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'The Last Word with Lawrence O'Donnell' for Monday, January 23, 2012

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Guests: Ryan Lizza, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Wendy Schiller, Howard Fineman

LAWRENCE O`DONNELL, HOST: Tonight, the president has ever right to be
wicked happy.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I know you are all
wicked happy to be here.

JARED BERNSTEIN, ECONOMIST: This president has lowered taxes much
more than he gets credit for.

JAY LENO, COMEDIAN: I`m Barack Obama and I took out Osama. I like
that.

OBAMA: Where we can fight for where I think we need to go.

On Tuesday evening, I`ll deliver my State of the Union address.

ALEX WAGNER, MSNBC HOST: President Obama`s State of the Union
Address.

OBAMA: Where I`ll lay out my blueprint for actions we need to take
together.

WAGNER: Will likely serve more as a re-election blueprint than a plan
to bring the divided Congress together.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Traditionally presidents outline an agenda for
their year ahead in the State of the Union Address.

EZRA KLEIN, MSNBC ANALYS: What President Obama is going to attempt to
do tomorrow night is set an agenda.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: In a campaign year, it becomes the ultimate
argument for keeping their job.

MARTIN BASHIR, MSNBC HOST: There`s little doubt that his focus will
be on the economy.

OBAMA: An economy that`s built to last.

Building an economy that works for everyone, not just a wealthy few.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is going to be all about economic fairness.

TAMRON HALL, MSNBC ANCHOR: Unfairness or what is perceived to be a
level of unfairness in this country with the wealthy and then the 99
percent.

OBAMA: On Tuesday night, I`m going to talk about how we`ll get there.

JOHN HARWOOD, CNBC: The president is at the mercy, Chris, as you
know, of broader economic forces.

ANDREA MITCHELL, NBC NEWS: How does the president face those
headwinds?

HARWOOD: He does have the benefit of some positive signs in recent
months.

MITCHELL: Is he going to have to say, it`s better than it could have
been?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He`s got to also really put it back on the
Republicans.

REP. JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: You know, I`ve read a
lot about what the president`s going to talk about Tuesday night.

KLEIN: What this speech will not do is transform American politics.

BOEHNER: And it sounds to me like the same old policies that we`ve
seen.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I`d like to know what they`re smoking over there
on the House side.

BOEHNER: And if that`s what the president`s going to talk about
Tuesday night, I think it`s pathetic.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Frankly, it`s a lot of B.S. and it`s not true.

CHRIS MATTHEWS, MSNBC HOST: The roughest political advice I ever got
was don`t get in a paying match with a skunk.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

O`DONNELL: Tonight, the Republican Party is on its way to nominating
a presidential candidate who cannot beat President Obama. The only thing
we don`t yet know is that candidate`s name.

Republicans are choosing between an insincere, out of touch rich guy,
who most of them simply can`t stand, and another candidate who Republicans
forced out of his speakership after the House of Representatives
reprimanded and fined him for ethics violations -- and who, by the way, has
been a hypocritical cheerleader for family values through all three of his
marriages.

When the Republicans have finished campaigning against each other, how
will President Obama campaign against the damaged Republican nominee? He
certainly won`t be saying things like this --

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA: You have shown what history teaches us, that at defining
moments like this one, the change we need doesn`t come from Washington,
change comes to Washington.

(CHEERS)

OBAMA: Change happens -- change happens because the American people
demand it, because they rise up and insist on new ideas, on new leadership,
on new politics for a new time.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O`DONNELL: Joining me now, Washington correspondent for "The New
Yorker," Ryan Lizza. His latest article entitled "The Obama Memos: The
Making of a Post-Post-Partisan Presidency" appears in January 30 issue of
"The New Yorker."

Thanks for joining me tonight, Ryan.

RYAN LIZZA, THE NEW YORKER: Thanks for having me.

O`DONNELL: I love this article.

LIZZA: Thank you.

O`DONNELL: You have taken us through the Obama presidency with memos,
real memos, real raw material starting campaign memos right through these
three years and you`re telling a story of this presidency, basically
learning the limitations of its powers. I want to read this piece, this
passage from your piece.

"The premise of the Obama campaign was unusual. Change we can believe
in wasn`t just about a set of policies, it was more grandiose. Obama
promised to transcend 40 years of demographic and ideological trends and
reshape Washington politics.

In the past three years, though, he has learned that the presidency is
an office uniquely ill-suited for enacting sweeping change. Presidents are
buffeted and constrained by the currents of political change. They don`t
control them."

Ryan, did the president really have to learn that lesson? Was that
not something he understood before taking the oath of office?

LIZZA: You know, that`s a good question because -- let`s be honest --
Obama`s not the first question to campaign on changing Washington, right?
He`s not the first person to tap into the anti-Washington sentiment out
there. And, you know, the question is, was it all just rhetoric or did he
actually mean it?

And you know, after looking at this pretty closely and writing about
Obama for a number of years now, I think it was genuine. I think he
genuinely believed in his ability to forge consensus around some of the big
issues of the day. I think once the economic crisis hit, it probably
should have given him more reason to think that was a possibility. After
all, crisis has been the great well spring of political transformation in
our country.

And so, I think it was a genuine promise on his part, and if you look
at his personal history and his character, it`s something that`s, you know,
sort of been at the core of who he is ever since he, you know, was at the
Harvard Law Review, and he was the guy he picked as president, because he
was the only one that could bring together the conservatives and liberals
on the law review.

You know, when he was running in a Senate campaign, he never had a
single negative ad run against him.

So, he arrived in Washington as a senator, not as cynical as some of
the other folks in Washington who had been, you know, really beat up badly
by, you know, the tougher side of politics.

So, yes, I do think he believed it. I don`t think it was just
rhetoric. And like all presidents, especially, you know, Obama`s on the
inexperienced side of presidents, he -- it`s a learning process. And what
I tried to do with this piece is go through the big decision -- go through
the big decisions on domestic policy with only relying or almost
exclusively relying on the printed word, on memos to Obama and his hand-
written directions back to his aides, because one of the things I found,
Lawrence, and you probably know this working in politics for a long time,
is that people`s memories are bad. There`s a lot of spin and you can`t
really get to the heart of the matter if you`re just doing interviews.

And so, I really endeavored to go and find the primary source material
that told the story of his big decisions on the stimulus, on whether to
nationalize the banks or not, on health care, and then on a series of very
important budget and tax issues. And that`s sort of at the heart of the
piece.

O`DONNELL: Well, you have the actual decision memos in here, which I
love, because this is the real stuff of government, where the president is
given a set of -- a proposal, and he`s given a yes box to check, a no box
to check, or a let`s discuss. And you show him choosing basically the
careful choice at every point in this process, based on, in effect, what
the votes would be in the House and the Senate. You quote Arthur
Schlesinger in a very simple and important line saying, arithmetic is
everything. And I can feel that going through the president`s head, every
time he`s making these decisions.

I want to read another passage here, where you say, "A year into the
Obama presidency, a Gallup poll showed how starkly he had failed at
reducing partisanship. Obama was the most polarizing first-year president
in history. That is the difference between Democratic approval of him and
Republican disapproval was the highest ever recorded. The previous record
holder was Bill Clinton."

And, Ryan, one of the reasons for that, which I think the president
possibly miscalculated, was just how partisan the Congress had become. You
point out that there used to be an overlap. It used to be, even as
recently as the `90s, that there were six Democrats in the Senate who were
more conservative than another six Republicans in the Senate, and that`s
where you found the overlap for compromise, similar kind of numbers in the
House of Representatives, and now the most conservative Democrat in the
Senate is more liberal than the most liberal Republican.

LIZZA: And, you know, and according to the data you used, if you use
the poll and Rosenthal data, which a lot of political scientists use, same
in the House. No overlap anymore in the House. And that`s the Congress
Obama was coming to town with to work with.

And I do think it`s fair to criticize Obama for his analysis of
politics on the edge of his presidency. You know, I went back and reread
"The Audacity of Hope," and you read those sections about red America and
blue America, and they still read very -- as very inspiring on the page,
but they don`t describe the country we live in, frankly, in terms of
political polarization.

And you know, I think he learned that very, very quickly. I mean, he
learned it with the stimulus debates. When a document in the piece, his
aides came to him and said, Mr. President, we want to get this deal done in
the Senate, and the way we want to get it done is by you sacrificing your
priorities because that`s going to show the other side that they have a
real partner here to work with. And that`s in one of the memos.

And he goes through item by item, the president of the United States,
and takes $60 billion of stimulus out of his bill, and at the bottom of
this box, he writes the words "OK." And this was, you know, the advice of
his aides and there were political reasons to do this.

And, of course, we know how the stimulus debate ended up. It was his
sort of meeting halfway was not reciprocated. And, of course, they, you
know, worked very hard to get three Republican votes in the Senate. One of
those people, Specter, became a Democrat. I don`t think they got any
Republican votes in the House. I think that`s a turning point in the piece
that`s a huge learning experience for the president

O`DONNELL: Ryan, I don`t think anyone who`s worked in the Congress or
the House or the Senate or held office there thinks the presidency is as
powerful as most outside observers do, and you capture this many times, I
think, in the piece. My favorite is Harry Truman`s quote that you have
here. Where Harry Truman says, "Well, all the president is, is a glorified
public relations man who spends his time flattering, kissing, and kicking
people to get them to do what they`re supposed to do anyway."

That, I think, is one of the important items here in your piece, is
that let`s start off with an understanding of just how difficult it is to
persuade other adults in Washington to do things they don`t want to do.

LIZZA: That`s it. And you know, the more I liked a to the memos and
the more I talked to people and the more I sort of reported out what the
president was actually confronted with, the decisions that he was
confronted with it, I never saw a memo where it said, Mr. President, do you
want to change 40 years of polarization and sweep away the fundamentals of
the country? You don`t get that option. You get, you know, bad option A
or bad option B.

And you know, the more I read through this stuff, I said, that`s the
story here, is the constraints on this office. And I think there`s a -- we
all like to view the presidency in a much more heroic way, perhaps, than
the reality. The truth is, you know, it`s always in hindsight that these
guys look heroic.

In the day-to-day, you know, business of the presidency, it`s a lot of
clerical work.

O`DONNELL: To govern is to choose and the choices are never easy.
And I don`t think I`ve seen -- there`s nothing out there right now that
shows this more clearly than the decision memos you have in this piece,
showing just how difficult these choices are.

Ryan Lizza of the "New Yorker," thank you very much for this exclusive
interview tonight.

LIZZA: Thanks for having me.

O`DONNELL: Coming up, after a year of recovery, Congresswoman
Gabrielle Giffords announces she will resign from Congress. Her friend and
colleague, Debbie Wasserman Schultz joins me.

And a Florida voter today told Rick Santorum that President Obama is,
these were his words, an avowed Muslim. And that President Obama has
absolutely no legal right to be president.

So what did candidate Rick Santorum say? Exactly what you`d expect
him to say. That`s coming up.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

LENO: Thank you, gentleman. Well, since the primaries are heating
up, we asked the Facebook community to suggest campaign slogans for
presidential candidates. Here are some of the better suggestions, OK?

Here`s one for President Obama`s re-election. Tim Gerard, "I`m Barack
Obama and I took out Osama." I like that. I like that.

Here`s one for Mitt Romney from Rick McEwen: "Whether you`re a pitcher
or a catcher, you need a Mitt."

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I never referred to Obama as President Obama,
because legally, he is not. And, well, he constantly says that our
Constitution is passe and he totally ignores it, as you know. He does what
he darn well pleases. He is an avowed Muslim.

And my question is, why isn`t something being done to get him out of
our government? He has no legal right to be calling himself president.

RICK SANTORUM (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Well, yes, I`m doing my
best to try to get him out of the government.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O`DONNELL: That was spineless Rick Santorum today in Florida,
allowing one of his fans to call President Obama an avowed Muslim, who has
no legal right to be calling himself president. Santorum did not offer one
word of correction to the deranged ravings he had just heard.

Santorum is now deservedly in last place in Gallup`s latest national
daily tracking poll, because he simply has no idea what it takes to be a
serious presidential candidate.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I can`t trust Obama.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: I got --

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I have read about him and he`s not -- he`s not -
- he`s a -- he`s an Arab. He is not --

MCCAIN: No, ma`am.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No?

MCCAIN: No, ma`am. No, ma`am. He`s a decent family man, citizen,
that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues, and
that`s what this campaign is all about. He`s not. Thank you.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O`DONNELL: And here`s how the new Republican front-runner handles the
Muslim question.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

NEWT GINGRICH (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I believe it`s always good
to be charitable and to assume people, when you talk about religion, are
who they say they are. I mean, he clearly belonged to a Christian church -
- as you`ll remember, his pastor was actually pretty controversial, but we
have pretty good proof that he belonged to the church, though. They were
married in the church. Their children go to Sunday school.

So my -- I think it`s fair to say that he is a Christian. I mean, I
happen to think some of his views of Islam are a fantasy, but that`s an
intellectual view. I take him at his word, and I take him at his actions.

So I think it would be inappropriate to suggest anything else.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O`DONNELL: Joining me now is the Democratic National Committee chair,
Florida Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz.

We see the Muslim question coming back up this time around. John
McCain handled it correctly last time around, and there was Rick Santorum
today in Florida, actually laughing, smiling when the this woman said that
this man, President Obama, has no legal right to be president, which is
obviously her notion that he is foreign born, that his birth certificate
isn`t correct.

Gingrich, we see, turns it into a reference to Reverend Wright, the
but grants the president`s Christianity.

Is this issue ever going to die among Republican fanatics?

REP. DEBBIE WASSERMAN SCHULTZ (D-FL), DNC CHAIRWOMAN: Well, I think
that that whole series of both exchanges were examples of more attempts to
distract voters from the issues that are the most important, which are jobs
and the economy.

You know, it`s really unbelievable. I guess it really isn`t
unbelievable, but it`s outrageous that Rick Santorum wouldn`t knock that
question down and at least do what John McCain did, which was acknowledge
that the president is a Christian, that he`s a citizen, and that he`s just
someone who shares different views.

I mean, the best credit you could give to Newt Gingrich is that he
grudgingly acknowledged that the president is a Christian, because he says,
the president says he`s a Christian and we should take him at his word.

I mean, clearly the president is a Christian and what`s unbelievable
is that these candidates for president on the Republican side are willing
to focus on something other than making sure that we can continue to move
forward on getting the economy turned around and creating jobs. That`s
what`s unbelievable.

O`DONNELL: Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords announced that she will
not try to hold on to her congressional seat in a re-election, not only
that, but will resign. Did you have conversations with her about that?

WASSERMAN SCHULTZ: I did. Over the last couple of times that I
visited Gabby and then recently, you know, she and Mark let me know that
they really felt like her recovery was something that she need to continue
to focus on full-time and Gabby does, you know, nothing half way, does
everything at 150 percent.

And you know, she wanted to come back in 2012 to the Congress, but I
think felt like she would, if she did, be taking her focus off her
recovery, and she has a real opportunity, a very good chance of making a
100 percent recovery. That`s got to be her top priority. And we know once
she gets to that point, she`ll come back to public service. She loves the
people of southern Arizona and they love her.

And I`m sure when she`s ready and fully recovered, she`ll have a warm
embrace from them when she comes back.

O`DONNELL: Did Arizona politics play any part in the way she reached
this decision?

WASSERMAN SCHULTZ: No, not at all. I mean, if Gabby had decided that
she was able to continue to serve and run for re-election, I`m confident
she would have been re-elected overwhelmingly. There was no one even
seriously talking about running against her.

This was purely and simply a personal decision that she reached, you
know, with Mark, and once she reached it, once she realized that she was
not going to be able to run for re-election, she felt like her constituents
deserved full-time representation and that the right thing for her to do
was to step down so that a special election could occur and they could have
that representation.

O`DONNELL: So, this creates a complicated situation in that district.
Does this mean that we`re going to have a special election this year to
fill her resigned seat and then another election in November for the same
seat for a two-year term?

WASSERMAN SCHULTZ: Yes. Yes, that`s what it means. After the
resignation, I`m not totally familiar with Arizona law, but I think it`s 40
or 50 days that the primary would be set, and another period of time after
that for the general election, for the special election, and then the
person who is elected for the remainder of her term for this year would run
again in November.

O`DONNELL: And do you have --

WASSERMAN SCHULTZ: In a new district, I might add.

O`DONNELL: And are you looking for a worthy Democratic successor to
Gabrielle Giffords in that district?

WASSERMAN SCHULTZ: We expect to have a worthy Democratic successor,
but right now, you know, the next few days is a celebration of Gabby`s
public service, as it should be, and that`s what the focus should be.

O`DONNELL: DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz, thank you very much
for joining us this evening.

WASSSERMAN SCHULTZ: Thanks, Lawrence.

O`DONNELL: Coming up, we`ll have full coverage of tonight`s
Republican presidential debate where all the pressure was on the new front-
runner, Newt Gingrich.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O`DONNELL: Newt Gingrich has taken the lead in Florida polls and is
now tied in one national poll with Mitt Romney, who in tonight`s debate did
everything he could to stop Gingrich. We`ll have complete debate coverage,
coming up.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O`DONNELL: The Republican presidential debate at the University of
South Florida in Tampa is just wrapping up. And the heated topic of the
night turned out to be the document Newt Gingrich released two hours before
the debate, his 2006 consulting contract with Freddie Mac.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ROMNEY: You were -- on this stage, at a prior debate, you said you
were paid 300,000 dollars by Freddie Mac as -- for an historian -- as an
historian. They don`t pay people 25,000 dollars a month for six years as
historians. That adds up to about 1.6 million dollars. They weren`t
hiring you as an historian. And this contract proves that you where not an
historian. You were a consultant.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O`DONNELL: Joining me now are Wendy Schiller, associate professor of
political science and public policy at Brown University, and Howard
Fineman, AOL/"Huffington Post" editorial director and an MSNBC political
analyst, at the site of tonight`s debate.

Howard, what was the feeling there? It seemed like a relatively
subdued debate, as -- compared to the other ones we`ve seen.

HOWARD FINEMAN, "THE HUFFINGTON POST": Well, the overall atmosphere
of the debate, Lawrence, was very subdued, very low-key. Just as a general
matter, I think the reporters here are tired. I think the candidates are
tired.

Quite frankly, this thing has been going on nonstop from the middle of
December until now; Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, lots of drama,
lots of excitement, lots of local involvement and hand-to-hand combat and
seeking out voters.

Everybody came down here to Florida and sort of things sort of
loosened up a little bit. But I do think you were right to focus on what
was really the most politically substantive part of the debate, which came
right at the beginning, where Mitt Romney had really studied his brief and
really went after Newt Gingrich on the topic of Freddie Mac, which matters
here in Florida because of all of the foreclosures and all the problems in
the real estate industry.

Except that Mitt just kind of tried to blow it off. And it didn`t
really, in the end, generate as much drama as perhaps it should have.

O`DONNELL: Wendy Schiller, how do you score it?

WENDY SCHILLER, BROWN UNIVERSITY: Well, I think that you`re raising a
really good point, Howard, about Mitt Romney. He looks uncomfortable when
he goes negative. I mean, you can really feel it. He was doing what he
was supposed to do. And he soaked up a lot of time on the issue, which I
think dented Gingrich a little bit, if you think about it. But he looks
very uncomfortable.

And it`s unclear what his learning curve is. That`s what struck me.
I though, after he was done with the negative, he repeated everything that
was the exact same thing we`ve heard all year. Right? So why can`t he
innovate a little bit?

As a businessman, innovate in your arguments, both against Gingrich
and against Obama. So that`s where I thought -- I thought he scored some
points against Gingrich. But he looked very pained doing that.

O`DONNELL: Newt Gingrich actually picked up an endorsement during the
debate on Fox News. Let`s look at that now.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

FRED THOMPSON, FORMER SENATOR: I have come to the growing
realization, for me, anyway, that Newt Gingrich is the guy who can
articulate what America is all about, American exceptionalism, can make the
case -- not just read the talking points or do it off a teleprompter, can
make the case for free markets and our basic case that lower taxes can be
good for everybody, and bring about growth.

It`s good for everybody. And he`s not afraid.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O`DONNELL: Howard Fineman, there`s former Senator Thompson, who ran
against Romney in that field last time around, just couldn`t quite bring
himself to endorse Mitt Romney, who is a very unpopular guy among people
who run against him.

FINEMAN: Yeah, and it`s -- listen, Mitt Romney did his best to make
the case that the handlers told him to make about Newt Gingrich. And
there`s a lot to attack in Newt Gingrich`s record. The notion that Newt
Gingrich is running as an outsider is preposterous. The notion that he was
a historian for six years for Freddie Mac is preposterous.

But even those points being made don`t necessarily help Mitt Romney,
because other politicians who have some skill as politicians, who have some
fire in terms of what they believe in and the people they know they can
reach, don`t respect Mitt Romney.

Now, Fred Thompson ran for president briefly. I covered all ten
minutes of his presidential campaign four years ago. But Fred Thompson is
a skilled communicator. And he knows how to communicate with voters. And
he did it very well when he was in the Senate. And if he chose to or had
the energy too, he could do it well even right now.

And I actually think that having Fred Thompson at Newt Gingrich`s side
is going to help Newt Gingrich in the big super Tuesday primary that will
be coming up. Might even help him here in Florida. If Fred Thompson gets
interested in it, interested in the project, he could be a very good
salesman for Newt Gingrich, because he appeals to the same kind of
disaffected, middle class, resentful voters in the south that Newt Gingrich
won running away in South Carolina.

O`DONNELL: Wendy, it seemed to me that Newt Gingrich made a conscious
decision to not do what everybody was expecting him to do. You know,
where`s that, right out of the gate, shot at Brian Williams? Just take a
real hard whack at the moderator and at that horrible elite media that is
always setting up Republicans to, you know, fight with each other.

He seemed to really do a change-up. He wanted to show he could be, I
think, maybe his notion of presidential. Because he stayed very calm and
steady throughout this thing.

SCHILLER: He did. And almost dismissive sometimes when they were
attacking him. And I think it`s a testament to Brian Williams, frankly. I
think Gingrich wasn`t about to attack Brian Williams. It`s a different
ball game here, I think.

But I think that Gingrich, in particular, was bracing for attacks that
he thought were going to be worse than came. And I think he wanted to save
his energy, stay calm, not let it get away from him. But he never really
got the real kind of fire I think he was anticipating. So I think that`s
why he started so calmly, just in case he had to ramp it up to defend
himself.

O`DONNELL: We`re going to take a break here. Howard, we`re going to
take a break right here. We`re going to come back with more debate
coverage. Stay with us.

We`re going to be joined by Chris Matthews, who`s also on the scene.
We`ll be back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O`DONNELL: And we`re back with more of our debate coverage with Wendy
Schiller and Howard Fineman. Howard, I believe in the first -- I think in
my notes, it says seven minutes. In the first seven minutes, Mitt Romney
said that Newt resigned in disgrace three times from the Congress. That
clearly was something Mitt Romney was trying to attach scandal to Newt
Gingrich in his congressional career in this debate.

FINEMAN: Sure. That was the main attack point that Mitt Romney
wanted to make. He made it repeatedly. But as we`ve all said, Newt
Gingrich`s strategy coming in here was not to take the bait, to say -- give
such explanation as he could get away with and then say, read the rest on
my website.

And I think it was up to Mitt Romney to really try to force Newt
Gingrich to say more, to try to take over the debate and do that. But just
as Newt Gingrich didn`t want to really challenge Brian Williams, I don`t
think Mitt Romney really wanted to either.

But these are sort of desperate times for Mitt Romney that require
desperate measures. And he`s got to go at them frontally and has got to
corner Newt Gingrich, if he can. But -- because now, even though there are
independent spending PACs, even though there`s advertising out there, Mitt
Romney has to bring the message himself. And he has to bring it with
conviction.

He has to sound like he`s really, in fact, very concerned about Newt
Gingrich`s possible succession to the nomination. And he did what he
could, but Mitt Romney`s Mitt Romney.

O`DONNELL: Well, let`s listen to Newt`s defense of his electability
after Romney attacked him on the resigning in disgrace and repeatedly
attacked him on that. Brian Williams asked Newt Gingrich what his case was
for his electability. Let`s listen to that.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BRIAN WILLIAMS, "NBC NIGHTLY NEWS": What`s the case you make to the
American people and voters and Republican primary contests about how you`ve
changed, Mr. Speaker?

GINGRICH: Well, first of all, the case I make is that when I was
speaker, we had four consecutive balanced budgets. The only time in your
lifetime, Brian, that we`ve had four consecutive balance budgets. Most
people think that`s good.

We were down to 4.2 percent unemployment; 11 million new jobs were
created. Most people think that`s good.

We reformed welfare. And two out of three people went to work or went
to school. People think that`s good.

I left the speakership after the 1998 election, because I took
responsibility for the fact that our results weren`t as good as they should
be. I think that`s what a leader should do. I took responsibility. And I
didn`t want to stay around, as Nancy Pelosi has, I wanted to get out and do
other things. I founded four small businesses.

And I`m very comfortable that my four years as speaker, working with a
Democratic president, achieved the kind of conservative values that most
Republicans want to have in a president.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O`DONNELL: Wendy, how do you think republican voters are going to
score that, you know, accusation of resigned in disgrace versus, well,
here`s what I did when I was there.

SCHILLER: Well, I think that they are going to -- I mean, people who
-- obviously, Republican voters are craving leadership. They like this
intangible thing that Newt brings to the table. He`s full of
contradictions. I mean, can we just say that in 1993, when the budget
passed under Clinton, not a single Republican voted for it. And Gingrich
was one of those people who didn`t vote for it, which brought us to the
point where we could balance the budget. First fact-checking problem with
that statement.

But Republican who like him are going to ignore that. I thought he
did a pretty good job. Ron Paul undercut him by taking some time out of
his response to go back and say, wait a minute, let me tell you what really
happened. He lost eight seats and we kicked him out.

So I think his credibility a little bit was damaged tonight in some
ways, if you do a little digging. I think Gingrich went out a little bit
on a limb and bragged a little too much. And I think you can punch some
holes in that.

FINEMAN: I agree with that, Lawrence. I think Ron Paul, in his own
sort of quiet way, really undercut Newt Gingrich more than Mitt Romney did,
for the reasons we`ve just discussed. And I think if you`re going to -- if
you`re going to get Newt Gingrich, you have to do it slowly and carefully
and piece by piece and persistently.

You`ve got to build the case. You`ve got to state the facts. You`ve
got to be serious about it. You can`t just have a few sound bites here and
there. Newt Gingrich`s too smart and too elusive and too determined to be
slowed by a few sound bites. You have to corner him. You have to build
the case against him. And you have to do it methodically, carefully, and
consistently to flush out his contradictions, his hypocrisies, his
evasions, his self-grandeur and all that kind of thing.

And if I`m the Mitt Romney campaign, I`m about that project in a very
serious, sustained way, day by day, minute by minute, piece by piece.
Because if you don`t do it that way, then Newt Gingrich is going to be the
able to bluster his way from here to election day next Tuesday in Florida.

O`DONNELL: Now we`re going to go back to what was a Romney and
Gingrich exchange on the Freddie Mac contract. Was it lobbying? Was it
consulting? Was it being a historian? They actually mixed it up a little
bit on this one.

And, look, the debate really didn`t have any significant differences
between Romney and Gingrich on how they would govern in the United States
going forward. It`s all about the past, in this case, Romney`s taxes,
which we`ll talk about in a minute.

But let`s look at this exchange. This is Romney and Gingrich,
starting with Romney with the big reveal of we just learned what was in
your contract. Let`s listen to that.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ROMNEY: We just learned today that his contract with Freddie Mac was
provided by the lobbyists at Freddie Mac. I don`t think we can possibly
retake the White House if the person who`s leading our party is the person
who was working for the chief lobbyist of Freddie Mac. Freddie Mac was
paying Speaker Gingrich 1,600,000 dollars at the same time Freddie Mac was
costing the people of Florida millions upon millions of dollars.

GINGRICH: Now, wait a second. He just went on and on and on, making
a whole series of allegations. First of all, he may have been a good
financier. He`s a terrible historian. The fact is the vote on the ethics
committee was in January of 1997. I asked the Republicans to vote yes,
because we had to get it behind us.

The Democrats had filed 84 ethics charges for a simple reason. We had
taken control of the House after 40 years and they were very bitter. And
the fact is, on every single ethics charge with substance that was
dismissed in the end, the only thing we did wrong is we had one lawyer
written by letters -- I mean, written one letter, and the one letter was in
error.

I didn`t pay a fine. I paid the cost of going through the process of
determining it was wrong. I left two years later. And frankly, we are
right to get it behind us, because the tax cut that led to economic growth,
the four balanced budgets all came after that vote.

So you have all this stuff just jumbled up. Apparently your
consultants aren`t very good historians. What you ought to do is stop and
look at the facts.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O`DONNELL: Wendy, how are the historians at Brown University taking
this historian defense? Are they offended that he is trying to blame their
profession?

SCHILLER: Well, there`s a difference between an inaccurate historian
and someone who makes things up and revises history over and over again.
You`ve got to argue that Gingrich is really engaging in a lot of
revisionist history.

O`DONNELL: He`s like a history creator and re-writer.

SCHILLER: He`s a smart guy. He knows what he`s doing. He knows when
he says something that`s not true and where he`s shading the facts. But I
have to say, one of the things I thought about the debate that we really
haven`t covered at all is they really looked weak on foreign policy
tonight. For such grand intellectual power, I thought the answers were
quite weak, even from Gingrich.

Very, as Ron Paul, 1960s in the approach. So I thought Gingrich kind
of -- but hitting historians -- if you`re Romney hitting historians, if
you`re Gingrich hitting Romney -- what Gingrich should have said is not
everyone`s as rich as you, Mitt, and I had to make a living. And just say
that. And that`s the truth. He made a living.

O`DONNELL: Howard, let`s go to that --

FINEMAN: Lawrence?

O`DONNELL: Howard, go ahead.

FINEMAN: I was just going to say that, thinking over it now, as I
review the debate in my mind, when Newt Gingrich isn`t on the attack, he
isn`t very good. And I think having won in South Carolina, he was kind of
a little immobile tonight. That answer that he gave about the Freddie Mac
lobbying was terrible. He didn`t answer the question at all, didn`t give a
credible defense at all.

And even though there was very little drama in this debate, I think as
people look at it and comb over the transcript and kind of look for areas
where Newt Gingrich was giving a little too expansive history of himself,
there are going to be things that people are going to be able to attack
here.

And as I say, it depends on whether Romney and his campaign pick it
apart piece by piece. If they do, they may get somewhere.

O`DONNELL: Wendy, Gingrich`s success in the last debate was all about
excitement and giving Republican voters in South Carolina something to be
excited about. I didn`t see where the excitement played in tonight`s
debate, for Republican voters in Florida.

SCHILLER: Right. I think the air was just seeping out of that room,
the longer that we went in that debate. I think Howard`s exactly right.
Gingrich is great when he`s making a dramatic point. But when he gets
attacked or when he has to really explain his positions, I think he gets
into some trouble.

So I think Ron Paul, frankly, was the most relaxed, most entertaining
guy up there this evening.

O`DONNELL: Well, you`ve got nothing to lose. The Ron Paul is in that
wonderful position of nothing to lose.

SCHILLER: Also, there`s body language, right? The spacing`s
different now. There`s more room on the stage. They`re further apart.
They`re a little more tense. I think Howard`s right. They`re getting
tired.

But, absolutely, Romney has to keep hitting Gingrich, every single
time. Truth meter, fact meter, whatever you want to call it, he`s got to
keep undermining that Gingrich grandiosity, and figure out a way to trip
him up at some point.

O`DONNELL: MSNBC political analyst Howard Fineman and Brown
University professor Wendy Schiller, thank you both very much for joining
me tonight. Chris Matthews is going to join us next. He`s at the debate
location tonight too. We`ll hear from him.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

WILLIAMS: Governor, how about your father`s model of 12 years` worth
of returns?

ROMNEY: You know, I agree with my dad on a lot of things, but we also
disagree. And going out with 12 years of returns is not something I`m
going to do. I`m putting out two years, which is more than anyone else on
this stage.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O`DONNELL: Joining me now, host of MSNBC`s "HARDBALL," Chris
Matthews. Chris, how do you score it tonight?

CHRIS MATTHEWS, MSNBC ANCHOR: Oh, it was a lot of goose eggs tonight.
I thought it was a dreadfully boring debate. I have no idea what they were
trying to accomplish. They must be all dead tired, Lawrence.

I guess I count up a couple things important to our country, though.
Rick Santorum is a fanatical hawk, who was going -- talking about a war
with Iran with such relish that it actually scared me, how far he wanted to
go and how excited he was about the prospect of a war with Iran, despite
the concerns which Brian Williams, the moderator, expressed about the
difficulty of such a war and the number of days and obviously the number of
casualties involved.

It didn`t seem to hold him back. I did think it was odd for what
Romney said, if Castro dies, he will go to another land. I`ve got to think
through that one for a while. I don`t have any idea what that means, that
theology.

I have to tell you, I -- again, I thought that Newt Gingrich showed
incredible restraint. Three times, he was accused of basically being run
out of the House of Representatives, forced to resign in disgrace, words
clearly intended to egg him on. And he must be saving himself, believing
that tomorrow`s headlines from Romney on his taxes and his low rate of
payment of taxes will be so devastating that he will let that ride.

He`s got enough momentum coming out of South Carolina, he will take
the next step, which is to exploit the embarrassment going to Romney. I
can only assume that, because he didn`t land a glove tonight -- land a
punch.

O`DONNELL: Yeah, Chris. I was struck by how subdued Newt Gingrich
was, especially when attacked by Mitt Romney. He -- the text of his
responses were full enough. But there was none of that punch in it. There
was none of that Newt smack back stuff that we`ve grown accustomed to in
watching these debates.

My only theory on it, Chris, was he wanted to do an appearance in
which he would create an aura of being presidential. This is what a
President Gingrich will look like. Is that possible?

MATTHEWS: Yeah, but when somebody attacks your character, I`m not
sure the correct response is just to take the punch. I mean, it was a
great opportunity to say to Mitt Romney, the only reason you`re saying
these things, let`s be honest, is that you`re losing. You`re not -- you
haven`t taken the opportunity for now 15 debates to make these kinds of
attacks on my character. You are trying to destroy me, as a possible
opponent, because you can`t sell your candidacy.

You`re basically telling the American people what Jimmy Carter, if you
will, told the American electorate back in 1980. You have to vote for me,
because this other person is unacceptable. What a rancid approach to the
American people to tell them they have to vote for you because the other
guy is no good. Is that all you`ve got?

That`s what I would have said to Romney. Is that all you`ve got? Is
it I`m not acceptable? You can`t say yourself, out on this stage, before a
prime-time NBC audience -- and you`re not going to use that to sell Mitt
Romney, just to destroy me? That says a lot about your character. I can`t
believe he didn`t come back in that fashion.

O`DONNELL: Chris, let`s go to the foreign policy question that plays
in a big way locally down there in southern Florida, which was the Cuba
question. Brian Williams asked them to image a world in which Fidel Castro
had died and the Castro brothers were no longer in power, and how would
they respond as president of the United States. Did any one of them find
the right appeal to that anti-Castro vote in Florida?

MATTHEWS: Well, Ron Paul had the most novel. And it`s the one that a
lot of people on the progressive side has taken for years, which is the
greatest opportunity to destroy a control system is to open it up. Then
people see the opportunity for free enterprise, free trade, free movement -
- freedom. And the more freedom you give people, the more they`re going to
want it. That`s human nature.

And the best thing you can give Castro is an excuse, which is what
many people argue we`ve been giving him since the 1950s, an excuse for his
failure of his system to deliver to the people, to the extent that he has
clearly failed. So I thought that was interesting.

I thought Mitt was very old time in his attempt to stir up the older
Cuban American community in Havana, in Little Havana. I thought that was
pretty tired. But then again, the saddest part of the whole thing was the
belief that simply because Raul Castro dies and Fidel Castro dies that the
revolution has failed. It`s almost like an admission these guys have
succeeded. And the only thing that will defeat them is their natural
death.

There`s a lot of sad defeatism in that thinking, I thought, and maybe
recognition that there was more appeal to the Castro Brothers than the
right ever admitted, that it is more of a mixed bag.

It`s certainly a strange claim that, gee whiz, we`re going to take
over when they naturally die, and go to, as Mitt Romney said, another land,
which I still think is an extraordinary use of language there. I`m not
familiar with that theology.

O`DONNELL: I think both Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich were both
trying to say that Fidel Castro will go to hell. And they simply didn`t
want to use the word "hell."

MATTHEWS: Yeah, and I don`t think we should get into that kind of
conversation. Boy, that`s demagoguery. And it`s stupid. What`s the
point? The guy`s old. You know, he`s outlived all these presidencies.
I`m not a fan of Castro`s. I believe in freedom.

But I think it`s sort of -- to me, it`s defeatism to say we`re only
going to win the argument when he dies of natural causes.

O`DONNELL: Chris Matthews, thanks very much for joining us from the
debate site in Florida.

You can have THE LAST WORD online at our blog, TheLastWord.MSNBC.com

END

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