updated 9/12/2013 11:16:33 AM ET 2013-09-12T15:16:33

HARDBALL
September 10, 2013

Guests: Barbara Boxer, Susan Collins, Jess McIntosh

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST: Russian roulette.

Let`s play HARDBALL.

Good evening. I`m Chris Matthews in Washington.

"Let Me Start" tonight with this. President Obama stands at the abyss
tonight. He stands precariously close to losing control of a vital
presidential decision. He said he wants to punish Syria for using chemical
weapons. He`s asked Congress to give him the backing to do it. But he
doesn`t have that backing, and now he himself is backing away from asking
for it. He`s waiting, it`s said, to find out what the Russians will do to
organize the collection of Syria`s chemical weapons.

So how long will he wait? How long will he forestall taking action, delay
asking Congress to back him in taking action before he decides the Russians
and their allies, the Syrians, are simply playing for time, running through
the calendar until Americans have -- don`t have the passion to commit an
act of retaliation.

Well, this is where he faces the abyss. If he gets stranded out there
waiting for Vladimir Putin to save the day, we have to watch the days being
peeled off the calendar one day after painful day. Will he have to wait
for the phone to ring, waiting for a date with Vladimir, and worse yet, for
Vladimir Putin to convince Bashar Assad to turn over those chemical
weapons? And when will he know for sure that Putin was playing him or know
for sure that he`s not?

MSNBC will provide, of course, full coverage of President Obama`s speech to
the country tonight beginning at 8:00 o`clock Eastern time, when I`ll be
joining my colleague Rachel Maddow.

Chuck Todd is NBC News political director and chief White House
correspondent. And David Axelrod is former senior adviser to President
Obama, and of course, an MSNBC political analyst.

Well, it all started with an offhanded comment from John Kerry and has
snowballed into a Russian proposal that could give the president a way out
of the political mess over Syria. Russia says it is proposing Syria turn
over its chemical weapons to international monitors to avoid a U.S.
military strike. In other words, right now, the president`s best hope
might be Vladimir Putin, not the U.S. Congress.

Well, today that effort hit a few roadblocks. America and France want the
threat of military action to remain on the table. The Russians want that
military threat taken off the table.

Secretary of State John Kerry will meet with the Russian foreign minister,
Lavrov, later this week in Geneva to try to resolve the question. The
irony is, this may offer a way out for everyone but, of course, the hard-
core hawks who want to change the momentum in Syria.

One explanation for why the Russians and Syrians would agree to this is
that they think the Assad regime can win anyway without chemical weapons
and we would remove the threat of military action and the hope of changing
the momentum toward the rebels.

Well, Secretary of State John Kerry today gave credit for the Russian
turnaround to the president`s threat of military action.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JOHN KERRY, SECRETARY OF STATE: This cannot be a process of delay. This
cannot be a process of avoidance. It has to be real, has to be measurable,
tangible. And it is exceedingly difficult, I want everybody here to know,
to fulfill those conditions.

A lot of people say that nothing focuses the mind like the prospect of a
hanging. Well, it`s the credible threat of force that has been on the
table for these last weeks that has for the first time brought this regime
to even acknowledge that they have a chemical weapons arsenal.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Let`s go right now -- that was a nice quote from Samuel Johnson
there. Let`s go right now to the prospects for a deal. I want to be
positive tonight and be hopeful because there seems to be one way. It
seems to be through Moscow.

What are the -- do you think -- or let me ask you this, Chuck, as a
reporter. Do you think the Russians may be serious? Because there`s all
kinds of historic reasons why they would be serious. They want the regime
of Assad to survive. They don`t want more Islamist terrorists taking over
in that region. They want to hold onto their proxy, hold onto their ports.
And they don`t want more crazy people, Islamist zealots, heading north into
the former Soviet Union.

CHUCK TODD, NBC WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT/POLITICAL DIR.: Well, I mean,
Chris, you just laid it out. There is a rational argument as to why would
the Russians be serious here, why would they have convinced the Syrians to
do this? Simple. They`ve come to the conclusion that Syria can do this
without the chemical weapons, and that if they don`t, the U.S. could
degrade Assad`s military to such a point where Assad won`t survive.

So this seems -- it seems to me it`s pretty obvious what the Russians
decided to do and even what the Syrians have also decided to do, which is
this is their -- this is the best path they have for that regime surviving.

Now, you wonder, How`s that going to play out right now? The most unhappy
people politically -- it`s been stunning to me that so many members of
Congress, many of whom do not have a single nice thing to say about
Vladimir Putin over the last two years, have rushed -- you know, they`re
not walking toward Putin`s plan, they have run to it all because none of
them -- they all can look at their polls. None of them wanted to cast this
vote.

A lot of them didn`t want to even -- they were Republicans. Nobody really
wanted to embarrass the president, embarrass the presidency, embarrass
America in foreign policy by somehow having to reject this request by the
president. But they were feeling the political pressure.

They saw an escape hatch, and they flocked to it like as fast as I`ve ever
seen anything change, frankly, particularly on foreign policy like this.
But you have to wonder here -- the most unhappy and disgruntled people
right now are those Syrian rebels, who now are staring at the real
prospect...

MATTHEWS: Oh, yes.

TODD: They have no shot. This is it. They have no chance. U.S.
government`s made this decision, We`re staying out.

MATTHEWS: Let me ask David because you were in contact with him -- you
obviously know the president well and respect him and you`ve been in
contact with him. Let me ask you the tough question. Can the president
see beyond those personal snubs and sort of strange behaviors or unpleasant
behaviors of Vladimir Putin to see the larger Russian interest that might
be at work that would benefit the United States here?

DAVID AXELROD, FMR. WHITE HOUSE SENIOR ADVISER, SR. MSNBC POLITICAL
ANALYST: Yes. And my impression of their relationship, as well, it`s not
friendly at all, it`s pragmatic. And there are things on which we work
with the Russians. And you know, this whole idea surfaced, apparently, at
a conversation between Putin and Obama on Friday.

And Chris, I would say your entire list is relevant to why the Russians may
want to get this done, including the fact that if Assad does fall, they
don`t want those chemical weapons in the hands of...

MATTHEWS: Sure.

AXELROD: ... those very terrorists that you think may head -- that you
suggest could head into their territory. So there is an impetus for them
to get this done.

There are tremendous stumbling blocks to this, and the big one is the one
you mentioned, which is there is -- without a credible threat behind this,
there is an invitation to chicanery. And if the Syrians play games and
string this out and there`s no mechanism for enforcing it, then it`s not
really a very good offer.

MATTHEWS: Well, let me ask you, David, while you`re on. That is to me the
Catch-22 here. At the same moment we`re looking to the Russians, the
president is, our government is, as a possible hope here for cutting this
deal so we don`t have to go to an act of war against Syria -- at the same
time, the Russians are saying, You`re got to remove that threat of a
military strike, or we`re not doing business.

AXELROD: Well, yes, and that`s something that has to be resolved. But of
course, the president was prepared to move forward before and I think he`ll
say tonight that he continues to be prepared to move forward. And one of
the arguments he`s going to make tonight, undoubtedly, is the reason we are
at this place is because of the threat of military action. Now, as to...

MATTHEWS: But Congress has to give him that threat. The threat`s not
real...

AXELROD: Exactly.

MATTHEWS: ... under our system. Do you think the Senate and the House are
still potentially ready to give the president the authority...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: ... to use military power?

AXELROD: There`s another way to look at this, which is now there`s
something on the table. There is a, you know, give peace a chance, sort of
option here.

MATTHEWS: Yes.

AXELROD: And you saw -- you know, two of the people who were opposed to
this in the Senate, Manchin and Heidi Heitkamp, were already drafting
before this surfaced legislation that said, We`ll give him 45 days to sign
the chemical convention and give up their chemical weapons, and then we`ll
give him authority.

So I think there are a lot of turns of the wheel here, but there`s no doubt
that right now, the vote is on pause.

MATTHEWS: Yes. Let`s take a look at this. Chuck, the new NBC poll, which
we`re all proud of, the "Wall Street Journal" poll which you introduced
this morning on your program -- it shows that the situation -- the
unpopularity of a possible U.S. strike against Syria -- 58 percent --
that`s a pretty hard number -- now say they do not want their members of
Congress to vote for that resolution. Just a third do. That`s a strong
number, 58, and it`s rising.

AXELROD: Right.

TODD: It is. That`s what was amazing about our poll is that if you think
about -- the conversation that the public -- that we in the media have had
with the public -- and this is, you know, across -- across channels -- has
been about Syria over the last 10 days, from when we first went in back
before Labor Day until now. And the numbers on Syria got worse for the
president. His handling of the situation went from a very bad 35 to a
horrible 29 percent.

You don`t get approval -- that`s not -- that number is terrible under any
circumstances, sitting in the 20s, having an approval rating on that in
anything.

And I think it goes to a couple of things, Chris. Number one, there is a
default position in this country now of just no more, no more wars. The
Iraq scars are deep.

Number two, there is deep skepticism of government in general these days.
I think that plays into the idea that...

MATTHEWS: Yes.

TODD: ... whatever they`re all announcing, you know what? Everybody`s
thinking, Well, they say this, but do we really know this is the case?

And then, you know, three, the message from the White House has been
totally muddled. It`s been a bit haphazard. I mean, look at how the last
week has gone. Everybody understands that who follows this very closely
that Syria -- that this is a mess. There are no good options.

But that`s not a message to the American public that`s going about their
everyday lives, taking their kids to school and is thinking, Wait, wait,
wait. What are we doing? And all they`ve heard is the drumbeats to war.

MATTHEWS: Well, Chuck Todd and David Axelrod, thank you for that. You
started our show well tonight. We now know the political situation.

Coming up: Will today`s events change opinion on Capitol Hill -- today`s
events? Will the Russian involvement change things? Barbara Boxer, ,Susan
Collins -- both are going to join us with reaction to everything that`s
happened today about the Russians and what it might or might not do to
change votes up there. I`m very skeptical.

Also, it may be going too far to say Barack Obama`s presidency rides on the
success of his speech tonight. But it does have a lot to do -- and he has
a lot on the line tonight. Is there anything he can say to convince the
American people that attacking Syria is a good idea? The White House, by
the way, is already pushing back, saying don`t expect this to change public
opinion tonight.

Plus, Jeb Bush was supposed to give -- it was advertised he was going to
give Hillary Clinton a big hug tonight, a big award up in Philly. Now he`s
backed out. He`s just going to sit in the crowd. I got to think that the
Republicans got to Jeb Bush. He`s like every other Republican, scared to
death of the right.

And "Let Me Finish" tonight with the American verdict that led to where we
are tonight, the decision to say no to an act of war the American people
don`t want to commit.

And this is HARDBALL, the place for politics.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: Here`s one more reason President Obama is going to have his work
cut out for him tonight. According to the NBC News/"Wall Street Journal"
poll released today, 74 percent of those polled said it`s time for America
to focus on problems here at home. Only 22 percent said the U.S. should
continue to promote democracy in other countries.

By the way, just 19 percent of Republicans said we should focus on
promoting democracy. In 2005, when George W. Bush was president, the
Republican number was 60 percent.

We`ll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KERRY: We`ve got to see whether or not this has any meat to it. And if it
does have meat, I think that`s important.

REP. JEFF MILLER (R), FLORIDA: So again, following up on...

KERRY: The Senate has already delayed.

MILLER: Because they don`t have the votes, Mr. Secretary. That`s why they
delayed. You know that.

KERRY: Actually, no, I don`t.

MILLER: Well, I do.

KERRY: Well, I`m glad you know something. And I think this is not -- you
know, this should not be a political discussion about whether there are
votes or not.

MILLER: I`m not being political, Mr. Secretary. It`s the truth. They
don`t have the votes. Read any newspaper in this country and you will find
that out.

KERRY: Look, do you want to play politics here or do you want to get a
policy in place?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL. That was, of course, Representative
Jeff Miller, a Republican from Florida, in a heated exchange with Secretary
of State John Kerry today. Miller`s comments, however, were -- as callous
as they were, underscore a harsh reality for President Obama. Americans
don`t want to intervene in Syria. All the polls show that.

After laying the groundwork for votes on a Syria resolution to begin as
early as tomorrow, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has put a hard stop on
movement in the Senate. After meeting with the president, Senator Reid
said he`s in no rush to force the action.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. HARRY REID (D-NV), MAJORITY LEADER: If something can be done
diplomatically, I`m totally satisfied with that. I`m not a blood and
thunder guy. I`m not for shock and awe. I think it`s a situation where we
have to be very calm and deliberate in what we do. And if things can be
worked out with the international community to get these weapons out of the
hands of this madman, then I think that`s what we should do.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: With the current Syria resolution effectively dead, as you just
saw it, in Congress, a group of eight senators, including Republican John
McCain and Democrat Chuck Schumer, are crafting a new road map with the
hopes of attracting broader support. A source familiar with negotiations
tells NBC News that the new language says that the U.N. should pass a
resolution affirming that chemical weapons were used in Syria. It would
also say that the U.N. would need to remove those weapons within a fixed
period of time. If that doesn`t happen, the resolution would authorize
President Obama to strike.

However, convincing Congress to authorize any sort of military involvement
abroad will be a tough sell right now even among the president`s allies
here. A new NBC News/"Wall Street Journal" poll shows that a vast majority
of Democrats now, 67 percent of Democrats in this country -- that`s two
thirds -- think America should be more focused on issues at home instead of
promoting freedom abroad. It`s even higher among Republicans.

No matter how you slice it, this is one tough sell for President Obama.
Senator Barbara Boxer is a Democrat from California and has supported the
possible military involvement in Syria. She`s a senior member of the
Senate Foreign Relations Committee. She met with the president earlier
today.

Senator Boxer, your view about where this thing stands right now. There`s
not going to be a vote on cloture, a vote to move ahead with debate in the
Senate. So what`s the future look like in terms of Syria and whether we`re
going to attack or not?

SEN. BARBARA BOXER (D), CALIFORNIA: Chris, we had the votes to move
forward. We had many votes to move forward. But I think the right thing
to do is to look at the developments of today.

Now, I have listened carefully to your whole setup piece and all of your
guests, and no one talked about what Assad did to his people. It seems to
be, you know, the politics.

And I want to take just 10 seconds to say that what Assad did is he used
these vicious weapons that have been outlawed, essentially, since after
World War I, and he killed his own people -- babies, infants, children.
And the whole world has to look at this and respond.

Now, I give the president tremendous credit for two things, making sure the
world remembered its commitments. We passed the chemical weapons
convention in the United States Senate. Don`t our votes mean anything,
Chris?

So I think he was strong and he was resolute. And as a result, for the
first time today -- and this was glossed over -- the first time in history,
Syria admitted it has a stockpile and said they would join the chemical
weapons convention.

Do we believe that they will do all of that? We need a few days to see,
but this was a good day for this president and it came about because he was
so resolute. And if I could just say, Bob Menendez and Bob Corker of the
Foreign Relations Committee on which I proudly serve, we passed that force
resolution. And I think it brought us to this moment where we have a hope
here that we can resolve this in a way that doesn`t require military force.

And that`s what this president wants. And it`s what everybody wants, I
think.

MATTHEWS: Well, the credibility of military force rests on the ability of
the president to get the Congress to go along with it. Now, you said you
have the votes. I think you said, Senator...

BOXER: Yes.

MATTHEWS: ... the votes for cloture to move ahead with debate.

BOXER: Yes.

MATTHEWS: Did you have the votes to pass a resolution in the Senate?

BOXER: I think that was a work in progress. Today, Chris, the president
visited the Democratic caucus, the Republican caucus. And I can tell you,
before he walked in the door, we watched those films. And I looked around
at my colleagues, and I can tell you I don`t know what the vote will be,
but I know there`s a group of Republicans working together with a group of
Democrats right now, making sure we keep the pressure on Assad.

We keep the pressure on Assad, something good can happen. But we`re going
to need a few days. So I think it`s very wise of the president to say,
Let`s see how this plays out. We`ve got multi-tracks going on at the U.N.,
with Lavrov and Kerry, the president working with the French and the Brits
and others, and right here in the United States Senate, a bipartisan group
keeping the pressure on.

And if we do that, we could have a good resolution here that doesn`t
require military force, which, again, is what we all want, including this
president.

MATTHEWS: Thank you so much, Senator Barbara Boxer, member of the Senate
Foreign Relations Committee.

We turn now to Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine. Senator Collins
also met with the president today. She`s leaning I`m told against military
intervention.

Is that where you are, Senator Collins?

SEN. SUSAN COLLINS (R), MAINE: Yes, it is.

I certainly share Senator Boxer`s concern about the use of chemical
weapons. There actually have been, however, 100,000 people killed in the
Syrian civil war. And there frankly are bad guys on both sides, Hezbollah
supporting the ruthless dictator Assad, and then two branches of al Qaeda
that have infiltrated the opposition.

But my concern is that I don`t want to see our country dragged into yet
another civil war in the Middle East and become entangled in what would be
a protracted, dangerous, and ugly conflict.

MATTHEWS: Where is the main electorate right now, your people at home?
What`s your estimate of where they stand on this issue?

COLLINS: They`re overwhelmingly opposed. I have heard from people from
all walks of life, Democrats, independents, Republicans, Green Party
members.

And it`s running something like 95 percent against. Now, I have also
learned a lot from my constituents. They have been very thoughtful about
this issue. And they`re following it very closely. And they`re very
concerned.

MATTHEWS: How do you think the Russians will react if they fully realize
that the president did not have the Senate behind him, did not have the
American people behind him in terms of the use of force? Will they then
continue with their effort that they have offered to try to get the
chemical weapons out of the hands of Assad?

COLLINS: I think that we should not necessarily trust the Russians, but
see how this plays out, because I think it`s in the Russians` own self-
interest to prevent the further use of chemical weapons.

They do not want to see a proliferation of chemical weapons in the region
or get to the Chechen opposition in Russia. So I think that Russia is
making what may well be a genuine effort here. And certainly a diplomatic
solution where the chemical stockpile is removed from Syria would be both
more effective and preferable to our launching a military strike, which is,
after all, an act of war.

MATTHEWS: Do you think we should get out of Syria altogether and stop
arming the rebels? If the Russians agree to get the Syrians to pull out,
get rid of their chemical weapons, wouldn`t it be a good idea for us to say
like after in the Cuban Missile Crisis back in `62, where Kennedy cut his
deal with Khrushchev, agree not to invade, basically, agree to stay out of
there?

I don`t think McCain would like that. What would you like? Would you like
that as an offer at a deal? We stay out if you pull out the chemical,
we`re out of there?

COLLINS: It`s worth considering, but it`s a difficult situation.

If we`d intervene very early on to train and equip the opposition, we would
have known who we were dealing with.

MATTHEWS: Good point.

COLLINS: Now the opposition is totally infiltrated and also includes
criminal gangs as well.

So I think it becomes very difficult to sort out who are the good guys
here.

MATTHEWS: Thanks so much, Senator Susan Collins of Maine. Thanks for
coming on HARDBALL.

Up next, what do Cheerios have to do with the war in Syria? Well, the
"Sideshow" will tell you coming up next. This is HARDBALL, the place for
politics.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "LATE NIGHT WITH JIMMY FALLON")

JIMMY FALLON, HOST, "LATE NIGHT WITH JIMMY FALLON": PBS host Charlie Rose
aired an interview with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. And when they
asked why he picked PBS, Assad said they are fair and unbiased and I want
to get one of those neat tote bags.

(LAUGHTER)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Welcome to the "Sideshow."

That was, of course, Jimmy Fallon on Charlie Rose`s one on one with Bashar
al-Assad. The hour-long interview, which aired in full night, was an
interesting glimpse, by the way, into the mind of the Syrian dictator.
Some of Assad`s answers were surprising, some were more predictable.
Here`s how "The Daily Show" portrayed it all.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "THE DAILY SHOW WITH JON STEWART")

JON STEWART, HOST, "THE DAILY SHOW WITH JON STEWART": Yes, Syrian
President Bashar Assad sat down recently with Charlie Rose for an interview
about the very subject. And I will tell you what. I`m just going to write
down what I think he`s going to say about us bombing him.

BASHAR AL-ASSAD, PRESIDENT OF SYRIA: We`ve been living in different
circumstances for the last two years and a half. It`s going to get worse
with any foolish strike or stupid war.

STEWART: Oh, he`s against it.

(LAUGHTER)

STEWART: I had down, "Please bomb me."

(LAUGHTER)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Yesterday, John Kerry faced pushback after describing a proposed
U.S. attack on Syria as unbelievably small. But there was another odd
characterization that you may have missed. An unidentified source in the
Pentagon compared the effect of a limited strike by us to eating breakfast.

Here was the quote in "USA Today" -- quote -- "If Assad is eating Cheerios,
we`re going to take away his spoon and give him a fork. Will that degrade
his ability to eat Cheerios? Yes. Will it deter him? Maybe. But he will
still be able to eat Cheerios." Hmm.

While the creative metaphor inspired "New York" magazine to create this
ridiculous image, the quote was met with widespread criticism from many who
accurately point out that making war is not at all similar to eating
Cheerios. When asked to comment, cereal maker General Mills said they had
nothing to add. Not surprising there.

Finally, our "Sideshow" trivia question. Who was the first U.S. president
to visit Syria? Here`s a hint. It was eight months after the Yom Kippur
War and two months before this president left office. Although our
relationship with Syria was complicated even back then, this president was
able to normalize relationships between our two countries, despite a shaky
start. Take a look.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TOM BROKAW, NBC NEWS: President Nixon flew from Jeddah to Damascus, Syria,
today. And the president`s plain took evasive action when Syrian jets
unexpectedly appeared, but they were there as escorts and there was no
trouble.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The president and Mrs. Nixon were greeted at the
airport by President and Mrs. Hafez Assad. This stop more than any other
represents the American hope that the psychological climate in this part of
the world can be changed, so that fighting doesn`t seem inevitable and that
peace will appear possible.

RICHARD NIXON, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We look forward now to an
expansion in contacts and cooperation between the United States and Syria.
President Assad and I have agreed that ambassadors will be named within two
weeks.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Now, there was a deal-maker.

Those were different times, of course. Hoping we will see similar
cooperation from Syria in the coming weeks. By the way, congrats to Lady
Goodman (ph), who answered correctly on Twitter.

Up next: Jeb Bush had planned, I`m told and we are all told in the
newspapers, to honor Hillary Clinton today. But a lot of Republicans
weren`t happy and he changed his mind.

You`re watching HARDBALL, the place for politics.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MILISSA REHBERGER, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT: I`m Milissa Rehberger. Here`s
what`s happening.

Congressional leaders John Boehner, Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, and Mitch
McConnell are set to meet Thursday morning to talk about how to keep the
government funded. Meanwhile, house Republicans will push ahead with their
own bill.

Two guards are on leave as prison officials investigate Ariel Castro`s
suicide.

And the Congressional Gold Medal was awarded today to four girls killed in
the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, 50 years ago
-- back to HARDBALL.

MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL.

While all eyes are being trained right now on the nation`s capital where
the president is speaking in Washington, there`s some real political action
taking place in the country`s original capital, my own Philadelphia.
That`s where we`d expect to get an early glimpse of a potential 2016
matchup. Jeb Bush in his role as chairman of the National Constitution
Center`s board of trustees was to present the Liberty Medal to former
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton tonight.

And here`s the press release of the National Constitution Center announcing
that. "Governor Jeb Bush, chair of the National Constitution Center, will
award the prestigious medal to Secretary Clinton during the 25th annual
liberty medal ceremony."

As recently as yesterday, "The Washington Post" reported that Jeb Bush
would present the medal -- these are all quotes -- in his capacity as the
center`s chairman, big but -- B-U-T, but -- conservatives didn`t react well
to the idea of the possible nominee of the Republican Party giving to the
possible nominee of the Democratic Party in 2016.

Jim Geraghty wrote in "National Review": "If Jeb Bush didn`t want to run
for the Republican nomination, he could have just said so."

A headline on the conservative Town Hall Web site reads, "Jeb Bush, how
about you give -- how about we give Hillary a medal?"

Late today, we learned that although Jeb Bush would make remarks and be on
stage, he will not present Clinton with the award, effectively eliminating
the chance of a photo that conservatives would use to taunt Bush later.

Looks like 2016`s maneuverings have begun.

Joining me is the former chair of the Republican National Committee Michael
Steele, and Jess McIntosh, who is spokesperson for EMILY`s List, which
helps recruit and support pro-choice Democratic women candidates.

I will get to you in a minute, Jess, because I have got to go to the home
team here of the Republicans.

Is your party so touchy, so precious that they dare not even lend a hand to
giving Hillary an award for past public service?

MICHAEL STEELE, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, that`s a good way to have
your hand cut off. That`s for sure.

MATTHEWS: Why?

STEELE: I don`t know why.

Look, when I first heard about this, I thought brilliant. I thought this
was a great opportunity for Jeb Bush.

MATTHEWS: It`s called class.

STEELE: Absolutely.

In his capacity as the head of the board of trustees to do this, the
politics aside, all of that aside, I think it would have been a classy
thing to do. But clearly the politics of 2016 weighs in. I`m sure some
folks whispered in his ear about the photo-op. It`s not a good photo-op.
It will be played over and over again in a Republican primary, which is
unfortunate.

Look, you`re going to have to do battle with Hillary Clinton one way or the
other. A photo is not going to kill that opportunity if you`re presenting
a good strategy. So, I just think this is a missed opportunity.

MATTHEWS: Jess, I don`t know if you want to get into the partisan politics
of this, but it just looks to me like that jack in the box called Benghazi,
the one the Republicans love to bring up like an old Vaudeville act. Let`s
pull out the Benghazi dummy.

They do it again this time. They don`t want to give her the award because
they want to be able to say that somehow she was bad as secretary of state,
which nobody else agrees with, but the right certainly thinks or says so.

JESS MCINTOSH, EMILY`S LIST: Exactly. Exactly. I

think that clearly the most partisan Republicans are so terrified of
Hillary Clinton they can`t see straight. And I completely agree with
Michael that it would have been a classy moment. She`s being honored
tonight for her work on behalf of women and girls around the globe. It
would have been a really nice moment for leaders of both parties to
recognize how important that work is.

And it`s a shame that this petty partisan politics got in the way. And
it`s a shame that their abject terror got in the way of that. But I think
voters are going to see.

MATTHEWS: We`re watching a live shot now.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: Who would the Republicans give an award to for working for
children and women around the world? I`m sure that`s a competitive event.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: Women and children around the world, who would you think of as a
Republican candidate to win that?

STEELE: No, I think there would be a number of folks, including Jeb Bush.
That`s why I think this is so ironic.

MATTHEWS: Yes.

STEELE: Because he is the kind of leader who actually could stand on that
world stage and be the recipient of an award like this, given his work in
education, et cetera.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: You know the Sister Souljah reference. It`s a metaphor for
standing up to your interest groups, standing up to your people.

STEELE: Again...

MATTHEWS: When is he going to say...

STEELE: This is one of those moments.

MATTHEWS: ... nice try, guys, but I agreed to do this, I`m going to do it?

STEELE: This is one of those moments, because you have the cover of your
official duties as the board trustee president. So, you know, I just think
it`s a missed opportunity.

MATTHEWS: Earlier, Jeb Bush made light of the 2016 speculation about him
and Secretary Clinton. It`s certainly true in both cases. They`re both
possible candidates, Hillary more likely, I think. Let`s listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JEB BUSH (R), FORMER FLORIDA GOVERNOR: Secretary Clinton is out of office.
So am I. I`m not sure what people will expect to happen here tonight.
Hillary and I come from different political parties and we disagree about a
few things, but we do agree on the wisdom of the American people,
especially those in Iowa and New Hampshire and South Carolina.

(LAUGHTER)

BUSH: In fact, I think Secretary Clinton might be in Des Moines next week.
Now, don`t actually wear the medal there, Madam Secretary.

(LAUGHTER)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: This, I think, is what`s really different in politics from when
I was working in it, Jess, this idea that you can`t even be seen with the
other side. Chris Christie is still being attacked. Charlie Crist is
attacked.

You can`t be seen even driving in the same car, walking down the street
together. You can`t be seen giving an award when it has nothing to do with
politics. It`s changed from what it used to be.

MCINTOSH: This is the problem with the Republican Party right now. This
is why they`re foundering.

And it`s why we had such historic margins in 2012. I think -- frankly, I
think the average Republican voter probably is really supportive of the
work that Hillary Clinton did that she`s being honored for tonight.

MATTHEWS: Yes.

MCINTOSH: I think that that would be something that speaks to a lot of the
Republican especially women who are feeling left out by their party.

MATTHEWS: OK, let`s take a look at -- let`s go back -- we`ve got an
opportunity to go now to secretary of state. Here she is, the former
secretary.

HILLARY CLINTON, SECRETARY OF STATE: Being in a line of previous awardees,
Nelson Mandela, Basla Favo (ph), so many others whom I have long admired.
I want to thank everyone who spoke in person or in the videos. I
appreciate greatly what they have done with me, what they`ve taught me, how
we`ve worked together, and the inspiration that they have been to me.

I want to thank my friend, Mayor Nutter, for hosting us in this beautiful
city.

MATTHEWS: Hillary Clinton would have given an award to Jeb Bush.

CLINTON: I also want to acknowledge Governor Corbett, Attorney General
Kane and --

MATTHEWS: Jess, would you support Hillary Clinton giving an award to Jeb
Bush with the same occasion tonight?

MCINTOSH: Oh, yes, absolutely. I mean, I think it would be the classy
thing to do, to honor that kind of work. I think that`s the kind of
leadership that she`s known for.

People -- people expect her to be the kind of leader who can work across
the aisle. That`s why she`s globally recognized. I think it would have
been in keeping with her history to do something like that.

But as you pointed out, I`m not sure that there is someone on the other
side of the aisle who could be receiving such an award today.

MATTHEWS: Let`s go to you, Michael, because you know politics as well as
any of us. do you think -- I think Hillary Clinton will have a competitive
race if she`s the nominee. I think 2016 because one party has been in
power eight years, maybe a different faction.

MICHAEL STEELE, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: Right.

MATTHEWS: But once one party has held office for eight years, it`s very
hard to hang in there, who the nominee --

STEELE: I think that she will have a competitive race. I think you`ll see
Martin O`Malley, for example, should he get in --

MATTHEWS: I`m talking about the general.

STEELE: But I`m just talking about the step up to that. Yes, step to
that. It would be, you know, that progressive voice on the left wanting to
push Hillary a little bit. And so --

MATTHEWS: There will be somebody there.

STEELE: Yes. Not to give it right out of the box.

But I think in a general election whether it`s against a Rand Paul, a Chris
Christie, or a Jeb Bush, I think she would be very, very competitive. But
I think she would have to make a case to the American people. Because
you`d have to deal first with the well, is this a flashback to the 1990s --

MATTHEWS: I know.

STEELE: -- that Clinton won?

MATTHEWS: That`s a problem with Jeb, too.

STEELE: That`s the problem with Jeb.

And number two is, you know, yes, Benghazi. There are some legitimate
questions still there. How that gets played out politically still remains
to be seen. So, it won`t be a cake walk, but I think she`ll be very
competitive.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: The other person on this panel right now, Jess, I think the
women`s move, and the people women my age say, it`s our turn.

STEELE: I agree.

MCINTOSH: Yes.

MATTHEWS: I think it goes beyond personality, even Hillary`s.

Thank you so much. We`ll have you on many times to talk about that.

Michael Steele, thank you, sir. And thank you, Jess McIntosh from EMILY`s
List.

When we come back, trying to take the country to war when the American
people say no. That`s what the big thing is that`s going on tonight. The
president had no said to him.

We`ll be back with the place for politics.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: Well, the president may be focused on Syria, but that hasn`t
stopped Republicans from playing their favorite parlor game -- pretending
to defund the Affordable Care Act. Texas Senator Ted Cruz, of course, was
among the speakers who addressed a rally on Capitol Hill today. Cruz told
the crowd inaccurately that the health care law is the number one job
killer in America. And he said he was fighting to save the country.

Among the other usual Tea Party suspects who spoke at the rally were
Senators Rand Paul and Mike Lee. And many members of Congress including
Steve King, Louie Gohmert, and, of course, the inimitable, soon to be
forgotten Michele -- Bachmann. What a jamboree that was.

We`ll be right back. Almost forgot it there.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SCOTT PELLEY, CBS NEWS: The people aren`t with you.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Yes. Well, not yet. As I
said, I understand that. So, I`ll have a chance to talk to the American
people directly tomorrow. I don`t expect that it`s going to suddenly swing
the polls wildly in the direction of another military engagement.

If you ask the average person, including my household, do we need another
military engagement? I think the answer generally is going to be no.

I`ll speak to the American people. I`ll explain this is not Iraq. This is
not Afghanistan. This is not even Libya.

We`re not talking about boots on the ground. We`re not talking about
sustained air strikes.

But I knew when I said I was going to present this to Congress that this
would be challenging.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: We`re back.

And that was President Obama speaking to CBS` Scott Pelley in one of the
half dozen interviews he did yesterday, pushing his case for the need for
military force in Syria.

In a little over an hour, the president will address the American people
from the East Room of the White House to try and persuade a deeply
skeptical public to support him. With the unexpected last minute
diplomatic move from the Russians now on the table, the president will need
to request congressional authorization to use force while acknowledging
that an avenue of diplomacy is still possible.

Joining me right now: "Washington Post" editorial director and MSNBC
political analyst Howard Fineman, and "Washington Post" opinion writer, a
columnist, I`ll call them, and MSNBC contributor, Jonathan Capehart.

Of course, you`re much bigger than a columnist. You probably write
editorials. But let`s go on this thing.

Howard, how does he give two speeches at the same time? Welcoming the
Russians into a diplomatic route which will involve no gun fire. At the
same time saying we need our guns loaded and we got to get approval to do
that.

How do you do both?

HOWARD FINEMAN, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, I think it`s very
difficult. And I think his speechwriters are working overtime, up to the
last minute.

Chris, you and I covered a lot of these kinds of things. I`ve never seen a
situation like this where they`re basically scribbling on the back of the
envelope before he walks into the East Room to give the speech tonight.

He just said in the interview with Scott Pelley what this is not. What
this season is not. It`s not this. It`s not that. It`s not that. It`s
not that.

He`s got to say tonight what it is. And as you say, it`s very much in
conflict.

MATTHEWS: But he`s been zigzagging between there, trying to --

FINEMAN: Well, he`s got to do all the zigs and the zags, convincingly more
--

MATTHEWS: That`s created a blur. How does he get rid of the blur?

FINEMAN: Well, he`s got to show that he`s in charge. He`s looked a lot
like a cork bobbing on diplomatic seas, that`s number one.

Number two, he`s got to say yes, chemical weapons are serious. And we are
prepared to use, we`re still prepared to use military means to get rid of
them.

MATTHEWS: If he gets congressional approval.

FINEMAN: But -- we`ll go to the U.N.

The problem he`s got is, as they draft this new resolution that`s going to
say, first, go to the U.N. If that doesn`t work. We authorize the
president to strike.

I`m not convinced that resolution can pass either.

MATTHEWS: Yes, I don`t think so.

FINEMAN: I`m not.

JONATHAN CAPEHART, MSNBC CONTRIBUTOR: Look, I think the president has been
very clear on what he wants to do. He wants to hold Bashar al-Assad
responsible and accountable for using chemical weapons against his own
people. That`s been the narrow definition of what he wants to do and what
he has been trying to do.

Things have changed since he gave that interview to Scott Pelley and
Savannah Guthrie and all the other folks yesterday, with, you know, John
Kerry, what he said in London. The Russians jumping in on --

MATTHEWS: So, now, what does he want to say?

CAPEHART: Well, I think the speech will be rather simple. That is --
we`ve got this diplomatic solution that`s under way. We are going to let
that process work. We are working with the Russians, the French, the
British, the international community, to try to hold him accountable.

If this doesn`t work -- then we will go, we will continue to push for
military action against Bashar al-Assad.

MATTHEWS: How so? Through Congress or the U.N.?

CAPEHART: I think -- well, I mean, he`s already said he wants to go
through Congress. I think he has to go through both. But he still has to
hold -- he has to hold the threat of military action over Assad`s head or
it won`t work.

FINEMAN: The difficulty is I agree with you. In one sense, folks had
chemical weapons, it is simple. But he`s got to be a credible military
threat in and of himself. In order for this to work he`s got to be able to
say, you know what, this is at the core of American national security
interests. And that, by the way, is what he said behind closed doors to
senators from both parties today.

MATTHEWS: But he said that publicly.

FINEMAN: But privately he said this is the core national security interest
of the United States. The message there being -- if I still feel that it`s
our national security interest to do this, I can have the constitutional
authority to do it and I will do it.

MATTHEWS: OK. But that`s the opposite of what he said, Jonathan. He said
the other day the reason he went to Congress for this because it doesn`t
involve immediate threat to the United States. It`s about our principle,
about basically policing the ban on chemical weapons use?

CAPEHART: About the international norm.

MATTHEWS: That`s not a threat to the United States.

CAPEHART: Well, it is a threat to the United States in that if the United
States does not act, or international community does not act, then other
actors around the world who have access to -- who might have access to
chemical weapons and then they use it then, what do we do? And as if the
United States let this, let Assad do what he did without repercussion.
That`s how it --

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: Here`s the problem, the American people don`t agree with him.
That`s the fundamental thing that you`re not mentioning. If you look at
the polling now --

FINEMAN: It`s the 21st century answer to the domino theory.

MATTHEWS: OK. But the American people don`t buy connection between the
evils of chemical war.

FINEMAN: I know.

MATTHEWS: They will see the pictures tonight, and I bet the public doesn`t
change its mind, because they don`t see connection between that evil and us
going in and blowing up some factories and killing a bunch of people. They
don`t see that because they know that leads to war.

FINEMAN: The odd thing is I think the White House is conceding tonight,
even before the president`s speech, that they don`t think it`s going to
change any mind.

MATTHEWS: Well, that`s an acknowledgement.

FINEMAN: Yes, that`s a big acknowledgement right there. And I think what
that means is this is a diplomatic show now on the air that the American
people are listening in on. This is less about convincing the American
people tonight than it is convincing the Russians and the Syrians that we
still will take military action.

MATTHEWS: OK. How do you do that? How do you meet the Russian demand
that we withdraw the threat of military action at the same team use it?
We`re going to withdraw because the Russians say withdraw fundamental
military action, and you say we need it as a hammer?

CAPEHART: Well, I mean, has the United States responded to Putin`s request
that we do that?

MATTHEWS: Will he act on our behalf if we don`t? If we keep threatening,
will he work with the Syrians in getting rid of their chemical weapons?

CAPEHART: You mean Putin?

MATTHEWS: Yes.

CAPEHART: You know, look, Putin --

MATTHEWS: The catch-22.

CAPEHART: I know it`s a catch-22 and Putin makes these demands. But the
United States and the president has to hold firm and saying that, look,
we`re not taking it off the table. And let`s keep in mind the reason why
we`re talking about Vladimir Putin and what he is doing with the Syrians
right now to come up with diplomatic solution is precisely because
President Obama made the threat that he was going to use military action.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: Here`s the further irony. That`s true.

But at the same time, the reason we all in this country are looking to the
Russian solution because you can`t get the votes in the Congress.

(CROSSTALK)

FINEMAN: Well, tell you what -- tell you what.

MATTHEWS: Right. It`s all ironic.

FINEMAN: It`s possible that Obama and Putin could blunder into peace here.

MATTHEWS: That`s what I`m hoping.

FINEMAN: They could entrap themselves in peace.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: We`re nearing about three minutes for the next program, because
that`s what I believe. And I believe Russia is not our permanent enemy.
It wasn`t in the civil war backed the north. It wasn`t the World War II,
and it wasn`t in the `60s when it came to limiting test ban treaties and
things like that.

We did a lot of good work with the Russians. I don`t hate Russians. I`m
not a neocon.

Thank you, Howard Fineman. Thank you, Jonathan Capehart.

You are watching HARDBALL, the place for politics.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: Let me finish tonight with this.

I think we got a verdict. The American people have ruled. There will be
no U.S. attack on Syria because the American people do not support such an
action.

They thought about it, heard the arguments, seen the situation as best they
can and their answer is a clear cut no.

I have shared that view and I`m heartened to see the emergence of an
alternative. Tonight, we talk about the alternative. Everything in me, I
have to say, tells me wars like these are not our place. It is not our
place to take side in a struggle between peoples who hate each other, for
religious reasons, going back 1,000 years or for tribal or clan revenge, or
simply out of competition to own and control the same small piece of land
in the Mideast.

As I said, I`m glad to see the emergence of an alternative from Russia.

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

President Obama will address the country in one hour. And I`ll join my
colleague Rachel Maddow for MSNBC`s complete coverage of the speech and
reaction starting right now.

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

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