August 26, 2014
Guest: Bobby Ghosh, Steve Clemons, David Rohde, Roger Simon
CHRIS MATTHEWS, MSNBC HOST: Our worst enemy.
Let`s play HARDBALL.
Good evening. I`m Chris Matthews up in New York.
"Let Me Start" tonight with the United States going after ISIS in Syria.
Can the president sell this war? Can we, if we get in this fight, avoid
the obvious fact that we would be helping destroy the greatest danger
facing the Syrian government. Would a bold stroke against ISIS put us in
bed with Bashar Assad, the man Barack Obama, wisely or not, swore he would
get rid of?
Well, tonight, we look at the revoltin` development facing our American
president, how to choose the greater evil, a fanatical, bloodthirsty terror
group or a dictator who has shown he will do anything to save himself?
Howard Fineman is the editorial director of the HuffingtonPost and Bobby
Ghosh is managing editor of the digital publication Quartz.
According to NBC News, the United States is flying surveillance missions
over Syria, an action authorized by President Obama this weekend to assess
targets for potential air strikes against ISIS. They are using both manned
and unmanned aircrafts for the purpose. U.S. officials say they will not
seek approval from the Assad government.
Meanwhile, the Pentagon is drafting plans for potential strikes against the
terror group. The president hasn`t OK`d strikes in Syria yet, but NBC News
reports that decision could come as early as this week. The strikes would
target ISIS forces, weapons and supply lines between Syria and Iraq.
And today, President Obama once again talked about the need for rooting out
the cancer that is ISIS. And he warned it won`t be easy and it won`t be
quick. Speaking at the American Legion national conference in Charlotte,
North Carolina, he had this to say about the killers of American journalist
James Foley. Let`s watch.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: But our message to anyone
who harms our people is simple. America does not forget. Our reach is
long. We are patient. Justice will be done. We have proved time and time
again we will do what`s necessary to capture those who harm Americans, to
go after those who harm Americans.
OBAMA: And we`ll continue to take direct action where needed to protect
our people and to defend our homeland.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MATTHEWS: Well, there we go. Howard, I never liked that word, "homeland."
To me, it`s civil defense. It`s American. That`s neocon talk, anyway, but
"homeland" -- he`s talking about us defending ourselves against ISIS in
America? How drastic is that? Do you believe that threat that he`s -- or
is that something to justify national action against some other country
because he doesn`t have any statutory authority to go into Syria? Is that
why he`s saying to ward off a possible threat to us at home here?
HOWARD FINEMAN, HUFFINGTON POST MEDIA GROUP, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:
Well, I thought it was significant that he mentioned the "homeland," that
distasteful word that is part of our modern language, Chris. But I think
the president is trying to contain his public commitment because if he
really starts talking about ISIS`s threat to the homeland, if he really
starts talking in, if you will, 9/11 and post-9/11 terms, then that amps up
his responsibility and the urgency to take ISIS not only as a threat in the
region, not only as someone -- some -- a group against whom we have to seek
retribution for the killing of an American journalist and others.
But he has to explain to the American people why this group over there is a
global threat to us here. And that automatically takes him further down
the road to military commitment than he wants to go. So eventually, the
"homeland" that he said there I don`t think is as important as what he`s
trying to limit. The question, of course, is whether he can do it once he
steps down that road.
MATTHEWS: Well, Bobby Ghosh, the question in the region is this. How can
we attack ISIS, the number one threat right now, I believe -- you check me
on this -- to the Syrian government of Bashar Assad, who he said a year ago
he wanted to get rid of, at the same time destroy, effectively, ISIS? That
makes Assad looks like a pretty stable government.
BOBBY GHOSH, QUARTZ: Well, it is a hard choice to make between the two
evils, but there might be a third way. You don`t simply go against ISIS.
You simultaneously -- and there are indications from the administration
that they are thinking of this. You simultaneously arm the Free Syrian
Army and improve the support to them. This is the non-religious, the more
secular, anti-Assad group that began their uprising against Saddam (sic)
three years ago.
They were overtaken by ISIS because they were ignored. They did not get
the support that they asked for early on. It`s time to increase the
support to them, at the same time going after ISIS. Now, it will create --
going after ISIS, if it is successful, will create an opening. And Assad
will gain temporarily. But not for very long, I think. If the Free Syrian
Army and the other non-religious groups that are fighting against Assad are
empowered and they have shown that when they have the chance that they can
take the fight to Assad.
MATTHEWS: Let me talk in American gut terms, Bobby. And you share them.
Let me hear them. You`re -- maybe you disagree with me. When the American
people watched that execution, that beheading of an American last week,
they watched that man with tremendous guts and fortitude to stand out
there, knowing he was on camera, knowing his family would see it, knowing
he was going to die in matter of minutes, knowing it was going to be done
by a knife at his neck. And he stood there and took it.
And the American people are either going to react positively to that or
not. They`re either going to get even with the people that did that or
they are not. Or they`re going to cook up some other excuse to go to war
with ISIS, like they`re a threat to our homeland.
Why don`t we behave anymore like a gut country behaves and says, No, you
don`t do this to our people? We`re going to make you pay for this. The
American people would understand that language. This has nothing to do
with the Sunni and the Shia and what the hell`s going over in Iraq, or
Mesopotamia or whatever they`re calling it now, if it is a country. They
don`t care about rebuilding Iraq and putting together the Kurds and the
Sunnis and the Shia. That`s (INAUDIBLE) the American (INAUDIBLE)
But they do have time (ph) with defending our honor. And I don`t
understand why he`s now talking about the "homeland" and changing the
subject. He went off playing golf last week when he had the American
people`s attention. That execution had our attention. Then he flips off,
comes back a week later all dressed up. He`s taken a shower. He`s back in
his business suit. And now he`s talking about some threat to the homeland.
It doesn`t sound right!
GHOSH: That`s right.
MATTHEWS: It doesn`t sound real! It sounds like a legal excuse to go
after somebody he should normally just say, Damn it, you Republicans, you
get in my way. I dare you to stop me from going after the guy who killed
our guy. Go ahead. Call for a vote. And I`ll kill you on the vote. But
I don`t understand why he doesn`t fight like a street fighter when it comes
to defending the lives of Americans. I believed him when he said that last
week, who it hurt him personally.
GHOSH: Yes, and I`ve -- I`ve been mystified about this myself, as have
lots of others people. I mean, it wasn`t that long ago where the president
was describing ISIS as the JV team.
GHOSH: And within a couple of few months, they are the greatest threat to
the United States. There`s also a problem here in framing this so narrowly
as they`re a threat to the American homeland. We`ve talked about this
before, Chris. You don`t have to come to the American homeland to hurt
Americans. Jim Foley was not in the American homeland.
GHOSH: There are thousands of Americans closer to where ISIS operates, in
Jordan, in Egypt, in Turkey. There are American allies in Europe, and
Turkey is a NATO partner. There are lots of ways to hurt America, and ISIS
has said over and over again that it wants to hurt America without coming
to the homeland.
So if you frame this very narrowly as, Well, we`re going to take action
because we think they`re coming to the homeland, that gives you wiggle
room. That gives -- as we`ve seen already General Dempsey say, Well, we
don`t have evidence that they are threatening the homeland. Well, they`re
MATTHEWS: I agree.
GHOSH: -- and America is not simply the homeland.
MATTHEWS: It just sounds like the talk we got coming -- pushing us into
the Iraq war in the first place.
Anyway, NBC News today reported that this man, Douglas McAuthur McCain, was
killed this weekend in Syria fighting for ISIS. He`s from Minnesota. In
Twitter posts, he said he, quote, "reverted" -- that`s his word -- to Islam
back in 2004. This spring, he traveled to Turkey and eventually made his
way into Syria. He`s one of a small number -- a handful, actually -- of
Americans who have gone to fight for the terror group over there.
Howard, put it together. There`s three reasons for us to be fighting ISIS.
One is they`re a bloodthirsty mob of killers, and Bobby`s -- Bobby Ghosh
has explained it better than I could ever. And what they`re -- they`re
sort of mad dogs, if you will, going after people to kill them, the joy of
doing that. Or we want to rebuild Iraq, which to me is an illusion, a
delusion perhaps. Or we want to protect him (ph) from the "homeland."
My question is, why didn`t he pick the blood target, the one that most
Americans would react to, instead of, well, the other ones, but I`m not
sure they really are goals anymore? Your thoughts.
FINEMAN: Why -- why doesn`t who -- who -- I`m sorry?
MATTHEWS: The president.
FINEMAN: Well, I think the president is stuck on his previous promises and
the whole shape of his career and his presidency to try to avoid the whole
troops on the ground notion. and yet at the same time, as Bobby was
pointing out, he has to quickly shift from describing ISIS as the JV team
to a huge threat that requires American planes in the sky, drones,
cooperation with unsavory people in the region to achieve what he--
MATTHEWS: Well, where are you on that?
FINEMAN: -- is saying is limited objectives. Where am I on that?
FINEMAN: Well, I agree with you, Chris. I think if the president had ever
had a chance to strike back firmly and quickly and decisively, without
necessarily requiring him to engage in a long war in that region--
FINEMAN: -- to make -- to make a point to the world, to make a point to
the people we`ve been fighting, last week would have been it. But it`s not
in President Obama`s nature. It`s not in his nature. He`s proud of the
fact that he is Mr. Cool, that he supposedly takes a long time to measure
and decide, sort of implacable, slow-moving measures.
Well, this -- that wasn`t that kind of situation the other week. I think,
politically, I think he may have missed the moment in terms of his ability
to do that now. I don`t think it adds up right now. But you know what?
This -- I`m sorry to say that that wasn`t the last act of cruelty we`re
going to see on a YouTube video--
FINEMAN: -- in the weeks ahead.
MATTHEWS: Let me go back to Bobby on the eastern view from over there,
looking at us. You know, they used to say that the West always covers its
retreat with -- with artillery. We fire a lot of artillery or stand (ph)
back (ph) weapons and we get out of there. And they can tell we`re getting
out of there.
Is -- air strikes -- do they send a message we`re on the -- on the attack,
or do they suggest we`re in the retreat? In other words, if we`re up there
shooting from the air but not getting on the ground, are we suggesting to
the ISIS people, Don`t worry, air power can`t do that much. You`ll outlive
this. And by the way, it`s cowardly to do it this way, until we catch one
of your pilots, of course.
GHOSH: Well, air strikes are a start. They can`t be the final solution.
They`re a start, if they halt the momentum. Right now, the big problem in
that area is that everybody around looks at ISIS, ordinary Iraqis and
ordinary Syrians look at ISIS and they see them both as an irresistible
force, as well as an immovable object.
What we can do with air strikes is shatter that myth. We`ve already done
that in -- in Mosul, where we pushed ISIL -- ISIL back. And that sends the
message that these guys can be beaten when they come up against serious
Now, the next part of the challenge, in addition air strikes, is going to
have are to be to get ground forces in operation. Now, the president has
said over and over again no American troops. Fine. There are Iraqi troops
that need to be stood up. There are the Peshmerga in Kurdistan. There are
the Free Syrian Army in Syria.
There are different elements that can be strengthened, should be
strengthened. And there are some signs that the administration is
beginning to strengthen them.
MATTHEWS: Well, I`ll take--
GHOSH: It`s a long fight. It`s not something that`s going to happen
MATTHEWS: Yes, I just wonder, do you think, Bobby, that this guy -- what`s
his name, Douglas McAuthur McCain -- do you think he`s in the company of
the 72 virgins right now? Is this what he was looking for?
GHOSH: Well, there`s nothing -- there`s nothing that we`ve learned about
him so far that suggests that`s what he was looking for. He was clearly
looking for -- there was something missing from his life. He seemed to
have an otherwise fairly ordinary life in the United States. There was
clearly something missing.
I`ve always thought that -- and it`s possible that when he first went
there, he went there thinking that he was going to participate in something
noble and then got sucked into something worse. That`s often the case with
people like him.
GHOSH: They are drawn into a conflict thinking they`re going to do
something meaningful with their lives. They`re going to help the helpless.
And then once they get there, they get brainwashed. They -- sort of --
it`s a -- it`s a -- it`s a slide down a slippery slope.
MATTHEWS: Howard, thank you for joining us, Howard Fineman, as always.
FINEMAN: Thank you.
MATTHEWS: Bobby Ghosh, as always.
Coming up: Rescuing hostages. Before he was taken hostage and murdered by
ISIS, James Foley had been kidnapped up in Libya. We`re going to talk
about one of the people who helped him secure his release back then and
what might be done to win the release of other American hostages.
Also, not long ago, Democrats talked enthusiastically about one of their
own winning President Obama`s third term, if you will, in 2016. But now
that third term strategy may be a precarious path indeed.
And Frank Bruni of "The New York Times" wrote today on the deep-seated
pessimism Americans feel right now about the direction of our he country
and its leadership. Is there a leader out there, in or out of office, who
can restore America`s celebrated confidence?
Finally, the perils of Twitter. One thing a British diplomat shouldn`t do
is joke about burning our White House back in 1814. Don`t joke about that.
We still remember it.
And this is HARDBALL, the place for politics.
MATTHEWS: We`ve got a great new poll on the 2014 congressional elections.
And for that, let`s go to the HARDBALL "Scoreboard."
The Pew poll shows Democrats with a 5-point edge right now, 47 to 42
percent, over the Republicans in the so-called generic ballot. But two
things to keep in mind here. One, the HuffingtonPost pollster trend of
recent polls has the race at nearly a dead heat. And number two, Democrats
need a healthy lead in polling registered voters across the country to
overcome heavier Republican turnout -- it`s always expected in mid-term
elections -- and also to overcome that built-in edge the GOP enjoys because
Democratic votes tend to be heavily concentrated in a few congressional
We`ll be right back.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
NANCY CURTIS, MOTHER OF RELEASED HOSTAGE: He needs to decompress. I don`t
know what kind of emotional state he`s in. So whatever -- wherever he is,
he`s going to be in some kind of seclusion just so that he can be with the
family and enjoy some quiet.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL. That was Nancy Curtis, the mother of
released hostage Peter Theo Curtis.
In today`s "Washington Post," we got a behind-the-scenes look at how her
son`s release came about and the players involved. Quote, "Qatar played
the pivotal role in winning Curtis`s freedom, an effort that was given
additional impetus by the appeal of American executive David Bradley,the
chairman and owner of Atlantic Media Company, and the retired FBI agent who
spoke on the condition of anonymity because of security concerns. It was
this trio that drove the release of Curtis."
And as recounted in "The Washington Post," Atlantic Media owner David
Bradley got the news that Curtis had been released in a text message from
the chief of the Qatari intelligence at 9:04 AM on Saturday this weekend.
It simply said, "Done."
Steve Clemons, who works for Bradley and Atlantic Media, was involved in
the early stages of negotiations. It was not the first time Clemons had
been involved in hostage negotiations. He also was involved in the effort
to secure James Foley`s release from Libya before the American journalist
was captured again and executed by ISIS. Also joining me right now is
David Rohde, investigator reporter for Reuters, who was kidnapped by the
Taliban back in 2008 while working for "The New York Times" and held in
captivity for seven months.
We learned late today, by the way, that ISIS has another American hostage.
Sources familiar with this situation have told NBC News that ISIS is
holding a 26-year-old American woman who was taken hostage August 4th,
2013, while on a humanitarian mission. For her own safety, family members
do not want her name released by us or anyone.
Let me go to my friend, Steve Clemons. I`ve known you a long time, my
friend. I think you work in the dark a bit, along with your boss, David
Bradley. Tell us what you`ve learned, what you`ve been able to do to get
releases of -- if you want to start with the most recent case of Mr.
Curtis, that would be good. And then what was your success in getting Mr.
Foley out the first time he was captured by the enemy?
STEVE CLEMONS, "THE ATLANTIC": Well, first thing I would say, David, you
know -- or Chris, you know David Bradley so well. He is uncomfortable with
this attention. He would say, if he were on air, I think, that hundreds of
people were involved with the release of both men.
I never negotiated with hostages. My role, as I think you know, is -- I
know a lot of people out there. And early on in both the -- the effort to
get James Foley, who we were involved with twice, but James Foley out of
Syria and away from his kidnappers, the issue was to David Bradley, who has
a huge heart and a huge machine and a way to organize things, knew that he
had to bring Qatar into this.
And so I helped open up some of those relationships. We read in "The
Washington Post," which I think is very important, the pathway to the
intelligence chief, who played a key role, but broadly enough.
But I think what was really interesting is that this was a second play.
The first play had been in Libya, when the Libyan government took three
journalists. There were other journalists who were detained in Libya, but
one of them was a freelancer for "The Atlantic," Clare Gillis.
And James Foley was one of those three people who were released. At that
point, I had helped David meet a number of people, one, contacts with
Turkish intelligence, who proved to be partly helpful, and then a gentleman
named Michael Holtzman, who had been a P.R. agent essentially for Mutassim
Gaddafi and Saif al-Islam Gaddafi.
And so he had good relations and we needed to talk to the Gadhafi clan and
penetrate them, even though the United States was essentially at war with
Libya. And those relationships helped ease the way for Foley at that time
in Libya to be released, as well as Clare Gillis and another journalist.
It was unfortunate that James was then kidnapped again.
And David Bradley sprung to action again to try and get him released. And
through that, it was then the family of Peter Theo Curtis made an appeal to
David, hey, would he take a look at this? And as I said, we are all very,
very proud of David Bradley. He`s highly uncomfortable with the attention
he`s received. And I think he would put a lot of people at the forefront
before himself of what had happened.
But that`s essentially the quick picture of what happened.
MATTHEWS: Well, we watched the journalists, though, David, and respect him
tremendously. He`s a very generous guy.
Let me go to David Rohde.
What do we know about getting bad guys to do good things these days? Is it
greasing the skids with friends of friends of friends? or is it money or
is it a combination? What do they want more than a captive, once they got
somebody like you ? What would they rather have that they will trade for?
DAVID ROHDE, FORMER TALIBAN PRISONER: It`s hard to know. And I don`t know
what happened here and the Qatari officials, who did play the key role
here, I don`t know if they -- there was some kind of covert operation where
they had somehow gotten hold of Theo without the captives figuring out who
There was something in the story about them having agents that located him.
But they want something. They held him for two years. To them, they spent
a lot of time. A lot of guards were with him. They spent money on his
food. And Qatar has influence with this group, Nusra. People have
questioned that relationship. Al-Nusra is allied with al Qaeda. And there
are concerns that Qatar is sometimes funding these jihadi groups. We tried
that in the `80s, sending jihadis to kill Soviet soldiers. It`s a terrible
strategy. And it backfires. How was Qatar able to pull this off?
What influence do they have over Nusra.
MATTHEWS: How did you get out?
ROHDE: I was able to escape. An Afghan journalist helped me escape. I
was very lucky. But it was only seven months for me. And, in my case,
they`re really -- they wanted prisoners or money, and it was sort of a
desperate effort on our part to escape. And we were just very, very lucky.
MATTHEWS: Well, good for you. I`m glad you`re home.
Hostage taking has become lucrative for terrorists, of course. A recent
"New York Times" report says that while European governments deny paying
ransoms, an investigation by "The New York Times" found that al Qaeda and
its direct affiliates have taken at least $125 million in revenue from
kidnappers since 2008, of which $66 million has been paid just in the last
Steve, what`s this story that`s been floating around? I guess it`s been
authenticated by NBC and others of the demand by ISIS of -- for 100 million
euros, which is over 100 -- $130 million. Was that a serious demand or
were they just trying to blame us for not taking it, the offer?
CLEMONS: Well, I think David has a better feel for the mercantile
dimensions of this, because he was in there. And David and I have talked
in the past about the way different factions, different groups and networks
even trade the prisoners they have taken.
Either they want to make someone happy or they are traded almost like a
market to some degree. So I can`t speculate why ISIS put such a high and
unreasonable price tag on Foley, other than the fact that they may have
thought -- one of the things that I have also learned from David Rohde is
that the more you seem connected, the more you have your name in the press,
the more you see public profile, the stock value of that kidnappee goes up.
MATTHEWS: Oh, yes.
CLEMONS: And so it`s one of the reasons why people work hard to keep their
names out of the press.
MATTHEWS: David, do they think Americans have by nature deeper pockets?
ROHDE: They do.
And one of the odd things that will come out of this release today -- and
I`m absolutely thrilled for the Curtis family -- is that kidnappers in the
region are going to think Qatar paid a ransom. Whether or not that
happened, that`s the perception.
When I was held five years ago, there was the famous raid that saved
Captain Phillips off the coast of Somalia by the Navy SEALs. My Taliban
kidnapper heard that report on the BBC in a local language service, and he
said, no, no, there was no Navy SEAL raid. That`s all a lie. The American
government secretly paid $15 million for the release of Captain Phillips.
So, this is still a huge problem out here. This is a great day, a
wonderful thing has happened. But we need a coherent strategy. Europeans
are paying. The U.S. is not. And kidnappings are spreading.
MATTHEWS: I guess the kidnappers have to admit they don`t have the money
we do, but they certainly want to claim the macho.
Thanks so much, Steven Clemons.
And thank you, David Rohde, for joining us. This is serious business.
Up next, it turns out there is some monkey business in the office of House
Speaker John Boehner, literally.
And this is HARDBALL, the place for politics.
MATTHEWS: Back to HARDBALL and time for the "Sideshow."
President Obama returned from his vacation on Martha`s Vineyard over the
weekend. But last night, David Letterman noticed that the president was
having a difficult time readjusting to life back in Washington after his
time off. Here`s why.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "LATE SHOW WITH DAVID LETTERMAN")
DAVID LETTERMAN, HOST, "LATE SHOW WITH DAVID LETTERMAN": Barack Obama is
back from vacation today. And his aides will tell you differently, but I
saw him holding a press briefing. I think his head, his mind is still on
PAUL SHAFFER, BAND LEADER: Oh.
LETTERMAN: I brought in the tape. Look at this earlier today. A press
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MATTHEWS: God, okeydokey.
Anyway, next up, John McCain -- actually, John Boehner compared the
responsibilities of his job as speaker of the House to that of a wind-up
toy monkey. His office released a video featuring the speaker and his toy
that Boehner`s staff gave him as a gag gift. Here is the explanation.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
REP. JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: This sits in my office on
my coffee table, because this is me.
That`s what I do all day.
My staff gave it to me. Every 15, 30 minutes, they come in and wind me up,
and I do my thing.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MATTHEWS: That`s the most self-deprecating remark I have ever heard a
Finally, the enduring special relationship with Great Britain and the
United States has just been tested by a diplomatic dust-up over a disputed
anniversary. This past weekend marked 200 years since the burning of
Washington by the British military during the War of 1812.
Among the architectural casualties was one of the most iconic buildings in
all of Washington, D.C., the White House, which, on Sunday, became the butt
of a joke made by the British Embassy. They posted a photograph on Twitter
of a cake with the White House on top -- quote -- "Commemorating the 200th
anniversary of burning the White House," they said. "Only sparklers this
Well, the fallout was so swift, it prompted the Brits to tweet an apology
just a few hours later -- quote -- "Apologies for earlier tweet. We meant
to mark an event in history and celebrate our strong friendship today."
While the fire did destroy most of the White House back then, the outer
sandstone shell did remain and, believe it or not, you can still find
evidence of the fire damage in the White House basement under the North
Up next: the strategy Democrats are afraid to use in 2016, running as
Obama`s third term.
You`re watching HARDBALL, the place for politics.
MILISSA REHBERGER, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT: I`m Milissa Rehberger. Here`s
An open-ended cease-fire deal has been reached between Israel and Hamas,
ending seven weeks of violence and sparking celebrations in Gaza.
Russian President Putin and Ukrainian President Poroshenko met for talks to
defuse tensions over unrest in Eastern Ukraine.
And all those ice bucket challenges are adding up. The ALS Association
says it received $85 million in donations over the last month. That is
compared to $2.6 million in the same period last year -- back to HARDBALL.
MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL.
President Obama has come under fire from both critics and supporters for
appearing too detached, during his two-week vacation in Martha`s Vineyard
especially. It`s a problem of bad optics, the critics say, footage of him
playing golf, for instance, juxtaposed with the news in Ferguson, Missouri,
which was really tragic, and the tragic news of James Foley`s death at the
hands of terrorists, ISIS terrorists.
Well, the split-screen of those stories projects an image of a president
engaged -- disengaged with the country and the world.
Columnist Roger Simon of Politico weighed in on that debate today, writing:
"So why should he worry? You know who should worry? Hillary Clinton
should worry. She has some of the same flaws as Obama. She can project a
chilly public personality, a remoteness, if you will, a reserve and a
detachment from ordinary people. If she can be labeled as Obama`s third
term, she can be beaten."
It`s also difficult to run for president on the heels of a two-term
incumbent of the same party. We all know that. But for Hillary Clinton or
any Democrat, for that matter, President Obama may prove to be a drag on
the Democratic ticket, at least right now.
Ironically, it`s the same situation that helped get then Senator Barack
Obama elected himself in 2008, when his opponent, Senator John McCain, was
burdened by unpopularity of W. Well, McCain was forced to distance himself
from Bush, while simultaneously representing his party, an awkward
balancing act that McCain was asked after about his only campaign
appearance with Bush in the general election, which only lasted a minute.
He was asked here.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
QUESTION: Can you talk about your interaction with the president yesterday
and the fact that you were seen in public for less than 60 seconds? Is
that indicative of what we should see the next six months? Or will we
continue to see you two in public?
SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: We had -- he came and attended a -- in
fact, was responsible for a fund-raiser. I was glad that he was there.
That`s all there is to it. There`s nothing more.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MATTHEWS: He sounded quite defensive there, didn`t he?
Even President Bush thought said, later writing in his 2010 memoir -- quote
-- "I thought it looked defensive for John to distance himself from me. I
was confident I could have helped him make his case. But the decision was
his. I was disappointed I couldn`t do more to help him."
Well, now, as the incumbent, it`s President Obama who might complicate
things for the eventual Democratic nominee.
Joining me right now is Roger Simon, columnist with Politico, and former
RNC Chair Michael Steele.
Gentlemen, Roger and, Michael, in this case, try to think like a Democrat
for a minute.
MICHAEL STEELE, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: OK.
MATTHEWS: This question, I have -- to all -- Roger, to your piece, I don`t
know how you separate yourself from a member of your party who has been
president for eight years without looking like a rat jumping from the ship.
I don`t know.
It didn`t help Al Gore, not that he`s a rat. But he did try to separate
himself from Bill Clinton after Monica and all that mess in a way that
really hurt him, because he couldn`t take advantage of the good economy.
And I just never saw it done well, except when George Sr. ran and he was
riding off a popular president, Reagan.
How do you separate yourself from an unpopular president and not look like
a rat? Your thoughts, Roger?
ROGER SIMON, CHIEF POLITICAL COLUMNIST, POLITICO: You know, if looking
like a rat will get you to the Oval Office, you will look like a rat.
SIMON: Hillary`s problem is that President Obama currently has low
approval ratings. If Republicans take both houses of Congress in November,
which they might, the rest of his second term probably will not amount to
And how is she going to run as being Obama`s third term? I`m not sure
Obama would want a third term if he could have one. He might just say, two
has been plenty. So, I think Hillary Clinton is not going to worry about
the rat thing. She`s going to worry about the getting-elected thing.
MATTHEWS: You know -- well, what do you think of that, Michael?
STEELE: No, I think that`s right.
I think, as a matter of fact, I think Hillary will probably, if she`s
smart, embrace those aspects of what`s going on good in the country at that
time, which will be attributed to the president, but by and large sort of
define her own space, Chris.
You have already begun to see her do that, as we have seen in foreign
affairs. I think you will begin -- we have heard a little bit of the
distancing on things like health care. She`s already begun to carve that
space up, to create that rat space for herself, if you will, because she
And, quite honestly, I think we presume too much to think the president
will actually be jumping up and down to help her. I think the president
will likely want to take much more of a hand-off approach to her campaign
for a whole host of reasons.
Well, if she wants to distance herself from President Obama, she`s already
conducted a Le Mans start, as they say in racing--
MATTHEWS: -- and appears to be distancing herself clearly from President
Obama on foreign policy, as you said, Michael, criticizing the
administration, I`d say, inartfully, in this kind of thing.
"Don`t do stupid stuff," she said in an interview with Jeff Goldberg, "is
not smart thing to do." She said, "Great nations need organizing
principles and `don`t do stupid stuff` is not an organizing principle."
In that same article, she broke with the administration on Syria and a
number of other things, certainly saying in the Syria case, "The failure to
help build up a credible fighting force to the people who were the
originators of the protest against Assad, they were Islamists, there was
secularists and there was everything in the middle. The failure to do it
left a big vacuum which the jihadists have now filled."
And in her book released earlier this summer, Secretary Clinton seemed to
be criticizing the president`s dealings with Russian President Vladimir
Putin. Here she is, "Don`t appear too eager to work together. Don`t
flatter Putin with high level attention. Decline his invitation for a
presidential level summit in Moscow in September."
Well, Roger, that was pretty tough stuff --
SIMON: It is.
MATTHEWS: -- going to talk to a guy who`s known to be a hawk, a good
reporter but a hawk, Jeffrey Goldberg, and then to throw in that shot about
Putin, when she was the one with the big red "reset" button. I mean, to
just act like she wasn`t there.
SIMON: And there is a danger politically in what she`s doing. All those
statements, distancing herself from Obama on foreign policy, she`s more
hawkish. She`s sending the signal. She would use U.S. troops overseas to
fight jihadists. Our failure to do so led to the current crisis.
The trouble is that`s not where the Democratic Party is. She is distancing
herself before the primaries from her own party. There is a Democratic
wing of the Democratic Party who is all for peace, who doesn`t want more
boots on the ground, no matter what. And, you know, she has got to worry
about the primary before she fights in the general.
MATTHEWS: You know, Michael, there is an old phrase in politics -- dance
with the one that brung you. And the reason the Democrats are in the White
House right now is because they took a position against what they thought
was the craziness of the Iraq war, period, as simple as that. And she
voted to authorize it.
STEELE: She did. She did at the time as a U.S. senator. But how ironic
will it be if by late 2015, mid-2016, because of ISIS, because of other
turmoils in the Middle East, we do have boots on the ground.
STEELE: That will make for a very interesting dynamic within the
Democratic Party for both Hillary and the party itself, because then
someone like an Elizabeth Warren and others who are central left or
progressive will have this space that that will be clearly defined, to
Roger`s point, because the base doesn`t like to have boots on the ground.
MATTHEWS: Why do you complicate things, Michael?
STEELE: I`m sorry. You said to think like a Democrat.
MATTHEWS: Roger, I agree. It`s so complicated.
Anyway, when Al Gore was the Democratic nominee for president back in the
year 2000 -- by the way, he did win the election, the popular vote -- he
tried to avoid using Bill Clinton on the campaign trail. That was a
mistake, despite President Clinton`s high approval ratings in the wake of
the impeachment effort.
Here`s an excerpt from a Slate.com editorial shortly after that election,
after Gore`s unwillingness to use Clinton to his advantage. Quote,
"Instead of finding a way to embrace the accomplishments record of the
Clinton administration, Gore ran away from Clinton as fast as his legs
could carry him. Gore would use tortured locutions to avoid having to
utter, even utter his name. Perhaps Gore did need to distance himself from
Clinton`s personal failings but in so doing, he managed to distance himself
from Clinton`s public successes at the same time."
SIMON: What people forget because we don`t care about it anymore is that
Gore was running in an atmosphere of the Monica Lewinsky scandal. The
scandal was all of `98, a little bit of `99 and the campaign began in `99.
Question after question, stop after stop to Gore was, you know, are you
with President Clinton? Are you against him? Do you think he was immoral?
Are you more moral?
And he just made a political calculation that President Clinton was a
SIMON: That he was very good in campaigning for himself but as Hillary
Clinton found out in 2008, he sometimes is not very good campaigning for
So, I would not take it as a given. Had he campaigned more with Bill
Clinton, he would have won in 2000.
MATTHEWS: Well, he might have gotten Arkansas.
SIMON: That`s all he would have needed. He would have been president.
MATTHEWS: I know, that`s my point. All he needed was Arkansas, Tennessee
or New Hampshire. He didn`t need Florida.
SIMON: Or West Virginia.
MATTHEWS: We`ll be talking about this on a bench in Miami someday, Roger.
This is the kind of stuff, and, Michael. We`ll be talking about this when
we`re 93 if we`re lucky. Thank you.
What Gore could have done to win! And darn it, Ralph Nader! What did he
Anyway, thank you all. Thank you, Michael Steele. Thank you, Roger.
Up next, the public`s sour mood and what it might mean for November.
That`s coming up, November.
This is HARDBALL, the place for politics.
MATTHEWS: It`s primary day today in a number of states, and two of them --
Arizona and Florida -- bear watching.
The big event is in Florida where the Republican-turned-independent-turned
Democrat Charlie Crist is expected to win the Democratic nomination for
governor. He would then go on to face Governor Rick Scott who was once
seen as very vulnerable, but whose campaign has picked up momentum
In Arizona, Democrats have a good shot at replacing the term-limited
Republican Governor Jan Brewer. Both parties are choosing candidates
And we`ll be right back.
MATTHEWS: We`re back.
With November`s midterm elections just over two months away now, about 10
weeks, all the public polling suggests Republicans are just about certain
to make big gains in the U.S. Senate races and with a good chance of
winning a majority there, and smaller gains in the House. But the public
mood is so gloomy that it could be a liability for both parties.
As Frank Bruni put it today in "The New York Times", "Americans are
apprehensive about where they are and even more about where we are we`re
headed. But they don`t see anything or anyone to lead them into the light.
There`s sour on the president, on the Democratic Party, and on Republicans
most of all. They`re hungry for hope but don`t spot it on the menu. Where
that tension leaves us is anybody`s guess."
Well-written there. Our August NBC/"Wall Street Journal" poll illustrates
Bruni`s point. Seventy-six percent of Americans, that plus 3/4, age 18 and
older, are not confident that their children will fair better than their
own. And 71 percent of Americans say the country is headed in the wrong
Those are powerful figures. The country is obviously feed up and the
widespread pessimism makes this upcoming election in November especially
unpredictable, of course.
Joan Walsh is an expert on many things in this area. She`s with "Salon"
and MSNBC political analyst.
And Jonathan Capehart is another expert. He`s opinion writer with "The
Washington Post," he writes those big editorials and he is an MSNBC
Thank you, both.
JONATHAN CAPEHART, THE WASHINGTON POST: Thanks, Chris.
MATTHEWS: This is a subject you guys and I think about all the time, the
national mood, the zeitgeist, the feeling of our times. And these numbers
are pretty depressing, because even we`re going I look at the unemployment
rate that seems to have gone dramatically, I look at the Dow which would
affect everybody with a pension way up.
And yet, most people feel down and they`re disappointed in our leadership
across the board and very pessimistic I think is the right word and not a
good American word for their kids.
Your thoughts, Joan. I know you got kids. And here`s the thought --
JOAN WALSH, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, I`m optimistic for my daughter.
You know, she`s doing great, Chris. But I`m not optimistic for our young
children collectively. I think that it`s very tough for next generation
and we have not replaced the kind of post-World War II engine of
opportunity that propelled families like ours, I know, into the middle
MATTHEWS: I know.
WALSH: We`ve not done that.
And we also have a very broken political system, which -- you know, I admit
I`m a Democrat. But one party, the Republican Party, has run away from a
lot of its traditional principles and has basically decided it is going to
refuse to govern.
So, I think people do see gridlock. They do see a failure to act on things
like infrastructure, which used to be a no brainer, or student loans, and
they`re very pessimistic, understandably so.
MATTHEWS: Jonathan, that`s a partisan opinion I share. I just heard it.
That`s my opinion. I think they`ve hidden the ball.
But the public doesn`t see how the game is played. They just see the
results. And the results are nothing is getting done.
MATTHEWS: And I remember when Franklin Roosevelt, somebody told a great
story, a columnist like you, Joe Alsop, said that he was getting bombed in
Hong Kong, just a day after Pearl Harbor, and we were on the losing end of
that war. We lost half our Navy. Everything looked bad.
He said, as I lay there on the ground listening to the Roosevelt speech
declaring war, I knew we`d win. That`s -- he said, that was the greatness
of Franklin Roosevelt. He knew we`d win just listening to this guy declare
And my dad told me that. He always thought we`d win the war.
Where`s that optimism today about winning the big fights we have today
about the world?
CAPEHART: Well, there`s no optimism because of what`s been happening in
this town since 2010. And that is a legislative branch that has decided to
block everything that the executive branch is trying to do.
One thing that I want to push back against, and that is this sort of
collective notion that we have to find the one -- the leader who is going
to lead us out of this malaise and into sunshine and happiness again and I
wonder, I think people --
MATTHEWS: What is it otherwise?
CAPEHART: Say that again?
MATTHEWS: When has it been otherwise we got somewhere without a leader?
CAPEHART: Well, what I -- the point I`m getting to, Chris, is that we have
to start looking at -- you know, the president is only -- we`re a
democracy, not a monarchy. And the president is very powerful, but he`s
only as powerful as the legislative branch will allow him to be, and when
you have a legislative branch that has dug in its heels and opposes the
executive on everything, no matter what it is, no matter how good it is, no
matter even if it was their own ideas, then there`s only so much that can
get done in the country.
Remember, President Clinton was impeached by the Republicans on Capitol
Hill who were in charge of the House for the first time in 40-something
years and yet, he had a governing partner in Speaker Newt Gingrich to get
things done for the country. Where`s that for President Obama? There
isn`t -- there isn`t anyone.
MATTHEWS: Joan, your thoughts. Do we need a leader or just the national
mood? What do we need? What do we need? A change in political systems?
I mean, I don`t think we can do that in our lifetime if we want to.
WALSH: Not a change in political systems, but I basically do agree with
Jonathan. I think we can critique this president on the margins, and all
three of us definitely have. But I think it`s much bigger than him.
And I think there`s a problem, where progressives -- progressives in
particular, Chris, we get all excited every four years, and it`s Barack
Obama, or it`s Howard Dean, or it`s going to be Elizabeth Warren and we
don`t do the hard work of digging into congressional districts --
WALSH: -- and state legislatures where reapportionment happens.
MATTHEWS: That`s my speech.
WALSH: And that`s -- you know, that`s why --
MATTHEWS: -- as anybody, but it was my speech last night. I agree with
you. We like the excitement.
Anyway, thank you, Joan Walsh.
WALSH: I do, too.
MATTHEWS: These are important topics.
Thank you, Jonathan Capehart, as always.
We`ll be right back.
MATTHEWS: Let me finish tonight with this country, in August 2014. How
are we doing? Well, if you look at the stock market, we`re going
gangbusters. It`s up there -- way up there, which is good for
stockholders, also for those with retirement money and 401(k)s.
The jobless rate is also way down from where it was. But there`s some
serious buts to this rosy look at things. First, there are a lot of people
with nothing riding on the stock market for the simple reason they don`t
have money to bet on the market. Second, there are a lot of people working
on low wages or shorter hours or have simply given up looking for work.
None of this gets counted in the overall jobless rate which is down.
There`s also this bigger "but". This sense by millions of people that
things are not going in the right direction, that we`re not leaving our
younger generation in a better place. One in five Americans today say
they`re confident that our children`s generation will fair better than we
have. One in five.
What`s all this tell those politicians now plotting and planning on how to
lead us come 2016? Well, to me, the answer is simple -- the American
people want a president who will give them confidence.
They don`t want someone to take them back to 2008 and start all over. That
was a time of the greatest financial crisis since the Great Depression.
2008 was a time of two wars people wanted very much to end. They want a
leader who will take us from here.
How can Hillary Clinton convince the country that she will start the minute
she takes office to bring on brighter days? The same with whomever the
Republicans trust with their presidential banner?
It`s not about how hard you bash Obama. It`s about the future, stupid.
And that`s HARDBALL for now. Thanks for being with us.
"ALL IN WITH CHRIS HAYES" starts right now.
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