesday about health care.

O‘DONNELL:  Yes, they‘re always very worried about that long August recess, when members go home and they can hear a lot of negative things from their constituents about what they‘ve been up to lately.

Let‘s listen to more of what the president had to say today.


OBAMA:  I realize that the last few miles of any race are the hardest to run, but I have to say now is not the time to slow down, and now is certainly not the time to lose heart.  Make no mistake, if we step back from this challenge at this moment, we are consigning our children to a future of skyrocketing premiums and crushing deficits.  There‘s no argument about that.  If we don‘t achieve health care reform, we cannot control the costs of Medicare and Medicaid and we cannot control our long-term debt and our long-term deficits.


O‘DONNELL:  Kelly, was that the president playing offense or defense today?

K. O‘DONNELL:  My sense was that there was more defense in it, in part because he was so sensitive about the timing of this.  When he came out, he spoke of the 24-hour news cycle.  As political junkies, we‘re all into that.  And of course, on a late Friday, letting things hang to the Sunday morning shows where all of this will be talked about again, it was my sense that he really wanted to try to pull back some of the message and to regain some control because I think the White House was very aware that that CBO report about the costs was eroding some support and could potentially gain speed that would go in the wrong direction for them.

So that was my take on it, that was being very sensitive to timing,gave some praise, too—we need to point that out.  He‘s thanked those members of Congress who‘ve been doing work and burning the midnight oil, and he cited some of the areas of agreement.  But the stuff that stands out to all of us is where he was really hitting hard.

CILLIZZA:  And you know, Lawrence, just real quickly, just to magnify Kelly‘s point, the White House may decry the 24-hour news cycle, but President Obama got elected president because he understands it and knows how to manipulate it and use it.  And this is a smart use of it.

They know the White House confers a bully pulpit.  They know when he gives remarks, no matter when it is, it‘s going to get huge coverage and people like us are going to talk about it.  It‘s going to drive the news cycle all the way through the Sunday talk shows.  That will produce its own headlines.  Then we get to Wednesday, another press conference here.  Now looking at four or five days in which the White House is driving the narrative they want driven on health care, as opposed to having that narrative dictated to them.  It‘s a smart use of the 24-hour news cycle that they often talk bad about.

O‘DONNELL:  You know, whenever there‘s a huge legislative vehicle like this moving through the Congress, there‘s always a crazy corner of the debate.  We‘ve actually had things coming out in the last couple of days about the president‘s surgeon general choice.  You know, is she perhaps a little too overweight, and does that send the wrong health care message at a time like this, nutty stuff like that.

Let‘s listen to Kansas Republican congressman Todd Tiahrt last night on the House floor.


TIAHRT:  There‘s a financial incentive that will be put in place, paid for by tax dollars, that will encourage women who are single parents living below the poverty level to have the opportunity for a free abortion.  If you take that scenario and apply it to many of the great minds we have today, who would we have been deprived of?

Our president grew up in those similar circumstances.  If that financial incentive was in place, is it possible that his mother may have taken advantage of it?  Clarence Thomas, Supreme Court Justice, if those circumstances were in place, is it possible that we would have been denied his great mind?


O‘DONNELL:  Chris Cillizza, I don‘t think I‘ve heard the health care debate go in a crazier direction than that, a House member talking about, you know, would women want to abort their black babies, and only their black babies.  I didn‘t hear any other babies he‘s referring to in there.  Are guys like him going to be getting more chances at the microphone, or are Republicans going to want to quiet them down and stay on the cost argument?

CILLIZZA:  I would guess the latter, Lawrence.  I think it‘s the right thing.  Look, this isn‘t an argument that they want to put forward.  The truth of the matter is, if federal financing of abortions, if that is your issue, you weren‘t going to vote for this bill anyway.  Todd Tiahrt was not voting for the health care bill anyway.  This is sort of something he‘s citing, but I don‘t think that‘s as persuasive.

Go back and look at what the CBO director said, cost—not a huge decrease in cost, an addition to the debt.  That‘s what Republicans want to be talking about.

I‘ll be honest, I‘m sure they‘re unhappy about—that the Tiahrt comments are getting as much attention as they are, frankly, because it‘s distracting them from what is a much stronger issue, which is questions about whether Barack Obama is doing the right thing by growing government, whether it‘s the economic stimulus, whether it‘s the health care plan.  That‘s a place they actually, polling suggests, can win with the American people.

Arguments about abortions or hypothetical abortions is not where you want to go.  Interesting side note, Tiahrt is running in a Republican primary in Kansas for the Senate.  So you never know if that factors into his decision making.  Obviously, a very conservative electorate out there in Kansas.

O‘DONNELL:  All right, we‘re going to leave it there for today.  Thank you, Kelly O‘Donnell and Chris Cillizza.  And Kelly, when we come back after the break, we‘re going to answer the multiple choice question, Is Kelly O‘Donnell my sister, my wife, or none of the above?

Coming up, new revelations that South Carolina governor Mark Sanford and a staunch fiscal conservative traveled first class on the taxpayers‘ dime all around the world, including trips to see his mistress in Argentina.  We‘ll dig into that little hypocrisy next.

You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.


O‘DONNELL:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  South Carolina governor Mark Sanford may have damaged his standing with social conservatives after admitting to an extramarital affair, and now his reputation as a frugal Republican politician is coming into question.  “The Politico” reports that Sanford, the same fiscal conservative who tried to reject federal stimulus money and who criticized other politicians for lavish spending, has been a big spender of the taxpayers‘ dime when it came to high-end airline travel and pricey hotel stays.

Andy Barr is with “The Politico” and John O‘Connor is the political reporter for “The State” newspaper in South Carolina.

Andy Barr, give us the dimensions of the new luxury living scandal with Sanford.

ANDY BARR, “POLITICO”:  Well, first a little bit of the back story here.  You remember when this first came out, there was questions about other trips, whether he used state-funded money.  Initially, his staff returned the money he used to travel to Argentina.

But then a lot of reporters, including Ken Vogel here at “Politico,” went back through these records and found that he was going on a lot of trips, using a lot of state money to fly business class, first class all over the world, all over the country—you know, obviously, not all to meet his mistress there in Argentina, but you know, certainly brings into question those fiscal conservative credentials that he has, which is the one thing that really had brought him from being a member of Congress to really one of the people on the brink of being a leader of the party.

O‘DONNELL:  John O‘Connor, Christians are very, very good and very practiced at forgiving sin.  How about Republicans forgiving lavish spending?

JOHN O‘CONNOR, “THE STATE”:  It seems to be a little less forgiving there, especially in South Carolina.  I mean, folks are really interested - when the story first broke, the big question was, Did he spend state money?  And I think the story that was out today on, you know, his use of business class and first-class tickets is raising even more questions among state residents.

O‘DONNELL:  All right.  Governor Sanford talked about his faith when he confessed to having an extramarital affair.  Let‘s listen.


GOV. MARK SANFORD ®, SOUTH CAROLINA:  And in this regard, let me throw one more apology out there, and that is to people of faith across South Carolina, or for that matter, across the nation because I think that one of the big disappointments when—believe it or not, I‘ve been a person of faith all my life.  If somebody falls within the fellowship of believers or the walk of faith, I think it makes that much harder for believers to say, Well, where was that person coming from, or folks that weren‘t believers to say, Where, indeed, was that person coming from?


O‘DONNELL:  John O‘Connor, how‘s his theological argument about this working in South Carolina?

O‘CONNOR:  It depends on who you ask.  Among a lot of folks, they‘re willing to accept it.  They‘re willing to give him another chance.  I‘ve spoken with a number of people, though, who are somewhat offended by it in that they note that, you know, in forgiveness, there must also be a move towards redemption.  And some folks feel the governor is asking for forgiveness before he‘s really earned it.

O‘DONNELL:  Now, it seems that Republicans have set up some sort of support group of sorts in Washington for men in trouble, and Governor Sanford reports having consulted with this group, the C Street Group.  They‘re roommates who live in this townhouse on C Street, the C Street Bible Study Group, as they call it.  And he referred to that during his press conference last month.  Let‘s listen to that.


SANFORD:  As far as the group called C Street, when I was in Washington, it was, believe it or not, a Christian Bible study, some folks who asked members of Congress hard questions that I think were very, very important.  And I‘ve been working with them.


O‘DONNELL:  Current residents of 133 C Street include Pennsylvania congressman Mike Doyle, Michigan congressman Bart Stupak, Tennessee congressman Zach Wamp, and yes, Nevada senator John Ensign and Oklahoma senator Tom Coburn.

Now, Republicans did during the presidential campaign like to throw around guilt by association.  You know, President Obama was talked about as having palled around with terrorists by Sarah Palin and others, and we‘re not going to get into that here.  We‘re not going to be—Andy, we‘re not going to throw around notions of palling around with adulterers.  But what is going on at 133 C Street, Andy Barr?

ANDY BARR, POLITICO:  Well, I mean, you know, for Sanford, a lot of these guys he‘s been connected to for a long time, going back to that Republican revolution in ‘94 that he was a class of, Ensign, too, somebody, not only a member of this, but also a member of the Promise Keepers. 

You know, a lot of these guys have problems with statements and—and tenets that they have held to in the past all of the sudden coming back really to bite them and exposing them in ways that is very damaging for someone who has held up that social conservative banner for a long time. 

O‘DONNELL:  John O‘Connor, how does this bit of it play in South Carolina, that, for—that, for help and counseling, he goes up to Washington, D.C., to get advice on the moral direction of his life? 

I think that might be the first time anyone has gone to Washington, D.C., for that. 

JOHN O‘CONNOR, “THE STATE”:  Well, the—the whole C Street angle is still very mysterious down here. 

And there‘s a lot of folks who are—who are interested in it.  And we haven‘t had a chance to talk to the governor about it.  But the idea of this—this organization up there, this kind of mysterious organization, really strikes a lot of people as something that needs—the governor needs to answer to. 

O‘DONNELL:  And how much more access are you expecting from the governor in this territory?  Are you—do you think you‘re going to get another chance at, say, a press conference or—in South Carolina or another chance at follow-up questions, given how much material has developed since the last time he talked to the press? 

O‘CONNOR:  We have got no real indication that they‘re—they‘re willing to sit down and talk to us about it again.  I mean, the governor‘s last statement on this was that he was done talking about it. 

The—the governor‘s spokesman has at times refused to answer questions about it.  So, we have got no indication that he wants to talk about this again. 

O‘DONNELL:  All right.  We‘re done talking about it for today, but we‘re going to be talking about it some more. 

Thank you, John O‘Connor and Andy Barr. 

Up next:  Sarah Palin is tweeting.  She promises to be less politically correct when she leaves the governorship in nine days—more on Palin‘s tweeting next in the “Sideshow.” 

You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC. 



The answer to our HARDBALL quiz question about Kelly O‘Donnell in the first segment tonight is, C, none of the above. 

If you missed the question, rewind—you can rewind your TiVo to the first segment, or you can wait for the encore performance much later tonight. 

Time for the “Sideshow.” 

First up: an unlikely trio. 

Remember this surprising three-shot at the White House back in May?  Well, if you were taken aback, you weren‘t the only one.  Here is President Obama last night touting education reform at the NAACP. 


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  And let me say this, if Al Sharpton, Mike Bloomberg, and Newt Gingrich can agree that we need to solve the education problem...


OBAMA:  ... then that‘s something all of America can agree we can solve. 


OBAMA:  Those guys came into my office.


OBAMA:  They‘re sitting in the Oval Office.  I kept on doing a double-take. 




O‘DONNELL:  Mr. President, we all did that double take with you. 

Next up: counting the days.  It sounds like Sarah Palin‘s planned exit date, July 26, couldn‘t come soon enough for her.  Check out what the soon-to-be ex-governor of Alaska posted on her Twitter page this morning about her newfound freedom—quote—“Alaska will progress.  Plus, side benefit equals 10 days to less politically correct Twitters fly from my fingertips outside state site.”

She later added: “I will stay in touch with whomever wants via personal Twitter site.  Launch July 26.”

Sarah Palin, that princess of perfect political correctness, will finally be free to tell us what she really thinks.  That‘s your cue, Tina Fey. 

Now for tonight‘s “Big Number.” 

Judge Sonia Sotomayor more than held her own during confirmation hearings this week.  So, when it comes to the upcoming confirmation vote, it‘s not so much a question of if, but by how much.  According to the online bookies at the Dublin-based Intrade.com, what are the chance that is Judge Sotomayor will be confirmed with a strong majority, 75 or more votes?  Seventy-seven-point-five percent. 

I don‘t know how they figured out the U.S. Senate from the other side of the Atlantic, but they‘re betting Sonia Sotomayor has got a 77.5 shot of winning three-fourths of the Senate to vote for her in the confirmation hearing.

And that‘s tonight‘s “Big Number.” 

Up next:  Has Sonia Sotomayor‘s confirmation hearings this week changed how affirmative action is viewed in this country?  Is her nomination proof that it creates opportunity or that it discriminates against white men?  We will get at those questions when we return. 

You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC. 


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

The Dow scraped out a gain to bring a weeklong rally to a positive close.  The Dow Jones industrials are up 32 points.  The S&P 500 lost a fraction-of-a-point, and the Nasdaq added a point-and-a-half.

Shares in Bank of America down more than 2 percent today—the nation‘s largest bank beat expectations, but said it will be harder to maintain profitability through the end of the year due to rising unemployment and losses from failed loans. 

And General Electric losing more than 6 percent.  GE also reported better-than-expected earnings, but its 17 percent drop in revenue was worse than analysts expected.  GE is the parent company of CNBC and MSNBC. 

Shares in commercial lender CIT up more than 70 percent today, as it weighed options to avoid bankruptcy.  CIT is in talks with J.P. Morgan Chase and Goldman Sachs for a $2 billion to $3 billion short-term cash infusion. 

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


O‘DONNELL:  Welcome back to HARDBALL. 

Sonia Sotomayor is the first Hispanic nominated to the Supreme Court.  What has her nomination told us about where the country stands on affirmative action? 

Former Senator John Danforth represented the state of Missouri for 18 years, serving on the Senate Finance Committee.  He also guided Justice Clarence Thomas through the nomination process.  Senator Danforth is currently a partner at the law firm Bryan Cave. 

Senator Danforth, the—there was a discussion obviously this week about affirmative action in America.  There certainly was back during the Clarence Thomas nomination.  What similarities and what differences do you see between the Clarence Thomas week of discussion about that and—and this week‘s? 

JOHN DANFORTH ®, FORMER U.S. SENATOR:  Every—every case is different. 

I think the point is that never again is the Supreme Court going to be made up exclusively of white males.  That‘s just not going to happen.  Any president is going to be looking for diversity on the court.  Any president is going to be considering women, African-Americans, Hispanics on the court, and—and maybe others as well. 

That doesn‘t mean a reduction in quality.  It simply means that, all other things considered, namely the—the ability of the judge and the—and the judicial philosophy of the judge, presidents are going to be on the lookout for a diverse court. 

O‘DONNELL:  And, Senator, do you see this—this truth that you‘re speaking of, that we‘re done with the white male Supreme Court, we‘re obviously going to have African-Americans, we‘re going to have Latinos and Latinas now, and women, do you—do you see that as a political inevitability and just a political fact? 

Or is there also an argument to be made for the possibly synergistic flares of intelligence you get by having people from different backgrounds in a room together who are highly intellectual and highly educated discussing these subjects from those perspectives? 

DANFORTH:  I think the most important part of it is, it says to the American people that the country as a whole is present on the U.S. Supreme Court and at all levels of government.  That‘s a very important message to get buy-in from the American people for our system of justice. 

O‘DONNELL:  Now, Senator, when you were in the Senate, you were always one of those Republicans who the Democrats would look at.  When I was chief of staff of the Finance Committee under Chairman Moynihan, we were always looking over toward the Danforth chair, wondering if we might have his vote this time. 

What‘s your sense of the possible Republican vote for Sonia Sotomayor, both on the Judiciary Committee and then on the Senate floor? 

DANFORTH:  You know, I don‘t have a vote count.  And most of the people in the Senate now weren‘t there when I was there.

But she will surely get some Republican votes.  I don‘t know how many.  I don‘t think she—this is not going to be a squeaker.  I think this will be a very decisive victory for her. 

O‘DONNELL:  And what do you think the—where do you think the discussion of affirmative action this week has—has left us?  Do you think that the net result of it was you—the—the argument that affirmative action worked, because Sonia Sotomayor, for example, may not have gotten into Princeton exclusively on her test scores?

But, then, when she graduates at the very top of her class, doesn‘t she then prove that using just test scores, you would end up with the wrong Princeton class?  You would end up rewarding the people who did well in high school, instead of properly predicting who was going to do well at Princeton? 

DANFORTH:  Princeton and most colleges are going to be looking for a class made up of various components, people of various backgrounds, various ethnicity, various skills. 

They will want a—a balanced class, but they will also want to make sure that, when people graduate from Princeton, they are able and that they have benefited from the education, and that they can compete in the world.

And I think that that is exactly what Judge Sotomayor has—has shown.  I mean, here is a woman who is clearly very, very capable, very smart.  She has excelled.  In Princeton, she won the Pyne Prize, which is for the outstanding student in the—in the class.  So, that‘s—that‘s some doing. 

O‘DONNELL:  What do you make...

DANFORTH:  So, I think that she has—she has definitely shown that -that she‘s a very capable person. 

O‘DONNELL:  What do you make of the—the—the Pat Buchanan side of the world that wants to argue with everything about her, including her academic achievement, that none of it was legitimately earned by her?

In fact, Senator, I‘m going to let you listen to Pat Buchanan on this on HARDBALL earlier this week.  Let‘s listen to him now.


PAT BUCHANAN, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  She said herself that she was an affirmative action baby her whole life, that she didn‘t get the grades her classmates did. 


BUCHANAN:  Her words. 


BUCHANAN:  Yes, and she also said, “Look, in college I had to read classic children‘s books in order to learn English a little better.”  She‘s been advanced her whole career.  She got on the Yale Law Review. 

Where are her LSAT scores?  Where are her—her SAT scores getting into high school and college?  Where has she written something in The Law Review that‘s really—where is an opinion of her we have seen that‘s really brilliant?  And you might disagree with it.  None of that is there, Chris. 


MATTHEWS:  But you have talked up—you have talked up Sarah Palin for president. 


BUCHANAN:  Well, I have talked up...


BUCHANAN:  Sarah Palin is accomplished on her own right.  No affirmative action there, boy. 


O‘DONNELL:  Senator, you and Pat Buchanan seem to represent opposite ends of Republican thinking about what they saw in Sonia Sotomayor. 

Where do you think that more—the most Republican voters are—are leaning?  Are they leaning in your direction or Pat‘s direction? 

DANFORTH:  I can‘t—I can‘t believe that there are very many people who would say that she is not qualified to be on the U.S. Supreme Court. 

I can‘t believe that there are many—very many people who would say that she doesn‘t have the mental ability or that she doesn‘t have the—the background to be on the court. 

Now, people could say, well, I don‘t agree with her jurisprudence as I understand it.  Maybe she‘s got the wrong view of the relationship between the court and the rest of the country.  People could argue that one way or another.

But I—I think that it would be almost a silly—well, really a silly argument to try to take the point of view that this person is not qualified to be on the court.  Sure, she is. 

O‘DONNELL:  All right, thank you, Senator Danforth. 

Joining me now is Cliff Sloan, who guided Justice Stephen Breyer through the nomination process.  Cliff Sloan is the author of “The Great Decision.” 

Cliff, you watched this affirmative action debate play out this week, including having a couple of the New Haven firefighters testify at the hearing. 

Where do you think the politics of affirmative action is now in this country, at the end of this week? 

CLIFF SLOAN, FORMER ASSISTANT COUNSEL TO PRESIDENT CLINTON:  Well, I - I think it‘s a very inspiring story for the country, and—because I think, first of all, with Judge Sotomayor, that image that she gave in her opening statement, which was brilliant, about her and her brother and her mother sitting around the kitchen table late at night working, it is a classic American success story, working hard to get ahead. 

But, you know, the same thing is true of the New Haven firefighters, and that image lasts as well.  Mr. Ricci and Mr. Vargas, they worked very hard.  And whether one agrees with them or disagrees with them, whether one agrees with her or disagrees with her in that case, I think that one of the very positive things, at the end of the week, you have these success stories, and it actually became less personal. 

You have Lindsey Graham reminding the firefighters that, just a generation ago, people were excluded from positions in fire departments because of their race or because of their last name. 

And, very importantly, you had the firefighters taking the high road.  They didn‘t make personal attacks on her.  And, in fact, when Senator Specter said do they think that Judge Sotomayor acted in other than good faith in their case in ruling against them, they said:  Gee, we can‘t really speak to that.  We can just tell you about our own experience. 

So, I think it‘s a very positive story for the country. 

O‘DONNELL:  Frank Ricci wasn‘t the only plaintiff in that case who testified to the committee.  Also testifying was firefighter Ben Vargas from New Haven, who I think shows the complexity of where the affirmative action discussion stands now.  Let‘s listen to him. 


BEN VARGAS, NEW HAVEN, CT. FIREFIGHTER:  I am Hispanic and proud of the heritage and background that Judge Sotomayor and I share.  And I congratulate Judge Sotomayor on her nomination.  I think it important for you to know what I did, that I played by the rules, and then endured a long process of asking the courts to enforce those rules. 

I was shocked when I was not rewarded for this hard work and sacrifice, but I actually was penalized for it.  I became not Ben Vargas, the fire lieutenant who proved himself qualified to be captain, but a racial statistic. 


O‘DONNELL:  Cliff Sloan, that testimony certainly indicated that the 21st century version of the affirmative action discussion is more complex than it was in the ‘80s and ‘90s, don‘t you think? 

SLOAN:  Absolutely.  Look, these are tough issues, and the Supreme Court split five to four on the case.  Whichever side you come down on, I think anybody has to say these are very, very difficult issues.  And that‘s why I think the attack on Judge Sotomayor on the basis of this case, which we heard a lot about the case—but it doesn‘t really go anywhere because people recognize, however you come down on it, it‘s a very difficult issue that people are sorting their way through. 

Absolutely, it‘s much more complex than it used to be with the sort of one-liners about it. 

O‘DONNELL:  Cliff Sloan, my experience working in the Senate and watching people trying to coach senators on their performance, their actual delivery of self into a TV camera, it always failed.  You always ended up with who that politician actually is.  They‘re not actors.  They‘re not good at this. 

How about these Supreme Court nominees?  You guys do a lot of coaching to them about how to present themselves, but they‘re going to be hanging out there, as we saw this week, for hours and hours and hours on end.  And my guess is—I‘ve never been involved in what you‘ve done—but my guess is there‘s a real limit to how much you can coach them in terms of performance, and that after a while what we‘re watching is who that person really is. 

SLOAN:  Oh, that‘s absolutely right.  I mean, there‘s a real limit for two reasons.  One is just because, you know, ultimately, over the course of that many hours and under the questioning, as you say, the real person is going to come out.  You know, that‘s all there is.  And really the most effective thing that you can do is show them how they could possibly be misunderstood by some of the things that they‘re doing, and so how to let themselves come through more clearly. 

But there‘s also an important substantive issue, because while it‘s very important for the White House to be working with the nominee and helping the nominee prepare, there is a limit to what the White House should be telling the nominee.  You know, a very important moment in these confirmation hearings was when Judge Sotomayor said that nobody from the White House had asked her about her views on abortion or what she would say about them.  And there is a very appropriate line beyond which the White House should not go in, quote, coaching a Supreme Court nominee. 

O‘DONNELL:  Cliff, we got seconds left, but I can‘t let you go without you‘ve counted these votes before.  Give us your prediction on the Sotomayor final vote on the Senate floor. 

SLOAN:  At least 80 for her. 

O‘DONNELL:  OK, over -- 78 is the magic number.  That was Roberts number.  You think they‘re going to get above that. 

SLOAN:  Yes, I do. 

O‘DONNELL:  Thank you Cliff Sloan. 

Up next, with the clock ticking on President Obama‘s health care reform, what does the president have to do next?  The politics fix is next.  This is HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.


O‘DONNELL:  We‘re back.  Time for the politics fix with “Politico‘s” Roger Simon and Voto Latino‘s Maria Teresa Kumar, who is also an MSNBC contributor. 

The Sotomayor hearings this week reopened the subject of affirmative action, because of the New Haven firefighters case.  Let‘s listen to New Haven firefighter Frank Ricci. 


RICCI:  I studied harder than I ever had before, reading, making flash cards, highlighting, reading again, all my listening to prepared tapes.  I went before numerous panels to prepare for the oral assessment.  I was a virtual absentee father and husband for months because of it. 

In 2004, the city of New Haven felt not enough minorities would be promoted and that the political price for complying with Title Seven, the City Civil Service Rules, and the charter would be too high.  Therefore, they chose not to fill the vacancies. 


O‘DONNELL:  Maria Teresa Kumar, Frank Ricci was a very sympathetic witness.  He told his story straight.  He wasn‘t a bitter, angry man.  He was simply telling how we got to here.  However, he provoked a lot of angry reaction, including from MSNBC‘s crazy uncle, Pat Buchanan, who really, really let it fly over affirmative action, like, you know, he‘s been waiting to for years. 

Where do you think we stand in this country at the end of this week on the discussion of affirmative action?  Are we better off from the discussion we‘ve had this week?  Or has there been a setback?  Have we regressed in our understanding of where we stand on affirmative action? 

MARIA TERESA KUMAR, VOTO LATINO:  I think we‘ve regressed.  And the reason I say that, Lawrence—by the way, it‘s nice to have you hosting tonight.  But the reason I say that is because, at the end of the day, day when women are still earning 70 cents on the dollar for equal pay, and we still have the majority of our minorities, less than seven percent of our minorities, Latinos graduating from four-year universities, and we don‘t have enough folks in executive positions, we still have a long way to go. 

That‘s not to say that affirmative is fool proof and that it is all the right answers.  I think what we have to do—start doing as a country is looking solutions and other goals to measure the purposefulness.  That is also to say that we do have a lot of folks that—we have the Joe the Plumbers that are angry, that are frustrated because of the economic times.

But we need to have a frank discussion.  Pointing fingers at one ethnic group and saying it‘s your fault that I‘m not in the position of power, that‘s a problem.

O‘DONNELL:  Roger Simon, one of my favorite Pat Buchanan moments of the week, in his many, many rants on this subject, came when he simply presumed that he had higher test scores than Sonia Sotomayor.  On what basis, I have no idea, other than some ugly thought about what it means to be born a Latina in this country. 

What does Pat represent?  Here‘s a former candidate for president who led a very kind of angry mob of voters that was all about the Buchanan backlash against liberal America, and specifically things like affirmative action.  Who does Pat represent now?  How big a constituency is out there listening to that? 

ROGER SIMON, “POLITICO”:  Pat represents all those guys who are not getting onto the Supreme Court.  Judge Sotomayor is.  Take that, Pat. 

I think where Pat goes wrong on this is that Judge Sotomayor is an example of why affirmative action works well.  Studies show—I think I‘m right on this—that when you give minorities an opportunity, that they wouldn‘t normally have—he‘s right that she probably didn‘t have the test scores to get into Princeton or to get into Yale Law. 

But studies show that you give minorities a boost and give them the opportunity, they perform very well.  And they do do very well.  So you give this woman a chance to get into a prestigious undergraduate university and law school, and what happens?  She does very well.  She becomes a prosecutor.  She becomes a successful federal district court judge, federal appellate court judge. 

Now she‘s going to become a U.S. Supreme Court judge.  This is why affirmative action is a good thing and not a bad thing.  Giving some people an opportunity works. 

I‘m sorry that sometimes it is a zero sum gain and sometimes people like Ricci do lose out, although he‘s getting his promotion.  And that‘s unfortunate. 

But, in the long run, I think we help people who, you know—let‘s face it, as someone said, if you gave just Latinos and blacks jobs for the next 75 years, it wouldn‘t balance the books on how much they‘ve been discriminated against in the history of the United States.  So I think a little balancing is fair. 

KUMAR:  Affirmative action—I‘m sorry. 

O‘DONNELL:  Go ahead. 

KUMAR:  The biggest beneficiaries of affirmative action, folks forget, have been women.  I think that is something that when we start talking about affirmative action, it‘s not just race based, but it‘s also gender based.  We‘re richer for it as a result.  That‘s all of a sudden why we can have a secretary of state who is woman and we don‘t think twice about it.  Hopefully a woman someday can become president.  We don‘t think twice about it. 

That‘s one of the reasons why President Obama can become president of the United States.  We have come a long way.  We still have a long way to go.  And when—

O‘DONNELL:  We‘ll be back with Roger Simon and Maria Teresa Kumar for more of the politics fix.  You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.


O‘DONNELL:  We‘re back with Roger Simon and Maria Teresa Kumar for more of the politics fix.  You know, betting against health care reform has been a very safe bet for the last 60 years or so.  Let‘s listen to what President Obama had to say about that today. 


OBAMA:  That‘s why those who are betting against this happening this year are badly mistaken.  We are going to get this done.  We will reform health care.  It will happen this year.  I‘m absolutely convinced of that. 

I believe that members of Congress are prepared to work as hard as it is going to take to make this happen.  And I am grateful for the work that they‘ve already done. 

I‘m confident that we‘re going to be putting in a lot more hours.  There are going to be a lot more sleepless nights.  But eventually, this is going to happen. 


O‘DONNELL:  Mr. Simon, place your bet. 

SIMON:  I think health care reform is not in trouble yet.  But it‘s on the verge of being in trouble.  I think Douglas Elmendorf‘s (ph) statement at the CBO is an extremely damaging one, because it strikes at the heart of what President Obama is saying.  President Obama‘s fundamental argument is we can‘t do nothing, because if we do nothing, health care gets more expensive and the system collapses. 

Elmendorf is saying, well, he‘s half-right.  If we do nothing, health care does get more expensive.  But if we do what President Obama wants, it gets even more expensive.  Therefore, doing nothing becomes an acceptable option.  Whenever you give Congress the option of doing nothing, they‘re going to take it. 

So this could be a real death knell, unless the administration can take on the facts and figures of how we‘re going to pay for this thing. 

O‘DONNELL:  Maria Teresa, do you want to bet on the history of getting nothing or do you want to bet on the president on this one? 

KUMAR:  So far he‘s been very much a wonder kid and everything he touches turns to gold.  However, when you have supporters in the back room saying, I‘m scratching my head and please let us go, Teresa, and come back after August to revisit this, and actually have a sustainable system, where we‘re not bankrupting the economy more than it already is—I think he has a tough road ahead of him. 

O‘DONNELL:  Roger Simon, what do you think they‘ll get before the August recess?  Do you think they‘ll get out of the Senate Finance Committee? 

SIMON:  I don‘t know.  I suspect—I don‘t think he is really going to get a health care bill from the House and Senate by the August recess.  And I‘m not sure he‘s going to get a bill on his desk—

O‘DONNELL:  We‘re going to have to leave it there for today.  Thank you, Roger Simon and Maria Teresa Kumar.  Chris Matthews will return Monday night at 5:00 and 7:00 Eastern for more HARDBALL.  Right now, it‘s time for “THE ED SHOW,” with Ed Schultz. 



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


Discussion comments