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updated 9/9/2009 10:57:32 AM ET 2009-09-09T14:57:32

Guest Host: Mike Barnicle

Guests: Pat Buchanan, Chuck Todd, David Gregory, Ron Brownstein, Rep. Chellie Pingree, Rep. Gerry Connolly, David Corn, Jonathan Martin

MIKE BARNICLE, GUEST HOST:  A make-or-break week for President Obama?

Let‘s play HARDBALL. 

Good evening.  I‘m Mike Barnicle, in tonight for Chris Matthews. 

Leading off tonight: Obama‘s big moment. 

President Obama is facing perhaps the most important and consequential week yet of his presidency.  It all begins with health care and his speech to a joint session of Congress tomorrow night.  Then there is Afghanistan, the September 11 anniversary, stubbornly high unemployment, and growing uneasy—unease about the deficit.  Add to that the sense that the president is being shaped by events more he is shaping them.  Whether he can turn that around may say a lot about how successful a president he will be. 

Virtually every Republican has decided to just say no to anything the president proposes.  Plus, he‘s faced with this inconvenient truth.  Liberal Democrats won‘t vote for a health care plan without a public option.  Moderate Democrats won‘t vote for one with it. 

Two congressional Democrats who fall on either side of this issue will be here in just a moment. 

Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who is among those demanding a public option, will hold a news conference in half-an-hour.  And we will cover it live and get reaction. 

Plus, was the White House asleep at the switch when the right-wing attack machine went after the president on all fronts?  They translated health care reform into death panels and killing grandma, and even turned today‘s back-to-school speech into socialist indoctrination.  The White House seems flummoxed by the attacks and now says it‘s going to fight back.  Well, we will see. 

And, finally, after serving seven years in prison, former Congressman Jim Traficant has managed to compare himself to, of all people, Nelson Mandela.  That‘s where it belongs, in the HARDBALL “Sideshow.” 

But we begin with President Obama‘s big moment. 

Chuck Todd is NBC News chief White House correspondent and political director.  And Jonathan Martin is Politico‘s senior political writer. 

Gentlemen.

Let‘s start with you, Chuck.

As you know better than most, Chuck—I have been around a long time

and I have got to tell you, this furor over the president‘s school speech to students...

CHUCK TODD, NBC NEWS POLITICAL DIRECTOR:  Right. 

BARNICLE:  ... the continuing jam over which Democrats are with him on health care, which aren‘t, and the continuing prognostications about all the different polls out there, is the Obama presidency at an end, what is going on here? 

TODD:  Right. 

Well, I think—you know, I talked to one outside Democratic adviser to this White House.  And it was put to me this way, that, look, they—they are aware that, in many ways, this fall, and how—and, frankly, it starts tomorrow—that the White House and the president, himself, is taking a character and leadership test, that this is a moment in time for him to show he can take control of a debate, he can take control of his party, he can figure out a way to cut through some of the problems of sausage-making inside of his own party.

It may be not about figuring out how to stop polarization among the

two political parties.  I don‘t think any one person can end that, but in -

at a minimum, becoming a leader, leading his own party out of this health care jam, if you would. 

I don‘t think they would describe it as a mess, but it‘s clearly a political jam.  And there‘s only one person that can lead them out of it. 

And, so, I have heard some that—in many ways, if they look at tomorrow‘s speech as a chance to test his character and show off his character, that that might be a step in the right direction in fixing this perception problem that I—Mike, I think that you‘re—you‘re—you‘re hitting at. 

BARNICLE:  Jonathan, what are you hearing in your reporting?  I mean, we—we hear from some sources that the president is going to step up to the plate and, you know, get a little tougher than he has been in the past.  He‘s got—he‘s got a problem, clearly, with Speaker Pelosi, or some issue with Speaker Pelosi.  Seems to be a split with majority leader Steny Hoyer. 

What are you hearing? 

JONATHAN MARTIN, SENIOR POLITICAL WRITER, POLITICO.COM:  Well, Chuck -

Chuck is, as usual, exactly right. 

The fact is, this president is not going to be able to transcend the partisan divide in this country.  It‘s apparently gotten worse.  And it‘s not gotten any better.  But where he can be successful is by trying to get his own party in line, in finding some consensus among congressional Democrats. 

And, if it he can do that, that‘s going to lead to a victory on health care.  And that gets him past this first hurdle.  But I talked to a lot of Democrats today, Mike, for a story that I‘m doing.  And, you know, they—they are flummoxed themselves because of this sort of right-wing attack machine that you mentioned. 

The fact is, if you‘re the president of the United States, and you‘re in the White House, do you engage these folks on the right wing, or do you ignore them?  Well, if you ignore, then you have got the sort of death panels that sort of start setting in.  But, if you engage them, does that diminish your office? 

It‘s a really tough question.  But, clearly, it was a very tough summer, in large part because the White House didn‘t know what to do with some of these forces on the right.  They really drove the conversation on health care. 

BARNICLE:  Hey—hey, Chuck, that gets to, you know, back to the school prayer (sic) thing that I mentioned at the top. 

TODD:  Right. 

BARNICLE:  I found the whole controversy over it kind of depressing, sort of people out there having no—no confidence in their own parenting skills...

TODD:  Right. 

BARNICLE:  ... no matter what the president would say in school. 

But it‘s easy to get isolated in the White House.  We all know that. 

TODD:  Right. 

BARNICLE:  And, yet, there are elements of that debate where the president was going to say, wash your hands, respect your teachers, do your homework, respect yourself, and for that message to be so misconstrued out there...

TODD:  Yes. 

BARNICLE:  ... are they aware of how incendiary this stuff is? 

TODD:  Well, I will tell you, they—you know, in many ways, it‘s my understanding—you know, yesterday, the president went to Cincinnati, AFL-CIO picnic.  And everybody came away and go, whoa, where did that guy come from? 

All of a sudden, candidate Obama was standing in for President Obama. 

He was fiery.  He was in a—looked in a good mood, but sort of stern and

and seemed to just want to want—want to light the—light the supporters, you know, on fire, get them fired up, get them behind him, rallying him, almost in campaign mode, and I‘m told, in many ways, because he, himself, was frustrated by how this school speech was treated. 

And the White House now has this attitude.  Look, they were blowing it off.  You know, last week, Robert Gibbs referred to it that this is the silly season, trying to almost be dismissive of it.  Not anymore.  These guys want to engage directly now on some of this stuff, go ahead and take some of these folks on, because it isn‘t—it may be a fringe in their mind that is starting these stories.

But the problem they have got is, is, when you have got 20 percent to 25 percent of America, eventually, that‘s the message that they get is from that fringe...

MARTIN:  Right. 

TODD:  ... then they feel like they have got to beat this back, because they can‘t—they can‘t be having 20 percent to 25 percent of the population not getting their side of the story at all. 

BARNICLE:  Jonathan, before you jump in on—on what Chuck...

(CROSSTALK)

MARTIN:  Sure.   

BARNICLE:  ... was just telling us....

MARTIN:  Yes. 

BARNICLE:  ... let‘s listen to President Obama, a bit of it, yesterday in Cincinnati. 

MARTIN:  Sure.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  And because we‘re so close to real reform, suddenly the special interests are doing what they always do, which is just try to scare the heck out of people.

But I have got—I have got a question for all these folks who say, you know, we‘re going to pull the plug on Grandma and this is all about illegal immigrants—you‘ve heard all the lies.  I have got a question for all those folks:  What are you going to do? 

(APPLAUSE)

(APPLAUSE)

OBAMA:  What‘s your answer? 

(APPLAUSE)

OBAMA:  What‘s your solution? 

(APPLAUSE)

OBAMA:  And you know what?  They don‘t have one. 

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE) 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BARNICLE:  Jonathan, your thoughts, please.

MARTIN:  Well, I have always thought that, when this president gets further away from that building that Chuck‘s standing in front of now, he‘s much more effective. 

I—there‘s something about the marble in Washington that sort of takes the fire—fire away from this president.  And once he‘s out there in a place like Cincinnati, talking to organized labor—for example, this summer when he was campaigning for Jon Corzine in New Jersey, you saw a similar, more sort of campaign-style president.  And he‘s much more effective. 

But, you know, part of the challenge was he wasn‘t spending all summer in that public campaign mode.  A lot of these—these negotiations were behind closed doors with the American Hospital Association and with members of Congress.  It was more of an inside game.  He was not sort of doing the outside game at full force all summer long, like he was there yesterday in Cincinnati. 

And, look, I think the back-to-school episode, Mike, that you mentioned and this whole Van Jones incident, the White House adviser who was forced out over the weekend, if those two incidents are not sort of opening the eyes of a lot of folks in this White House about the still-resonant power of the right wing in this country, I don‘t know what‘s going to. 

BARNICLE:  Chuck, health care tomorrow night...

TODD:  Yes. 

BARNICLE:  ... and power of the right wing, Barack Obama‘s president of the United States. 

(LAUGHTER)

BARNICLE:  There‘s a certain element of power there. 

TODD:  There is.  And I think what you‘re going to see tomorrow is this, is that, if the speech is successful, Mike, Joe and Jane in Kansas City, Missouri, are going to be able to tell you what President Obama‘s health care plan is, period. 

So, then, if that is what happens tomorrow, and he successfully can do that, outline how to pay for it, outline how things should be covered, even deal with this issue of the public option—he may deal a little bit with the issue of bipartisanship, but I don‘t think they‘re going to get into political process a lot.  I really think it is going to be about...

MARTIN:  Right. 

TODD:  ... the specifics of what reform would look like after it‘s implemented, and trying to get folks to—to focus on that.

But I think we‘re starting to see—today was a lot of sausage-making happenings today here on Capitol Hill, on Pennsylvania Avenue.  And, behind the scenes, you‘re starting to see what‘s going to happen.  On this issue of the public option, there‘s going to—it‘s never going to die.  It may not be implemented. 

MARTIN:  Right.

TODD:  It is now going to be in—we call it a trigger—it‘s actually a terrible term to try to explain—the threat of the public option on private insurance. 

That is a belief that centrist Democrats are buying into, and it may be enough to keep the left, who really want a public option, to say, OK, you know...

(CROSSTALK)

TODD:  ... and that‘s where they‘re coming together.  That looks like

where everything seems to be coming together today, which, by the way, it‘s

a big victory for public option advocates, because you know what we‘re not

talking about?  This idea of the co-ops, remember, the Kent Conrad idea—

try—granted, try to explain that in 30 seconds, and I won‘t—but that

that seems to have faded. 

BARNICLE:  Yes.  Try 30 days, you couldn‘t explain it. 

Jonathan, you agree with Chuck on that? 

MARTIN:  Yes, I was going to say—yes, I was going to say Chuck‘s point is very, very shrewd. 

I think, politically, what the trigger does, it provides cover for liberal Democrats who have gone out on a limb and said, look, there‘s no way we can support a bill with no public option, if they include the trigger language, those Democrats...

BARNICLE:  Right. 

MARTIN:  ... can at least make the argument, I‘m still voting for a bill that has some kind of public option language in there.  But, at the same time, you bring home those moderate Democrats in the Senate from red states, who are very much wary of a public option. 

BARNICLE:  Hey, Chuck, before we go—and this is a rather sensitive issue, but I wonder, is there any sense within the White House that you hear, that you pick up that they think race might be a part of this argument against everything that the president does? 

TODD:  In a—in the—even on background, they will never touch that. 

BARNICLE:  Right. 

TODD:  They don‘t want to go near it.  They don‘t want to be accused of crying race, that somehow—remember that it would come up in the campaign, and you would have...

BARNICLE:  Yes. 

TODD:  ... back and forth, sort of accusing them, oh, look, by—by saying that something might have to do with race, Obama‘s playing the race card. 

You know, so there would—they‘re very concerned.  They don‘t ever want—so, they will never talk about it as an excuse.  Outside, advisers to—you know, sort of outside advisers to this White House, that‘s usually the quickest way they go to it.  They say, if you look at these polls, it‘s Southern.  It‘s mostly—you know, you look at the school speech, it was a lot of...

MARTIN:  Yes. 

BARNICLE:  Yes. 

TODD:  Yes, it was places in the South that were reactive. 

So, you get a lot of people saying, hey, two plus two plus two plus two eventually equals eight here, and maybe it has to do with something with race.  But this White House doesn‘t want to touch that. 

MARTIN:  Right. 

BARNICLE:  That is both interesting and depressing, gentlemen. 

Chuck Todd, Jonathan Martin, thanks very much. 

Coming up:  President Obama‘s biggest challenge tomorrow night may be getting his own party to get on the same page about health care reform.  We will talk to two House Democrats, one who is demanding a public option and one who‘s more willing to compromise. 

That‘s next.  You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.  

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BARNICLE:  Coming up:  Why is the right-wing attack machine so effective against President Obama?  And can the White House do anything to neutralize it?

HARDBALL returns after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BARNICLE:  Welcome back to HARDBALL. 

Will Congress pass a health care bill that doesn‘t include a public option? 

Congresswoman Chellie Pingree is a Democrat from Maine, and Congressman Gerry Connolly is a Democrat from Virginia, two people on the same sides, and yet not—maybe not on the same side so much. 

Congresswoman Pingree, let‘s start with you. 

If there is no public option included in the bill that hits the House floor at some point down the road, will you vote for it or against it? 

REP. CHELLIE PINGREE (D), MAINE:  That would be a tough one for me. 

I have already said that I would vote against a bill that doesn‘t have a public option.  It‘s a huge issue to me in terms of really reforming health care.  Frankly, for my constituents, many of whom still think we should have a single-payer health care plan, this is middle ground, moving to the right. 

And they‘re very worried about the debate that is going on.  And, so, I would be concerned if we don‘t have a public option. 

BARNICLE:  But you—you—you‘re not going to tell you how you would vote, yes or no, right? 

PINGREE:  Right.  Today, I would vote no. 

I mean, you know, you never know what the next configuration would be.

BARNICLE:  Right. 

PINGREE:  But I signed on to a letter saying I won‘t vote for a bill with a public option.  I wanted to be very—without a public option—I wanted to be very clear to the president and to my colleagues that, in my experiences on health care—I come from Maine.  We have done a lot of work with insurance companies. 

You know, what I hear from people is, you know, why would you want to help out the insurance companies?  That‘s where the problem is.  When people say to us, well, it won‘t be a level playing field—field if you don‘t—if you—if you put a public option in, you know, I have to say, I didn‘t get elected to make sure insurance companies made huge profits, that CEOs got big salaries.  I‘m here to make sure we have an equitable plan, that people can afford their health care, and that we really expand it and have major reforms. 

So, for me right now, that is essential. 

BARNICLE:  Congressman Connolly, public option doesn‘t really hit your hot button in terms of a final version of the bill, is it? 

REP. GERRY CONNOLLY (D), VIRGINIA:  Well, it‘s not much that.

I support a public option.  And I have endorsed a public option, but it‘s not a matter of theology to me.  I want to overall—I want to get on a path to yes for health care reform legislation.  I‘m not there yet.  I have other problems with the bill. 

But a public option, if it is an instrument that can broaden access and bring down health care costs, insurance coverage in particular, by providing competition, I‘m all for it.  If there‘s another way for doing the same thing, I‘m for that too. 

So, I‘m—I‘m unwilling to draw a bright line in the sand over that particular aspect of health care reform. 

BARNICLE:  You said you had other problems with—with the bill, as it‘s being drafted right now.  Who are those other problems? 

CONNOLLY:  Well, there are lots of discrete issues that we could talk about, but two big ones. 

I don‘t we have run out—enough by way of savings in the bill yet.  And I don‘t like the surcharge that‘s being proposed here in the House.  I think it hurts a lot of folks in my area of the world, in Northern Virginia, but it also hurts small businesses. 

And, so, before we start talking about revenue enhancement, I want to be convinced and I think the public wants to be convinced we have done everything we have can, we have left no rock unturned, in trying to identify additional savings.

Example, the drug companies have put $80 billion on the table in voluntary savings.  The Hospital Association has put $130 billion on the table for voluntary savings.  The insurance companies, which Chellie mentioned—and I agree with her—the biggest profit-makers in the whole system, zero dollars on the table. 

We can do better. 

BARNICLE:  Congresswoman Pingree, you just heard Congressman Connolly say that he wants to get to yes. 

So, tell me, given the seemingly split—some say it‘s minor, some say it‘s major—between the speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, who‘s going to be speaking in a few minutes, I guess, and Steny Hoyer, a split over public option, how do you navigate to yes, if that, indeed, is your goal?  Is it your goal, too? 

PINGREE:  Absolutely.  I think we all want to get to yes. 

And ,remember, I come from the state with Senator Olympia Snowe, who is busily working with the White House to see if there are other options in the Senate.  So, I, as well as anybody, understand the importance of negotiating, the importance of getting a final bill that really allows us to move forward. 

And I agree with a lot of things that Gerry says.  And we have a huge freshman class, and all of us ran on this issue of bringing about reform in the health care system.  Things like making sure that we negotiate with the pharmaceutical manufacturers to bring down the price of prescription drugs, you know, that‘s essential to lowering the cost here.  So, I do think that there‘s a lot of work to be done in making sure that we lower costs.

On the other hand, if we don‘t come out with a very strong bill from the House—and I believe that has to have a public option, that it really has to fight back against the insurance companies, that has to show massive amounts of reform—when we get to negotiating with the Senate, we will already have moved too far in what will be a complicated conference process.

So while everybody kind of wants to know today, you know, Declare where you are, What are you going to do here...

BARNICLE:  Yes.

PINGREE:  You mentioned it earlier.  This is sausage making.  There‘s a lot of complicated maneuvering that‘s going to have to go on to get us from here to there.  But I think everybody knows that the president wants to pass a bill.  This Congress wants to pass a bill.  And at least for me, with whatever dispute went on with our—you know, with out constituents this summer, the one thing I heard loud and clear was, Get this fixed.  Work together.  Find a solution.

CONNOLLY:  And Mike, if I could, add to that, in some ways, it‘s an academic question.  I think both Chellie and I would agree.  It‘s highly unlikely anything would pass the floor of the House of Representatives without a strong public option.

BARNICLE:  Congressman Gerry Connolly, Congresswoman Chellie Pingree, thanks very much for your views.  We appreciate it.

Up next: Former Ohio congressman Jim Traficant is out of prison, and he has some advice for all of us.  That‘s next on the “Sideshow.”

You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BARNICLE:  Oh, I love that music.  I just love it.  Back to HARDBALL.  Time for the “Sideshow.”  First: Shout it from the mountaintop.  Former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich was on the “Today” show this morning to promote his new book, “The Governor,” which gives us his version of the events which led to his impeachment.  No surprise here.  Blago‘s not giving an inch on those charges he tried to sell Barack Obama‘s Senate seat.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ROD BLAGOJEVICH (D), FORMER ILLINOIS GOVERNOR:  When you‘re an honest person and you believe that—you want to tell the people who hired you and trusted you that you didn‘t let them down, you look for the highest mountaintop that you can find and you want to shout out and say, It just ain‘t so.  And so no one hears you if you‘re on top of a mountain, so the best—next best thing is to write a book.

If what I‘m saying is true is true --  and the tapes will bear out what I say.  And again, it‘s the prosecution that won‘t allow us to have the tapes heard publicly.  But if what I say is true is true, then somebody is lying here.  And it‘s not me.  And if a governor was stolen from office by false accusations knowingly given, then something is seriously upside down.  And that‘s what the story of this book is.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BARNICLE:  I‘ll tell you what‘s not upside down is his hair.  He‘s got great hair.  Be sure to watch Blago‘s turn on HARDBALL this Monday the 14th.

Speaking of trouble with the law, former congressman Jim Traficant got out of the slammer just last week after serving four years on federal corruption charges.  Upon his return to Ohio, Traficant gave a speech at his welcome home bash invoking, who else, Nelson Mandela.  Traficant put his own twist on the South African leader‘s words, saying, quote, “If you want to know the true nature of a country, you must go through its prisons.  I know America.  I have seen the other side of it, and I don‘t like it,” unquote.

Well, Traficant‘s not done yet.  He told supporters that the government, quote, “had to cheat to convict him,” unquote back in 2002, that he plans further major announcements by the end of the week, this week.

Moving on, “The Politico” is out with its list of the top Washington, D.C., area party animals.  And guess what?  Some HARDBALL regulars made the list.  You‘ve got Margaret Carlson of Bloomberg News, “Vanity Fair‘s” Chris Hitchens, and of course, Howard Fineman of “Newsweek.”  Crazy, crazy party animals, all of them.  They‘ve got it all written all over them.

Time for tonight‘s “Big Number,” though.  Joe Kennedy II announced this weekend that he will not be running for his uncle Ted‘s Senate seat in Massachusetts, which means no Kennedys are in the mix in that special election.  You could call this the end of an era.

Just  how long has Massachusetts had a Kennedy in Congress?  About 62 straight years.  There was a brief blip between 1961 and 1962, when Jack Kennedy became president and Ted Kennedy won a special election to the Senate.  But it looks like the 62-year streak of Massachusetts-based Kennedys in Congress has come to an end and that, 62, is tonight‘s “Big Number.”

Up next: Why is the conservative right so angry at everything President Obama does, from his speech today to schoolchildren to his efforts to reform health care?  The right-wing attack machine is powered up against the president‘s every move.  What the White House can do to combat it, next.

You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(CNBC MARKET WRAP)

BARNICLE:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  The right-wing attack machine has ginned up fights against President Obama on just about every front, from his efforts to overhaul health care to his work in rescuing the economy to his back-to-school speech today to students.  So has the White House ignored these attacks for too long?  And what do they need to do at this point to neutralize them?

Pat Buchanan is an MSNBC political analyst and David Corn is the Washington bureau chief for “Mother Jones.”  And Pat Buchanan actually knew Mother Jones, so let‘s start with you, Pat.

(LAUGHTER)

PAT BUCHANAN, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  I also was part of the right-wing attack machine.

(LAUGHTER)

BARNICLE:  Pat, we were speaking earlier—Chuck Todd was on earlier from the White House, and I told him that I have been amazed at the furor that has developed over President Obama‘s speech today to students, high school and some grammar school students, basically saying, Do your homework, wash your hands so you don‘t get the flu, respect your parents, respect your teachers and respect yourself.  What is going on?  What is the deal here?

BUCHANAN:  Well, there‘s nothing wrong with the speech itself.  It was a good speech to students.  I‘ll tell you what it‘s all about, Mike.  The atmosphere and the politics in this town are thoroughly poisoned across the board right now.  This was just an occasion where Barack Obama said he‘s going to talk to the students, and all of a sudden, the students had these workbooks they were going to work on.

But Mike, back in 1991, George Bush I went out to Alice Deal (ph) junior high school right up the street.  He was attacked by “The Washington Post” for using students as props and turning the school into a media studio. Lamar Alexander, education secretary, was called to the Hill.  The GAO was ordered to investigate the whole thing.

It‘s a poisoned political atmosphere, and this was dropped into the middle of it.

DAVID CORN, “MOTHER JONES”:  But you know...

BARNICLE:  David, how did it get so toxic?

CORN:  Well...

BARNICLE:  How?

CORN:  Well, if you remember back to the campaign, I would go to these McCain/Palin rallies and there were people there who were attacking Barack Obama, literally saying that he‘s a communist, that he hangs out with terrorists, that he‘s not legitimate, he‘s not a natural-born citizen, he could never even become president if elected.  There is a slice of the public out there, 5, 10, 15 percent—listen, they‘re wackos.  It‘s that clear.  They cannot stand this guy.  They‘ll fight him on every front.  These are not policy battles.

And then you have people like Sarah Palin.  What‘s she doing today?  She‘s out there insisting that the health care reform bill does include “death panels,” even though the AARP, the AMA and every other expert group that‘s looked at the issue has said that they don‘t include “death panels.”  So you—I mean, this is irrational behavior driven by Obama hatred from people who just can‘t accept him.  And you have to at least question whether for some of those people, not all, but for some of them there is a racial element to it.

BUCHANAN:  Look, what has happened with Barack Obama is he‘s gone from 70 percent to 50 percent in his health care proposal.  It‘s not 15 percent that are against it, it‘s a majority of the country that‘s against it!

CORN:  That‘s not true.

BUCHANAN:  You have tremendous numbers of people coming out -- 2,500 people show up in the middle of August in Reston, Virginia, a laid-back community, to shout at the former chairman of the Democratic Party.  The point is, Mike, this country‘s very nationally polarized over health care.  Obama has lost the cachet that he‘s had.  And it‘s not simply Rush Limbaugh that‘s done that or the folks over at FOX News, it is the country that‘s losing confidence in this guy!

CORN:  Well, listen, the polls still show that a majority believe in

health care reform, that 70 percent of so favor a public option.  I mean,

it‘s not as if there‘s a popular revolt.  There are people out there who

are being very vocal.  They‘re being—listen they‘re getting—they‘re

holding up signs accusing him of “Afro-Leninism”

BUCHANAN:  Oh...

CORN:  ... and they‘re getting on TV and they‘re causing a great right-wing noise machine!

BUCHANAN:  That‘s probably because we‘re putting them on TV.  Let‘s talk about those “death panels,” for example.  Now, what Sarah Palin said today is exactly right.  The whole health care proposal cutting costs is going to—it‘s leading to rationed care in the last six months of life, where all the expenses are done.  People are going to be told, There are procedures, there are drugs and there are surgeries which we‘re no longer going to give you.  And in cases with people with Alzheimer‘s, these decisions are going to be made.  Is the phrase “death panels” in there?  No, it is not, but...

(CROSSTALK)

BARNICLE:  Wait a minute.  Wait a minute.  Pat, David, wait a minute.  Wait a minute.  We have an update on Sarah Palin.  She was invited to testify before the New York state Senate Aging Committee, but she refused.  Instead of testifying, she submitted written testimony and she said, basically, that “death panels” would be included.  She wrote, quote, “A great deal of attention was given to my use of the phrase ‘death panel‘ in discussing such rationing.  Despite repeated attempts by many in the media to dismiss this phrase as a myth, its accuracy has been vindicated.”

BUCHANAN:  All right...

(CROSSTALK)

BUCHANAN:  Let me tell you exactly what she meant by these, which was in the bill and which Baucus says is now out of it.  If you‘ve got, say, some cancer and it spreads, say, to the liver, in that case, you get an authorized individual paid by Medicare who comes to your house and gives you your options.  If you are alone, one of those options, one of those resources...

CORN:  No, no, no, no!

BUCHANAN:  Hold it.  Now wait a minute!  In Oregon...

CORN:  This is...

BUCHANAN:  ... they got a “death with dignity” law where they got to give them a pamphlet to visit those folks...

CORN:  Pat—Pat, listen, I‘ll give you this piece I‘m holding in my hand.  AP, “No death panel in health care bill.”  The National Right to Life Committee that you usually agree with, Pat...

BUCHANAN:  Right.

CORN:  ... they say there are no “death panels.”

BUCHANAN:  I agree...

CORN:  There‘s nothing mandatory.  This is end-of-life counseling that is only voluntary!

BUCHANAN:  Hold it!

CORN:  There‘s no such thing as a “death panel.”

BUCHANAN:  It is...

CORN:  Sarah Palin is not correct.  The AMA, the AARP...

(CROSSTALK)

BARNICLE:  All right, Pat, go ahead.

CORN:  ... except you and Sarah!

BARNICLE:  All right, Pat, go ahead.

BUCHANAN:  Look, the “phrase death” panels is not in the legislation...

CORN:  The entity is not there!

BUCHANAN:  All right.  The entity, you say, is not there.  An individual who is authorized and paid by Medicare finds out that your cancer has spread, they‘re authorized to come and tell you what your options are...

CORN:  If you ask!

BUCHANAN:  ... in a legislation which is designed to cut health care costs in the last six months of life.

CORN:  It‘s voluntary, Pat!

BUCHANAN:  I don‘t care what it is...

(CROSSTALK)

CORN:  ... ask for advice in end-of-life care, you can get it.  That‘s all it says!

BUCHANAN:  You don‘t ask for it.  They come to the house!

CORN:  No, it‘s voluntary!

BUCHANAN:  All right, look...

CORN:  You have to...

(CROSSTALK)

BARNICLE:  Let me ask both you guys this, and let‘s get away from the specifics of what‘s in the bill, what‘s not in the bill, go to one of my cockamamie theories.  Pat, you first.  And here‘s my theory, that  a large element of what‘s going on out there in the country right now has to do with the fact that there‘s structural change being suggested.  And a lot of people don‘t like change of any kind, but structural change is somewhat threatening.  And the threat of structural change, in addition to the dialogue and the rhetoric that‘s been pumped out over the last several months about it, has injected a large element of fear...

BUCHANAN:  All right.

BARNICLE:  ... in a lot of people in this country.

BUCHANAN:  You‘re dead on, Mike.

BARNICLE:  And fear seems to be driving the dialogue.

BUCHANAN:  Mike, you‘re dead on.  Here‘s what folks are hearing out there.  They did hear the phrase “death panel.”  That‘s not in the bill.  But what they‘re hearing is Obama says, you know, half of all expenses are in the last six months of life.  We‘ve got to cut those costs, $500 billion has got to be cut out of Medicare.  And you got folks in their 70s and 80s, they‘re out there and they‘re saying, What is he talking about?  And then you hear about these advisers going to come to your house voluntarily and all this.

If—that is what‘s causing the fear and apprehension, and Sarah Palin captured it when she used that phrase—admittedly, it‘s not in the bill.  But Obama hasn‘t explained it and he says that part of the bill is going out!  Why did they run away with it—run away from it if it‘s a good idea?

CORN:  Pat, you‘re giving Sarah Palin credit for making something up that just happened to hit a chord with people who were worried.  That‘s called demagoguery.  That‘s not something that (INAUDIBLE) I mean, she‘s making stuff up!  It can‘t be taken out of the bill because it was never...

BUCHANAN:  It is in the bill!

CORN:  ... in the bill!

(CROSSTALK)

CORN:  You‘ve already conceded that there‘s no such thing as a “death panel”...

BUCHANAN:  All right...

CORN:  ... that‘s in the bill!

BUCHANAN:  All right...

(CROSSTALK)

CORN:  . but to Mike‘s larger point—to Mike‘s larger point, I think Barack Obama did, indeed, represent change to a lot of people.  I think not just change in health care, but change in the economy, in financial regulations, and lots of things. 

And also I think cultural change.  He represents—he has a different and a wider view of America that I think a lot of other people share.  And this minority—it is still a minority, are responding against him in a very volatile way.  And they‘re easily whipped up by Sarah Palin and by other conservatives. 

(CROSSTALK)

BARNICLE:  All right.  Pat—Pat, let me ask you—let me ask you—

Pat, let me ask you, if you were in the White House—as fearful a thought that is, that should put a lot of fear into people. 

(LAUGHTER)

BUCHANAN:  All right.  I‘ve been in three of them, Mike.  We survived.

BARNICLE:  I know that.  But if you were there today, how would you handle—how would you tell the president and his people to handle this threat, the rhetoric, the incendiary stuff, the polarization, the toxicity in our politics?  How would you tell him to handle it?

BUCHANAN:  Well, I think he has gotten behind the curve.  There‘s a lot of things that are out there.  And let‘s take these so-called advisers.  He immediately said, that‘s going to be out of the bill, and so did the Finance Committee, those things are going to be gone. 

The very fact they ran away from it, I think, contributed to the nervousness, to the apprehensions that this may be true.  What I would have done early on, I think, Obama should have defined the bill himself. 

He has got about five of them sitting out there.  And there are things different in each of these things.  And the opponents are going after him very effectively, hammering him, and he‘s on the defensive on all of these issues. 

He has gotten behind the curve completely.  I would advise him to do what he‘s going to do Wednesday night.  But I wonder if it‘s not too late to get a majority bill. 

BARNICLE:  What do you think, David?

CORN:  God, you know, I have to say that I agree with Pat Buchanan. 

Now I‘m waiting for the lightning bolt. 

BUCHANAN:  See?

CORN:  But.

BUCHANAN:  See, that‘s why you were well off when I was in the White House.

CORN:  But the—one of the—I would add to that, that, you know, when Barack Obama had a chance to define the health care debate and define the health care plan as his, he didn‘t do that.  Instead he allowed health care reform to become equated with Congress, which has approval ratings about half of his. 

So he took the lesser popular political entity in town and said, they are the guys and gals who are really in charge of health care, not me.  And I think that has hurt him from the get-go. 

He was the one who had the standing and the popularity going into this episode to sort of say, hey, I have a plan, this is what I‘m going to fight for, I‘m going to explain it to you clearly, and I‘m going to—you know, I‘m going to push Congress as best I can to deliver what I think is best. 

That would have been a much closer to winning strategy.  And now without it, he‘s playing catch-up. 

BUCHANAN:  Mike, what has happened is, the opponents have taken pieces of it and defined the bill for the country.  And the bill they‘ve defined has been losing support steadily, going down, down, down, down. 

BARNICLE:  Pat Buchanan, who knew Mother Jones; and David Corn, who works for Mother Jones. 

(LAUGHTER)

CORN:  I think he dated Mother Jones. 

(LAUGHTER)

BARNICLE:  Thank you. 

Up next, President Obama‘s big speech.

CORN:  All right.  Thanks, Mike.

BARNICLE:  . tomorrow night.  How can he unite his own party to agree on health care reform?  “The Politics Fix” is coming up.  This is HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BARNICLE:  Coming up, can President Obama get specific and rally support for health care reform?  HARDBALL returns after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BARNICLE:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  Time now for “The Politics Fix.” David Gregory is moderator of “MEET THE PRESS.” And Ron Brownstein is—you hear that?  Atlantic Media‘s political director and a columnist for National Journal.

David, David, David.

(LAUGHTER)

BARNICLE:  Let me ask you this.  Now, it‘s as if I‘ve come in and landed from another planet.  I‘m seeing the president of the United States attacked for basically telling kids to do their homework and brush after every meal.  I‘m being told that tomorrow could be a break or make night for his presidency on health care. 

I heard Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader, this afternoon basically saying the public option, maybe it will happen; and Speaker Pelosi standing alongside of him saying, no, it has to happen.  What‘s the deal on tomorrow night?  What does the president have to do?  What‘s he going to do? 

DAVID GREGORY, HOST, “MEET THE PRESS”:  Well, I think the primary thing that he has got to do is get the American people on board and try to persuade them and really drum up more for public support for this plan than now exists. 

I mean, the problem with August is that the debate got off the rails.  The White House knows it.  The White House understands at this point that there is too few people in America who have any idea what the president wants to do about health care.  And he has got to change that. 

He has got to make it something that‘s simpler.  He has got to be able to own it.  And that, at its very core, is what tomorrow night is about.  It‘s about reaching the American people.  If he can do some of that, if he can turn that around, then he can apply a little bit more pressure primarily within his own party. 

Republicans may be too far gone now.  But within his own party he can wield a little bit more leverage. 

BARNICLE:  Ron, how is it that this most articulate of presidents, this guy who took the country by storm based largely on his ability to give a speech and communicate with the public, now has his this phrase “public option” out there and most people I know think it means something like either take the bus or buy a Prius, public option. 

How did this happen? 

RON BROWNSTEIN, POLITICAL DIRECTOR, ATLANTIC MEDIA:  Well, first of all, it‘s important to recognize how tangential to the overall plan the public option really is.  The best estimates by the Congressional Budget Office that David and I have talked about before, only 12 million people would be on the public option by 2019, compared to about 190 million people in private insurance, 16-1. 

So for this to become such a litmus test for the left seems to me overstated.  How did he get to this impasse?  It was a fundamental tension or contradiction between his inside strategy, Mike, and his outside strategy.

By trying to learn from Clinton in ‘93, he did not want to be overly prescriptive in giving Congress tablets from which to legislate.  He wanted to give them a lot of flexibility to find the water line in each chamber, basically make the agreements and deals that could get the bill forward out of the Senate and out of the House. 

The cost of that—and that has worked reasonably well as an inside game up until August.  The cost of that was he did not have a specific proposal that he could go to the country with and say, if you vote for health care, if support health care, you‘re going to get X, Y, and Z. 

And so without that, the grassroots conservative opponents kind of filled in the blanks, even at a time when many of the big institutions that have fought health care reform in the past, including the AMA, including the insurance industry, including the pharmaceutical industry, were either supporting him or largely neutral. 

So in many ways the outside game was hurt by the strategy they chose to pursue in the inside game. 

BARNICLE:  David, off of what Ron just said, facts—using facts, that only 12 million people would affected by the public option by the year 2019, I think those are the numbers you used, that practically begs the question of this White House, do they know what they‘re doing? 

GREGORY:  Well, I think the difficulty is that—I talked to an astute Republican today who made the point, this is like Social Security in this regard.  There are so many moving pieces to it that you‘re trying to sell all at one time.  And I think that‘s where the White House has gotten bogged down. 

What is it that they‘re ultimately selling on this thing?  Now I think you‘ll hear the president talk a lot about security and stability, which, by the way, was what President Clinton was selling back in ‘93 and ‘94 at the end when they got in trouble as well. 

But I think that‘s right.  I mean, the public option is a relatively smaller piece of it.  There are two big pieces, which is, how many people are you going to cover who don‘t now have health insurance?  And are you going to drive costs down in the health care system? 

It doesn‘t look like it if the health care system is still out of control and now you just have more people who are going to be in it with insurance.  So that‘s a fundamental problem. 

But the president can‘t get bogged down on all of that.  He has to find something that he can actually deliver, that he can sell and that he can deliver. 

BROWNSTEIN:  Mike—Mike, if I can just jump in.  The irony is that on those two points that David mentioned, there‘s actually substantial consensus on how to proceed. 

I mean, in terms of expanding coverage, the basic idea is that you have a mandate on individuals to buy insurance with government subsidies to help them afford it.  And in return, the industry insurance has to undertake fundamental reform, like ending denial of coverage based on pre-existing conditions. 

The second front, how do you control costs in the long run?  You—there‘s broad agreement on instituting a series of experiments in Medicare to move away from paying for quantity to paying for quantity, moving away from fee-for-service medicine and then creating this expedited commission that it would have authority to try to move the experiments that work more quickly into law. 

Those—that basic approach has a lot of support not only within the Democratic Party, but among groups that in the past have opposed reform.  And the challenge for Obama, I think, is to focus the debate back on that area of relatively broad consensus, which we‘ll see again tomorrow with the groups like Wal-Mart and the SEIU meeting to talk about their shared vision of reform. 

To focus back on that and away from these very polarizing—real, but still secondary, I think, issues to the overall package. 

BARNICLE:  We‘re going to be right back with David Gregory and Ron Brownstein for more of “The Politics Fix.” You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BARNICLE:  We‘re back with David Gregory and Ron Brownstein. 

David, earlier in the show we had Congressman Gerry Connolly of Virginia on.  He sort of likes the public option but he said it‘s not theology to him.  And his main intent in any legislation is to get to yes. 

And my question to you and Ron is, tomorrow night, how does the president of the United States get a majority of people in the House of Representatives, specifically, to get to yes and doesn‘t he have to get something out of this ordeal? 

GREGORY:  Well, look, I think the way he does that is he says to liberals in his party, look, look what we‘ve got here.  Are you going to be responsible for taking down health care reform?  What we have in the way of an agreement now with the pharmaceutical companies, with the insurance companies, is something that the likes of Ted Kennedy couldn‘t achieve over three decades of trying.  So let‘s not, you know, the cliche, let the perfect be the enemy of the good. 

The other thing I think he‘s going to say, whether he uses these words or not, is, hey, guys, do you think it‘s going to get easier to pass health care reform next year?  Do you think there is going to be more Democrats after the midterm election?  It‘s not going to get any better.  Let us pass something that‘s significant here and not take it down because we haven‘t achieved what we think is the only pure approach and try to build on it later. 

BARNICLE:  How pivotal is it, Ron, tomorrow night, in the terms of the next three years of presidency, in terms of his off-year elections a year from now? 

BROWNSTEIN:  I think the entire—the unfolding of health care is pivotal to the midterm and to the next three years.  It‘s a test not only of his ability to lead the Democratic Party, it‘s a test of the Democratic Party‘s ability to be led. 

Ultimately what has been clarified over the last month is that if this passes, it‘s going to have to be to be done almost entirely, if not entirely, with Democratic votes.  And that really leaves them nowhere to look but in the mirror. 

As David said, when you have all of these outside groups that have traditionally opposed reform being broadly supportive of the general direction, Democrats ultimately—the question is whether they can find a way to come together, to bridge their differences enough to govern. 

And that is the responsibility of the majority party, especially in a period that is as polarized as this.  Whatever else you think about that Republican majority from ‘95 to 2006, almost always they found a way to get to the majorities to advance their agenda.  And now this is a test whether the Democrats in Congress can come together to do the same thing. 

GREGORY:  And, Mike, can I just add, what‘s important for presidents is that they do things.  That‘s how they get judged.  He has got to be able to do something he set out to do. 

BARNICLE:  Well, we have about 15 seconds, David.  Off of that point, let me ask you, he comes to the nation tomorrow night as president of the United States, but in terms of the rhetoric, the language, the behavior, the body language, does he sound more like he did a year ago as candidate than he does—has as president? 

GREGORY:  Well, I thin he has got to reconnect with the leadership qualities that propelled him into office.  He has got to get the middle of the country, the independents of the country believing in his leadership on this issue. 

BARNICLE:  David Gregory, Ron Brownstein, thanks very much. 

Join us again tomorrow night at 5:00 and 7:00 Eastern for more HARDBALL.  Right now, it‘s time for “THE ED SHOW,” with Ed Schultz. 

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

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