'The Rachel Maddow Show' for Thursday, February 17th, 2011
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Guests: Ed Schultz, Richard Engel, Jon Erpenbach
RACHEL MADDOW, HOST: Good evening, Lawrence. Thanks very much for that.
And thanks to you at home for staying with us for the next hour.
I‘m here to report that there is nothing wrong in the state of Wisconsin. Wisconsin is fine. Wisconsin is great, actually. Despite what you may have heard about Wisconsin‘s finances, Wisconsin is on track to have a budget surplus this year.
I am not kidding. I‘m quoting their own version of the Congressional Budget Office, the state‘s own nonpartisan “assess the state‘s finances” agency. That agency said the month that the new Republican governor of Wisconsin was sworn in, last month, that the state was on track to have a $120 million budget surplus this year.
So, then why exactly does Wisconsin look like this right now?
(VIDEO CLIP PLAYS)
MADDOW: Why is there a revolt in the American Midwest tonight? Why are we in day three of massive, massive protests—real upheaval in Wisconsin‘s capital city of Madison? Why are we seeing what was described today by my friend John Nichols, a seventh-generation Wisconsinite, as perhaps the biggest protests that have been seen in that state since Vietnam? Why is this—look at this—why is this happening?
As the state‘s own finances show, it is not happening because people who work for the state are the cause of some horrible budget crisis. It‘s not because teachers are lazy and rich. It‘s not because greedy snowplow drivers have bankrupted the state somehow.
The state is not bankrupt. Even though the state had started the year on track to have a budget surplus—now, there is, in fact, a $137 million budget shortfall. Republican Governor Scott Walker, coincidentally, has given away $140 million worth of business tax breaks since he came into office.
Hey, wait. That‘s about exactly the size of the shortfall.
What is happening in Wisconsin right now has absolutely nothing to do with public workers. The headline here, the way this keeps getting shorthanded, is workers angry after state is forced by budget crisis to crack down.
That‘s not what‘s going on. The state is not being forced to crack down. A lot of states do have budget crises right now, but heading into this year, Wisconsin was not one of them.
The main headline that you are seeing right now about this remarkable thing—look at these images—this remarkable thing that‘s going on in the American Midwest, the headlines you are seeing about this are mostly wrong, because what‘s going on right now in the American Midwest is about Republicans versus Democrats. It is about politics. It is about who wins the next election and the elections after that. That‘s what‘s going on right now in Wisconsin.
This is about the survival of the Democratic Party. There are parts of the story that actually don‘t make any sense unless you understand that.
One thing that doesn‘t make sense, Wisconsin‘s Republican governor, this guy Scott Walker, has proposed essentially dismantling all the unions for everybody who works for the government, right? That‘s what this is all about. He has proposed dismantling the unions for people who work for the government except for cops and firefighters and state troopers.
Why are they exempt? Is it because they‘re all law enforcement and emergency services, therefore, they need unions more than other state employees? Well, it can‘t really be that because corrections officers are among those who are getting the shaft, while the cops and the firefighters and the state troopers are specifically exempt.
OK. What‘s the other thing that‘s true about these three specific unions who are exempted from this crackdown, cops, firefighters, and state troopers? What‘s the other thing about them?
Oh, those are the three exact unions that supported the Republican governor in the last election. So, they get taken care of. Everybody else gets dismantled. That should have been the first hint that this maybe was about politics and not about a fiscal crisis.
Here‘s another hint. If this union-busting thing that‘s on the table right now is all supposedly about fiscal realities, it‘s all nothing personal, we just got to take these dramatic actions, we‘ve got to save some money, then why does this supposed budget bill have stuff in it with no fiscal impact at all, stuff that saves the state of Wisconsin no money, brings in no additional revenue, cuts no spending?
Stripping collective bargaining rights from specific groups of people who work for the state is something that has zero fiscal impact. So why do that?
What‘s happening in Wisconsin right now is not about a budget. This is about elections. This is about the Republican Party going after the institutions that make it possible for Democrats to win elections in America.
I think that people sometimes confuse the idea of liberal with the idea of optimist. I am living proof that these two things do not always coincide. I‘m pretty much as liberal as they come. I generally see things as dark as you possibly can.
Like you know how people say the people unite canned never be defeated? My version of that has always been: the people united make a bigger target.
You probably also have seen this liberal bumper sticker at some point in your life, right? It‘s the one fish that looks really calm and happy about to get eaten by the even bigger fish. But that bigger fish is actually made up of tiny little fish that have organized themselves into a fish shape, right?
The idea here is that small numbers of people organized together can defeat large enemies. It‘s nice, right? This is a nice liberal idea.
But I—I have always imagined that to have a third element. See? I told you I‘m the dark cloud. Yes, it is great to have a whole lot of tiny little fish organized and doing the same thing. That can be very impressive. But if a giant sharky fish comes along, then all those little fish can go in one big sharky bite.
It is not sweet or sentimental. But that is the rough and ill liberal and basic mathematical truth of politics—particularly of money and politics. It is—it is great to have a lot of like-minded people individually, you know, doing their own thing, pulling for the cause. It is great. It is often heart warming to see it.
But what is really, really great is to have some freaking heavy hitters on your side when it‘s important for you to win—to have institutions, organization, committees, PACs, political parties that can make big-impact political moves, that can keep up or even outspend the organizations on the other side.
You know, there‘s a reason that all those oil billionaires that Karl Rove has on speed dial, there‘s a reason those oil billionaires don‘t just make their own individual “I‘m an oil billionaire” campaign contributions. They pool all of their money in Karl Rove‘s American Crossroads organization so then Karl Rove can make multimillion-dollar impact moves in election years.
It is nice to have a lot of little fish. But sometimes, it is the biggest fish that eats the best.
In 2008, the groups that spent the most money on elections that year were the Chamber of Commerce, the giant right-wing PAC Freedoms Watch, the National Rifle Association, and, hey, wait, what are all those weird little initials? Oh, yes, Service Employees International Union, and the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, the public employees union.
In 2010, post-Citizens United, seven of the 10 top outside spending groups in the election were all right wing. Chamber of Commerce, both the Karl Rove groups, the American Future Fund, Americans for Job Security—all of these right-wing groups. The only non-conservative groups that cracked the top 10 were the public employees union, the SEIU, and the teachers union. That‘s it.
Unions are the only competition Republicans have in electoral politics. Post-Citizens United, conservatives look at this and they smell blood. I mean, compare this to ‘08. They have knocked the unions down to sixth and seventh place.
Without unions, essentially all of the big money and politics would be right-wing money—all of it. That is not hyperbole—all of it. Unions are the only players. They are the only fish of any size on the liberal side.
And, you know, it is nice to think—well, you know, I have this really awesome PTA group. Bake sales. I‘ve got a meet-up liberally drinking book club, “honk for peace” things that I do on Wednesdays. We could probably raise some money.
It is true that those are good things. It does all matter. But nothing matters as much as this.
I realize it is not romantic-sounding, but this is really how it works in politics. This decides who wins elections and who loses them. And if Republicans can use public policy to destroy their only competition for big political money, if they can use public policy to destroy the only major institutions that help Democratic causes at election time, then Republicans can run the table.
Beyond just the money, though, a move like this also destroys the get-out-the-vote and organizational capacity of union, which makes a huge difference on Election Day.
You may remember we went to Nevada to cover the Harry Reid/Sharron Angle Senate race right before the elections in November. Essentially, every poll in the state said Sharron Angle was going to win that race. But you know who was working their butts off for their chosen candidate who was Harry Reid? These guys were. The Culinary Workers Union in Las Vegas.
This is what we saw. We shot this footage ourselves. We got on the ground in Nevada just days before the election. Culinary union working around the clock, going door to door to round up votes for Harry Reid, to get people to the polls on Election Day and to get them there for early voting.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
D. TAYLOR, CULINARY UNION SECRETARY TREASURY: Nevada has two weeks of early voting, so we try to do, turn out every day because it‘s convenient, it‘s easy, and it‘s a lot quicker than on Election Day. Obviously, we‘ll do Election Day, too, but more than half the vote will be in early voting. So, it‘s important.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MADDOW: If you were a Republican politician and you had the chance to dismantle an organization like that, an organization that was helping the other side, wouldn‘t you do it?
What‘s happening in Wisconsin right now is about Republicans versus Democrats. It is about elections. We saw the same thing with ACORN.
Remember the right-wing jihad against ACORN? What did ACORN do to earn that? Well, ACORN, for years, registered huge numbers of minority voters and poor voters. Minority voters and poor voters overwhelmingly vote Democratic when they vote.
There were not any really problems with the way that ACORN registered people. This whole ACORN fraud epidemic was essentially made up out of whole cloth. The only problem with ACORN and its voter registration is they were really good at it, and that helped Democrats.
You know what else ACORN did? They did really smart political organizing and really smart political strategy. They put things like raise the minimum wage proposal on the ballot in states that had key elections.
Why is that important? Well, first, raising the minimum wage is a nice thing do for poor people and also nice for the economy as a whole it turns out.
Second, when you ask people if they want to raise the minimum wage, people essentially, unanimously scream yes. It almost always passes and it almost always passes by large margins.
But third, raising the minimum wage is such a popular idea that there‘s some evidence it actually causes people to go out and vote who would not otherwise vote. It raises voter turnout, particularly among—liberal voters, who then, since they‘re there anyway, are likely to also cast their votes for Democratic politicians. I mean, they are there already.
What anti-gay marriage ballot initiatives are to Republican voter turnout? We all learned that lesson. Higher minimum wage ballot initiatives are to Democratic turnout and ACORN spearheaded that. Smart.
ACORN was not a Democratic organization but ACORN‘s work was very politically beneficial to the Democratic Party. And so, therefore, the right decided that ACORN had to be destroyed and unions.
Unions are not Democratic organizations, but unions‘ work is beneficial to the Democratic Party. They are the only institution of any size on the liberal side of the equation.
Corporate America, all of corporate America, is on the Republican side. The only institutions of any size with any heft at all on the liberal side are the unions. So, of course, they, too, must be destroyed.
This is an existential fight for the Democratic Party. This is about whether or not the Democratic Party exists. This is why Republicans want to do this so bad.
If you break the public sector unions in Wisconsin, then you can break them anywhere. And if you break them everywhere, then it is bake sales versus billionaires for not only this next election but for every election here on out. Republicans run the table. Bake sales on one side, billionaires on the other. That‘s it.
This is an existential fight for the Democratic Party. Democrats who don‘t get that are being willfully ignorant.
This is an existential fight for the Democratic Party, and that‘s why Democrats in Wisconsin are doing what they are doing right now in Wisconsin.
That‘s why Wisconsin looks the way it does right now. That‘s why the
streets of Madison were shut down to traffic today, because of the sheer
number of people who turned out. That‘s why people slept in the capitol
rotunda overnight. That‘s why the state legislature looked like this today
Democratic legislators wearing orange t-shirts that read “Assembly Democrats fighting for working families.”
And that is why 14 Democratic state senators in Wisconsin went AWOL today. They refused to turn up for the anti-union vote scheduled in the state Senate today. Right around noon, these Democrats just disappeared. And in their absence, the Republicans could not get a quorum and, therefore, they were unable to hold their big anti-union vote, which they planned to hold today and they planned to win.
To avoid the threat of being forcibly returned to the state capitol, Democratic senators did not just not turn up at the state legislature today, they fled the state.
What is happening in Wisconsin right now is not about the budget. It is not about teacher tenure. It‘s not about whether or not librarians have too good a dental plan. That is not what this is about.
This is about Republicans versus Democrats and whether or not the Democratic Party will continue to compete with the Republican Party—whether or not the Democratic Party will continue to exist in any meaningful sense.
One of the Democratic state senators who fled the state today in order to block this bill will join us from an undisclosed location, next.
MADDOW: One of the Democratic state senators who fled Wisconsin today to keep law enforcement from being able to drag him to the state capitol will join us live next from a secure, undisclosed location. Seriously.
MADDOW: In October 1973, the special prosecutor, Archibald Cox, subpoenaed the president. He subpoenaed the president. He subpoenaed President Richard Nixon‘s now infamous Watergate tapes.
In response, President Nixon decided to have his Justice Department fire Archibald Cox. The attorney general refused and resigned. The deputy attorney general refused and resigned.
The third-ranking official at the Justice Department said, OK, I‘ll do it. That was Robert Bork. He was solicitor general at the time. He fired Archibald Cox, late on the night of Saturday, October 20th, 1973.
It was called the Saturday night massacre and nothing about it will probably ever be repeated again in our history. Except for one thing—it was really, really, really weird, absolute crazy business at the highest reaches of government, so crazy that it is hard to explain that this—it‘s hard to explain that this really happened, that American government went that rogue. It is that same level of incredulity that we can expect from future generations when they are told about what happened in the great state of Wisconsin today.
Today, state law enforcement fanned out across the great state of Wisconsin to find Wisconsin‘s state senators. The Democrats of the Wisconsin State Senate fled. They physically fled. They left. They hot tailed it to prevent the Senate from reaching a quorum.
So, the Senate Republicans could not take the vote they wanted to take to strip union rights from people who work in the public sector. The Wisconsin state constitution says lawmakers can be compelled to appear at the statehouse if they do not want to go. It doesn‘t say how they can be compelled to go.
So, the Democrats left the state. They put themselves beyond the reach of the state police.
It is hard to know how future junior high civics teachers will be able to convince their students that this really did happen today in Wisconsin, but it did. We have proof.
Joining us now is a Democratic Wisconsin state senator named Jon Erpenbach. He joins us now from a reportedly secure but alas undisclosed location.
Senator Erpenbach, thank you very much for your time, sir.
STATE SEN. JON ERPENBACH (D), WISCONSIN: Hi, Rachel.
MADDOW: I‘m not going to ask you exactly where you are, but are you, in fact, not in the state of Wisconsin?
ERPENBACH: I‘m not in the state of Wisconsin and I‘m not on a beach, either. It‘s not real warm where we are, just to make that clear.
MADDOW: All right. So, you‘re in a cold part of the hemisphere, at least.
ERPENBACH: Yes. Yes.
MADDOW: How did—how did you and your fellow Democrats come to this decision to split? I mean, when did you decide, how did you decide it?
ERPENBACH: Well, we got together early this morning outside of the capitol to discuss the options. We were perfectly willing to head into sessions today. We had a fistful of amendments to try and make a lousy bill a little bit better and it became very clear to us that the Republican leadership wasn‘t going to consider the amendments, certainly not pass any of the amendments. And we were left with just this option on the table.
Governor Walker introduced this legislation late Friday afternoon of last week, and now, he wants it to be law this week and it‘s making sweeping changes in the state of Wisconsin. And you‘re right—this legislation is repairing a budget hole of about $130 million when we passed about $150 million of tax breaks for businesses a couple weeks ago.
But in the end, there‘s a specific piece of policy in this—in this legislation that will take away the right for employees to organize and to bargain. It‘s flat-out union-busting, and it has absolutely no business being in this legislation.
MADDOW: If even—as I understand it, if even one Democrat splits from the rest and goes back to the capitol, my understanding is that would be enough for the Republicans to get a quorum for this vote. So I have to ask you, among the Democrats, is—is anybody going wobbly? Is there any dissent in the ranks? Or are you guys pretty unified on this decision?
ERPENBACH: No. We feel we‘re doing the right thing. Some people have been saying that we‘re not doing our job because we‘re not showing up to vote. As a matter of fact, we‘re absolutely doing our jobs because we feel we‘re standing up for thousands and thousands of people in Wisconsin that people have seen on TV either showing up in Madison or spilling out in the streets throughout the state of Wisconsin who are protesting this proposal.
We want to slow it down. We want people to take a look at this, see what it means to their pocketbooks, see what it means to the economy, see what it means to their family in general. And again, we had no option.
So, the only way to slow this down, and we‘re calling it essentially “microwave legislation,” was to do what we did—didn‘t want to do it this way but we really didn‘t have a choice. So, we‘re all pretty unified and thinking we did the right thing and we‘re going to—we‘re going to hang together on this.
MADDOW: Is there—has there been any movement at all on the Republican side since these dramatic protests starred, since you senators took this dramatic move today—has there been any move to reconsider in particular the collective bargaining elements of this or any of the other major elements of this legislation?
ERPENBACH: You know, I don‘t know. That‘s a great question. I don‘t know if there has been or has not.
What we‘re doing is we‘re actually giving Governor Walker little time to sit down and talk with people who are showing up at the capitol in huge numbers, numbers like I‘ve never seen before, to talk to them, to see what their ideas are, to give them a chance for their voices to be heard.
And I understand this is happening in all other parts of the country where there‘s Republican governors—it‘s like they went to this Republican governor‘s camp and were handed out the playbook and here‘s what we‘re doing this week and here‘s what we‘re going to do next week.
But this is systematically dismantling some of the best parts about
the state of Wisconsin. Our public employees—I heard you at the top of
the show—they plow our roads, they clean our streets, they‘re our
teachers, they‘re our prison guards, the people who run our great state
parks, and you‘re saying to them, what you do doesn‘t really matter. Not
only do we want you to pay your fair share—which they‘re willing to do -
we want to bust your union.
And that tears at the very fabric of the state of Wisconsin and it‘s not the right way to go.
MADDOW: If the Republicans refuse to negotiate, if there aren‘t major changes to the legislation, does this go on indefinitely? Do you stay out of the state of Wisconsin indefinitely, like for the rest of the session, in order to keep them from voting on this? How does this—how does this end?
ERPENBACH: All right. Well, it‘s a good question. June 30th is actually the date to keep an eye on. June 30th is when our budget ends. So, this budget doesn‘t need to pass right now.
And keep in mind, it‘s not a big budget. It‘s just a minor budget repair bill. That‘s all it is. That‘s totally porked up with all sorts of things that Governor Walker wants. It‘s a huge power grab.
So, we don‘t—there‘s no rush on this thing. We have time to deliberate. We have time to debate. We have time to change it. We have time to make it better.
We have all sorts of time. There‘s no rush in the state of Wisconsin.
But in the meantime, thousands and thousands of people are showing up in Madison. I expect a whole bunch of people there this weekend. People all throughout the state of Wisconsin are protesting up in Green Bay or over in Lacrosse or Wausau or Eau Claire.
This is having a huge impact on the state of Wisconsin and people are just now realizing what it is or what it means and they don‘t like it.
MADDOW: Wisconsin state senator, Democrat Jon Erpenbach, joining us from somewhere that is not Wisconsin, but I can‘t say more—thank you for your time tonight, sir. Good luck.
ERPENBACH: All right. Thank you.
MADDOW: All right. Nobody has done better national coverage of this astonishing situation in Wisconsin than my colleague Ed Schultz. Nobody. He is right in the middle of this thing.
Literally, he is in Madison right now in the middle of the protests and joins us live from there next. If you‘re only going to watch one thing about this all day, this is the thing to watch.
MADDOW: An estimated 25,000 people demonstrated at the Wisconsin state capitol today on this third day of massive protests. There was no one covering the protests in Wisconsin better than my next guest. Host of “THE ED SHOW,” my friend Ed Schultz. Ed is outside the capitol in Madison, Wisconsin. He joins us live.
Ed, my friend, thank you so much for being here. Please tell us what‘s going on, where you are right now.
ED SCHULTZ, HOST, “THE ED SHOW”: Rachel, it‘s great to be with you tonight.
This has been a very interesting experience doing the story in New York and kind of getting a sense of what it was like from afar and then being here today in Madison. It has reaffirmed my instincts that the passion here is very strong. And I don‘t see any conclusion to this story anytime soon.
The governor of Wisconsin today took a big political hit. He lost round one when he tried to get a vote and the Democrats walked out and went to Illinois. And there have been a number of people, including myself—
I‘ve called out some of the Democratic leadership nationally.
And to his credit, Senator Dick Durbin answered tonight. The Illinois senator went on record supporting the protesters here in Madison, Wisconsin, saying that “workers across the country should have the right to stand together for fair compensation and a safe workplace.” He went on to say, “Wisconsin teachers and state workers should not be badgered by a governor who refuses to sit down and work out a fair compromise.”
And that really is what this story is all about. It‘s—there‘s been some real heavy political browbeating on the middle class in Wisconsin, going after the firefighters, going after the teachers and the nurses, and also the public workers here who have given their hearts and soul to their jobs and careers, chasing the middle-classers down to try to fix what some people view as a very bogus and ginned-up financial crisis in this state.
And this governor is backed by the Tea Partiers, and we definitely are going to show the infrastructure tonight on our show exactly who the people are that are backing this governor. You get a sense that he is way off-base, that he may have won the election, but now, on February 17th, just a few months later, so much has changed in this state because this agenda is just so radical and people just aren‘t willing to be browbeaten here.
And the attack on unions—I had a nice visit with Harold Schaitberger of the firefighters association not long ago. He stopped by to see me tonight. He says, “Ed, this is coming fast and furious.” What‘s happening here in Madison, what‘s happening here at ground zero, is what they are affectionately calling it, is happening all over the country—the union-busting and the attempts to break up labor.
Thirteen states are looking at paycheck deception type of legislation. Three bills have already passed in Oklahoma that are anti-worker. And now, it‘s into Iowa. Twelve states are dealing with right-to-work issues and five states with dues deduction issues, which is huge. And it is all about the money.
And if there has ever been a group of people that get it, these people here in Wisconsin get it. The focal point and the protesting is taking place here in Madison. But you get a real sense, Rachel, that it is groundswell support by average Wisconsins who now realize—Wisconsinites who realize what is going on and what is at stake.
We are talking about thousands of dollars of discretionary money to these middle-class workers. And the top two percenters aren‘t being asked to do anything. And it‘s not a shared responsibility at all. And all the Democrats did today was step away to buy some time and not giving this governor this political victory because it has been very partisan and very heavy-handed.
MADDOW: Ed, I‘ve got to say, seeing you there—can we put up that wide shot of where you can see the protesters behind you right now? This is incredible.
SCHULTZ: Well, this is the crowd.
MADDOW: We knew that was going to happen.
Ed, to see you out there—to see you out there, I know you‘ve been talking to those folks all day, hearing their side of the story, seeing what‘s going on in Wisconsin right now, it is great to have you there. I‘m so proud to be on the air with you, Ed. Thank you for being here, and we will see you at 10:00 tonight.
SCHULTZ: Thank you, Rachel. I appreciate it.
MADDOW: Ed Schultz will have much, much more on this on his show tonight at 10:00 Eastern right after this show. His has been the best national coverage on this issue by anyone in any medium anywhere in the country. He‘s, like, leading a march right now right here.
God bless him. Thanks, Ed. We will see him at 10:00.
All right. Fresh from providing spectacular reporting and analysis from the revolution in Cairo, NBC correspondent Richard Engel is now in Bahrain, where the government cracked down hard on protesters last night, and where frankly the situation seems unsustainable and bad. Richard joins with the latest, next.
We got Ed in Wisconsin, we got Richard in Bahrain. I love the job.
Please stay with us.
MADDOW: There is no single playbook for authoritarian governments trying to hold onto power when their people don‘t want them to be in power anymore. We saw the ugly side of what governments do in this situation in Egypt during those two horrible days when the government turned what had been scenes of peaceful protest into, in effect, a war zone.
One of two things can happen once a government decides it‘s going to take that route. Either it crushes the protest movement or, like we saw in Egypt, their efforts to crush the protest movement increased the resolve of the protesters and the protesters come back stronger and more determined than ever. It is the “what doesn‘t kill you makes you stronger” principle. And that is the situation we are at right now in the tiny Gulf country of Bahrain.
The government there has been facing protests all week, but over the past 24 hours, the government appears to have, in some sense, declared war on its own people. It‘s been very ugly. At least four people were killed last night when hundreds of riot police stormed the main protest site, Pearl Square, while thousands of protesters were sleeping there—men, women, and children. Police used batons, tear gas, rubber bullets, even live ammunition, according to the BBC, to clear the square of thousands of people with a lightning strike that took less than 20 minutes.
The brutality was not just directed at the protesters. There are reports by credible, experienced Western reporters of doctors who were trying to treat the wounded being beaten up. Doctors being beaten up in at least one—in at least one instance, a doctor being threatened with rape by police.
There are also reports of security forces attacking paramedics who rushed to the scene to help wounded protesters; some apparently mistaking paramedics‘ medical equipment for cameras. Hundreds of injured people crammed into the capital city‘s hospitals after the raid. While back at Pearl Square, their tents and supplies lay deserted.
For the first time since the protests began, the military arrived at Pearl Square today, presumably to prevent any demonstrators returning to the square for a planned protest tomorrow.
The Bahraini government had previously promised to peacefully resolve the protests. But it‘s now putting its own spin on the brutal events of last night. State TV reporting it was the protesters who were the violent ones. They broadcast images of weapons posed in the abandoned tents. The government claims they belonged to the protesters.
Luckily, we don‘t have to count on just state TV for information. There are actual journalists in Bahrain, and I‘m sorry to say, at risk to themselves reporting on this story for real.
Joining us now from the capital city of Bahrain is NBC chief foreign correspondent, Richard Engel.
Richard, thanks very much for staying up to talk with us.
RICHARD ENGEL, NBC NEWS CHIEF FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT: It‘s a pleasure. And how unusual this all is should be probably explained by where I‘m sitting right now. I‘m in the CNBC studio. CNBC, of course, the business channel—this is normally a business story. People come to Bahrain to talk about oil deals, to talk about banking, not for political unrest and certainly not for what the protesters call a major crackdown, which they think was a massacre against unarmed protesters.
MADDOW: Well, what‘s going on now in Bahrain, Richard? What is the reaction—what has been the reaction to that brutality in the streets last night?
ENGEL: People are very frightened. There‘s no other way to describe it. This is not a country or a city that is used to this kind of thing. It‘s not even a very highly politicized or politically charged place.
People right now are staying out of the center of the city. There are a lot of tanks positioned around Pearl Square and other kinds of armored vehicles to prevent people from coming in.
This is—you have to look—understand this conflict as not just another uprising to demand political rights. There is a definite sectarian element in this. Nearly all of the protesters are Shiite, and they are protesting against the ruling family and a system that they believe discriminates against Shiites.
MADDOW: The prospects of the Shiite majority taking over the government in this country—it‘s a very small country, but it‘s quite strategically located. That‘s how it‘s become the banking center in part that you‘ve described.
I‘m trying to imagine how Saudi Arabia would react to the prospect of a Shiite majority in Bahrain taking over the government there. Do you expect any other neighboring countries to actually get involved? The prospect of Shiite revolt must be very unnerving to them.
ENGEL: Oh, I think Saudi Arabia would definitely get involved. Saudi Arabia would probably go to war to prevent a Shiite expansion. Saudi Arabia and Bahrain see any kind of Shiite expansion in the Persian Gulf as tantamount to Iranian expansion, and the government here in Bahrain always says that Iran is behind the protests.
And when they were showing those knives and swords today, they also claimed to have found Hezbollah banners—Hezbollah, obviously, the Shiite militant group based mostly in Lebanon. So, they didn‘t show any pictures of those banners, by the way. They just claimed that they were there.
So, anytime you see Shiite power expanding in the region, Saudi Arabia, which is on the opposite spectrum, it is the most hard line or the most—the cornerstone of the Sunni world that sees itself as the defender of the Sunni world, Saudi Arabia gets very upset and very unnerved. And I think Saudi Arabia would definitely intervene to save a fellow Sunni country right on its border, namely Bahrain.
MADDOW: Richard, how do you—how do you see this ending? It‘s hard to assess the strength of the government‘s position. As I mentioned in the introduction, it‘s hard to even know whether or not the protesters will be emboldened by the show of force, by the government, or whether it will intimidate them out of further protests. What‘s your expectation about how this is going to play out, even—even just over the next, say, seven days?
ENGEL: Yes. I think even over the next 24 hours will tell a lot. The government‘s message was it was going to hit hard, it was going to hit fast, and hopefully, you talked about the different models of trying to stop a protest, this would be the “nip it in the bud” model to try and hit quickly. This crackdown only lasted about 20 minutes. And hope that the people here go back and retreat into their homes and don‘t do this again.
That could happen. This is not a large population. It‘s not like Egypt where you have huge masses that can sustain a protest movement for 18, 19, 20 days because you have shifts and people working, and there‘s kind of a community solidarity in large urban slums like you see in Cairo.
This is—this is a country that isn‘t used to this kind of thing. But that said, tomorrow there is a very volatile moment. The families of the victims are going to receive the bodies, the people who were killed in this crackdown that took place this morning Bahrain time.
So, there is a potential flashpoint. Will this problem go away entirely? I think that‘s probably very wishful thinking. The Sunni/Shiite divide has taken 13 centuries. The Middle East has never seen a period of unrest like this. And all of these old grievances are bubbling up to the surface.
MADDOW: NBC chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel—oddly in the CNBC studio in Bahrain for us tonight—Richard, we‘re glad to have you there. Stay safe. Thanks.
ENGEL: Says a lot. Says a lot. How much has changed here.
MADDOW: Indeed. Absolutely. Thank you, Richard.
All right. We thought that Speaker of the House John Boehner had sort of bottomed out this week already when he said to a bank of cameras that Republican policies would probably cost a bunch of jobs but so be it—that sort of seems like he‘d hit bottom. You can‘t really do worse than that in politics right now.
It turns out the man is a miracle worker. You can do worse. He did it today. John Boehner is turning out to be an amazing speaker of the House. What happened to him today—next.
MADDOW: Right now, the House of Representatives is in such chaos, such dire dysfunctional disarray, that Speaker John Boehner must be brilliant. Are we being duped by some grand Boehner anti-plan? I will buckle the chin straps on my conspiracy hat, next.
Plus, at 10:00 Eastern, right after the show, we are back to our Wisconsin coverage with Ed Schultz live in Madison. You will not want to miss that. Please stay with us here on MSNBC.
MADDOW: Read my lips. Here‘s why the phrase “read my lips” is famous in American politics.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
GEORGE H.W. BUSH, FORMER U.S. PRESIDENT: And the Congress will push me to raise taxes, and I‘ll say no, and they‘ll push, and I‘ll say no, and they‘ll push again, and I‘ll say to them—read my lips: no new taxes.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MADDOW: When George H.W. Bush was running for president, he said, “Read my lips: no new taxes.” Then once he was president, he vetoed his own lips and actually imposed new taxes. And then inevitably this happened:
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, POLITICAL AD)
NARRATOR: The George Bush promise:
BUSH: Read my lips: no new taxes.
NARRATOR: Then he gave us the second biggest tax increase in American history. Bush increased the gas tax by 56 percent. Can we afford four more years?
Bill Clinton, a different kind of Democrat. As governor, Arkansas has the second lowest tax burden in the country, balance 12 budgets.
You don‘t have to read his lips. Read his record. Clinton/Gore—for people, for a change.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MADDOW: And that was the end of George H.W. Bush‘s political career. Mr. Bush was a one-termer. “Read my lips” was the dumbest thing that George H.W. Bush ever said in public. “Read my lips” ended George H.W. Bush‘s political career, and that‘s why in American politics the phrase “read my lips” is lips” is famous.
Here‘s how it came up today:
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIPS)
BUSH: Read my lips.
REP. JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: Read my lips: we‘re going to cut spending. Thanks.
(END VIDEO CLIPS)
MADDOW: You guys, can we re-air that in the control room? Do we have it properly, so we can show it?
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BOEHNER: When we say we‘re going to cut spending—read my lips:
we‘re going to cut spending. Thanks.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MADDOW: Read my lips, he said. Thanks, everybody, bye-bye.
Right after he said that, “The Associated Press” reported today,
quote, “Mr. Boehner quickly exited, saying off stage, quote, ‘I can‘t
believe I just said that.‘”
Right! Nobody can believe you just said that!
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIPS)
BUSH: Read my lips.
BOEHNER: Read my lips.
(END VIDEO CLIPS)
MADDOW: Right! This week, we have put forth the hypothesis that John Boehner, speaker of the House, is bad at his job. Not that he is a bad man or even that he has bad ideas, but that when it comes to doing what a speaker of the House does, he is bad at doing those things.
Mr. Boehner is bad at counting votes. What? We lost that?
Mr. Boehner is bad at passing legislation. He blew three things in 24 hours last week.
Mr. Boehner is bad at scheduling votes. The Republican freshman telling the press he didn‘t even know what the Patriot Act vote was about before Boehner made him vote on it. A freshman?
Mr. Boehner is bad at making rules for the House that the House can keep to—a constitutional citation in every bill except for when we forget it all the time.
Mr. Boehner is bad at talking to the press, in that he keeps saying things to the press that are really, really off message, off his own message. If some of those jobs are lost, so be it?
Yes. But as we have been reporting on all of this stuff this week, and as we have been looking into and documenting the things that John Boehner has been proven to be bad at as speaker, the evidence is so overwhelming that we are starting to experience an internal backlash on our show.
At our staff news meeting today, someone just said, wait a minute, he can‘t be this bad at this much stuff. You don‘t get to be speaker of the House by being this fundamentally incompetent. There‘s got to be more than meets the eye here. There‘s got to be something else going on. Maybe there is a method to this madness.
And thus was born THE RACHEL MADDOW SHOW‘s “Maybe John Boehner isn‘t that bad at his job, maybe he‘s crazy like a fox” hypothesis.
One of the things that‘s gone off the rails in the house under Speaker Boehner‘s leadership is this spending bill they are considering right now. This is—this is a stopgap spending bill. It is just a keeps the lights on, keep the government running measure.
But Mr. Boehner decided to let it—decided to let it go to the floor under rules that let anyone attach any amendment to it. And so, the bill got 583 amendments attached it to it. And so, since Mr. Boehner had decided to allow unlimited amendments and time to debate every single one of those amendments, this has turned into a game of 900 million bottles of beer on the wall. The House did not adjourn last night until 3:43 in the morning. And they had still only gotten through 40-something of the almost 600 amendment on this one bill.
At this rate, they are not only going to take the week of vacation that John Boehner arranged for them after every two weeks they work now—at this rate, they are never going to get this thing done in time. They are never going to finish this bill to keep the lights on, this bill to keep the government running.
They are going to run out of time, and the government is going to run out of—hey, wait a minute. Maybe John Boehner is crazy like a fox. Maybe the whole “we don‘t know how to pass anything” routine is how Republicans get to shut down the government, like so many of them have been salivating over since the elections.
Maybe there‘s a method to this madness. It‘s like you didn‘t quite want to make insurance fraud, but you did make sure to get behind the wheel and take a really fast drive into really heavy traffic right after getting your eyes dilated. John doesn‘t know how to pass anything, let‘s put him in charge!
MADDOW: If you forgot to get Kim Jong-il a birthday card this year, don‘t worry, his birthday was yesterday, but the party is not over, there is still time.
North Korea Central News Agency says he‘s been getting tons of presents unsolicited from all over. Floral baskets, for example, from a Chinese family; also from some unnamed Japanese people; also, they say, from the family of a Korean resident in Russia.
North Korean state media also reporting that the dear leader got a solar halo for his birthday, from the sun. It reportedly appeared over his birthplace. This is what that would look like if that had actually happened, and why would we ever doubt the North Korean‘s state media reporting. And they also said that for Kim Jong-il‘s birthday, spring came early to his birthplace this year.
Meanwhile, South Korea didn‘t forget Kim Jong-il‘s big day either. They sent the usual assortment of balloons carrying anti-government leaflets over the border. This year, for the first time, South Korean lawmakers participated in sending those propaganda balloons. This year, they reportedly contained news about the government overthrow in Egypt—hint, hint.
But, of course, this wouldn‘t be North Korea if the dear leader‘s birthday were not celebrated by oddly compelling and also terrifying public performances of a lot of people doing exactly the same thing all at once—from swimming to ice skating to dancing in front of a statue of the dear leader‘s father, Kim Il-sung.
The dear leader‘s birthday is also supposed to be a day when Kim Jong-il gives back to his people. It‘s called bribery. They‘re supposed to get gifts ranging from a few extra days worth of food rations to luxury items like Rolex watches for senior officials.
But according to a South Korea‘s news report, North Korea‘s crisis right now is so bad that in at least one part of the country, many people got nothing. And that‘s not usually how they do it. “The A.P.” reporting that during their usual pre-dear leader‘s birthday shopping trips to China, North Korean officials were this year spotted buying fake designer clothing in bulk instead of the good stuff they usually get.
So, money may be tight in North Korea this year. Still, though, the Kim family themselves is doing fine. One of the weird revelations from WikiLeaks was that in 2007, North Korean government officials passed word to the U.S. embassy in South Korea that the government should arrange for Eric Clapton to perform a concert in North Korea. Apparently, Kim Jong-il‘s second son is such a huge Eric Clapton fan that the idea was that the U.S. should arrange to get Mr. Clapton to do a concert in the autocratic armpit of Korea that is Pyongyang in order to build goodwill and get some concessions out of the Kim family. Poor Eric Clapton.
In any case, the U.S. government didn‘t help book Mr. Clapton for Kim Jong-il‘s son.
But even as the dear leader‘s more austere than usual birthday this year offers signals that North Korea is even more falling apart than usual right now, Mr. Kim‘s second son, the Clapton fan, was, in fact, spotted at an Eric Clapton concert in Singapore on Monday. So, even as the food rations get a little light this year, at least we know the family is getting what it wants. It‘s good to be king.
Now, it‘s time for “THE ED SHOW,” which tonight is live from the heart of it in Madison, Wisconsin. Good night.
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