updated 3/18/2013 12:08:15 PM ET 2013-03-18T16:08:15

HARDBALL
March 15, 2013

Guests: Michael Crowley, Steve Israel, Joe Conason, Lauren Ashburn

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST: Splitsville on the right.

Let`s play HARDBALL.

Good evening. I`m Chris Matthews in Washington.

"Let Me Start" tonight with this. I watched the conservatives at their
convention today and was impressed by the strong response to Mitt Romney.
They seem stuck on him, as we used to say, stuck on Mitty, that they like
him, still like him enough to give him a pretty good welcome today, this
guy who lost an election he and many others thought they had made.

So what this tells me is that they really haven`t adjusted to the verdict
of the American people. They`re still back there with Santorum and Trump
and those others on the crazy wagon of right-wing talk that basically
turned off the country last year.

I`m talking specifically about the horror show known as the Republican
primary season. It was a winter of discontent followed by a spring of
crazy and a summer of "Is that all there is"?

Well, now here we are in March of 2013, and the talk of Hillary on the
Democratic side and talk of no one really on the Republican side. Are they
really ready to run Rubio? Really? Are they really thinking about risking
it all with Jindal? Do you think? Can Jeb run if he can`t bring his own
brother -- and who on earth thinks he can -- to the Republican convention
that nominates him? He can`t show up with his brother!

Oh, they`ve got trouble on that side that probably explains the warm
response to Mitt Romney today. Having looked at and seen the alternatives,
they may be thinking, Whoa, that grass there don`t look all that green,
does it.

Well, I`m joined right now by David Corn with "Mother Jones," and of
course, "The Washington Post`s" great Eugene Robinson. I want your own
reactions, gentlemen. You`re a great Washington observer. I`m looking at
this today and I`m expecting Romney to get "Blah, blah, blah."

First of all, nobody shows up for Trump. Nobody! The house is empty! It
was so great!

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS: It was empty! Empty chairs. He was tweeting -- we`re going to
get to that later -- tweeting how it`s going to be a big crowd. They
brought him in -- Al Cardenas, the guy who ran the thing brought him in for
one reason, box office!

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS: OK, let`s talk about Mitt.

EUGENE ROBINSON, "WASHINGTON POST," MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: Didn`t do it.
Didn`t open (ph).

MATTHEWS: Mitt came out with sort of a plain -- his face kept showing, All
right, I lost. All right, I lost. Already, I lost!

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS: And it went on for about 10 minutes. All right, I lost. But
they liked him.

ROBINSON: They liked him. Yes. And you know, finally, he`s kind of grown
on the party.

(LAUGHTER)

ROBINSON: They never liked him before.

MATTHEWS: What, he`s "Just my Bill"?

ROBINSON: They never liked him before, but you know, he fought the good
fight. They can say he fought the good fight.

MATTHEWS: Did he?

ROBINSON: Did the best he could.

ROBINSON: Well...

MATTHEWS: Did he?

ROBINSON: ... did the best he could do.

DAVID CORN, "MOTHER JONES," MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: He fought their
fight.

ROBINSON: Right. He fought their fight. But he did the best he could do
and he lost. And so, you know, give him a hand of applause. I don`t think
this means he`s back as a major force in the party.

MATTHEWS: In other words, he lost to the highest unemployment rate of
anybody in presidential history!

(LAUGHTER)

ROBINSON: Well, maybe he didn`t do that...

(CROSSTALK)

CORN: What does it tell you when they`re willing to quasi-celebrate Mitt
Romney and still not have Bob McDonnell or Chris Christie there?

MATTHEWS: I know. Well, let`s take a look about (ph) the split. The
sharp divisions in the Republican Party were easy to see today at CPAC.
Senators Rand Paul and Marco Rubio, both mentioned as 2016 contenders, put
out different versions of visions for the GOP`s way forward. One says the
party right now is a relic. The other says it`s just got to stick to the
basics, very different messages. Let`s watch them.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. RAND PAUL (R), KENTUCKY: The GOP of old has grown stale and moss-
covered.

(CHEERS AND APPLAUSE)

PAUL: I don`t think we need to name any names.

SEN. MARCO RUBIO (R), FLORIDA: We don`t need a new idea! There is an
idea! The idea is called America, and it still works!

(CHEERS AND APPLAUSE)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: What in the world does this first guy talk -- first, he`s out
there, Rand Paul, he`s, like, been elected for a couple months, and he
comes out there and immediately slams, guess who? Who`s he trashing?

CORN: Take your pick, Mitch McConnell, Mitt Romney.

ROBINSON: John McCain.

MATTHEWS: John McCain...

ROBINSON: John McCain is who he`s (INAUDIBLE)

CORN: Look at -- look at the division here...

MATTHEWS: Well, wait a minute. Get to this point. Let`s let him have his
point. Here`s a guy, he`s the new voice of the Republican Party, he and
the guy from Texas, Ted Cruz, trashing all the people that have been there
before him.

CORN: Right. But he`s out there saying, you know, We need new ideas.
What is the new idea? It`s liberty. And Marco Rubio says we have good
ideas. What`s the good idea? America. So this is the big debate in the
party...

MATTHEWS: Don`t the Democrats...

CORN: ... liberty versus America.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: Don`t the Democrats have America, too?

CORN: Where are they going with this?

ROBINSON: And they have liberty but...

(CROSSTALK)

CORN: Is it liberty or is it America? I am so confused!

ROBINSON: Well, but there is a split, though. Rand Paul says we need new
ideas and we need to be more libertarian and less interventionist, OK, just
to pick his basic themes.

MATTHEWS: Yes.

ROBINSON: And Marco Rubio says, We don`t need to change anything except
the candidates.

MATTHEWS: Yes.

ROBINSON: We need to -- we need to have candidates who better
articulate...

MATTHEWS: So is this...

ROBINSON: ... what we`ve been saying all along...

CORN: Romney`s working...

ROBINSON: ... and that`s going to be the fight in the party.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: ... because I`ve always asked this question. When you get your
butt kicked in an election you really thought -- Ann Romney -- she`s
probably an OK person, she thought she was going to win.

ROBINSON: Yes.

MATTHEWS: So they really thought -- I didn`t know who was going to win.
You guys are all experts, and Nate Silver -- I didn`t know who was going to
win. It was that close.

CORN: Yes.

MATTHEWS: And Democrats had a better ground game, obviously, a better
social networking (INAUDIBLE) But It was close enough to grab, like a
football, the receiver is that close and it`s in his hands or it`s right
there. You say he blew it, usually.

ROBINSON: Yes.

MATTHEWS: He should have caught it. It`s not the quarterback`s fault in
that case. So here`s the question. If they blew it, is their tendency to
go hard right with this guy, Rand Paul, go to paleoconservatism, no more
wars, no more (INAUDIBLE) all that stuff, and less Republican government...

(CROSSTALK)

CORN: But that -- you know, that has never won. Even when they`ve gone
conservative, when they went to Ronald Reagan after Ford lost, you know, he
was not a libertarian. He was sort of a movement -- traditional movement
conservative who had been less conservative as the governor in
California...

MATTHEWS: That`s true.

CORN: ... and had a -- he had lot of crossover appeal just in terms of his
nature. So going to straight Tea Party libertarian and risking this
tremendous war (ph) -- we haven`t seen the neoconservative -- sort of the
revenge of the neoconservative empire yet.

(CROSSTALK)

CORN: They are coming!

MATTHEWS: I do think they`re going to come back and reclaim the party as
the hawk party. But let me ask you about this choice now. Do they go --
do they say more Romney with a different face -- Rubio -- or do they say,
Wait a minute, that sort of "me too" thing ain`t working?

ROBINSON: Oh, I`m a believer in inertia. I think they -- I think they
stick with the same basic ideas but with...

MATTHEWS: Pretending to be right-wingers but not willing to believe it
themselves.

ROBINSON: Well, not willing to go all the way...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: Let`s talk about something you`ve always -- you`ve written
about. We had the great thing we taped last night about the whole Iraq war
and your book, "Hubris." Look at the other fight in the Republican Party.
It`s between the hawks, a few of them, and the isolationists to show which
party has changed.

Now, look at this clip. Show how things have changed. Look at this clip
from the presidential debate back in 2008, where Ron Paul -- that`s the
father -- long a lone voice of opposing intervention, like in Iraq, tangles
with presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani, and (INAUDIBLE) basically shouts
him out of the room. Let`s watch how things have changed here.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. RON PAUL (R-TX), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: There`s a strong tradition
of being anti-war in the Republican Party. It is the constitutional
position. It is the advice of the founders to follow a noninterventionist
foreign policy.

WENDELL GOLER, FOX NEWS, MODERATOR: Congressman, you don`t think that
changed with the 9/11 attack, sir?

PAUL: What changed?

GOLER: The noninterventionist policies.

PAUL: No. Nonintervention was a major contributing factor. Have you ever
read about the reasons they attacked us? They attacked us because we`ve
been over there.

GOLER: Are you suggesting we invited the 9/11 attack, sir?

PAUL: I`m suggesting that we listen to the people who attacked us and the
reason they did it. They have already now since that time have killed
3,400 of our men, and I don`t think it was necessary.

RUDY GIULIANI (R), FMR. NEW YORK CITY MAYOR, PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:
Wendell, may I may a comment on that? That`s really an extraordinary
statement. It`s an extraordinary statement, as someone who lived through
the attack of September 11, that we invited the attack because we were
attacking Iraq -- I don`t think I`ve ever heard that before, and I`ve heard
some pretty absurd explanations for September 11.

(APPLAUSE)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Well, there`s a lot of applause. They shouldn`t have cut that
off, tremendous applause for Rudy Giuliani. He thumped him. We all
remember that.

Well, fast-forward to 2013 and contrast that to the response to his son,
Rand Paul`s, 13-hour filibuster to protest the U.S. drone program. Rand
Paul got backup from GOP rising stars like Rubio and Ted Cruz and was
hailed as a hero on the right.

OK, there`s no sound. We`re just watching. Well, anyway, we all remember
that, too.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: Is the party now open -- does it find acceptable isolationists?

CORN: This is what`s really fascinating. For decades, there was a fight
within the Republican Party between realists and neoconservatives.

MATTHEWS: Right.

CORN: The first group was, like, Brent Scowcroft and people who believe in
sort of...

MATTHEWS: Jim Baker...

(CROSSTALK)

CORN: ... modest intervention, versus the neocons, who had a messianic
view of promoting democracy. And we saw that all come to play with the
Iraq war. The neoconservatives triumphed. There always was a small --
emphasize the word "small" -- part of the party, paleoconservatives,
traditional...

MATTHEWS: Pat Buchanan.

CORN: ... isolationists, like Pat Buchanan. But they never were even in
the debate, they were so far out of the mainstream of their own party. Now
with Rand Paul, we see them kind of rising and the debates between them and
the neocons...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: What`s changed that atmosphere?

CORN: The realists are gone. They...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: Gene, what`s changed in the atmosphere?

ROBINSON: A decade of war, a decade of war at enormous cost in blood and
treasure and...

(CROSSTALK)

CORN: ... and Barack Obama being in charge of the national security state
now. That`s another thing.

ROBINSON: Well, that`s another change, and that gives them the political
opening. I think that`s an -- that`s an interesting fight within the party
because I think -- I think the balance has changed...

MATTHEWS: Yes.

ROBINSON: ... has shifted on the question of intervention.

MATTHEWS: But you said in your notes...

(CROSSTALK)

ROBINSON: ... not all the way, but...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: Not all the way. Do you think they`re going to return to being
a hawkish party? I think if Obama doesn`t attack Iran, for example, they
will go ferociously hard right.

CORN: I think the GOP establishment is still squarely in the
neoconservative camp, with maybe a toe or two in the realist camp. And
they will find a way to drown out Rand Paul, you know, at least in the
conversation in Washington in the halls of power.

MATTHEWS: Let`s take a look at Mitch McConnell here today. He also spoke
at CPAC this morning, and poked fun at the age of the Democrats. Now, this
is an ageist comment, I would say. He`s saying, We`re the young party,
Mitch McConnell.

(LAUGHTER)

ROBINSON: Yes, right!

MATTHEWS: We`re the young party. Let`s take on these golden agers here.
Let`s listen to him.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY), MINORITY LEADER: Don`t tell me Democrats are
the party of the future when their presidential ticket for 2016 is shaping
up to look like a rerun of "The Golden Girls."

(LAUGHTER)

MCCONNELL: We got Rand Paul. We got Marco Rubio. We got Paul Ryan and a
slew of smart, young and energetic governors ready to take America into the
future!

(CHEERS AND APPLAUSE)

MCCONNELL: And the other guys, they got Hillary and Joe Biden!

(LAUGHTER)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: OK, let me just get to the politics of this. You`re good at
this, Gene. You`ve been an editor. Now, he`s thinking about tomorrow
morning right now because he knew he just stepped on it. He made what
could be a sexist, and certainly was an ageist comment.

ROBINSON: Exactly. Oh, yes.

MATTHEWS: He referred to what looks like -- you`re referring to Hillary...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: ... who`s younger than him, by the way, by about five years...

ROBINSON: Absolutely, but he`s talking about...

MATTHEWS: ... and then saying being one of the "Golden Girls," which is
actually a very popular show. But his shot was negative.

ROBINSON: It was...

MATTHEWS: And then he covered his butt by throwing Biden under the bus!

ROBINSON: He tried to.

(CROSSTALK)

ROBINSON: What else could he do at that point? You know, I mean...

MATTHEWS: So he heard those footsteps coming his direction!

ROBINSON: He realized that he had said something that he shouldn`t have
said. He certainly said it in a way he shouldn`t have said it.

MATTHEWS: So (INAUDIBLE) what are the great catchers, the gotcha
journalists going to do now with the guy? I`ve heard it`s already on line
and people commenting about this. It`s not a big...

(CROSSTALK)

CORN: There`s so much coming out of CPAC!

(LAUGHTER)

CORN: You know, Donald Trump going nutso and other things, that I think
he`ll get lost in the wash. It`s interesting, though, how positive he is
about Rand Paul now because, of course, Rand Paul beat the guy in Kentucky,
the Republican who Mitch McConnell had supported, and now he -- with Mitch
McConnell up for re-election, he is all for Rand Paul.

MATTHEWS: That`s regrouping.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: I`m going to watch over the weekend and see how this goes. By
the way, my old boss, Tip O`Neill, loved "The Golden Girls."

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: ... a very popular snow. Anyway -- it was on NBC, too. Anyway,
thank you, David Corn. Great. Have a nice weekend, Eugene Robinson, enjoy
-- there`s more CPAC to come over the weekend.

Anyway, coming up, Mitt Romney spoke at CPAC, as I said, today, but not
before being slammed by Jim DeMint and Rick Perry for not being
conservative enough. We knew that was coming. But the crowd actually
cheered Romney. They were warm to him today. So what`s the GOP`s 2012
lesson, go hard right or stick to Romneyism, that sort of vague
conservatism?

Also, Republican senator Rob Portman used to support -- used to support the
Defense of Marriage Act and used to oppose gay marriage until his son told
him that he`s gay. And this is fascinating. Until a personal issue came
on, a family issue, he didn`t have that same position. Now Portman has had
a change of heart, proof of two things -- one, that all politics is local,
of course, and two, that as more people come out in terms of their
orientation, more Americans will be accepting of same-sex marriage.

Plus, we know the GOP wants President Obama to fail, will do anything to
make sure he fails that. And that -- and no new taxes is all they really
can agree on, no new taxes and screwing Obama. But why hasn`t President
Obama offered the Republicans a deal from his point of view, his version of
a grand bargain, well, to force the Republicans to say no and walk away
from the table? He hasn`t done that yet.

By the way, Donald Trump tweeted yesterday, "Really big crowd expected
tomorrow at CPAC" for his speech. Well, here`s the really big crowd...

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS: ... that showed up to see Trump this morning, an overflow
audience filled with empty chairs! (INAUDIBLE)

Anyway, that`s HARDBALL, and we`re playing it. This is the place for it.
We`ll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: President Obama`s announced the official presidential delegation
to the Vatican for Tuesday`s inauguration mass, actually, for Pope Francis,
the first Latino pope in church history. Vice President Joe Biden will
lead the delegation. He`ll be joined by New Mexico governor Susana
Martinez, who made history as this country`s first Latina governor. Also
in the delegation, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Dr. Jack DeGioia,
president of Georgetown University, the country`s oldest Jesuit college.

Meanwhile, House Speaker John Boehner is sending his own delegation, and
because of the sequester, they`ll be flying commercial.

We`ll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

FMR GOV. MITT ROMNEY, R-MA, FMR PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Of course, I left
the race disappointed that I didn`t win, but I also left honored and
humbled to have represented the values we believe in and to speak for so
many good and decent people.

We`ve lost races before in the past, but those setbacks prepared us for
larger victories. It`s up to us to make sure that we learn from our
mistakes and my mistakes and that we take advantage of that learning to
make sure that we take back the nation, take back the White House, get the
Senate and put in place conservative principles.

(APPLAUSE)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL. That was, of course, Mitt Romney,
this afternoon addressing the crowd at CPAC, where he received, I believe,
a warm response -- watching on TV -- from the conservative activists out
there. But was it a last good-bye from a party that has moved on already?

Well, in his remarks today, Romney offered little by way of new advice to
his party beyond a general warning not to be pessimistic about
conservatism. He`s also told the crowd he was still optimistic about
America. Good to know, Mr. Romney. So is the Republican candidate`s
window in the spotlight now officially shut? Does anyone care anymore that
Romney has to say -- what he has to say?

Joe Conason`s the editor of Nationalmemo.com and Lauren Ashburn`s editor of
the DailyDownload.

Let me start with you, Joe. In this sense of -- of -- is it like the -- an
old Jimmy Durante good-bye in the old days, "Good night, Mrs. Calabash"?
Was this a good-bye? Or was this "You`re still with us, buddy, we like
you, you lost a close one, we might look at you again someday"? What was
it?

JOE CONASON, NATIONALMEMO.COM: I think it was good-bye, Chris. I don`t
think they want him back. He doesn`t really fit well with any of the
clashing wings of the party, and he lost rather badly. And I think he
proved he was an incompetent candidate, ultimately. So I`m not sure they`d
want him back.

I think they like his money. I think they -- and I think there is probably
some affection for him, just as there was for losers like John Kerry and Al
Gore after they lost elections. You know, John Kerry would get cheered
lustily when he would show up among Democrats after losing in 2004...

MATTHEWS: Yes.

CONASON: ... moreso than before. Same thing with Al Gore. So I think
it`s that kind of thing.

MATTHEWS: Where were these cheers for Al Gore, by the way? I missed that
scene. When was -- he was...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: ... disappeared.

CONASON: When he finally showed up to come out against the Iraq war...

MATTHEWS: Oh, OK.

CONASON: ... he was very much cheered.

MATTHEWS: I think it was the message. Anyway, what do you think, Lauren?
Because you were out there today for the...

LAUREN ASHBURN, DAILYDOWNLOAD: Yes, I was in the room.

MATTHEWS: What do you think?

ASHBURN: Well, it was his swan song. There`s no question about that. But
he did do very interesting things. He alluded to dads who don`t know what
weekends are and single moms who work two jobs. These are the people that
he basically ignored during the presidential run-up, and maybe -- maybe he
is moving more moderate. Could that be a signal that the Republican Party
will go that way? I don`t know.

MATTHEWS: But he also talked about the guy that discovered oil in North
Dakota. It`s not something that most people can identify with.

ASHBURN: Right, but he -- and so did Donald Trump earlier, who talked
about how he...

(CROSSTALK)

ASHBURN: ... $8 billion.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: Trump was absurd.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: Trump said -- let me go back to Joe.

Trump comes in there. Nobody`s there in the morning, of course, to see
him. And he says the problem Romney had -- now, no one else would have
thought of this -- he didn`t brag enough about being rich.

CONASON: Yes.

MATTHEWS: How can he make a message? Flaunt it.

CONASON: Yes. Yes.

MATTHEWS: He started off by saying, hey, I made $8 billion. Why doesn`t
this guy brag about it more?

CONASON: Well...

MATTHEWS: That was his political advice, Donald Trump.

CONASON: If you take political advice from Donald Trump, you`re going to
be in worse shape than you -- when you started out. I mean, there`s no
question about that.

But, look, I don`t think -- I don`t think Romney showed any move towards
moderation in his remarks today. I listened to the whole thing, and, you
know, it was the same old Romney. It was the -- you know, the usual
sonorous cliches about America.

I mean, one of the things that was striking about his remarks was that he,
again, was sort of extolling America`s military adventures abroad. The
week of the anniversary of the Iraq, you know, huge mistake, for him to do
that shows just how little he learned in this campaign.

MATTHEWS: Anyway, let`s take a look at the -- while Romney received a warm
welcome -- we agree on that -- from the audience today, his reception from
other speakers at the audience has been frostier.

Rick Perry, for example, the other day blamed the Republican loss last year
on the party`s failure to nominate a true conservative. Let`s take a
listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GOV. RICK PERRY (R), TEXAS: The popular media narrative is that this
country has shifted away from conservative ideals, as evidenced by the last
two presidential elections. That`s what they think. That`s what they say.

That might be true if Republicans had actually nominated conservative
candidates in 2008 and 2012.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

PERRY: It might be true.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: So, there, he trashes McCain and Romney.

Anyway, that message was echoed by Jim DeMint yesterday. Let`s listen to
him.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JIM DEMINT (R), FORMER U.S. SENATOR: In 2012, with the presidential
election on the line, national Republican leadership rejected the lessons
of 2010 and went back to the old way of campaigning. They didn`t even try
to inspire America with bold, positive vision.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Lauren Ashburn, there you have two conservatives, true
conservatives, trashing the last two Republican candidates by name,
basically. McCain`s no good. Romney`s no good.

ASHBURN: Well...

MATTHEWS: Well, what`s the point?

ASHBURN: What`s the point in doing that?

MATTHEWS: Do you move further right next time? Do you get somebody who
has got better papers, who`s more hard right?

ASHBURN: As you said earlier, this is the civil war. This is a battle
between the far right and the moderate. And are we going to see which side
is going to win? Now, also, Romney did talk about...

MATTHEWS: Who`s the moderate in this discussion, by the way?

(LAUGHTER)

ASHBURN: Well, Romney also did talk about how he is going -- really wants
to see this party evolve and come close together.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: Romney`s putting his money behind Christie, Lauren. That tells
you a lot.

ASHBURN: He did mention Christie. He said him by name.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: What do you think of that, Joe, the fact that they would -- they
basically bounced the guy before he got in the door? They wouldn`t let him
in the door.

CONASON: Well...

MATTHEWS: But then Romney did have the cojones to bring up, you know,
among the governors, the 30 governors he`s bragging on, he said, you know,
Christie is one of the winners out there.

CONASON: Right.

ASHBURN: And Kasich. He talked about Kasich.

(CROSSTALK)

CONASON: But Christie -- and Christie is too moderate for the Republican
Party now.

You know, he nominated a Muslim as a judge. I mean, he`s not harshly anti-
gay. He`s kind of sort of warm and fuzzy compared to the run-of-the-mill
CPAC attendees.

ASHBURN: But he`s winning.

CONASON: So, he can`t cut it there.

MATTHEWS: OK.

Let me try something by you both. I don`t even know your politics. I
think I know Joe`s, just a little bit left of me, but just a notch. But
let`s take a look at this. I want to ask this. Isn`t the big problem
authenticity? It`s a problem in both parties if you have it.

I don`t think Romney is what he says he is. I think Romney is a practical
business guy who is primarily interested making money and perhaps
occasionally teaching others how to do it. He has a philosophy based on
his own practical experience of making lots of money and he wants to keep
the America -- the American system very much like it was when he made all
this money. It`s pretty simple.

And I think when he starts talking all these philosophical beliefs and all
this stuff, arcana, they go come on, we don`t believe it.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: Now, here he is. I want to give you something from the last
Romney appearance before the CPAC. Here it is, Romney`s previous
appearances at CPAC have showcased some awkward moments which I`m
describing here.

His problem with the conservative base was on full display last year when
this ad lib comment came out of his mouth. Let`s watch.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MITT ROMNEY (R), FORMER PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I fought against deep odds
in a deep blue state, but I was a severely conservative Republican
governor.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: Those words do not strike me as authentic, severely
conservative. Like, what is that, painfully?

CONASON: What does that even mean?

MATTHEWS: Disgustingly? What does it mean, painfully?

ASHBURN: These guys -- he does what he does...

MATTHEWS: Is he authentic?

ASHBURN: He does what he has to do to win.

MATTHEWS: Yes.

MATTHEWS: OK. In other words, that`s another definition of...

(CROSSTALK)

ASHBURN: But so does Barack Obama. So do other people.

MATTHEWS: Oh, you don`t think Obama`s authentic?

ASHBURN: I`m not saying that I don`t think he`s authentic. I say
everybody plays to win. Everybody plays to win.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: I think Obama is what he says he is.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: I think Obama wins with what he is.

Your thoughts, Joe. I think it`s authenticity. And it`s not an
ideological assessment.

CONASON: Well...

MATTHEWS: I think Romney up there, you put him under sodium pentathol, he
would say, I like being rich, I like the family I`m in.

CONASON: Right. Yes. Yes.

MATTHEWS: I like being a Mormon. I like all this stuff.

I don`t like even talking about all this stuff. This stuff, it`s boring to
me.

CONASON: You know, the best moments that Romney had in the campaign,
Chris, were the moments when whatever was authentic about him did come out,
his love of his family, his faith.

MATTHEWS: Yes.

CONASON: You know, his reverence for his dad, whose every precept, he
disobeyed, but, nevertheless, he clearly loved his father.

Those things made him seem authentic. But you`re right. When he talked
about ideology, when he talked about, you know, his issue concerns, that
all came off as a bit phony because he had flip-flopped so many times on so
many issues. And the conservatives weren`t buying it either.

ASHBURN: But, Joe, it was too little, too late when he finally did come
out and talk about his family.

MATTHEWS: So you agree with that?

ASHBURN: It was -- I do agree with you there.

But it was completely too late.

CONASON: Right.

ASHBURN: And if we had seen that personal side of him a lot earlier, we`d
be talking to President Romney.

MATTHEWS: Well, political parties have problems when they have to have
people run for office representing them who don`t believe what they`re
saying.

CONASON: Right.

MATTHEWS: And that`s a big problem. You got to have an authentic person
out there who is honestly is of the party position, who comes from that
philosophical base where it`s never going to work. The American people get
a lot of exposure to these candidates. They watch them week after week
after week. And after a while, you can figure who is acting and who isn`t.

ASHBURN: And they didn`t want him in their living room. Basically, that
was the bottom...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: Obama may not be the greatest president in history. We`re going
to see. He has yet to prove his second term yet.

By the way, I`m not completely convinced we`re going in the right direction
right now. I`m waiting for Obama to come in with the long ball.

Thank you, Lauren Ashburn.

And thank you, Joe, as always. We don`t have you on enough, Joe. Thank
you.

CONASON: Well, I`m here.

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS: Thank you. Up next -- well said.

Up next -- Lauren, you`re always great.

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS: Up next: this year`s must-have souvenirs for the right-winger in
your family.

And this is HARDBALL, the place for politics.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

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

It`s not often you can say that the week in late-night comedy was dominated
by pope jokes. Well, the election of Pope Francis I inspired David
Letterman`s lineup of biblical TV shows.

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

DAVID LETTERMAN, HOST, "LATE SHOW WITH DAVID LETTERMAN": Here we go.

Number 10, "Leviticus and Shirley."

PAUL SHAFFER, BAND LEADER: "Leviticus and Shirley."

(LAUGHTER)

LETTERMAN: Number seven, "Curb Your Polytheism."

(LAUGHTER)

LETTERMAN: Number seven, "Abstinence and the City."

(LAUGHTER)

LETTERMAN: Number five, "I Dream of Jesus."

(LAUGHTER)

LETTERMAN: Number four, "Parks and Resurrection."

(LAUGHTER)

LETTERMAN: Number three, "Two-and-a-Half Wise Men."

(LAUGHTER)

LETTERMAN: Number two, "The Big Bang theory Is a Lie."

(LAUGHTER)

(APPLAUSE)

LETTERMAN: And the number one biblical television show, "Bleep My God
Says."

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Wow. Well, I like "The Big Bang theory Is a Lie," no doubt
thanks to Georgia Congressman Broun, who said that evolution and the Big
Bang theory are lies from the pit of hell. That`s what he said.

Now to the sights of CPAC. As we have been discussing, there are many
fashions of the Republican Party on the scene at CPAC and some of the
kiosks in the hallways tell the tale. "New York" magazine captured of a
few of them. Catch these. A poster for The Obama Awareness Campaign,
exposes radical agenda on your campus. A spread of pro-gun memorabilia.
"If guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns."

And this bizarre, "I plead the Second." Well, then this non-homage to Karl
Rove, which asks -- quote -- "WTF, how Karl Rove and the establishment lost
again."

And the scene from Donald Trump`s speech this morning.

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS: Let`s just say, it wasn`t standing room only. How about seating
room plenty?

But here`s a question. If it`s a bad sign if you spend your CPAC speech --
is it, trying to point out what crazy is? Enter Wayne LaPierre, CEO of the
NRA.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

WAYNE LAPIERRE, EXECUTIVE VICE PRESIDENT, NATIONAL RIFLE ASSOCIATION: If
you`re not free to protect yourself when government puts its thumb on that
freedom, then you aren`t free at all.

They call us crazy for holding fast to that belief. They can call me crazy
or anything else they want. And they say we`re crazy? That`s crazy.
Crazy. Crazy. Crazy. It`s as if sanity itself has been sequestered in
Washington.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Crazy, that`s the word he likes.

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS: And that`s what we`re hearing anyway. See what I mean?

Finally, this week in conspiracy theories, is Ben Affleck a secret
undercover government operative, as in the present-day version of the
character he played back in movie "Argo" that came out this year? Well,
the Iranian government is of course not pleased with Affleck`s Oscar-
winning movie, which tells of the escape of six Americans during the
Iranian hostage crisis.

So, this week, an Iranian news agency gave an American conspiracy theorist
a chance to discredit the movie -- quote -- "If the makers of `Argo` are
deposed under oath, they may be forced to reveal their film, like the
fictitious film within the film, is a covert operation disguised as a
movie."

Well, I have a theory, too, for those characters over in Tehran. Argo was
a successful effort to make a popular movie. And that`s reality.

Up next: Republican Senator Rob Portman now says he`s for same-sex
marriage. What about the rest of his party? And that`s ahead. This is a
big development for this country, what we`re going to talk about in the
next few minutes.

You watching HARDBALL, the place for politics.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

JACKIE DEANGELIS, CNBC CORRESPONDENT: I`m Jackie DeAngelis with your CNBC
"Market Wrap."

A modest pullback for the Dow, ending its winning streak, the average
ending off 25 points, while the S&P fell two and the Nasdaq lost nine. One
factor in today`s declines, consumer sentiment, which fell more than
expected in early March to its lowest level since December of 2011. And
consumer prices, they rose by the most in four years due to a surge in gas
prices. But excluding food and energy, prices were up just 0.2 percent.

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

MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL.

All politics is local, and it doesn`t get more local than your own family.
And that`s especially the case when it comes to gay rights. As Harvey Milk
said three-and-a-half decades ago, once Americans realize that gay people
exist in every family, in every community, then the myths, the lies and the
innuendo about homosexuality will be destroyed.

Well, today, we saw a dramatic example of that. Republican Senator Rob
Portman of Ohio had been a reliable opponent of gay marriage, until now.
But, today, he announced a major reversal. His reason was understandable
and very personal.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. ROB PORTMAN (R), OHIO: I have now come to the conclusion that for me,
personally, I think this is something that we should allow people to do, to
get married and to have the joy and the stability of marriage that I have
had for over 26 years. I want all three of my kids to have it, including
our son, who is gay.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Well, Senator Portman is apparently the only Republican senator
right now in the United States Senate to openly support gay equality, or
marriage equality.

The official position of his party, as defined in the party platform, is
support for a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man
and a woman. But the American public has moved into a major way toward
support -- in a major way for gay marriage.

Will the Republicans take a hint from Senator Portman?

Well, Jonathan Capehart is an opinion writer for "The Washington Post" and
an MSNBC contributor. And Michael Crowley is deputy Washington bureau
chief for "TIME."

Let me ask you about this, Jonathan.

And I -- my view, just so you hear it up front, I always understand family
first is the rule of our family, and family first in terms of maybe even
your politics. And here -- here a guy who discovers a couple years ago
apparently that his son comes out and tells him that he`s gay begins to
realize that there`s some political implications to this, that you ought to
be consistent if you love your kid and offer him the equality of American
citizenship as you see it now.

JONATHAN CAPEHART, MSNBC CONTRIBUTOR: Mm-hmm.

You know, the thing -- the interesting thing about this is that, you know,
Senator Portman`s son Will came out to him and his wife two years ago.
This gives you a sense of how long Senator Portman`s personal journey has
been.

It`s not that his son came out to him and automatically he changed his --
he changed his mind and he changed his views. Senator Portman did what
millions of other Americans and certainly people around the world do every
day, every year when a family member comes out to them. They take a step
back. They reflect, especially if they`re not comfortable with it at
first.

They take a step back. They reflect on it. They think about it. They
talk to friends. They talk to clergy. And depending on how long it takes
them to make that personal journey, they express their personal support and
confidence in their loved one. It could be a day, it could be a month, it
could be two years. It could be never.

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST: Yes. So what do you feel about that?

CAPEHART: You know, I personally think, and I would never begrudge
anyone`s own personal journey on the question of marriage equality, but
also on homosexuality. Look, I`m an openly gay person, but it`s not like,
you know, I didn`t have to do self-reflection and come to self-acceptance
then be able to tell friends and family who I am. And that same process
goes for people who have family members who are gay who are trying to
understand and come to terms with, you know, this gay family member because
they love that family member.

And, you know, I just want to point out there, you know, Sean Bugg, who is
the founder and editor of "Metro Weekly," a gay magazine, he sent out a
very interesting tweet. He said, "Two years after knowing his son is gay,
Portman supports gay marriage. Twenty-five years after I came out, my
father doesn`t. Some perspective.

I think a lot of people need to have that perspective.

MATTHEWS: You`re so good on this. Thank you.

Let me go to Michael Crowley. And I think -- I keep thinking about the
cultural differences in the country. If you come from the rural South or
any sort of rural or conservative area, let`s face it, gay people have a
story, I`ve known it since I came to Washington. Gay people naturally come
to cities where it`s more open, where there`s more openness to their
orientation, other gay people.

But there`s a very unequal distribution the way people have to live in this
country. If you come from a tough, cranky, conservative neighborhood,
normally if you`re gay, you get out of there and you go to a big city like
Atlanta, or Washington, or Miami, or somewhere, New York. And therefore,
you have different attitudes in big cities.

I wonder whether parents are less likely to come forth and say, yes, my
son`s gay, he`s living in New York or San Francisco, and therefore I`m for
gay marriage. They might say just, well, my son is gone now, he moved now.

I wonder if it`s different depending where you live.

MICHAEL CROWLEY, TIME MAGAZINE: Well, it`s an interesting question, Chris,
because there almost a kind of self-segregation where people who want to be
out to go metropolitan areas and so, therefore, do attitudes change in a
less rapid pace in, for instance, rural areas where they may not feel as
comfortable. That`s actually a really interesting question I`ve not seen
people examine.

But, you know, regardless, I would say, for one thing, and I was reminded
by this listening to Jonathan talk about people whose parents still kind of
pretend -- won`t acknowledge it. Let`s give credit to Rob Portman`s son
here who did a really brave thing. Although he was at Yale University.
So, relative to the rest of America, that`s not a terribly difficult place
to come out.

However, he is the son of a prominent Republican politician and that is an
extremely difficult thing to do.

MATTHEWS: Yes.

CROWLEY: But the other point I`d make, Chris, here, and this may relate
back to your original point about different areas of the country. There`s
majority support seems maybe sort of just barely in the polling in this
country for gay marriage and particularly people under 30, overwhelming
support. Within the Republican Party, you`re looking at 25 percent, 30
percent support and strong opposition still over 50 percent.

So this is one of the many issues in this country right now where there`s a
real cultural gap.

MATTHEWS: There sure is.

CROWLEY: Red America/blue America.

MATTHEWS: The aisle makes a big difference between Democrats and
Republicans here on the issue of gay rights and marriage.

Here`s Senator Portman, by the way, told CNN today that he was able to
square his conservative beliefs with his newfound support for marriage
equality. This is fascinating. Let`s listen to this part.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. ROB PORTMAN (R), OHIO: This is where I am for reasons that are
consistent with my political philosophy, including family values, including
being a conservative who believes that family is a building block of
society.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Jonathan, look here at the platform of the Republican Party, the
most recent one. It says about the issue of gay marriage, quote, "The
platform, we reaffirm our support for a constitutional amendment defining
marriage as the union of one man and one woman. We applaud the citizens of
the majority of states which have enshrined in their constitutions the
traditional concept of marriage and we support the campaigns under way in
other states to do so."

Now, that`s a platform as recently as a few months ago, last year.

CAPEHART: Right.

MATTHEWS: They are not -- this isn`t a creaky old platform.

CAPEHART: Right.

MATTHEWS: This is what Republicans believe. How do you make this -- how
does it work when in each Republican family, not every family, I don`t buy
that. Harvey Milk is not, every family doesn`t have gay people.

CAPEHART: Right.

MATTHEWS: To be familiar, nephews, cousins, people, your next door
neighbor`s kids, people who go to church with these kids. I mean, it is in
our world.

And how do they square that with the rights of all?

CAPEHART: You know, I don`t know how the folks who did that platform
square that with the rights for all. But, you know, Senator Portman in his
-- he also did an op-ed for the "Columbus Dispatch" where he talked about,
you know, his son coming out to him. But he rooted his change of heart not
only in his love for his son but also in his own conservative principles.

MATTHEWS: Yes.

CAPEHART: You know, talking about individual liberty and how marriage is,
you know, a building block for stable communities, stable families, and
that`s what he wants for his own child.

I mean, think about this. People are slamming Senator Portman because he
didn`t do this sooner and how could he be considered a leader? You`re a
leader when you take a position like this as publicly as he has in a party
that has that platform that you just read. Senator Portman is going to
have to run for re-election either in `14,`16, I`m not quite sure when his
term is up. But we`re going to have to start to look to see, will there be
a challenge from the right on this issue?

MATTHEWS: Well, you`re a general generous guy. By the way, I completely
buy the feeling you have about better now than never and always better than
you`re opening up to more opportunity in this country.

By the way, in the end, I`ve noticed this about American history, Michael,
too, the fighters for more individual liberty and more inclusion always
eventually win. They all eventually win. Whether women`s rights, gay
rights, they eventually win the fight. It just takes so darn long.

Thank you, Jonathan Capehart. Great to have you. And thank you, Michael
Crowley.

CAPEHART: Thanks, Chris.

CROWLEY: Thanks, Chris.

MATTHEWS: Up next, why hasn`t President Obama offered republic chance a
deal he would like? A grand bargain. Just lay it out on the table and
force them to say no to it? What`s with the tactics here? I`m trying to
figure it out.

And this Sunday, by the way, I`ll be on "Meet the Press" with David
Gregory. It`s great to be on there. That`s Sunday on NBC. Check your
local listings.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: Well, it`s been a year since former Illinois Governor Rod
Blagojevich was sent to prison to serve a 14-year sentence for corruption.
His attorney tells "Politico" he`s in good spirits and he`s hoping his
conviction will be overturned on appeal next month.

B-Rod is in a low-facility security in Colorado. Well, he started with a
job in the kitchen washing dishes, he`s moving up to the ladder and now
working in the prison library. That`s where they all end up, in the
library, the intellectuals.

We`ll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: It would have been nice to
see his budget on February 4th when it was due. It would have been nice to
see it on March the 4th and it would have only been a month late. But he`s
not going to do it until the week of April the 8th, because he wants to see
what our budget looks like and what Senate Democrats produce. I think that
budget`s been sitting down there ready to go.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Well, that doesn`t make any sense. Right now, that was House
Speaker John Boehner basically saying that President Obama is bluffing on a
budget that whatever he means doesn`t make sense, waiting to see what
Senate Democrats and House Republicans hammer out in their budget deal in
the Senate. Before he plays (ph) this in, Obama spent the last week wining
and dining folks in Congress, but I`m not so sure all the smooching is
going to lead to a grand bargain.

Why hasn`t the president put his deal on the table? That`s my question.

With me now is New York Congressman Steve Israel.

Steve, you are great -- you`re a great politician. And I want to you just
slice through the contradiction of what the Republican speaker said. He
said he`s old back and waiting to see what the House and the Senate do. I
understand why that would be a strategy.

But then he goes and says he`s already gotten his budget written. What`s
that mean? That makes no sense.

REP. STEVE ISRAEL (D), NEW YORK: You know, people listen to that and it is
why they are so distasteful about Washington. They are sick and tired of
listening to the speaker blamed the president for not producing a budget.
They just want us to get it done. They want us to solve the problem.

And I`ll give you specific examples of what the president has put on the
table which the Republicans rejected. Republicans say they want
entitlement reform, so-called entitlement reform. The president put on the
table and Democrats supported $716 billion in savings, innovations, and
efficiencies to Medicare.

What did John Boehner in the Republican Congress do? They vilified us for
it. Now, the president has shown his ability to more than meet the
Republicans halfway by literally traveling to their turf, going into their
caucus, and saying, let`s do something big, bold and balance, talking about
specific ideas. And what do they get in return? Vilification.

Chris, bottom line is this: the president and House Democrats want a
solutions-based budget with three principles. Number one, a balanced
approach. Number two, fair to middle class. Number three, the right
priorities.

The way you get all three is with one thing and that is compromise. We`re
still waiting for House Republicans to compromise.

MATTHEWS: OK. Let me ask you -- you ran the campaign for the Democrats to
win seats. You`ve done a good job.

ISRAEL: Thank you.

MATTHEWS: But here`s my question, you know all the members and what
they`re afraid of. Would a Democrat, man or woman, wherever they live,
would they prefer a deal, a grand bargain, which includes some cuts in
Medicare, where they`re called savings or efficiencies, but cuts in the
spending on Medicare or Medicaid, in exchange for some kind of deal that
brings in more revenues? Would they rather have that or the sequester we
have now? Do they really want to have their name on the bill that cuts the
spending for Medicare, that has an impact on the safety net?

ISRAEL: It depends on --

MATTHEWS: Why would they want that?

ISRAEL: It depends on how you`re cutting Medicare. If you`re asking
seniors to now take a voucher that`s not going to cover their costs? Of
course not. If you`re asking the special interests to give up a little
bit, of course, the answer is yes.

Democrats want a solution. We want to go home to our districts and say
that we have solved this problem but it`s got to be solved in a fair way.

MATTHEWS: That would include cuts in Medicare of any kind.

ISRAEL: Look, we -- I`ll give you an example. We have already, as I said
before, we`ve already reduced the cost of Medicare $716 billion for which
the Republicans campaigned against us.

MATTHEWS: But what are the cuts? Tell me what they are. What are they
cut -- what are you cutting?

ISRAEL: On the provider side, we made some tough choices on the provider
side with respect to Medicare. But we don`t believe that if you`re a
senior, you should be the first to be asked to sacrifice the most.

MATTHEWS: I understand.

Look, here`s my question to you, look across the aisle. Do you see
Republicans willing to raise revenues by some kind of tax changes and
accept blame for some of these Medicare cuts? Why would any Republican
member want to be known as the guy or woman who raised taxes by any means
and also cut Medicare? Why would they want to join you on a deal like that
that would screw them twice?

ISRAEL: Well, because I think that they realize that the American people
want solutions and are tired of the chronic chaos and mismanagement. We
have asked the Republicans, we`ll continue to negotiate with you, we want
to compromise. Is there one special interest corporate tax loophole you
can put on the table?

MATTHEWS: OK.

ISRAEL: And the answer has been no.

MATTHEWS: I don`t think there`ll be a deal.

Anyway, thank you, Congressman. You`re a great guest.

ISRAEL: Thanks, Chris.

MATTHEWS: I don`t think there`s going to be any deal.

We`ll be right back after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: Let me finish tonight with this:

At the risk of challenging the conventional wisdom, a risk I`ve spent much
of my life taking, I see no reason to accept some grand deal among the
president, the House Democrats, and House Republicans. Why on God`s Earth
would a Republican member of Congress, on the interest in protecting
himself or herself politically, vote to raise taxes on those he represents?
Why? Because they get to make more voters angry with them by cutting
Medicare, because they get their means-tested? Give me a break.

So this odd Republican out there is going to both raise taxes and make his
somewhat better off voters pay more for health care? No way.

So, we really don`t need to get to the Democrats, the liberals, the
progressives, but just for the sake of candor here, why again on this God`s
Earth would a good Democrat want to have his or her name want a vote to
either to cut or means-test Medicare so that they could then go and raise
taxes? I just don`t get why people keep talking about a deal, that no
politician out there worried about his or her re-election or re-nomination
would ever want to make.

Watch. It will take a few weeks, maybe a month or two. And the truth of
what I`m saying will shine through. And the sequester won`t seem so bad
after all.

And 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.
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