updated 1/27/2011 2:04:25 PM ET 2011-01-27T19:04:25

Guests: Frank Rich, Jeff Merkley

RACHEL MADDOW, HOST:  Hey, Lawrence.  Thank you.

And thanks to you at home for staying with us.

For the next hour, we begin with the president of the United States addressing the nation and calling for a massive investment in this country‘s infrastructure, rebuffing the idea of giant tax breaks for the richest Americans, and warning anyone who would dare touch Social Security to keep their hands off.

You want to talk about red meat for the base?  Listen to some of the language the president used.  “Workers have a right to organize into unions and to bargain collectively with their employers.  And a strong, free labor movement is an invigorating and necessary part of our industrial society.”  Wow.

How about this one?  “Only a fool would try to deprive working men and women of their right to join the union of their choice.”

Listen to the way he goes after the right here.  “Should any political party attempt to abolish Social Security, unemployment insurance, and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again in our political history.  There is a tiny splinter group, of course, that believes you can do these things, but their number is negligible and”—and the president says—“their number is negligible and they are stupid.”

That is not what Barack Obama said last night.  That is way to the left of any national Democrat at this point.  That was all Republican President Dwight David Eisenhower.  That was all the stuff he said when he was president.

Republican President Dwight Eisenhower, president when the top tax bracket for the richest people in this country was 92 percent.  President Eisenhower defended that tax bracket.  He said we cannot afford to reduce taxes until, quote, “the factors of income and outgo will be balanced.”  Eisenhower insisting there must be a balanced budget and that taxes on the rich are the way to balance it.  Dwight Eisenhower, you know, noted leftist.

The Republican Party platform of Eisenhower‘s 1956 called for expansion of Social Security, broadened unemployment insurance, better health protection for all of our people.  It called for voting rights—full voting civil rights for D.C.  It called for expanding the minimum wage to cover more workers.  It called for improved job safety for workers, equal pay for workers regardless of sex.

This is the Republican Party circa 1956.  The Republican Party.

The story of modern American politics writ large is the story of your father‘s and your grandfather‘s Republican Party now being way to the left of today‘s leftiest liberals.  If Dwight Eisenhower were running for office today, he would have to run, I‘m guessing as an independent, and not as some Joe Lieberman, in between the parties, independent.  He‘d be a Bernie Sanders independent.

In 1982, who passed the largest peacetime tax increase in U.S.  history?  That would be Ronald Reagan.

Who called for comprehensive health reform legislation during in a State of the Union address in 1974, a program that was well to the left of what either Bill Clinton or Barack Obama ultimately proposed?  That would be Richard Nixon.

Eisenhower and Reagan and Nixon—they were not the liberals of their day.  They were the conservatives of their own time.

But the whole of American politics has shifted so far to the right in the last 50 years that what used to be thought of as conservative, what used to be thought of as a conservative position, is now considered to be off-the-charts lefty.

Former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens pointed out this whole phenomenon of American politics shifting to the right when he told “The New York times” this—he said, quote, “Including myself, every judge who‘s been appointed to the court since Lewis Powell in 1971 has been more conservative than his or her predecessor, except maybe Justice Ginsburg.”  That was the one exception he could come up with.

Over the past half a century, the center in American politics has gone further and further and further to the right.  Halfway through Barack Obama‘s first term, his State of the Union address last night is being pretty universally hailed as centrist, as not too liberal, not too conservative, but right down the middle of American politics.

And that is something that Americans like to hear.  The instant reaction polls to President Obama‘s speech last night were almost comically positive.  CBS reported that 92 percent of the people who watched the speech approved of Mr. Obama‘s proposals, 92; CNN reporting that 84 percent of people had a positive response.

Those sorts of numbers do not happen in politics.  Those are crazy numbers.

Historically, the process of a Democrat trying to find the center in politics has seen Democrats chasing the center as it moves to the right.  The thing that‘s different about the left and the right in this country is that there isn‘t an equal and opposite force on the left that‘s anything like the conservative movement on the right.  The conservative movement exists outside the Republican Party, and it serves to constantly pull the Republican Party further to the right.

So, when you have a president like Bill Clinton who found popular centrist decisions by splitting the difference between where the Republicans were and where the Republican—where the Democrats were and where the Republicans were, and the Republicans kept moving further to the right because they‘re being pulled there by the conservative movement, when you have a president who triangulates like that, what you end up with is a president who as a Democrat moves the country further to the right, because he shifts to the right every time he takes another centrist position.

Is President Obama doing the same thing?

The dynamics on the right are the same as they‘ve ever been.  The right word drift of Republican politics from Eisenhower to Nixon to Ford to Reagan to Bush, Sr. to Bush, Jr., it‘s less of a steady drift now than a fast rightward jerking motion.  The rightward movement in Republican politics is going faster, I think, than it ever has before.

For example, George W. Bush, he ran for president on a platform of comprehensive immigration reform.  He ran for president saying that he has supported the assault weapons ban.  But by the time he was president, supporting the assault weapons ban was no longer all that tenable, so he let that ban expire.  He did try for immigration reform, and then he abandoned it.

Then his entire party ran against him on it by the time they needed a new presidential nominee.  It was a quick turnaround.

You know, it was only 2008 when John McCain and Sarah Palin ran for office by saying they supported a cap-and-trade energy program.  Remember that?  Cap-and-trade used to be their idea, used to be a Republican idea.

The individual mandate for health reform—that used to be a Republican idea.

The DREAM Act on immigration—that was sponsored by John McCain once upon a time.  But by the time Democrats brought it up for a vote, John McCain had turned against his own idea.  Why?  Because Republican politics are jerking so fast to the right that Republicans are being forced to turn against their own policy positions when the new right wing position dictates it.  They can‘t even keep up within their own careers.

On the right, the process that has dragged the political center to the point where Dwight Eisenhower would be denounced as a socialist now, Ronald Reagan wouldn‘t even pass a Republican purity test, he‘d be the guy they excluded from the debates for being a wingnut, that process is still very much in tact.  On the right, things are working sort of the way they always have, if not faster.

But heading into last night‘s State of the Union address, the question was: would President Obama continue to change Republicans to the right?  There are two ways to approach this, right?  There are two ways to claim the 92 percent instant approval rating of sounding like the man in the center.

One way is the Clintonian way—to let your policies just drift right because the Republicans drifted right, too.

But there‘s another way.  A way we heard about last night.  It is to claim the center, to claim the political spoils you get for sounding like you‘re in the center, that 92 percent CBS rating, right, but to put the center back vaguely somewhere where center actually is.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  None of this will be easy.  All of it will take time.  And it will be harder because we will argue about everything—the costs, the details, the letter of every law.

Of course, some countries don‘t have this problem.  If the central government wants a railroad, they build a railroad, no matter how many homes get bulldozed.  If they don‘t want a bad story in the newspaper, it doesn‘t get written.

And yet, as contentious and frustrating and messy as our democracy can sometimes be, I know there isn‘t a person here who would trade places with any other nation on Earth.

(APPLAUSE)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MADDOW:  The president further erasing the relevance of that aisle in the room by bringing everybody in the chamber to their feet.  There were a few, but only a few moments in that speech last night when only Democrats or only Republicans came to their feet.

But when President Obama made specific policy proposals, he did not move the center further to the right.  He rang the centrist bell and he racked up more approval points, I‘m sure, for example, when he said that he would cut the corporate tax rate, because that sounds like a very conservative idea.  It‘s the sort of thing that Republicans proposed.

But in terms of its real impact, two-thirds of U.S. corporations paid no federal income taxes according to a recent government study.  The General Electric Corporation, god bless them, they own us for now, they paid no federal income taxes in 2009.  So, giving a company like that a corporate tax cut means nothing.

Do you want to know what would make a huge difference?  This would.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA:  Over the years, a parade of lobbyists has rigged the tax code to benefit particular companies and industries.  Those with accountants or lawyers to work the system can end up paying no taxes at all.  But all the rest are hit with one of the highest corporate tax rates in the world.  It makes no sense.  And it has to change.

(APPLAUSE)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MADDOW:  In terms of real policy, in terms of real governing, not just tone, but actual substance, if corporate tax loopholes closed so companies actually have to pay more taxes than you do next year, that would be change a lot of people can believe in.  That would be a bigger deal than what happens to the corporate tax rate, since a lot of companies avoid being taxed at all anyway.

President Obama rang the centrist bell again last night when he talked about debts and deficit, the need to control spending.  It‘s, of course, wildly popular to talk about that in the abstract, it always has been.

But it is wildly unpopular when you get to the specifics.  Even now, with everybody talking about how much they love the idea of spending cuts, look at how unpopular it is to propose cutting any of these things.  Gallup reporting 67 percent of people opposed to cuts in education; 64 percent of Americans opposed to cuts in Social Security; 61 percent opposed to cuts in Medicare.

The way that President Obama held the center in the center and didn‘t let the right drag this one over too was by making the case for investment.  There is stuff, he said, that the government ought to spend money on.

We ought to spend money on education.  We ought to spend money on upgrading our technology.  We have to spend on science.  Not because we‘ve got money to waste, but because our economy will never grow if we don‘t do that.

That is a fundamental rejection of the way conservatives talk about government now.  It‘s a fundamental rejection of the way conservatives talk about how the country should work.  And President Obama had the country nodding along with him last night as he said it.  Look at that, 92 percent.  Wrenching the center back from the right and putting it back in the actual center.

Once you‘ve got everybody agreeing to that sort of a general principle, you can then make proposals that are actually liberal and it won‘t upset anyone.  And I don‘t—I don‘t just mean like sort of vaguely liberal-sounding proposals, I mean like Eisenhower liberal.  Like the president‘s case last night for national investment to have a high-speed broadband access all across the country, to have 98 percent of the country connected to broadband within the next five years.

Bill Clinton would not have proposed that as a centrist idea.  This is an Eisenhower leftist idea.  This is an interstate highway idea.  The idea that government needs to make this happen, because even if no individual business is going to find this to be a profitable thing to do, the country needs this to happen so we can compete as a nation.

If you want to know where the sweet spot is in American politics, where you can get mom and apple pie-style approval ratings, there‘s two ways to do it.  One, if the country feels like we are threatened by somebody else.  That will bring us together like nothing else.

The other way, is to sound like you are the reasonable center.  That you have risen above the fray and you are the one who makes sense between the extremes.  That is how Bill Clinton came back after his own shellacking in the 1994 midterms, and then he coasted to re-election in 1996.

When he sprinted to the center, though, he sprinted to where Republicans and the conservatives had put the center.  He moved his whole policy agenda to the right and thereby let the Republicans and the conservatives go even further right in order to keep the tension on, in order to keep pulling things to the conservative side.

What we learned last night about this president and how he is doing it differently is that he is very happy to reap the political rewards that come with positioning yourself in the center.  But he‘s also putting the center back where he wants it.  He‘s sort of stopping the country‘s rightward drift.

It turns out elections do have consequences.

We will be right back with “New York Times” columnist Frank Rich.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MADDOW:  Frank Rich of “The New York Times” joins us next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA:  We may have differences in policy, but we all believe in the rights enshrined in our Constitution.  We may have different opinions, but we believe in the same promise that says this is a place where you can make it if you try.  We may have different backgrounds, but we believe in the same dream that says this is a country where anything is possible—no matter who you are, no matter where you come from.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MADDOW:  “No matter where you come from.”

See, if this had been State of the Union last year, that‘s where somebody three rows behind Eric Cantor would have yelled out, “Kenya!  Kenya!”

But this was the “no yelling at the president” year at the State of the Union.  No yelling at the president by Republicans and no mention by the president of Republicans at all, except to compliment them a couple of times.

As centrism joins civility as the new most popular word inside the Beltway, does this mean that the presidency of Barack Obama is drifting to the right?

Joining us now for “The Interview” tonight is “New York Times” columnist, Frank Rich.

Mr. Rich, it is always nice to have you here.  Thank you for coming in.

FRANK RICH, NEW YORK TIMES:  Great to see you.

MADDOW:  The State of the Union is being lauded as a statement of centrism.  I think that‘s fair.  And I also think that President Obama‘s version of the center is turning out to be a much more Democratic place than where Bill Clinton found the center, big “D” Democratic.  What do you think about that?

RICH:  I agree with you.  I wish I could debate it with you, but I

think—he‘s always been a centrist, but a little bit to the left of the

triangulated Clinton.  And he held firm on that last night.  And the

problem of the Republicans is they‘ve moved so far to the right.  You know,

your Eisenhower analogy, we forget that the John Birch Society, which still

exists and is supporting the Tea Party, called Eisenhower a communist dupe

--

      

MADDOW:  Right.

RICH:  -- back when he was in the White House.  So—

MADDOW:  You know, you look at the Republican responses last night, and the thing that surprised me the most, I‘m not too much of a tone person, I tend to be the person who reads the transcripts rather than watches the tape, but the Republican responses were really dark, almost apocalyptic, I thought about, you know, America being a failure, nothing working now, nothing‘s going to work, we‘re reaching this point of no return.

Does that reflect a decision by Republicans to just sort of try to goose their base and not try to go for a broader audience?  What did you make of that?

RICH:  It certainly doesn‘t go for a broad audience.  What‘s really odd about it is they‘ve ceded Reagan optimism to Obama.

MADDOW:  Yes.

RICH:  So, last night, he could talk about corporate profits hitting new records.  He could talk, perhaps excessively about the beginnings of a recovery, but in a slightly over-optimistic way.  And meanwhile, it‘s the apocalypse at hand and everything‘s gone to hell, and, you know, we‘re going to be Greece before we know it, and not the musical, the country.

MADDOW:  Right.  Because if we were “Grease” the musical, I would become a Republican.

(LAUGHTER)

MADDOW:  I would sign up.

RICH:  I‘m with you on that.

MADDOW:  When the president made the case for investment, right, he didn‘t just say—he made the case about cutting spending, we need to take deficits and debt seriously.  And that‘s fine.

But then he made what amounted to half the speech-long pitch for the government actually spending some money and doing stuff, for the role of government in investing in the economic health of the country, and investing—as the Republicans are correctly pointing out—does mean spending in a lot of cases.

Was that sort of a core principles case for what Democrats think government is good for?

RICH:  Yes, he really pulled it off.  I think it was—finally, he was making this narrative about the government, or finally for recent times, whereas the other party was just saying, let‘s cut, let‘s do nothing.

I mean, Paul Ryan‘s speech basically said, except for national defense, and apparently, preventing abortion, there was no point to a federal government.  You know, he even said that the safety net could turn into a hammock for the lazy and indolent Americans who don‘t deserve it.  So, it was the most stripped down, pared down bunker version of government versus a—you know, a centrist version of essentially Democratic governance, that was not the era of big government is over or anything like that.

MADDOW:  I was—the hammock line was sort of an eye opener.  I think that‘s the thing that people are going to take away from this Republican response, if they take away anything.  And that‘s a really specific attitude, that we‘ve seen from some parts of the Republican Party.  We saw it when they not only were saying no to unemployment benefits, but we saw some Republicans float the idea of drug testing people if they want to get unemployment benefits.

We saw one Republican member of Congress saying that unemployment insurance was turning us into a nation of hobos.  Sharron Angle talking about how it was taking away, essentially, our competitive spirit.

The sort of “kick the unemployed” thing, how does that work?  Why—they keep doing it, so I think they think it works.

RICH:  They must think it‘s a throwback to sort of the Reagan era‘s welfare queen rhetoric.

MADDOW:  Yes.

RICH:  But it doesn‘t work now, because, first of all, that welfare world is over, because it was ended under Clinton.  And now they‘re referring to, what, 16 percent of Americans, when all said and done, who are really unemployed, and including those who have stopped looking for work.  So, they‘re really hitting people‘s, you know, cousins and uncles and brothers and sister across the board demographically, you know, white and black, every conceivable walk of life.  So, I think it‘s stupid.

MADDOW:  Well, one of the—one of the—I think there‘s a divide, in political science.  And some people think that—in political science think that politics matter.  And some people think that really politics is sort of a show that we put on, like a circus for the entertainment of the population.  Sort of a way we get our yayas out about the culture war.

But, really, the thing that determines the elections is the unemployment rate.  The number of people that are unemployed determines whether or not the party in power stays in power.  Do you—what do you think on that?

RICH:  I tend to feel that‘s the case.  But if you have politics that are really nutty and a party that moves as for to the right as Republicans, it could, you know, vary that equation.  But the economy is going to always be the most determinative factor.

But, you know, when you have people like Michele Bachmann walking around and giving these, you know, crazy remarks, the politics can have a factor—be a factor, too.

MADDOW:  So, the lame-duck session was good for the president in terms of his approval ratings.  It made not just the base happy, but the rest of the country sort of much—pretty happy with him, too.  I think the State of the Union was, at least in the short-term, well-received, and the dueling Republican responses were—I think, in the long run, are not going to help them out.

I, sort of, feel like the Democrats are on a roll.  If the

Republicans are going to come back again this year, how are they going to do it?  What are they going to do that‘s going to turn this—turn their fortunes around?

RICH:  I don‘t want see any idea out there that is moderate or that people could rally around.  It‘s all about just balancing the budget and repealing Obamacare.  If you look at any poll, health care isn‘t even a top priority, or health—you know, dealing with the health care bill or rescinding it or whatever doesn‘t even really register.

MADDOW:  People see it as a done deal.

RICH:  Yes.

MADDOW:  Yes.

RICH:  And so—and furthermore, you have the other problems of the Republican Party, those who are running for the presidency, seriously are not, are almost all to the right of even the Republican leadership in Congress.

MADDOW:  Right.

RICH:  So they‘re going to have a lot of internal fighting as they‘re pulled further and further away from centrism, if you will.

MADDOW:  I wonder, one of the things that will be interesting to watch is whether the Republican powers that be try to keep the Republican jockeying for the nomination, try to keep it kind of quiet and inside the party for a while because they think those politics aren‘t going to play with independents.

RICH:  I think they‘re trying, but unfortunately, everyone has a contract with FOX.

(LAUGHTER)

MADDOW:  Yes.  That‘s right.  It all happens out loud.

RICH:  Yes.

MADDOW:  That‘s the big problem.

Frank Rich, “New York Times” columnist and someone I really enjoy talking to—thanks for being here, Frank.

RICH:  Nice talking to you.

MADDOW:  Do you remember when on this show we tried to rename an obscure Senate procedure after a really successful Uma Thurman movie?  That worked out really poorly for us.  That‘s coming up next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MADDOW:  It‘s back!  “Debunktion Junction,” what‘s my function?

All right.  First stop: when in the course of previewing last night‘s State of the Union address, senior White House aides talked about the five pillars of the president‘s plan to win the future.  One of our producers, who I shall not name, but whose initials are Laura Conaway, one of our producers predicted there would be conspiracy theories on the right, that if the president‘s speech somehow referred to five pillars of anything, it would be related by the right to secret code words—meaning the five pillars of Islam.

So, true or false, did our producer‘s prediction come true?

It did!  Cue the spectacular and preposterous outrage of Glenn Beck and his inexplicable bunny.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GLENN BECK, HOST, “THE GLENN BECK SHOW”:  You‘ll never guess how many pillars the president is going to focus on tonight.  Yes.  Yes.  Five.  Five.  The five pillars.  You see, I mean, you‘re upsetting the bunny, really.  Has anybody ever heard the five pillars of Islam? 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

RACHEL MADDOW, HOST:  Do you mind if we just leave the bunny out of this for a second?  I feel like the bunny only complicates things and it makes me feel bad, but I don‘t know why. 

But, yes, Glenn Beck - and the bunny - did pounce on the five pillars connection, as did this conservative blog, which labeled the State of the Union a, quote, “subliminal bow to Mecca.” 

Never mind that the president never actually used the word “pillar” in his speech last night.  It‘s possible that only Islam-detecting bunnies could hear it.  Sharia bunnies. 

Next up, during last week‘s White House state dinner for Chinese President Hu Jintao, Chinese President(sic) Lang Lang played a beautiful melody that was actually a coded message of hatred for America. 

True or false, was Lang Lang actually using 88 keys to flip off the United States?  Oh, false, according to Lang Lang and the White House.  The song he played, “My Motherland,” was written for a 1956 Chinese movie about the Korean War. 

Apparently, some of the lyrics were not kind to America, making the song selection of interest to both American conservatives eager to expose a diplomatic kerfuffle and to Chinese nationals back home who thought it was great joke. 

Now, Lang Lang says while he was very familiar with the tune, because it‘s a really popular song, he had no idea what the lyrics were. 

The White House response?  A spokesman told ABC News that any suggestion that the song was intended as a coded insult is, quote, “just flat wrong.”  But a lot of people have time on their hands. 

Finally, our last true or false comes courtesy of Congresswoman Michele Bachmann‘s own personal CNN-endorsed response to the State of the Union last night. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. MICHELE BACHMANN (R-MN):  Instead of a leaner, smarter government, we bought a bureaucracy that now tells us which light bulbs to buy and which may put 16,500 IRS agents in charge of policing President Obama‘s health care bill. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MADDOW:  Will, as Congresswoman Bachmann claims - sorry, I can‘t do it anymore.  Will, as Congresswoman Bachmann claims - will the IRS be dispatching more than 16,000 agents to enforce compliance with health reform? 

No, it will not.  The health reform law requires the IRS mostly to hand out tax credits, not to collect penalties.  And that figure cited by Ms. Bachmann of 16,500 new IRS agents - that is, in and of itself, a complete creation. 

That is a bull-pucky number manufactured by the right that has been repeated in heavy rotation over the past year and just about as often thoroughly debunked.  But that does not stop them from saying it over and over and over again. 

Last night, Congresswoman Bachmann became only the most recent Republican to say the made up 16,500 IRS agents numbers.  She probably will not be the last, but it will still never be true. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JEFF MERKLEY (D-OR):  We‘ve left over 400 House bills lying on the floor, collecting dust, unprocessed, unconsidered.  Indeed, the same in the U.S. House of Representatives as the U.S. Senate is where good House bills go to die. 

A supermajority is required to approve treaties or a supermajority that is required to impeach, but not to pass legislation.  That wasn‘t the vision.  So today, I rise to say, we can do better in the U.S. Senate and that we owe it under our Constitutional responsibilities to do better. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MADDOW:  In 1975, they changed the rules in the Senate, so if somebody wanted to filibuster something, it wouldn‘t take 67 votes to shut that guy up anymore.  It would take just 60 votes. 

A year before that, they changed the rules to carve out a sort of get-out-of-jail free card for certain things, so that bills that only dealt with the budget could be exempt from the filibuster altogether. 

They haven‘t changed the rules again in the intervening 35-plus years.  And in the intervening 35-plus years, I don‘t know if you‘ve heard, but the filibuster has kind of blown up. 

In 1975, the last time the Senate was so freaked out about it they were moved to fix the filibuster, the 93rd Congress had just posted a then-record 31 of them.  And that is downright quaint by today‘s standards. 

Look at that.  Part of the problem with the filibuster is that it‘s sort of impossible to talk about.  Here at this show, remember when we tried to create a brand-new cartoon caricature to explain the problem of the filibuster, in order to make it easier to talk about and then maybe hopefully some day easier to solve.  Remember when we did that? 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

(on camera)  Can we get - can we do that?  Can you guys give me a drum roll?  The winner is, the Tarantino.  The Tarantino, because it kills bills.  So here‘s how it works in a sentence, right, like, “Extending unemployment earned a majority of yes votes, but it failed to pass anyway because of the Tarantino.” 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

Awesome idea, right?  Did not catch on.  That was February of last year.  I‘ve since thrown away that blazer.  And since then the filibuster just filibustered away, all the way through 2010, just like it‘s been doing since 1975. 

And the senators who have been in the Senate for a while have become the proverbial frogs in the pot of boiling water about this.  As the very nature of the filibuster has changed slowly over time, they mostly don‘t seem to have noticed much or cared very much. 

For the most part, the old guard has been willing to just let the Senate become the place where legislation goes to die.  But a crop of newer, younger senators, and also Tom Harkin, have turned out to be not so tolerant of what filibuster has become. 

They want - for the first time since 1975, they want for the problem presented by the filibuster, the problem of nothing getting done in the Senate, to be fixed.  And over the course of the last year, they‘ve proposed lots of different ways of approaching it. 

If somebody wants to filibuster, make them actually show up and talk.  Make them do what we all think of as a filibuster.  Or make the number of votes needed to stop the filibuster decrease over time as the filibuster goes on for days and days and days. 

Or stop allowing filibusters on everything.  Stop allowing them, for example, on procedural votes or votes on whether or not to debate something.  Or any of those changes, any changes to this rule structure possible. 

New senators proposed a menu of different reforms.  Can any of them be done?  The first day that the U.S. Senate is in session is when the Senate can change its rules, when conceivably, they can change them at other times too, but really, day one is when it happens. 

And even though Senate days are like football minutes and that first day was really long, that first day is now officially over, and none of those changes has happened yet.  So what does that mean for fixing this problem?  Is it ever going to happen? 

Joining us now is Democratic Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon, one of the primary champions of filibuster reform.  Senator Merkley, it‘s really nice to have you back on the show.  Thank you for being here. 

MERKLEY:  Oh, you‘re welcome.  It‘s great to be with you. 

MADDOW:  Both you and Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico, who you‘ve worked with on this, made appearances on this show recently.  And the last we heard, the plan was to bring up filibuster reform on the first day of the new Congress, when you‘d be able to fix it with a simple majority vote.  What happened to that plan? 

MERKLEY:  Well, that was the plan.  It was based on how the Senate had operated historically, where all sides agree to put the resolution on the floor and debate it. 

And then, down the line, after it‘s been debated a certain period of time, someone would move to close debate.  And at that point, you would have constitutional option, and that is simply that if 51 affirm the ability to close debate, you could get to a final vote. 

It might take a lot of maneuvering along the way, but the Republicans found a way to filibuster the filibuster.  They found a way to say, “Hey, we are not going to go along with the way things always have been done, and you‘re going to have to go through this complicated protocol that involves mourning hour, something that‘s never been done.  And if you try it, we‘ll talk it to death, because you‘re way down at the end of the agenda.”

And it turns out there‘s no real way to get something on to the floor once you strip away the collaboration, the belief that we should debate in the U.S. Senate.  Once you strip that away, the rules never took into account that the Senate would go that far.  So we ran into an obstacle we didn‘t anticipate. 

MADDOW:  Well, you know, when people talked about the likelihood of this reform actually happening, nobody ever debated the popularity of reforming the filibuster. 

All Democratic senators serving in this current Congress signed on to a letter saying it should be changed.  In some way, it should be improved.  Nobody debated the merits. 

What was debated was whether or not it could get adequate support and whether or not the rules are so fungible that they could ever be tacked down enough to be changed.  But you think that this was ultimately defeated by the rules just being used against you, not by a lack of support. 

MERKLEY:  Well, certainly, we never got to that point where people had to show all their cards about using 51 under the constitutional option. 

And there was some concern about us exercising that door, and thereby giving the Republicans additional encouragement to use that pathway two years from now or four years from now. 

My argument had always been, look, if we responsibly report on the rules to help deliberation for the minority and majority, that‘s our best protection against abuse in the future. 

But whether - we never knew how many votes we would have, because we never got to that point.  On the substance issue, you say, I think we had very strong support.  On the constitutional pathway, we wouldn‘t have known until we got there. 

MADDOW:  What are you going to do next?  I know you‘re committed to these reforms because you‘re committed to the Senate as an institution.  I know that you think this would not be something that would lend partisan advantage to either side. 

But you think this would be the right thing for the legislative branch.  I know we‘ve talked about this before.  How are you going to keep pursuing this? 

MERKLEY:  Well, first, we went to the floor and Tom Harkin and Tom Udall and I made the case.  You showed some footage of that.  We said, “Listen, the Senate is broken.  So let‘s work together to fix it.” 

And we get unanimous consent, amendments to try to get things on to the floor, to get past that logjam that I was referring to that the Republicans that put in place. 

Well, at least, Republicans are now on record that they‘ve turned that down.  Then, tomorrow, we will have a debate on several rule changes.  We will have votes. 

And unfortunately, it‘s under these very high totals that make it virtually impossible to make change happen.  But I see this as a path on a very long battle.  We always knew in a single cycle, you weren‘t going to make the Senate over completely to a functioning institution of deliberation.

But having had these debates for 35 years, having the debate, having people have to cast a vote, having voters give feedback, it is - it‘s a step forward but it‘s going to be a longer journey than we hoped. 

MADDOW:  Well, I will happily rescind the name the Tarantino, which did not help in your efforts, and try to come up with a new one when you get back out there.  Democratic Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon, thank you for your time today, sir.  Good luck with this. 

MERKLEY:  Thank you so much.  Take care. 

MADDOW:  So not all TV appearances by Congresswoman Michele Bachmann of Minnesota are created equal.  Not all entities that call themselves tea party are the same either. 

And a few nights on the American political calendar are different from all of the others.  State of the Union night is one of the ones that‘s different. 

Put all that together and you get to the weird story of Congresswoman Bachmann being given equal footing on State of the Union night as President Obama and Congressman Paul Ryan giving the official Republican response to President Obama last night. 

A detailed explanation of that weird eventuality, coming up.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) 

MADDOW:  There is a grand piano on a sand bar in the middle of Biscayne Bay in Miami.  Here it is.  Footage from WSVN in South Florida.  It is a piano.  It is in the middle of a bay, on a sand bar. 

The piano looks like it‘s maybe been burned, but there it is, standing upright.  It apparently does not play very well.  Authorities say they had no idea how it got there.

But late today, an independent film-making couple told the “Miami New Times” that they‘re the ones responsible.  And no, we still don‘t understand why there is a piano on is a sand bar in Biscayne Bay. 

Local authorities say they have no plans to move the piano, so it‘s staying.  The grand piano in Biscayne Bay - and now you know, in case you needed to. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Paul Ryan will give the Republican response to the president‘s address.  He is expected to say no to many of the president‘s new spending requests. 

Then, you will also see the tea party response - you mentioned this, Barn(ph) - delivered by another House Republican, Michele Bachmann.  Her remarks will also be carried on CNN, which sort of gives her equal billing. 

WOLF BLITZER, ANCHOR, “THE SITUATION ROOM”:  We‘ll carry all of that live here on CNN.  I don‘t know about the other networks, but we‘ll let all of those speeches breathe. 

What do you think about the decision by the tea party to go ahead and have their own response? 

BILL MAHER, HOST, “REAL TIME WITH BILL MAHER”:  Well, I understand why they would.  Who wouldn‘t want to?  I don‘t understand the decision by CNN to air it.  Why are you giving two - why are you giving air time to basically two Republican responses? 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  The fact of the matter is, Michele Bachmann is a Republican.  There is no tea party in the sense of the Republican Party. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  There could be one of these days. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Yes.  But at the moment, this is not -

(CROSS TALK)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  They don‘t (UNINTELLIGIBLE). 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  But the fact of the matter is, this is another Republican response. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  But I just want to remind our viewers the only place they‘ll see on television that speech live, Michele Bachmann‘s tea party speech, will be right here on CNN. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Let‘s also be honest.  Look, we‘re the only one broadcasting her speech, so therefore, validating that response. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  How must Republicans feel about the fact that she is even doing this. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  I think most Republicans actually are upset that she‘s doing it.  And I think they‘re upset with those of us I guess now just seeing and covering this, for even giving it attention. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  All right.  Hold on a second here.  Let‘s listen to the Congresswoman. 

BLITZER:  We‘re awaiting Michele Bachmann to deliver the tea party movement‘s official response to the president‘s State of the Union address. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MADDOW:  The tea party movement‘s official response to the president‘s State of the Union?  The tea party‘s official response?  Official?  According to whom? 

This is Sal Russo.  He‘s a Republican political consultant based in California.  He runs a well-connected, rather high-end Republican political consulting firm called Russo Marsh and Rogers. 

Remember that thing moving America forward where really right-wing radio hosts toured the country to talk about how great the Iraq War was going, how the lame-stream media wouldn‘t tell you the good news about how safe and free Iraq was now, thanks for the war? 

That was also a Sal Russo gig.  He also perhaps coincidentally took a consulting contract with the Kurdish government in northern Iraq to spin for their interests in the United States. 

That was moving America forward, a Republican political consulting gig made to look like a movement.  It was a vehicle that this for-profit political consultant used to drum up favorable news coverage. 

In 2008, Sal Russo decided to start using a literal vehicle to do the same thing.  He got a bus that he took on a “Stop Obama” bus tour.  It did tours through key campaign states.  Not that different from the right-wing radio “Iraq is all right” tours. 

It sort of looked like a movement, right?  When the tea party movement started to gel into something that might be seen as an actual movement, in 2009, Sal Russo renamed his bus tour the Tea Party Express. 

Just a bus tour, except it had the name of this new bigger thing called the tea party.  But then, trouble in paradise. 

Dave Weigel, who worked for “The Washington Independent” at that time - he did some reporting on how the actual grassroots tea partiers were sort of off-put by this bus tour being run out of a Republican political consultant‘s office when the movement was trying to look all nonpartisan, post-partisan and outsider-y. 

Those problems got worse for old Sal Russo when, in 2009 and 2010, “Talking Points Memo” did some damning fine-toothed combing of Mr. Russo‘s financial filings.  The Sal Russo bus tour express thing was turning into a great way to monetize the whole idea of the tea party movement. 

They were getting a bunch of publicity, which is Sal Russo was really best at as a political consultant.  And they were turning that publicity into cash, into a lot of donations, donations from people who thought they were donating to the tea party movement. 

What they were really giving their money to mostly was old Sal Russo.  “TPM” finding in the FEC filings that even though political action committees are expected to fund political campaigns and candidates, the one that Tea Party Express was part of for a long time, mostly just funded - Russo and Marsh. 

Russo and Marsh - this Republican consulting firm that set this group up in the first place.  And a lot of the money that didn‘t go directly to Russo Marsh went to other for-profit firms affiliated with Sal Russo. 

The tea party movement is a real thing.  A lot of Americans identify with the tea party‘s message or messages, or just their image about being dissatisfied with politics as usual and being conservative. 

Whether you love or loathe the tea party, whether you admire them or you laugh at them, the tea party is a real thing.  But the Tea Party Express?  Sort of a scam.  It has been ever since a Republican political consulting firm set them up and used them essentially as a funding stream for that firm, even as the rest of the movement tried to keep its distance from old-school Republican insider operatives like Sal Russo. 

Despite its rather sleazy origins, Tea Party Express did ultimately become a financial success in large part because of Mr. Russo‘s patented and highly-monetized ability to generate press coverage for the firm‘s projects that look like grassroots movements. 

Check this out, for instance.  This is from a few weeks on CNN‘s Web site.  It shows the merging, the unsafe, at highway-speed merging of the CNN express bus with the Tea Party Express bus.  It shows the two buses coming together.  Having two separate buses is actually a step back for CNN. 

Last spring, the network bragged it was doing an embed - an embed of a reporter and a production team onboard the Tea Party Express bus, as if the Tea Party Express was an army. 

Actually, what the Tea Party Express is, is a political action committee.  It‘s run out of a Republican consultancy.  And it‘s not the tea party movement.  It is a fundraising gig. 

And after a long time of doing very well for Sal Russo and his firm, the group started funding candidates in last year‘s elections.  It is a political action committee.  It raises money and funds candidates. 

After the Tucson shootings even, Tea Party Express sent out an E-mail trying to raise money for itself by calling the alleged shooter in the case a liberal. 

I don‘t know why.  I don‘t pretend to know why, but last year the news network, CNN, decided they wanted to not just cover the Tea Party Express as a political operation.  They wanted to partner as a news organization with the Tea Party Express. 

The network announced in December they would jointly sponsor a presidential debate with Mr. Russo‘s group.  Then, last night, CNN took a remarkable further step.  As part of their coverage of the president‘s State of the Union address, CNN anointed a Tea Party Express Web cast as the nation‘s official tea party response to the State of the Union. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER:  We‘re awaiting Michele Bachmann to deliver the tea party movement‘s official response to the president‘s State of the Union address. 

Stand by -

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MADDOW:  CNN not only anointed their partner in this upcoming debate to be the official leadership of the tea party movement.  They elevated what they deemed the official tea party response to the State of the Union to be the political equivalent, political equal to the Republican Party. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER:  Stay with CNN for complete live coverage, including the response of Republican Congressman Paul Ryan.  And the other response from Congresswoman - Republican Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, representing the tea party movement. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MADDOW:  The other response.  Whenever there is a generic news event in this country, something that causes a lot of people who don‘t usually watch the news to turn on the news, CNN gets a lot of viewers.  Hey, what‘s going on?  Turn on CNN. 

But for their coverage of the State of the Union address this year, CNN did not present the news.  They presented an alternate reality of their own making, one in which their debate partner officially speaks for the tea party and the tea party is a co-equal third party of equal stature to the Democrats and the Republicans. 

And CNN has a competitive and potentially financial interest in selling you that alternate reality as if it is news.  It‘s too bad.  It‘s too bad. 

Now, it‘s time for “THE ED SHOW.”  Good evening, Ed. 

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

END   

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