Guests: Anthony Zinni, Terry Holt, Tad Devine
CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST: Tonight the former chief of Central Command, retired General Anthony Zinni on why he thinks our policy in Iraq is a failure and where the buck should stop.
And the Bush campaign hits John Kerry with new ad strikes in the battle for the White House. And Democrats return fire.
Plus, will the president‘s speech on Iraq rally public support in the polls?
Let‘s play HARDBALL.
Good evening, I‘m Chris Matthews.
General Ricardo Sanchez will be replaced as the top military commander in Iraq this summer. Senior Pentagon officials say General Sanchez had fulfilled his yearlong rotation in Iraq, and the change was not triggered by the prisoner abuse scandal.
NBC‘s Kevin Sites is in Baghdad.
KEVIN SITES, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT: Chris, lots of news in Iraq today.
NBC News has learned that Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez, the U.S.‘s top commander in Iraq, is likely to be replaced mid-summer by General George Casey, the Army‘s second in command.
Now, there‘s been a lot of pressure on Sanchez after this Abu Ghraib scandal. But the Army is insisting this is just typical rotation for a general in command for a year, that this has nothing to do with Abu Ghraib.
Also, more violence around Iraq today. A rocket attack against an Iraqi police station in Pierdos Square (ph). Now, that‘s the square where the statue of Saddam Hussein was toppled after the war. Very symbolic there.
Apparently, these rockets hit a building and started a secondary explosion, which wounded two soldiers. Those soldiers were later medevaced from that area.
Also, a little closer to home, a car bomb which exploded just a block from our hotel this morning. A wakeup call to the perpetual violence that we see here in Baghdad.
And more fighting in Najaf. At dawn, troops loyal to Muqtada al-Sadr and U.S. troops clashed in Najaf. There are reports of nine Iraqis being killed there and 20 wounded.
As well as reports that the Imam Ali shrine was damaged in that fighting. This is one of Islam‘s holiest shrines, and fingers are pointing in both directions. The insurgents there say that U.S. troops damaged the shrine with mortars. U.S. troops are saying that the militia have ensconced themselves in these shrines as fighting positions.
There‘s been angry protests in Najaf. One of the very difficult situations that‘s going on there for the U.S. military trying to root out these militia while preserving the sanctity of these shrines.
Back to you.
MATTHEWS: Thank you, NBC‘s Kevin Sites in Baghdad.
Retired General Anthony Zinni served as commander in chief of U.S. Central Command in the late 1990‘s, where he directed strikes against Iraq and al Qaeda. He was so trusted by Secretary of State Colin Powell that he was tapped to be the special Mideast envoy.
He‘s now co-author of a book with Tom Clancy about his experiences.
Its title is “Battle Ready.”
General—thank you very much, General Zinni.
Let me ask you the question of the day. What happened to Ricardo Sanchez? Was he relieved because of the prisoner problem?
GEN. ANTHONY ZINNI, U.S. ARMY (RET.): No, I don‘t believe so. It‘s normal after about one year to rotate commanders in this situation, and I believe it‘s truly a one-year rotation.
MATTHEWS: Why the timing? Why did they drop this bomb at the very time the president was giving his speech last night?
ZINNI: Well, I think it was a little bit of unfortunate timing. It was probably planned all along to do it about now. It worked out this way.
By the way, I think both General Sanchez and his replacement, General Casey, are superb officers.
MATTHEWS: You don‘t think it was timed to create a kind of a spin, along with saying we‘re going to knock down the prison of Abu Ghraib as a symbol, that this was another symbol to go with it?
You don‘t think some P.R. guy or somebody at the Pentagon thought this would be—or a political guy like Karl Rove thought this would be a lickety-split way to get some points with the rest of the world?
ZINNI: No, not at all. I believe the Army and the leadership, the military leadership would not tolerate anything like that. I think this is just a coincidence in timing.
MATTHEWS: Well, let‘s talk about what the military services will tolerate from this administration in terms of the way things have to go.
We have a civilian-controlled government. We love it. It‘s our Constitution.
MATTHEWS: So let‘s talk about the bureaucrats that find their way into these jobs in the Pentagon. Never elected by the people. Never cleared their philosophies or ideologies with the American people about preemption or regime change or all that agenda that we‘ve been stuck with the last couple of years.
Let me ask you, sir, was Iraq a blunder?
ZINNI: Yes, it was, in my view. And I think you pinpointed it. It was a blunder at the Pentagon, and the president was not well served with the strategy and the planning and the decisions made from there.
MATTHEWS: Are presidents supposed to get good counsel from the top people at the Pentagon about what will happen if we invade a country, for example? I can‘t think of anything more serious than that.
Did they tell him what to expect when we got to Iraq?
ZINNI: I think they misled him on what to expect. Beginning with the rationale for the war, the elements of the strategy that would be achieved by invading Iraq, to the situation on the ground.
And the pie in the sky, welcome in the streets with flowers kind of approach that obviously, anybody that knew the region, knew the issues and knew this country knew was not going to happen.
MATTHEWS: There was a sales pitch for this war which everybody was being—gotten since 9/11. The sales pitch went as follows.
It was going to be easy; it was going to be a cakewalk; the people would welcome us with open hands. It would eventually just be an easy decapitation of Saddam Hussein and onward to democracy.
The other part of the sales pitch was if we didn‘t do this easy thing, go to Iraq, we were going to be attacked with nuclear weapons.
Let me ask you, was there any part of the sales pitch, the easy part or the scary part, that was honest?
ZINNI: No, neither one.
I think that going back to President Bush 41, who realized going to Baghdad was going to be a problem. We were going to expend a great deal of treasure, possibly lives, and inherit a situation that we didn‘t need to inherit. And that‘s why we went through a course of sanctions.
And to believe that Saddam Hussein was an imminent threat or grave and gathering was a real stretch for those of us that saw the intelligence.
MATTHEWS: Let‘s talk about the—let‘s go past the motives for people pushing the war and lets go to the question of the kind of intel that we got.
Let‘s take a look right now at what Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld told me last month on HARDBALL, that he didn‘t expect the Iraqis to view us—you won‘t believe this. He didn‘t expect them to view us as occupiers.
Let‘s take a look.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DONALD RUMSFELD, SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: I guess if you asked me a year ago, I would have expected that the word “occupation,” and the negative aspects of that, would not have been assigned to us to the extent it has been.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MATTHEWS: General, you don‘t have to be a Marine to expect third world people to resent occupation.
I was in the Peace Corps. Anybody who spent three seconds in a third world country was told don‘t talk politics or they‘ll kick you out of the country.
How could the people believe at the Pentagon seriously that an Arab country would welcome us, that there would not be a sense of being occupied?
ZINNI: It‘s hard to believe. I mean, we‘re viewed as crusaders, as colonial powers, especially when we don‘t come in under a U.N. mandate that shows some sort of international legitimacy for what we‘re doing.
As a single country, almost unilaterally with a few allies involved in this occupation, it clearly sends the wrong signals, and it plays into the hands of those extremists that want to use it against us on the streets of Baghdad.
MATTHEWS: A lot of people who supported the war with Iraq did it for the most patriotic of reasons. I‘m talking about the regular guy, not the ideologue or the intellectual or the foreign policy expert. The guy out there perhaps in a barroom, rooting for his country, a guy with a Little League kid playing, a guy who cares about his country. Just a regular person who reads the paper.
And that person thought that somehow going to Iraq was going to avenge what happened to us on 9/11. It was going to be some kind of justice.
Who sold us that bill of goods?
ZINNI: Well, unfortunately, again, I go back to those that designed this strategy and presented it to the president, with the misleading facts and the misleading expectation that is sold it to the president and to the American people, unfortunately.
We owe the American people the straight shot. If you‘re going to do this for some sort of strategic reason, lay it on the line. I mean, we should have learned from the Gulf of Tonkin not to create a rationale that is misleading.
I think we‘re also—bought in too much to the exiles and believe their stories about what would happen on the ground.
MATTHEWS: Why were people like Richard Perle, the vice president, Scooter Libby, Doug Feith, why were all those people so gullible?
ZINNI: I think because they wanted to believe it. I think they had a strategy, and they thought we could change the Middle East, that this type of action would be a catalyst for change.
Except those of us that know the region, that live out there, know the people, that have had experience out there, knew that this would be a disaster in the long run. It would not have the effect they wanted.
And I think there was this desire to believe in the exiles and to believe in this sort of Pollyannish view of what might happen that caused them to buy into it.
MATTHEWS: But the history of man is that the sucker deserves what he gets, because the sucker wants something for free. The sucker wants his case made for him, even if dishonestly.
If you tell a guy, “Hey, look, I‘m the best friend the United States ever had and the best friend Israel ever had, I‘m going to march into the country, and they‘re going to make me Babe Ruth. They‘re going to make me the most popular guy in the country.”
If you buy that, isn‘t it because you want to buy it?
ZINNI: Absolutely. I think they wanted to believe it.
I don‘t question their motives. I think they really believed that this was a way—sort of a cheap way to change the Middle East.
There is no cheap way. It‘s hard work.
MATTHEWS: All right. Let‘s get to the lethal part. The part we‘re talking about is bad enough and maybe gets to the worst reasons for going to war. Let‘s get to the serious part.
We‘ve lot about 700 guys over there, and thousands and thousands of
people have lost arms and legs over there already, because they were told -
· their leaders were told, commanders like yourself were told it‘s going to be a cakewalk. We‘re going to go in there. They‘re going to love us. They‘re going to knock down the statutes, and they‘re going to join us in a big Kumbaya of democracy. And that‘s what it‘s going to be like.
Well, it didn‘t turn out like that. IEDs, guys getting legs blown off by mines, RPG‘s hitting them. All this stuff hitting them because the guys who advised them, the uniform men, said don‘t worry, we won‘t need a real resistance—we don‘t need a counter resistance because there ain‘t going to be a resistance. Whose fault is that?
ZINNI: I think it‘s the fault of the planners at the Pentagon. The senior civilian planners, who had responsibility for the construction phase, that understood that they had to reconstruct the country politically, economically, and its security capabilities and didn‘t really understand the depth and complexity of the problems they were going to face. And it was dumped on our military to deal with it.
MATTHEWS: Why were they—were they the wrong people for the job? The people at the top—I‘m talking from all the way down, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Feith, Cambone, all the top people at the Pentagon.
Did any of them have a sense of what the third world was like, what the colonial experience was like, why they would view us, as you say, crusaders? Did any of them—Did they all not know that?
ZINNI: Well, they should have known it. They‘re smart enough.
MATTHEWS: Rumsfeld just told us a month ago. We‘ve got the tape; we could play it the rest of our lives. He said he didn‘t expect it. How could he not expect resistance when you take over a country? I don‘t get it.
ZINNI: I don‘t get it either. Because there was certainly enough of us who had experience out there. Former commanders of Centcom and others that voiced our concern, that expressed our worries about what we were about to get into and that looked at the lack of planning.
MATTHEWS: You have a lot of respect for Colin Powell, right?
MATTHEWS: Why was he trumped? Why was he rendered irrelevant? The president never asked him his advice, apparently. He just said take your orders, buddy, we‘re going to Iraqi.
ZINNI: Well, you know, I don‘t know what went on in the inner workings of the administration. But I can tell you that Colin Powell is on the right track when he was able to get us 1441, the resolution at the U.N., with a 15-0 vote.
And we started down a path, if you were going to do this, that would internationalize this. We would have to wait some months to get the inspectors to play out, as they had before.
And why not wait? Why was the threat so urgent that we had to go to war in March and throw aside international participation?
MATTHEWS: I‘m going to come back and talk to you about the president, the commander in chief. Because although we‘re talking about unelected people at the Defense Department, and none of this war didn‘t happened if we didn‘t have a commander in chief who wanted to go to Iraq.
Let‘s talk about George W. Bush, the war president, with General Anthony Zinni. More coming back with the general.
And later, Secretary of State Colin Powell follows up where President Bush left off. Powell‘s talking tonight about the future of Iraq. And we‘ll get a live report coming up.
Plus, the president‘s poll numbers are slipping. We talked about that last night. But his campaign is fighting back today with a new ad campaign. We‘ll hear from the Bush and Kerry campaigns both.
You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.
MATTHEWS: Coming up, more with retired General Anthony Zinni, once the Bush administration‘s man in the Middle East and now one of its toughest critics. HARDBALL, back in a minute.
MATTHEWS: The book is called “Battle Ready.” It‘s by Tom Clancy and the man we‘re talking to, General Anthony Zinni.
General Zinni, if you had to write a short history—you know you, you used to grow up in school. You and I went to the same kind of schools in Philly. They used to say near cause of the war, the immediate cause of the war, rather, and the long-term cause of the war.
If you had to explain to kids, say, 30 years from now why we went to war with Iraq, the real reasons, with were they?
ZINNI: I believe the real reason was a misguided belief, a strategic belief that we were going to change the Middle East overnight and do it on the cheap, without doing the hard work of the peace process, and help encourage reform in a way that could be acceptable to this culture.
MATTHEWS: But we all know that it takes a long time to change a culture. It took the west how many thousands of years to develop, you know, a Westminster style democracy, American style democracy, with parliaments and congresses. We had thousands of years with nothing like that. We just had wars.
Why would anybody think you could foist that on somebody who didn‘t want it?
ZINNI: Well, I believe that in this part of the world a change is coming. I believe the change will come in a form that they can accept.
It will be a way that they can represent themselves. It will be a way that they can decide on their own form of governance, their own economic systems. It will be more compatible with the rest of the world, the 21st Century.
But it‘s going to take time and hard work, help from us, and insistence that they execute the reform.
But to try to do it on one stroke in an intervention like this is absolutely the wrong way.
MATTHEWS: Do you get the sense that we‘re trying to buy the Iraqis? I mean, we‘re offering them hospitals, electricity. We‘re giving everybody $250 in the back of their pocket. The old thing in Latin America—What is it, a buck in the pocket and a kick in the rear?
It‘s like we‘re trying to buy them like—Lyndon Johnson used to try to buy people with big government programs. Or it‘s like we‘re trying to buy them with big government programs or Robert Byrd in West Virginia.
“Let‘s build a new building out there.”
We wouldn‘t do this for ourselves, let alone them. Why are we, in the United States, starting a nanny society in Iraq? We can‘t keep it up. We‘re faking it to them, because we‘re only going to do it for a couple of years to cool them down and then we‘re going to cut off the money.
Isn‘t it a dishonest deal we‘re offering them, that we‘re going to be their nannies?
ZINNI: Well, that‘s right. And I think what we have to do is create within them the willingness and the desire to reform on their own, to reform substantially their own government system, their own economic system.
It isn‘t going to work by us putting them on the dole.
MATTHEWS: Well, they were going to pay for this whole thing with the oil. That was another one of the promises, promises we got from the neocons.
Let me ask you about the role of the president and the vice president. We talked about the unelected bureaucrats in the Defense Department. And I agree with a lot of what you say, in fact, all of it.
But I also believe, as you probably do, and tell me how you do. Why did this president and this vice president, President Bush and President—
Vice President Cheney, who are so buddies in so many ways, they‘re so close. Why did they together decide to go to war with Iraq?
ZINNI: Well, I believe the president was hit hard by 9/11, as we all were, and he saw the need to make sure that we didn‘t face any other threats that we didn‘t tend to before they materialized.
And I think when he was presented with this case, in the aftermath of 9/11, he had to believe that if there‘s a possibility, that this is as significant a threat as I‘m being told, I need to stand up and deal with it.
And he‘s a strong leader. He‘s a man of strong character. And I think he clearly was convinced that this was put in the camp of the evil and it had to be dealt with.
Unfortunately, I believe he was misled.
MATTHEWS: Yes, well, he was misled again, because his speech the other night said Iraq is the heart of the terrorist camp, and nobody ever thought that was the case because Iraq was always at war with the Islamists, the real fundamentalists.
Let me ask you this whole question of why we‘re still fighting this war on the cheap and why we‘re taking so many casualties.
Does the president still go along with the ideological notion that the people of Iraq can‘t wait to embrace our form of government and that we really don‘t need that many troops to hold stability over there?
ZINNI: Well, I believe we need to secure the borders, protect the road networks and the infrastructure. And you‘ve got to put the troops on the ground to be able to do that.
MATTHEWS: Well, why won‘t he do it?
ZINNI: I think he‘s waiting, again, for the planners at the Pentagon to tell him.
MATTHEWS: They‘re not coming through. Rumsfeld will not change his mind.
Wolfowitz and Feith and those guys seem committed ideologically to the notion that we can do this with a few troops. Because if they admit it needs a lot of troops, then they‘re admitting they were lying, basically, about the argument that that country was ready to be wooed by us.
ZINNI: And I believe it‘s not only an issue of security. That‘s the most important issue.
But while you replace security, that‘s the only way you‘re going to get economic—infrastructure reconstruction to develop. Or else the enemy out there, the insurgents, are going to blow it up every chance they get.
MATTHEWS: What evidence do you have, general, that Iraq wants to accept any government—form of government like ours? Even anything short of, say, an Islamist society?
It seems to me the choices in the Middle East are monarchy, basically what you have in Jordan, basically what you have in Egypt and in Morocco, some form—you actually have an institutional monarchy in Morocco and places like that and all the emirates.
You have a Ba‘athist kind of a government, which you have in Syria, and you had it until recently in Iraq.
And you have sort of Islamism, which we‘ve got in Iran. What makes us think that we can create a new form of Arab government because we say so?
ZINNI: Well, I think you hit the nail on the head when you said create. We are not trying to return it to something it has had in its history or in its culture. We‘re trying to create something it‘s never known.
And so you have people that are not only confused, but don‘t quite understand where you‘re taking them.
And besides that, you have—Iraq is a fragmented country, and you will have people like the Shia that may believe in theocracy as the way to go. Maybe in the Sunni center where they were more secular, and in Baghdad, more of the elites could accept some form, if they understand what it‘s going to mean. Is it some form of...
MATTHEWS: Why would an Arab government take advice from a country that‘s Israel‘s best friend in the region—in the world? Why would they assume we have their best interest at heart?
Why wouldn‘t they assume we have Israel‘s best interests at heart based upon the policy of this, and most administrations of this country? In fact, our history going back to, perhaps, to Eisenhower when he was a little more even-handed have always been pro-Israeli.
And the question is why should they trust us to help build a country in their interest? Why would they trust us? I don‘t get it.
ZINNI: Well, I think there‘s going to be suspicion on the street, and I think partially for the reasons you mentioned, partially for suspicions that, like all occupiers in the past, we are only after oil and their resources.
We have to overcome that suspicion, and it‘s difficult. This was not something to get into that it was a one-year project.
MATTHEWS: Let me ask you, General, if you were an Iraqi, would you believe the United States wasn‘t interested in Iraqi oil?
ZINNI: No, I wouldn‘t. I mean...
MATTHEWS: Would you believe the United States wasn‘t pro-Israeli, at the expense of countries like Iraq?
ZINNI: No, and I think we need to convince them we‘re there for a just solution to that problem.
MATTHEWS: I think we‘ve got to convince them we‘re interested in their futures and we‘d like to see them do well and not just grab their oil and basically intimidate them in the region.
We‘ll be back with more with General Anthony Zinni and his new book is called “Battle Ready,” and he sounds it. Back with him in a moment.
MATTHEWS: We‘re back with retired General Anthony Zinni. He‘s the author of “Battle Ready.” It‘s just come out, about his incredible career in the military, especially the United States Marines.
General, you‘ve been tough on people in the Pentagon, and I‘ve been tough on them in the past, too, but it‘s your turn. You‘re on HARDBALL. I‘m going to ask you this.
Feith, Wolfowitz, Cambone, Rumsfeld, should they all go?
ZINNI: That‘s up to the president. But somebody ought to be held accountable for what went on.
I think the president wasn‘t served well, the country wasn‘t served well and our troops out there weren‘t served well. And I think we ought to discover where that problem lies.
MATTHEWS: Well, this is a free country and you have free speech.
You‘re the expert; I‘m not. Let me ask you this again.
If we were misled in terms of how easy it was going to be to go to war with Iraq, they were going to become our best friends and become Jeffersonian Democrats, that was basically—the cakewalk was the term used.
If we were scared to death from them and told to go to war, we had to, we had no choice, because they‘ve got nuclear weapons, and that turned out not to be true.
Somebody should pay the price. Why don‘t you just tell me right now, it should be Feith, Wolfowitz, Cambone and Rumsfeld?
ZINNI: Well, why not all? I mean, the buck stops at the—whoever heads up the organization that provides that misleading information that you just ticked off.
MATTHEWS: Who do you trust? Who would you trust as defense chief, Armitage?
ZINNI: Certainly. Richard Armitage is outstanding. We couldn‘t find a finer defense chief.
MATTHEWS: How about McCain?
ZINNI: Certainly. Another fine choice.
MATTHEWS: How about Colin Powell?
ZINNI: Certainly, another fine choice.
MATTHEWS: Well, I wish you were doing some of this picking.
Anyway, thank you very much, General Anthony Zinni.
ZINNI: Thank you, Chris.
MATTHEWS: The name of the book is “Battle Ready.” It‘s up next. We‘ve got President Bush, he‘s going to lay out his plans. He‘s already been doing it now for Iraq. He did it last night.
Tonight is the secretary of state‘s, Colin Powell‘s turn. We‘ll get a live report from that speech tonight.
And later, the advertisement wars. We‘ll have the newest commercial from the Bush re-election campaign, and boy, is it tough.
You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.
MATTHEWS: This half-hour on HARDBALL, Secretary of State Colin Powell on the future of Iraq. We‘ll have a live report. Plus, a new ad from the Bush campaign, will it help turn around the president‘s lagging poll numbers?
But first, the latest headlines right now.
MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL.
Secretary of State Colin Powell is speaking tonight about the future of Iraq.
HARDBALL correspondent David Shuster is standing by with a live report
DAVID SHUSTER, NBC ELECTION CORRESPONDENT: Chris, it‘s an address that the State Department scheduled weeks ago, but the focus was put squarely on Iraq after the administration decided that the president would talk about Iraq, as he did last night.
This evening, Colin Powell has been repeating the administration‘s contention that the current plan for Iraq is good enough to win. Powell said that, as the president said last night, this transfer of sovereignty is real and is real for the world to see. There‘s still questions about the relationship between the Iraqi government that will exist on July the 1st and U.S. troops and whether in fact who will be in charge of what operations.
But in any case, Powell praised what he described as the bravery of Iraqis in remarks here this evening.
Let‘s hear what he had to say.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
COLIN POWELL, SECRETARY OF STATE: The president made it absolutely clear that this transfer is real and that there‘s a specific plan to get from where we are now to where the new Iraq wants and needs to go. As he explained last night, the Brahimi process will soon come to a conclusion, and we, with our coalition partners, will support his effort to help the Iraqi people create an interim Iraqi government. Meanwhile, as you well know, while we are waiting for Mr. Brahimi to complete his work, ministries are up and running.
Twelve ministries have now been returned completely to Iraqi hands and are functioning on their own. A new U.N. Security Council resolution was proposed by the United States and the United Kingdom yesterday and put before the Security Council. You will see that in that resolution, we are asking the Security Council to endorse the Brahimi plan with all the details in it that Ambassador Brahimi will be bringing forward and to recognize this new interim government.
At the same time, the resolution recognizes that there‘s still a need for a multinational force to remain and protect the Iraqi people while its own forces are being built up, while Iraqi forces are being built up to provide for the security of the nation. And, in addition to working on the resolution with our colleagues in the Security Council in New York and in the various Security Council capitals, we will also be working out arrangements with the new interim government leadership when it has been announced with respect to how we will cooperate and coordinate with the use of our military forces, Iraqi military forces, political dialogue between the Iraqi interim government and our military commanders and our ambassador, as well as a military dialogue between the forces.
We have a great deal of experience in these kinds of arrangements in the course of our providing such arrangements and providing such forces around the world over the last 50 or 60 years, and I‘m quite confident we will be able to work out arrangements that will be satisfactory to all.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
SHUSTER: That was Colin Powell a couple of minutes ago at the State Department. His reference to cooperation and talking and coordination, that was about as close as Colin Powell got this evening to a spat that came up today when British Prime Minister Tony Blair said that Iraq will have final control over foreign forces, and then Colin Powell responded earlier today by saying, no, U.S. forces will do whatever is necessary to protect themselves.
Clearly, even U.S. allies still have some questions about the new Iraqi government on July the 1st and exactly what sort of decision-making power they will have over U.S. forces. But, as Colin Powell just said, those details will be worked out and the United States has a lot of experience dealing with that. Again, the United States would love the United Nations Security Council resolution, to take this take this up in early June. It‘s an issue the president himself will be repeating over the next couple of weeks—Chris, back to you.
MATTHEWS: Thank you, David Shuster.
Coming up, David reports on President Bush‘s latest poll numbers and the recent wave of political advertising hitting the airwaves. Plus, we‘ll talk to top officials with the Bush and the Kerry campaigns.
You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.
MATTHEWS: Coming up, the ad wars. The Bush reelection team puts out a new campaign commercial, as it poll numbers continue to slide.
HARDBALL back in a minute.
MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL.
The president‘s speech on Iraq last night kicked off an important week for his reelection campaign. Bush‘s poll numbers are at the lowest of his presidency. He‘s facing a barrage of new attack ads and the Republicans have been getting increasingly restless.
HARDBALL election correspondent David Shuster has the report.
SHUSTER (voice-over): The latest polls were conducted before the president‘s speech on Iraq.
BUSH: Our coalition is strong. Our efforts are focused and unrelenting and no power of the enemy will stop Iraq‘s progress.
SHUSTER: But the numbers underscore why this appearance was so important. Only 40 percent, according to the NBC News/”Washington Post” poll, approve of the president‘s handling of Iraq and his overall job approval rating has dropped to 47 percent.
Like other poll numbers, these are the lowest of Mr. Bush‘s presidency. The erosion comes among Republicans, where President Bush has lost seven points in one month. Most recently, Richard Lugar, Republican chairman of Senate Foreign Relations Committee, described the president‘s policies as cavalier.
SEN. RICHARD LUGAR ®, INDIANA: Our security depends not on clever-decision making about when to go it alone, but on careful maintenance of our relations with other countries that ensure that the international community will be with us in a crisis.
SHUSTER: And crisis is how other Republicans describe perceptions of the U.S. following the prison abuse scandal. Among voters, 57 percent disapprove of the president‘s handling of this issue, a 22-point increase in one month. It‘s a trend at the heart of the latest Democratic ad attacking the Bush administration.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, AD)
NARRATOR: They said we went to Iraq to bring American values, democracy, liberty. But something has gone terribly wrong.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
SHUSTER: The image of the Statue of Liberty with a black hood prompted the Bush-Cheney campaign to call the ad disgraceful. The ad, which will run in 14 major cities, is also misleading.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, AD)
NARRATOR: Now it‘s been reported that Donald Rumsfeld initiated the plan that encouraged the physical coercion and sexual humiliation of prisoners.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
SHUSTER: While it has been reported in “The New Yorker” magazine, it has been denied by the Pentagon and by Donald Rumsfeld. And his role in the scandal has not been established.
As for the Bush-Cheney campaign, their latest ad takes liberties in attacking John Kerry over homeland security.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, AD)
NARRATOR: President Bush signed the Patriot Act, giving law enforcement vital tools to fight terrorism. John Kerry, he voted for the Patriot Act, but, pressured by fellow liberals, he‘s changed his position.
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SHUSTER: But it‘s actually the same position held by several top Republicans. The effort last fall to restrain some government power under the act was endorsed by Republican senators, including Larry Craig, Frank Murkowski, and John Sununu. Bipartisan unrest never mentioned in the ad.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, AD)
NARRATOR: John Kerry playing politics with national security.
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(on camera): SHUSTER: Nonetheless, the misleading ads on both sides have been effective. And there is a silver lining for the president, even as his numbers drop. The latest poll indicates that, if the election were held today, President Bush and John Kerry would finish in a dead heat.
I‘m David Shuster for HARDBALL in Washington.
MATTHEWS: Terry Holt is national spokesman for the Bush campaign.
And Tad Devine is a senior adviser to the Kerry campaign.
Tad, can you tell me why Kerry is not doing better, given the terrible news the president has been hit with the last couple weeks?
TAD DEVINE, SENIOR JOHN KERRY CAMPAIGN ADVISER: Chris, I think we‘re doing spectacularly well.
MATTHEWS: But you‘re running even.
DEVINE: No. Well, Chris, no challenger to an incumbent president has done this well this early ever in history.
Of course, John Kerry hasn‘t named his running mate yet. We haven‘t had debates. We‘ve just started a biographical advertising campaign introducing him. And every shred of polling evidence says that John Kerry is moving ahead and George Bush is falling behind.
MATTHEWS: Terry Holt, the candidate, you know what I‘m hearing. I spent a lot of time talking to real people out there, and, of course, no matter what Tad says, there‘s a lot of Democrats worried about their candidate. They don‘t think he‘s warm enough. They don‘t think he‘s hot enough to win this thing yet.
But the Republicans I talk to have this complaint. They don‘t dislike Bush. They like him. They‘re disappointed. And you hear it from moderate, regular Republicans, not the wingers or the neocons or the ideologues, but the regular people who just want their taxes cut. Why should a person vote for George Bush if they want government off their backs, when government is driving them into this war in Iraq?
TERRY HOLT, BUSH CAMPAIGN SPOKESMAN: Well, the government is not on their backs.
In fact, what we‘ve done is, we‘ve moved from recession to recovery on the power of tax relief. The president‘s cut taxes an average of $1,800 per family over the last three years. That‘s opened up this economy and made us strong again. We‘re creating almost a million new jobs in the last several months.
MATTHEWS: Well, they like that part. It‘s the war they don‘t like.
It‘s the war they don‘t like.
HOLT: And we didn‘t choose this war. But as the president said last
night, we can move toward hope or we can move toward tragedy. And, in
fact, this president, with his determined leadership, he‘s not going to
blink. And that‘s exactly what the terrorists want us to do, is to blink
in the face of
MATTHEWS: Well, who did choose it? Who did choose it? Who did choose this war with Iraq, if the president didn‘t?
HOLT: When, on 9/11, almost 3,000 people were killed on our soil.
MATTHEWS: What did Iraq do that day?
HOLT: In fact, Iraq has been a hotbed of instability in the neighborhood.
HOLT: Saddam Hussein is a war criminal by anybody‘s imagination.
MATTHEWS: So the war—so Iraq led the fight against us on 9/11?
HOLT: Well, in fact, they had been inspiring terrorism all over that region for years and years.
MATTHEWS: Well, this is a question we‘ll have to get an answer to at some point. I haven‘t seen any evidence yet. But I accept the argument. This is part of this campaign.
Let me ask you about this question, Tad; 65 percent of the people in this country, according to the latest CBS poll, think we‘re headed in the wrong direction.
MATTHEWS: What direction is that, that they don‘t like?
MATTHEWS: Narrow it down, if you can, to what they have on their mind when they say wrong direction.
DEVINE: Sure. Yes.
I think it begins with Iraq. I think people are seeing a mess in Iraq, a failed policy. They—they—as you just pointed out, they don‘t see the connection between going to Iraq in the first place and the war on terror. That connection, which the Bush administration has tried to make conspicuously and even now Terry is trying to make to this day, I think it‘s undermining the confidence that people have in the president‘s leadership on the war on terror. So that‘s No. 1.
No. 2, this so-called recovery that they‘re talking about, there‘s been a couple of good months of job creation. And that‘s a fact. But what is also a fact is the jobs being created now pay a lot less than the jobs lost. Four million people have lost their health care since George Bush has become president. The deficit has gone from the greatest surplus to the greatest deficit in history. College tuition costs are going through the roof. People are being squeezed.
These are middle-class families. And that‘s what they don‘t like.
And that‘s why they feel this country is off on the wrong track.
MATTHEWS: Let me ask you both about who—well, let me just run a proposition by both of you. Terry and I were talking before the break. He has an advantage on you, because maybe he agrees with me.
MATTHEWS: But the question is, I don‘t think this is like a regular election, where we have two newcomers, like last time, we had Bush and Gore. This time, we have a president.
MATTHEWS: He‘s president of the United States. He‘s been elected. Her‘s there for three more years now. And we have to choose whether to extend him another four years. That‘s a different question.
Do you think the American people—Terry, you first. Do you think the American people are primarily looking at the president now, and they haven‘t decided whether they‘re going to keep him or not, but that‘s the question? They haven‘t begun to look at Kerry.
HOLT: Well, they‘ve even begun to turn off the television sets, because the news that we‘ve seen coming out of Iraq with the beheading of an American and with the atrocities at Abu Ghraib by these people, they just have turned this off.
And we‘ve all had bad news the last few months. But what would happen under a Kerry presidency? First, he was for the war, but then he wouldn‘t fund the troops, cuts in intelligence funding, cuts in defense.
MATTHEWS: My question is, do you think the American people are primarily focused on the success or not success of the president right now, and sometime late summer they‘re going to decide if they don‘t like this president or they don‘t like what he‘s doing, they‘ll take a good look at John Kerry? I don‘t think they‘re taking a good look at him yet.
HOLT: Well, I think that John Kerry has yet to make his case. And the more that people know about John Kerry, the less—well, in fact, maybe the more confused they are by his positions.
But he has a little bit of time to finally decide who he‘s going to be. But I wonder if they are going to like what they see when they finally get it.
DEVINE: Can I answer that question?
MATTHEWS: No, I‘ve got to ask you the questions. That‘s my job.
MATTHEWS: Let me ask you this about your candidate‘s warmth factor.
DEVINE: Yes. Go ahead.
MATTHEWS: I‘ve known John Kerry for a long time. And I like him. I think he‘s a great, smart, tough guy, with flaws, like everybody else.
MATTHEWS: But I also think he‘s never going to be Mr. Warmth. He‘s never going to be Bill Clinton, the hugging guy that loves to grab people. Well, that‘s one advantage, maybe, but he‘s not going to be like that.
But the fact is...
MATTHEWS: Even you‘re laughing.
MATTHEWS: The question is, can he be measured on the old—the cuddly scale? Is that a fair way to judge your candidate, on the cuddliness scale?
MATTHEWS: You really like the cuddly factor with him?
DEVINE: I think he can win on that basis.
Listen, people who know him like him a lot. First of all, he‘s got a group of veterans who have traveled around with him since they served together in Vietnam.
DEVINE: And these guys are devoted to him. Loyalty counts with them so much.
Second, the polls suggest otherwise. His favorability in the CBS poll I think went up four or five points in the last month, while the president‘s went down, the likability.
MATTHEWS: Why is he nailed on the flip-flop thing whenever you ask the poll question? Is that just negative advertisement or is that his history?
DEVINE: Listen, they‘ve spent $74.5 million on television, almost all of it negative, and that‘s been their message. And obviously people got that information. We don‘t deny that.
HOLT: John Kerry‘s own words.
DEVINE: It‘s not going to affect...
HOLT: I voted for it before I voted against it.
DEVINE: It is not going to affect their voting decision, though.
MATTHEWS: But what about that devastating bite you just mentioned, where you‘ve got John Kerry saying, I voted for this $87 billion for reconstruction in Iraq, and then I voted against it. It sounds crazy.
DEVINE: Chris, they put about $50 million behind that. And look
MATTHEWS: But he said it. But John Kerry said it.
DEVINE: But so what? Bush has the lowest
HOLT: But, Tad, it‘s indicative of his personality.
HOLT: He can‘t give people a straight answer. And nobody can understand how you could be for it and then against it. And, in fact, he said voting against that bill would be irresponsible just weeks before he did that very thing.
DEVINE: If that‘s so powerful, why is the president going through the floor?
MATTHEWS: Let me ask you a question about a choice in John Kerry‘s life.
MATTHEWS: John Kerry went to Vietnam. He volunteered. Why didn‘t the president volunteer to go to Vietnam? He‘s for the war.
HOLT: Well, the president flew
MATTHEWS: No, but why didn‘t he volunteer to go to Vietnam if he was for the war? Shouldn‘t people who support wars go and fight them?
HOLT: But, in fact, he was one of the—he served in the National Guard honorably for his country.
MATTHEWS: But why didn‘t he go and fight in the war? He believed in it.
HOLT: Well, everybody made a decision about how best they served. He served as a fighter pilot in the Texas Air Guard.
MATTHEWS: No, but if you believe in a war, shouldn‘t you fight it, rather than someone who doesn‘t believe in it, a draftee getting drafted in the war?
HOLT: But in John Kerry‘s case, he went to Vietnam. He took his own photo camera, by the way, so he could get some good pictures.
DEVINE: He was getting shot at.
MATTHEWS: He had some souvenirs to bring home.
HOLT: As soon as he came home, after just a few short months, he began running for political office on an anti-war campaign.
MATTHEWS: I know a lot of guys who went through school. They are all hawks. They said, I‘m for the war in Vietnam. And you know what the problem with a lot of these hawks? They‘re all conservatives and all that stuff. And I said, how come you‘re not going to the war if you believe in it? And they all said the same thing. Well, I participated in the system. They got draft deferments.
HOLT: That‘s not what the president said. The president served and was honorably discharged.
MATTHEWS: You don‘t want to give John for being one of guys that fought?
HOLT: ... Vietnam. His service was honorable. But upon coming back...
MATTHEWS: Do you realize, if everybody did what your guy did, the president of the United States did in Vietnam, if everybody did what he did, no one would have gone to Vietnam. There wouldn‘t have been a war.
MATTHEWS: A lot of people served honorably.
MATTHEWS: No, I‘m saying, if everybody did what the commander in chief right now did during the Vietnam War, there wouldn‘t have been a war, because nobody would have gone. Isn‘t that a contradiction?
HOLT: We‘re at war today.
MATTHEWS: Would he go to war today? Would he have volunteered today?
HOLT: The president did go to war today, not because
MATTHEWS: Would George W. Bush have volunteered today and gone to fight in Iraq? Would he have volunteered today?
HOLT: Oh, come on. Does that sound like a hypothetical question to you? The president is leading this nation.
MATTHEWS: No, no, because he‘s gung-ho for the war. Would he, if he were a young man, go fight in this war?
HOLT: The president is leading this nation in a war on terrorism.
MATTHEWS: You can‘t answer the question. You‘re afraid to be quoted.
MATTHEWS: Say to me right now
HOLT: You‘re asking me a hypothetical question. And that‘s not the right kind of a question to be answered.
MATTHEWS: If the president were a young man, would he go fight in this war?
HOLT: He‘s committed troops.
MATTHEWS: You won‘t answer it.
MATTHEWS: If I were you, I would say, of course he would served and go fight for this country.
HOLT: He‘s been to Baghdad on Thanksgiving.
MATTHEWS: Let me ask you this. Do you think the president, commander in chief today, who is leading other men into battle, would go fight that war if he were a young man today, yes or no?
HOLT: I think he would.
MATTHEWS: Great. Thank you. Great answer.
MATTHEWS: Coming up—let‘s get that on the record.
Should Kerry accept the nomination at the Democratic or hold off so he can get more money? There‘s a tricky one. Should we cover this convention if he doesn‘t accept the nomination?
You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.
MATTHEWS: We‘re back with Terry Holt of the Bush campaign and Tad Devine of the Kerry campaign.
Tad, old buddy, is John Kerry going to accept the Democratic nomination in Boston?
DEVINE: I think so, Chris.
But what we‘re going to have to figure out is how to make the playing field even and fair. Right now, the president is looking at a 12-week general election. And Senator Kerry is looking at a 17-week general election. And we all know where the finish line is. That‘s on Election Day in November. But this is like the Bush campaign saying, hey, listen, we‘re going to have 100-yard dash. Kerry, you start in the end zone. Bush will start on the 40-yard line.
MATTHEWS: Why don‘t you move the date? Why don‘t you move date back to—up to where it is with the president‘s party?
DEVINE: Well, you know, we‘ll figure it out. There is a lot of logistical issues.
But I‘ll tell you one thing, Chris. John Kerry does not fight with one hand tied behind his back, OK? The Bush guys, I know it is inconvenient for them. I‘m really sorry things are not going to work out along without the game plan they wrote a couple years ago. But that‘s just the way it goes.
MATTHEWS: Let Terry make his point here.
Terry, your point was, they knew rules when they set the date.
MATTHEWS: Didn‘t you know the rules?
HOLT: You know exactly what the rules were when you set the date back last summer.
DEVINE: We didn‘t set the date. We weren‘t the nominee.
HOLT: And, in fact, you better explain this to the Democratic mayor of Boston.
HOLT: Who is on your case because he spent millions of dollars, put
Bostonians on ice. And now you‘re telling the Boston people that they
aren‘t going to have a meaningful convention. In fact, $14 million in
taxpayers‘ money is being spent on a non—only John Kerry
MATTHEWS: OK, let me explain to the audience, who are not all political junkies.
Tell me if I‘m wrong, guys. The fact is that, under the campaign laws that exist right now, you can spend money that you take in as contributions right up until the convention. But after the convention, you have to rely on public funds.
MATTHEWS: So the Democrats obviously were going to have a lot less money to spend because they‘re having a convention much earlier. They can‘t keep taking the maybe, like the Republicans can.
MATTHEWS: You guys can keep taking the money right until Labor Day.
HOLT: But John Kerry‘s party set the date of the convention. And in fact, John Kerry believes that he‘s the only guy that the rules don‘t apply to.
MATTHEWS: OK, can I ask you both a question you can both agree on or both disagree on?
Why does every conventional wisdom expert—and I‘ve given up thinking I was an expert a while ago, although I do love history—I can tell you what happened in the past. Why does everybody say, Tad, why does everybody say, I don‘t know who is going to win this election, but it is sure going to be close? How does anybody know it is going to be close, Tad?
DEVINE: Well, I think because of the last election, Chris.
And I think people see the deep division in the country. And I think that‘s why they say that. But, listen, I agree. We don‘t know how the election is going to turn out. I do think each side has a strong base. But I think there‘s a lot of votes available to either side. And I think we‘ve just started making the case. I think John Kerry has made enormous progress.
MATTHEWS: How many people up in the air would you say are actually going to have open minds say starting now through November, and they actually could decide? Twenty percent of the country? How many people are really open-minded about who to vote for? Say, do you think there‘s 40 percent of the country is hard-nosed Republican and won‘t switch no matter what, high 30s, mid-level of 30s, Democrats? How many Democrats are hard-nosed and won‘t vote for any Republican any time?
DEVINE: I think close to 40 percent.
MATTHEWS: Do you agree with that? About 40 percent of both sides are locked in?
HOLT: It may be a little bit higher, actually.
MATTHEWS: So that leaves 20 percent in the middle.
HOLT: Well, maybe not that much.
I think what has happened since 1984, the Republicans have caught up in terms of registering Republicans and Democrats.
MATTHEWS: That‘s for sure. They‘ve even.
HOLT: We‘re basically at parity now. So we‘re fighting a campaign between the 45-yard line. The question is whether or not you fundamentally trust a determined person, a leader.
MATTHEWS: Oh, this is an argument for Bush. Hah!
HOLT: It is an argument for who can make the better case.
MATTHEWS: I‘m just teasing.
MATTHEWS: But we agree. Do you think it is going to be a better election?
HOLT: Yes, I do.
MATTHEWS: OK. Everybody agrees. You guys agree. I‘m not sure.
Anyway, thank you very much, Terry Holt, Tad Devine.
Join us again tomorrow night at 7:00 Eastern for more HARDBALL. Our guest will include Brigadier General Janis Karpinski, the general who ran the prisons in Iraq and who‘s just been suspended.
Right now, it‘s time for the “COUNTDOWN” with Keith.
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