updated 2/28/2013 10:57:41 AM ET 2013-02-28T15:57:41

HARDBALL
February 27, 2013

Guests: William Begg, Dana Milbank, Julie Fernandes, Neil Heslin


CHRIS MATTHEWS, MSNBC HOST: Scalia calls voting an entitlement.

Let`s play HARDBALL.

Good evening. I`m Chris Matthews in Washington.

"Let Me Start" tonight with this. Today in the arguments over the Voting
Rights Act, Justice Scalia called the act, the Voting Rights Act, a "racial
entitlement." Got that? Entitlement. The friggin` right to vote now is
an entitlement, like Medicaid or food stamps.

Well, no, it`s not, actually. Under the 15th Amendment to the
Constitution, the right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not
be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of
race, color or previous condition of servitude. Well, that amendment was
ratified back in 1870 under the administration President Grant, one of my
heroes, actually. But as we all know, it was put into effect after a
century of poll taxes, literacy tests and other gimmicks to keep blacks
from voting only because of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Yes, Justice Scalia, it has a wonderful name, as you put it. And the
reason is not the words or their spelling or the English language in which
this act is written or spoken about. No, sir. It`s about its meaning,
that the United States Congress will ensure that people get to vote in
places where they weren`t before.

And that does not, sadly, refer only to the segregationists of the past.
It refers to the people out there in state capitals today sitting in bars
and over poker tables shouting out their latest gimmick to smother the
electoral impact of blacks living in large cities. From Harrisburg (ph) to
Tallahassee, they outbid each other with reptilic (ph) glee with their
latest legislative squirm (ph) to convert electoral majorities into
electoral minorities by denying blacks the right to vote -- the right,
Justice Scalia, Mr. Scalia. It`s not an entitlement. We`re talking about
the vote and not some government benefit.

Pete Williams is the justice correspondent for NBC News. Pete, thank you
for joining us. Your sense -- you`re such an expert on this in the nuances
today, and I have to ask you to think about and speak about the commentary
from Justice Roberts, the chief justice, and Justice Scalia today. What
was that all about?

PETE WILLIAMS, NBC CORRESPONDENT: I think we can assume that Justice
Scalia, based on what he said four years ago about this law, was going to
vote against it. That seemed quite clear today.

As for Justice Roberts, we were watching him closely, as well. He asked a
lot of questions of the Obama administration`s lawyer, Donald Verilli here,
saying, Which state does a better job of registering and getting a turnout
of African-American voters compared to whites? He said the answer is
Mississippi. Which state does the worst? He said the answer is
Massachusetts.

The point being, he said, that the areas covered by the law may not be
where the problem is. And that`s what the whole argument came down to, I
think, today, Chris. Is the Voting Rights Act, as originally passed and
recently -- most recently reenacted in 2006, still a fit? Does it still
cover where the problems are?

Now, the four liberals on the court said yes, it may not be a perfect fit,
but it`s close enough. They said the covered areas -- the areas covered by
the law represent about a quarter of the population but account for more
than half of all the successful voter discriminations lawsuits.

But the five conservatives seemed to be quite skeptical. Not only Scalia
and not only Justice Roberts, but perhaps the critical vote here, Justice
Kennedy. He said times change. And he seemed to be skeptical that the law
has not kept up with that change.

Now, it`s hard to predict, Chris, but it does appear that the Voting Rights
Act is in trouble tonight. Now, what will the Supreme Court do? Well, you
know, if they do look over the abyss and decide they are going to strike
down part of the most successful civil rights law ever, they may not go the
whole way and strike down the pre-clearance requirement, the part that says
if you`re a covered state, you have to get permission from the federal
government before you make any changes in your election laws.

They could strike down the formula, the coverage map, and send it back to
Congress. But as you understand, that would be politically explosive for
Congress to say, OK, let`s see, now, which areas do we want to cover under
the law and which areas don`t? And shall we start including Massachusetts
and Harrisburg, as you mentioned?

MATTHEWS: OK, Pete --

WILLIAMS: Shall we still include all the areas in the South? That`s the
problem.

MATTHEWS: Thank you, Pete. And that sounds like a bit of a -- thanks for
leaving that with us because that`s -- that`s the hot potato. I just
spilled my coffee here.

Let`s go right now with our guests right now to talk about what this all
means. We have here Julie Fernandes, of course, right here. Let`s go to
that right now. Let`s go to Julie Fernandes right now, former deputy
attorney -- assistant attorney general (INAUDIBLE) Civil Rights Division,
and Eugene Robinson of "The Washington Post." Thanks for joining us right
now.

Let me ask you about this whole thing. If they kill it because it`s unfair
to certain states because it includes older states with Civil Rights
histories or problems in the past, but they`re basically killing anything.
So what they`re saying is, It`s not perfect, so kill it. Isn`t that a bit
inconsistent? In other words, we won`t have anything left.

JULIE FERNANDES, FMR. DEPUTY ASST. ATTORNEY GENERAL: It`s very
inconsistent. I think the court -- all the justices in the court
acknowledge that section 5 is a very successful statute. And they asked
hard questions about whether or not the coverage mechanism is still
appropriate.

But I think that we -- those of us who are working to protect the Voting
Rights Act itself, we have really good answers to those hard questions
about the continued pervasive racial discrimination that`s going on in the
covered jurisdictions, about the flexibility of the coverage formula and
the mechanism for deciding who`s covered, and about how there are ways to
address voting discrimination outside the covered jurisdictions. I think
that the --

MATTHEWS: Well, wait a minute. Let`s keep this simple.

FERNANDES: Yes.

MATTHEWS: You`re a lawyer.

FERNANDES: Yes.

MATTHEWS: You`re lawyering me here.

FERNANDES: I`m sorry!

MATTHEWS: The bottom line is, if you`re black out there and you want to
vote and you live in Pennsylvania and they`ve been screwing around with
voter photo ID cards, or you live in Florida and they`re screwing around
and getting rid of Sunday voting and all the habits blacks had about voting
coming out of church, is -- what is killing voting rights going to do to
those people? It`s going to help them or hurt them or do nothing for them?

FERNANDES: Well, I think for --

MATTHEWS: If you get rid of (INAUDIBLE) don`t you kill the whole spirit of
the federal government jumping in on these cases?

FERNANDES: If you get rid of section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, you get
rid of the most effective tool that we have to stop voting discrimination
in this country. If you kill the Voting Rights Act, if you decide that
section 5 is no longer needed, you`re taking the heart out of what is the
most effective statute --

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: -- you`ve been through this. You grew up in South Carolina.

EUGENE ROBINSON, "WASHINGTON POST," MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes, I did.

MATTHEWS: And you said you`re one of the states covered by this, and for
good reason.

ROBINSON: Absolutely. For having good reason. And look, my view is that,
yes, it`s still needed in the states where it applies. And it`s needed in
other places, as well, because there are places where, during the last
election cycle and previous election cycles, we saw what looked to be
systematic attempts --

MATTHEWS: Yes.

ROBINSON: -- to deprive African-Americans of the vote or to suppress the
African-American vote, in Ohio, in Pennsylvania, in other places that are
not fully covered by --

MATTHEWS: See, the enemy of the good --

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: I understand your argument. I`d love it to cover Pennsylvania.
I`d love it to cover some of these other states.

FERNANDES: But it doesn`t make sense. It only makes sense for the formula
to -- the Voting Rights Act is broad. It has a part of it that addresses
discrimination in all parts of the country. But this is a very specific
remedy to stop a very specific --

MATTHEWS: OK --

FERNANDES: -- kind of problem.

MATTHEWS: I`m afraid the whole thing`s going. Anyway, Justice Scalia
really said some stuff today. He used, I think, charged language,
referring to the renewal of the Voting Rights Act the "perpetuation of
racial entitlement." That`s what he called the act. He said, "I don`t
think there`s anything to gain by any senator by voting against this act.
This is not the kind of question you can leave to Congress. They`re going
to lose votes if they vote against the Voting Rights Act. Even the name is
wonderful."

And then Justice Sonia Sotomayor challenged Scalia, saying, "Do you think
section 5 was voted for because it was a racial entitlement? Do you think
racial discrimination has ended?"

Well, there you have it. I mean, I don`t know why Scalia, who`s too bright
to be doing this, is giggling. You on this, Gene. Why is he giggling,
using terms like "entitlement" which are so loaded?

ROBINSON: Because he throws bombs, you know, from the bench. And that`s
what he does. And he uses the sort of loaded language. And I doubt that
he could defend his choice of words, that it`s a "racial entitlement." He
knows it`s protection of a right.

But he`s going to vote -- he`s going to vote to knock it down, or it
certainly seems that way. And I think he was being provocative rather than
--

MATTHEWS: Yes.

FERNANDES: Right, I think --

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: Is it fair to say that what we have is a crude instrument here
that may not be a perfect fit because it doesn`t address through section 5
all the cases like we`ve seen, like in Harrisburg and Tallahassee, where
they`ve been playing around with voter laws -- and Texas. It doesn`t
effect them all. But should we get rid of it? And that`s what a lot of
liberals are going to ask -- you`re going to get rid of the only tool we
have, section 5.

FERNANDES: Exactly. And if things -- and look, the Voting Rights Act has
a mechanism in section 3 that allows courts to decide if things are so bad
in a state that`s not currently covered, they can order that state or that
county to have section 5 (INAUDIBLE)

MATTHEWS: How do they do that?

FERNANDES: They have to have a finding that says --

(CROSSTALK)

FERNANDES: -- intentional discrimination.

MATTHEWS: Which court could do it? Which appellate court --

FERNANDES: Any federal court in America. And it`s been done 18 times in
nine different states since 1982. So there is a way to capture new bad
actors --

MATTHEWS: Well, where have they done it? Have they done that lately?
Who`s been brought in?

FERNANDES: Most lately, in Port Chester, New York.

MATTHEWS: They brought them in --

FERNANDES: But it`s been in South Dakota, two counties in South Dakota --

MATTHEWS: Are now under Voting Rights?

FERNANDES: Yes, and New Mexico --

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: What`s holding up Harrisburg? They keep playing these --

(CROSSTALK)

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS: That`s where I`m from, and they keep playing these games.

FERNANDES: If a federal court finds intentional discrimination, they can
order a pre-clearance remedy --

MATTHEWS: OK --

FERNANDES: -- for any new jurisdiction.

MATTHEWS: I hope this doesn`t offend you guys but -- because it`s
offensive to me. People say because we have a black president, African-
American president -- Gene, you`ve got the history in your head here, and
heart -- that proves we don`t need a Voting Rights Act.

ROBINSON: Well --

MATTHEWS: Is that just prima facie nonsense --

(CROSSTALK)

ROBINSON: If that offended me, then half my e-mail would because
(INAUDIBLE) you know, What more do you people want, is what people ask.

MATTHEWS: I got to read this. Bring it on the air! I want to read some
of those!

ROBINSON: No, you don`t -- you can`t read it on the air! I mean, that`s
absurd. It`s just -- it`s ridiculous. It was a huge step that Barack
Obama was elected president twice. That`s a huge step in our 400-year
struggle with race and racial discrimination. But it doesn`t solve the
whole problem. Of course not. It doesn`t go away.

FERNANDES: And it certainly doesn`t solve the problem in the places where
the Voting Rights Act is so powerful, police (ph) juries, county
commissions, city councils --

MATTHEWS: Just a reminder --

FERNANDES: -- people all over the country.

MATTHEWS: -- some of our history, black and white in this history, at
the same time the Voting Rights Act was being challenged at the Supreme
Court today, up on Capitol Hill, the work of Civil Rights pioneer Rosa
Parks was being honored. There it is. A statue of Parks will sit in
Statutory Hall, best place to be. Hers is the first statue commissioned by
Congress in 140 years, actually.

President Obama paid tribute to Parks. Let`s listen to the president.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Rosa Parks`s singular act of
disobedience launched a movement. The tired feet of those who walked the
dusty roads of Montgomery helped a nation see that to which it had once
been blind. It is because of these men and women that I stand here today.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Well, her statue will be there forever now.

FERNANDES: It will be, and it should be. And we can`t forget where we
came from. We`ve been on a long struggle in this country to try and have
racial equality and live up to our promise. The Voting Rights Act is one
of the key things that helped us get to where we are. Let`s not stop now.

MATTHEWS: OK. Gene?

ROBINSON: I can`t put it any better than that.

MATTHEWS: OK, thank you very much, Gene Robinson, as always. Julie
Fernandes, thanks for joining us.

Coming up: Look what`s happening to the public`s reception (ph) about guns.
Our new poll shows a sharp increase -- well, that`s good -- in the number
of people who want to see stricter gun laws. And that`s the bully pulpit
at work, I think. And today, there was deep emotion and moving testimony
from a parent of Newtown massacre victims. We got to hear this coming up.

Plus, a lot of Republicans want to see the big indiscriminate cuts that are
due to hit on Friday. And right now, they`re the ones taking the heat.
But if the cuts kick in and the crisis drags on, I think the public`s going
to start blaming President Obama, as well. And I think the Republicans are
counting on just that. A long, miserable haul they hope will hurt him.

And the new McCarthyism. It`s the old McCarthyism with new faces, new
tongues wagging and congratulating themselves on everything they did to
stop -- actually, to ruin, perhaps, the reputation of Chuck Hagel for
awhile. Even after it was obviously that his confirmation was inevitable,
they just kept it up just to screw up the government, hurt its functioning
and smear a man with McCarthyite tactics. And those are the facts and
we`ll document them.

Finally, KFC or chicken filet -- Chick-Fil-a, bagels and croissants or
doughnuts? Are you what you eat, politically speaking? And what you eat
may be determined by whom you vote for. Isn`t that interesting? We`re
going to show the parallel between how we go to fast food stores and how we
vote. There is one.

Anyway, this is HARDBALL, the place for politics.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: Well, the Republicans have put up the white flag on their
opposition to the Violence Against Women Act. Apparently, the GOP has
decided that their trimmed-down version of the bill cannot pass and that
their position is a political loser anyway. So they`re now expected to
pass the Senate version of the bill and let the Democrats have their way.
The biggest issue was Republican opposition to how the bill handled
violence in tribal areas, believe it or not.

We`ll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL. The U.S. Senate finally held its much
anticipated hearing on banning military-style assault weapons today, just
as it`s become apparent that public opinion has begun to shift on the
matter. A new NBC News and "Wall Street Journal" poll shows that 61
percent of Americans -- that`s 3 in 5 now -- want stricter guns laws. You
got it? Three out of five want it. And that`s up 5 points from January
and shows the power, I think, of President Obama`s campaign on this matter.

Today`s hearing was unusually emotional, as you can imagine, with tears,
applause, and even one particularly heated exchange that came between
Senator Lindsey Graham, who was acting inexplicably today, and Milwaukee
police chief Edward Flynn. Let`s listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

EDWARD FLYNN, POLICE CHIEF, MILWAUKEE, WISCONSIN: Just for the record,
from my point of view, Senator, the purpose of the background checks --

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: How many cases have you made --
how many cases have you made --

FLYNN: You know what? It doesn`t matter. It`s a paper thing.

GRAHAM: Well --

FLYNN: I want to -- I want to stop 76 --

GRAHAM: Can I ask the question?

FLYNN: I want to finish the answer.

GRAHAM: Well, no, I --

FLYNN: I want to stop 76,000 people from buying guns illegally. That`s
what a background check does.

GRAHAM: How many AR-15s are legally owned --

FLYNN: If you think we`re going to do paperwork prosecutions, you`re
wrong!

(APPLAUSE)

GRAHAM: How many --

FLYNN: All right, if you --

GRAHAM: How many cases have --

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Senator? Senator, if you would withhold just a
moment, please.

GRAHAM: Yes. That`s fine.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: No expressions one way or another. And let`s keep
this civil. Senator Graham and I just got recognized for civility. So I
know he`ll keep it civil.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Wow. But the most searing moment of the day, obviously, came
when the father of a Sandy Hook Elementary victim, Jesse Lewis (ph)
testified. Neil Heslin delivered emotional testimony as he recalled saying
good-bye to his 6-year-old son not long before the shooting -- in fact,
about an hour before we lost him. Take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

NEIL HESLIN, FATHER OF NEWTOWN SHOOTING VICTIM: He said, Good-bye, I love
you. He stopped and he said, I love Mom, too. That was the last I saw
Jesse, as he ducked around the corner. Prior to that, when he was getting
out of the truck, he hugged me and held me. And I can still feel that hug
and the pat on the back. He said, Everything`s going to be OK, Dad. It`s
all going to be OK. And it wasn`t OK!

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Well, Neil Heslin joins us right now. Neil, thank you for
joining us tonight.

HESLIN: Thank you.

MATTHEWS: And I guess I have to ask you about your willingness, I think as
a public service, not just an honor to your son or love to your son but to
the country -- what would you like to see happen here?

HESLIN: I`d like to see many changes happen that would work effectively to
prevent this from ever happening again, any mass murder. I believe we had
seven of them this year alone. That`s far too many at all.

MATTHEWS: Let me pick them off. Do you think it would help to have a
police officer, a trained police officer in the hallways of these schools?
I`ll take the NRA position at first. Do you think that would be helpful?

HESLIN: I agree. I think it would be helpful. It`s not going to settle -
- solve the problem or -- it`s not a solution to the whole problem in
complete -- or completely.

MATTHEWS: Well, we live in this country with so many guns. I think there
are more guns than people in this country now, and I just -- where do we
start? Do you have a sense that maybe we should start with assault weapons
that were used here, or these semiautomatics where you can just shoot so
many of them with the magazines, where you can load up a gun with 30
bullets? Where do we start?

HESLIN: Well, I think there`s many places that need to be addressed. My
view is, a key factor in all these mass murders or mass killings was a
weapon and a high-capacity magazine, a so-called assault weapon or like
assault weapon. I think it needs to start with a ban on the certain types
of guns and weapons.

Secondly, a ban on high-capacity magazines, which is a main characteristic
of those guns that have been used. I think background checks should be
mandatory, but done efficiently and effectively, not necessarily on a state
level, but on a federal level.

I think mental health is a big part, too, that should be addressed.

MATTHEWS: Well, that covers the boardwalk there. Let me ask you about this
-- the situation of coming down. How hard was it to come down?

HESLIN: It`s not easy go anywhere or be someplace and have to defend --
try to defend the reason my -- why things should change to -- over my son
that`s been killed in a massacre.

It`s -- it`s very hard. It`s very emotional. And I just keep reliving my
loss, or the loss of Jesse.

MATTHEWS: Yes.

Well, that will go on, sir. I can assure you that it`s going to go on.
And, secondly, I just hope that you keep up your courage that you showed
today. Thank you so much, Neil Heslin, father of the lost Jesse. Thanks
for coming on tonight. And maybe it helps. I hope it does.

HESLIN: Thank you very -- thank you very much.

MATTHEWS: Let`s go to Dr. William Begg. He`s also -- he also testified
today at that very impressive hearing today. The emergency services
director, that`s what he was. He was working at Danbury Hospital the day
of the Newtown shooting. And here`s some of what he told the committee.

Let`s take a listen, sir.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DR. WILLIAM BEGG, EMS DIRECTOR, DANBURY HOSPITAL: People say that the
overall number of assault weapon deaths is relatively small. But you know
what? Please don`t tell that to the people of Tucson or Aurora or
Columbine or Virginia Tech, and don`t tell that to the people in Newtown.

(APPLAUSE)

BEGG: This is a tipping point.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Doctor, thank you for coming on.

I was at a hospital recently for my aunt, and we lost her. But I must tell
you one thing. I was talking to a doctor in North Philadelphia at Einstein
Medical Center. It`s a tough neighborhood, North Philadelphia. And we
were talking about gun control briefly in the hallway. And he said you
want to see the results of guns? You want to see the impact of not having
gun control? Come on down. I will show you.

And so in any big city hospital today, there are people, victims of gunshot
wounds. I don`t -- tell us now what about a gunshot wound we don`t get as
people have just watched television shows and were lucky enough not to be
around violence?

BEGG: Well, Senator Feinstein wants to have an assault weapon bill go
through to ban assault weapons.

And society may not know that if somebody gets shot with a handgun, most
people survive. But when people get shot with an assault weapon, most
people don`t survive. The wounds are horrific. Many people don`t even
make to the emergency department.

While I can`t reference the specific injuries of the children I witnessed
and tried my best for in the E.R., each year, I go to the trauma symposium
in our state and they show the graphic pictures of those from our military
who died in Afghanistan and Iraq. And those injuries from military-style
assault weapons are horrific.

And if anyone saw the -- actually really saw those types of wounds, they
would be horrified. And I think they would try to change their opinion. I
mean, the data is really clear. In countries like Australia and like
United Kingdom that banned assault weapons, they did afford change.

It didn`t happen right away, but the data shows that, in Australia, since
1996, when they had changes, there have been no mass murders, and U.K. only
one. And previous to that, Australia had 18 mass -- 12 mass murders. So
we have to think that -- we have to understand that these assault weapons
are designated for our military and our police. And there`s no useful
reason --

MATTHEWS: What is it about the -- what is it about the ballistics? These
weapons, are they dumb-dumb bullets that flatten out when they hit you and
they come out bigger on the outside, on the backside of the target, of the
person, or do they explode on impact? What do they do, the assault weapons
bullets?

BEGG: Great question.

So, I`m not a ballistics expert. But what I can tell you, for a regular
handgun, the bullet goes in along basically a straight path, whereas when
someone is shot by an assault-type rifle, the bullet goes in and
essentially explodes inside their body.

The damage is -- encompasses a significantly larger area and tears apart
blood vessels and bones and tissues that in most circumstances are not
survivable. So, there is definitely a difference between an assault rifle
bullet and a handgun bullet.

MATTHEWS: Well, I`m glad we continue to learn in a horrific way, but we`re
getting educated, the brutal facts

And thank you, Doctor, for doing your educational best here, because people
need to know there`s a difference between these kinds of guns. And one is
for hunting I would assume is not the latter kind, the assault weapon kind.
I don`t think that -- that`s for shooting up cars in canyons somewhere
perhaps, which may be harmless, but this isn`t.

Thank you, Dr. William Begg.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: This is HARDBALL, the place for politics.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

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

First to that colorful congressional race going on in South Carolina.
There are 16 primary candidates on the Republican side alone, including
former Governor Mark Sanford, of course, and Teddy Turner, the son of media
mogul Ted turner. Turner is out with a new TV ad this week asking voters
to break up with career politicians. And, as you watch, keep an eye out
for who gets prime real estate in a large picture frame and you know will
who the ad`s out to get.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, POLITICAL AD)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: We have come a long way. I know I spend too much, but
what`s a few trillion? It was all for you. But I have changed. I will
keep my promises this time. It will be different. I`m sorry for all the
mistakes I have made. Sugar, just give me one more chance.

NARRATOR: Break up with career politicians. The right guy, Teddy Turner,
conservative Republican, economics teacher, not a politician.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Well, it doesn`t take much guessing which career politician
Turner is talking about here. And that`s Mark Sanford. He`s in the
biggest picture frame there, with the other candidate photos taking far
less space.

Finally, think your favorite breakfast food or fast food joint has anything
to do with whether you`re Democrat or Republican? Think again. PPP
crunched the numbers in their latest survey. First -- OK, let`s think
ethnic here -- bagels, croissants, or doughnuts? Well, for Democrats, it`s
bagels and croissant -- or croissants. Republicans prefer doughnuts.

Everybody like doughnuts. Second, Chick-fil-A or KFC? Republicans prefer
Chick-fil-A. Democrats went for KFC.

There actually is a political element to that one, though. CEO of Chick-
fil-A took a lot of heat last year for making anti-gay remarks. Finally,
Olive Garden, is it a quality source of authentic ethnic food, as it says?
Well, it was close here. More Democrats answered, no, it`s not 44 to 41.
It was the opposite for Republicans, with 43 percent saying Olive Garden
serves authentic Italian food and just 41 saying it does not.

Well, no consensus on whether the Olive Garden actually serves -- I love
this -- no consensus on whether the Olive Garden actually serves Italian
food or not. What a great predicament that is for them.

Up next: If the big budget cuts hit on Friday, the public may blame
Republicans now, but don`t count on President Obama emerging unscathed.
Remember what happened with the debt ceiling. They all get hit with this
stuff.

You`re watching HARDBALL, the place for politics.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

VERONICA DE LA CRUZ, CNBC CORRESPONDENT: Hey there. I`m Veronica De La
Cruz with your CNBC "Market Wrap."

The Dow soars 175, back above 14000 and within 100 points of its all-time
closing high. The S&P adds 19, closing above 1500. And the Nasdaq gains
32.

Investors cheered another encouraging report on the housing market. And
the index of pending home sales dropped 4.5 percent last month, far
exceeding estimates. And excluding transportation, orders for big-ticket
items rose 6.3 percent in January, the biggest gain in over a year.

And that`s going to do it for me here at MSNBC -- now back to HARDBALL.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

QUESTION: But the reality is that this is going to happen on Friday. The
president and the Senate are not going to get a bill passed and to you and
have your chamber approve that bill before Friday. I mean, the sequester
is going to happen.

REP. JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: At this point, I would
agree. It looks that way. But hope springs eternal.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL. That was Speaker John Boehner last
night in an interview with CBS.

Those dreaded automatic spending cuts will happen, it seems. And while the
president was on Capitol Hill today to unveil that statue honoring Rosa
Parks, he`s not meeting with Boehner. He`s not meeting Boehner, Reid,
McConnell and Pelosi until Friday night. Winston Churchill once said
there`s two kinds of success, initial and ultimate.

Well, the question remains today which kind of success Republicans and the
president will find.

Robert Gibbs, of course, is famous. He served as President Obama`s first
White House press secretary and beat me on "Jeopardy."

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS: And Michael Steele is the former chair of the Republican
National Committee. Both are now MSNBC in-house thinkers.

So, thank you, guys, really. This is really important.

The public isn`t liking this subject. I don`t like it. I find the word
sequester awful. It reminds me of the O.J. jury. I don`t want to hear
about it again.

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS: But Friday night, there`s going to be this dramatic sort of
sitting shivah together. The president is going to sit with these leaders.

What can possibly get done meeting before midnight when the act is already
in effect, basically? The government`s going to stop spending $85 billion.

ROBERT GIBBS, MSNBC POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: I don`t think anything`s going
to happen.

MATTHEWS: Well, why did the president call them down to the White House to
meet?

GIBBS: Well, look, you -- I think quite frankly they`re starting the
negotiations for what`s going to happen a few weeks or a few months into
this, when people start feeling the real pain in these communities in
places like Newport --

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: Well, is this theater, Friday night?

GIBBS: I don`t think it`s theater.

I think it`s the beginning of how we`re ultimately going to get out of
this, because, quite frankly, nobody`s going to move at this point unless
Republicans are willing to talk about tax revenue to make this more
balanced.

MATTHEWS: And Democrats are willing?

GIBBS: And Democrats are willing to accept only spending cuts or do a lot
more on entitlements and walk away from anything on tax revenue. And,
quite frankly, nobody`s going to do that.

MATTHEWS: OK. There`s sort of an Alphonse and Gaston thing. Who goes
through the door first here, right?

MICHAEL STEELE, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes.

MATTHEWS: So, why aren`t leaders capable of organizing it where they both
go through the door at the same time, where the Democrats do entitlements
and the Republicans do tax reform?

STEELE: Because they`re largely idiots. And the fact of the matter is
they have allowed this thing to get to this point and lose control of it,
quite frankly.

I think you hit the right word. This is theater. This is the president
coming in to the table on this after the fact. Why not --

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: Let try to get into motive. We all think we`re smarter than
politicians. But sometimes they operate under scary conditions.

I think John Boehner is scared most of the time. Listen to what Ron
Johnson -- now, he`s a Tea Party kind of guy. He`s a senator from
Wisconsin. He told FOX News earlier this week that Speaker Boehner is in
trouble with his own party if he dares to agree with anything to do with
taxes.

Let`s listen to Ron Johnson. Decide if he`s right.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. RON JOHNSON (R), WISCONSIN: I don`t quite honestly believe that
Speaker Boehner would be speaker if that happens. I think he would lose
the speakership.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Does he have a gun to his head?

STEELE: Yes, he does have a gun to his head.

Look, we just raised $300 billion in taxes in January.

MATTHEWS: On the top 1 percent.

STEELE: You raised taxes.

MATTHEWS: The top 1 percent.

STEELE: Go to the fundamentals, Chris. I don`t care if it`s the top 1
percent or the bottom 50 percent.

MATTHEWS: Well, I do. And the top 1 percent cares.

STEELE: I`m sure you do care. You`re the top 1 percent.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: OK. Let`s make conjecture not part of this show.

STEELE: No, but this is the point, though. That is a salient issue for a
lot of the Republican leaders in the House.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: So the word taxes is offensive to them?

STEELE: And it`s not just the word taxes. It`s the idea that we have
raised taxes and we haven`t gotten commiserate cuts in spending.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: Ronald Reagan back in 1986 put together a big tax reform bill
which lowered the rates and got rid of a lot of loopholes. Since when is
being a tax reformer of that kind, which everybody wants to be, bad?

GIBBS: It`s not bad.

The problem is we had a huge cut for 10 years which created this huge
spending cut problem that we are trying to dig ourselves out of.
Republicans forget we tried these -- remember these great economic tax cuts
in 2001 and 2003 that were supposed to create this fabulous economy.

I will let the people of America judge the efficacy of those tax cuts.

But, you know, Michael, you talk about everybody stepping through the door
at the same time, even as you say Republicans are not going to put revenue
on the table.

STEELE: I did not say that.

GIBBS: Senator Johnson`s -- Senator Johnson`s comment was the most
insightful and important comment that will happen in Washington this week.

MATTHEWS: When he said Boehner isn`t alive if he talks taxes?

GIBBS: Because the Republicans can`t make a deal. They can`t get out of
this box, because if they get out of this box, they guarantee themselves
one thing.

John Boehner would lose his job as speaker. And if someone says, hey,
let`s do more revenue right now and you`re Republican, the only thing
you`re going to guarantee is a primary challenge from the right and
probably a loss in a primary.

STEELE: And I submit the other side of that box is a president who cannot
put real cuts in entitlement reform on the table with his base, because he
knows he will be in the exact --

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: Do you think that`s actually true?

STEELE: Well, if it`s not true, then why doesn`t he do it? Where is the
proposal --

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: I`m with you in a sense.

STEELE: Yes.

MATTHEWS: I think he can, because I think big city liberal Democrats even,
if they see a deal on the table, a lot of them will vote for it. I don`t
think they`re in the same bind as the Tea Party-fearing Republicans.

STEELE: No. Let`s test that theory and put it out there and see for sure.

(CROSSTALK)

GIBBS: I will say this, Chris.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: Well, am I right or wrong? Would the liberals go along with him
if he did a deal?

STEELE: So you`re going with a cut.

(CROSSTALK)

GIBBS: Yes, they would. And the president has put --

(CROSSTALK)

STEELE: Oh, this is good. Progress.

GIBBS: Well, here`s my question. The president`s put chained CPI, a
better way of calculating of inflation.

MATTHEWS: Explain.

GIBBS: Basically, again, it`s a better way of calculating, a more accurate
way of calculating the rate of inflation.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: It`s how you figure out how many -- what`s in the bag.

GIBBS: It slows the rate of growth of Medicare.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: It decides --

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: -- inflation rate really effects the average person.

GIBBS: Right.

So, here`s my question. We know the president`s going to put that on the
table. Tell me. Boehner just sat with Scott Pelley. Pick a journalist.
Pick anybody. What revenue are you putting on the table?

STEELE: We put revenue. We put what the president wanted on the table.

GIBBS: No.

(CROSSTALK)

STEELE: He wanted to cut -- he wanted to raise taxes for the top 1
percent. We did.

GIBBS: This is -- this is the game. This is the game.

STEELE: But wait a minute. This is not the game.

GIBBS: This is the game. No, it is.

STEELE: This is not the game. Tell me, what cuts have we made? What cuts
have we made?

GIBBS: We -- we --

(CROSSTALK)

STEELE: Where is the -- OK. The president is for chained CPI. Where is
it? I don`t see the proposal. I don`t see the bill. Is Harry Reid
presenting that bill?

MATTHEWS: Let`s take a look at how the polls. You guys are having a good
time.

Let`s take a look at the latest polling we did yesterday for NBC/"Wall
Street Journal". Americans are nearly three times more likely to believe
Republicans are emphasizing a partisan approach, like you are right now,
Michael, rather than emphasizing the country, by a five-point margin they
think Obama is focused on unity over partisanship. A little bitter for
him.

And when we asked whether Americans agree with what congressional
Republicans are proposing to do, nearly six to 10, six in 10, that`s 3/5,
disagree with the Republicans, versus an almost even split for the
president.

Nobody is Mother Teresa here.

GIBBS: Right.

MATTHEWS: Nobody thinks they`re sticking their neck out any further than
they absolutely have to.

But why do the Republicans -- why is your brand of your party so sticky
right now?

STEELE: Well, the brand is because we have messaged this horribly. We
have been --

MATTHEWS: What`s the message they`re not getting out?

STEELE: But the message has been all over the place.

MATTHEWS: What is the right message?

STEELE: I think the right message is to really -- as we`ve said from the
very beginning, and should have from the very beginning, focus on how to
create jobs in the country and tie that to spending. We`ve not done that.
We`ve not given a way forward that really lays out exactly what the cost is
to this economy for the level of spending that we`ve been doing.

MATTHEWS: OK. I`m going back to --

STEELE: Can I make one final point?

MATTHEWS: Yes, sir.

STEELE: Why is it when we put on the table a serious discussion about
cutting the spending of this country, all of a sudden that`s partisan and
we`re not --

MATTHEWS: I know that. I think most of the people in the country care
about spending. I do --

(CROSSTALK)

GIBBS: To be fair, Michael, we have to do three things to get our fiscal
house in order. We have to reduce spending. We have to do something on
entitlements, and we have to do something else on revenue.

I think the point of the sequester is this is taking a meat ax to the
budget. This is not -- hold on.

STEELE: Go ahead.

GIBBS: This is not identifying things that we know don`t work and we
should eliminate. I mean, this --

STEELE: I`m with you on that, but this was your proposal. This came from
the White House.

GIBBS: Here`s the game. Here`s the game again.

STEELE: OK. So Bob Woodward is a part of our game?

MATTHEWS: You know why you`re upset and he`s not? You know why he`s
playing this game and, you know, you`re not? Because remember --

GIBBS: Some people are serious about all of this.

MATTHEWS: I know. But remember the hostage crisis with Iran. And in the
beginning, Carter benefitted. He beat Teddy Kennedy with this, because at
the beginning, they rallied behind him. But as these things drag on, drag
on for months, they begin to blame the top guy. They just do.

GIBBS: The game is --

MATTHEWS: That`s why you were loving this.

STEELE: There`s no game here.

GIBBS: He says our message isn`t right, but now his message is let`s blame
somebody else for how we got in the mess.

STEELE: I`m not blaming anybody. I`m just pointing out a fact to you.
I`m not blaming, I`m just saying. You want to ignore the role of the White
House putting this in place, Bob.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: Robert Gibbs, is the president doing everything right here?

GIBBS: No.

MATTHEWS: Doing everything right?

GIBBS: Nobody is doing everything right.

MATTHEWS: Can you say the president`s not doing everything right here?

STEELE: No, he can`t say that. No, he can`t.

GIBBS: I just did. I just did.

STEELE: Can I hear you?

GIBBS: I said nobody is doing everything right.

(CROSSTALK)

GIBBS: But I will say everybody`s going to get mud on their shirt.

STEELE: I feel that.

GIBBS: Let`s hope this isn`t a game. Let`s hope this is a series of
serious proposals.

MATTHEWS: OK. When they start closing down government spending in those
areas where it matters, like defense and those people in stores start
closing, we`re going to see impact.

Michael Steele -- thank you, gentlemen.

STEELE: You got it, buddy.

MATTHEWS: Thank you, Robert, for joining us.

GIBBS: Thank you.

MATTHEWS: Up next, Republican tactics only Joe McCarthy could love.

And this is HARDBALL, the place for the politics.

There he is. And he`s back. He`s got a new name and he`s from Texas.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: If you just can`t get enough of the 2012 election, I know I
can`t, get ready to hit the bookstore this fall. That`s when the new
version of "Game Change" is coming out. It`s going to be called "Double
Down: Game Change 2012." And, of course, it`s by our own Mark Halperin and
John Heilemann. HBO has already optioned the project for a movie on HBO.

I can`t wait for the book or the movie, of course.

And we`ll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: We`re back.

Chuck Hagel`s now secretary of deference. It`s a done deal, but not
without a campaign to smear him with innuendo and guilt by association.
First, the right fanned the flames on the false story of Hagel`s ties to a
nonexistent group called -- there`s not even called that. There`s no such
thing -- "Friends of Hamas."

And here was Rand Paul on the radio earlier this month talking about this
as if it actually existed.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

RADIO HOST: Let me bring up one piece of information that Ben Shapiro at
Breitbart put out today, which is one of the foreign funders behind Senator
Hagel that he has not yet disclosed formally is something called "Friends
of Hamas". If that is, in fact, true, Senator, would that lead you to vote
against Mr. Hagel?

SEN. RAND PAUL (R), KENTUCKY: You know, I saw that information today also.
And that is more and more concerning with each day there are new things
coming out.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: And then just a few days later, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas
questioned whether Hagel had been financed by North Korea, or Saudi Arabia.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. TED CRUZ (R), TEXAS: We saw with his nomination something truly
extraordinary, which is the government of Iran formerly and publicly
praising the nomination of a defense secretary. I would suggest to you
that to my knowledge, that is unprecedented to see a foreign nation like
Iran publicly celebrating a nomination.

It may be that he spoke at radical or extreme groups or anti-Israel groups
and accepted financial compensation. We don`t know. But it is a minimum
relevant to know if that $200,000 that he deposited in his bank account
came directly from Saudi Arabia, came from North Korea.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: That is a Joe McCarthy imitation if I`ve seen one. Even
yesterday, the Iran talk continued with Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma on the
Senate floor.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JIM INHOFE (R), OKLAHOMA: Isn`t it interesting, though, that Iran
supports Chuck Hagel`s nomination to be secretary of defense?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Well, Dana Milbank is a columnist for "The Washington Post" and
a great one.

Howard Fineman, of course, is great. He`s editorial director for "The
Huffington Post" and an MSNBC analyst.

Thank you for jumping on this. I absolutely believe it. I`m a student of
that period, the early `50s, like so many of us are at my age. And the way
he looks, the way he behaves, the innuendo, the throwing out of names,
throwing out of bad associations to make him look like, in the old says, a
commie, now, a terrorist supporter.

DANA MILBANK, THE WASHINGTON POST: Right. And it started with tail gunner
Ted Cruz. But it seems to have spread out to have spread out even to the
ranking member of the Armed Services Committee. That`s one thing.

Now, the guys approved and they were all congratulating themselves
yesterday before the vote saying, this is really going to weaken Chuck
Hagel.

MATTHEWS: Smeared him good.

MILBANK: A very difficult job being secretary of defense. That`s right.

MATTHEWS: Bill Kristol was out doing that.

MILBANK: Who made his job difficult? They weakened not only Chuck Hagel,
they`ve weakened the Defense Department. They`ve weekend the United
States. And for --

MATTHEWS: They did a jump -- a little hot dog jump in the end zone on
this, too. Howard, this used to be sort of, you know, sacred. We protect
our country. We have a secretary of defense and we certainly leave him
alone while he does the job. But here, they basically smeared him out
front.

HOWARD FINEMAN, THE HUFFINGTON POST: Well, they --

MATTHEWS: He didn`t get money from North Korea. He`s not running around
with terrorists. Apparently, he`s not --

FINEMAN: May I say? Isn`t it it`s interesting that none of the things
that they floated are true?

MATTHEWS: None.

FINEMAN: None. Zero.

MATTHEWS: And they had two months to look for it.

FINEMAN: Zero, zero.

This was the worst combination of the worst instincts of the Senate at its
worst, and the worst instincts of the Republican Party and the conservative
movement all at the same time. And it was sort of a triple play there that
was shameful.

The fact is, it is true that there has never been a presidential nominee
filibustered, certainly in this --

MATTHEWS: Why did they do it, Howard? Why they do it again yesterday? I
read their names, their name of infamy last night of people who voted for
another filibuster again last night, knowing they weren`t going to win.

FINEMAN: Well, Chris, it`s what Dana alluded to. They`re not thinking
about the country. They`re thinking about satisfying various core
constituencies. They`re thinking about their base. They`re thinking about
showmanship for the interests of their base and not about the good of the
country in this case.

The guy`s going to be defense secretary. He`s going to be defense
secretary. Now, he is defense secretary.

If they really wanted to go after him, they could have asked what his plan
was to deal with the shrinking defense budget, which is going to happen,
anyway. What is his geopolitical theory --

MATTHEWS: What about Afghanistan?

FINEMAN: What about Afghanistan? On a whole host of things. They could
have said -- they didn`t do any of that.

MATTHEWS: Let`s assume they didn`t do the right back. What bad job they
did.

This guy, Cruz -- now, there`s an outside possibility that he doesn`t know
about the McCarthy period. That he has no idea that he`s actually -- that
his staff, if they are watching, please show him movies of what McCarthy
did, the way he sat like this guy with that same prosecutorial look, that
same attitude you see on this face, this guy is an evil person. And watch
the kind of questions and innuendo that McCarthy played and say, my boss is
acting like him.

I don`t think any of his staff even know who McCarthy is.

MILBANK: Ted went to Princeton and Harvard Law School --

MATTHEWS: Oh, I know, he`s immune to criticism.

MILBANK: Well, no, but presumably he might have read about this at one
point.

It`s interesting to note that OK, they went a little overboard inventing
the "Friends of Hamas" and the charges of anti-Semitism, it sounds like Ted
Cruz has gone a little far. In the last couple of days, you did not see
him on the floor speaking yesterday. He`s not making question --

MATTHEWS: What does it say to mean? He says, "I`ve been stonewalled."
What`s that mean? Stonewall means you don`t talk. It doesn`t mean you`ve
been --

MILBANK: No, he`s saying the administration has not coughed up the
information, proving that, in fact, Chuck Hagel was in the pocket of North
Korea. So, he didn`t get the information.

MATTHEWS: So, he`s still pushing this line?

MILBANK: He said, yes. He said what else can I say? I suggest he should
come out there and say he`s sorry.

FINEMAN: I think there`s a -- I agree with you on Princeton, doesn`t
guarantee you knowledge of the world, because Samuel Alito is a graduate,
also.

MATTHEWS: OK.

FINEMAN: I think Ted Cruz is a guy -- take a risk and say, this is a guy
with enormous talent. He`s a very, very smart guy.

MATTHEWS: Why is misusing it?

FINEMAN: He`s completely misused it in this case, completely misused it in
this case. I think it`s too bad, because I think the guy is very, very
smart.

And, by the way, I wouldn`t want to watch all the McCarthy movies, because
I think he might be inspired by them.

MATTHEWS: There`s a smirk there and an attitude. I guess part of it
might come from being a Cuban-American, coming to deal with that. I mean,
justifiable hatred of communism. I`m all with them on that. They had
their country stolen from them.

But the question of how you treat fellow Americans you disagree with
politically and treat them as traitors.

FINEMAN: There`s an accusatory style -- Chris, there`s a style of high
accusation --

MATTHEWS: Yes.

FINEMAN: -- that is McCarthy-ite that this guy definitely has. There`s no
question about it.

MATTHEWS: Are we going to see a change or is it just going to be the way
we`re going to watch television for the next couple of years -- watching
these guys go further right?

MILBANK: Well, watching these guys go further right and then the Democrats
are taking notes here. And you know when there`s a Republican president,
they`re going to say, remember what they did to Hagel? Let`s hope they
don`t go down the McCarthy route --

(CROSSTALK)

MILBANK: Well, they didn`t go all the way. Luckily, it looks like Jack
Lew is going to get through. And it looks like Brennan will probably get
through, right? They`re all going to get through.

FINEMAN: Yes. In fairness of history, some people think that`s what the
Democrats did on Robert Bork.

MATTHEWS: Yes. George Will thinks that. Anyway, thank you.

I`m just trying to help you out there -- Howard Fineman.

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS: When we return, let we finish with a moment, a movement for or
against. I`m talking about gun control. You can`t just be on the
sidelines on this one.

You`re watching HARDBALL, the place for politics.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: Let me finish tonight with this. I was in a big city hospital
recently and the issue of gun control, gun safety came up. The doctor
said, if I wanted to know the impact of guns, he could show me, take me
down and show me.

Look, gunshot wounds can be truly horrible. The reality justifies the
discussion today about the need to try and do something about the
proliferation of assault rifles, huge ammo magazines and the loopholes in
the requirement that there be background checks.

People have told us of the horrible sight of those young kids up in
Newtown, Connecticut. I personally don`t want to be part of a movement to
keep those semiautomatic flying into the hands of all sorts of people as
they are today -- the hoarders, the survivalists, the paranoid, the
criminal, and downright politically nutty.

Why? Because the next mass shooter could well merge out of this pack.
Check the shooters of Kennedy and Gerry Ford, who got shot at twice. Look
at the man who shot Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, and Malcolm X and
George Wallace. They all had political motives and they all had guns, got
them easy and put them easily to use.

And if you`re not against this movement, you`re with it. Write your
congressman and say what you think and what you feel. Do it tonight before
you go to bed. The address of Congress, for all the congressmen is
Congress -- U.S. Congress, Washington, D.C., 20515. That`s Washington,
D.C., 20515. It will get there.

And that`s HARDBALL for now. Thanks for being with us.

"POLITICS NATION" with Al Sharpton starts right now.


END

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