updated 2/20/2013 11:20:35 AM ET 2013-02-20T16:20:35

HARDBALL
February 19, 2013

Guests: Buzz Bissinger, Michelle Cottle, John Nichols, Guy Cecil, Maggie Haberman


CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST: The demolition party.

Let`s play HARDBALL.

Good evening. I`m Chris Matthews in Washington.

"Let Me Start" with this. Is what the president started today an all-out
challenge to the Republicans to stop these crazy manufactured crises we`ve
been having? Every few months now, we`ve got another deadline, another
abyss, another coming government shutdown. This brinksmanship has become
elemental to American politics. Republicans now threaten to bring
government down to a crashing halt regularly. Democrats have to plead with
them, practically beg them not to do it.

Well, this torpedo politics, if you want to call it that, started with Newt
Gingrich back in the `90s. He was the first right-wing radical to say,
Making government work isn`t our job, bringing it down is our job, bringing
it to our level is. Destroy it, get people to lose faith in it, faith in
the ability simply of the country itself to do something right.

Well, today President Obama warned of the casualties -- a weakened national
defense, the huge loss of jobs, and with it a crippling of the recovery.
By the way, with that axe ready to fall, he offered a way out of the
endless government shutdowns and the fearfulness and the low morale that
goes with it.

Will the Republicans, however, respond to anything he says now? Will they
at least try to avoid another slam-bang crash in Washington? Will they
pull back from the brink and start climbing mountains instead of crashing
over cliffs?

I`ve got two former party chairs with me right now tonight, Republican
Michael Steele and Democrat Ed Rendell. Both are MSNBC political analysts.

Let`s start with the president, by the way, this morning and the stark
terms he laid out for Republicans. It`s not just the economy that`ll
suffer from the looming cuts next week. That`s March 1st. National
security will, as well, and it`s seriously at risk.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Already, the threat of these
cuts has forced the Navy to delay an aircraft carrier that was supposed to
deploy to the Persian Gulf. And as our military leaders have made clear,
changes like this, not well thought through, not phased in properly --
changes like this affect our ability to respond to threats in unstable
parts of the world.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Governor Rendell, I just wonder what you think would be the
situation, the scenario, if it comes to this. We pick up our paper some
day and the newspaper said, Carrier group can`t make it to Persian Gulf for
lack of funding. I mean, I just wonder if we`re ready to face something --
I don`t think we`ve ever faced that in World War II, in Korea, in Vietnam.
We`re actually unable to fight the wars we`re in.

ED RENDELL (D), FMR. PENNSYLVANIA GOVERNOR, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: Well,
Chris, overall, it`s an incredibly bad situation for the country. And we
can argue over who deserves the blame for this, and there`s probably blame
to go around. But right now, the Republican Party, I think, is facing a
huge crisis because their refusal to move on the sequestration isn`t viewed
in a vacuum. It`s viewed in Republicans saying that they won`t approve
President Obama`s immigration plan without even knowing what`s in it.

MATTHEWS: Yes.

RENDELL: It`s viewed in a -- in respect to Republicans having for the
first time filibustered one -- a president`s cabinet nominees. The
American people are coming to the conclusion -- again fairly or not, and I
think it is fairly -- they`re coming to the conclusion that this party just
wants to wreck and ruin, this party has no agenda other than to say no and
to obstruct. And I think it`s an incredibly dangerous path not just for
the country, but for the Republican Party, as well.

MATTHEWS: You know, Michael, this is destabilizing, and we all know that.
We have numbers out there in terms of what it`s doing to public morale and
expectations. People are very unsettled now when they see the government -
- all -- the only headlines that seem to come out of this town, Washington,
D.C., are ones about, Will the government shut down, will there be an
abyss, will there be a government -- what do you call it -- a lockout?

MICHAEL STEELE, FORMER RNC CHAIRMAN, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: Right.

MATTHEWS: Will there be the end of the continuing resolution, the failure
to meet our debt creating requirements. And it goes on and on and on. I
think it`s a political purpose here. You may not agree.

STEELE: No, I think--

MATTHEWS: I think there`s a purpose in this--

STEELE: No, I think there`s--

MATTHEWS: -- to undermine the government.

STEELE: No, I don`t know if it`s to undermine the government, but I think
there is a political purpose and a political calculation by both parties.
What takes me aback, Chris, is how we always get to this precipice and
everyone always acts so shocked that we`re here. I mean, the sequestration
was voted on in 2011 -- 2012, rather. It`s not like it was something new
that we didn`t know was coming.

The Congress didn`t do its job -- House, Senate, and the White House. The
Democrats run two thirds of the government. The Republicans in the House,
yes, they`ve been obstinate on spending and taxes, but the agenda hasn`t
changed from the White House or the Senate, either. Where`s the budget? I
mean--

MATTHEWS: Yes, but--

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: Michael, you know why the Democrats agree to these deals,
because it`s the only way to keep government going. So you have to -- the
Democrats buckle to the Republicans. They`re practically holding a gun on
them, saying, If you don`t agree to some--

STEELE: Oh, really?

MATTHEWS: -- sort of deal -- yes. Yes.

STEELE: OK.

MATTHEWS: Yes, really.

STEELE: OK.

MATTHEWS: Why else would a Democrat agree to these things?

STEELE: So those -- because they`re part of the problem as much as
everybody else in this town who doesn`t want to get to the bottom line of
solving the problem. I mean, so, you know, I get the -- you know, the
president standing up in front of a podium, talking about ships running out
of fuel midway across the Atlantic. But at the end of the day, I mean,
what are you doing to put the agenda straight? What is the Senate, the
House and the White House all doing--

MATTHEWS: Oh, OK. In other words--

STEELE: -- to get us beyond?

MATTHEWS: -- if you don`t like -- in other words, Michael -- I`ll get back
to the governor on this because I can`t understand this argument. If you
don`t like the way a guy`s policies are running, bring down the government.
That seems to be the tool of the Republican Party now.

STEELE: No, that`s not it. That`s not it. No.

MATTHEWS: It`s always an abyss. It`s always a shutdown.

STEELE: Wait a minute!

(CROSSTALK)

STEELE: -- can we get some real cuts? Can we get some real objectives
attained in this debate--

MATTHEWS: OK. OK.

STEELE: -- instead of putting -- we get to the same point.

MATTHEWS: OK.

STEELE: I mean, you guys make the same argument every time. Oh, you want
to shut down the government. Well, yes, yes, maybe--

MATTHEWS: Because you`re always--

(CROSSTALK)

STEELE: -- get things done!

MATTHEWS: Let me -- let`s take a look at this, another point here. The
president accused Republicans of looking like the party of the rich today
and challenged them to make a deal if they want to negotiate a way out of
the mess right now. Let`s listen to the president.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA: Republicans in Congress face a simple choice. Are they willing to
compromise to protect vital investments in education, in health care,
national security and all the jobs that depend on them, or would they
rather put hundreds of thousands of jobs and our entire economy at risk
just to protect a few special interest tax loopholes that benefit only the
wealthiest Americans and biggest corporations?

My door is open. I`ve put tough cuts and reforms on the table. I`m
willing to work with anybody to get this job done. None of us will get 100
percent of what we want, but nobody should want these cuts to go through.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Political damage, if the government really runs into trouble,
Governor -- say March 1st, it begins to creep along, the real implications,
where we don`t have the adequate defense spending moving out through the
pipeline, we really do have a lot of shutdowns and people being laid off --
I guess it helps the president because he has already started to point the
finger at a leaderless Republican Party. They don`t have a spokesman to
come out and say, It`s not us.

But overall, doesn`t it bring down the morale of the country and thereby
hurt the president, as well, or more so? I`m just wondering how you divide
this out in terms of calamity.

RENDELL: I think in the long term, you`re right, Chris, it does. In the
long term, it doesn`t benefit the president. And Michael`s right about one
thing. We have not had serious discussions about dealing with our debt
problem for the next two, three decades, and we`ve got to do that. But
time is running out, and we`re not going to do that in the next eight days.

And the president did hold out the olive branch, where he said, Let`s do a
smaller package of cuts and revenue enhancements that he said wouldn`t kick
the can down the road. But in fact, it would kick the can down the road,
but it`s a whole lot better than shutting the government down.

And where the Republicans are in a hole is the basic revenue increase that
the Democrats are talking about is the rule that says anyone who makes more
than $1 million has to pay a certain amount of taxes regardless. No more
loopholes, no more getting out of paying taxes, no more Warren Buffetts
paying a lower rate than their secretaries.

MATTHEWS: Right.

RENDELL: The American people agree with that by 75 percent, 80 percent!

STEELE: But Governor--

RENDELL: So the Republicans are--

STEELE: Governor, we just did that!

RENDELL: -- in an untenable position.

(CROSSTALK)

STEELE: Didn`t we just do that?

RENDELL: No.

STEELE: Didn`t we just -- didn`t we just raise taxes on the top 2 percent,
top 1 percent?

RENDELL: You did, but--

STEELE: Oh, OK. I thought we did.

RENDELL: But Michael, but with good accountants, and you know this--

STEELE: Oh.

RENDELL: -- with good accountants and good tax lawyers--

STEELE: Oh, we got to really stick it to them!

RENDELL: -- they wind up paying -- they wind up paying 15 percent. Not
really sticking it to them--

STEELE: OK.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: Michael, do you think we got a fair tax system. Am I hearing an
echo of a person defending our tax system? Michael, are you honestly
saying--

STEELE: No, I`m not. No!

MATTHEWS: -- we don`t need tax reform?

STEELE: Chris -- Chris, I`m all for tax reform, but none of this is
serious right now. This is the same old crazy blame, blame, finger point,
finger point.

MATTHEWS: OK.

STEELE: No one`s getting -- no one`s is getting the job done here!

MATTHEWS: OK. That`s your assessment.

STEELE: Tax reform, revenue enhancements, spending cuts--

MATTHEWS: OK--

STEELE: -- those are the things that -- where`s Simpson-Bowles part two?

MATTHEWS: OK.

STEELE: I mean, they laid out a good plan today--

MATTHEWS: OK, Michael, here`s another version--

STEELE: -- but we`re not talking about it!

MATTHEWS: -- of what you`re saying. Here`s Boehner talking for Boehner,
not you talking Boehner. Here he is, responding to the president`s
remarks, saying, in part, quote, "Once ,again the president offered no
credible plan that can pass Congress, only more calls for higher taxes.
Just last month the president got his higher taxes on the wealthy" --
that`s what you said, Michael -- "and he`s already back for more.

Here`s my assessment of what`s going on. Back in the early `50s, after the
-- when the cold war first got started, if we didn`t like a foreign
government, the way it was doing things, whether it was Guatemala or it`s
Iran--

STEELE: Right.

MATTHEWS: -- or it`s Dominican Republic or it`s Chile, we destabilized it.
We either knocked off the leader, brought it down some other way through
brilliant propaganda.

Now we`re doing it to our own country! The Republicans are now using the
tactics -- you know, you know that`s what they`re doing.

STEELE: No, Chris.

MATTHEWS: They`re destabilizing the government--

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: Go ahead. You can answer. I see it happening every couple
months now.

STEELE: But you act like Republicans aren`t small business owners, that
they`re not school teachers and firefighters and policemen, that they`re
not affected by these -- the impact of this government as is anyone else
is. That -- I mean, so the idea that we want to bring down the government
is just silly!

What we`re trying to do is get the government to pay its bills, not spend
more than it needs to, check its size--

MATTHEWS: Yes.

STEELE: -- and basically get out of the way of building -- rebuilding this
economy. That`s all.

MATTHEWS: Yes, but the Congress people who are shutting the government
down are still making their $170,000 a year, whether the government shuts
down or not. It`s not the small businessmen voting in Congress. It`s
these members of Congress who are politicians who think they`ll get
reelected if they say no to everything.

We have never -- Governor, we have never seen anything like this in our
lifetime, a political party which seems to be run now by people who believe
that no is a policy.

RENDELL: No question, Chris, and it`s damaging to their brand. It`s
damaging to the long-run future of the Republican Party. But it`s sad
because it`s also damaging to the country.

MATTHEWS: And what are you going to do about it? So Michael, the
president says his door is open. Would you go through that door?

STEELE: I would go--

MATTHEWS: Or would you wait for him to come out?

STEELE: I would go in that door in a heartbeat as long as he was still in
the room.

MATTHEWS: Well, that`s -- I think he is -- I think it`s a safe bet he`s
going to stay in the Oval Office and wait for you.

STEELE: Well, that room has many doors. So while I may go in one, he may
go out the other. So the bottom line is they all need to get in the same
room--

MATTHEWS: You think it`s some island in the Caribbean where there`s just
an address on it, there`s nobody there?

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS: No, this is the real thing. It`s called the United States
government, Michael Steele. And some day, the Republicans will get to run
it. In the meantime, I think you`re just going to detonate it. Anyway,
thank you, Michael Steele.

STEELE: We`re running a third of it anyway.

MATTHEWS: Sometimes you have a hard case to make here. Anyway, thank you,
Governor Rendell, as always. Coming up--

STEELE: Good to see you, Guv.

MATTHEWS: -- save my seat. With Senate Republican -- or Democratic and
Republican retirements piling up and lots of Democrats running in red
states, the outlook for 2014 looks challenging for Democrats. But 2012 was
supposed to be a tough year, too, and Democrats wound up gaining Senate
seats.

Well, tonight, the Democratic strategist -- he really exists -- with the
right stuff, who made it happen last time -- he`s going to come on and talk
about whether he can do it again. This is the sharpy behind the Democrats`
big wins in the Senate telling us if he can do it again.

Also, the politics of redemption. There`s nothing new about a politician
caught in a romantic or even simply a sexual affair trying to make a
comeback, but few have been caught as former South Carolina governor Mark
Sanford was. Yet here he is now, trying to rewrite the book of love and
politics.

Plus, courtesy of David Letterman, things you don`t want to hear from a man
dressed up like Abraham Lincoln.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DAVID LETTERMAN, HOST: Number 10.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: How about you and I form a more perfect union?

(LAUGHTER)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Best in a long time on Letterman. More in the "Sideshow," and
that`s going to be there.

Finally, let me finish with how the Republicans are doing here in the
United States what they once did with governments overseas they didn`t
like.

This is HARDBALL, the place for politics.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: The good news for Congress is that its approval rating is
holding steady. The bad news, it`s stuck at 15 percent. A new Gallup poll
finds that fewer than 1 in 7 Americans approve the job Congress is doing.
That`s the same approval rating Congress suffered with on average
throughout all of 2012, 8 in 10 Americans disapprove of the job Congress is
doing.

We`ll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL. Barack Obama`s second term is under
way, of course, and that means one thing -- it`s legacy building time. But
pushing through a Democratic agenda becomes much easier when the party
controls both the House and Senate, of course.

It`s a tough challenge for 2014 when you look at the map. Mark Begich in
Alaska, Mark Pryor in Arkansas, Mary Landrieu down in Louisiana, Max Baucus
out in Montana, Kay Hagan down in North Carolina and South Dakota`s Tim
Johnson are all looking at potentially very tough races in states Mitt
Romney won, as will the Democrat who runs for Jay Rockefeller`s seat in
West Virginia.

Nor is it a cakewalk in a few blue states, either. For example, in Iowa
and Minnesota, where you have Democrats running for the Senate.
Conservatives see a big opportunity. They took a look at this front page
story, as we did, in "The Washington Times" today. Quote, "Obama agenda is
risky for red state Democrats."

Well, Guy Cecil has good news for Democrats. He`s the executive director
of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. He pulled a rabbit --
rather, a donkey, out of his hat last year when the Democrats gained seats,
actually gained seats in a year that looked like a sure loser for
Democrats. Well, that`s his job, to pull off another miracle and hang onto
the Senate. And Maggie Haberman, a great reporter -- she`s at Politico.
She`s a senior political reporter.

You know, I think this is important because I think although it`s already a
year off, or a year-and-a-half off, people want to know how Obama is going
to make it. Is he going to put points on the board, immigration reform,
something on gun safety? He likes to talk about himself being a center-
left version, I think, of a Ronald Reagan, meaning he wants to get into the
history books. And the question is, can he do it with a Republican House?
Probably not. So he`s hoping to switch it.

Let`s talk about the Senate, however. A lot of people in the Democratic
Party are lucky to be in the Senate because they don`t match up with the
way those states vote in presidential elections. Is this a danger?

GUY CECIL, DSCC EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR: Well, it`s always a danger. The
question is, how do you deal with it? And I think we`ve got a real--

MATTHEWS: How do you beat the spread?

CECIL: Well, look, we got a road map from what happened in 2012. We don`t
have to just guess about what`s going to happen. There was no one saying,
Well, we passed the Affordable Care Act, that`s an easy vote so now we can
move on to something else.

Our incumbents last cycle voted for tough things time after time after
time, and they won. We had five senators win in states that the president
lost. Heidi Heitkamp won in North Dakota. The president lost by 21
points.

The way do you it is you represent the people of your state. People in
North Dakota are the same as anywhere else. They don`t want a Xerox
machine as their senator that looks at where the president votes or where
the president supports and simply does the same thing. They want someone
that represents their state.

And the thing we have to learn is the lesson that the Republicans are
trying to teach us. The fastest way to be a minority party is to have a
long list of things that everyone has to check off in order to be a member
of the party. If we`re going to win in Manhattan and we`re going to win in
Minot, we have to be able to actually talk to both sets of people at the
same time, and we got to have people that represent their states. And we
have to be a party that`s willing to allow people to vote their conscience.

MATTHEWS: OK. I`m looking at a couple of the senators who are women, Kay
Hagan down in North Carolina, Maggie, and of course, Mary Landrieu, who
seems to be -- you know, she escapes the whatever, the vengeance of the
right. Every six years, she manages to get reelected down there by being
careful and by being very respectful of the local attitudes about politics,
especially like guns, of course, in Louisiana, and immigration, of course,
down there.

If you`re the Democratic leader, do you want to advise people to vote with
the majority and help them pass bills or save themselves?

MAGGIE HABERMAN, POLITICO: I think you`re going to see a little bit of
both. Not to step on Guy`s territory here, but I think that you will see
some public boosterism and I think you will see people privately getting a
pass. I think you`ve seen it in response to immigration in the last couple
of days with some of the senators you discussed a minute ago who are not
offering up huge stands in support of getting something done immediately.
They`re taking more of a wait and see attitude. I think you`re going to
see a lot of that.

Where I think you`re going to see it more, however, is on guns, as opposed
to on immigration. I think that is going to be much tougher sell.

MATTHEWS: Well, we were talking about it before we went on, and my concern
watching politics, not being in it, is the gun people, the 2nd Amendment
people, who are really ferocious on that issue, and fairly so. That`s
their position. It`s democracy. They don`t forget. So Michael Bloomberg
can go into a state and he could potentially -- he`s not going to do it --
drop 5 million or 10 million bucks for somebody. He`s doing a couple
million for a candidate for Congress in that Jesse Jackson, Jr., seat in
the South Side of Chicago.

But he`s going to leave. He`s going to go into other issues, wind energy
or something he`s interested in, and that person is still there trying to
get reelected.

CECIL: That`s right.

Look, the fact of the matter is, we`re not going to get 100 percent of all
Democratic votes for every piece of gun control legislation that goes
through the Senate. We are going to get a--

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: If you were Harry Reid and you worked with him and the
Democrats, would you encourage him to expose people like Mark Pryor down in
Arkansas and Max Baucus out in Montana? Would you ask them to vote on an
assault weapons ban?

CECIL: I think Harry Reid will give them the same advice that I give them
in private, which is when you agree with the president, you should say so.
And when you disagree with the president, you should say so.

MATTHEWS: And don`t buckle the pressure from the White House.

CECIL: And what we have seen, Mark Pryor has already come out in
opposition to the assault weapons ban. I suspect you will see a couple of
others, but I would just juxtapose that against what`s happening on the
other side.

The reason we`re starting in the Senate first is because John Boehner and
the leaders on the House side can`t get anything done. They can`t get a
majority of their own party to support the speaker`s own--

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: But you realize how their strategy could work? You in the
Senate will be the first cut. You are like the first guys going over the
top in World War I, blowing the whistles, right, cutting through the
concertina wire.

You guys could get mowed down, people like -- I`m thinking about Pryor,
Begich, Landrieu, Hagan, Tim Johnson. They all have to vote up or down.
So, then what happens is the House, which is run by Republicans, they don`t
have to take on issues like that because they have already been beaten.

CECIL: Here is the difference.

MATTHEWS: Therefore, they don`t lose--

(CROSSTALK)

CECIL: The Republican Party is running people like Mourdock do and Todd
Akin and Christine O`Donnell.

MATTHEWS: If you`re lucky again.

CECIL: And they`re eschewing everybody else.

When Dick Lugar and Mike Castle aren`t conservative enough, when they don`t
pass the litmus test, what does the Republican Party do? They throw them
out. We embrace folks from Louisiana and Arkansas. And they`re not going
to vote with us all the time, and we just have to accept that fact. But
the fact is--

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: Maggie, let me ask you about it looking at this objectively.
What happens when there`s no -- when they don`t have these lucky jokers in
the deck like Akin and Mourdock? They were really gifts to these people.

HABERMAN: They were. Yes, they were.

MATTHEWS: What happens when they don`t show up in 2014 because people like
Rove and others have culled the herd?

HABERMAN: Look, I think there`s no question that Democrats got lucky last
year. Republicans had a pretty poor crop of candidates.

You had some candidates, Senate candidates, Republicans, who lost in states
Mitt Romney won. So you can`t only blame Mitt Romney. However, I also
think you have to give Guy and his team credit in terms of recruitment.
It`s not just the other side.

But I think that there`s no question 2014 is probably going to be a much
tougher year for Democrats than last one was. I think a lot of things came
-- you know, were aligned well. Some were proactive by the Democrats, and
some were not. But I think that it`s going to be different and it`s
playing out on a different legislative climate.

MATTHEWS: OK.

Total congressional question, Maggie, you start. Does the president need
to win the House next time and hold the Senate to be a president of
history, to get the kinds of bills passed that puts you up there with the
top presidents?

HABERMAN: No. But it would help, and I don`t think it`s going to happen.
I don`t think they`re going to win the House.

CECIL: Well, I certainly think it`s going to be difficult for both those
things to happen, but I would agree with Maggie.

MATTHEWS: You can hold the Senate, though, can`t you?

CECIL: We intend to hold the Senate. No one thought we could hold it last
cycle. Not only did we hold it, we picked up seats.

And it wasn`t just because we had the Mourdocks. Nobody was saying Tommy
Thompson was extreme or Dennis Rehberg was extreme. We won because we
recruited candidates that best fit their state.

MATTHEWS: You know what I have to say, what I care about? You know what I
respect in politics? People like the people on this list.

CECIL: Me, too.

MATTHEWS: Because anybody can come from a big city and vote 100 percent
ADA and be guaranteed a seat for life. But when you`re out there on the
frontier and you`re out there as a moderate Democrat and you`re trying to
get elected among moderate Democrats in your state, maybe you have got 50
percent of the state is moderate Democrats, you have got to prove yourself
every six years, you have got to prove yourself to the people out there.

CECIL: That`s right.

MATTHEWS: And that`s really gutsy. That`s great, great stuff.

Anyway, good luck. By the way, you have got great ink today.

CECIL: Oh, thank you.

MATTHEWS: Don`t think it`s going to stay that way.

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS: It never stays that way. Anyway, Guy Cecil, the guy who brought
the Senate.

You know it`s like baseball managers . They have one good World Series
season.

(CROSSTALK)

CECIL: I will take it. I will take one.

MATTHEWS: Anyway, thank you very much, Guy Cecil.

And, as always, it good to have you back, Maggie. Miss you.

HABERMAN: Thanks for having me.

MATTHEWS: Up next, things you done want to hear from a guy dressed up like
Abraham Lincoln. This is the best David Letterman top 10 I have heard in
so long and it`s coming up.

It`s HARDBALL, the place for politics.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "LATE SHOW WITH DAVID LETTERMAN")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: Damn girl, you make Mary Todd look like Ulysses S.
Grant.

(LAUGHTER)

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: Back to HARDBALL. Now to the "Sideshow."

First, David Letterman brought on Washington`s birthday or President`s Day
as a lot of people call it by showing us what happens when you send an Abe
Lincoln look-alike to the streets of New York City. From Letterman`s top
10 list, what you don`t want to hear from a guy dressed like Lincoln.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "LATE SHOW WITH DAVID LETTERMAN")

DAVID LETTERMAN, HOST, "LATE SHOW WITH DAVID LETTERMAN": Number 10.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: How about you and I form a more perfect union?

(LAUGHTER)

LETTERMAN: Number eight.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: Daniel Day-Lewis wishes he looked this good.

(LAUGHTER)

LETTERMAN: That`s right. Number seven.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: Is it true Bloomberg outlawed hats over 16 ounces?

(LAUGHTER)

LETTERMAN: Number five.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: Does the $5 bill make me look fat?

(LAUGHTER)

LETTERMAN: Number four.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: Wow, I thought my clothing was outdated.

(LAUGHTER)

LETTERMAN: Number two.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: Hey, where is my idiot son, Abraham W. Lincoln?

(LAUGHTER)

LETTERMAN: And the number one thing you don`t want to hear from a guy
dressed as Abraham Lincoln.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: Hey, Jackass, you going to thank me for the day off?

(LAUGHTER)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: I say number two takes the cake. Where is W.?

Next, as we talked about earlier, we`re down to the wire when it comes to
avoiding big chops in government spending, so Alan Simpson wants to know
why the deficit reduction plan he put together with Erskine Bowles wasn`t
carried out.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ALAN SIMPSON, FORMER CO-CHAIRMAN, NATIONAL COMMISSION ON FISCAL
RESPONSIBILITY AND REFORM: I always say to people before you, you know,
begin to drool at the mouth and go crazy and scratch our eyeballs out, read
the damn report.

People said, what are you doing to the vulnerable? And I say read it. We
don`t do anything to people on SSI. We don`t do anything with food stamp.
We don`t do anything with people on unemployment. Get your -- use your
bean, instead of listening to crap all day long from the right and the
left.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Well, that`s actually pretty tame compared to some other things
he said about the folks involved in deficit reduction talks.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SIMPSON: If you have -- her a politician get up and say, I know we can get
this done, we`re going to get rid of all earmarks, all waste, fraud and
abuse, all foreign aid, Air Force One, all congressional pensions, that`s a
sparrow belch in the midst of a typhoon.

Quit the phoniness. Quit the crap. A lot of blood, hair and eyeballs have
to lay on the floor before we finish. Quit the hypocrisy. Quit the
disgust. Quit embarrassing America. This is a suicide mission. We will
get it from all sides, the right, the left. Everybody knows you don`t like
each other and you`re trying to pretend you do. Give up the pettiness. Go
see the movie "Lincoln."

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Go see the movie "Lincoln." That last bit of advice does make
sense. Before you can do something grand, you need to know what grand
looks like.

By the way, I think Simpson is playing an important part in pointing to
what`s possible in dealing with the debt crisis.

Up next, former South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford is back. He fell hard
after being caught having an extramarital affair. Now he`s seeking the
daddy of all political comebacks. He`s running for the Congress, and
that`s ahead, and you`re watching HARDBALL, the place for politics.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BERTHA COOMBS, CNBC CORRESPONDENT: I`m Bertha Coombs with your CNBC
"Market Wrap."

A fresh five-year high for the Dow, which gained 54 points on the day. The
S&P 500 rose 11 and the Nasdaq finished up 21, with Google shares now over
$800. They rose nearly $14 today, getting that mark for the first time.
As for the economy, homebuilder sentiment slipped this month, while a gain
was expected. And after the closing bell, Dell reported earnings of
revenue that exceeded estimates. The stock is slightly higher after hours.

That`s it from CNBC. We`re first in business worldwide -- now back to
HARDBALL.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MARK SANFORD (R), FORMER SOUTH CAROLINA GOVERNOR: More recently, I have
experienced how none of us go through life without mistakes, but in their
wake, we can learn a lot about grace, a God of second chances, and be the
better for it. In that light, I humbly step forward and ask for your help
in changing Washington.

I`m Mark Sanford, and I approve this message.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL.

That`s former South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford, who is trying to
resurrect his political career with a bid to fill the open House seat in
South Carolina`s 1st Congressional District.

To refresh your memory, by the way, about that mistake Sanford references
in the ad, here is a clip from his famous June 2009 press conference.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SANFORD: I have been unfaithful to my wife. I developed a relationship
with a -- what started as a dear, dear friend from Argentina.

It began very innocently, as I suspect many of these things do, in just a
casual e-mail back-and-forth, in advice on one`s life there and advice
here. But here, recently, over this last year, it developed into something
much more than that.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Well, now Mark Sanford is trying to use his transgression as a
building block, if you will, for a revived political career, telling
Politico: "I probably have more to offer now as a human being than at any
point in my life because there`s an added level of reflection, of empathy."

Well, joining me is Michelle Cottle of "Newsweek" and The Daily Beast and
John Nichols of the nation.

You`re laughing, John. This is serious business. OK? Let`s get started
here.

Michelle, this is interesting, because the use of the word mistake is
fascinating. I mean, you can do an exegesis of that word. Was the mistake
falling in love and then going off? He`s apparently still with this woman.
He`s been divorced. What was the mistake he acknowledges here? I can`t
even figure out how you discern what he`s talking about sometimes with
these guys, but he`s learned a lot from it and now he has much better
empathy and much more reflective in life.

MICHELLE COTTLE, THE DAILY BEAST: That`s right.

MATTHEWS: So he made a mistake, but he`s somehow better for it. Explain
how that works politically, how you swing that baby.

(CROSSTALK)

COTTLE: You have to focus on how he`s learned, Chris. He`s grown. He
understands humility and self-reflection and compassion.

This is a guy who didn`t just cheat on his wife. This is a guy who cheated
on his wife, lied to his constituents, told them -- he disappeared from
office and then humiliated himself and the state by rambling on and on and
on about his soul mate and how he had fallen in love.

So it takes -- you have to unravel this whole thing to even begin to
understand kind of what he`s apologizing for.

MATTHEWS: Yes, I`m not sure the word mistake is applicable here. And I am
having a little fun with this because I think it`s ridiculous, though not
that politicians have emotions and that they make moral errors in life and
there is sin or whatever, but that they have the craziest way of writing
about it and talking about it with the voter.

John Nichols, was the mistake that when he thought he was on the
Appalachian Trail somewhere down in the United States along the mountains,
he was actually in Buenos Aires? That was his mistake. I thought I was on
the Appalachian Trail when I thought was on the Appalachian Trail.

That`s a mistake. That`s when you make a mistake. His mistake was he fell
in love. Fine. What did he do that he considers a mistake and what does
he benefit from that in terms of the voters going back to D.C.? Is he
bringing the woman from Argentina with him back to D.C.? Where does he
stand on this thing?

JOHN NICHOLS, "THE NATION": Well, it gets pretty wild, doesn`t it, because
all the questions you ask are appropriate ones.

And -- and the first question really is, if he had made a bigger mistake,
if he had done something worse, would he be better qualified for Congress?
Because that seems to be the argument he`s making. And, of course, the
reality of it is the biggest mistake he made was lying. He lied to his own
staff. He lied to the people of South Carolina. And he got caught in an
enormous way.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: What should he have done? Now that we`re doing this, now that
we`re mentoring him in reverse, in retrospect, what should he have done?
Told everybody, I was down in Buenos Aires with this woman I met. We were
having a time together and it got serious and I guess I`m in a situation.
Would that have worked?

NICHOLS: Here is a tip. If you`re going to Buenos Aires to have an
affair, at least acknowledge that you`re going to Buenos Aires. Don`t
claim you`re out hiking on the Appalachian Trail.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: OK. Now, just to put this in perspective -- Newt Gingrich is
always useful in putting things in perspective.

There are of course a lot of ways to attempt a political comeback. Newt
Gingrich used a different approach to explain his infidelity in a 2011
interview. This is only two years ago. Let`s listen to the Newtster,
because he beats the band when it comes to this stuff.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

NEWT GINGRICH (R), FORMER SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: There`s no question that
at times in my life, partially driven by how passionately I felt about this
country, that I worked far too hard and that things happened in my life
that were not appropriate.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: So he was too patriotic. He cared too much about the country.

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS: He worked too hard for the country, and then things happened
because he was patriotic and worked too hard for the country.

That is the most -- is that -- what is that? Is that a mistake or is that
something, some kind of way of talking?

COTTLE: This once again is a selling point. It`s the, you see, I love my
country so much, I just -- I kind of lost my head and, oops, I`m so sorry I
left my wife for another woman. It`s unfortunate.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: Who are they playing to, John? When you say something that is
as full of malarkey as that, who do you expect to believe it, that you were
too patriotic, that you couldn`t remember who your wife was, or whatever?

I don`t want to make moral judgments. I will just talk politics here. I
don`t understand why they think people have such dunce caps on out there,
oh, that`s a point. You know, he really is too patriotic to be faithful to
his wife.

I mean, what are we talking about with these people? That`s why they don`t
trust politicians.

JOHN NICHOLS, THE NATION: Maybe he wanted to make Mark Sanford look good.

MATTHEWS: That`s why Congress is now running 15 percent in approval
because these clowns talk like this to people right on television. The
cameras on, can I start talking like this? And then they do. They say
things like I made a mistake.

MICHELLE COTTLE, NEWSWEEK: They`re providing some thin veneer of cover for
people who want an excuse to go back and believe in them. You know, you
need some way to justify yourself --

MATTHEWS: You just described a criminal defense. Somebody told me to take
the car. I didn`t steal it.

COTTLE: We`re not talking about politics.

MATTHEWS: I know.

OK, let`s talk turkey. John, you`re an expert. I want to know if the guy
can win. I`m hearing different reports that he could easily win in a very
wide field. There is a runoff though. Runoffs are always dangerous for
people with troubles because then you eventually have to run against one
other person for your party`s nomination. It is a Republican district, but
he has to beat one Republican mano-a-mano, or mano a woman, or whatever, if
it comes to that.

Can he be a congressman again despite everything we`ve been kidding about
here? John?

NICHOLS: The truth is this is a very good ad. It`s a well-done ad. And
down in that district, he has been getting a reasonably good response.

Now, it`s a very crowded field, almost everybody seems to think that Mark
Sanford will come through the initial primary. He`ll face one other
candidate, but it is possible, certainly not certain, possible that the
other candidate he faces might be Ted Turner`s son.

MATTHEWS: And namesake.

NICHOLS: And if Mark Sanford attaches Ted Turner`s record to Ted Turner`s
son, yes, I could see a moment where Mark Sanford might get through a
runoff and get to Congress.

MATTHEWS: So an embarrassment beats a legacy.

COTTLE: Exactly. He`s got high name recognition and Erick Erickson from
"RedState" was one of his biggest detractors and the minute Sanford started
this confessional tour, Erickson was like, I forgive him, let`s be graceful
and give him another shot.

MATTHEWS: Let`s talk about the city down there. It`s not rural South
Carolina. It`s not cotton land. It`s very beautiful Charleston, one of
the most beautiful cities in the world, I think.

Are those people up to this kind of level of life? This sort of way of
looking at things, this que sera, sera. Do they have enough of that to
vote for him? Mark? I`m sorry, not Mark, John. We`re talking about Mark.

NICHOLS: It is within the realm -- that`s OK. Although I hope my wife
doesn`t make the comparison.

MATTHEWS: No, you`re not Mark.

NICHOLS: Look, it`s within the realm of possibility, and understand that
Charleston, like New Orleans, is a pretty sophisticated city.

MATTHEWS: Yes.

NICHOLS: And there will be some folks who may want to try and forgive, but
also who may want to try and look the other way.

One thing that`s important to understand is Mark Sanford, aside from his
incredible bumbles on this, you know, back in 2009, has always been a very
capable politician. And by comparison to some of the other candidates, he
comes off pretty well for folks in Charleston.

MATTHEWS: Well, you know, I think -- I think the most forgiving city in
the country is New Orleans. I think when you`re fourth or fifth divorce
you go to New Orleans. You have been through a rehab, they say, come in
and have some fun. And Charleston can catch up with that thinking. This
guy`s back in.

Anyway, in the "Today" show, Sanford touted his record of looking out for
taxpayers. Let`s listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MARK SANFORD (R), FORMER SC GOVERNOR: The reality of our lives is if we
live long enough, we`re going to fail at something. And I absolutely
failed in my personal life, in my marriage. But one place I didn`t ever
fail was with the taxpayer.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Well, the South Carolina State Ethics Commission doesn`t agree.
Sanford settled charges that he broke ethics laws by using state and
campaign money for personal travel -- guess where -- including travel to
Argentina by paying a $74,000 fine. Yet, "The State," the newspaper down
there in the capital, reported, "In the agreement, the Ethics Commission
issued a public reprimand to the governor and disagreed with his argument
that he broke no laws."

Well, there we have it, right?

COTTLE: Yes. Well, in this way, he can just lump this all in with his
personal transgressions and say, Jesus has forgiven me and so should you.

MATTHEWS: Maybe he has. That we don`t know. That last thing you said.

Anyway, thank you, Michelle Cottle, as always.

And thank you, John Nichols, for this serious report on an unserious man.

We`ve got much more on Mark Sanford`s mea culpa tour on our Web site right
now. Be sure to check out -- it`s on Facebook as well.

Up next -- that sad saga from South Africa where Oscar Pistorius, the
world`s most famous Paralympian, has been charged with murdering his
girlfriend. Well, the great Buzz Bissinger said it`s time to stop this
unwarranted veneration of sports figures we have grown up with. He joins
us next.

And this is HARDBALL, the place for politics.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: There was a flurry of questions in today`s White House press
briefing about what kind of communications President Obama has had with
those key Republicans on immigration reform. Well, late today, the White
House put out word. The president called up Senators Lindsey Graham, John
McCain, and Marco Rubio to support their efforts on the issue and urged the
Senate to pass a bill as soon as possible. Senator Rubio`s office tells
NBC News the senator appreciated the president`s call and is hopeful they
can come up with a bill that will win bipartisan support.

We`ll be right back. That is good news.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: We`re back.

We`ve now all heard the sorry of Oscar Pistorius, the inspiring double
amputee Olympic athlete who`s now being held for killing his girlfriend
down in South Africa. The "Blade Runner", as he`s called, has been charged
with murdering his 30-year-old model girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp in the
early morning hours of Valentine`s Day.

Pistorius was in court again today pleading innocent. Prosecutors said it
was premeditated murder.

Fans were stunned when they heard about the incident, stunned that their
hero might be capable of such as an act as murder.

But let`s think about this. Why are we so quick to give athletes the hero
title thinking they are super on and off the field?

Now, Pistorius joins the club of other athletes who have fallen far from
heaven, O.J. Simpson, Mark McGwire, A-Rod, Lance Armstrong, and Tiger
Woods. All these sensational athletes had a hard fall from grace for
various degrees of evil you might say.

Joining me right now is the great Buzz Bissinger, from "The Daily Beast."

Jocks, we look up to them, jocks, from high school to college they get
training table meals, they get waited on, they get their own dorms. They
get looked up to by the cheerleaders, by everybody, and the fans. They`re
treated as special.

What`s wrong with that?

BUZZ BISSINGER, THE DAILY BEAST: Well, you know, when you`re treated as
special, you think you`re special but not in an open sense, not in a
magnanimous sense.

You think you`re entitled. You become spoiled. You become more
narcissistic than you already are.

And they`re not role models. I mean, we harken back to the days of the
Greek Olympiad. We endow athletes with great special qualities, which they
have in the fields.

But, by and large, they`ve never been role models. You know, Mickey Mantle
was not a great role model.

MATTHEWS: Yes.

BISSINGER: Ted Williams was very, very reticent. And you just went down
the list -- Lance Armstrong, now Oscar Pistorius.

And we want them to be mythic because they have such influence on kids.
But you know what? They`re just athletes. Let them just be athletes.
Stop this role model B.S.

MATTHEWS: You know, when they -- when sport magazine came out in the `50s,
I think their 15th anniversary, they had to pick the best athlete. And
they picked Musial over Williams because baseball was so big in the early
`50s, because of who he was off the field.

And, of course, Ted did all those awful things to fans. Giving whatever he
did all these awful things to fans, we know the list, you know, giving,
whatever he did, signaling the fans he hated them, and having an attitude.

Aren`t there some great athletes that are worthy of the adoration like
Musial who just died St. Louis? People that are just wonderful people, it
seems to me.

BISSINGER: You know, Chris, in anticipation of the show, I`ve really,
really thought about it. I thought about it since I wrote "The Daily
Beast" column. I can think definitely of one. And that is Derek Jeter of
the New York Yankees.

MATTHEWS: Yes.

BISSINGER: Classy, good to fans, plays really, really hard all the time.
I am confident of him.

The second might surprise you, but I think given the exposure that this guy
has gotten since he was a junior in high school, I think LeBron James has
come into his own --

MATTHEWS: Yes.

BISSINGER: -- and is a role model. He made a bad mistake with the
decision, but he hasn`t shot anybody. He`s good with fans. He supports
Akron.

And I think he handles -- he`s one of the four or five most famous athletes
in the world.

MATTHEWS: Right back after Dallas, too, he lost to Dallas and came back
and won the next year.

BISSINGER: That`s right.

MATTHEWS: You know, I guess I want to get back to the big bad names. And,
of course, O.J. Simpson. Maybe in 20 years, we`re going to decide about
his guilt. I think he did it. But a lot of people don`t.

I understand how the ethnic factor got in there. I understand the police
history got in there.

But these guys, let`s talk about how their heads get so big. They think
they can get away with murder. They get away with things.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: That is the thing you`re talking about that`s brilliant. The
writing that -- when you teach a person to be a bad guy, because you say to
them, you`re preternatural, you`re above us, you`re Promethean. Do what
you want.

BISSINGER: Because -- you`re exactly right. And what happens now, the age
is going lower and lower and lower. Good athletes are being identified as
young as five, six, seven.

The minute you`re identified as good athlete, you are put over here. You
are special. You have different standards.

You don`t have to do as much work. You are coddled. You are coddled by
adults. You are coddled by kids who want to be like you. You get too
popular and it`s going to lead in too many cases to disaster.

MATTHEWS: Yes. I just think about guys that play for the NBA, got an
entourage of 15 hangers on. Then, all of a sudden, they`re out of money
and, all of a sudden, the entourage is gone. Where are these guys who are
hanging around in the four star hotels? You know, they`re gone. What`s
that do to you?

BISSINGER: Of course, they`re gone. I mean, look, it`s a tragedy.
Studies have been done.

Fifty percent of former NBA players are broke. I spoke to an agent who
said these guys are in such a bubble, they get these big contracts, but
they don`t -- Chris, they don`t know they have to pay taxes. They have no
idea.

They buy four houses, they buy four cars. You know, look at Allen Iverson.
He`s broke.

MATTHEWS: That`s who I was thinking of.

BISSINGER: He`s got no money. Allen Iverson had no money.

MATTHEWS: Let me help kids out that are athletes and perhaps gifted. Look
at Magic, just the opposite, a really good business guy, who`s really
caught on, even with his health challenges.

Look, it`s chilling to think he`s overcome what he`s overcome, to be not
only an incredibly popular figure and role model, but then to go on and
really become a business guy and a second career. It`s so hard to do that.
Mantle couldn`t do that.

BISSINGER: Mantle was a disaster until the memorabilia boom.

Listen. There are role models after sports. What about Dave Bing? You
may not like his job doing in Detroit, but look at the sacrifice.

MATTHEWS: No, I think he`s doing a good job as mayor.

BISSINGER: Dennis Johnson (ph) in Sacramento, former NBA player. Chris
Dudley in Oregon.

So, there are guys who go on and have a sense of public service.

MATTHEWS: Let`s -- I think you`re right. Let`s not prejudge these guys`
greatness. Let`s them prove it off the court, off the field.

BISSINGER: Exactly right.

MATTHEWS: Buzz Bissinger, greatest sports writer around. Thank you so
much.

Let me finish -- and writer -- let me finish tonight with what the
Republicans are doing here in the United States. In a weird way, it`s the
same thing they did back in the early `50s, toppling governments.
Unfortunately, this time it`s our government they`re trying to topple.

You`re watching HARDBALL, the place for politics.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: Let me finish tonight with this: I think the difference between
the Republicans and Democrats is getting as wide as the Grand Canyon.

Watch how they do it. President Obama wants to keep the government going.
Pretty simple, huh? Republicans threaten to stop it.

It`s relentless. The fiscal abyss, the debt ceiling, the sequester, the
end of the continuing resolution. Different words, different deadlines,
all detonate the same explosion.

They threaten to crash the government if they don`t like the way it`s doing
something. If they don`t like who the American people have elected as
president.

Isn`t that what the Republicans did back in the old days? If they didn`t
like a government somewhere, Guatemala, Iran, the Dominican Republican,
Chile, they just brought it down.

Guess what? Republicans are now using the same tactic here at home. If
they don`t like who we elected president, they find some way to undermine
the government, discredit its leaders, whatever it takes to destroy it.

We are using in this country the same Cold War, CIA tactics to destabilize
our own country.

Look at the impact of these constant threats to shut down the government
have been having on public confidence. It`s all in the ratings. It`s
undermining it, making people forever nervous about the basic ability of
America to even have a running government.

Is that patriotic? I don`t think so.

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

"POLITICS NATION" with Al Sharpton starts right now.

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY
BE UPDATED.
END

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