updated 7/21/2009 10:11:20 AM ET 2009-07-21T14:11:20

Guests: Julia Boorstin, Chuck Todd, Eugene Robinson, Michelle Bernard, Charlie Ebersol, Dan Rather, Dan Balz, Michael Steele

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST:  Intensive care.  Will the health bill make it?

Let‘s play HARDBALL.

Good evening.  I‘m Chris Matthews in Washington.  Leading off tonight:

Health care now in surgery.  President Obama‘s everywhere, selling action on a national health care bill.  With just a few weeks to go before the congressional August recess, the president will be highly visible, with speeches, interviews and a primetime news conference on Wednesday night.

All this as the latest ABC News/”Washington Post” poll shows the president is still popular, but with skepticism growing over whether he can do the job on the economy and health care.

The president‘s poll numbers are still the envy of Republicans, whose ratings continue to be at a near all-time low.  Democrats have received more popular votes than Republicans in four of the past five presidential elections, and the GOP has lost 54 House seats and 15 Senate seats in the past two cycles.  RNC chairman Michael Steele comes to HARDBALL tonight.  How does he intend to reverse the Democratic tide that threatens to bury his party?

Plus, so much has been said and written about Walter Cronkite since he died on Friday evening.  We‘re going to do something special here tonight.  Dan Rather will join us, and he and I will look back at an interview I did with Cronkite back in ‘96, when he revealed some things about himself that might surprise you about the most trusted man in America.

Also, it‘s getting near do-or-die for President Obama and health care.  He staked his presidency on getting this done and getting it done this year.  Let‘s see how that bet looks in the “Politics Fix.”

And tonight, I‘ll show you where I was those recent two weeks when I was gone from the show.  I‘ve some pictures to show you from Africa and a great story of what some good people are doing there.

We begin tonight with President Obama‘s big sell on national health care.  Chuck Todd is NBC‘s chief White House correspondent.  And “The Washington Post‘s” Dan Balz is the author of the forthcoming book “The battle for America 2008.”  Dan, of course, is the top political reporter in the country right now.

Here‘s President Obama today.  Let‘s listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  Just the other day, one Republican senator said, and I‘m quoting him now, If we‘re able to stop Obama on this, it will be his Waterloo.  It will break him.

Think about that.  This isn‘t about me.  This isn‘t about politics.  This is about a health care system that is breaking America‘s families, breaking America‘s businesses and breaking America‘s economy, and we can‘t afford the politics of delay and defeat when it comes to health care.  Not this time.  Not now.  There are too many lives and livelihoods at stake.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  And here‘s the key Senate Republican with his thoughts, Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa, reacting to what the president just said.  He‘s saying it here on MSNBC.  Let‘s listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. CHUCK GRASSLEY ®, IOWA:  I listened to a good part of his speech while I was standing here, and the president didn‘t say anything I disagree with.  There may be how you get there, that there would be some differences of opinion, but the goals the president wants is a goal that almost everybody in this country wants.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Well, there you have it, Chuck and Dan.  I want you both to give me your best wisdom.  There you have it, how we get there.  The top Republican, a man who‘s a moderate conservative Republican, who‘s the ranking member on the finance committee in this Senate, where all the action is tonight and the next couple days, and the president of the United States.  How does it get done for the people, Chuck?

CHUCK TODD, NBC CORRESPONDENT/POLITICAL DIRECTOR:  Well, first of all, what you saw with the president is something that he has done previously, which is when he found a political enemy.  He needed—the thing that had been hurting him a little bit, I think, on this health care fight is he didn‘t have somebody he was running against, as he did during the campaign, and he‘s more comfortable when he‘s got a political bogey man.  And I think that that‘s why they trotted out Jim DeMint in this case, is that they finally found their political bogey man.

You got a guy like Chuck Grassley, he does wanted to play.  And this gets at something else that‘s going on inside the Republican Party, is you have about half the party that sees—that smells political blood and they think, You know what?  We can get Obama on this.  We can make him politically weaker if we beat him on this.  And then you have the other half, the Chuck Grassleys of the world, who want to play, who want to be a part.  They see the train‘s leaving the station, something‘s going to get signed, and they want some influence.

MATTHEWS:  Dan, the big question, how does the president‘s busy-ness the next couple days and weeks, when he said he‘s going to be all over the country, all over the tube, doing interviews everywhere—how does that make a couple of senators, three or four Republicans, maybe three or so moderate Democrats cut a deal?

DAN BALZ, “WASHINGTON POST”:  Well, there‘s two things that he‘s got to do, Chris.  The first is to continue to press to make this case publicly, that if they don‘t get health care done this year, they‘ve lost probably the best opportunity we‘ve seen in two decades to get this done.  It is enormously difficult, and I think that what you‘ve seen through most of this year is a climate that has been more favorable toward getting a reform package through than we‘ve seen in a long time.

But the second thing he‘s got to do is, he‘s got to monitor that Senate Finance Committee very closely.  That committee right now holds the key to getting a bill out that might become the basis for an agreement across both the House and Senate.  There is a lot of partisan division now, but there are a few Republicans who are still playing on this, and Senator Grassley is obviously very much a key and the president and his legislative team have got to work the inside, as well as the outside.

MATTHEWS:  Well, let‘s go back to Chuck on those questions.  We‘ve got four Republican senators, led by Chuck Grassley.  You‘ve got three Democrats led by Max Baucus, who‘s chairman of the Finance Committee.  What is the fight over?  It seems to me they‘ve got to jettison some of this stuff so that it‘s light enough to carry for both parties.

TODD:  Two things, two key things.  How to pay for it.  What are you going to do?  This surcharge tax idea coming out of the House, Grassley himself said it‘s dead, and if Grassley says it‘s dead, Baucus usually goes along.  I mean, the two of them are like blood brothers in this on the way they run the Finance Committee.  They both sort of take the long view because as one of them‘s the ranking member now, the other one‘s the chairman.  They know those roles can get reversed quickly, so they very much listen to each other on that.  So that millionaire surtax or whatever you want to call it at this point is probably dead.

But they have to find a way to fund it that isn‘t this taxing health care benefits because the president drew a line on that, which is something Baucus has expressed frustration.  Grassley himself in that interview, Chris, said they‘re $200 billion short.  So that‘s what they‘re looking for, number one, how to pay for it.

The second thing, this public option.  Will there be a public insurance plan, or will there be something that‘s called a co-op that‘s probably a little harder to explain to the public exactly what it is?  The Finance Committee wants to do a co-op because it‘s less scary to them politically.

MATTHEWS:  It sounds less socialist.  It sounds more like a credit union that everybody‘s involved with, but there‘s no secret paperwork going...

(CROSSTALK)

TODD:  ... to describe it, credit union, yes.

MATTHEWS:  It‘s a very transparent situation, like a credit union.  By the way, the credit unions are all over Capitol Hill.  I used to be a member of one.

Here‘s health care.  The latest new “Washington Post”/ABC News poll finds President Obama‘s job approval slipped below 50 -- it‘s 49 percent, but it‘s still OK.  It‘s a little bit down, but it‘s below that magic 50 percent mark.

And here‘s an interesting one.  Let‘s take a look at how he‘s doing on his ability to handle health care.  That‘s below 49 percent.  But a majority of the people trust him more than they do the Republicans, Dan.  What do these numbers—the numbers are definitely coming down.  They‘re eroding.  Does he have to act as long as he‘s got some substantial support out there?  In other words, can we expect that a year from now, those numbers will be lower?

BALZ:  Well, I think we—because we can‘t forecast the economy, we don‘t exactly know what those numbers are going to look like in a year.  I think what they tell us is that he did some of the easy things first.  Everybody knew that.  Everyone knew that health care was going to be the most difficult fight and that the longer that this fight goes on and the more the details are aired out publicly, the more there is skepticism about whether he can get it done.

So I mean, the situation for him, as you suggest—overall, he‘s still at 59 percent in our poll.  Those are pretty good numbers for a president.  But on the health care issue, on the deficit issue, and on the economy, people‘s judgment of how he‘s handling those have begun to slip down.  I think it‘s clearly why they‘ve redoubled efforts to keep him out publicly to sell this program.

It is clearly why the message coming from the White House to Democrats on Capitol Hill is, We cannot fail on health care.  We have to, in one way or another, get this done and try to get it done this year because, as Rahm Emanuel, the chief of staff, has continually told members on the Hill, We failed to do this in 1993 and 1994, and look what happened.  We can‘t afford to do that again.

MATTHEWS:  Chuck, I‘ve lived through politics for all these decades, watching health care fail.  It failed because Ted Kennedy didn‘t take the advantage he had with Dick Nixon back in the ‘70s.

TODD:  Right.

MATTHEWS:  Ironically, Dick Nixon, a relatively conservative president, was willing to do health care, a mandated benefit for—a mandated employer program.  We blew it with Carter and Kennedy not getting along.  We blew it with the Clintons not getting along with some people on Capitol Hill, like Jim Cooper of Tennessee.

TODD:  Pat Moynihan.

MATTHEWS:  We keep blowing it, the inability to share the responsibility of dealing with health care.  Will the president‘s going around the country and going on television the next couple weeks change that climate enough to get this thing through?

TODD:  Look, I absolutely believe that—I sometimes think we‘re getting played here a little bit.  You know, we‘ve created this drama that he‘s struggling to get this done, and there‘s no doubt this is a tough—it‘s tough road ahead for members of Congress.  And they‘re struggling, and they don‘t want to vote for this thing and they‘re nervous about it.  They don‘t know what it‘s going to look like a year from now, and they‘re worried about explaining how, Hey, guess what, that health care reform bill we passed, well, you know, you‘re not really going to feel it for three or four years.  So they‘re nervous about this whole thing.

But Chris, 15 years ago, we had industry spending millions.  There was more money on TV being spent to kill health care than to pass it.  We have the exact opposite now.  I was just checking in with our friends over at the camp (ph) c-mag (ph).  It‘s Evan Trades (ph) who runs that.  He said there‘s been $40 million spent and more money has been spent advocating the president‘s health care proposal than defeating it.

That environment makes it like—look, they‘re going to get something.  They‘re not going to do nothing.  They‘re going to get something.  Now, what it looks like in the end, that‘s a whole ‘nother story.

BALZ:  Chris, I think that‘s—I think that‘s an important point.  I mean, the question is, perhaps, in the end, they will decide they can‘t get the kind of comprehensive universal coverage that everyone has talked about.  And then the question is, what does that fallback position look like?  I think that‘s still in the offing if they continue to run into roadblocks.

But then, as Chuck said, the question is, What does that package really do?  And we will not know that for a good long time.  And I‘ve talked to people over the weekend who were sympathetic to the idea of trying to get this done but who worry that the way it‘s being done right now, President Obama could be buying himself long-term problems in trying to get a short-term victory.

MATTHEWS:  OK...

TODD:  Chris...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  As Adlai Stevenson once said, it‘s better to light a candle than curse the darkness.  My last thought.  Your last thought, Chuck?

TODD:  Just implementing this is going to be as big of a battle as we‘re seeing now, and I think we don‘t quite get that yet.  But the political battle seems tough.  Wait until they actually pass something and then they charge HHS with actually trying to, OK, now do it.

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Commentary from Chris Matthews.  Let‘s get something to implement.  Anyway, thank you, Chuck Todd.  Thank you, Dan Balz.

MATTHEWS:  Coming up—thanks for coming on, Dan.  Coming up: As President Obama steps up his push for health care reform, Republicans are pushing back, some of them—not all of them—but they‘ve got plenty of issues themselves, starting with record lows in the polls.  When we return, we‘ve got the leader of the party, RNC chair Michael Steele, to talk about how the Republicans can rebound.

You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  With us now, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, Michael Steele.  I want you—Mr. Steele, Mr. Chairman, I want you—I‘ve been trying to get you on this show.  I want you to look at some of these maps.  This is a map that ran in “The New York Times.”  The red part shows the only part of the country that voted more for the Republican ticket in 2008 than had the time before, in 2004.

MICHAEL STEELE, RNC CHAIRMAN:  Right.

MATTHEWS:  It‘s sort of the Appalachian area.  Now look at some of these numbers.  And I think these are the challenges you face in your leadership, and it is a great historic challenge you face, leading the Republican Party back to victory.  Back in 2000, we had 105 million people vote.  In 2008, 131 million.  That‘s good for the republic, 25 percent more.

STEELE:  Sure.

MATTHEWS:  And then African-American participation, it‘s gone from 11 percent, obviously, with the first African real candidate with a chance to win...

STEELE:  Right.

MATTHEWS:  It‘s gone from 11 percent to 13 percent.  But adversarial to your party, it‘s gone from 88 percent Democrat to 95 percent Democrat.

STEELE:  Right.

MATTHEWS:  Latino voters, again moving up in their percentage from 8 percent to 9 percent.  But then again, a two thirds vote for the Democratic candidate, Barack Obama, 67 percent.  Under 30 voters, who will, of course, be under 34 voters by the next time...

STEELE:  Right.

MATTHEWS:  ... there you have their percentage creeping up from 17 percent to 18 percent, but their vote again, 66 percent for Barack Obama.

STEELE:  Sure.

MATTHEWS:  In a country where there are going to be more Hispanic voters every year we live—you and I live...

STEELE:  Sure.

MATTHEWS:  We‘re about the same age—and there‘s going to be a little bit more African-American voters, although probably pretty stable...

STEELE:  Right.

MATTHEWS:  ... and you‘re going to have definitely more young people voting because young people keep coming along...

STEELE:  Coming along.  Imagine that.

MATTHEWS:  Are you going to be in a position of having the Republican Party depend on getting something like 60 percent of the older white vote so you can win an election?

STEELE:  No.

MATTHEWS:  Isn‘t that the conundrum you‘re in right now?

STEELE:  Well, it is a conundrum coming off of ‘06 and ‘08.  No doubt about that.  We lost sight of those principles and values to talk to those voters about, the governing coalition that Ronald Reagan built in the ‘80s and that George Bush the first and partially the second built off of.  We got away from it.  There‘s no doubt about that, Chris.  I mean, I‘m the first one to say that the party, for political expedience and convenience, quite frankly, didn‘t do the hard, steady work of building a ground game and a relationship with the voters.

So along comes Barack Obama.  He sounds good.  He looks great.  It‘s a beautiful package.  And then we had nothing—we had no filler.  We had nothing to fall back on.  We couldn‘t even argue the basics of the economy in the last election effectively.  And it took, you know, a happenstance conversation with a plumber before we could really begin to get that groove.

I think right now, however, with the debate on health care, with the debate on spending, with the debate on the environment, all of these issues are beginning to put in focus for us an opportunity to go back to those voters and say, Guess what?  We get it.  Our bad.  We were wrong in our approach to the government.  We were wrong in our approach to spending.

We acknowledge the kickoff of this whole stimulus craziness that we‘ve unleashed, but we get it enough now to understand that at the end of the day, the people of this country are still the most singular source for moving us from a depression, from a recession, to prosperity.  And that‘s something that I think once the party gets back to trusting its instincts on that, the American people will be there with us.  And I think we‘re beginning to see that a little bit.

MATTHEWS:  Let‘s talk about the last week, with all this discussion of the Sonia Sotomayor nomination...

STEELE:  Yes.

MATTHEWS:  ... confirmation hearings.  You had people like Newt Gingrich, who was an elected official for many years, speaker of the House, Republican, saying a white man racist nominee would be forced to withdraw.  A Latina woman racist should also withdraw.  Now, he modified that, took it back later.

STEELE:  Yes.

MATTHEWS:  But you‘ve got people like that.  You had very tough questioning by people like Jeff Sessions, who‘s said some pretty tough things in the past about the NAACP, in terms of questioning this nominee.

STEELE:  Well, wait a minute...

MATTHEWS:  Even Lindsey Graham, who can be a very likable guy, was very tough on her.  Do you think that helped your party with Latino voters?

STEELE:  Wait a minute, now!

(CROSSTALK)

STEELE:  We shouldn‘t be as tough on a Democrat nominee for the Supreme Court...

MATTHEWS:  But politically, you‘ve got to sell your party to Latinos.

STEELE:  But wait a minute.  Oh, so we should cower away from principle because we don‘t want to offend somebody?  I mean, this is...

MATTHEWS:  I‘m asking.

STEELE:  But this is not...

MATTHEWS:  Did you offend them?

STEELE:  No.  But this is not governance and it‘s not leadership.  You ask the questions that the American people want to know.  We don‘t know anything about—quite frankly, we don‘t know more about her today than we did before this process started because, as “The Washington Post” and other papers recognized, she was very well briefed.  She was very well coached.  And she answered the questions right up to the line and left it.

MATTHEWS:  Do you think...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  ... Lindsey Graham was right...

STEELE:  You look at...

MATTHEWS:  Let‘s look at Lindsey Graham.  Let‘s watch his questioning of her.  You tell me if you think it helps you with the Latino community.  Here it is.  Let‘s watch.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM ®, SOUTH CAROLINA:  These statements about you are striking.  They‘re not about your colleagues.  The 10-minute rule applies to everybody, and that obviously you‘ve accomplished a lot in your life.

But maybe these hearings are time for self-reflection.  This is pretty tough stuff that you don‘t see from—about other judges on the Second Circuit. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  What do you make of that, telling her to...

STEELE:  Wait a minute.  Well, wait a minute.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  ... telling her basically to reflect on her anger management? 

STEELE:  Excuse me.  It was something raised by her own colleagues. 

This is not something Republicans made up, Chris.  Come on.  

MATTHEWS:  Do you think it helps to have this on television? 

STEELE:  It is...

(LAUGHTER)

STEELE:  Where else...

MATTHEWS:  I‘m asking you a political question. 

STEELE:  It‘s a public hearing. 

(CROSSTALK)

STEELE:  ... think you‘re going to have it?

MATTHEWS:  You‘re getting into substance here.

I‘m asking you, when you have to—do you think President Obama wasn‘t brilliant in picking this woman?

STEELE:  Oh, absolutely.

MATTHEWS:  So that your party would beat up on her?

STEELE:  It was—no.  We did not beat up—I mean, wow...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Oh, come one.  Jeff Sessions, Lindsey Graham, Orrin Hatch, that was a tough...

(CROSSTALK)

STEELE:  Excuse me.  What did Alito and Roberts go through?  Excuse me, what did Clarence Thomas go through?  What did Judge Bork go through?  There‘s a little thing called “Borking.”  His name is now a verb in the nomination process of a Supreme Court justice.

MATTHEWS:  Borking an ethnic group.

STEELE:  But it doesn‘t—look, if you want to play ethnic politics...

MATTHEWS:  Yes.  I‘m asking you if you‘re winning at the politics.

STEELE:  ... I‘m going to ask—I‘m going to ask you a question. If you want to play ethnic politics, have at it all day long.  What we tried - what we tried to do and what we said from the very beginning was we wanted a full examination of this judge‘s record -- 17 years on the bench, 3,600 cases before here. 

She has a record.  When her colleagues on the bench have an opinion about her, it‘s a valid question to ask.  She had the opportunity to explain it.  It‘s not ethnic politics here.  We didn‘t go after Sotomayor, no more than—than anyone else did.

The reality of it is there were legitimate questions that were out there in the public that they wanted answered, and quite frankly, in my view, did not get answered sufficiently.  And I think everyone kind of concluded that Well coached, well briefed, we still don‘t know those nuances.

MATTHEWS:  The “wise Latina” comment was hit again and again for a whole week.  Do you think it helped your party?

STEELE:  I mean...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Constantly pounding her on for saying...

(CROSSTALK)

STEELE:  Chris, there is no helping—there is no helping—there is no helping and hurting here of the party.

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Your bottom line is it didn‘t hurt your party.

STEELE:  The bottom line was the—the bottom line was is the principle of someone who wants to be a Supreme Court Justice, we asked the appropriate questions.

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Let me ask you about African Americans.  The president spoke to the NAACP the other day.  Now, I thought he gave some pretty tough talk.  It was like Bill Cosby talking.  It was realistic.  It was tough.

As I said last week, a white guy can‘t talk like that at the NAACP. 

He talked about kids in brutal neighborhoods where it‘s really dangerous. 

He said you still have to study.

(CROSSTALK)

STEELE:  Excuse me.

MATTHEWS:  He said teachers that are lousy have to be fired.

STEELE:  That‘s great.  That‘s great.

MATTHEWS:  That sounds like you talking.

STEELE:  Well, it does because—but the difference is I follow up with action.  And I want to know—I mean, I can compare my record as a lieutenant governor on those subjects.  So the question now for a lot of African Americans and for the country:  What are you going to do?

MATTHEWS:  OK.

STEELE:  How do you—how do you move those very kids that you‘re talking about in poverty to the next level of realizing prosperity when you cut their opportunity by cutting their scholarship grants here in the District of Columbia?

STEELE:  Seventeen hundred poor African-American kids, many of whom go to my old high school...

MATTHEWS:  You know what?  You just found an area we agree on.  These Opportunity Scholarships should be maintained. 

STEELE:  They should be maintained.  But the administration, this president, then senator, has been garnering to kill those scholarships...

MATTHEWS:  And who is doing it?  The unions? 

STEELE:  I don‘t know.  The unions.  Somebody‘s got his—obviously...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  These are called Opportunity Scholarships.  They basically allow in many cases kids from tough neighborhoods to get a chance to go to good schools...

STEELE:  To go to the...

(CROSSTALK)

STEELE:  ... go to the same school his kids go to. 

MATTHEWS:  yes. 

STEELE:  And I suspect the reason they finally backed off of that is because they didn‘t want the bad publicity from that. 

MATTHEWS:  Did they back off it? 

STEELE:  Yes.  I mean, it was like, well, we‘ll just grandfather these kids through but then the scholarship ends and no one else can go. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, that‘s not backing off enough. 

STEELE:  Exactly.  And so...

MATTHEWS:  OK.  We agree on that. 

STEELE:  So, how do you do—but then again, Chris, again, if you want to talk about this, you can go to the NAACP and say a lot, but it‘s what you do.  So you cut Opportunity Scholarship for African-American kids here in the city.  What about all those scholarship opportunities and resources for historically black colleges and university that your administration has just cut in your budget?

MATTHEWS:  You know what you have to do?  I mean, I hate to tell you how to do your job, but Cardinal Spellman High School is one of the reasons this woman, Sotomayor, got into Princeton. 

STEELE:  Yes.  Just as...

MATTHEWS:  She went to a good Catholic high school. 

STEELE:  Just as John Carroll High School, where a lot of these kids go here in the city, is the reason I got into Johns Hopkins and Georgetown Law School.  But there are a lot of kids who have fallen behind me who won‘t be able to do that.

MATTHEWS:  I‘m glad I voted for you for senator. 

STEELE:  I‘m glad you did, too. 

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Let‘s talk about this socialism remark of yours.  It wasn‘t a remark, but somebody asked you today, I think it was, if this program of Barack Obama is socialistic. 

Well, I want to look at a number here, by the way.  By the way, here you are saying it.  I like the way.  This is at National Press Club.  Here you are on tape. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MODERATOR:  Does President Obama‘s health care plan represent socialism? 

STEELE:  Yes.  Next question. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  But by the way, the American people like his health care plan when it‘s explained to them, 54 percent to 43 percent. 

STEELE:  Well, it depends on a couple things. 

MATTHEWS:  In great detail.

STEELE:  One, who is explaining it. 

MATTHEWS:  Look at all the details.  They give all the details, including the public option...

STEELE:  Excuse me.  This is the entire president‘s health care plan right there, explained right there.

MATTHEWS:  But it explains all the elements of it.

STEELE:  It depends on two things.  One, who‘s doing the explaining.

MATTHEWS:  Here it is.

STEELE:  And what they‘re explaining.  And I can tell you that when you start talking about what this government is about to do or is trying to do in the next two weeks, do you know—you should appreciate this, Chris...

MATTHEWS:  Look, let me tell you something.  But Michael, this—this poll told people it would tax people who make more than $280,000 a year to pay for it.  It would require employers to do it.  It said it would have a government-run option.  It has all the features in it.  This is full information, Michael, and there‘s still a majority of voters saying yes to the Obama plan.

STEELE:  No, they‘re not.

MATTHEWS:  And you call it socialism.

(CROSSTALK)

STEELE:  It is.

MATTHEWS:  Are most Americans socialists?

STEELE:  This plan—this plan is not in the best interests of this nation.

MATTHEWS:  OK.  That‘s a different statement.

(CROSSTALK)

STEELE:  It‘s not...

MATTHEWS:  You stick to your argument that it‘s socialist.

STEELE:  Absolutely.  Absolutely.  Because what it is doing, it is taking over the means of production with respect to the health care and this economy.  And it‘s taking out of people‘s hands the control that they have right now to go to the doctor of their choosing, to get the kind of services that they need, and to make the decisions that they have to make without the government‘s having you stand in line, wait your turn...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Are you going to carry—are you going to win the governorship in New Jersey and in Virginia this year?

STEELE:  I‘m going to work very hard to help those candidates, Christie in New Jersey and my friend McDonnell as hard as we can.

MATTHEWS:  I think you‘re lucky to get a split, but you might get both. 

(CROSSTALK)

STEELE:  I will take whatever you give me, Chris.

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  I ain‘t giving you nothing, but I did vote for you.

Michael Steele, who may well run for elective office again, the chairman of the Republican National Committee.

Up next, I have got some incredible pictures to share with you from my trip.  I just got back from Africa.  That‘s where I was for two weeks, with my wife.  This is serious business.  It‘s HIV stuff and it‘s saving the wildlife, the number-one treasure of Africa.  They have got to save it.  They have to.  That‘s what they can sell in years to come.

It‘s all coming up here.  And let‘s watch it, great pictures. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

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(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL. 

Earlier this month, I took two weeks off from the show.  And Kathleen, my wife, and I traveled to South Africa, Mozambique, and Swaziland, where I had spent two years back in the 1960s helping develop small-business enterprise as a volunteer in the U.S. Peace Corps. 

We got a fabulous chance to see the historic efforts some very good people are making to save the amazing wildlife of Africa. 

I have got to give a real shout-out to Greg Carr, an American who is working and investing so hard to rebuild the great Gorongosa game park in Mozambique.  He‘s working with the government there of that country to bring back that country‘s precious resource. 

I also want to pay tribute to Ted Riley (ph), who spent his whole life in Swaziland.  His father had fought in the Boer War.  And he‘s now helping King Mswati to build up and protect that beautiful little country‘s wildlife.

I have got to praise King Mswati himself for having the strength and vision to mean it.  And he bans poaching, zero tolerance, no bail, no breaks.  You kill, you go to jail.  We have had too many elephants and rhinos killed in that part of the world. 

I can‘t overlook, of course, the work of today‘s Peace Corps volunteers in Swaziland to deal with the HIV/AIDS challenge.  They‘re up against some of the real challenges in this world. 

But I was very happy to get a chance with—to meet with those people. 

Three cheers again to King Mswati himself for—for inviting the Peace Corps into his country and backing them up in their volunteer efforts.  It makes me proud to have those young Americans over there working to meet a horror that affects Africa so greatly. 

It was an incredible two weeks.  I came very close to some very amazing animals in the very midst of the most beautiful scenery in the world.  I was lucky to be in Africa as a young man, and lucky to have returned there many times since with my family.  I hope to spend the rest of my life, by the way, keeping in touch with the beauty and challenges of that wondrous continent. 

Up next: remembering Walter Cronkite.  We are going to take a look at a 1996 interview I did with the legendary interview with the man who succeeded him on “The CBS Evening News,” Dan Rather.  He‘s joining us. 

HARDBALL returns after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

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

Stocks extended last week‘s rally on earnings optimism and a lifeline for commercial lender CIT.  The Dow Jones industrials is up 104 points.  The S&P 500 added about 10 points, to close at an eight-month high, and the Nasdaq gained more than 22 points. 

Shares in CIT Group finished 78 percent higher, after it reached a deal with bondholders for $3 billion in rescue financing.  The deal doesn‘t guarantee that CIT stays out of bankruptcy, but it does give it some much-needed breathing room. 

Texas Instruments is more than 2.5 percent higher at the close, ahead of results posting just after the bell—earnings and revenue numbers both coming in slightly better than expected. 

Shares in Halliburton oil field services gained more than 4 percent, after earnings narrowly beat estimates, this despite reporting that second-quarter profit fell 48 percent on a slowdown in exploration and production. 

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

HARDBALL. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, “POLITICS WITH CHRIS MATTHEWS,” DECEMBER 12, 1996)

WALTER CRONKITE, FORMER CBS NEWS ANCHOR:  It‘s a perfectly honorable profession, being a news presenter.  But let‘s not demean—let‘s not demean this great profession of journalism by calling these idiots, you know, journalists. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  This was Walter Cronkite advocating for the British term “presenter.”  In other words, don‘t use anchorperson, when the person doesn‘t know the news business. 

I interviewed him in 1996, when my show was called “Politics With Chris Matthews” and aired on CNBC. 

Praise for Cronkite poured in, of course, after the news of his death on Friday night.  And, today, we learned his memorial service will be held this Thursday. 

Joining me now is Dan Rather, who succeeded Cronkite as anchor of “The CBS Evening News,” And is now host of HDNet‘s “Dan Rather Reports.” 

Dan—I mean, Dan, it‘s great to have you on.  I couldn‘t think of a better person.  What do you think of him knocking the airheads that sometimes masquerade as newspeople? 

DAN RATHER, HOST, “DAN RATHER REPORTS”:  Well, that was classic Walter Cronkite. 

I want to emphasize, his point was that there‘s so many people trying to play a reporter on TV.  The very essence of Walter Cronkite was, he didn‘t just play a reporter on television.  He was a reporter, had been a reporter for a very long time.

And I think his point was that so many people now are just—are presenters, and should be called presenters.  I don‘t like the chances of that happening. 

MATTHEWS:  Not good. 

Anyway, let‘s look at Walter Cronkite on the issue of politics.  Here he was in a 1996 interview, which would be 13 years ago for all of us.  Here it is. 

(LAUGHTER)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, “POLITICS WITH CHRIS MATTHEWS,” DECEMBER 12, 1996)

MATTHEWS:  ... four brothers, but my older brother is a bit more conservative than me, a bit.  And he once said, when the big controversy about you in the old days and from the conservatives who didn‘t like your broadcast (INAUDIBLE) he said: “You know, I‘m a conservative.  And Cronkite is a liberal, but he does the best broadcast on television, the best news.  And I‘m going to watch him every night.”

What is—what is your reaction to that? 

CRONKITE:  Richard Nixon called me the best of a bad lot. 

(LAUGHTER)

CRONKITE:  I don‘t know whether that was good or bad. 

MATTHEWS:  Right. 

CRONKITE:  I don‘t know.  I was very much offended that I didn‘t get on Nixon‘s hate list.

But the—well, you know, I—I don‘t know.  I suppose, in all honesty, I‘m liberal. 

MATTHEWS:  Right.

CRONKITE:  I think so.

But I would like to define liberal.  I think the great problem with this label is that it has been—it has been seriously misused for political purposes. 

MATTHEWS:  Right. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Dan, what do you make of that little conversation?  That‘s hidden in the eaves all these years, but there he was saying, “I‘m a liberal.”

RATHER:  Well, that was, again, classic Walter. 

Keep in mind that he wanted to redefine liberal as it‘s used in today‘s political context.  He meant that he was liberal, in the sense that he was in favor of preserving those things worth preserving—preserving, but changing those things that needed changing. 

Look, after he left the anchor chair, Walter was much more inclined to talk in those terms.  I think it‘s important to remember, particularly for those who were not of memory age or not alive when Walter was in his prime, this he was a guy who was a straight news reporter. 

Walter‘s instructions to us in the field were always, you know, tell it straight, without fear or favoritism.  Pull no punches.  Say it like it is.  In so far as is humanly possible, keep your own prejudices and biases and feelings and emotions out of it. 

To a very large degree, he did that.  Yes, there were some exceptions, the time he spoke about the Vietnam War just after the Tet Offensive being the best-known example. 

But Walter was a—what he stood for, the beacon he sent out was straight news reporting.  Whatever your political persuasions are, however anybody wants to label you, get to the story, tell the story as straight as you can, and the American public will understand.  At the same time, you have to understand that politicians of various persuasions will be taking their shots at you. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes, we‘re looking at these file footage pictures of him interviewing Ike on the bluffs of Normandy back in 1964.  That was one of my favorite interviews ever, watching those two guys go at it, because he covered, of course, the Second World war. 

Here is Cronkite on world leaders he‘s covered.  I want your reviews of these, Dan,as well.  Did he this back in ‘96, 13 years ago, looking at the presidents he‘s covered, and giving a sense of their caliber when he met and worked with them.  Here he is. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Who of all the men you covered, Ike, Harry Truman before him, Jack Kennedy, Nixon, Johnson, Jimmy Carter, Reagan—who when you were with them like this, three feet away from them, did you really feel the majesty of their superior mind and leadership ability?  Sort of order them in terms of the guy who felt like president when you were with them. 

CRONKITE:  Well, if that‘s the criterion. 

MATTHEWS:  I‘m just asking that one criterion. 

CRONKITE:  I think I would have to say probably Eisenhower.  He had that kind of dignity about him.  You felt the strength of Johnson very strong, that he could crush or elevate at will practically.  You thought tremendous power there. 

Respect for general intelligence, I like Carter. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  What do you make of that?  I love it when you guys do this because you do get those one-on-ones with these guys.  You get close in and personal. 

RATHER:  Well, first of all, partly because they shared the memories of World War Two, Cronkite had tremendous admiration for President Dwight D. Eisenhower.  After all, had been commander of all allied forces in the European theater.  Keep in mind, this is a Walter Cronkite who said openly, after he left the anchor, chair that he was a Stevesonian (ph) Democrat. 

But Walter believed that when it comes to the presidency, character is most important.  And he admired Eisenhower for his leadership skill, for his character. 

I‘d heard him say myself several times that he thought Jimmy Carter, if you gave the SAT tests or an IQ test, that Carter might well score the highest of any president that he had known. 

But I think it‘s very important to note here, Chris, that Walter Cronkite dominated television news.  He helped invent television news as we know it to a very large degree.  That he was of that generation of Americans who always pulled for the president, whoever the president was.  And he was always honored to sit with any president.  He felt that it was a privilege to talk with a president or interview a president. 

He always found himself pulling for a president.  A lot of that changed in the ‘60s, when, as a people, as a society, we began to question more and question more carefully.  But Walter Cronkite never walked into the White House gates a single day that he wasn‘t proud to be there and feel it was important in his role as a journalist in our system of freedom and democracy.   

MATTHEWS:  I love to hear you say that, Dan.  So well said.  Thank you, sir, for coming here tonight on this big night for us. 

RATHER:  Always good to be with you, Chris. 

MATTHEWS:  In this reflective time on the career and the contribution to our country of Walter Cronkite. 

Up next, can President Obama pressure Congress on health care reform with this week‘s—well, it‘s going to be a couple weeks of media blitz.  We will see a lot of our president the next couple weeks.  Can this wholesale salesmanship pick up those Republicans and Democrats he needs to actually pass this bill?  The politics fix coming up next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  We‘re back in time for the politics fix, with the “Washington Post‘s” Pulitzer Prize winning columnist Eugene Robinson, and Michelle Bernard of the Independent Women‘s Voice.  Both are MSNBC political analyst.

Michelle, you first.  Are the Republicans smart to have people like Jim Demint out there saying let‘s kill this thing in its bed?  Let‘s kill health care because it‘s a way to kill Obama? 

MICHELLE BERNARD, INDEPENDENT WOMEN‘S VOICE:  No, it‘s not smart at all.  It‘s not smart politics.  It would appear that that‘s the only thing that some Republicans feel they can talk about.  But there are a lot of problems with the bill itself.  If Republicans were smart, they would be talking about patient centered health care, what the real problems are with the bill, and what Republicans stand for in terms of health care reform, rather than killing Barack Obama. 

MATTHEWS:  Gene? 

EUGENE ROBINSON, “THE WASHINGTON POST”:  I agree with Michelle.  It‘s not smart at all.  I think the question now is how does the president take control of this issue?  How does he get out in front of it?  And how does he tell Congress, rather than let Congress work it out themselves? 

I saw him on Friday.  He says, well, we got 70 percent of the way through my method. 

MATTHEWS:  Is he willing to detail what he wants? 

ROBINSON:  I didn‘t get the sense—he didn‘t detail everything that he wants to me.  But one certainly gets the sense from what we‘ve seen Friday, again today, and what we‘re going to see again during the week, he‘s willing to step out in front. 

I think that necessarily entails saying, OK, look, here are some definite lines.  Here are what we definitely need to have.  We need to go this way, not that way.  And he need to take the political heat for some of this, because people—because the Democrats in Congress are getting nervous about—

MATTHEWS:  This is down to seven people, four Republicans, Grassley and Hatch, a couple other people.  It‘s Olympia Snowe. 

BERNARD:  He‘s got to rein in the troops.  You saw in today‘s “Washington Post” they‘ve quoted David Axelrod as saying he‘s taken the baton.  If you think about like that track and field—

MATTHEWS:  You say that‘s wrong. 

BERNARD:  No, no, I think it‘s right, but he‘s risking a lot.  If you think about it during—we‘re almost looking forward to the midterm elections.  And if he loses health care, it‘s almost as if he is risking whatever the legacy of his presidency is going to be.  If he loses health care, and he‘s the person who is the fourth leg of that relay race and he loses, what happens during the midterm elections? 

MATTHEWS:  Let‘s turn the pillow over to the cold side.  Nobody talks about this.  Suppose the Republicans get blamed for killing health care.  Isn‘t there a downside to that? 

ROBINSON:  Yes, there is downside, because every poll shows that people want health care reform, and people want Americans to have health insurance.  This is a tremendous problem for a lot of families. 

Yes, it‘s a problem for Republicans.  I think one thing we should keep in mind for the next several months is that if it does pass at some point, nobody‘s going to remember whether it passes in August or October or November. 

MATTHEWS:  You know you‘ve got one window. 

ROBINSON:  True. 

MATTHEWS:  The first year. 

ROBINSON:  Exactly.  If it doesn‘t get through the first year, it may not get through. 

MATTHEWS:  You think if they pass it in the fall if not now?  Do you think if they slip on this—this is a key question.  If they don‘t get it done, get it to conference committee between the House and the Senate, by August, will they have a chance to get it done by Christmas?

ROBINSON:  Yes, I think they‘ll have a chance but it makes it harder. 

MATTHEWS:  Michelle?

BERNARD:  They have a chance.  But I disagree with Gene on one point. 

If the Republicans—

MATTHEWS:  Did you call him Dream Gene?  

BERNARD:  No.  No, my buddy Gene. 

MATTHEWS:  I‘m going to check the tape. 

BERNARD:  If the Republicans, you know, basically kill a bad bill, I don‘t think they‘re losing anything.  I don‘t think that anyone‘s getting to the heart of the real argument yet.  We keep saying, if they pass it.  What is it?  Are we talking about patients‘ rights?  What is it? 

MATTHEWS:  Do we need to have something you can go to, like a credit union, where if you don‘t get a good deal from a private insurance company, you can get some other option that‘s maybe cheaper and a better deal.  Does the government have to offer something and put something out there as an option? 

ROBINSON: My opinion, yes.  My opinion, to keep the insurance companies honest, but to provide that sort of option for preexisting conditions. 

MATTHEWS:  Gene Robinson, thank you, Pulitzer Prize winning Gene Robinson, Michelle Bernard, both analysts here. Thanks for joining us. 

This is getting close.  This health care thing could die; it could win in the next coming weeks.

When we return, a preview of a new NBC show called “The Wanted” and how a suspected terror leader can live freely in Europe and maybe won‘t be able to do it after this show.  You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Speak to me.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  I‘m moving into the target area.  Let me set up a camera.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Good luck. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Relative leaving the target building. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  On target, they leave the house; they go to work. 

This guy is unemployed and apparently he doesn‘t like to go out very often. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Maintain focus on a target, you‘re trying to make sure that no one is eyeballing your vehicle. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  I have eyes on from the back.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Let‘s go. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  He knows that we are on to him.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Five hundred meters. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  This is Helo one.  Suspect car is crossing.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  I got him right up ahead. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Copy that. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  That was a clip from the ground-breaking television news program “The Wanted,” which premieres tonight on NBC at 10:00.  The new series sends an elite team of investigative journalists in counter-terrorism and unconventional warfare experts on international man hunts for accused terrorists. 

Tonight‘s target is Mullah Krekar, the founder and leader of Ansar al Islam, an organization accused of killing hundreds of Americans.  Documentary film maker Charlie Ebersol is the co-creator and executive producer of “The Wanted.”

Charlie, congratulations.  It looks like your show‘s already getting results.  We hear that Norway may extradite this guy, Mullah Krekar, to Iraq where he might stand trial for terrorism. 

CHARLIE EBERSOL, EXECUTIVE PRODUCER, “THE WANTED”:  Yes, this show has been a catalyst for change in governments in a lot of cases.  We just found out in the last hour and a half, the minister of foreign affairs has announced that after 18 years of being in Norway and evading justice, the Norwegians are now working directly with the Iraqis.  And they‘ve vowed to deport him back to Iraq, where he can face justice for crimes including killing hundreds, if not thousands of Americans and Europeans and targeting American civilians. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, how do you explain that?  You‘ve done the research.  Why would the Norwegian government, which is certainly not a terrorist government, harbor such a fugitive? 

EBERSOL:  To a certain extent, it comes down to justice getting in the way of justice.  They‘re the front runner on human rights, but at a certain point, the human rights almost go too far.  And they‘ve taken into consideration the safety of this one man over the safety of the entire country. 

The government, up to and including the Supreme Court, has said that this guy is a threat to national security and international security.  And yet, they‘ve stood in the way of his deportation because they fear that there is a chance, albeit minute, that the Iraqis will torture or kill him. 

And we were very fortunate, and through a lot of hard work by our team, that we got the Iraqis to go as far as writing a letter and signing a number of affidavits saying that they would not torture him and they would not kill him.  And I think to a certain extent—

MATTHEWS:  Well, we kill people.  We have capital punishment in your country.  Would they not extradite somebody to our country? 

EBERSOL:  No, if bin Laden moved to Oslo, Norway, today, according to Norwegian law, they would not be able to extradite him to the United States to face justice. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask you now, have you looked down the road to the programs you‘re going to envision now on this show called “The Wanted?”  I‘ve heard about this show.  There‘s a lot of excitement about it.  How many people do you have as targets, people living safely or undercover out there who are dangerous people to the world, that you‘d like to catch and put on the show? 

EBERSOL:  The list is in the hundreds.  It‘s scary.  The thing is we‘ve produced six episodes.  We have episodes that take place with individuals in the United States, or doctors and teachers who live in small-town America, and also in Europe, who target American civilians. 

The truth of the matter is they hide in the shadows.  Terrorism and war crimes are crimes that happen in the shadows.  Our thesis of this show is, if you shine a light and put them in prime time, they‘re no longer faceless.  You take away the greatest weapon they have.  Our hope is that it will lead to things like this Mullah Krekar facing justice. 

MATTHEWS:  What‘s your security?  How do you handle that, the tough part of this job?  I‘m serious.  You‘re up against tough customers who don‘t want to be exposed.  You‘re exposing them. 

EBERSOL:  We screened the show on Capitol Hill last Wednesday for about 500 people from the Department of Justice, State, Homeland, CIA.  After the screening, they were offering us targets.  They were saying, look, this is important.  You‘ve got the—But one guy, the head of an intel group, who I will remain unnamed, pull me aside and said, what‘s your security detail? 

I said, well, we do certain things.  He said, they‘re going to come after you and they‘re going to kill you.  You need to be aware of this.  The truth is, we spend a lot of time not only looking at our targets and who we‘re looking at, but what is it we‘re doing to protect ourselves. 

MATTHEWS:  On that note, protect yourself, buddy.  Thank you, Charlie Ebersol.  “The Wanted,” the name of the program.  It‘s groundbreaking, airs tonight at 10:00 on NBC. 

Right now, it‘s time for “THE ED SHOW” with Ed Schultz. 

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

END   

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