Guests: Joe Sestak, Pat Buchanan, Norah O‘Donnell, Eugene Robinson
CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST: Thirteen days that could shape the world.
Let‘s play HARDBALL.
Good evening. I‘m Chris Matthews. Welcome to HARDBALL. Tonight:
Reality bites. Just eight days out from Iowa, and eight—count them, eight—days, eight presidential candidates hit the trail hard today in the Hawkeye State. Our HARDBALL “Hot Topic” tonight, the Obama factor. Hillary Clinton must keep Barack Obama from winning because if he wins, it will be the biggest news story of the year. More on this in just a moment.
And unconventional wisdom, how some of the 2008 underdogs are now moving to the top and how some favorites have fallen. We‘ll talk to NBC News political analyst Charlie Cook.
Hillary Clinton came under fire today for the very thing she says that makes her the best candidate, her heightened experience—that‘s her big word—as Bill Clinton‘s wife. And on this day after Christmas, the “Politics Fix” is up close and personal.
Plus, which candidate is making potential supporters sit out in the cold and wait and wait and wait? It‘s all part of tonight‘s “Big Number.”
But first, our HARDBALL “Hot Topic.” Let me say here what nobody else has said so far. If Senator Barack Obama wins the Iowa Democratic presidential caucuses next Thursday—that‘s eight days from now—it will be the biggest story in American politics in a generation. Actually, it will be a global story carried on the front pages and leading the broadcast news in every country on the planet—an African-American, someone whose father came from Kenya, has been chosen by American voters to succeed George W. Bush.
It‘s a story with tectonic importance that it will dominate world news for days. It will be up there with the opening of the Berlin Wall, the first all-races elections in South Africa, both stories I was lucky enough to cover. And it could be just as positive, depending, of course, on your politics.
“Newsweek‘s” Howard Fineman is an NBC News political analyst and David Shuster is with HARDBALL. David is up there in New York.
Well, here‘s the latest Hillary ad. Let‘s take a look.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON (D-NY), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I‘m Hillary Clinton and I approve this message.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MATTHEWS: I don‘t get it, Howard. They‘re in the fight of their lives, that‘s a biography ad. Everybody knows who Hillary Clinton is. Why are they doing that now? I‘m serious.
HOWARD FINEMAN, “NEWSWEEK,” NBC POLITICAL ANALYST: I don‘t know the answer. I talked—I was out in Iowa for four or five days, and I saw a strong organization. And I saw that Bill Clinton was her biggest asset there. I know there‘s been a lot written about this, but he did a better job of summarizing what she has accomplished. Now, some may dismiss it, but if there was a case to be made for her actual experience, Bill Clinton can make it. I heard him make it and he did a good job.
This doesn‘t really answer any questions. I think they must have concluded in their polling that personal concerns about her, sort of the lack of emotional connection with Hillary among enough voters, is what‘s holding her back. That‘s the only reason I can think that they‘re doing this ad.
MATTHEWS: I just wonder whether her ability to, quote, “weather the storm,” which was some of the language here, David Shuster, doesn‘t remind people of her putting up with Monica. I mean, the fact that she can suffer through pain and endure, is that what the American people want, having endured seven years of this administration?
DAVID SHUSTER, HARDBALL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Chris, first of all, as far as the production of the ad, I think one of the things that we also heard in Iowa is that there‘s a sense, at least the last couple of weeks, that Hillary was sort of cold and calculating and is sometimes shrill. So by not having her voice in the ad, by just having this sort of soaring music and all these sort of messages, Hillary gets the benefit of—whatever benefit the Clintons bring without people having to be reminded that they don‘t like her voice and perhaps they don‘t like her style. That‘s the first thing.
Second thing, Chris, even if you look at the video that was feeding in late today, there was Chelsea Clinton, there was Bill Clinton, there was the former Iowa governor, Tom Vilsack, with Hillary Clinton. It‘s the Clinton machine that they‘re trying to promote here at the end. And for all the bad that Bill Clinton brings, his freelancing on the campaign trail, his taking the message away from Hillary, they‘re still betting that the old Clinton nostalgia is going to be what‘s going to carry Hillary here at the end.
MATTHEWS: So they‘re going to win with ensemble here? I mean, it‘s what John Kerry did last time, as you remember. He brought in Ted Kennedy, he brought in the guy who‘s life he saved in the Mekong Delta, wherever, the guy he pulled onto his boat, remember?
FINEMAN: Yes. We were there.
MATTHEWS: It has an ensemble quality to it, rather than his unique personality.
FINEMAN: That‘s because Kerry alone was kind of a chilly figure. And remember, we were there that night out at the fairgrounds. It was dramatic when the guy he saved came and when Ted Kennedy gave that big speech. They‘re trying...
MATTHEWS: I think even Bob Novak was moved that night. He was there.
FINEMAN: They‘re surrounding Hillary with warmth, to the extent they can. And David makes a brilliant point about her voice. I know this sounds like a small point, but it grates on a lot of people, and it‘s fascinating that they didn‘t actually use her voice there until the end.
MATTHEWS: Do you think the “West Wing” music will work when they can‘t sell her to put her in the West Wing, so they just play the music and hope people will forget the sound she‘ll make when she gets there?
SHUSTER: Well, Chris, clearly...
MATTHEWS: I mean, this is an extraordinary—you guys are both experts, and for you to say that the trick here is to hide her voice, which is the one thing you‘re going to hear for four to eight years, is astounding.
SHUSTER: Well, clearly, Chris, they‘re nervous. I mean, look at a mailer that they just sent out. The Clinton campaign is out there with these sort of mailers in which people have to sign up and pledge that they‘re going to caucus for her, and the mailer is almost sort of like a schoolmarm sort of language. It says, Supporting Hillary Clinton is not enough, you have to be there on caucus night.
Well, that‘s pretty obvious to people who are supporting Hillary Clinton, but the idea that they‘re actually having to tell people, You need to do more than just say you‘re supporting Hillary Clinton, now it‘s crunch time—I think that belies just how nervous the Clinton campaign is these days.
FINEMAN: Well, the thing is—the thing is, that is what‘s going to matter. You got to go for an hour or two. You got to be in a public place, in a school room, or whatever. I felt watching this that Obama has young organizers, many of whom are not from the state, and but they‘re very smart and very dedicated. Are they going to understand the social dynamics of each of those classrooms where these caucuses take place? The Hillary people are more experienced.
FINEMAN: But the whole thing had a slightly antique feel about it to me. Tom Vilsack, the former governor, has been through this a lot of times. His wife, Christy, has been through it a lot of times. They have a lot of experience.
MATTHEWS: Isn‘t he yesterday‘s newspaper?
FINEMAN: That‘s my point. Chet Culver, the current governor, his wife endorsed Obama. So there‘s a kind of semi-generational thing going on here between the older Baby Boomer Clinton people...
FINEMAN: ... and the young Baby Boomer Obama people.
MATTHEWS: Let me go back, David and Howard—you guys are my best friends in this business and also the best minds, I think. And I keep going back and trying to think about the box this campaign came in. Bigger story than the tactics and the strategies is the fact of who‘s running. I wouldn‘t have known this a year ago. I never saw it coming. This is a phenomenon to me, this Barack Obama thing.
Barack Hussein Obama, a guy whose father comes from Kenya, who was raised at least in his youth in Indonesia from a third world perspective, almost a third world presentation, a totally un-Bush—David, he‘s the un-Bush. He‘s everything that the president isn‘t, for better or worse. He‘s a man with a global perspective because he comes from the world to us. He‘s sort of a gift from the world to us, in so many ways. Bush is a man lacking in curiosity—native intelligence, obviously, but lacking in sort of global interest even or curiosity. It‘s been said a million times.
And here‘s a guy who says, Wait a minute, I am part of the world. I‘m not just an American, I‘m a citizen of the world. I‘m going to bring us back and make us part of the world again. It just seems to me that if I were a Kenyan newspaper editor on Friday morning next week and Obama wins this caucus, I‘m leading the paper with it.
SHUSTER: Oh, absolutely.
MATTHEWS: If I‘m a South African newspaper editor, if I‘m somebody in Rangoon, wherever that is, if I‘m somewhere in Hong Kong, I‘m leading the paper with this. This is the biggest news story to come out of America since I don‘t know what, what, Reagan beating Carter, at least?
SHUSTER: No, I think you‘re absolutely right. I mean, if Obama is the one standing out of Iowa and that‘s the message around the world, it‘s huge news. But here‘s the issue that Obama I think has been suffering from, and Howard was mentioning this off air just a few minutes ago. The expectations for Barack Obama have been so high among Democrats ever since the speech at the Democratic national convention in 2004, that how could anybody possibly meet those expectations? And Obama...
MATTHEWS: By winning in Iowa.
SHUSTER: That‘s my point, is he started off this campaign without possibly being able to meet those expectations. He has improved as a candidate. He‘s gotten better in these debates. His speeches on the campaign trail are sharper, and now he‘s on point and you feel like he‘s getting looser. And he‘s peaking. He‘s meeting the expectations, to the extent that he can, at the perfect time, at a time when people are finally looking at this and finally saying to themselves, Is it possible that somebody like Barack Obama, who represents such a fundamental change from Bush, could possibly win the Democratic nomination?
FINEMAN: Chris, I saw an Obama event the other day in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. It was a ballroom in a hotel that could seat maybe 750 people, nearly a thousand showed up. And the dominant emotion in the room was, I think, the one that you just summarized, that he was somehow a gift from the world. I mean, you said it in a way he couldn‘t say it himself and I haven‘t heard anybody else say it...
MATTHEWS: I think everybody wants to seem nationalistic and leave it at that, but there‘s more here at work here.
FINEMAN: That‘s right. There‘s a hope among these well-educated Iowans—and by the way, Obama draws the demographic of the better-educated Iowan, and that‘s saying something because Iowans have the highest SAT scores, the highest high school graduation rates, very literate, involved, knowledgeable state...
MATTHEWS: This goes beyond the University of Iowa, Iowa City?
FINEMAN: Oh, yes, it does. No, that‘s statewide, statewide. But you‘re right, he was near the university. They came out looking for the anti-Bush who can send a message to the world saying that, We‘re back, we‘re involved in the world.
The risk of that is what some people view as naivete, not just Obama‘s but the American people thinking that it‘s going to be that easy if you just change that way. But that‘s not what the voters are thinking now. The voters who support him are thinking, This is a message we can send to the whole world.
FINEMAN: And that‘s what—the emotion that you feel.
MATTHEWS: See, the irony...
FINEMAN: That‘s the emotion you feel in the room.
MATTHEWS: And the irony has been that the president, when he first got the war going in Iraq and fought that war—it was his decision, he led us—made fun of the French over and over again. And the funny thing was, we were acting like the French have always acted—arrogant, chauvinistic, We know better, we‘re better than you. We began to behave like the French we were making fun of, and now we‘ve gotten back to a relationship with the rest of the world a little more like we used to with the—Sarkozy being a friend, Merkel being a friend, maybe Cameron winning the election in England. We‘re not hated as much.
But it does seem like America is trying to reopen its relationship with the world, and this guy would be the statement of that. But let me give you a chance. You‘ve been very hot on Edwards out there, haven‘t you?
SHUSTER: Right. Yes. Chris, here‘s the reason why. It was a poll that just came out, and it‘s something the Edwards campaign is banking on. Their people, for the most part, have been through caucus night will before. Howard is absolutely right. It‘s an intimidating process to have to stand in front of your friends, the people you work with, the people you work for and say, This is the candidate that I support and here‘s why. Two out of every three Edwards supporters have done that. They‘ve been through the intimidating process.
With Hillary supporters, with Barack Obama supporters, only one out of every two. So there‘s a natural expectation within the Clinton campaign, within the Obama campaign that some of their people are not going to be able to withstand the pressure and be able to do this. There‘s more confidence in the Edwards campaign that their people will show up, that they‘ll stay with Edwards, that they‘ll be able to withstand the pressure that comes when you walk into that room on caucus night.
FINEMAN: Well, and the other complication of the caucuses is if your candidate on the first go-round doesn‘t make a certain percentage, namely 15 percent, then that loose change can be gathered up by the leading candidate...
MATTHEWS: And where will Edwards voters go?
FINEMAN: Well, this is the thing...
MATTHEWS: And Biden‘s and Dodd‘s?
FINEMAN: I don‘t know, but that‘s going to—well, we‘re talking about 15 percent or 20 percent of the total vote here among Biden, Dodd, Richardson, that‘s going to be available on those second votes. Whichever precinct captains for whichever candidates have the most—have the most experience and the most friendships in the room, understand the social dynamics of each caucus, that‘s going to matter. It sounds...
MATTHEWS: It‘s silly.
FINEMAN: That sounds silly, but that‘s the way it is.
MATTHEWS: That does sound like the ward leaders in the...
FINEMAN: That‘s the way it is. That‘s the way it is.
MATTHEWS: Let me ask you—let‘s go Republican for a second here because I do think the Democratic side has the most interesting race looking up toward the Iowa caucuses because of the possibility of Obama beating the Clintons, but let‘s talk about the Republicans. It reminds me of that old thing we learned about—David, about they had the greatest-looking dog food commercials in the world, the best labels in the world, the best can in the world, and the dog didn‘t like the dog food.
MATTHEWS: Is this the situation with Romney? He looks good. Everything is perfect. Everything has been paid for. The advertising is dynamite. And the dog doesn‘t like the dog food. Is that what‘s going on here with Romney?
SHUSTER: Yes, at least in Iowa.
MATTHEWS: I love it when you laugh, Howard.
SHUSTER: I think at least in Iowa, it is. I mean, Romney‘s facing the problems that, Chris, you identified early on, and that is evangelicals don‘t trust the guy and there were always going to be issues with his Mormonism.
There‘s Mike Huckabee with the field to himself because of the religious issue and his evangelical positions. But furthermore, Huckabee has surprised the field because he has been so skillful a speaker. He has done so well...
MATTHEWS: Oh, yes.
SHUSTER: ... in these debates. And his raw political skills and his humor, in some cases, have been better than the rest of the field combined. You put all that together...
MATTHEWS: And he sends—he sends the best Christmas card, too.
SHUSTER: Yes. I mean, well, and he‘s shrewd politically. I mean, you put your finger on that. He is very shrewd politically, despite the sort of Southern “Aw shucks” sort of personality. Behind that is a guy who is incredibly shrewd, incredibly calculating, and right now very effective.
MATTHEWS: OK, what percentage of him is Elmer Gantry, Marjoe, James Bakker, or Jim Bakker—how much of him is real? David Shuster.
SHUSTER: Think he‘s comfortable in his own skin, so I think he‘s naturally, you know, 65 percent authentic, a jokester, a guy who likes to laugh and have fun.
MATTHEWS: Thirty-five percent Marjoe, eh?
SHUSTER: Yes, well...
MATTHEWS: Remember him, the 12-year-old preacher? Oh, you‘re not old enough.
SHUSTER: I‘m not old enough.
MATTHEWS: Howard, you remember Marjoe.
FINEMAN: I remember. I think he‘s a very skilled politician. He was a preacher for a decade, but he was a governor for more than a decade. This guy is no amateur. The big concern he‘s got to have in Iowa is organization. Again, Iowa is a special case. Romney, however much they don‘t like the dog food, is going to get every dog food lover‘s vote, OK? He‘s going to get every one. He has a superb organization, the best money can buy, experienced people.
Huckabee has grown up almost overnight there. If he doesn‘t have the organization, he won‘t get enough votes to win. But he may have a big enough margin by the time we get to caucus night that it won‘t matter. And don‘t forget, the Republicans are different. You don‘t have to stand up and go in the corner. Republicans just have a straw poll...
FINEMAN: ... where you write it on a secret ballot and put it in a box. So it‘s a little easier situation.
SHUSTER: Popular vote wins. It doesn‘t...
FINEMAN: It‘s popular vote.
SHUSTER: Your 2,000 votes...
MATTHEWS: I can imagine...
SHUSTER: Go ahead.
MATTHEWS: I can imagine a Governor Romney going out on his lawn, complaining to his lawn guys, What are these weeds growing out here? The weeds are called Huckabee.
Anyway, thank you, Howard Fineman. Thank you, David Shuster.
Coming up: We‘re eight days out now. I can‘t believe it. Who‘s got the inside track on the Iowa caucuses? We‘ll handicap the race with expert Charlie Cook.
And later, Hillary Clinton‘s experience. What did her years in the White House really teach her? What was that experience all about?
You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.
MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL. As I said, we‘re eight days from the Iowa caucuses now, just 13 from New Hampshire, first-in-the-nation primary, and suddenly, we‘re seeing some underdogs on top. Now some unconventional wisdom from Charlie Cook, the editor and publisher of “The Cook Political Report” and an NBC News political analyst. Charlie, you‘re the best.
Let‘s talk about the surprises. I‘m surprised by McCain. We had him on last week. He‘s coming back, isn‘t he.
CHARLIE COOK, “THE COOK POLITICAL REPORT,” NBC POLITICAL ANALYST: You know, my wife and I were watching last night the remake of “The Night of the Living Dead,” and that‘s what this year has been like. I mean...
MATTHEWS: Is he a zombie?
COOK: ... McCain was dead in the middle of the summer. Now he‘s back alive. I mean, we‘ve never seen anything—Edwards had been dormant, and then suddenly‘s come back alive.
MATTHEWS: Let‘s talk about John McCain. Is he back or has the waterline receded? Have all the other candidates failed to turn on? Rudy‘s in eclipse right now. Romney‘s in eclipse. Huckabee is certainly an alternative to John McCain, but a way-out alternative. Is there a missing lead man here, a leading man for the establishment?
COOK: I think, in a vacuum that you have in the Republican field, a guy with a strong personality, a compelling life story and this kind of one-off appeal, it seems to work. And you know, he shouldn‘t still be alive, given what happened last summer, but he has come back.
Now, the question is, if he were to win New Hampshire, which is a distinct possibility, what can he do after that? Can he put together a whole national campaign after that? That‘s a great question. But he is alive and well in New Hampshire, and the Romney people are pretty worried about him.
MATTHEWS: They‘re worried that he could knock them off there, because, if Huckabee wins in Iowa, and then McCain wins in New Hampshire, that means Romney looks very weak.
COOK: Well, Romney, he was supposed to roll it up in Iowa, New
Hampshire, and get enough momentum to win the rest. Instead, they‘re
fighting this two-front war, fighting off Huckabee in Iowa, fighting off
McCain in New Hampshire. And they‘re not able to sort of build up that
kind of momentum either place that they had thought just a few months ago -
and we all thought—that he was going to be able to get both places.
MATTHEWS: We‘re looking at this incredibly glamorous picture of he and his wife. And I wonder whether the public just says, we‘re not looking for an anchorman. We‘re just not looking for that perfection. Whatever is going on here, they‘re not going for that.
COOK: I think...
MATTHEWS: It‘s not just the Mormon thing, is it?
COOK: I don‘t think it‘s that.
I think that he got away from his central—to me, what Republicans are about is competence. And this is what this guy should be, a competent manager.
COOK: And he was sort of out floundering around, being ideological, and—and I think he kind of mixed up his message. And here we are going into an economy that‘s very weak, and the guy that looks like he could really manage the country, the economy well got off his message.
MATTHEWS: If he had ran as what he was in Massachusetts, a moderate Republican, with all that comes with it, a moderate, fiscally conservative, socially moderate...
COOK: Secular Republican.
MATTHEWS: ... the kind of person who can win in Massachusetts, the kind who can win in New York, in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, would he have done better than this guy he has been portraying...
COOK: I think, in...
MATTHEWS: ... this sort of cultural conservative guy he has been portraying?
COOK: In retrospect, yes.
But, in fairness, who in the world, short of Rudy Giuliani, thought that someone with a moderate social record could run for the—successfully for Republican nomination? I mean, with 20/20 hindsight, sure, he should have stayed where he was to begin with. But that was seen as impossible by most of us.
MATTHEWS: Well, here‘s what I think is going to happen. Check me on this. Huckabee looks like the favorite to win Iowa next week.
COOK: It‘s going to be very close, but yes.
MATTHEWS: McCain could pull an upset and beat Romney in New Hampshire.
COOK: But it would be short—tight, one-two, either way.
MATTHEWS: I agree.
MATTHEWS: And then—and then Romney could come back and win in his real home state of Michigan, where he grew up.
MATTHEWS: And then Huckabee could win in South Carolina, and we could end up going into the big states, starting with Florida, with no real front-runner, which would put Rudy back at least in play.
MATTHEWS: Is that the way you see it?
MATTHEWS: In other words, a four-way race coming out of Florida, probably.
COOK: And that‘s exactly what Rudy needs. And you have been pushing Rudy for a year.
MATTHEWS: I have been saying that he keeps...
MATTHEWS: I looked at the poll in “USA Today”—the polling—and I push him because he carries the big states. He still is leading in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Florida, California, all the mega-states. Rudy, despite everything about him and Bernie Kerik and the paying for the trips, the security out in Long Island, all that in the wash, he is still leading in those polls.
COOK: You are right.
The question is, is the money. Can he hold on and keep money coming in to keep himself afloat through that?
COOK: But, no, you‘re right. This is the scenario Rudy needed.
MATTHEWS: And I wonder if he‘s going to have to be like—remember, growing up, where you saw the vampire movies where the vampire would be asleep because he woke up in the middle of the night, and he would go like this? His eyes would just open.
Can Rudy pull that in Florida, be completely asleep and then go like this?
COOK: The Giuliani people hate me enough already.
MATTHEWS: Can he do that?
COOK: I‘m not going to agree with you on...
MATTHEWS: Can he do that? Could he be the vampire?
COOK: I‘m not going to agree with you...
MATTHEWS: You are afraid of this, aren‘t you? You‘re afraid Rudy is going to come get you.
COOK: Listen, I‘m...
MATTHEWS: Bernie Kerik is going to come get you.
COOK: I have been wrong about Rudy all year.
MATTHEWS: You have been wrong.
COOK: And I‘m not going to....
MATTHEWS: You have been wrong.
COOPER: I‘m not going to....
MATTHEWS: And I will say that you have been wrong.
What did you say? You would win the Tour de France if he won the nomination?
COOK: Yes. No, everybody else would be disqualified on steroids.
MATTHEWS: Are you in shape for this yet? Are you ready? Are you ready?
MATTHEWS: Let‘s talk about a guy who might be off the—off the screen. I know you are very careful as an analyst. Is Fred Thompson not in the mix of potential winners?
COOK: I think that you could paint a scenario for any one of four different Republicans to win the nomination, but not Fred Thompson.
MATTHEWS: So, Huckabee is in it, Romney is in it, McCain is in it, and Rudy is in it?
MATTHEWS: As of all the way in through the big states?
COOK: And who would have thunk it?
MATTHEWS: And, on the Democratic side, it really looks like Hillary, or Obama, or Edwards?
COOK: Yes. I mean, that‘s the surprise to me.
MATTHEWS: So, seven men are in this race—seven people, and one woman?
COOK: Iowa should have been a two-way race. And Edwards—Edwards is still there, and he could come in first or second in Iowa, and it would not be that big of a shocker.
MATTHEWS: It would the biggest, best favor Hillary Clinton ever got, because anything but Obama, right...
COOK: Well, the best thing would be for Hillary to win. The second best would be for Edwards to win, because Edwards doesn‘t have much after that.
I think they would rather have Hillary come in fourth than have Obama come in first, because Obama coming in the first is the big world headlines.
MATTHEWS: Hillary losing to Edwards, so what?
Then they will be the comeback kid in New Hampshire, you know, like Bill was.
Anyway, thank you, Charlie Cook.
Up next: What else is new out there? And Hillary‘s time at the White House—let‘s talk about the heightened experience she had as Bill Clinton‘s wife.
You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.
MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL.
So, what else is new out there? First, there was Huckabee with the campaign ad showing him surmounting the cross. Then there was policy wonk Hillary distributing wonkish gifts, like universal pre-K, to the regular people. Now there‘s this from Mike Gravel.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, GRAVEL CAMPAIGN AD)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Look, it‘s Santi Claus.
MIKE GRAVEL (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Well, look a little closer.
It‘s not Santa Claus. It‘s me.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Oh, hell, it‘s Mike Gravel.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE (singing): It‘s Christmastime with Mike Gravel. He is running for president, and he is filled with Christmas cheer. Outside, the lights are blinking on the decorated lawn.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What‘s your Christmas wish?
GRAVEL: I want to be president of the United States. I want to change the direction of this country.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Oh, are we doing impossible ones? Then I want to get with Jessica Alba.
GRAVEL: You are out of your mind, God dang.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Gravel!
GRAVEL: Goodbye. Goodbye. Goodbye. Goodbye. Goodbye.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MATTHEWS: Well, the days of Vaudeville are not over, obviously.
Well, first came Michael Dukakis riding along like a dweeb in that tank. Then came John Kerry posing as Elmer Fudd out looking for Bugs Bunny. Now comes Mike Huckabee doing a little bit of holiday hunting of his own, trailed by reporters and TV cameras, of course. No varmints for him. Our pleasant man, turns out, is a pheasant man.
And is Hillary bracing herself for a loss in Iowa? Today‘s “Des Moines Register” says—quote—“The New York senator also tried, in an interview this week with ‘The Des Moines Register,‘ to dampen expectations that she will win the leadoff contest on January 3. She tried to limit expectations, with the argument that some people who would support her might be unable to attend the caucuses.”
Will this nonsensical spinning ever end? “Unable to attend” is another phrase for not voting. In this case, it doesn‘t depend on what your definition of is is.
Finally, it‘s time for the HARDBALL “Big Number” tonight.
Voters in Iowa and New Hampshire put a lot into the presidential nominating process. Not only do they study the candidates‘ positions; they often trudge through the snow and brave the nasty cold to come out and see the contenders up close. You would think that the candidates would show some respect for these folks, if not out of gratitude, then at least to win their votes, but not John Edwards.
Today‘s “New York Times” reports that he regularly shows up to events late, making his audiences just sit there or wait in line for him to show up. And for how long? It‘s common practice for Senator Edwards to be at least 45 minutes late for these events in Massachusetts and Iowa and in New Hampshire.
A little case of passive aggression, don‘t you think? Forty-five minutes cooling their heels for John Edwards, tonight‘s “Big Number.”
Up next: Does Hillary‘s time at the White House count as experience?
You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.
BERTHA COOMBS, CNBC CORRESPONDENT: I‘m Bertha Coombs with your CNBC “Market Wrap.”
We saw bargain hunting and returns at the mall. And Wall Street was no different on the day after Christmas, the major averages eking up minimal gains, the Dow gaining two points, to 13551, the S&P 500 up one, and the Nasdaq tacking on 11 points, for its six straight winning sessions, up in part on Apple shares, which closed above the $200 mark for the first time. MacBook computers were among the bestsellers on Amazon this holiday season.
But the news on Christmas shopping was generally disappointing. Target warned, sales were lower than expected, while the International Council of Shopping Centers says retailers are on track for smaller gains than originally forecast.
And the news no better on housing. A widely watched index of home prices showed a 6.7 percent decline in October, the biggest monthly drop in almost 17 years, and the tenth straight month of declining prices.
That‘s it from CNBC, America‘s business channel—now back to
MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL.
Well, Hillary Clinton often touts her experience as first lady as the reason to vote for her, but today‘s “New York Times” examines her foreign policy credentials from the White House years, and, among other things, reports that she did not have a security clearance at all when she was first lady, did not receive a copy of the president‘s daily intelligence briefings, and was barely speaking to her husband when he was weighing whether or not to bomb the Sudan and Afghanistan back in ‘98.
Has Hillary oversold her foreign policy experience from her time as first lady?
Well, U.S. Congressman and a Democrat Joe Sestak of Pennsylvania served on the National Security Council during the Clinton administration. He is a Hillary supporter.
What do—what do you say to people who say, Hillary was the first lady; she wasn‘t secretary of state; she wasn‘t secretary of defense; she wasn‘t on the NSC; why can she claim that experience?
REP. JOE SESTAK (D), PENNSYLVANIA: It makes a big difference.
Look, I was at the White House for two-and-a-half years as director for defense policy. I was close, but not as close as Hillary Clinton, to the decisions on war and peace. She stood there in the White House when a father came back with grief of having lost his son in combat.
She was also there when rewards were given to our men who had come back, for example, of Haiti. When the president was done, she then sat there in the Cabinet Room—I watched her—and talked to them about the future. She understood that other military could not—even though it‘s a national treasure, can‘t be used recklessly.
But, more than that, Chris...
MATTHEWS: Well, why—let me go through this, because the policy question in the Democratic Party, your party right now, is about who to replace—who to use to replace President Bush. President Bush is not popular in the Democratic Party, largely because of his decision to take us into Iraq.
MATTHEWS: Hillary Clinton voted to authorize that decision. Why does that represent good experience on her part?
SESTAK: She made...
MATTHEWS: What good has her experience done her, if it said go along with Bush on the war?
SESTAK: Here‘s where it has helped.
She understands that we have to redeploy from Iraq. She has judgment. For instance, she was there in the White House when the decision was made to move two aircraft carrier battle groups off Taiwan. Remember 1996 and the missiles were raining down?
MATTHEWS: No, I don‘t actually.
SESTAK: Nine—yes. We moved two carrier battle groups off of there, and the missiles seized.
Nine years later, she asked me, as a Navy admiral in Congress—it was a helicopter procurement hearing. And she stopped at the end and said:
Admiral, I have a question to ask you that doesn‘t have to do with this hearing. What does it mean to the United States‘ Navy, to our nation, for a China that, in the last few years, has begun to pursue a large navy in the Western Pacific?
She didn‘t forget how easy it was to move two carrier battle groups off Taiwan and stop at that time, when China really didn‘t have a good navy...
SESTAK: ... and the difference it is now.
And, therefore, when you read, Chris, her “Foreign Affairs” article...
SESTAK: ... it says the most important relationship we have in the future is with China.
This is a woman who has learned and fought through what she saw at the White House, close to decisions on war and peace, and understands that our military, even though it can‘t be used recklessly, nor can be hoarded like misers‘ gold, if it is to be a force for peace and progress. That‘s the judgment that she has garnered from her time in the White House.
MATTHEWS: But, if you—Congressman, if you connect the dots, she supported the war in Iraq. She voted to authorize it. She said it was a very tough decision, but she voted to authorize it.
Barack Obama opposed it. She voted to identify the Iranian national guard, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, as a terrorist organization, which, to many people, seems like another neoconservative justification for a war, another one of these Iraqi liberation acts that gets us into trouble politically.
Where has she displayed—you have pointed out the input. What‘s the output been?
MATTHEWS: What demonstrates to us her—the use of her experience?
SESTAK: This is a woman who understands the processes of Washington.
Let‘s take her Iranian vote. Very few people understand that, until the Iranian Guards were declared by the president as a terrorist organization, they could not be placed under sanctions by an executive order. She, therefore, voted to encourage the president to place them under that executive order.
She understood that this was—had to be pushed by Congress in order to have the president actually then act, which he did, because of hers and other votes, to move this Iranian Guards, underneath the executive order, as a terrorist organization. I know. I have operated with those at sea.
MATTHEWS: She doesn‘t sell what you just sold. She doesn‘t go out and brag about the fact she voted for this resolution. She seems embarrassed by it.
SESTAK: Not at all. She made the right decision.
Now, let‘s take her other—let‘s...
MATTHEWS: What about the war in Iraq?
MATTHEWS: Do you think she was right to vote for the war?
SESTAK: Here‘s a person who takes accountability for her decisions.
She had the seat of a senator when she made that decision. It‘s relatively easy for others, myself included, who wasn‘t in the seat voting, or not seated, to say, I was against that war.
It counts most when you are sitting there and actually have to cast the vote. That‘s when you can hold someone accountable. And she said, I made the best judgment I had on the intelligence that was provided.
We know now how that intelligence that was provided by the Bush administration was misrepresented.
MATTHEWS: She believed at the time that Iraq was going to launch a nuclear weapon at the United States? What was the threat that justified us going to war?
SESTAK: No, never said that a nuclear weapon would be launched against the United States.
MATTHEWS: Bush did.
SESTAK: Bush said that.
SESTAK: She was concerned about the weapons of mass destruction and the intelligence that had been presented.
MATTHEWS: She believed that was the reason we were going to war?
SESTAK: She encouraged—
MATTHEWS: She believed that‘s why Bush was taking us to war?
SESTAK: Weapons of mass destruction, and the way that President Bush had presented it.
MATTHEWS: I don‘t believe that was the reason we went to war in Iraq.
It was geopolitical.
SESTAK: There could have been several reasons why we went to war with Iraq, but never because a nuclear weapon was about to be launched.
MATTHEWS: When we couldn‘t find weapons of mass destruction, the president said it was still the right decision, because his primary reason for going had nothing to do with the weapons of mass destruction. He made that manifestly clear the minute we got in there. Oh, we didn‘t find the weapons. We still should have gone.
SESTAK: Hillary Clinton has said, based on the information she was provided at the time, precluded from some of it by the White House, she made the right decision from what she knew at the time.
MATTHEWS: That‘s your judgment. I don‘t think the Democratic voters believe what you just said. They don‘t agree with you. They think it was the wrong decision to go to Iraq. They think it was the wrong decision to target Iran for another war.
SESTAK: Here‘s what they also believe; while Americans may be tired of this war, they want to salvage the best from it. Here‘s Hillary Clinton, who has stood by her vote, and not only that, has not said get out of Iraq tomorrow. She has said get out of Iraq. How we end this war, she recognizes, is important, actually, more important than just ending it. And that is the kind of experience and that‘s the strength she brings.
It‘s not just where she‘s appealing to every voter. She has—
MATTHEWS: That‘s the Hubert Humphrey brand of Democratic foreign policy. I think the Democratic party is in a mood for a more Bobby Kennedy foreign policy right now. They don‘t want that.
SESTAK: Think about—
MATTHEWS: You think they want what Hillary is offering?
SESTAK: Oh, absolutely. Think about it. She‘s ahead of her time. Think of where she went as first lady. She went to India, soon to be the number two economic power in the world. Number two, she went to China. She went to China and spoke about human rights and women‘s rights. And most importantly, I think, she went to Africa.
She recognized before others did that poverty is where terrorists go. They hide. Finally, this past year, the military woke up and actually established, Chris, as you know, what‘s called the Africa Command. She was there talking about security—poverty being a security issue well before others.
She has vision. Not only that, she understands, as the example I gave you on Iran, the executive order, how Washington works. We need a president with vision, but someone who can go to the boiler room and fix Washington, that‘s broken.
MATTHEWS: I spent two years there. Thank you very much.
SESTAK: Glad to be here.
MATTHEWS: Admiral Sestak. Up next, eight days before Iowa, and less than two weeks now to New Hampshire; believe it or not, it‘s come upon us. It‘s happening, and it‘s getting hot. The politics fix when we come up.
This is HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.
MATTHEWS: We‘re back. And, of course, it‘s time for our politics fix. Tonight our round table, what a heavy weight crowd; we‘ve got chief Washington correspondent Norah O‘Donnell, “Washington Post” columnist Gene Robinson, and political analyst and sometime advocate Pat Buchanan.
Patrick Buchanan, you are the greatest. Let‘s take a look at this—let‘s take a look at the latest polling from Iowa, to get to the Democrats, which I find fascinating. These numbers could not be closer.
Let‘s take a look at them right now; Clinton, 29.2 -- this is a running average of the recent polls—Obama, 27.3 -- we‘re in the percentage points here—Edwards at 23.5. Then—let‘s just go to the top three.
Pat Buchanan, you have been through these primaries. You won the New Hampshire primary. Talk Iowa right now. Is Obama heading toward victory, as you see it?
PAT BUCHANAN, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: No, I don‘t think so. for this reason; I think he has been cut up a bit, Chris, by all this negativity coming out of the Clintons, you know, selling drugs, cocaine nonsense. And the rest of it --
MATTHEWS: I think you just upped it a bit, the selling part. I think the worst the Mark Penn message man said was the word cocaine. You have added the verb, selling cocaine.
BUCHANAN: That‘s Billy Shaheen‘s verb, as you know. He was the one that put that out there, and then you got the Bill Clinton saying, you know, it‘s—it‘s a roll of the dice, and Hillary saying, I have been vetted. And then you got the Obama Muslim stuff.
I think it‘s very, very tight in Iowa, Chris. I think any of the three could win it. I think Obama has got to win it. And I think he is acting a bit testy over those 527s, which are putting a lot of money in for Edwards. Anything could be decisive, and 750,000 dollars is a good buy in a state like Iowa.
NORAH O‘DONNELL, NBC CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, it‘s interesting, today, the candidates, Clinton and Obama, launched their closing arguments in Iowa. And I think you can tell so much about these candidates by what their closing argument is. Hillary has this steady, experienced leader.
MATTHEWS: She‘s not even talking in the ad. It‘s West Wing music about her.
O‘DONNELL: That‘s a television ad. I‘m talking about her campaign appearances and what she‘s talking about in this new thing that she‘s launched. We have to have a president ready on day one; we‘ve heard her say that. She has this long, big challenges, real solutions; time to pick a president, is the name of the tour.
Obama‘s is Americans are desperate for change, steady for change. It‘s the same message he has been preaching from the very beginning. It‘s an interesting set of closing arguments. I have been looking very closely about what they‘ve been saying, too, and Hillary says there are hundreds and hundreds of women in their 90s who want to vote for me. Obama says—talking about all the young people and the students that he hopes will actually be there on January 3rd and are not still on their Christmas break, will actually be turning out.
We have got two remarkably different campaigns in a lot of ways. Even though they‘re Democrats and they espouse many of the same things, talking in very different ways.
MATTHEWS: She will weather the storms. I think we know what storms she had to weather. It was man made. It was Bill made and she had to weather that. I wonder if that‘s become her heightened experience that she is selling now, as wife of Bill.
EUGENE ROBINSON, “THE WASHINGTON POST”: Well, it could be. But, as you know, Bill Clinton is a double-edged sword, right?
MATTHEWS: I think weathering the storm—
ROBINSON: No, clearly, she has some—had some adversity, some obstacles to overcome during her years next to power in the White House.
MATTHEWS: Pat said he thinks that Obama is coming down. He has crested. What do you think?
ROBINSON: I don‘t know. We don‘t know. I mean, if you look at the polls, it‘s basically a tie. It all comes down to who gets people out to go stand in the corner at the caucus, and we won‘t really know that unless, between now and then, we see some huge movement in the polls, but—
BUCHANAN: Chris, let me tell you why I said that. I think, as of ten days ago, Obama was surging. I detected a real note of panic in the Clinton camp. He was surging to a tie and then above him in Iowa, winning New Hampshire, moving ahead in South Carolina. That‘s when all this dump came on him. I get the sense that the Hillary folks seem a little more calmer now than they did then.
MATTHEWS: So they got their dump on him, and now they feel better.
BUCHANAN: They feel better about the polls. The dump is just normal.
O‘DONNELL: Well, anyway—
MATTHEWS: Enough said.
O‘DONNELL: You want to talk about dumping a lot of money in Iowa, to continue that theme, Pat hit on something that I think deserves further investigation. That is there is more pro-Edwards money in Iowa today than there is pro-Obama or pro-Clinton, paid for by the Service Employees International. We‘re talking about 750,000 dollar buy for these closing eight days.
Also, the Carpenter‘s Union is weighing in with television ads too.
So there‘s a lot of money being pushed for Edwards.
MATTHEWS: -- to be moved by a TV ad, after months and months of personal campaigning, Gene, to be moved by a TV ad? I know that‘s a good point. I see the saturation campaign going on. Is it going to shift enough voters to matter here?
ROBINSON: I think if it just continues the themes we‘ve heard from the candidates, no. I don‘t think it will move a lot of people. I was just down in South Carolina last week, and Edwards is pouring a lot of money into television ads down there. I mean, there‘s—every ten minutes, there‘s a Romney ad, and then every, you know, hour there‘s an Edwards ad. That‘s not moving his numbers in South Carolina.
MATTHEWS: Let me ask Norah this question. We all read the “New York Times” here. The “New York Times” piece by Patrick Healey, who has been tough on the Clintons, nice on the Clintons. The piece looked very balanced today. He talked about where she‘s made these amazing claims about being a partner in foreign policy. They‘re not really justified. But she‘s had a hand in some things. Where did you come out on that? Was that piece helpful, or are they mad about it?
O‘DONNELL: The Clinton campaign is not happy about the piece in the “New York Times” because it raises questions about her experience. She has said, because as first lady I‘m more experienced than others. And, yet, the piece points out what she has done. It also points out she did not have a national security clearance.
MATTHEWS: Which means she didn‘t get the papers.
O‘DONNELL: She did not get the intel. Whether it really matters in Iowa, whether they‘re reading stuff—but nevertheless, the Clinton campaign was angry enough about it enough this morning that they were pushing back on it.
MATTHEWS: We have a president noted, despite his native intelligence, for a lack of curiosity. Why didn‘t Hillary Clinton ever ask for security clearance so she could read these documents? If she‘s so interested in foreign policy, how come she never cared to look at the information.
O‘DONNELL: Because she was being beaten up as first lady for being involved in other stuff.
MATTHEWS: Nobody would have known if she had a security clearance except her. We‘ll be right back with the round table. If she wanted the information, she could have gotten it. She could have asked Bill for it. You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.
MATTHEWS: We‘re back with our politics fix round table, MSNBC‘s Norah O‘Donnell, the “Washington Post” columnist Eugene Robinson, and MSNBC political analyst Pat Buchanan.
Pat, again I would like you to start. Let‘s take a look at Iowa.
Here‘s the Real Clear Politics average of the polling out there in Iowa. Again, we go to decibel point coverage; 29.2, Huckabee, 25.5, Romney, 10.2 McCain; down below doubling digits, Thompson at 9.3, Giuliani down a bit lower at 8.7.
Let‘s talk about the front runners. Huckabee, is he going to win this thing?
BUCHANAN: It‘s a Huckabee-Romney race. I think it is closing. Like Obama, Huckabee‘s surge has stopped, and he is being pounded with Romney ads, negative ads, and Romney‘s attacks on him. It‘s closing. I think Huckabee is a stronger bet than Obama right now, Chris, but he has a John Edwards strategy. Very interesting, Huckabee is going for Iowa, skip New Hampshire, go to South Carolina. And, as Gene was saying, Edwards is going to try to win Iowa, skip New Hampshire, go to South Carolina.
MATTHEWS: Well, your assessment of what Pat said, Norah, about Huckabee has a better shots than Obama to close this thing.
O‘DONNELL: That is true. He is further ahead in the polls, and Huckabee took the opportunity to go out pheasant hunting today with his gun in his hand, and people actually—
MATTHEWS: Where does that stand on the order of manhood? Does that make him macho?
O‘DONNELL: Listen, he is trying to appeal to the more rural areas of Iowa, and I think it‘s also a subtle dig—here‘s the pictures of him—A subtle dig, of course, at Mitt Romney, who claimed that he had the endorsement of the NRA, who claimed he had been a life-long hunter, but was actually later hunting varmint.
MATTHEWS: I remember Pat pulling the Charlton Heston line back when he ran, waving that rifle in the air. I think it was your down fall. That‘s all right, Gene. Gun play, is that the new standard now? You got to be Second Amendment in fact, not just in theory?
ROBINSON: I think that‘s been true in the Republican party for a while. Romney just screwed it up a bit.
MATTHEWS: Show the weapon?
ROBINSON: Show the weapon, and show that you know how to use it and clean it and, you know, keep it safe. You know, I wonder—the thing I wonder about Huckabee is whether, you know, he is starting—he might fade a little bit as people get to know him. He is a very unusual guy and a very unusual candidate.
MATTHEWS: Skipping New Hampshire, as if that‘s a strategy. He wouldn‘t do well in New Hampshire. You won New Hampshire, Pat. New Hampshire is gritty. It‘s maverick. It‘s not over there culturally with the cultural right.
BUCHANAN: You are right. Here‘s what—Edwards isn‘t going to win New Hampshire. He knows it. Huckabee is doing—growing a little bit. He could run third in New Hampshire if he wins Iowa, but his key contest—if he wins South Carolina, Chris, he wins it, because he will win Florida the next week, and I don‘t think anyone will stop him then.
MATTHEWS: No one will stop Huckabee?
BUCHANAN: If he wins South Carolina and Florida. Listen, about the gun, Chris—
MATTHEWS: This is planetary information. You believe that Huckabee is a plausible Republican nominee for president? You believe that, Pat?
BUCHANAN: I think Huckabee—look, if he wins South Carolina and Florida—these guys that think Rudy has a big base in California and New York and the rest of it, they will not believe how it will evaporate if he doesn‘t win a primary or a caucus before he gets out there. It will be gone.
O‘DONNELL: I just want to know, Chris, when you are going to put up the breaking news banner. Pat makes—Pat makes an interesting point, and that is Giuliani is banking on this Florida strategy, winning big in Florida. But if you have seen the most recent Florida polls, he has lost. He is falling apart, and Pat is right, and Huckabee has gained ground.
BUCHANAN: Huckabee—if Huckabee gets the nomination, he‘s going to be—he is going to be at war with the Republican establishment. I just don‘t see the Republican establishment backing him.
BUCHANAN: We‘re counting on Hillary to bring us all together.
MATTHEWS: OK, maybe it will and we‘ll unite against that. Who knows? Pat, you may be right. You often are. Thank you, Gene Robinson, Pat Buchanan, Norah O‘Donnell. Join us again in one hour for the HARDBALL power rankings. We‘re getting big and serious tonight at 7:00. Right now it‘s time for “TUCKER.”
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