updated 1/7/2014 5:23:20 PM ET 2014-01-07T22:23:20

HARDBALL
January 6, 2014

Guests: Cynthia Tucker, David Rohde, Michael Crowley, , Peter Beinart


MICHAEL SMERCONISH, MSNBC GUEST HOST: Ready, reset, go.

Let`s play HARDBALL.

Good evening. I`m Michael Smerconish, in for Chris Matthews. Chris
returns tomorrow.

But leading off tonight, the president`s reset. President Obama has
returned from a two-week vacation in Hawaii, kicking off a critical month
for his presidency. If you need a refresher, here`s where things left off.
At the last press conference before he left, he was repeatedly asked to
reflect on what some people described as his worst or toughest year in
office.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: If I look at this past year,
there are areas where there have obviously been some frustrations, where I
wish Congress had moved more aggressively. If you look at, for example,
immigration reform, probably the biggest thing that I wanted to get done
this year, we saw progress. And the fact that it didn`t hit the timeline
that I prefer is obviously frustrating, but it`s not something that I end
up brooding a lot about. The health care Web site problems were a source
of great frustration.

It`s not that I don`t engage in a lot of self-reflection here. I promise
you, I probably beat myself up, you know, even worse than you or Ed Henry
does on any given day. But I`ve also got to wake up in the morning and
make sure that I do better the next day and that we keep moving forward.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SMERCONISH: The president also touted the improvements to the health care
Web site and the fact that many people who didn`t have health care before
now do. And he said he was optimistic about 2014.

But hanging over everything is the political reality of the past year.
This is the trajectory the president is looking to change. According to
Gallup, he started the year with a 52 percent approval rating. By the time
he left for Hawaii, he had dropped 11 points. By comparison, both Ronald
Reagan and Bill Clinton`s approval stood at nearly 60 percent at this point
in their presidencies.

Can the president make a comeback? This next month is going to be telling.
As NBC`s "First Read" put it, quote, "January presents him with an
opportunity to hit the reset button on his second term. Either January is
the start of his political comeback, or it`s a missed opportunity and
perhaps one of his last."

Howard Fineman is editorial director for the HuffingtonPost, Eugene
Robinson is a columnist for "The Washington Post," and both are MSNBC
political analysts.

Gene, where does the opportunity lie for the president?

EUGENE ROBINSON, "THE WASHINGTON POST," MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, I
think there`s always opportunity for a president. You`re president of the
United States, right? So aside from some awful national disaster, why
would you ever really have a bad day?

You know, you`re the guy. And presidents can change the subject.
Presidents can issue sweeping executive orders. Presidents can invade
countries -- not that that`s a great thing that I would advise him to do.

But it`s -- you know, I think a president has to approach every new year
and every new day with the idea of being the protagonist and of trying to
move forward an agenda. And the president has tools to do that.

SMERCONISH: Howard, he said that he`s an introspective individual.
Covering him the way that you have, do you think that he looks at this
week, the start of 2014, as an opportunity to wipe the slate clean, and if
so, how then to move forward?

HOWARD FINEMAN, HUFFINGTON POST MEDIA GROUP, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:
Well, I think he`s been in Washington long enough to know that there are no
clean slates anymore. And I don`t think he`s naive enough to think that he
has one coming into a State of the Union address later this month.

But I also think that President Obama plays a deep game. He plays a long-
range game. He has a -- as aloof as he can be, he has the gift of
perspective. And I think that he wants to use these next couple of years
to try to chip away at a big problem of his time and of our time, which is
income inequality.

It`s not going to be easy. There`s a cloture vote in the Senate today --
the Senate was forced to go to a cloture vote today to even consider the
possibility of extending unemployment insurance. That shows you the sour
mood that`s here. But I think he likes the challenge, and I think he`s --
I think he`s -- I think he`s ready to take it on.

SMERCONISH: Well, to your point, the president has signaled a major focus
in the coming weeks is going to be on that theme of income inequality. And
in his weekly address, he talked about long-term unemployment insurance,
which ran out for more than a million people just last month.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA: Denying families that security is just plain cruel. We`re a better
country than that. We don`t abandon our fellow Americans when times get
tough. We keep the faith with them until they start that new job. So when
Congress comes back to work this week, their first order of business should
be making this right.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SMERCONISH: Eugene, is that the tangible way in which he intends to move
the agenda forward, increasing the minimum wage and extending the
unemployment benefits?

ROBINSON: Well, exactly. I think when you talk about the income
inequality, that`s a broad subject, so you have to chop it up into discrete
initiatives. The first thing, obviously, since those extended benefits
have run out, is getting those renewed, from the president`s point of view,
and I think he`ll push on that.

And he`s already been talking about the minimum wage, which has lagged
behind for years and years now, and I think there`s a desperate need to
increase that. And so you kind of have to pick these things off virtually
one by one. There`s not going to be some sort of big omnibus piece of
legislation to deal with all the issues of income inequality. You`ve got
to start hammering at this one, and then the next one and then the next
one.

SMERCONISH: Howard, allow me to be a bit of a cynic on this. To those who
are employed and those who do not require unemployment benefits, are making
in excess of the minimum wage, is this at the top of their priority list,
as well? How does this play in terms of a turnout measure for 2014, I
guess is what I`m asking?

FINEMAN: Well, I think you`re on to something there. I don`t think that
those two measures, in and of themselves, are enough to make an agenda, to
make any kind of sweeping conceptual point that the president wants to make
and that he`s gifted at making.

But for the core of the Democratic Party, it`s important. Don`t forget
that some Democrats have walked away from "Obamacare." They`re wringing
their hands about it. Some are distancing themselves from him on it. Here
are two measures, unemployment insurance and the minimum wage, which every
Democrat, virtually every Democrat, agrees with him on. And it`s a way for
him to unite the party and take the party into battle heading into 2014
midterm elections, but also to try to get some things done on the Hill.

As I say, I`m somewhat skeptical about that because here on this first day,
it`s taken a -- they`ve had to stage a cloture vote in the Senate just to
even get to the point of possibly voting on an extension of unemployment
benefits.

And talking to staffers and members, there`s sort of deep sour cynicism up
there that`s going to pervade the chamber when he speaks later this month,
about everybody`s motives. The Republicans I talked to said, Oh, the
Democrats don`t really want to pass this. If they had -- that is
unemployment insurance extension -- they would have found a "pay for" -- in
other words, a way to cut the budget to pay for it. They don`t want to do
it. They`re just in it for the politics.

The Democrats say the Republicans are just in it to make their points with
their base. There`s no common ground up there at all. That`s really the
big challenge that the president has.

SMERCONISH: You make an interesting --

ROBINSON: Michael, I would point out, though, that those are two issues
that -- initiatives, rather, that are broadly popular not only among
Democrats, but among independents and Republicans, as well. People just
believe that the minimum wage is too low and that unemployment benefits
should be extended.

SMERCONISH: There`s no doubt about that, Gene. I was just thinking of it
in the same context as, say, legalization of marijuana, where the numbers
run in excess of the approval rating for same-sex marriage. And I don`t
dispute that -- 58, 60 percent. I just wonder how many people are going
out to vote on that issue, and I`m wondering the same thing on
unemployment.

To Howard`s point about the internals in the Democratic Party, your
colleague, Gene, Chris Cillizza, in "The Washington Post," made the point
that the president has lost the most in this past year among Democrats and
independents. Among Republicans, he dropped only 4 points because his
approval was, frankly, already so low. But among independents and
Democrats, he was down double digits.

And according to Cillizza, quote, "Add it all up, and you can conclude two
things. One, Obama`s best perhaps only strategy to move the needle on his
approval numbers in the near term is to rally Democrats. And two, even if
that happens, he will still find himself well short of the lofty ratings
enjoyed by Reagan and Clinton in their second terms."

Eugene Robinson, I guess to make that glass half full, you`d say, Well, he
can pick up ground with Democrats surely, perhaps with independents.

ROBINSON: Well, I think he probably can. As you noted, he couldn`t get
much lower with Republicans, so you can kind of toss that aside.

But I`m not familiar with the internals on that poll as to exactly why
Democrats seem to be disillusioned. My guess would be that it has a good
deal to do with the awkward, terrible, horrible roll-out of the Affordable
Care Act, and that as that improves and things get better or back to some
sort of new normal, those numbers would tend to drift higher by themselves.
But you`re right, he has some work to do among the faithful.

SMERCONISH: Howard, in the end, is it all about the Affordable Care Act
and how well implementation in 2014 takes place?

FINEMAN: Well, it`s not all about that, but that`s a big part of it. And
don`t forget, a lot of Democrats -- there are still some Democrats, quite a
number of them, who think that the law didn`t go far enough to begin with,
that basically, it was -- it was climbing in bed with the big insurance
companies and the big hospital chains and the big drug companies. And they
were skeptical of it, Michael Moore being a classic example on the left,
you know, excoriating the thing. And so it has to work to unify the
Democrats, as well as to try to get those independent voters back.

I mean, the other point here I would make, Michael, is that times have
changed. Back in the times of Ronald Reagan or even Bill Clinton, there
was a sort of sense of good will in the middle, people wanting to try to do
a deal, move the government forward, especially at the beginning or the
first year or two of a second term. That whole spirit of politics is
completely gone in the United States.

There are two warring camps on the Hill. There`s virtually no middle
ground. And that makes it all the more difficult for the president to
operate. He`s got no choice but to try to operate in that atmosphere, but
it`s very difficult. I can tell you the feeling on the Hill when they come
back this month is not going to be, Let`s roll up our hands (sic) and let`s
all get together. That`s gone. That`s totally gone in Washington.

SMERCONISH: Right. Pick up where we left off.

FINEMAN: Right.

SMERCONISH: I get it, sadly. Howard Fineman, thank you -- Eugene
Robinson. Good to see you both. Coming up --

ROBINSON: Happy new year.

SMERCONISH: Thank you. You, too.

SMERCONISH: -- income inequality -- the Democrats plan to make this a
major issue in 2014, the key, exploiting the GOP`s opposition to extending
unemployment benefits or to raising the minimum wage.

Also, there`s an old saying Republicans love to repeat -- We declared war
on poverty and poverty won. Poverty certainly isn`t gone, but it`s not
clear the war was lost. Still, a lot of people on the right use that as an
excuse to cut back on anti-poverty programs and to cut taxes for the
wealthy.

Plus, no one`s surprising -- no one`s surprised, but the bloodshed is going
on unabated in Iraq, and to no one`s surprise, prominent Republicans are
blaming President Obama for that mess.

Finally, what action film star whose movie posters usually involve three
words and a gun is thinking of running for governor of Arizona?

This is HARDBALL, the place for politics.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SMERCONISH: Liz Cheney has ended her bid for the Senate in Wyoming. The
daughter of former vice president Dick Cheney says in a statement that
serious health concerns have arisen in her family. NBC News is reporting
that those health concerns involve her children. She`s the mother of five.

Cheney was in an uphill primary battle against incumbent Republican senator
Mike Enzi. Polling showed Enzi with sizable leads among Wyoming
Republicans.

We`ll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SMERCONISH: Welcome back to HARDBALL. We`re just six days into 2014, and
already the political battle lines that will define 2014 are being drawn --
furiously. For Democrats, it`s an all-out assault on the issue of income
inequality. And it`s not just the president leading the charge here. It`s
the entire party.

Senator Chuck Schumer, a key member of his party`s leadership, outlined the
strategy like this. Quote, "Our Republican colleagues should take note.
Issues like job creation, minimum wage and unemployment insurance are going
to weigh on the minds of voters far more than Obamacare by the time the
2014 election`s rolling around. "

At its heart, the growing disparity between rich and poor is the linchpin
in Schumer`s strategy. And it isn`t some progressive myth, it`s real.
Take a look at these figures from the Congressional Budget Office. Since
1979, the top 1 percent of Americans have seen their incomes grow by more
than 200 percent. That`s a tripling of their income. For the middle of
America, the gains stood at a much more paltry 40 percent.

If the Democratic strategy is defined by action, the Republican strategy is
just the opposite, inaction. In other words, let the Affordable Care Act
do the talking for them. "The New York Times" takes an in-depth look at
the GOP war plan in a great piece titled "House GOP trims agenda, looking
to avert election year trouble." The bottom line, the do-nothing Congress
is preparing to do even less.

And members in the party aren`t shy about it. Tom Cole from Oklahoma told
"The Times," "Big thinking has more often gotten us into trouble than led
us to success." Charlie Dent, a moderate from Pennsylvania, said, "It`s
pretty clear to me, in the House, we don`t want to make ourselves the
issue."

Jonathan Capehart is an opinion writer with "The Washington Post." David
Corn is the Washington bureau chief with "Mother Jones." Both, of course,
are MSNBC political analysts.

David, as you know better than anybody else because you broke the whole 47
percent Mitt Romney story -- that paid dividends for the Democrats in the
last cycle, the presidential cycle. Will it resonate in a midterm election
in similar fashion?

DAVID CORN, "MOTHER JONES," MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: I was just still
chuckling about the "big thinking" quote getting us into trouble.

(LAUGHTER)

CORN: What is a party, if not a collection of ideas and notions to put
before the public? But the Republicans don`t want to do that.

I do think that we`ve had for a couple of years now -- and the White House
and President Obama has really gone to great pains to make this the
narrative -- a real strong ideological divide between the two parties. The
Republicans have moved far further in the libertarian direction than we`ve
seen in decades in terms of saying government shouldn`t do anything,
shouldn`t help, shouldn`t be used to goose the economy forward, and really
shouldn`t be there for anything but the most minimal of a social safety
net.

And Obama has said, with Democrats in Congress basically going along with
him, that we need to have a proactive government that does what it can to
get the economy ready and moving into this century, and also taking care of
the people who have been hurt by the recession and who are being hurt by
economic dislocation caused by these great global changes that have been
under way for years, if not decades. And that`s sort of -- that`s the big
fight.

Then we end up fighting about the individual planks, whether it`s
investments in infrastructure, unemployment insurance, minimum wage. So I
think that`s still a good fight for the Democrats.

But one thing, you know -- people keep talking about calling this the fight
over income inequality. I worry politically whether that`s the best way to
describe this because --

SMERCONISH: What would you call it?

CORN: -- we at "Mother Jones" have been writing -- have been writing
about this for years, and it`s a very serious and important subject --

SMERCONISH: How would you brand it? What would you label it?

CORN: I still think it`s about getting an economy that works for
everybody. You know, that --

SMERCONISH: Meaning jobs?

CORN: More -- jobs, you know, because all these things, you know, whether
it`s minimum wage and infrastructure investment and all those other things,
they will address income inequality if we create good jobs with decent
wages and --

SMERCONISH: Jonathan Capehart, ground zero for the income inequality
debate is playing out as we speak. It`s the issue of unemployment
insurance, which ran out for more than a million Americans at the end of
last year.

Some Republicans, led by Rand Paul, oppose the extension. And central to
their argument is the notion that the benefit, which averages out to just
$300 a week, dissuades people from finding real work. Here`s Senator Paul
on the issue.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. RAND PAUL (R), KENTUCKY: I do support unemployment benefits for the
26 weeks that they`re paid for. If you extend it beyond that, you do a
disservice to these workers. I do think, though, that the longer you have
it, that it does provide some disincentive to work, and that there are many
studies that indicate this.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SMERCONISH: Meanwhile, Democrats like Chuck Schumer warning Republicans
that their strategy could result in a historic backfire. Here is Schumer
on ABC`s "This Week."

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "THIS WEEK")

SEN. CHARLES SCHUMER (D), NEW YORK: I think it`s a little insulting, a bit
insulting to American workers when Rand Paul says that unemployment
insurance is a disservice. They want to work. They don`t want
unemployment benefits.

They`re just hanging on with unemployment benefits. You cut them off, they
may lose the house they have paid for, take their kids out of college. So
I would hope he would reconsider, pass the three-month extension. And if
they don`t, it`s going to be an election in 2014.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SMERCONISH: Jonathan Capehart, on which side does gravity fall? The
Republicans on one hand saying, look, it`s still going to be all about
Obamacare. Senator Schumer, the Democrat, saying, no, it`s going to be
about these financial, these fiscal issues that affect real people.

JONATHAN CAPEHART, MSNBC CONTRIBUTOR: Michael, this whole thing is about
economic security. If you want a rebranding, if not income inequality,
economic security.

And the longer that Obamacare, the Affordable Care Act is up and running,
fully operational, there might be problems here or there, but the longer it
goes on, and the more people are happy with what is happening, the less of
an issue it is for Republicans.

And on the flip side, when it comes to unemployment insurance, minimum
wage, that strikes to the heart of what I remember Speaker Boehner harping
on the president in 2010, 2011, 2012. Remember, where are the jobs, Mr.
President? Every day, there is a tweet. Every day in a press conference,
he would ask that question.

And here we are, 2014. People -- the unemployment rate is still at 7
percent. People are still hurting. The folks who -- the 1.3 million
Americans who were dropped from receiving unemployment insurance, these are
folks who -- long-term unemployed who were gainfully employed, mostly,
looking for new jobs after the economy imploded, and can`t find work. And
I have to agree with Senator Schumer.

The idea that -- it`s insulting to say that people who are on unemployment
are somehow lazy because they`re getting unemployment. That doesn`t speak
to what they have been trying to do to get off -- get off unemployment,
looking for work, and they can`t find work.

SMERCONISH: What is interesting that, well, at its heart, this is
compassion politics, I guess you could say.

CORN: Yes.

SMERCONISH: And the polling favors Democrats on these big issues, big-
time. Look at some of these polling results. On the minimum wage,
according to last month`s NBC News/"Wall Street Journal" poll, 63 percent
of Americans favor raising the minimum wage to at least $10.10.
Republicans basically split down the middle on that one.

On unemployment insurance, according to a poll from Hart Research -- and
that`s a Democratic pollster -- just a couple of weeks ago, there is more
than a 20 percent gap between those who support maintaining those benefits
compared to those who want to cut them off.

These numbers speak to a bigger issue of party image for Republicans.
According to that NBC/"Wall Street Journal" survey, when people are asked
which party shows more compassion and concern for its people, it`s a
runaway victory for the Democrats. They edge Republicans by a 45-17
margin. That`s a 28-point difference.

David Corn, is that enough to upset the figures that all three of us are
familiar with? I`m thinking about Charlie Cook`s report in particular that
says typically this would be a two-dozen-seat loss for the party in power,
meaning in power at the White House. Are these issues going to be enough
to stem that tide, David?

CORN: Well, I think, unfortunately, people don`t vote on compassion alone.
I mean, there are lots of different issues involved. And the Democrats
historically do better on those sort of polling questions, who is more
compassionate, who cares more about you, who identifies more with the
middle class.

Again and again, they do better than the Republicans. Republicans, believe
it or not, right now in terms of the generic vote, would rather vote for
Republican or Democrat in the next congressional election, are actually
doing better than the Democrats in recent polling, so even after the
government shutdown and everything else.

I think we`re going to see a very volatile political year. Probably two,
three, five, 17 things will happen between now and next November --

SMERCONISH: No doubt.

CORN: -- that will shape it that we can`t predict. But I do think this
is the narrative that the president has been trying to set up for the last
few years for his own election, reelection, and then for the coming 2014
campaign, that we, Democrats, care more about the economy, care more about
you, and are willing to do something.

SMERCONISH: David, thank you.

Jonathan Capehart, thank you, as always.

CAPEHART: Thanks, Michael.

SMERCONISH: Up next: the latest movie action star to consider a run for
governor -- next in the "Sideshow."

And if you want to follow me on Twitter, you can find me if you know how to
spell Smerconish.

This is HARDBALL, the place for politics.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SMERCONISH: Back to HARDBALL. Time for the "Sideshow."

He is pumped for a run. Well, not exactly. But action film star Steven
Seagal is reportedly considering a bid for governor of Arizona. Best known
for films like "Under Siege" and "Above the Law," the 61-year-old actor
told the press over the weekend that he has discussed a potential campaign
with controversial birther and border security fanatic Sheriff Joe Arpaio.
Seagal recently teamed up with Arpaio for a new reality show, joining his
so-called posse of 3,000 civilians who track down undocumented workers.

While that association may reveal a lot about Seagal`s politics, it turns
out the famed B-movie actor is also a longtime friend of another tough guy
politician. That would be Vladimir Putin. Both are lovers of martial
arts, and the Russian president has hosted Seagal in Russia, where they
attended some mixed martial arts together. After Donald Trump and Clay
Aiken, Seagal is now the third celebrity to tease a political run in just
the last two weeks.

Next up, the upcoming Tennessee gubernatorial race may be fought over a pet
raccoon. Mark "Coonrippy" Brown and his raccoons were a viral sensation on
YouTube for over a year, with millions of views. His videos have even
appeared on "The Tonight Show."


But, in July, the Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency seized his beloved
raccoon, Rebekah, saying it`s illegal to keep a wild animal as a pet.
Since then, Brown and his defenders have been waging an all-out custody
battle against Governor Bill Haslam. And now Brown is taking the save
Rebekah one step further. He has decided to challenge Haslam for governor,
since the state ignored his petition to return his former pet.

As ridiculous as it sounds, if elected, Brown wouldn`t be the first
politician to have owned a raccoon. President -- President Calvin Coolidge
had one as a pet in the White House. That raccoon, which was,
coincidentally, also named Rebecca, was delivered as a gift to the first
family in 1927 and was intended to be eaten for Thanksgiving dinner in lieu
of turkey. But the Coolidges pardoned the animal, and Rebecca became a hit
with the White House press corps, which reported on her regularly.

Rebecca even hosted the White House egg roll with first lady Grace
Coolidge.

Finally, Congressman Steve Stockman`s primary challenge to incumbent
Senator John Cornyn hit another bump in the road after The Washington Post
called him out on several inconsistencies on his campaign Web site. In a
section titled "Past and Present Endorsements," the post found that seven
of the 12 listed groups had not actually endorsed Stockman for Senate,
including one endorsement -- quote -- "attributed to Howard Phillips, a
conservative activist who died seven months before Stockman got in the
race."

Also listed, the NRA, which had actually endorsed his opponent. Well,
since that article appeared on Friday, the entire page has conspicuously
vanished from Stockman`s campaign Web site.

Up next, the war on poverty, a lot of people on the right say that we`re
not winning, and that`s their excuse to cut back the government`s safety
net and cut taxes for the rich.

And a reminder: Chris Matthews returns to HARDBALL tomorrow night.

You`re watching HARDBALL, the place for politics.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

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

The Senate has voted to confirm Janet Yellen as the next chief of the
Federal Reserve, making her the first woman to head the Central Bank. She
will succeed Ben Bernanke.

The chamber has moved its planned vote on extending jobless benefits to
tomorrow morning. Many senator are absent due to travel problems. The
travel problems are because of the weather. The cold snap has forced
thousands of flight cancellations. JetBlue has suspended flights in Boston
and New York, citing the cold weather -- now back to HARDBALL.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

LYNDON JOHNSON, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Very often, a lack of jobs
and money is not the cause of poverty, but the symptom. Our aim is not
only to relieve the symptom of poverty, but to cure it, and, above all, to
prevent it.

(APPLAUSE)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SMERCONISH: Welcome back to HARDBALL. That was President Lyndon Johnson
launching a war on poverty 50 years ago this Wednesday.

The official poverty rate has only fallen from 19 percent to 15 percent
since Johnson launched the initiative. But according to The New York
Times, many economists believe that official number grossly understates the
impact and effectiveness of anti-poverty programs like food stamps, Social
Security, and unemployment insurance.

"The Times" said -- quote -- "A fuller accounting suggests that poverty
rate, the poverty rate has dropped to 16 percent today from 26 percent in
the late 1960s."

Nonetheless, conservatives have branded the war on poverty as a failure.
Here is a video of Senator Marco Rubio, one that he released on this, the
50th anniversary week.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. MARCO RUBIO (R), FLORIDA: Fifty years ago, President Lyndon Johnson
declared a big-government war on poverty. Well, since then, American
taxpayers have spent about $20 trillion on welfare and other government
programs that claim to lift people out of poverty.

And yet today tens of millions of Americans live beneath the poverty line.
In other words, for millions of Americans living in poverty, the American
dream doesn`t seem reachable. And that`s unacceptable. After 50 years,
isn`t it time to declare big government`s war on poverty a failure?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SMERCONISH: Michael Tomasky in The Daily Beast said that Rubio is just
plain wrong.

He wrote -- quote -- "It`s high time to say that the war on poverty was a
success, a wild success, indeed, by nearly every meaningful measure. But
no one thinks so, and a big part of the reason is that most Democrats are
afraid to say so. They damn well better start. If we are really going to
be raising the minimum wage and tackling inequality, someone needs to be
willing to say to the American people that these kinds of approaches get
results."

Cynthia Tucker is a visiting professor at the University of Georgia. Peter
Beinart is with "The Atlantic."

Cynthia, have we been fighting the war on poverty for all of those 50
years?

CYNTHIA TUCKER, UNIVERSITY OF GEORGIA: No, we haven`t.

You know, we had barely begun to fight when, by the 1970s, Richard Nixon
was elected followed by Ronald Reagan, who declared that poor people were
poor through their own fault, the nation was tired of hearing about poor
people. And some of these programs were never fully funded.

Had we done what we should have done, making programs like Head Start fully
funded, paying the teachers well, we would be a lot farther along. But
even though we fought the battle poorly, Michael Tomasky is right. A lot
of it worked.

Look at what we did with putting people through college. Many of my high
school classmates went to college on Pell Grants. They have middle-class
lives today because those programs were available to them. So don`t tell
me the war on poverty was a failure. It wasn`t.

SMERCONISH: Peter, how would you characterize the overall rate of success
or lack of success? Marco Rubio, as you have heard, says it was a failure,
an abject failure. And Mr. Tomasky says it was a wild success. Where do
you fall in that?

PETER BEINART, THE DAILY BEAST: I think Cynthia is right.

If you look at the years in which it really got significant government
funding, really up until the second Nixon term in particular, you actually
saw a really pretty dramatic drop in poverty. And a lot of those programs
-- you know, Rubio didn`t mention those, like Medicare, Medicaid, Head
Start, Pell Grants, expansion of Social Security -- are extremely popular.

You notice the one thing that Rubio mentioned was welfare. He said welfare
and other programs, as if welfare, by which I assume he means aid to
families with dependent children, the relatively small program that was
stigmatized in a highly racialized way by people like Ronald Reagan, that`s
what he emphasized.

And I think that`s what is key to understanding about what he said. He
wasn`t speaking honestly about the broad panoply of programs that have
helped people of every race and ethnicity and creed in this country. He
was, in a dog whistle kind of way, very Reaganesque, referring to a program
that people associated wrongly with irresponsible poor black people.

Jared Bernstein, the former chief economist to Vice President Joe Biden,
wrote in The New York Times today that the official government poverty rate
is not a metric of success for the policies launched by President Johnson
to combat poverty.

He said, quote, "The reason, however, is not the ineffectiveness of the
anti-poverty programs that his administration introduced and strengthened.
It`s that they have had to work much harder in an economy that has made it
a lot tougher for those at the bottom to get ahead.

Some of the contributing factors that make it harder to reduce poverty
Bernstein says include the growing income in inequality gap, a decline in
labor unions, lower minimum wages, and a poor job market for low wage
workers.

Cynthia, you made reference earlier to some of the educational components
of this and we`ve all seen the recent data yet again of how our students
lag behind in the math and the sciences. Would that be the area where
you`d say we come up the shortest on the stick in terms of trying to better
people`s lives, education?

CYNTHIA TUCKER, UNIVERSITY OF GEORGIA: I think that is certainly a
critical area where we haven`t done nearly enough. And we could clearly
afford to do better.

But let me also say, Michael, you know, it is hard for any government
program to get credit for what it prevented. And Jared Bernstein was
pointing out how much tougher the economy is these days. If those programs
were not in effect, the poverty rate would be much higher than it is.

You know, this effort to build and sustain a social safety net ran into the
headwinds of an economy that is changing. That is throwing the working
class out of work, manufacturing jobs are disappearing. And so, instead of
talking about cutting back that safety net, we need a much stronger one
before we can say that we are really fighting the war on poverty.

We need to keep food stamps in place so people aren`t hungry. We need much
better medical care. You know, we gave the elderly as Peter said Social
Security and Medicare. But we`re still struggling to help the working
class get good health care.

So, yes, the economy has changed. And we need a stronger social safety
net.

SMERCONISH: Very quickly, Peter, you wrote recently about John Edwards,
you know, interestingly, being ahead of his time on this issue. Who picks
up that mantle going forward in your estimation?

PETER BEINART, THE ATLANTIC: Well, Bill de Blasio has picked it up in New
York, proposing universal child care, preschool care, which a lot of
studies show can really boost the chances for poor kids going to college
and succeeding. And I think we`re going to see that the huge opportunity
for any national Democrat who really picks up this mantle and makes it his
own.

John Edwards, he may have had a lot of problems in his personal life, but
he was really ahead of his time in raising this issue. And I think there`s
a lot of opportunity for anyone who credibly does it in the future.

SMERCONISH: Thank you, Cynthia Tucker. Thank you, Peter Beinart.

Up next, al Qaeda militants take control of parts of Iraq. And here at
home, Republicans are managing to blame President Obama.

This is HARDBALL, the place for politics.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SMERCONISH: The United States Supreme Court has temporarily stopped same-
sex marriages in Utah. The high court issued a stay while a federal
appeals court considers the issue. Utah became the 18th state to allow
same-sex marriage just before Christmas, when a federal judge there ruled
the state`s ban on gay marriage was unconstitutional. Since then, nearly a
thousand same-sex couples have gotten married in the deep red state as Utah
officials sought to stop it.

We`ll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SMERCONISH: We`re back.

The last few weeks have seen scenes that tragically look like deja vu in
Iraq. Al Qaeda-linked militants have taken over the mostly Sunni city of
Fallujah in Anbar province. Fallujah, of course, was the site of the
bloodiest battles in Iraq back in 2004. The White House said today that it
would speed up delivery of military equipment to the Iraqi government, but
Secretary John Kerry and others have ruled out sending troops back to the
country.

Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham said the president bore some
responsibility for what`s unfolding. Quote, "While many Iraqis are
responsible for this strategic disaster, the administration cannot escape
its share of the blame. When President Obama withdrew all U.S. forces from
Iraq in 2011 over the objections of our military leaders and the commanders
on the ground, many of us predicted that the vacuum would be filled by
America`s enemies and would emerge as a threat to U.S. national security
interests. Sadly, that reality is now clearer than ever. What is sadder
still, the thousands of brave Americans who fought, shed their blood, and
lost their friends to bring peace to Fallujah and Iraq are now left to
wonder whether the sacrifices were in vain."

Most Americans view the Iraq war as not having been worth it. They were
happy to see us get out, and have no appetite for a return.

So, what exactly are McCain and Graham suggesting that we do?

Michael Crowley is chief foreign affairs correspondent for "Time" magazine.
David Rohde is a foreign affairs columnist for "Reuters".

David, should we have stayed longer? Is that the take-away from this?

DAVID ROHDE, REUTERS: No, I don`t think so at all. And it`s sort of odd
to me honestly by bringing up this idea of sending troops that McCain and
Graham are helping the administration. America does not want to send
troops back into the Iraq.

But to hold the administration accountable, there is a huge problem in the
region. Saudi Arabia and Iran had moved into a power vacuum that exists
now that the U.S. has pulled out. And you`re seeing tensions spreading
across the region between Sunnis and Shias, and the administration has no
response to that. But the answer is definitely not sending in American
troops.

SMERCONISH: Michael, Benjamin Rhodes, a White House deputy national
security adviser, told "The New York Times", quote, "It`s not in America`s
interest to have troops in the middle of every conflict in the Middle East
or to be permanently involved in open-ended wars in the Middle East."

When I read that quote, I said it sounds a little Ron Paul-ish to me.

MICHAEL CROWLEY, TIME: Well, to some degree that does reflect the popular
mood. This administration knows, I think the president believes
strategically, I do think, that for -- it`s in our strategic interests to
have a much lighter footprint in the Middle East, to disentangle. But at
the same time, the American is just done with this region right now.

Look at the polling around a possible military strike in Syria. There is
absolutely no appetite for it. And although, as with the surge that Bush
did in Iraq, you can be ahead of public opinion sometimes, I think there is
a point at I think there`s a point at which public opinion really is a
complete road block.

SMERCONISH: David, I know you think we tend to be -- we, the public, tend
to be a bit too simplistic and look at all of these situations as a matter
of whether or not to commit troops, when, in fact, there are other
opportunities and avenues available to us. What might they be in a
situation like Iraq now?

ROHDE: And that`s exactly what I think. I don`t think that the public is
the problem. It`s a Washington, you know, tendency to have a debate about
we`re going to send in the 82nd Airborne to Fallujah and they`re going to
sort it out.

SMERCONISH: Right.

ROHDE: We`ve done that for decades and it hasn`t worked well. I think
it`s good the administration is sending weapons in. There`s intelligence
we can give the Iraqis.

There are hundreds of thousands of Iraqi security forces we`ve trained.
Let them lead this fight. That`s correct.

What disturbs me is when Americans think we don`t have allies in the region
and there aren`t local forces to support. You know, local people when al
Qaeda takes over the towns, they`re not popular. So, we should look for --
when there are local forces we can help train or fund and actually back
them and look for allies in the region. They do exist. There are
moderates in the Middle East.

SMERCONISH: Michael, Secretary of State John Kerry said that the U.S.
would play a role helping the Iraqis but ruled out any chance of American
boots on the ground.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JOHN KERRY, SECRETARY OF STATE: This is a fight that belongs to the
Iraqis. That is exactly what the president and the world decided some time
ago when we left Iraq. So, we are not obviously contemplating returning.
We`re not contemplating putting boots on the ground. This is their fight.
But we`re going to help them in their fight.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SMERCONISH: When he says this is their fight, how much of the blame is
attributable to President al Maliki and the way in which he has purged
Sunnis from this government?

CROWLEY: I think that is part of it. I mean, you do have this civil war
that`s sort of burning in the region across the border in Syria. Syria and
Iraq are linked in this kind of hellish way right now. It is true Maliki
has not been an inclusive governor. And one reason we have withheld some
military forces that he`s been asking for for a while is a fear that U.S.
government has had that he will violently crack down on his Sunni
opponents.

So we may now accelerate arms to him that we were holding back because we
were worried he would misuse them. By the way, one interesting fact on the
question of how the political winds may have shifted. In 2007, when Barack
Obama described his withdrawal plan from Iraq, he said at the time, I will
keep enough forces in the region to deal with al Qaeda in Iraq if they have
a resurgence.

So, back in 2007, he was kind of holding that option open. But, again, I
think you see the way public opinion has gone and the way his foreign
policy has gone, no interest right now in American involvement in Iraq
right now.

SMERCONISH: David, the professionals now characterize this as a proxy war
between the Saudis and Iran. What exactly does that mean?

ROHDE: That means car bombings in Lebanon that we`ve seen. That means al
Qaeda being resurgent in Iraq. It`s going to get worse, and I just think
the administration needs a strategy. Ben Rhodes is very careful in the
statement to "The New York Times" on Sunday saying the answer is not
troops, like raising. It`s all about we`re going to have to reengage
militarily.

But that doesn`t leave the administration off the hook from reining in the
Saudis if we can. It`s a very dangerous situation. It doesn`t affect
Americans now but it could in the future. And the administration needs a
strategy. Not a military one.

SMERCONISH: We have just 30 seconds left, David. If there is, indeed, a
vacuum that has been created by our withdrawal from Iraq and Middle East,
more so than we`ve been in the past, who can fill the vacuum that`s
friendly toward us? Who should we be rooting for?

RHODES: I think there are -- we vice president been the rooting I think
for the right people. I think that we`ve been siding too much with the
Saudis. The Saudis have been -- we basically step back and Syria and the
way the Saudis dealt with the problem there.

SMERCONISH: So, who should we root for? Real quick?

ROHDE: I would say the Jordanian government are moderates. The Tunisians.
Until recently, the Turkish government has been helpful, but now, it`s --

SMERCONISH: OK. Thank you, both.

ROHDE: Thank you.

SMERCONISH: Thank you, Michael Crowley. Thank you, David Rohde.

We`ll be right back. You`re watching HARDBALL, the place for politics.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SMERCONISH: Let me finish tonight with this. Things have taken a turn for
the worst in Iraq in the past couple of weeks and indeed in the entire
Middle East.

Fallujah, once the scene of some of fiercest fighting between insurgents
and U.S. forces in the wake of the 2003 invasion, is now said to be
completely under the control of Sunni militants affiliated with al Qaeda,
despite the efforts of Prime Minister Nuri al Maliki`s Shiite led
government. Militants also control major areas of Ramadi.

Now, both Fallujah and Ramadi are in the province of Anbar. That`s where
1,300 American servicemen died defending the province from attacks by al
Qaeda-linked militants between 2003 and 2011. In other words, two years
after the last American troops left Iraq, the government troops trained by
the U.S. at a cost of billions have not been able to maintain an upper hand
in an area where many Americans shed their blood.

It`s not only Iraq that`s aflame. Lebanon and Syria have destabilized in
the past couple of weeks, as a result of fanatical Islamists under the al
Qaeda banner. A group calling itself the Islamic state in Iraq and Syria
seeks to erase the border between the two countries and create a jihadi
haven underscoring that the difficulties in this part of the world
transcend nations.

As for the countries, themselves, much of this appears as a proxy fight
between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Among the questions, what should the U.S.
response be? Well, today`s "New York Times" spoke of the emergence of a
post-American Middle East in which no broker has the power or the will to
contain the region`s sectarian hatreds.

Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, critics of the Obama
administration`s withdrawal of American troops are saying that their
predictions that a vacuum would be filled by America`s enemies and would
emerge as a threat to U.S. national security interests have now been proven
correct.

Secretary of State John Kerry said yesterday that the United States is
ready to help Iraq in any way possible, but that no American troops would
be sent in. And that`s the right call. Better that our energy be focused
on attempting to negotiate an end to the Iranian nuclear crisis and peace
between Israel and the Palestinians.

Already, 4,410 Americans lost their lives in Iraq. And another 31,942 were
wounded. And that`s enough.

We need to be active participants in the Middle East but no longer should
our response to be open a military base in every trouble spot around the
globe. And those who would argue our withdrawal from Iraq created
instability need to be asked what sort of instability was created by the
U.S. going into Iraq in the first place?

That`s HARDBALL for now. Thank you for being with us. Chris Matthews
comes back tomorrow night.

"ALL IN WITH CHRIS HAYES" starts right now.


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