updated 3/20/2013 11:24:48 AM ET 2013-03-20T15:24:48

HARDBALL
March 19, 2013

Guests: Paul Rieckhof, Susan Milligan, John Feehery, Michael Feldman, Michael Hastings


CHRIS MATTHEWS, MSNBC HOST: Good evening. I`m Chris Matthews in
Washington.

"Let Me Start" tonight with this. The scariest aspect of the American
invasion of Iraq 10 years ago today was the ease with which it was sold to
the American people. My generation grew up believing aggression was evil.
In our school books and in the war games we played as kids, the aggressor
was the bad guy. Call this, if you will, the too basic way to look at war.
It is, however, the way we were taught.

Hitler invaded Poland, Japan attacked the United States in Pearl Harbor,
North Korea invaded South Korea. Waging of aggressive war was the crime in
history and in the judgments following world war.

And I saw this one, the war in Iraq, coming from the first days after 9/11.
There were those in the Bush administration who saw this as their
opportunity. They were helped by war hawks on the outside. ``The
Washington Post`` op-ed page, ``The Weekly Standard,`` ``The New Republic``
were open billboards for the relentless push toward war. The establishment
media joined in, offering uncritical coverage of the administration line.
And this is not a good statement about the American press.

I`d like to believe that my generation, especially those who grow up in
maturity to the horror and dishonesty of Vietnam, would have spoken loudly
against the war hawks. Few, mostly on the left, did. Fewer from the
middle, still fewer from the right.

What`s worse than that in those months of late 2001, 2002 and early 2003,
to oppose the war when there was time to stop it, worse yet, to question
its motivation, was to cause trouble for yourself. Even when a whole new
vocabulary -- WMD, homeland, regime change, freedom fries, coalition of the
willing -- was being confected and infiltrated into our national dialogue,
the mainstream media was useless.

Even when the culture of the country itself, country music, was drafted
into service with twisting appeals to vengeance for 9/11. Remember how you
felt? Well, the media were indistinguishable from the cheerleaders. No
wonder Cheney`s arrogant to this day. No wonder Bush is effectively
clueless. No wonder the war hawks are shameless. All of them together got
away with it.

It was the people of silence, the newspaper editors, the network
executives, the mostly respected columnists who know what they did and did
not do, who are wrestling now, not with the history of the American
invasion of Iraq -- we`re all doing that -- but their own history in doing
nothing to ask the hard questions, persisting again and again with that
hardest question of all, Why? It had to be answered. Was it being
answered in principle in a language consistent with our American
traditions? No.

We`re joined right now by NBC`s great investigative correspondent Michael
Isikoff and the equally great David Corn of "Mother Jones." They`re the
co-authors of the book "Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal and the
Selling of the Iraq War." I`m speaking now to two experts.

Ten years ago today, President George W. Bush announced the start of the
invasion of Iraq. He told Americans that we were doing it to prevent a
terror attack on us. Here he is, George W.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Our nation enters this
conflict reluctantly, yet our purpose is sure. The people of the United
States and our friends and allies will not live at the mercy of an outlaw
regime that threatens the peace with weapons of mass murder. Now that
conflict has come, the only way to limit its duration is to apply decisive
force. And I assure you this will not be a campaign of half measures, and
we will accept no outcome but victory.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Is he doing this -- I can`t figure out George W. Bush. Maybe
he`s vacuous. Maybe he`s jut working for Cheney, or he moved by the winds.
But he says in that opening speech why we went to war that very day. There
will be no half measures, no substitute for victory.

Was that because his dad stopped short of taking Baghdad?

DAVID CORN, "MOTHER JONES," MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: I think there were a
lot of reasons that drove the whole administration in this direction.
There was the neocons pushing for messianic change --

MATTHEWS: Ideological.

CORN: -- ideological -- throughout the region. There were people, like
maybe Rumsfeld and Cheney, who had his view of oil and strategic minerals
and all sorts of things, close to the neocons.

I think Bush is in some ways the most simple and complicated of all. You
can get all Oedipal and talk about what happened with his dad and Saddam
Hussein. But I also think that after 9/11, he felt this urge to be
proactive. You know, go after Afghanistan, and then when that kind of
faded away, he had to do something to show he was protecting the country.
He needed a target. He needed to convince people, maybe convince himself,
that he was doing something to protect America.

And everybody was pointing in the same direction. They all ended up in the
same conclusion, Iraq -- let`s get Iraq.

MATTHEWS: For different reasons. Do you have a sense on this, the big
question (INAUDIBLE) people asking (INAUDIBLE) family --

MICHAEL ISIKOFF, NBC CORRESPONDENT: Well, no, I think --

MATTHEWS: Why did Bush want to do it?

ISIKOFF: I mean, there is the famous line when he went to the fund-raiser
in Texas and says, This is the guy who tried to kill my dad. So that`s, I
think, a part of it. It was clearly on his mind.

I think David summed it up very well. Just one additional point in terms
of the atmospherics surrounding 9/11. Remember, Bush did almost nothing
about the warnings pre-9/11 from the intelligence community, and I think
that if --

MATTHEWS: You mean al Qaeda to attack in the United States?

ISIKOFF: Yes. I mean, there were repeated warnings from the CIA. George
Tenet had his hair on fire --

CORN: Richard Clarke was talking about it.

MATTHEWS: Yes.

ISIKOFF: And that they pretty much brushed aside. They just were not
focused on a threat from al Qaeda, and then 9/11 happened. And if there
was guilt about anything that was a factor in here, it would be we didn`t
do what we should have done prior to 9/11, so now we`re going to take every
threat --

CORN: But the odd thing --

ISIKOFF: -- super seriously and --

CORN: The odd thing is one reason they didn`t focus on al Qaeda before
9/11 was because they were consumed with Iraq. And so, I mean, really --

(CROSSTALK)

CORN: They kept dismissing al Qaeda and saying Iraq is the real threat.

ISIKOFF: Right. Right.

CORN: And then 9/11 comes --

MATTHEWS: OK --

CORN: -- and they go after Iraq.

MATTHEWS: Well, many neocons thought Iraq would be the first price, the
first piece of the puzzle, reordering the Middle East. Here`s what Dick
Cheney said in August of 2002 during the run-up to the war. Quote, "Regime
change in Iraq would bring about a number of benefits to the region. When
the gravest of threats are eliminated, the freedom-loving peoples of the
region will have chance to promote the values that can bring lasting
peace."

Now, in terms of the region, the major threat`s always been Iran. Why
would he say Iraq even then?

CORN: I think it goes back to the fact for years -- five, six, seven years
-- before 9/11, the neocons and others were focused on Iraq because they
thought they could basically get a foothold there. You can`t take out
Iran, you might take out Iraq. And then --

MATTHEWS: It was breakable.

CORN: It was breakable. It was doable. It was hittable. You can`t do
the same operation against Iran. They needed a target. And that was an --
you know, not an easy, but you know, it seemed the easiest target for
(INAUDIBLE). I do think they believed their own spin --

MATTHEWS: Yes.

CORN: -- that if you got in there, everything would just fall into
place.

MATTHEWS: Well, let`s --

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: Let`s get to the positive side. Let`s talk the freedom agenda.
The notion -- we all argued about it at the time -- that somehow, if you
broke Iraq, a bad Ba`athist administration, you could replace it with
something like democracy. And then -- the neocons, the intellectuals would
say this. And somehow, that would spread around the region.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: I haven`t heard that argument.

ISIKOFF: No, well because it obviously didn`t work.

MATTHEWS: We`ve had the Arab spring, though, which is a much more rocky
proposal than --

(CROSSTALK)

ISIKOFF: You know, to some extent -- you know, let`s not forget the role
of Ahmed Chalabi. And interestingly, you know, I don`t know if you saw --

MATTHEWS: The guy in the gold shoes and the gold pants.

(CROSSTALK)

ISIKOFF: -- the Iraqi exile, snake oil salesman --

MATTHEWS: You got it.

ISIKOFF: -- as we called him at Newsweek at one point. But you know,
interesting -- Wolfowitz gave that interview the other day in the Sunday
Times of London, and he`s asked about Chalabi. And you know, for the first
-- I mean, he was one of Chalabi`s champions.

MATTHEWS: Yes, I know.

ISIKOFF: You know, Wolfowitz, Feith, Perle, all them were --

(CROSSTALK)

ISIKOFF: -- Chalabi. And he said -- he says -- you know, the other day,
he said, Well, he didn`t -- he wasn`t straight with us. Now, this is the -
-

MATTHEWS: OK.

ISIKOFF: I mean, this is one of the first mea culpas on that side --

MATTHEWS: Well, let`s face it --

(CROSSTALK)

ISIKOFF: -- I`ve heard yet.

MATTHEWS: -- If you want to believe something, you`ll believe anything.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: The war was sold to the public, however, as necessary to stop a
madman who was intent on -- here`s the key word -- amassing an arsenal of
weapons, including nuclear weapons. Let`s listen to the buildup here.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD RUMSFELD, SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: We know they have weapons of mass
destruction. We know they have active programs. There isn`t any debate
about it.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: I believe that Saddam Hussein presents a
clear and present danger to the United States of America with his continued
pursuit to acquire weapons of weapons of mass destruction, and there`s very
little doubt that he would use them.

DICK CHENEY, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Simply stated, there is
no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction. There is
no doubt that he is amassing them to use against our friends, against our
allies and against us.

CONDOLEEZZA RICE, NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: The problem here is that
there will always be some uncertainty about how quickly he can acquire a
nuclear weapon. But we don`t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: They kept doing this shell game. Whenever they didn`t -- they
couldn`t prove nuclear, they`d say WMD. And then they would throw in the
word "mushroom cloud" to make sure you knew it was nuclear. And then they
would come up with this balsawood drone they said he had, and would somehow
deliver to the United States and somehow became an existential threat to
the United States -- maybe strategic threat is the right word.

How did they put it all together?

CORN: This was -- this was throwing spaghetti at the wall and seeing what
would stick. And they would drop things, come back to them. Depends on
the --

MATTHEWS: That`s why I believe it had nothing to do with WMD.

CORN: Well, I don`t think it was.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: -- something to stick on the wall.

CORN: They -- I mean, they kept saying, too, this argument -- certainty,
certainty, certainty. No doubt he`s amassing this. There was plenty of
doubt. They kept making it -- listen, Saddam Hussein, as you said, is an
existential threat to the United States. Even if had had some WMDs, it
doesn`t mean he`s a threat to the United States. But they conflated all
this together.

ISIKOFF: You showed that clip there of Cheney giving the speech at the VFW
with Zinni, cutting to Zinni. That`s from our documentary --

MATTHEWS: He said he hated every word he was saying!

ISIKOFF: Zinni says in "Hubris," which will reair Friday night on this
network, when he heard Cheney make those remarks, he literally bolted from
his chair. He was in total shock -- those are Zinni`s words -- at hearing
Cheney make those comments because he knew. He had seen all the
intelligence as commander-in-chief of CENTCOM --

MATTHEWS: OK --

ISIKOFF: -- up until 2000, and he knew there was no --

MATTHEWS: OK --

ISIKOFF: -- amassing of weapons.

MATTHEWS: It was a cost/benefit sales program. They basically said, We
have to do it because of our own threat to our country, not to Israel or
the region, but to us, basically, the mushroom cloud --

(CROSSTALK)

CORN: That was the public argument.

MATTHEWS: That was the public argument. And then they would say to us,
And don`t worry, it`ll be a quickie, it`ll be a -- you know, a cakewalk.
Here it is. Those pushing the war argued that it was necessary and would
pay for itself. That was another part of it. The gas would pay for it.
Here was Dick Cheney. Let`s watch.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TIM RUSSERT, MODERATOR, "MEET THE PRESS": Do you think the American people
are prepared for a long, costly and bloody battle with significant American
casualties?

CHENEY: Well, I don`t think it`s likely to unfold that way, Tim, because I
really do believe we will be greeted as liberators.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Well, and there`s Bill Kristol, one of the other leading war
hawks. He said he predicted the duration of the war would be short, as
well. Let`s listen to this group think here.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BILL KRISTOL, "WEEKLY STANDARD": Whatever else you can say about this war,
let me just make one point. George Bush is not fighting this like Vietnam.
Whatever the -- we don`t need to re-fight the whole history of Vietnam.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Saddam may be. That`s the danger. Saddam may be.

KRISTOL: But it`s not going to happen.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Let me take a call --

KRISTOL: It`s not going to happen. This is going to be a two-month war,
not an eight-year war.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Daniel Ellsberg, a guy who knew about earlier wars.

CORN: You know, the thing is, they said whatever it took. They had no
backup for this sort of stuff. You could find -- you know, we were talking
at the time to analysts in the strategic war colleges and others who were
coming up with reports saying this could take forever. We don`t know the
difference between a Sunni and a Shia. They may not greet us as
liberators. For everything they said with assurance, you could find people
at the time who knew better.

MATTHEWS: You know, we all -- we`re all part of organizations. You know,
I`m part of an organization here. And you -- and you get into a group
thing. You all talk to each other like you`re on a common effort. But you
know what you`re doing here. You`re putting on a pretty good television
show about politics.

When did they decide that they were going to war, Michael? And when did
everybody know -- the theme here is, We`re going to war, stop arguing about
it, we`re going.

ISIKOFF: Nobody knows the answer to that question. You talk to every
senior person in the Bush administration who was there at the time, and
they all say it was never clear when the decision was made. There was
never a meeting. There was never an actual breakpoint when it --

MATTHEWS: Isn`t that astounding?

ISIKOFF: -- was go or no go. It just --

MATTHEWS: Didn`t anybody raise their hand and say, When did we decide to
do this?

CORN: It was an assumption that sort of congealed.

MATTHEWS: Yes.

CORN: Some people started pushing --

MATTHEWS: This is when I get chilled. I`m getting a chill. This is what
I`m afraid of in American life!

(CROSSTALK)

CORN: Right after 9/11 --

MATTHEWS: This kind of stuff.

CORN: Right after 9/11, Wolfowitz --

MATTHEWS: Nobody`s thinking.

CORN: -- and Rumsfeld are saying -- pointing to Iraq. And Bush, to his
partial credit, says, No, we`re going to do Afghanistan first. Don`t
bother me with another war.

MATTHEWS: I get that report (ph) myself.

CORN: But soon after that, within months, you know, they`re talking to the
commanders about putting together a war plan. Rumsfeld --

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: -- by the end of 2001, I think the deal was on.

ISIKOFF: Look, yes, one of the new documents we have in "Hubris" in the
documentary is the Rumsfeld talking points for his meeting in November
2001. One of the talking points, how to start the war.

MATTHEWS: You`re right.

ISIKOFF: What are we going to use as the pretext?

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: David and Michael, you guys are great. I could do this all
night. Michael, David, thank you.

CORN: Thank you, Chris.

MATTHEWS: I mean a big thank you for what you`ve written and what you`ve
done.

And by the way, on Friday, as Michael said, at 9:00 PM Eastern right here
on MSNBC, we`re going to have a re-air of that terrific documentary,
"Hubris." It`s based on the book by these two great guys, Michael Isikoff
and David Corn, and it`s going to be presented by Rachel Maddow. And
immediately after the documentary, we`re going to have a -- we`re going to
have a special panel to talk about the Bush administration, how it misled
the country, I think misled itself in many ways, getting us into that
destructive war in Iraq. And that show`s called "Talking Hubris." And it
airs at 10:00 o`clock this Friday night.

Well, coming up, the cost of war, well over 100,000 Iraqi civilians dead,
nearly 4,500 Americans dead, 32,000 Americans wounded. And what kind of
care do those wounded Americans get right now since they`ve been back
Stateside? And by the way, we don`t think enough about the people with
broken bodies that come home, do we. Not enough.

Plus, back to politics. The empire strikes back. A lot of people on the
right are very unhappy with this big Republican -- well, the big shots, I
call them, telling them what they have to do to change. They don`t want to
change. They`re conservatives. Among them, Rush Limbaugh, who says the
problem isn`t that the GOP is too conservative, it`s that it`s not
conservative enough. Is that what the GOP is? Is that why they lost five
of the last six elections? They`re not conservative enough?

Plus, when good Republicans go bad. See what happens when Republicans
begin attacking each other, the main event -- I would go on the road with
this baby -- Sarah Palin in the white trunks, Karl Rove in the black
trunks. What a hustle (ph).

Finally, "Let Me Finish" with the circular firing squad now assembled in
the Republican Party. It`s a beaut to watch.

This is HARDBALL, the place for politics.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: Tonight President Obama is traveling to Israel in his first
foreign policy trip since winning reelection. Tomorrow he`ll met with
Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. And topping the agenda, Iran`s
nuclear ambitions.

On Thursday, the president will tour the West Bank and meet with Mahmoud
Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority. Then Friday, it`s on to
Jordan for meetings with King Abdullah before returning back to Washington
on Saturday.

We`ll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL. Of all the ways the Iraq war was sold
to the American people under false pretenses, one of the most galling was
that we could win this war on the cheap, both in lives and in treasure.
Well, a new report from Brown University, the "Cost of War" study, proves
just how wrong that early promise was.

The cost in lives was, of course, overwhelming and far more than predicted.
In total, more than 190,000 people lost their lives due to the war, 70
percent of them were Iraqi civilians. That`s 190,000 people dead. To give
you an idea of the enormity of that number, enough people died in that war
to fill Yankee Stadium -- there it is -- every seat of that stadium four
times.

And the cost of the Iraq war was the other con job, the financial cost sold
to the American people. The Brown University study estimates that the Iraq
war did eventually cost this country over $2 trillion -- $2.2 trillion.
Hardly the price tag they were pushing in the beginning.

Well, Michael Hastings writes for Buzzfeed, and he covered the Iraq war for
"Rolling Stone" and wrote a book about it, "I Lost My Love in Baghdad,"
which is a personal story. His latest book is "Panic," about the 2012
election. And Paul Rieckhoff. He`s been here before. He`s a great guy.
He`s executive director and founder of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of
America. From 2003 to 2004, he served as an Army first lieutenant, an
infantry rifle platoon leader in Iraq.

Let me start with Michael about the cost figures, and I have to call it the
BS that was sold. This war was going to be paid for by cheap gas, cheap
gasoline. Somehow, they were just going to open up the pipeline from Iraq
over to America. We`d get all that stuff. We`d get first dibs. We`ve
gotten nothing of the kind.

And let`s start with the lives, 190,000 dead people.

MICHAEL HASTINGS, BUZZFEED: Well, if you remember, famously, General Eric
Shinseki said that we would need more troops to do this, and he was
dismissed. And remember, Paul Wolfowitz did actually make the claim that
Iraqi oil revenues would be able to pay for this conflict.

And not only -- with the selling the war point and the costs of the war --
you know, in your last segment, you made this great point about the media.
But it`s even -- you can go even further than that. The media was
complicit. The media took an active role in selling this war. They met
with Wolfowitz. There was one famous meeting where you had these top
columnists and pundits meeting with Wolfowitz, trying to figure out the
best way to sell the thing. So, it`s not a shock that the facts we were
getting weren`t accurate either.

MATTHEWS: Well, wait a minute. What do you mean by the media? Do you
mean opinion columnists on the right or you mean mainstream reporters?

HASTINGS: Oh, mainstream -- mainstream reporters to opinion columnist.

There`s a famous scene in Bob Woodward`s -- his last book about the Iraq
war where Paul Wolfowitz brings in a lot of top columnists, one from "The
Atlantic," one from what was formally "Newsweek," and basically says to
them, look, I`m bringing you guys in as advisers. Help us figure out a way
to pitch this war to the American people.

None of those journalists disclosed that in their future columns to promote
the war.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: Well, I`m with you. Look, you`re dead right. If anybody was
there, they have got to answer for it.

HASTINGS: Yes.

MATTHEWS: Lawrence Lindsey, as we said, he was White House economic
adviser at the time. He made war with Iraq make it sound like it would --
wouldn`t even cause a dent in the U.S. economy.

A "Washington Times" interview with him quotes him saying -- quote -- "The
likely economic effects would be relatively small if the United States goes
to war in Iraq to depose Saddam Hussein." He went to praise, by the way,
the war`s upside. "The key issue is oil, and a regime change in Iraq would
facilitate an increase in world oil, which would tend to lower oil prices
here."

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: In 2002 -- there`s more of this.

(CROSSTALK)

HASTINGS: And oil prices went up. Oil prices went up.

MATTHEWS: I know. It`s $4 here.

HASTINGS: And, look, the number I always used to say when we would talk
about Iraq often and Paul and I would have these debates and when this was
really in the conscience, $20 billion on air conditioning in Iraq per year
during the height of the war, $20 billion on air conditioning in Iraq and
Afghanistan.

MATTHEWS: Well, in 2002, Richard Perle, the chairman of the Defense Policy
Board, said: "We`re not talking about a massive invasion along the lines of
`91. We`re talking about a much more modest effort in which the United
States would assist Iraqis in freeing their country."

Let me get over to Paul about the manpower and the loss of lives and the
world you live with, 31,000 wounded, about 600 amputees. Give me a sense
of your own personal experience with what the personal cost of this war
was, besides the loss of 4,000 American service people.

PAUL RIECKHOFF, FOUNDER & EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, IRAQ AND AFGHANISTAN VETERANS
OF AMERICA: Well, we didn`t see too many of those air conditioners.

When I was in Iraq, I lost friends. We lost colleagues. We saw a lot of
carnage and destruction. And I think the real untold story is the price
we`re going to pay for generations to come. A million veterans, including
myself, served in Iraq and are now home. And we all know that there was a
real shortage of planning on the ground in Iraq.

They didn`t have enough interpreters. They didn`t have enough body armor.
They didn`t have enough Humvees. Well, there`s a shortage now on the home
front as veterans are coming home. There aren`t enough paperwork
processors. There aren`t enough psychiatrists. There aren`t enough
counselors.

So, we have got an opportunity here to repeat the mistakes of what happened
on the ground in Iraq as all these veterans come home. We`re not doing
enough. And this week, that`s what our organization is really trying to
focus attention on, taking care of our brothers and sisters who have come
home and have some challenges and really need everybody to double down.

MATTHEWS: Well, Michael, that`s another thing. I remember looking at a
poll about the time we went into the war. It said if we`re going to face,
the United States, significant casualties, should we go? And a slight
majority, 51 percent, said we shouldn`t go.

There was this delusion. I think it was a sold delusion. It was sold to
the people that somehow this would be skip in, skip out, we would lose a
couple guys like in Grenada, a couple hundred people, it`s bad, but it
wasn`t the end of the world. That attitude, this is going to be a pretty
clean -- they used words like cakewalk.

HASTINGS: Yes.

MATTHEWS: Remember those terms. You know.

HASTINGS: Right. You saw it. This was going to be our next stage in
exercising the demons from Vietnam.

People were thinking more Gulf War I than Vietnam. And anyone who brought
up at the time, hey, this could turn out to be Vietnam was literally
laughed aside, was considered not credible. So I think it was very clear
they were trying to make -- sell this as a nonviolent thing, as, you know,
around the time Paul was over there, you had the defense secretary here
saying, oh, it`s just the dead-enders.

You had Cheney saying the dead-enders and Rumsfeld saying there`s not an
insurgency. So, I would wonder, actually ask Paul, when you`re hearing
that when you`re actually in combat, I mean, if you`re even paying
attention to that stuff, but that was part of selling it, too, was, oh,
this is going to -- we`re going to be home by Christmas.

When any general or any president says the troops are going to be home by
Christmas, you know they`re going to be lying. It happened in World War I.
It happens every time.

MATTHEWS: Did you have a sense, Paul, when you were over there -- I mean,
you were serving our country, and thank you for it. But did you have a
sense that there was an ideological piece to this, not Democrat vs.
Republican, but this belief that we could go into a country like Iraq, get
rid of its military from top to bottom because we didn`t like the politics
of its leaders and then have to start all over again in a way that was far
more difficult than it would have been if we just stood up the army they
had, worked to clean out maybe the crazies and then gotten out of town?

RIECKHOFF: Yes.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: Then we wouldn`t have lost so many guys, it seems to me.

RIECKHOFF: Yes, there was a clear disconnect to the realities of war.

There was definitely too few people who had personal experience. And now I
think, you know, you still see that. You know, Secretary Hagel has an
opportunity to put a human face on the Department of Defense and on our
troops in combat. He`s an example of someone who understands the human
cost of war himself.

But I think we`re still paying for the costs of war of Vietnam. I`m in
Washington this week with veterans from all across the country who are
advocating for reform at the VA. There are about 900,000 folks --
disability that are claims waiting at the VA to be processed. Many of
those are Vietnam veterans. They`re not just Iraq and Afghanistan
veterans.

MATTHEWS: Wow.

RIECKHOFF: So, the wait time for a first-time claim is about 300 days. If
you`re in a city like New York, it`s 600.

If you`re in L.A., it`s over 600. If you`re in, you know, your their in
Philly, 517 days in Philly. So we`re not taking care of our Vietnam vets.
We`re not taking care of our Iraq and Afghanistan vets. And I think that`s
the real story this week.

MATTHEWS: Yes.

RIECKHOFF: We need the media -- if they want to do a makeup call, here`s
the issue to do it on. Focus on our veterans and focus on --

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: OK. We will do it, I promise you.

Paul, get back to us. We will get back to that.

RIECKHOFF: Yes.

MATTHEWS: And, by the way, I want to see who the new VA directory is.
Anyway, that`s an important position.

And, thank you, Michael Hastings and thank you, Paul Rieckhoff, as always.

RIECKHOFF: Thank you.

MATTHEWS: We are going to be right back after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

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

For all the craziness we saw at the Conservative Political Action
Conference, or CPAC, if there`s one visual I won`t forget, it`s likely to
be Sarah Palin producing a Big Gulp during her speech. Now, every so
often, a politician turns to props like that to get their message across.
And over the years, I have seen the winners and losers.

Let`s start with the winners. First, think back to the heat of the health
care debate in 2009. Alan Grayson brought a few posters along.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, 2009)

REP. ALAN GRAYSON (D), FLORIDA: If you get sick in America, this is what
the Republicans want you to do. If you get sick, America, the Republican
health care plan is this: Die quickly.

That`s right. The Republicans want you to die quickly if you get sick.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Well, now to the campaign trail.

Remember when Mitt Romney`s advisers said that the transition from primary
season to the general election campaign was almost like an Etch A Sketch?
You can kind of shake it up and start all over again. Well, enter Romney`s
opponents giving new life to what I thought had become a forgotten
children`s toy.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RICK SANTORUM (R), FORMER U.S. SENATOR: Imagine had Mitt Romney been
around at the time we were drafting our Constitution. He`d have just
shaken it and just shook it up after it was approved to rewrite it.

NEWT GINGRICH (R), FORMER SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: Given everything that
people have said about Governor Romney`s flip-flops over the years, this
was sort of capturing what everybody was afraid of. And in a way, we
probably ought to thank the communications director for telling the truth.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Finally, when Minnesota Senator Al Franken made the transition
from comedy to politics, he really did leave all the funny stuff behind to
take on serious issues. Still, the two worlds of Al Franken merged when he
rattled off a list of potentially dangerous consequences of not raising the
debt ceiling back in 2011.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. AL FRANKEN (D), MINNESOTA: No federal government employees, including
counterterrorism agents in the FBI, for example, no border agents.

Now, before we default, we could have time to make this sign for all points
of entry. That`s just the tip of the iceberg.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: I think he was being sarcastic. Don`t you?

And now to the ones that were ill-advised, for whatever reason. First,
Iowa Republican Congressman Steve King with the solution to illegal
immigration in the form of a construction project on the House floor.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. STEVE KING (R), IOWA: You can`t shut that off unless we build a fence
and a wall. I want to put the fence in, but I want to put a wall in. And
I designed one.

This -- this would be an example, then, of how that wall would look. Now,
you could also deconstruct it the same way. You could still -- you could
take it back down. I also say we need to do a few other things on top of
that wall, and one of them be to put a little bit of wire on top here to
provide a disincentive for people to climb over top or put a ladder there.

We could electrify this -- this wire with the kind of current that would
not kill anybody, but it would simply be a discouragement for them to be
fooling around with it. We do that with livestock all the time.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: We do it with livestock all the time. Isn`t he something?

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS: Now for one that made the loser list because it never came to
fruition.

From a "New York Times" account in 1999 -- quote -- "Just before advocates
for senior citizens planned to stage or host on stage a 24-foot cabin
cruiser bearing the slogan `Medicare vouchers are a titanic mistake,` well,
the Capitol Police sank the reference, judging the symbolic Titanic too
heavy for the stage. Authorities banished it to the side, depriving
Senator Edward M. Kennedy and other speakers of a camera-friendly
backdrop."

Finally, the one that struck me as more than your typical political fumble,
think 2003, President George W. Bush and an aircraft carrier. Yes, the
"Mission Accomplished" banner that accompanied Bush`s 2003 speech about the
end of major combat operations in the Iraq war.

Of course, it backfired big time and the blame game began. White House
officials said that the piece had been requested by the Navy, but also
confirmed that the production and placement was up to them. And in a 2008
interview, W. himself said the banner -- quote -- "conveyed the wrong
message."

I will say.

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS: Duh.

Up next: Rush Limbaugh isn`t happy about the Republican hunt for a big
game change. He says the problem with Republican Party, his party, isn`t
that it`s too conservative, but it`s --

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS: But it`s not conservative enough. I love him dancing there.

That`s ahead.

You`re watching HARDBALL, the place for politics.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

JULIA BOORSTIN, CNBC CORRESPONDENT: I`m Julia Boorstin with your CNBC
"Market Wrap."

The Dow ekes out a gain, rising three points, while the S&P 500 falls more
than three points and the Nasdaq sheds eight-and-a-half points.

Worries about Cyprus continue to weigh on the markets. Lawmakers there
rejected a proposed tax on bank deposits, casting doubt on a bailout.

And here in the U.S., housing starts jumped 0.8 percent in February,
meeting expectations. Meanwhile, building permits, a gauge of future
construction, rose to the highest level since 2008.

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

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REINCE PRIEBUS, REPUBLICAN NATIONAL COMMITTEE CHAIRMAN: There`s no one
reason we lost. Our message was weak. Our ground game was insufficient.
We weren`t inclusive. We were behind in both data and digital. And our
primary and debate process needed improvement.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Well, there`s the lift of a driving dream.

Welcome back to HARDBALL. RNC chair Reince Priebus there reporting on the
state of the Republican Party. It brought relief to establishment types,
but it also angered conservatives who say Priebus, that man there, was
exactly wrong, that the party can`t win if it moderates its right-wing
positions.

Well, here was Rush Limbaugh reacting to Priebus.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "THE RUSH LIMBAUGH SHOW")

RUSH LIMBAUGH, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: They think they have got to re-brand.
And it`s all predict -- they have got to reach out to minorities. They got
to moderate their tone here and moderate their tone there.

And that`s not at all what they have got to do. All they have to do, the
Republican Party lost because it`s not conservative. It didn`t get its
base out in the 2012 election.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Well, it wasn`t just Rush.

The statement from the Tea Party Patriots reads: "Americans and those in
the Tea Party movement don`t need an autopsy report from RNC to know they
failed to promote our principles and lost because of it."

And anti-abortion group Susan B. Anthony List responded by saying:
"Republican candidates failed to properly engage in the pro-life issue.
And this latest report shows they have failed to learn from it. Rather
than seeking to grow and mobilize the energetic pro-life majority, the GOP
has allowed itself to operate solely on the defensive."

Well, Michael Steele is the former chairman of the Republican National
Committee, as well as MSNBC political analyst. And Susan Milligan is a
contributing editor at "U.S. News & World Report."

Your thoughts now. Is Reince Priebus right? Is -- are the critics, are
the defenders of the old order right?

MICHAEL STEELE, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: Look, I think there`s a
combination here that has to take place.

But all I want to say just at the outset is that if that`s all it took to
keep my job was to not have a ground game and to not win elections and to,
you know, just raise a lot of money, I just want to know, you raise $300
million, you can`t win one election? I mean, it makes no sense to me.

And I think the base is right to say that there were -- in terms of the
message, there was no cohesion.

MATTHEWS: Yes.

STEELE: There was no way to grab, to pull the people toward something
positive.

I mean, we were on the defensive for 18 months.

MATTHEWS: Yes.

STEELE: How does that happen? When you don`t have a ground game, when you
don`t have a message, you don`t have an organization, I guess that`s what
happens.

MATTHEWS: Well, Susan, the big question here is --

STEELE: I want my money back.

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS: I will now make a totally nonpartisan point of view which is
true. Every political party that blows it says we don`t get our message
across. Ha! They all say it.

SUSAN MILLIGAN, U.S. NEWS & WORLD REPORT: Yes.

MATTHEWS: In other words, our message was divine.

STEELE: There`s truth to that to a certain extent, though, Chris. And you
know. I mean, part of the process begins with how you communicate what you
believe.

MATTHEWS: Is that why McGovern lost? Is that why Goldwater lost? Didn`t
get their message across? That`s why McGovern --

STEELE: That`s a different --

MATTHEWS: Your party got its message across with the 47 percent. That got
the message across. That was what the party believes.

STEELE: But that`s not what the party believes. That`s my point. You`re
--

MATTHEWS: It`s what Romney believed. He said it.

STEELE: That`s what Romney said. That`s not necessarily what anybody else
believe believed. That`s what he said. That`s the problem. When you --

MATTHEWS: You mean he was faking it being an elitist?

STEELE: I don`t know what --

MATTHEWS: Mitt Romney was faking it as an elitist? I`m sorry.

MILLIGAN: I think one of the things that was interesting in that report
aside from the demographic stuff which should have been pretty obvious to
them which they should have figured out years ago.

MATTHEWS: There are an increasing number of Hispanics.

MILLIGAN: Exactly. Which they`re in complete denial over during the
campaign and that was in the autopsy they did last November. But the thing
is, so the image of the party was one that was kind of just old and stuffy
and mean and intolerant and they`re not helping -- I don`t -- now, most
Republicans -- I don`t see you that way -- most Republicans I know are not
like that.

But the loudest Republicans --

MATTHEWS: What about the image of Republicans being Mr. Wilson in "Dennis
the Menace"? Get off my lawn, kid.

MILLIGAN: Right. Well, that`s --

MATTHEWS: Is that the Republican Party, get off my lawn?

(CROSSTALK)

STEELE: It was the Democrats --

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS: I don`t think so.

"Politico" today heard angry reaction to what the GOP autopsy report might
mean for the 2016 Republican primary, including fewer debates and earlier
convention and voting via primaries, not caucuses. Well, Rand Paul adviser
told "Politico," quote, "Elimination of caucus would mean nuclear war with
the grassroots, social conservatives and the Ron Paul movement."

And Rick Santorum`s adviser, John Brabender said, "I am troubled by the
possibility of a condensed presidential primary process which undoubtedly
gives an advantage to the establishment-backed candidates and the
wealthiest candidates."

Well, that`s all true. We in the media love the primaries. We love them,
because those debates are wild.

And you got some of the craziest people out there. You know, you had
Herman Cain and his 999. You had Bachmann. We want the full show.

You elite party people want to hide the crazies. You want to hide the
crazies.

STEELE: No! Chris, I was the one who open up the process.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: You were for all these debates.

STEELE: Absolutely, I agree with both of those gentlemen in their
campaigns. Absolutely.

This process should be opened. It should allow for the base to express
itself, number ones and candidates to have a fair shot to make their case.

MATTHEWS: So, what`s the elite up to? What do --

(CROSSTALK)

STEELE: They want to control the outcome. They want to make sure it`s
nice, clean and tidy.

I`m sorry. Politics is not nice. It`s not clean. And it`s certainly not
tidy.

MATTHEWS: Susan, in our business, I know what we want. We want wide open
because we want the spectacle.

MILLIGAN: Yes.

MATTHEWS: We want to see the fights. In fact, if you ask any so-called
media liberal person, they still would rather cover the 68 Democratic
conventions, any convention in the world, because it`s the biggest show,
right?

MILLIGAN: Yes. Absolutely.

Well, the problem the party is having now is the same problem it was having
during the campaign which is that it`s let this element of the party define
it. And it lets it define increasingly.

Yes, they needed them to get out a certain part of the base, but they
cannot be -- that cannot be the message for the entire party or they will
never win another election.

MATTHEWS: OK, who`s going to win? The insiders or outsiders?

STEELE: You know who I`m keeping my eye on is Rand Paul.

MATTHEWS: I think you`re right.

STEELE: I think he`s got something there. He`s pulling the party back to
its fundamental core root about individual independence, liberty and
freedom, that libertarian notion is --

MATTHEWS: Barry Goldwater buttons out that say 27 on them.

STEELE: It`s a very solid notion. Rand, you got it.

MATTHEWSD: You got 27 million votes in the country, but boy, had a good
time doing it.

Rand Paul, he can win the nomination. He will not win the general.
Hillary Clinton versus Rand Paul.

STEELE: You laugh now.

MATTHEWS: There`s the tough one. Anyway --

STEELE: That`s a good one.

MATTHEWS: Ha!

STEELE: That`s a good one.

MATTHEWS: You`re a party man.

Anyway, thank you, Michael.

And thank you, Susan.

MILLIGAN: Thank you.

MATTHEWS: Up next, Sarah Palin versus Karl Rove. This is my favorite road
show. Give me the Don King. Put him on the stage. Go across the country
with him and her.

What a show. It`s a spectator sport when Republicans attack each other.
And they are colorful.

And this is HARDBALL, the place for politics.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: New poll numbers from Florida where Republican Governor Rick
Scott`s in real trouble.

Let`s check the HARDBALL scoreboard.

According to a new PPP poll, Governor Scott is trailing his predecessor
former-Republican-turned-Democrat Charlie Crist. Crist at 52 percent,
Scott is down to 40 percent.

And we`ll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: Well, this is going to be fun. We`re back.

It`s no secret that Karl Rove takes a dim view of Sarah Palin, and she
returns to favor. Last weekend, their long simmering feud boiled over
after Palin slammed Rove`s efforts to vet more electable candidates during
his CPAC speech.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SARAH PALIN (R), FORMER ALASKA GOVERNOR: If these experts who keep losing
elections, keep getting re-hired, raking in millions, if they feel that
strongly about who gets to run in this party, then they should buck up or
stay in the truck. Buck up and run. The architects can head on back to --

(CHEERS AND APPLAUSE)

-- they can head on back to the great Lone Star State and put their name on
some ballot. Though for their sake, I hope they give themselves a discount
on their consulting services.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Ha!

And that didn`t sit well with the architect, himself, Karl Rove. He hit
back hard the very next day on FOX.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KARL ROVE, FORMER BUSH`S AIDE: If she can play in primaries, other people
can play in primaries. I`m a volunteer. I don`t take a dime from my work
with American Crossroads. I even pay my own travel expenses out of my own
pocket. I don`t think I`m a good particularly good candidate, sort of a
balding fat guy. And second of all, I`d say if I did run for office and
win, I`d serve out my term. I wouldn`t -- I wouldn`t leave office midterm.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Punch. I`d serve out my term.

And this is more than a personal battle. Palin and Rove are the races of -
- actually, the faces of the rift within the Republican Party, the right
wingers versus the establishment.

Well, the HARDBALL strategists are here to argue this one out. Mike
Feldman is a Democrat. And John Feehery is a Republican.

John, who`s -- who should they bet on your party? Who should you bet on as
the face of the party that should win? You`re strategizing maybe to win
2016, certainly do well in 2014. You want Palin out there or Karl Rove out
organizing and vetting?

JOHN FEEHERY, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: I`d rather have neither out there.

I think Karl Rove knows how to win elections. He won two with George Bush.

I think Sarah Palin obviously was a successful insurgent in Alaska. But I
think Sarah Palin`s days are numbered. You know, I think Rove hit it
exactly right. You can`t quit midterm as governor and say that you`re
still a potent political force.

And she was -- you know, she had a --

MATTHEWS: You`re so cold about this. I have never seen -- I mean, I don`t
agree with anything she says. But that is a political genuine article.
She puts a better show on -- that`s why she died on FOX. That booth she
was up in Wasilla didn`t work on television.

Look her on the stage. It`s all kinetic. It`s moving around. She`s
obviously a very attractive person -- moving around on that stage. Look
how she dominates that stage.

What is that if it isn`t politics? What is it, something else? What is it
that she`s doing?

FEEHERY: She`s a great show person. She`s very good speechmaker.

MATTHEWS: Yes. Look at her.

FEEHERY: But she wasn`t a particularly good governor. She also -- she
quit midterm. I think that killed her. She really can`t articulate in any
convincing way a governing philosophy that works in the future. I don`t
think --

MATTHEWS: Let me ask you, Michael. Can you squeeze the juice out of a
grapefruit and still sell it?

MICHAEL FELDMAN, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: Well, watching these two up there
--

MATTHEWS: Well, answer my questions. Can you squeeze the juice out of a
political movement, the movement of crazy --

FELDMAN: You can`t.

MATTHEWS: -- and just get the architecture and still have a winning party?

FELDMAN: No, you can`t. That`s what she`s tapped into, Chris. I mean,
she`s no longer the leading edge of the Tea Party movement or the leading
edge of where the energy is in the Republican Party.

But she does stand for them. And when she`s dictated to by the consultant
class, when she looks at Karl Rove and some of the operatives saying, hey,
we`re going to stifle the grassroots of the party, and she speaks out
against it, there are a lot of Republicans out there a lot of people who
are nodding their heads up and down.

I mean, you look at Rand Paul, you look at somebody like who`s building a
movement out there, with Karl Rove basically say, you can`t compete in the
Republican primary process. That`s a big problem for them.

MATTHEWS: Yes, I think closed shop is not going to sell with the
Republican Party.

FEEHERY: I think Michael`s on to something there. I think there`s a
rebellion against the Bush years. I think with the 10th anniversary of
Iraq, I think there`s a rebellion about the expansion of government. The
fact you have a huge homeland security.

And the grassroots really feeds off that. I think that Palin does speak to
that. I think there`s some validity there. Like that`s why Rand Paul,
who`s for me is a very interesting candidate.

MATTHEWS: I find him, too.

Yesterday, while delivering the GOP autopsy report, that`s what it must
have been, RNC chair Reince Priebus said there will be a $10 million
initiative for minority outreach. But it seems like Sarah Palin doesn`t
think much of that.

And then there`s Donald Trump who actually does his kind of outreach.
Let`s listen to him. He says let`s get more white people in the country.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIPS)

PALIN: It also means ending the poisonous practice of treating Americans
of different social, ethnic, religious groups as different electorates to
be pandered to with different promises.

(APPLAUSE)

If we truly believe the words of our other founding document, the
Declaration of Independence, with its world changing assertion that, yes,
all men are created equal, then there are no Hispanic issues or African-
American issues or women`s issues. There are only American issues.

DONALD TRUMP, BUSINESSMAN: Why aren`t we letting people in from Europe? I
have many friends, many, many friends -- and nobody wants to talk this.
Nobody wants to say it.

(END VIDEO CLIPS)

MATTHEWS: Ha!

She comes up and says no more hyphenated Americans. He`s up there pitching
for white Americans. This is -- what do you do with this guy? Why did
they invite this guy?

FEEHERY: For the life of me, when we don`t invite the two most popular
governors, Bob McDonnell and Chris Christie, and have Donald Trump, who I
think is a very entertaining guy on his TV show. But he`s a terrible
politician. He shouldn`t be in politics and he shouldn`t be a guy out
there talking.

The fact of the matter is that I think Sarah Palin`s right on one thing.
And that is that we are not a pander party. We are a reform party. If
we`re going to be successful, we have to reform. But we have to also
reform our message to make sure everybody understands this reform is very -
-

MATTHEWS: OK. Mike, how do the Democrats hold off against any Republican
comeback? You know it`s going to be very tough in 2014 for the Democrats.
How do they avoid the slide back that always seems to occur after a
presidential election, especially in the sixth year of a presidency?

FELDMAN: Sure. Well, look, the math is against us and the Senate is
looking increasingly competitive. But it goes back. It`s more than just
message, Chris. And while Sarah Palin would like to point to the
rhetorical problems that the Republican Party has, if their policies aren`t
appealing to middle class voters, African-Americans, Hispanics, women, then
they`re not going to win national elections.

MATTHEWS: OK. Michael --

FELDMAN: And frankly they`re going to lose mid-terms, too.

MATTHEWS: Thank you, Michael -- Michael Feldman.

Thank you so much, John Feehery.

So, happy St. Patrick`s Day. You got the tie. I had it yesterday.

When we return, let me finish with the circular firing squad assembled in
today`s Republican Party.

You`re watching HARDBALL, the place for politics.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: Let me finish tonight with the circular firing squad now
assembled in the Republican Party.

But, first, let me start at the beginning:

The Republican Party began in the years heading up to the Civil War as a
merger. You had the Whig Party. You had the abolitionists. The Whigs
were the establishment -- moderates in their politics, ready to make
practical political decisions, like running popular generals to win
presidencies.

The abolitionists were the true believers. In 1860, they all got together
behind Abraham Lincoln. I wonder if they`d do that again in 2016. What do
you think?

Anyway, the party is still split in two, the Republicans. You`ve got the
establishment types who are mainly intent on winning elections. They like
holding office -- the presidency, especially. And they`re willing to bend
a little to get power.

The abolitionists on the right are forged together on principle. They
don`t want people who came into this country living here legally, and
certainly not as full citizens. They`d just as soon they were headed back
to the country where they came from.

As for gay marriage, they`d just assume there weren`t any gays, period.
They`re not about to let them have wedding rings and all the other
attributes of straight life in this country.

So my bet is that the political marriage of these two groups: the Karl Rove
crowd who love winning elections, know what it feels like to lose; and the
abolitionist wing --who would rather fight than switch -- are in for a
prolonged separation.

Progressives, enjoy it while it lasts. 2014 will be tough. But once these
two gangs -- the Palin and Rove crowds -- have to meet up again in 2016,
it`s not going to be pretty. It sure as hell isn`t going to be a marriage.

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

"POLITICS NATION" with Al Sharpton starts right now.


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BE UPDATED.
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