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Msnbc Live at 6 p.m. ET, Thursday April 21, 2011

Read the transcript from the Thursday 6 p.m. hour

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Guests: Dana Milbank, Maggie Haberman, Tyson Slocum, Ron Brownstein,

Celinda Lake, Jon Ralston

CENK UYGUR, HOST:  Good evening, everybody.  I‘m Cenk Uygur.  We‘ve got a great show ahead for you guys. 

You know how we‘ve been reporting how Donald Trump has upended the Republican presidential race by loudly raising questions about whether President Obama was really born in this country?  Well, it made Donald Trump very popular with the GOP voters, but it also turned him into a bit of a joke. 

Well, for a few minutes today, it seemed like that the joke was over.  In a “USA Today” op-ed this morning, Trump blamed the media for fanning the birther claims and claimed that he was leaving the issue behind.  “There is not one interview when the birther issue is not raised multiple times during the conversation.  Sadly, the press has en masse chosen to glom on to one of the myriad issues I have discussed.  I have spoken my piece on this issue.”

So, great.  That‘s it.  It‘s over.  Trump is done with that ugly birther issue. 

Except for when he called into the morning shows today. 


DONALD TRUMP, ENTREPRENEUR:  I don‘t know why he doesn‘t just show his birth certificate.  I‘d much rather run man-to-man.  I don‘t know why he  doesn‘t show his birth certificate.

TRUMP:  If he was not born here, he can‘t be president.  It would be a disaster.  It would be one of the great cons of all time. 

I hope that he releases his birth certificate if he‘s got one. 


UYGUR:  So Trump was done with the issue for about three-and-a-half seconds. 

It turns out, of course, he‘s not backing away from the birther issue at all.  As you just heard, he‘s doubling down. 

So why is he doing that?  Well, one, because he can‘t himself.  He‘s like, where‘s the camera?  Where‘s the camera?  I‘ve got to get on air. 

You‘re paying attention to birthers?  Birther!  Birther!

And second of all, it‘s because it‘s what the Republicans want.  A new CBS/”New York Times” poll shows 45 percent of GOP voters think President Obama was not born in the United States.  Twenty-two percent say that they don‘t know.  That‘s two-thirds of Republicans expressing doubt about whether the president is an even American citizen. 

So why does Trump sound like a lunatic?  Because he‘s speaking at an asylum.  Republicans created this monster by constantly insinuating that the president is not one of us. 

Now you‘ve got Rove, Cantor, and even Bachmann yesterday beginning to walk it back.  But it‘s too late.  You can‘t put the birther genie back in the bottle.  It‘s out there and it‘s devouring your party. 

That “New York Times” poll also shows that 56 percent of Republican voters aren‘t excited about any of their potential presidential candidates right now.  And a new Pew poll shows that 38 percent of Republicans can‘t even name a single presidential candidate in their own party. 

No matter how radical the candidates get, the base wants more and more and more.  But as Rove and other party leaders recognize, this is no way to win a general election.  So now the question that haunts the Republican Party is, how do we wrestle with this Frankenstein that we have created? 

Joining me now is Dana Milbank, national political correspondent for “The Washington Post,” and Maggie Haberman, senior political writer for Politico. 

Now, I want to thank both of you guys for being here and I want to ask both of you about the issue, the party leaders, and of course the voter themselves. 

But you know what, Dana?  Let‘s start with the voters themselves. 

Two-thirds of the party saying that we didn‘t land on the moon or that O.J.‘s innocent, or, I don‘t know, 9/11 was an inside job.  I mean, this is crazy talk. 


I guess so.  This is the craziest thing since we had 70 percent of American public believing that Saddam Hussein was behind 9/11. 

People are suggestible, particularly less educated and older folks. 

And that‘s what “The New York Times” poll found. 

They actually did some callbacks to say, OK, well, where was he born if he wasn‘t born in the United States?  You get Kenya, as you figure, Indonesia.  I particularly like the people who say that he was born in Iran. 

But it becomes a real problem for the party, as you can see, because all of the birthers basically are Republicans or conservative-leaning Independents.  But if you look at the Independents who are actually up for grabs, you know, 75 percent or more of them are saying, come on, this is a bunch of nonsense.  And that‘s politically deadly for the Republicans. 

UYGUR:  So, Maggie, is it Trump‘s fault, is it the party‘s fault in the first place, or is it just that they‘ve got a base that‘s just not that rational?  And so what are they going to do?  They‘ve got to appeal to the base. 

MAGGIE HABERMAN, SR. POLITICAL WRITER, POLITICO:  That‘s right.  I think it‘s all of the above. 

I mean, I think that Trump is playing to something that the crowd wants to hear, and that‘s what Donald Trump is good at.  You saw him—and you talked about this—trying to pivot off of it earlier today in this “USA Today” op-ed, and then he couldn‘t.  He didn‘t just double down, he tripled down on birther.  He talked about it a bunch.

And I think he cannot help himself, but I also think he‘s got a real audience for it.  And I do think that Republicans have spent a lot of time questioning whether this president is a legitimate president in one way or another. 

And you‘re right, this is the fruit of that labor.  It is a real threat to the establishment. 

You‘ve seen Karl Rove, all of these establishment figures.  The Club for Growth has been hitting Donald Trump for days this week.  They‘re very concerned that he is going off the rails and taking the party with it, and what to do for the general. 

UYGUR:  You know, you‘re right about tripling down.  We have another video here where he talks about his private eyes in Hawaii. 

This guy is cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs.  Let‘s watch. 


TRUMP:  And at a certain point in time, I will be revealing some interesting—

ALI VELSHI, CNN ANCHOR:  Have you got anything though?  Have you got anything?  Even if you don‘t tell us what it is, have you got something that suggests that Barack Obama was not born in the United States?

TRUMP:  I just said, we were looking into it very strongly and you will be very surprised. 



UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Have your investigators been able to unearth anything more that has given your argument credence? 

TRUMP:  I will let you know that at a future date. 


TRUMP:  I‘ll let you know that at a future date. 


UYGUR:  So, Maggie—

HABERMAN:  At a future date.  Some point in the future. 

UYGUR:  I mean, I‘m starting to get a sense of, like, Al Capone‘s vault.  Once we open the vault, you‘ll see.

HABERMAN:  This is not necessarily going to end well.  I‘m not sure that he has investigators there.  I know he says he does.  I don‘t think talking about an investigation is what he wants to be doing every day. 

I think he needs to put this aside.  If he does do what I think he will do next month, which is form a committee and say he is running, this cannot be the issue one runs from if it is.  They‘re over.  This cannot go on forever. 

In terms of the fruits of this investigation, we‘ll see if it actually happens.  But he has to find a way to put this to bed. 

UYGUR:  Dana, now let‘s talk about the Republican reaction, because I want to show you a video here of Michele Bachmann.  And it sounds like she‘s running away from the issue. 

Let‘s watch first. 


REP. MICHELE BACHMANN ®, MINNESOTA:  I take the president at his word.  And I think for—again, I would have no problem, and apparently the president wouldn‘t either.  Introduce that, we‘re done.  Move on.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS, “GOOD MORNING AMERICA”:  So this has—well, this has been introduced.  So this story is over? 

BACHMANN:  Well, as long as someone introduces it, I guess it‘s over. 

STEPHANOPOULOS:  It‘s right there. 

BACHMANN:  Yes, there you go. 


UYGUR:  Even Michele Bachmann is running away from it.  So there must have been a memo sent out at Republican headquarters saying, run for the hills. 

MILBANK:  Oh, they‘re running.  And it‘s not even just the politicians.  Even the usual suspects in the blogosphere, so you‘ve got one of Andrew Breitbart‘s Web sites coming out now saying they think this whole birther thing is actually a liberal conspiracy to try to make the Republicans look bad. 


UYGUR:  So two-thirds of Republican voters are liberals?  Is that the case? 

MILBANK:  It just shows you how successful, Cenk, you have been at perpetrating this great hoax on the American people. 

UYGUR:  Yes.  I didn‘t know I was that good. 

So, I mean, look, it‘s an unsolvable riddle for them.  You know, Seinfeld came out today and got into a war of words with Trump, and he‘s canceled an appearance, et cetera.  And I think he‘s among, obviously, a great number of people in the mainstream who say this is kooky stuff. 

And it‘s not just that we don‘t agree, it‘s that we think you‘re crazy.  Right?

And so how do you get out of the trap?  I don‘t know that anybody‘s got an answer for this.

Maggie, how do the Republicans get out of a trap where two-thirds of their voters don‘t agree with the mainstream of America? 

HABERMAN:  They really need to get it back to the economy and jobs.  You know, that‘s supposed to be the big message this cycle.  And that‘s where Republicans felt like their high ground was.  Talking about, you know, the nature of the president‘s birth certificate is not it. 

However, you know, their front-runner, the person who we‘ve all been hearing for years now was going to emerge as the front-runner, Mitt Romney, his whole message is supposed to be jobs and the economy.  And here you have Donald Trump, whose brand is creating jobs and being a businessman.  None of this is particularly helpful. 

The Republicans need to get back on a singular message and be able to stick to it.  I think there was a moment where the White House faltered, where David Plouffe elevated Donald Trump, responded with, “You‘re hired,” using the catchphrase.  It was supposed to be kind of funny, it didn‘t totally work. 

But when the president himself addressed it, it did seem like they had found their ground.  The White House has never had to deal with this issue, being in the mainstream in this way.  Trump has managed to do something that no one really did in the 2008 races, and now I think the Republicans need to find a way to veer it back toward the economy. 

UYGUR:  All right. 

And Dana, as to the overall field, I mean, we showed you the number, 58 percent, no one‘s excited—or, I‘m sorry, 56 percent, no one is excited about any of the candidates, and they don‘t poll well.  Even Trump, who gets some favorable, also has massive unfavorable rankings. 

MILBANK:  That‘s right.

UYGUR:  So does this show incredible weakness in the Republican field? 

MILBANK:  Well, what we‘re seeing here is not only that people are tremendously dissatisfied with the field, but the Republicans are growing increasingly dissatisfied.  Our own “Washington Post” poll this week showed that dissatisfaction is increasing the closer we get to the election, which is not a good sign. 

And, you know, in title, Mitt Romney is the front-runner, but there really is no front-runner here.  And the result of that is, there‘s no grownup in the race.  There‘s no figure who can say, OK, this is a bunch of nonsense, let‘s move on.  I mean, Karl Rove can say it, but people aren‘t necessarily going to listen.  The problem is there‘s no real heavyweight to stand up there and say, stop this, guys. 

UYGUR:  All right.

And Maggie, how does this play out?  Does Trump actually go into the primaries?  Does that really blow up Romney‘s chances, if Trump turns out really does have $7 billion, which I think you guys reported, but I‘m incredibly skeptical about, to be honest with you -- 

HABERMAN:  Yes.  I‘ve heard a lot of skepticism today, and so it will either be there or it won‘t, if he creates a committee and files.  I mean, that‘s the beauty of the financial disclosures, is you do have to do them, unless, of course, you get two extensions, which is basically what everybody is allowed. 

Mitt Romney got it last time.  And then you can drag it out for a while. 

Look, I think Trump will form a committee.  Whether he goes the distance, whether he is in this for the long haul, that remains to be seen. 

I have no doubt that he‘s going to continue to impact the race, at least for a little while.  And I think the numbers that you saw in New Hampshire—there was a recent poll that showed Trump pretty close to Romney in that state.  That is a do-or-die state for Mitt Romney, whether or not his people say that publicly. 

That is somewhere he has to win.  It‘s a neighbor state.  It‘s a state where he‘s a part-time resident.  That would be a focus of concern. 

And so I do think that Trump is going to continue to play a role in terms of what we all talk about in the echo chamber, unless, of course, he shows that he has no discipline whatsoever and continues to talk about the birther issue a lot for the coming weeks. 

UYGUR:  Discipline doesn‘t seem to be his strong suit.  So buckle up. 

Here comes more Trump. 


UYGUR:  All right.  Dana Milbank and Maggie Haberman, thank you both so much for joining us. 

HABERMAN:  Thank you.

MILBANK:  Thanks.

UYGUR:  All right.

Now, nothing sinks a president‘s approval rating faster than high gas prices.  President Obama‘s vowing to do something about it.  What‘s his plan and can it work?

And now that the numbers are in, and Democrats are on the attack, Paul Ryan isn‘t sounding so tough.  We‘ll tell you why he‘s backpedaling and might be in for a world of trouble. 


UYGUR:  In our “Rigged Game” today—we‘ve got a whole block on it—gas prices are shooting up and the president is doing something about it.  The average price per gallon costs 35 percent more than it did just a year ago. 

In six states, the average price already tops $4 a gallon.  That‘s painful.  You know what it cost me?  It cost me $60 the other day to fill up my wife‘s car.  I didn‘t like that. 

And some people are fearing that $5 a gallon is just around the corner.  That would be really painful. 

So it‘s no wonder that this is an issue that the American people really care about.  And that anger might have shown itself in President Obama‘s approval rating. 

Two months ago, gas was at $3.16 a gallon and the president‘s approval rating was at 48 percent.  But since then, gas prices have jumped 68 cents, which is a lot, obviously, and his approval rating has dropped to 43 percent. 

Now, are those two things directly related?  Well, of course, it‘s impossible to know for sure, but it seems like there‘s a good chance. 

So, today, at a town hall meeting, President Obama announced that the Justice Department is creating a task force that will “root out fraud or manipulation in the oil markets” that could be contributing to these high prices.  Now, it will focus some of its investigation on the role of traders and speculators.  However, in a statement today, Attorney General Holder suggested that no evidence has turned up yet of unlawful price manipulation. 

Now, let‘s talk about whether that‘s the real problem with gas prices. 

Joining me now is Tyson Slocum.  He‘s the director of Public Citizen‘s Energy Program. 

All right.  First, I want to start with, is this a real issue?  Are they on to something?  Is it possible that the speculators are driving up the gas prices? 

TYSON SLOCUM, PUBLIC CITIZEN‘S ENERGY PROGRAM:  Oh, absolutely the speculators are driving up the prices.  And all you have to do is listen to Goldman Sachs, one of the largest investment banks and one of the largest global traders in crude oil and gasoline products. 

A little over a week ago, Goldman Sachs, in a communication with some of its wealthiest investors, said that speculators accounted for about $27 to $30 of a barrel of oil.  That translates to about 70 or 75 cents in the price of a gallon of gasoline. 

So when a speculator is saying, yes, speculators are playing a significant role in the market right now, I tend to listen to them.  And the reason that the speculators—that it‘s obvious is because it‘s a disconnect between the current crude oil prices and the supply and demand fundamentals. 

Secretary Chu, the secretary of energy, Steven Chu, said earlier this week—he said, the United States is awash in a surplus of oil and gasoline.  We‘ve got almost two billion barrels of gasoline and crude oil in storage in the United States, 726 million barrels of that is in the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. 

Now, when I took economics courses, when you have a surplus, that has a tendency to depress prices.  The fact that prices are going up shows that speculators are driving this issue.  So if you‘re Goldman Sachs, you‘re making a lot of money.  If you‘re a working family trying to get from home to work, or drop your kids off at school, it‘s really—you‘re dealing with a lot of hardship.  And that‘s why the International Monetary Fund last week said that these sustained high prices threatened the fragile economic recovery right now. 

UYGUR:  Tyson, I think if a lot of Americans knew what you were saying, they‘d be quite angry.  I‘m already angry. 

I mean, if you‘re talking about 75 cents per gallon, that that makes a difference, that it could be that much lower, if I just got 10 gallons, that‘s $7.50 out of my pocket into some banker‘s pocket for some reason.  I‘m already livid over it. 

So, how does that work?  I think a lot of people are probably confused about that, as to how that translates to going into their pockets.  What do they do? 

SLOCUM:  Right.  Well, most Americans think that OPEC, like Saudi Arabia or Iran or Venezuela, set oil prices.  They don‘t.  They try to influence prices by the amount of oil that they‘re producing and exporting to the rest of the world. 

Where prices are actually set is by financial firms like Goldman Sachs, like hedge funds, and then some companies like Koch Industries, which is a major trader of crude oil and petroleum products.  They do it in exchanges in New York and in another financial centers, and then they also trade in contracts on their own unregulated exchanges, thanks to a 2000 law that deregulated all of this. 

And so what the Dodd/Frank financial services bill from last summer, one of the things that it‘s supposed to do is to re-regulate this trading, to bring it under the careful eye of government regulators.  It also seeks to limit the positions that an individual trader can take. 

Right now a company like Goldman Sachs can sometimes control half of all the outstanding contracts in crude oil.  That‘s not competition.  That‘s a single company exercising market power.

So what we need to do is to rein in the speculators, reduce the levels of excessive speculation, and that‘s going to bring prices down around 70 cents a gallon.  And that‘s going to bring the relief that we need to working families. 

UYGUR:  Well, Tyson, the Republicans say the opposite.  They say, look, here‘s how you solve this—you do less regulation, let the speculators speculate all they like, and let them drive up or down the price, and then if you just do a little bit more drilling, we‘ll be set. 

Why do you think that‘s wrong? 

SLOCUM:  Because it‘s false.  You know, we‘ve got Representative Frank Lucas, a Republican from Oklahoma, who‘s introduced a bill, HR-1573, that would deregulate a big chunk of the Dodd/Frank Financial Services Reform Act, which is popping champagne corks on Wall Street right now if this were to pass, because this would do away with these proposed regulations over energy trading, giving huge, new opportunities for Wall Street to keep driving up the price of oil. 

And the argument that all the United States need to do is open up new areas to drilling and that will produce prices, that‘s also false.  The Bush administration, in 2007, ordered the Energy Information Administration, which is the statistical branch of the Department of Energy, to take a look at, let‘s say we open up all offshore areas to new drilling off the Atlantic Coast, every area in the Gulf of Mexico, California, Alaska, we open it all up to oil drilling.  The EIA, the Energy Department, found it would have an insignificant impact on reducing prices and on reducing imports because the United States is not Saudi Arabia. 

We only sit on 1.5 percent of the world‘s oil.  It is impossible for us to tap into that very small pool of oil and bring prices down by ramping production up. 

That‘s why, after the BP disaster that started last year, when Obama had to do a moratorium on deepwater drilling, oil prices did not go up, because all the traders knew that you can‘t send prices up for an area that is not a significant source of global oil and gas production.  So Republicans saying that we need to deregulate is really harmful, and their argument that we need to drill more is just ludicrous. 

UYGUR:  Well, you know, we did a “Rigged Game” segment here.  Maybe we should have done a “Con Job,” because as they blame the president for the high gas prices, they deregulate the speculation, allowing for much higher gas prices, and then go, ha-ha, and just blame the Democrats for it.  It‘s an unbelievable con job. 

But the last thing here, Tyson, any chance that this commission or whatever he‘s going to put together, the president here, that it helps?  I mean, are they really going to get tough on Goldman Sachs? 

SLOCUM:  Well, we have to.  You know, definitely investigating whether or not the lack of regulation is encouraging collusive or anti-competitive behavior, the Department of Justice ought to be taking a look at that. 

But we can also address this by the president and Congress sending clearer instructions to the agency that regulates these markets, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, to say, look, you‘ve got to enact tough position limits that limit the ability of a Goldman Sachs to control a big chunk of the market, because a company that controls a big chunk of the market, that means you have an uncompetitive market. 

We‘ve got to make sure that every trade in crude oil and gasoline is conducted in way that is fully regulated by the federal government, because when we‘ve got regulators looking over the shoulder of—whether it‘s big oil or big banks, that‘s a good thing. 

UYGUR:  I‘ll tell you what, man.  If he did real regulation, and it

stopped the speculation, and gas prices dropped, then you‘ve got an easy

re-election.  So I would think that he would be motivated.  Let‘s see how

it turns out. 

Public Citizen‘s Tyson Slocum.

Thanks for joining us tonight.  We appreciate it. 

SLOCUM:  My pleasure. 

UYGUR:  All right.

Now, Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour says there‘s nobody in Mississippi who does not have access to health care.  We‘re going to show you his horrible record on health care in Mississippi, and that‘s our “Con Job of the Day.” 

And Scott Walker is not the only Republican in Wisconsin up to no good.  We‘ll tell you the crazy length that GOP is going to get Democrats recalled.  It involves liquoring up women.  Seriously.


UYGUR:  In our “Con Job of the Day,” we look at Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour and his “let them eat cake” attitude towards health care in their own state. 

Despite the fact that 18 percent of his residents don‘t have health insurance, Barbour told “The Boston Globe,” “There‘s nobody in Mississippi who does not have access to health care.  One of the great problems in the conversation is the misimpression that if you don‘t have insurance, you don‘t get health care.” 

A Barbour aide later said he meant everyone could get emergency room care.  That‘s clearly working wonders since Mississippi has one of the highest obesity rates, one of the highest diabetes rates, and the highest child mortality rate.  You‘d think with a record like that he‘d be embarrassed and not even bring the issue up.  He should hide in shame. 

This is a presidential candidate for the Republicans?  That‘s a winning slogan.  Yes, we‘re the absolute worst!  But, hey, if you get shot in the head, we‘ll let you see a doctor. 

You would also think that that horrible record on health care in his state would make Barbour open to President Obama‘s health care law which actually extends Medicaid to hundreds of thousands of Mississippi residents with little cost to the state.  Instead, of course, he‘s pushing privatization and recycling old conservative talking points about the poor. 

Barbour said, “Most of the health disparities in Mississippi are not because of the inability to get access or afford health care, they are because of diet, alcohol, because of drugs, the very high incidence of illegitimacy that leads to high incidence of low-birth weight children.” 

Wow.  Are they also welfare queens?

So, it‘s not his fault that the state delivers terrible health care to its citizens, it‘s the citizens‘ fault for being lazy, sexually loose, drunks, and drug addicts.  That‘s really classy. 

Barbour blaming the residents of Mississippi for his own miserable record of failure is our “Con Job of the Day.” 

Now, breaking news tonight, reports that Republican Senator John Ensign will step down tomorrow.  Was it because of an ethics investigation?  That is sudden, and it‘s interesting. 

He was the new Republican rock star weeks ago, but Paul Ryan‘s foundation is cracking, and we‘ll tell you why it‘s about to get even worse for him.


UYGUR:  The poll numbers are out, President Obama‘s on the attack, and all of a sudden, Congressman Paul Ryan finds himself in a world of trouble.  Speaking on his West Coast trip, Obama was not mincing words.  He slammed Ryan‘s plan as shortsighted and worse. 


PRES. BARACK OBAMA (D), UNITED STATES:  There has been a proposal, it passed through Congress, that would essentially make Medicare a voucher system.  The republican budget that was put forward, I would say is fairly radical.  I wouldn‘t call it particularly courageous. 


UYGUR:  It‘s no mystery why the president feels emboldened and why the political ground is rapidly shifting under Ryan‘s feet.  Simply put, his plan is massively unpopular.  A “Washington Post” poll shows that almost 80 percent of Americans oppose cuts to Medicare in the name of reducing the deficit.  And 72 percent of Americans want to raise taxes on the rich.  Even 54 percent of Republicans find it acceptable.  And if that wasn‘t enough, Ryan got another heaping dose of disapproval from his own constituents this week when they booed him for raising taxes on the rich. 


CONSTITUENT:  We have to lower spending but it‘s a matter of, there‘s nothing wrong with taxing the top because it does not trickle down. 


UYGUR:  Of course, the reality is they want to lower taxes on the highest bracket from 35 to 22 percent.  That‘s why he got booed.  It was obvious misdirection when he said, oh, I want to tax the top.  Nonsense, and everybody knows it.  That‘s why he‘s backpedaling saying, oh, me, me?  Of course, no, I want to raise the—all of a sudden, right?  Before, he was all about, let‘s cut taxes for the rich, job creators.  But he‘s back pedaling.  And it‘s not just him who smells trouble.  Even Michele Bachmann, queen bee of the Tea Party, is now distancing herself from those Bush era tax extensions and she‘s trying to pin the blame on Obama.  Watch. 


REP. MICHELE BACHMANN ®, MINNESOTA:  President Obama was the one who was behind the tax cut extension bill in December.  That was his position.  And I would agree with senior citizens, we‘re very concerned. 


UYGUR:  Are you kidding me?  You see, this is what Democrats get for agreeing with the Republicans.  You should never make that mistake.  Now Bachmann was saying, it wasn‘t their idea, but it was President Obama‘s idea to lower taxes on the rich.  But the fact that she‘s trying to run away from that issue speaks volumes.  And today, more backpedaling from Ryan.  He told “The New York Times,” quote, “I‘m trying not to get in some partisan bickering war with the president.  I don‘t see what the purpose it serves to do that.” 

Wait, wait, wait, you don‘t want to get into a partisan bickering?  Remember, at the beginning of this month, when Ryan unveiled his so-called path to prosperity, these were the very first words in his summer, quote, “Where the president has failed, House Republicans will lead.”  How‘s that for turning this into a partisan fight, except now that you realize that you‘re losing that fight?  All of a sudden, this is Ryan, oh, come on.  Let‘s take it easy, no need to fight, can want we all get along?  Please, please, stop beating me up over my outrageously unpopular plan.  Yes, pretty convenient. 

With me now is Ron Brownstein, editorial director of the National Journal Group.  And democratic pollster, Celinda Lake, from the Lake Research Partners.  We appreciate you guys being here.  Good to have you. 


UYGUR:  All right.  Great.  Celinda, let me start with you.  Bad numbers, right?  Are there even worse numbers for the Republicans?  I mean, how bad can it get?

LAKE:  These are some of the best numbers I‘ve seen in a long time.  And we have not just numbers, but we have videos, we have votes, and we have the president on the bully pulpit.  So, this is one of the first good weeks for Democrats in a long time. 

UYGUR:  All right.  Ron, it‘s not just Ryan, we had another congressman, Congressman Barletta getting challenged as well.  Let me show you a video of them, come back and talk about it. 


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN:  What you‘re doing with this Ryan budget is you‘re taking Medicare and you‘re changing it.  You did not run on any—you said nothing in the campaign about, I‘m going to change Medicare.  Save the tax cuts that were given to the wealthy two percent... 


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: .and put it into Medicare. 


UYGUR:  Look.  She says, you didn‘t say anything about this in the campaign.  All of a sudden, we elect you guys, you‘re talking about jobs, and, boom, all of a sudden you‘re saying, we‘re basically going to get rid of Medicare.  Have the Republicans massively miscalculated here?

RON BROWNSTEIN, NATIONAL JOURNAL GROUP:  It‘s a big challenge for them.  And particularly, because the same bill that converts Medicare into a voucher or premium support system also embodies a continuation of the Bush tax cuts, and as you suggest, a tax reform that would lower top tax rates.  And that puts Republicans in the same risk that they faced in 1995.  When Bill Clinton argued that they were unraveling Medicare specifically to fund tax cuts to the rich, Barack Obama starting in his speech last week at George Washington University, has been making that same argument. 

And it provides, I think as Celinda would agree, a common frame for Democrats to a greater extent than we saw in 2010.  I think the Ryan budget provides a way for a kind of message continuity from the top down for Democrats in 2012 that will be much greater than anything we saw from them in 2010.  Because, for whatever  disagreements among Democrats, the idea of converting—ending the defined benefit character of Medicare and converting it into a premium support or voucher system is something that is uniformly opposed by Democrats, and is a big uphill sell with the public. 

UYGUR:  And Ron, let me stay with you for a second, so, you know, how much time do we have before Paul Ryan winds up under a political bus?  Because, I mean, when you see Bachmann running away, that‘s bad news. 

BROWNSTEIN:  Look, I mean, in some ways, the dye is already cast.  But what‘s striking to me is in talking to people in the White House and kind of senior strategists in the Republican Party, they believe the events of the last two weeks have done a lot to lock in, already, the major components of the issue debate for 2012.  In the sense that, all but four House Republicans cast a vote for the Ryan budget.  In full knowledge that it was dead on arrival in the Senate.  They‘ve already cast this vote.  What‘s striking every House republican in a district won by President Obama in 2008, who voted, voted for this budget.  All but one of the House Republicans who won with less than 55 percent of the vote voted for this budget. 

All but three of the House Republicans in districts with an above average share of seniors voted for this budget.  I mean, whatever else they want to do over the next two years, they‘ve already put down this marker.  Now, look, you know, they have some assets in this debate.  The public is concerned about the deficit, they‘re concerned about spending, and white seniors as Celinda would tell you have been moving very sharply toward Republicans, but as I said, the polling on ending the define benefit character of Medicare and turning it into a voucher that essentially leads you buying insurance from private companies is a very uphill sell and there are some Democrats who believe that, alone, could put the House back in play. 

UYGUR:  All right.  Now, Celinda, it seems to me that the only people who could rescue the Republicans here are the Democrats.  And they‘re usually pretty good at that.  So as a pollster, would you advise them, whatever you do, do not agree with the Republicans on this?

LAKE:  I would, indeed.  But I don‘t think that‘s much of a sell.  And we have the perfect Trifecta here.  We have the tax breaks for the wealthy, no one can imagine that.  We have the subsidies for the oil companies, and you just heard in your previous story, they‘re making out like bandits and pirates.  And then we have taking away your Medicare and turning you over to the insurance companies.  We don‘t need to say anything else.  We shouldn‘t be running on anything else. 

UYGUR:  Celinda, I think you‘re 100 percent right.  But here‘s the issue, right?  Of course, I‘m not going to, the Democrats aren‘t going to say, oh yes, let‘s do a voucher program.  No, come on, that‘s beyond all bounds of reason, right?  But do they muddy the issue if they go, OK, let‘s agree with the Republicans to cut Medicare?  Which is the current, you know, based on Washington report, the current plan, doesn‘t that muddy it?

LAKE:  It does muddy it.  And we saw the same kind of thing with Social Security.  And what you saw is, Democrats realizing, hey, we need to just stand firm here.  Support these policies.  A majority of voters even support tax increases of their own taxes to help Medicare out.  So we should not be going in that direction.  We should say, we are not going to turn you over to your insurance company.  We are not going to cut Social Security, which is also on the republican table, and we are going to make the wealthy, who haven‘t been paying their fair share.  And then we‘ve been bonusing themselves of our expense.  It‘s about time they paid their own share of taxes. 

UYGUR:  But Ron, you know, we see Dick Durbin, Mark Warner, two democratic senators coming out talking about how they have to quote, unquote, “reform Social Security,” which means cut Social Security, they‘re in the gang of six.  We see, you know, conventional wisdom, we see reporting out of the White House saying, well, of course we have to Medicare, why is that “of course”?  Isn‘t that crazy talk?

BROWNSTEIN:  Well, look, I‘m not here to give advice to Democrats or Republicans.  But I can say, I don‘t think from either a political or a substantive point of view, it is as simple as saying, you draw the line against any changes in those programs.  I disagree with you on that.  From a substantive point of view, Democrats face the risk that we have over 60 percent of the federal budget is now payments to individuals.  And ultimately, if these continue to grow at the rate they‘re growing, they squeeze out everywhere else the Democrats believe is important to do, particularly investing in children.  If all the federal budget is going toward entitlements for seniors, you‘re really slighting the next generation.  Politically, the complication is the Democrats are in a party of suburban, upper middle class, white voters, who are deficit sensitive.  I mean, they‘re a party of the young, of minorities and of college-educated whites, particularly women.  And to simply ignore the deficit is, I think, risky when you look at who.

UYGUR:  No, no, no, no, no. 


But this is very important.  This is very important.  And I want to ask Celinda about this, finally.  Because nobody‘s saying nor the deficit.  We‘re saying, there‘s a different path, a path the American people are totally on board for, raise the taxes on the rich.  If you just got rid of Bush tax cuts, that‘s a huge part of it, huge part of it.  So, Celinda, you know, I saw at the very end of President Obama‘s speech, he threw in a line about how if we reform taxes, we could actually lower them.  And I was like, no, no, no, don‘t do that, no, listen to the American people.  So, is there a chance that the Democrats will make that mistake?

LAKE:  I think there is a chance that we will be all too policy oriented and too much in the weeds.  And let‘s take Social Security for a second.  If all we did was do away with the cap, which the average American doesn‘t even know exists, because only six percent of Americans make more than $106,000, hey, you don‘t have to pay Social Security taxes over $106,000.  The majority of Americans don‘t even know that‘s true.  If we took that cap off, we would have the program solvent for decades.  So there are things that we can do.  We‘re not drawing the line and saying those changes.

UYGUR:  Yes, that‘s right.

LAKE:  There are good changes and there are bad changes.  And let‘s not forget, the best way out of this deficit is jobs.  And to get this economy going again, and then making sure that the wealthy are paying their fair share.  The rest of us have been paying taxes during this recession. 

UYGUR:  All right.  Ron Brownstein from the National Journal and democratic pollster, Celinda Lake.  Great conversation guys.  Thank you so much for joining us. 

BROWNSTEIN:  Thank you.

LAKE:  Thank you.

UYGUR:  All right.  Now, we‘ve got breaking news tonight, reports that Republican Senator John Ensign will step down tomorrow.  We knew he was resigning, but why so sudden?  That‘s interesting. 

Jon Ralston, columnist for the “Las Vegas Sun” is all over this story and he‘s going to bring us the details, next.


UYGUR:  We‘ve got breaking news.  Breaking news is always fun.  Republican Senator John Ensign is resigning tomorrow.  I wonder why?  Jon Ralston, columnist for the “Las Vegas Sun” brings us the details, next.


UYGUR:  We have breaking news out of Nevada tonight.  According to numerous press reports, Nevada Republican Senator John Ensign will resign tomorrow.  Ensign had earlier said that he would not run for re-election after he was forced to admit that he had an affair with an aide, who is also the wife of his friend and his chief of staff.  Same person.  We now believe he will resign from the Senate tomorrow.  Ensign‘s conduct led to a Senate ethics investigation, which is ongoing.  That investigation focuses on former top aide, Doug Hampton, who claimed that Ensign helped him to get lobbying clients.  That was after, of course, he had slept with his wife.  In March, the senator announced he would not seek re-election next year, but that departure has obviously been dramatically accelerated, I should say. 

Joining me now is Jon Ralston, he is a columnist for the “Las Vegas Sun” and host of the Nevada political program “Face to Face.”  He‘s been the leading reporter on the Ensign scandal. 

All right.  Apparently, we have lost the shot with Jon.  All right.  So—is he still on the line?  OK.  So here‘s the situation.  Let me break it down for you guys a little bit.  Now, Doug Hampton is the chief of staff for Ensign.  As we get Jon back.  Let me tell you of the situation.  And he winds up sleeping with Doug Hampton‘s wife, Ensign does.  Now, in order to make up for it, he says, all right, let me get you some lobbying clients, maybe, allegedly, of course, right?  And after he gets the lobbying clients, well, Doug Hampton decides, you know, what?  I still don‘t like that he slept with my wife, he goes and talks about it, and then there‘s a Senate ethics investigation. 

And Ensign is trying to figure out, can I get past this thing?  Maybe he could get past the sex scandal.  Obviously, other Republicans have.  We‘ve got David Vitter in Louisiana.  And you know, he ran as a family values candidate, but so did Vitter, so—all right.  And so he figures, maybe I can get past the sex scandal, but you know what, the ethics investigation is a whole different ball game.  And that‘s what they were leading into.  So, it was surprising that he resigned today, but perhaps there‘s something in the ethics investigation that he knows about that we don‘t know about that made him think, hmm, best to get out of there and not deal with it. 

And by the way, of course, remember that Ensign had said about Clinton during his affair, quote, “it was an embarrassing moment for the country.  Clinton has no credibility left.”  And here‘s the part I love.  That was in 1998.  After he said all that stuff, embarrassing.  He‘s like, oh, look at one of my aides.  Remember, Doug Hampton‘s wife is also Ensign‘s aide, and he slept with her.  Was that embarrassing?  It wasn‘t embarrassing enough for him to resign immediately when people found out about it.  He‘s like, oh, yes, yes, I did that and I‘m going to run for re-election. 

All right.  And look, he‘s got plenty of things that he finds immoral, of course, gay marriage, everything else that other people do is immoral.  Things that Ensign does, well, let me see how the political fallout goes.  So the political fallout, apparently ended his career in terms of running for re-election, but he was still going to stay in office until this very moment.  And we‘re trying to figure out what happened there.  So, Jon Ralston has rejoined me.  He‘s from Las Vegas, as we told you.  Jon, what happened today that led him to this investigation, we think?

JON RALSTON, “LAS VEGAS SUN”:  I‘m not sure that anything happened today, but it‘s clear that the only thing that could have pushed Ensign out is that the Ethics Committee did not, as I‘m sure he hoped, drop that investigation.  There were some reports out of Washington that they were proceeding.  I think he hoped that after he announced that he was going to retire that everything would be dropped.  The Department of Justice had already dropped this investigation, although it indicted Doug Hampton.  And I think Doug Hampton was eager to get John Ensign up there in front of a jury to talk about this.  That could still happen.  But it‘s clear that Ensign is getting out ahead of anything coming out of the Ethics Committee. 

UYGUR:  Yes, here‘s my experience with politics.  People don‘t just

resign, right?  Especially, I mean you‘re a politician, right?  He‘s going

he wanted to hang on for dear life.  So, obviously, something‘s afoot here, right?  And you would think that the ethics investigation is the most likely reason why.  What could be in it?  So, obviously, we don‘t know yet, but what could be in it?  Could it be about Doug Hampton‘s lobbying contracts, could it be about their son, which is a whole different angle on this?  Can you tell us about that?

RALSTON:  There‘s so much evidence there that Ensign has done wrong, no matter how you define  wrong, and I think there was some sentiment, from what I heard, that the Ethics Committee wanted to go where the Department of Justice would not go with all of this.  I mean, John Ensign‘s career was over, when he called that press conference on June 16th, 2009.  The only person who seemed not to know it was John Ensign.  And so he has been dragged, kicking and screaming, every step of the way.  People expected him to resign in the summer of 2009.  Look how long this has taken.  There is a mountain of evidence that Ensign has done wrong.  Again, depending on how you define wrong.  The Ethics Committee has all of that.  Whether or not the Department of Justice ever could have prosecuted him, criminally, we may never know.  But to just say that he could be censured by the Ethics Committee, I don‘t think he wanted to stick around under those circumstances. 

UYGUR:  Jon, real quick, if he does resign, is it over?  I mean, does he just get to ride into the sunset and he doesn‘t have to worry about any kind of investigations?

RALSTON:  Well, there is no wonder enough, because while we were having those technical problems, he actually put out a release, finally announcing what I reported about an hour ago, which he put out a release, that‘s headlined right in front of me here.  Ensign to resign from office.  So, he‘s gone as of May 3rd.  That‘s the effective date.  And so, yes, he‘s done with politics.  Who knows what he will do next.  He was a veterinarian.  I guess he can go back to dealing with cats and dogs.  For him, I guess that‘s safer than human beings. 

UYGUR:  All right.  Well, who‘s in more trouble, ultimately, Hampton for breaking the rules or Ensign, you know, if he resigns, if he gets away with it and goes back to cats and dogs.  Is the guy, you know, whose wife had an affair with Ensign in worse trouble than Ensign himself?

RALSTON:  You know, that is one of the great tragedies of this story, what has happened to Doug Hampton.  He was brought to Washington by his good friend, John Ensign.  Ensign then proceeds to have an affair with his wife, essentially fires the two of them, pays them off with $96,000 of his parent‘s money, and then one of the sickest parts of this whole scandal, then tries to help Doug Hampton to get lobbying jobs.  And eventually, Hampton has had enough, thinks Ensign has not done enough to make up for this, as if anybody could, and so, then he decides to go public with this.  And from then on, you see Doug Hampton‘s a broken man.  He‘s lost his house, he‘s lost his job.  He‘s just—he‘s destitute now. 

UYGUR:  Right.

RALSTON:  And now, what tops it all, he gets indicted and Ensign gets off. 

UYGUR:  I know, it‘s sick.  All right.  Jon Ralston, we really appreciate your help tonight.                 


UYGUR:  Now, we end the show with a fun story.  Now, there‘s ethical problems in this story as well, but at least it‘s fun.  After Wisconsin Republicans pushed through Governor Scott Walker‘s union-busting law, Democrats and Republicans began trying to recall state senators that they disagreed with.  But now Democrats allege Republicans are trying to liquor people up to get signatures for their recall drive.  According to the “Huffington Post,” Wisconsin‘s Democratic Party is filing a complaint with the government accountability board, because one republican volunteer allegedly promised women at a bar shots if they signed a petition to recall one of the democratic state senators.  And there‘s tape of it. 


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN:  OK, so you‘re going to get us one, two, three, four, five shots if we sign that?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN:  That‘s right. 

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN:  If we sign this. 

UNIDENTIFIED MAN:  That‘s the deal.  I‘ll buy them. 



UYGUR:  While it‘s not technically illegal to offer boos in exchange for signing a recall petition.  Democrats say it sure is unethical.  It‘s also a very curious.  It‘s a fun way to get a recall petition signed, I guess.  But maybe these women were really committed any way to removing the Democrats, who oppose the union law. 


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN:  What are we signing again?


UYGUR:  I love that!  What are we signing again?  Somebody pass me these shots!  You‘ve got to give it to Republicans for ingenuity.  So far, paper works have been filed to recall four Republicans and three Democrats.  That came in today.  No word on how many sober people have signed the republican petitions.  Shots for everybody!  Let‘s go get the Democrats. 

All right.  Thanks for watching, everybody.  Now, you can follow me online at, also on YouTube at The Young Turks where you can find short clips on any topic you like.  Politics or otherwise, on Facebook, were on TYTNation, check that out.  Sometimes we correspond about this very show there.  And you can get us messages.  Also, get us messages through twitter at TheYoungTurks.  All right.  I‘ll see you on The Young Turks later tonight.  And “HARDBALL” starts right now.

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