updated 3/29/2011 1:43:02 PM ET 2011-03-29T17:43:02

Guests: Howard Fineman, Hampton Pearson, Michael Steele, Bob Shrum, David Mack, Robin Wright, Ron Reagan, Arjun Makhijani

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST:  I‘m sick of Newton!

Let‘s play HARDBALL.

Good evening.  I‘m Chris Matthews up in Philadelphia tonight. 

Leading off tonight: War of words.  Are Republicans criticizing President Obama‘s Libya policy for legitimate reasons or simply because it‘s President Obama‘s policy?  For instance, two weeks ago, Newt Gingrich said he would, quote, “exercise a no-fly zone this evening” over Libya.  Now he says, “I would have not intervened.”  You say neither, I say neither.  The war of words over the war is our top story tonight.

Plus, unintended consequences.  What if Gadhafi pulls back, abides by a ceasefire, and then stays on the scene?  What happens then?  Can Gadhafi actually survive?

Also,  a top nuclear scientist says the disaster over in Japan reminds us here that the nuclear industry over here in the United States has gained control of the agency which is supposed to regulate it, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.  In other words, in the NRC, the foxes are guarding the henhouse.  How do we fix this baby?

And the juiciest story of the day for HARDBALL, certainly.  It‘s now likely that Michele Bachmann will, in fact, form an exploratory committee, but she says she hasn‘t yet decided whether to run or not for president.  When in the last time—when was the last time anybody watching now can remember someone forming an exploratory committee to run for president and not actually running?  By the way, didn‘t we create her here?

Finally, let‘s all thank Sarah Palin for setting us straight.  She‘s explained that the long historic existential conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is merely a “zoning issue.”  Idiocy.

We start with the war of words about the war in Libya.  Michael Steele‘s the former chairman of the RNC, the Republican National Committee -- and he‘s still our Republican National Committee chairman—


MATTHEWS:  -- and Bob Shrum is a Democratic strategist.  Do I hear the voice and chuckle worthy (ph) of Mr. Michael Steele?


MATTHEWS:  Sir, are you here?  OK—

STEELE:  I am here.  How‘re you doing, Chris?

MATTHEWS:  OK, I want you and Bob Shrum—it‘s great to have you, Bob.  This is one of our great ones of our time.  Here‘s Newt Gingrich supporting a no-fly zone and Newt Gingrich quickly thereafter disagreeing with what he said he wanted done.  Let‘s listen to both of these guys, both Newt Gingrich.  Let‘s listen.


NEWT GINGRICH (R-GA), FMR. SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE:  Exercise a no-fly zone this evening, communicate to the Libyan military that Gadhafi was gone and that the sooner they switch sides, the more likely they were to survive, provided help to the rebels to replace him.

The United States doesn‘t need anybody‘s permission.  We don‘t need to have NATO, who, frankly, won‘t bring much to the fight.  We don‘t need to have the United Nations.  All we have to say is that we think that slaughtering your own citizens is unacceptable and that we‘re intervening.


MATTHEWS:  Slaughtering is unacceptable over there.  He can‘t go after Benghazi and kill all those people.  We got to go in with a no-fly zone.  Now check out what he said later.


GINGRICH:  The standard he has fallen back to of humanitarian intervention could apply to Sudan, to North Korea, to Zimbabwe, to Syria this week, to Yemen, to Bahrain.  I mean, this isn‘t a serious standard, this is a public relations conversation.

I would not have intervened.  I think there were a lot of other ways to affect Gadhafi.  I think there are a lot of allies in the region that we could‘ve worked with.  I would not have used American and European forces.


MATTHEWS:  Blah, blah, blah!  Michael, I don‘t know how you can content—even begin to defend this opportunist who every time the president does one thing, he attacks it.  Then when the president changes position, or takes his advice, if you will, and acts according to what he said he should do, act to save these people from slaughter, he then attacks them for doing that, being humanitarian.

What do you make of this argument in principle between his two principles that contradict each other?

STEELE:  Well, I—well, I—I don‘t think there‘s so much as a principle contradiction or a contradiction in principle there are you‘re trying to make out, Chris.  I think—


STEELE:  I think—I think exactly what Newt is saying in the first instance was, Let‘s go—let‘s go forward with the no-fly plan, everybody come together, the no-fly zone, let‘s have the plan and let‘s do it.  Here we are now, some weeks later, without a real plan.  You know the Washington talk, as well as the national talk is, What‘s the plan?  Where‘s the strategy?

So we‘re going into this country.  We‘ve got this process under way.  We don‘t know what the exit strategy is.  We don‘t know what the ground game is.  And so yes, in light of that, this is not the best way and best approach to take without the structure in place to do it.

MATTHEWS:  But Michael, you speak the truth and you‘ve got some nuance and intelligence behind it.  That‘s not what Newt said.  Newt said, Go in to avoid a slaughter.  And then when the president went in to avoid a slaughter for humanitarian reasons, he opposed in principle what he had said to do.

STEELE:  I think it‘s because—again, you know, I‘ll go back to that point.  I think because when the president finally went in, finally went in, he in without the structure and the strategy necessary to justify the humanitarian argument that you‘re going to make.  At the end of the day, we don‘t know.  Is this humanitarian?  Is this military?  Are we—is the goal to take Gadhafi out?  Is it to leave him in?  What is the strategy here?

And if you‘re going to put life and limb of our U.S. soldiers and military personnel, as well as the people there in Libya, in harm‘s way, you‘ve got to have a little bit more than what the president‘s given.  I think that‘s all Newt‘s saying.

MATTHEWS:  OK, Michael.  Nice try, by the way, Michael.  By the way, you obviously didn‘t watch “The Lone Ranger” growing up, like I did.  Or maybe you did.  Remember how Tonto would say, He speak with forked tongue?


MATTHEWS:  I think—I think Newt Gingrich speaks with forked tongue. 

That‘s my view, forked tongue.  Your view, Bob?

BOB SHRUM, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST:  Well, I was a little surprised Michael defended him because I think what he did was indefensible.  You can‘t say, I would intervene tonight and I would intervene on humanitarian reasons, and then turn around and say, I wouldn‘t intervene in Libya, we could‘ve relied on our allies.  Those statements are in absolute contradiction, no matter how you try to square them.

Look, the truth of the matter is, the president does have a plan here.  I think the plan does involve regime change.  He can‘t say it because that‘s not what‘s in the U.N. resolution.  I think that will be the ultimate outcome.  And by the way, I think that‘s how the president will be judged.  In the meantime, what we have is a lot of white noise, a lot of partisan opportunism.  Michael‘s right, this isn‘t about principle, this is about opportunism and people jumping on the president.

MATTHEWS:  Well, I said that.

SHRUM:  But in the—

STEELE:  That wasn‘t—that wasn‘t me.


SHRUM:  But in the end—but in the end, this will be judged by the results.  And I think in the end, Gadhafi will be gone.


MATTHEWS:  Let‘s take a look at this—let‘s get away from partisan politics for five seconds here, Michael.

STEELE:  Sure.

MATTHEWS:  You raised a good point, the president hasn‘t announced a plan.  But is Bob right?  The reason—I mean, is Bob correct here in saying the reason he hasn‘t been forthcoming is because we‘re using the U.N. in this case to get done what we want done, get rid of Gadhafi, but we can‘t say so?

STEELE:  Well, I just find that a little bit disingenuous—



MATTHEWS:  But is it appropriate?


SHRUM:  It‘s called diplomacy.

STEELE:  -- particularly after all the hellfire noise they raised, the Democrats raised about President Bush and his approach and strategy to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  So I just—I—you know, I think that that‘s a little bit crazy when you go down that road.

The reality of it is, the president should have done as President Bush did—


STEELE:  -- go before the American people, go before the Congress—


STEELE:  -- lay out the argument, lay out the evidence, make the case.  And then—and then get the votes you need with our Congress, and not with the U.N. first.

MATTHEWS:  OK.  OK.  Let me tell you—is there a difference between BS‘ing the American people, which your guy did, and BS‘ing the Chinese, the Russians and the Germans to get us a U.N. resolution?

STEELE:  Oh, please, Chris!

MATTHEWS:  I say it‘s OK to BS them.  That‘s how we disagree.

SHRUM:  By the way, this whole analysis on going to Congress is ahistorical.  We haven‘t had a declaration of war since 1942 --

STEELE:  Exactly.

SHRUM:  -- against Bulgaria when it joined the Nazis.

MATTHEWS:  OK, let‘s go—

SHRUM:  Take the words Grenada, Noriega, the Balkans.

MATTHEWS:  OK, let‘s—

SHRUM:  Two Republican presidents, one Democrat went without even consulting the Congress.

MATTHEWS:  Bob—Bob, let‘s go to Speaker Boehner‘s concern.  It‘s a well-written letter to the president.  Quote—this is from Speaker Boehner to President Obama yesterday.  Quote, “I and many other members of the House of Representatives are troubled that U.S. military resources were committed to war without clearly defining for the American people, the Congress and our troops what the mission in Libya is and what America‘s role is in achieving that mission.  It is my hope that you will provide the American people and Congress a clear and robust assessment of the scope, objective and purpose of our mission in Libya and how it will be achieved.”

By the way, Savannah Guthrie said the other day she never wants to see that word “robust” again in politics.


MATTHEWS:  Not a bad statement.  What do you think of that letter, Michael?

STEELE:  I—three cheers to the speaker.  It‘s really refreshing to see the leadership come square to the table with the president and say, OK, let‘s—this is the partnership you should really have right here, between the White House and the leadership in Congress.  Let‘s talk this thing through.  Let‘s understand and go to the American people together.  Bravo, Speaker Boehner.  Thank you for putting the points on the table.  Thank you for asking the right questions that the American people want answers to.

And back to something that Bob said a little bit earlier.  You know, you‘re absolutely right.  This exercise could take place in a whole host of other parts of Africa and the continent right now, from Yemen to Bahrain.  Why aren‘t we—if we‘re talking humanitarian intervention, why aren‘t we being consistent in that philosophy, in that principle in doing that?  And I think that‘s something Speaker Boehner wants to hold the president‘s feet to.

MATTHEWS:  Did you vote for—

STEELE:  And I applaud him for it.

MATTHEWS:  Did you secretly vote for Obama, Michael?  Because you‘re now using his lexicon.  You‘re the only other guy besides him who says “a host of other,” “a host of”—that‘s—you are imitating the—you did vote for him, I know you did!


STEELE:  No, no!  That did not happen.


MATTHEWS:  Your chance, Bob.

SHRUM:  Well, listen, if all the Republicans had been as loyal to

Michael as Michael is to them, he‘d still be head of the RNC.  The fact is

the fact is—the fact is that if this had gone to Congress, we would‘ve had Rand Paul filibustering while Benghazi burned.

We actually do have a vital interest now in Libya.  Five American presidents have said this guy has to go.  If he stays in power, he‘s going to be inimical.  He‘s going to be a terrorist haven.  He‘s going to do everything he can to disrupt the Arab world.

And it‘s utterly simplistic to say we ought to intervene in Bahrain if we‘re going to intervene in Libya because foreign policy, as all presidents know, is a balance of your ideals and your interests.  We have some vital interests in Libya (SIC).  We can‘t let Iran expand its influence there.  Obviously, we‘re not going to intervene there.  In Libya, our ideals and our interests coincide.  It‘s time for regime change there.  I think it will happen.

STEELE:  So how do you rationalize the condemnation of going after Saddam Hussein and members of the Democratic Party now elevating Obama as the savior—

SHRUM:  You didn‘t really just ask me that question.

STEELE:  I sure did.

SHRUM:  Well, I‘ll give you the answer.  Because your guy lied and Vice President Cheney lied—

STEELE:  Oh, please!  He did not lie!

SHRUM:  -- and said there were—

STEELE:  Come on, Bob!

SHRUM:  -- weapons of mass destruction.

STEELE:  Bob, come on.

SHRUM:  There were no weapons of mass destruction.  Congress never would‘ve approved that resolution—

STEELE:  Going back to Bill Clinton—


SHRUM:  It was a war based on a lie.

STEELE:  Oh, please.

SHRUM:  And thousands and thousands—hundreds of thousands of people



STEELE:  -- talking points by now on this.

SHRUM:  What?


STEELE:  I thought you guys would be past the—I thought you guys would be past the talking points by now on this.

SHRUM:  Those aren‘t talking points!  You know, those kids who are buried all over America are not talking points!

STEELE:  Well, wait a minute.  Let me—let me just—let me just make this point.  Going back to Clinton, we all know—and the Democrats, again, sided with President Bush.  They looked at the same evidence he did.

SHRUM:  No, a lot of them didn‘t, actually.


SHRUM:  A lot of them didn‘t.  Ted Kennedy didn‘t.

STEELE:  You mean they voted for something they didn‘t—they—

SHRUM:  No, Ted Kennedy voted against it.  A lot of Democrats voted against it.


STEELE:  Oh, come on!  Yes.  Right.

SHRUM:  And that doesn‘t settle the issue.

STEELE:  A good number of them voted for it and—

SHRUM:  OK, that‘s a fair statement.


STEELE:  And the reality of it is that you‘re trying to draw a hair‘s distinction between Saddam Hussein and Gadhafi because you like this setting.


STEELE:  Your guy‘s in charge.

SHRUM:  No.  We actually—

STEELE:  If that‘s what you‘re telling me, that‘s not good foreign policy.

SHRUM:  No, it was actually—if he didn‘t have weapons of mass destruction, it was against our national interest to remove him because he was a counterweight to Iran, and we‘ve now created the possibility of a—


MATTHEWS:  By the way, Bob‘s right, you‘re wrong, Michael because they did lie about the war.  And Rumsfeld‘s book proves it.  Rumsfeld‘s book lays it all out about that war, clearly saying, We knew there was no nuclear threat.  In fact, he got it from the—directly from the top of intelligence for the Joint Chiefs.  He had the information.

STEELE:  There was a lot more there than the nuclear threat.

MATTHEWS:  I know.  I know.

STEELE:  A lot more humanitarian, you know, issues related to what—


SHRUM:  That‘s not why we went to war.


STEELE:  Michael Steele, sir, you‘re always welcome on this program. 

Bob Shrum, you know you are, too.

Coming up: So what if Gadhafi doesn‘t go?  Now, this is a big question, fact question.  Will he get blown away by these air strikes or not?  And if not, how long will he last?  And what happens then, if he‘s sitting there perhaps longer than President Obama‘s president?  What happens?

This is HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.


MATTHEWS:  The Hispanic population in this country has made surprising gains over the past decade, exceeding estimates across the country.  New census data released just today shows the Hispanic population has hit a milestone, 50 million people in this country.  That means 1 in every 6 Americans is Hispanic in their background.  That‘s a 32 percent increase from the year 2000 -- 32 percent.  And these shifting demographics will mean no doubt big changes in the country‘s political landscape.

HARDBALL back after this.


MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  Is it possible that Moammar Gadhafi will hold onto power in Libya?  What if he stays in office despite all the international support for the rebels and all the bombing?  How long could that last?

Robin Wright is a joint fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace and at the Woodrow Wilson International Center, and former United States ambassador David Mack has served in many posts, including he had an early assignment interacting with Gadhafi himself.  He‘s a scholar at the Middle East Institute right now.

Thank you, Robin, and thank you, Mr. Ambassador.  Let me ask you, Robin, first, and the same question to both of you, I guess.  Could Gadhafi hang on indefinitely?  Robin first.

ROBIN WRIGHT, WOODROW WILSON INTERNATIONAL CENTER:  I find it very unlikely.  The man is squeezed economically and physically, politically, militarily.  This is a country that has a rather small military, somewhere around 10,000.  He has a small population, 6.5 million.  He is now facing the mightiest military in the world and the mightiest military alliance.  He could hold out, perhaps, for a while.  But I think long term, I think it‘d be—it‘s very unlikely, I suspect, he‘d be in power by the end of the year.

MATTHEWS:  So what‘s he do, he gets on a plane and goes to Venezuela?  How do we know we win?  He‘s not going to get hit by our bullets, probably, or our bombs, probably.  How do you get him to leave?  How does that—tell me that picture.  What happens?

WRIGHT:  I think this is the most unusual of the rebellions we have seen.  All the other leaders could either leave the country, or in the case of Egypt, he could even stay within the country.  But Gadhafi is a man who is unlike any other leaders in the Arab world.  He is disliked, distrusted.  He‘s very eccentric.  People know that he has some kind of personality disorder, to put it mildly.  And finding a place of refuge, he‘s more likely to go to some place in Africa, if he survives this at all.

MATTHEWS:  Zimbabwe maybe.  Mugabe, somebody like that.  You know the area.  Who would take him?  Because I think that‘s a big part of the end game here.  He ain‘t going unless he has someplace to go.  And if he doesn‘t go, we got to keep fighting him.

WRIGHT:  Well, the military clearly plays a critical role, as it did in Tunisia and Egypt.  In both countries, the military said that they were not going to fire against their own people.  In Libya, they said they have, and he‘s used mercenaries to reinforce that.  The question is, is there at some point someone who has close enough access to him to do something?  I think this situation is more unpredictable than any other place.

MATTHEWS:  Yes.  Let me go to the ambassador.  Mr. Ambassador Mack, could he survive just indefinitely until we stop thinking about him?

DAVID MACK, FORMER U.S. AMBASSADOR TO THE UAE:  Not indefinitely, but he‘ll be there longer than we would like.  He‘s be there longer than President Sarkozy and some of the—and the French foreign minister think he will be there.  But he‘ll be gone long before he imagines that he will be because, as Robin has suggested, he‘s going to be under a tremendous amount of pressure, but the—he‘ll stay.  He‘ll go down to the last bullet.  However, a lot of the people around him on whom he depends are not going to want to go down to the fiery death along with him.  And they know that they can—they need to find a way to separate their destiny from his.  And as they feel the sense of isolation, the economic pressures, they will find some way to do that.

MATTHEWS:  Robin, Saddam Hussein never really had a plan to escape.  I

I never quite understood that.  I‘m a little suspicious of the people who fought the war from our side. 

They never sent him a signal, look, if you bug out of there, if you really escape, we will leave you alone.  We won‘t track you down and take you to The Hague.  We will leave you alone.  So, he had no incentive to get out of Iraq, but he went and hid in the ground, underground, like some sort of, you know, groundhog. 

This guy, is he thoughtful enough, does he have friends enough to say, look, we will cut a deal with Hugo Chavez; we will get you a place to stay over there; it won‘t be so bad; you will have your guards and your millions or billions?  Does he—is he thoughtful enough?  Will Saif, his kid, get him out of there?  Will his friends get him out of there, so we can end this, or not? 

WRIGHT:  Well, as I said, it‘s very hard to predict. 

I think his kids are really a critical element right here.  His sons have been very influential.  They have control over some of the military wings.  And they will be looking for their own futures as well.  These are kids—young—they‘re in their—I think their 30s and 40s now—who are Westernized.  They are fairly well-educated.  His son Saif, who‘s considered his heir apparent, was educated in London. 

And—and they will be the ones, I think ultimately to say to him, either you have to think about a different future, you have to take refuge someplace else.  I doubt they turn against their father.  But they‘re more important in—I think, than any other element in society. 

MACK:  Well, Robin—


MATTHEWS:  Mr. Ambassador, we had McDonough on yesterday.

MACK:  Yes. 

MATTHEWS:  And he talked about the economic stranglehold we have on him.  And here‘s my question.  Is he able to make a nickel out of the oil wells over there?  Are they all basically inactive because of the sanctions or because they‘re held by the rebels? 

MACK:  I think a combination of both of those factors is going to make it very, very unlikely that significant revenues are going to go—be going to Gadhafi. 

However, he probably has got a lot of money with him and gold with him in Libya.  He can probably continue to pay off some of the people that he depends upon. 


MACK:  So, I‘m not sure that—that he will have the wherewithal to last for many months.  But he certainly is going to last for many weeks, or at least he has the capability of doing that. 

The no-fly zone is not going to remove him.  It‘s going to be these other tools, sanctions, isolation, and, as Robin suggested, the pressure of his children.  And Gadhafi himself might be happy to be a martyr.  But, like any other father, he‘s going to be concerned about the future of his sons and daughters. 

MATTHEWS:  Interesting stuff.  Thank you for all that intelligence, both of you, Robin Wright and Ambassador David Mack.  Great segment.

Up next:  Sarah Palin may have hit a new low.  I don‘t know what she‘s talking about sometimes.  Maybe she‘s being used.  Maybe she wants to be used.  She‘s saying stupid things about the Middle East.  And it‘s very tricky over there for our country.  She‘s talking about the Israeli settlements in a—kind of a wacky way. 

We‘re going to talk about that when we get back in the “Sideshow,” where it belongs.  That‘s ahead, Sarah Palin doing her worst, only on MSNBC. 


MATTHEWS:  Back to HARDBALL.  Time for the “Sideshow.” 

First up: the world according to Sarah.  President Obama, like President Bush, before him backs the creation of a Palestinian state on the West Bank. 

Well, fresh off her day-and-a-half trip to Israel, Sarah Palin has her own position. 


SARAH PALIN ®, FORMER ALASKA GOVERNOR:  I think that there are many in Israel who would feel even more comfortable knowing that there is an even greater commitment from those who presently occupy the White House that—that they are there on Israel‘s side and our most valuable ally in that region can count on us.


PALIN:  President Obama was inappropriate to intervene in a zoning issue in Israel, though.  I mean, let Israel decide their zoning issues.


MATTHEWS:  Translation:  Palin views the creation of a Palestinian state as a zoning issue.

She doesn‘t know what she‘s talking about. 

Next up: labor pains up in Maine.  Tea Party Governor Paul LePage has called for this 36-foot mural hanging in the state‘s Department of Labor to be removed.  Why?  His administration thinks it‘s too one-sided in favor of unions.           

LePage‘s spokesman said business owners have actually complained about the images of lumberjacks, shoemakers, and Rosie the Riveter.  Add this to Governor LePage‘s push for higher retirement ages for state employees and a bill that would let state employees opt out of paying union dues.  This guy is no friend of labor.

Heading out to California, a fund-raiser dubbed the political event of the year.  Tonight, the Campaign to Defeat Barack Obama brings you an evening of Joes—no, not Joe Scarborough.  You have got immigration hard-liner Sheriff Joe Arpaio, Arpaio of Arizona, 2008‘s one-hit wonder Joe the plumber, Tea Partier Joe Miller, the Republican nominee who lost in that write-in campaign run by the state incumbent Senator Lisa Murkowski up in Alaska.  Not to be left out, Sharron Angle is also slated to make an appearance. 

Say it ain‘t so, Joes. 

On a lighter note, TV‘s coming attractions—HBO is coming out with a

movie based on “Game Change.”  This is a can‘t-miss story on the 2008

presidential election.  Julianne Moore—she is great—has been tapped

to play Sarah Palin.  The just-announced pick for John McCain—I love it

Ed Harris, a guy from South Jersey, who was fantastic as the Philly gangster in “A History of Violence.”  Love that guy.

No broadcast date and no pick to play President Obama.  Can‘t wait. 

Up next:  Michele Bachmann may not have a handle on American history, but it looks like she wants to run for president.  She‘s likely to get in the race, apparently, according to Chris Cillizza of “The Post,” despite thinking our founding fathers were against slavery and the Battles of Lexington and Concord took place in New Hampshire. 

You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.  


HAMPTON PEARSON, CNBC CORRESPONDENT:  I‘m Hampton Pearson with your CNBC “Market Wrap.”

Stocks holding on to strong gains, despite persistent global concerns, the Dow Jones industrial surging 84 points, the S&P 500 adding 12, and the Nasdaq looking especially healthy with a 38-point jump.  Surprisingly light volume again today, with investors digesting some mixed earnings and economic reports. 

Best Buy shares slipped on falling profits and a dwindling market share.  Cell phone sales are soaring, but analysts were spooked by a double-digit drop in high-end TV sales. 

Walgreens up slightly on word it‘s buying online retailer Drugstore.com for about $29 million in cash.  Software-maker Red Hat leading techs higher on soaring earnings as it dives into cloud computing in a big way. 

And, in economic news, businesses ordered fewer durable goods in February, while employers created 192,000 new jobs and the four-week moving average on new jobless claims is now at its lowest level in two-and-a-half years. 

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



REP. MICHELE BACHMANN ®, MINNESOTA:  I‘m in for 2012, in that I want to be a part of the conversation of making sure that President Obama only serves one term, not two. 


MATTHEWS:  This is shooting fish in a barrel. 

We‘re back. 

Tea Party Caucus founder Congresswoman Michele Bachmann of Minnesota is on a swing through Iowa this week.  And, today, her advisers told reporters she may form a presidential exploratory committee in May and no later than June. 

Howard Fineman is the senior political editor for Huffington Post.  Ron Reagan is author of “My Father at 100,” a great book about President Reagan. 

Let‘s go to this question. 

Michele Bachmann, I think—Howard and Ron, I think what‘s going on here is, she‘s looking at the upcoming NBC debate that‘s going to be moderated by Brian—Brian Williams, and she‘s thinking, I don‘t want to miss this baby.  There‘s four stiffs in that.  I could be the exciting one, the only woman in the battle.  I could stand out because I‘m a little more flashy than these other guys, to put it lightly, certainly more flashy than Romney or Pawlenty.  Here‘s a chance to really, really make a mark in American debate. 

What do you think, Howard?  Is that what she is up to?



MATTHEWS:  Win or lose, she can always drop out later. 

FINEMAN:  Yes, that‘s part of what she‘s up to. 

She loves the limelight, obviously.  I remember, on the swearing-in day in the House a couple months ago, being up in the gallery looking down on the—on the House floor, and she made sure she was right in the front row with all her kids and her family, loving all the attention.  So, that‘s part of it. 

But I think she‘s serious, at least about Iowa, for sure.  She‘s from Iowa.  She‘s strongly anti-abortion.  She‘s right on all the issues with a lot of the likely Republican caucus attenders in Iowa.  And depending on the poll you read, about half of those people are evangelical Christians.  And she is with them point by point by point by point. 

She could make a big play in Iowa, whether we, you know, inside the Beltway take her seriously or not. 

MATTHEWS:  You know, I think, Ron, just in terms of television values, if you get four stiff guys up there, boring-looking guys, they will either be looking at her because she‘s certainly more attractive than the other candidates, just—just to be up there, and then they will either look at the—the Mephistophelian look of Newt Gingrich, because they just want to hurt themselves—


MATTHEWS: -- because of some sort of, I don‘t know, misery-loving, or they will look at her, because she might say something really wild.  She will be the wild cannon out there, it seems to me. 

RON REAGAN, POLITICAL COMMENTATOR:  Yes.  And if you‘re a Democrat or

somebody who supports the Democratic Party, of course you‘re rubbing your

hands together, because she adds yet another whack-a-doodle element to the



REAGAN: -- whack-a-doodle Republican field here.

But Howard hit it on the—on the head, I think, when he talked about the strength of the evangelical right in Iowa.  That gives her a real shot, I think, you know, Mike Huckabee also. 


REAGAN:  She could come in second place in Iowa, and that improves your quote a lot when you do that.  She could become a much more significant player in the Republican Party with a second-place or maybe even a first-place finish in Iowa. 

MATTHEWS:  Let‘s cut her some slack here for about one or two minutes, Howard.  She has apparently a very compelling personal story.  And when you go out and talk to the church people, I would assume that would matter as much as positions that she nails down. 

What do you make—what do you think of that?

FINEMAN:  Yes.  I mean, Chris, I‘ll tell you what. 

The more you look at her, whatever you think of her theatricality and her wild statements, in terms of her personal background, in terms of her being an evangelical Christian, in terms of her beliefs in Christian education, in terms of her abortion position, her position on gay rights, all the way down the line, you feed it all into a computer in terms of stands on the issues, and she is on point with every megachurch political activist in Iowa right up and down the line, I can tell you, not only her personal family as well—you know, they have 23 foster kids that they have taken care of. 

I mean, she—she is a dream candidate for that particular group.  Now, whether they‘re going to sit there and say, hey, wait a minute, could this woman win a general election, they may be influenced by that, but they‘re going to like her personally, I guarantee you. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, let‘s—let‘s just do the quick math here, the quick political rundown, Ron.  You—you lead the way here. 

Romney, as I said the other night, makes empty suits, gives them a bad name. 


MATTHEWS:  Huckabee‘s probably not going to run because he likes the money that Roger Ailes is giving him over at FOX.  Palin is apparently not going to run, but you never know.  Gingrich, with his personal history, how does he match up against this woman?  He‘s had more wives than she‘s had foster kids.


MATTHEWS:  Just kidding.  I can‘t say that.  I‘m just kidding.  That‘s overstatement. 

But what do you make of this? 

REAGAN:  No, you‘re absolutely right.  That—the entire Republican field is—is deeply flawed, as a whole, and each of the candidates has a particular flaw that they—they bring to the table there. 

I mean, imagine if you‘re an independent voter.  Maybe you voted for Obama last time, but now, you know, you‘re out of work.  You‘re not quite satisfied with the economy.  You‘re looking at the Republican Party.  Maybe they can do better.  So you tune into a Republican primary debate, and the first three people you see are Michele Bachmann, Sarah Palin, and Donald Trump. 


REAGAN:  Unless you‘re—


REAGAN: -- unless looking for Snooki to get into the race, you‘re—you‘re getting off that bus. 


REAGAN:  You know, this is bad for the Republican Party, and I think some Republicans know it. 

MATTHEWS:  But they are going to have some legitimate candidates, like Governor Pawlenty and Governor Romney. 

REAGAN:  Oh, and doesn‘t your heart start to race when you hear the name Pawlenty? 


MATTHEWS:  Howard, you‘re so nonpartisan.  You‘re just—this is killing you, because this is rich material here.  This is—



MATTHEWS:  When is the last time that a party has fielded this kind of showcase of cartoon characters?  I mean, you put them all up there together, I mean, they‘re all going to be so rich and they‘re all going to be reaching for the stars in terms of wild, attention-grabbing lines, aren‘t they? 

FINEMAN:  Yes, I think they‘re going to have to. 

And, of course, on one level, as we were discussing the other day, it‘s kind of amusing to watch the likes of Mitt Romney try to play in this field. 


FINEMAN:  You know, he‘s—he doesn‘t have the moves for—for the audience that he‘s going to have to play to. 

Tim Pawlenty is sort of the—is going to go for the un-objectionability vote, I suppose. 


FINEMAN:  And—and—and all the rest are—are, shall we say, vivid characters. 

But the thing that strikes me about Michelle Bachmann is, if you really look at her stands on the issues—and some of them sound crazy, like the stuff about the incandescent light bulb—you know, she wants to resurrect incandescent light bulbs and all that—it sounds wacky, but she can go a mile deep on the issues with evangelical voters. 


FINEMAN:  And, in Iowa—I hate to keep saying this—but, in Iowa, that‘s really what matters.  And she‘s a multi-generational Iowan.  You know, she was born in Iowa. 

She—I‘m sure she can‘t resist it.  Yes, she‘s going to get into those debates, because she is a—wants to be a star, and she knows she‘s more attractive than the other candidates just as a personality. 


FINEMAN:  But I‘m sure she can‘t resist the idea that she could go in there to—in Iowa and really clean up. 

And I think that‘s one reason, aside from TV and so forth, why somebody like Mike Huckabee is holding back, because if she gets in it in Iowa, Mike Huckabee would be in a fight for his life with evangelical voters in that state.

MATTHEWS:  Ron Reagan, should I feel guilty because a couple years ago on this program on HARDBALL, I brought it out, I got her to go really wild out of nowhere.  She keeps—she sort of politically born there saying that we have to investigations of all the Democratic members of Congress, the McCarthy thing and she gloried in that.  I feel like the Moe Greene of this one, I built this place, like “Godfather,” you know?

And should I feel guilty about this, Ron?

REAGAN:  In a word, yes.


MATTHEWS:  And now I‘m watching my friend Howard do a very subtle build-up of her.  And I‘m going, he‘s building up—he knows he‘s doing it for just sheer journalistic joy in getting to cover a more interesting debate.  Admit you want her in this field, Howard.

REAGAN:  Oh, yes, I do

FINEMAN:  Of course.  Well, listen, there‘s a difference—there‘s a difference between what any journalist would have fun covering and what would necessarily be good for the country, OK?  We‘ll just leave it at that.

MATTHEWS:  Let‘s take a look at what Fred Barnes has to say.  He‘s a smart guy.  “I think we need to wait until September and see if the field we have is inspiring Republicans or not.  And if not, then there might be pressure, enormous pressure,” he writes, “on others to jump.”  He mentions Chris Christie, Jeb Bush, even Paul Ryan, the conservative budget guy.  “I think there‘s widespread sentiment that people want to see other candidates.”

Now, that‘s a question, Howard.  As a journalist, do you have a sense that they‘re just—they‘re looking at this field as sort of the spring list, but there‘s going to be a fall list?

FINEMAN:  Yes, I think that‘s possible.  And I think Fred Barnes is as good an authority on what is acceptable within the conservative, you know, establishment mainstream as there is.  And, clearly, Fred doesn‘t like what he sees so far and he wants to look for some other players later on, because, you know, the conservatives are going to have to look for somebody that they can sell to those independent voters as you were saying, Chris, and as Ron was saying.


FINEMAN:  And a lot of these characters for various reasons just won‘t do it.  Michele Bachmann, I keep talking about how strong she could be in Iowa.  There‘s no way she could be a general election candidate.  There‘s just no way.  There‘s just no way.

MATTHEWS:  Is there any way, Ron, she—

REAGAN:  Let me ask -- 

MATTHEWS:  Go ahead, I‘m sorry, Ron.  Go ahead.

REAGAN:  Let me ask you guys.  If Romney or Pawlenty, one of the more standard Republicans, doesn‘t get traction in the early primaries, do you think that the Republicans will start looking for a Jeb Bush or somebody, a Paul Ryan in September, in the fall?

MATTHEWS:  Well, I think if the president‘s down to 44 percent the way he is right now, they have to have a meeting—of the white boys club or whatever they call those governors that meets somewhere in Birmingham.  And don‘t they, Howard, they‘re going to have one of those meetings in the men‘s room, wherever the hell they meet and pick another candidate?

FINEMAN:  Well, I wouldn‘t call it—I wouldn‘t call the organization that, exactly.

MATTHEWS:  What would you call it?

FINEMAN:  Well—what passes for the leadership of the party.


FINEMAN:  Somebody like—somebody like Haley Barbour is making the calculation that he—even though he‘s the Southern good old boy character or maybe partly because he is, can come off as an adult and a mainstream in this environment.  I mean, that‘s Haley‘s play is that—look at all these other people other.  Yes, I‘ve got my infirmities, I was a lobbyist, you know, I‘m a good old boy, et cetera, but I look like Dwight Eisenhower compared to some of these people.

MATTHEWS:  Yes.  I think—I think they need pizzazz and they might find pizzazz of a sort from Bachmann, and yet they still need a candidate who can beat Barack Obama and that means pizzazz plus substance.  And I don‘t think they‘ve got both in any of these candidates.  Have you, Ron—pizzazz and substance?

REAGAN:  No, I don‘t.  No, there‘s not a lot of substance there period.  But, you know, pizzazz, yes, very short—in very short supply over on the sane wing of the party there.

MATTHEWS:  Yes, I know.

REAGAN:  The Mitch Daniels and the Pawlentys and all.

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Howard, it‘s great to have you.

Ron, as always, take care.

Up next: a top nuclear scientist says the crisis in Japan is a reminder that here in the United States, the nuclear industry has been taken over—while the agency is supposed to be regulating the nuclear industry has been taken over by the industry.  That‘s not a good sign with the foxes guarding the henhouse on something that we‘re looking at right now, nuclear power.

We‘ll be right back with that hot one, on MSNBC.


MATTHEWS:  Well, Bill Clinton‘s back on top.  The new Pew Poll shows the former president matching an all-time high in his own favorability ratings.  Catch these numbers: 67 percent of Americans, that‘s 2/3, say they have a favorable opinion of our 42nd president.  That‘s as high as it‘s ever been since Pew started polling back in ‘99.

We‘ll be right back.  Congratulations, Mr. President.



Today, two workers in that crippled Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan were hospitalized for radiation exposure when they stepped into contaminated water that then came in contact with their skin.

And you‘re looking now at the first pictures ever out in the public of the interior of the nuclear plant that‘s been leaking radiation for nearly two weeks.

Here at home—and this is important to everybody watching—the Nuclear Regulatory Commission‘s inspector general, the IG report shows nearly 30 percent of our nuclear power plants fail to report equipment problems that can pose substantial safety risks.  That‘s in “The Wall Street Journal” today.

And separately, a nuclear plant worker in Tennessee has been charged with lying about plant inspections.

So, given all that, how safe are we here in America?  Can the NRC, the Nuclear Regulatory Agency, keep us safe?

Arjun Makhijani is president for the Institute of Energy and Environmental Research.

Arjun, thank you for joining us, sir.  It‘s great to have an expert on.

You know, there‘s been a lot of concern, and you‘re one of the great experts in the country.  So, we‘d like you to take time.

You‘ve watched all of this, what does it tell you about us?  What can we learn from the dangers that are really imminent now in Japan and are hurting people already?  What does that tell us about how we‘re doing?

ARJUN MAKHIJANI, INST. FOR ENERGY & ENVIRON. RESEARCH:  Well, I think I‘m very dismayed that the NRC has reacted with considerable complacency.  It‘s not enough to order a paper study.  Just this Monday, this week, while this tragedy is going on in Japan, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission issued a license extension for Vermont Yankee, exactly the same kind of plant that‘s about the same age, for 20 years, without even taking a pause for the—without even taking a breath and saying we have to revisit these licensing decisions.

The spent fuel pool at Vermont Yankee has got somewhat more spent fuel in it than all four of the spent fuel pools in Fukushima put together.

MATTHEWS:  And what does that tell you, given the experience of what happened to the spent fuel and how vulnerable that was to exposure and becoming very dangerous?  What does that tell you?

MAKHIJANI:  Well, the NRC has known the dangers in the United States since a 1997 study was done for it about U.S. reactors by the Brookhaven National Lab.  That study estimated damages at somewhere in today‘s dollars between $900 million and $700 billion, and maybe up to tens of thousands of excess cancer deaths.

And the NRC has essentially dismissed that as a low probability and not ordered the emptying of the spent fuel pools as much as possible.  At Vermont Yankee, they issued a license extension without ordering the emptying of a spent fuel pool that‘s really chockfull.  And that could—that has more long-lived radioactivity than the Chernobyl reactor.

MATTHEWS:  Let‘s talk about American regulatory policy.  You know, that there‘s different views in this country, as you know, sir.  You‘re in the business.  Republicans tend to be not very strong on regulation.  Democrats tend to be much tougher on it.

We saw what happened with BP down in the Gulf, that MMA, the Minerals Management Agency there, division of Interior, was not very good apparently at really being a regulatory agency.  They were basically pro-industry.  They were looking out for promoting the oil industry rather than regulating it.  The wrong people who were in there, there‘s a lot of revolving door stuff going on.

Is that the situation with the NRC?

MAKHIJANI:  Well, I think the NRC allows an excessive amount of for self-inspection and self-reporting, and it has almost led to a very severe situation and serious situations here.

We have to remember that this is not regulating just any kind of industry.  This is regulating an industry where if there are severe accidents, large areas could become uninhabitable and where the insurance only covers $11 billion, but where the damages could be in the hundreds of billions.

So, let me give you an example of this self inspection.  The Nuclear Regulatory Commission knew that reactor vessel heads, the lid of this pressure cooker, are vulnerable to corrosion in some cases.  They had an example that in France, they were worried about this and replacing the vessel heads.  Yet, they allowed self-inspections.

They had indications that a Davis-Besse, a plant near Toledo, there were deposits of this corrosive material on the reactor vessel head and they did not shut the reactor down and order an inspection.  And when it was shut down for refueling, they discovered a hole the size of a pineapple with a third of an inch between a blowout of that vessel head and safety.

MATTHEWS:  OK, bottom line, sir—are we safe in this country from nuclear disaster?

MAKHIJANI:  Well, you know, we—I have to say like everybody else that the probabilities are low, but the NRC is reluctant to impose costs on the industry that are reasonable, that would greatly increase safety.  And it‘s had official studies from Brookhaven, from the National Academies, and it should accept those recommendations and do the needful.  It‘s not doing that.

MATTHEWS:  Well, Arjun Makhijani, thank you so much for coming on and great to have your expertise.  A lot of people in this audience out here I know very well are worried about it.  And thank you for giving us your expert testimony.

When we return, “Let Me Finish” with why there‘s so little support in this country for the American mission in Libya.  You‘ll figure it out.  It isn‘t hard to figure it out.  Democrats tend to be anti-war; Republicans tend to be anti-Obama.

You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.


MATTHEWS:  Let me finish tonight with why there‘s so little support for the Libya campaign.

It doesn‘t take a genius to realize that the Democrats are generally anti-war.  Nor to understand why so many Republicans are failing to back the president‘s effort to prevent a bloodbath by Gadhafi.

Let‘s talk about the Republicans.  President Bush said we shouldn‘t blame Muslims for 9/11.  Senator McCain said that President Obama is a good American.  Neither of these sentiments are typical of the Republican Party today.

Forty-six percent of Republicans, just about half, now believe President Obama is himself a Muslim, 46 percent—and they don‘t mean that as a compliment.  Fifty-one percent of Republicans believe President Obama was born in some other country.

Well, given the Republican Party‘s attitude toward Muslims, given that half of them don‘t think Obama is a true countryman of ours, why would they back an effort by President Obama to save lives of Muslims over in Libya?

Mitt Romney now says that Obama doesn‘t believe in America and what it stands for.

Mike Huckabee says recently that Obama was brought up in Kenya, grew up loving the Mau Maus.

Newt Gingrich said this Mau Mau background of Obama‘s is the best predictor of his policy choices.

Want to know what Obama thinks, what he‘s going to do next?  Think about the Mau Maus and what they would want to do.  That‘s what Newt Gingrich is saying.

Michele Bachmann long ago dismissed the president as downright anti-American.  She said it right here on this show—anti-American.  To add to this drumbeat from some on the right that the United States is being taken over by Sharia law—that our laws are being construed to mandate strict adherence to the Koran.

I can‘t remember when the foreign policy of this country was so shrouded in this kind of hateful atmospherics.  People believe that the president is not really an American, that he‘s a Muslim and therefore one of them, one of those over there in Africa and the Mideast, plotting against us.  Just listen to Glenn Beck sometimes if you can, or Rush Limbaugh, and their relentless hatred of foreigners, the president being one of them as they say.

Of course, they don‘t back Obama in this difficult effort in Libya.  Ask them if they support anything Obama does.  Ask them if they support any effort to save Arab lives.

Sarah Palin, back from her day and a half being trooped around by the right-wing in Israel, says the United States should have no say whatever in an effort to bring peace between Israel and the Palestinians.  We should just rubber stamp every Israeli settlement in the Palestinian territories.  This is like Huckabee‘s statement that there‘s a Palestinian state, it just can‘t be in Palestine.

This hatred of dismissive hatred of the Islamic world, this dismissive hatred of our president, whom half of the Republicans believe is of the Islamic world is the kind of bumpkin, anti-foreigner thinking that makes any sort of U.S. foreign policy discussion with this crowd a joke—at the very time we need to be deadly serious in what we‘re doing in the world.

That‘s HARDBALL for now.  Thanks for being with us.

More politics ahead with Cenk Uygur.



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