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updated 10/8/2009 10:54:44 AM ET 2009-10-08T14:54:44

HARDBALL

October 7, 2009

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT.

THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

Guests: Rep. Dennis Kucinich, Rep. Mac Thornberry, Max Cleland, John Harris

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST: Obama drama.

Let's play HARDBALL.

Good evening. I'm Chris Matthews in Philadelphia, where the playoffs began today. Leading off: Now what? It was eight years ago today that President Bush announced the beginning of the war in Afghanistan.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: To all the men and women in our military, every sailor, every soldier, every airman, every Coast Guardsman, every Marine, I say this. Your mission is defined, your objectives are clear, your goal is just.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Well, today that mission in Afghanistan is no longer defined. The objectives are not clear. And Americans are split on the goal. We're joined by two members of the Congress with very different ideas about where we go from here in a war that has lasted longer than any other except Vietnam and the American Revolution.

Plus: Few people know more about the horrors of war than former Georgia senator Max Cleland, who lost three limbs in Vietnam. He says we shouldn't be nation-building in Afghanistan, we should be targeting al Qaeda, wherever it is. And wait until you hear what he has to say about Karl Rove, who portrayed him as unpatriotic.

And what are we to make of these two new polls out today? An Associated Press poll has President Obama's approval rating up 6 points since September, up to 56. But a new Gallup poll shows the Republicans now with a very clear chance to gain control of the speakership next year. We'll survey the political landscape and get the early odds on whether Republicans can win back the House.

Late today, the Democrats got some good news on health care. The Congressional Budget Office said, in effect, that the Senate Finance Committee's bill is fully paid for. We'll break that down in the "Politics Fix."

And Steve Colbert has a very funny take on the very serious question of how President Obama's handling Afghanistan. We'll have that in the "Sideshow."

Let's start tonight with the war in Afghanistan eight years on. Let's take a look at what Walter Cronkite famously said about the Vietnam war in 1968. Let's listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

WALTER CRONKITE, "CBS EVENING NEWS" ANCHOR: It seems now more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Congressman Dennis Kucinich is an Ohio Democrat who thinks we should get out of Afghanistan now, and Republican congressman Mac Thornberry of Texas says we need to send in more troops.

Let's get to the issue right now with both of you. Congressman Kucinich, you first. Are we losing the war in Afghanistan?

REP. DENNIS KUCINICH (D), OHIO: We should have never been there. We got to get beyond equations of win or lose. We can't-we can't win in a situation where there's a weak central government, widespread fraud, where occupations fuel insurgency, where there's drugs involved. This is a nightmare. We need to get out troops out of there and get them out of there as fast as we can.

MATTHEWS: But I want an answer. Are we losing? The general says our mission is failing. Do you agree with him, General McChrystal?

KUCINICH: Well, I-again, I don't think we should have ever gone in

or stayed in there to begin with. So I don't even-my level (ph)

analysis on this, Chris, is-it goes beyond winning and losing. We win

by leaving.

MATTHEWS: OK. Well, that's an interesting point of view. I'm trying to figure out whether we're beating the Taliban or whether we can't beat them, they're going to be there when we're gone.

Let me go to Congressman Thornberry. Are we losing the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan?

REP. MAC THORNBERRY ®, TEXAS: Well, I trust General McChrystal's assessment that things are going badly. That does not mean we are losing to the Taliban, but it means we-things are going in the wrong direction, which means the Taliban is gaining, and as they gain, al Qaeda has more room to maneuver and to plan and to plot against us.

MATTHEWS: OK, let me ask you, Congressman Kucinich, if you get your way, if we pull out of Afghanistan quickly, what will be the consequences of that decision?

KUCINICH: Well, I think, immediately, we don't just pull out without consulting with nations in the region. And we have to make sure that we-that we have an ongoing observation of what's going on in that region. But I think the immediate consequence is that the United States will be spared the loss of more troops, is that we won't see the U.S. in a position where during our occupation, the production of opium goes up in the country. I think that we'll start to be in a position of stabilizing our situation in other parts of the world. I think we'll be in a stronger position to play a hand with Iran.

I don't think we're-I think we're destabilizing our power by being in Afghanistan, and I think we should get out of there and we should get out of Iraq, as well.

MATTHEWS: Do you believe if we pull out of Afghanistan, the Taliban will defeat the central government of Karzai?

KUCINICH: I think that the central government of Karzai right now is

so corrupt and so weak that if we stay in there, we can't prop it up. It's

despised by the people of Afghanistan. So whoever takes over, you know,

they're going to have a difficult time being able to control Afghanistan

until, number one, they get control of the drug situation, which is really

the warlords and the drug lords have taken over much of Afghanistan. So whoever takes over that central government, they're going to have a tough time holding on. You're looking at-you're looking at controlled chaos for quite a few years.

MATTHEWS: Congressman Thornberry, what happens if we give General McChrystal the 40,000 more troops he wants? What will be the result of that decision?

THORNBERRY: Well, remember, he's not just asking for more troops. He wants to implement a new strategy. And what that strategy seeks to achieve is to help the Afghans stand up their own police and their own military so that they can take care of their own security so, ideally, given the time and training and so forth, Afghans can secure their territory and prevent it from becoming another base to be used against terrorist-as terrorist attacks against us, and Pakistan can also prevent its territory from being used as a base against us, and the government of Pakistan can be stabilized, as well.

Remember, it's not just what happens within the borders of Afghanistan that's important, it's neighboring Pakistan with nuclear weapons that we have to keep our eye on.

MATTHEWS: Do you believe that President Karzai's party won that last election? Do you believe that was a clean election? Do you believe we're defending a legitimate government? You first, Mr. Thornberry.

THORNBERRY: It's obviously not a clean election. Exactly who won, I don't know, and we'll be watching for the studies and the investigations on that.

But remember, we're not there to defend the Karzai government. We're there to prevent a sanctuary from being used to attack us here at home and we're there to prevent the government of Pakistan from being destabilized. And I would say, as a benefit, a side benefit, in a way, we are there to prevent return of the Taliban rule. And nobody should underestimate the humanitarian disaster that those stadium executions and the other things that went on during the Taliban rule brought on the people of Afghanistan.

MATTHEWS: I'm just trying to figure out, gentlemen, what exactly will happen if your policy prescriptions are carried through. I want to go back to Congressman Thornberry. You seem very unclear as to what we're protecting over in-are we protecting the government there? How do we-who are we for-who are we for in Afghanistan? Who are we for?

THORNBERRY: We're for us and we are for stabilizing...

MATTHEWS: We're for us in Afghanistan?

THORNBERRY: Yes, sir. We are stabilizing the government in Afghanistan so that Afghanistan...

MATTHEWS: The Government of Karzai?

THORNBERRY: ... Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan cannot be used as a sanctuary to attack us.

MATTHEWS: OK.

THORNBERRY: This is what it's about. Now, they're imperfect, but remember, their military and their police force is building up. And rather than focus on the head in Kabul, we need to look at their whole national capabilities and whether they can effectively prevent...

MATTHEWS: OK.

THORNBERRY: ... al Qaeda from using it as a base against us.

MATTHEWS: Let me get back to Congressman Kucinich because you seem hesitant, sir. I think I know your philosophy here, but I don't get your particular belief. Do you believe that General McChrystal is correct in saying our mission is a failure, that we are losing the ground war against the Taliban?

KUCINICH: What he said is predicated on him wanting to send more troops.

MATTHEWS: Right.

KUCINICH: And I disagree with that, Chris. So I think that-you know, his whole view is you look at improving the counterinsurgency. It's wrong strategy for Afghanistan. You need-counterinsurgencies are built for more stable situations than have you in Afghanistan. The idea that we're going to put an-a democracy in Afghanistan, when you consider all the corruption that they've had, ballot stuffing, ballot shredding, intimidation, it's kind of like thinking that you can have a rock-or have a rose grow out of a-out of a-out of sheer granite. It's not going to happen. It's the wrong soil.

MATTHEWS: When-Mr. Thornberry, you want us to give the 40,000 troops that General McChrystal's asked for. When do you believe we'll be able to leave Afghanistan in force? In other words, leave with a big force we have there. We'll have over 100,000 troops there, if he gets his request. When do you think we can leave?

THORNBERRY: I don't know what the timetable is. And it would be a mistake...

MATTHEWS: Well, wait a minute. We've been there eight years. Should we stay eight more years?

THORNBERRY: OK. It would be a mistake-it would be a mistake for us to set a timetable, just like it was a mistake to set ahead of time a timetable in Iraq. What I do know is General McChrystal says the next 12 to 18 months will be a critical period in deciding how this goes. And we either need to trust the commander that has been given the responsibility, that is on the ground, who is one of the best our country has...

MATTHEWS: Yes.

THORNBERRY: ... or if the president doesn't trust him, he needs to replace him. I mean, we need to either...

MATTHEWS: Well, let me ask you...

THORNBERRY: ... go one way or another.

MATTHEWS: I'm not asking you to set a timetable. I'm asking you, as a politician who represents people in this country, in a civilian-controlled situation here-which we are in this country, thank God-how long do you think we should fight this war in Afghanistan? In other words, eight years now and counting. Can we stay there another eight years, continuing to take the casualties we're taking. How long can we make this commitment?

THORNBERRY: Well, we need to make the commitment to defend the country, whatever time it takes. And whether that is in Afghanistan, Pakistan, or Yemen or Somalia, wherever al Qaeda may squirt (ph) out to, we have to have the commitment to defend ourselves.

But I believe-as, apparently, General McChrystal believes, that if we have a new strategy with the resources to back it up, we have a very good chance...

MATTHEWS: OK...

THORNBERRY: ... for success in Iraq-I mean, in Afghanistan, just as we have been having success in Iraq, despite all...

MATTHEWS: OK...

THORNBERRY: ... the naysayers and despite all the doubts about that.

MATTHEWS: OK. Well, Thank you very much, Congressman Dennis Kucinich. Sir, thank you for joining us. Thank you, Mac Thornberry of Texas.

NBC chief foreign affairs correspondent Andrea Mitchell's with us now. Andrea, thank you for joining us, my colleague. I guess we're not going to get very far with this argument. Everyone's in a fixed position now. It sounds like they made up their mind about these things 30, 40 years ago in every case.

ANDREA MITCHELL, NBC CORRESPONDENT: Indeed.

MATTHEWS: Let me ask you, what does the president need to know that he doesn't know now before he decides on whether to give General McChrystal his requested 40,000 more troops?

MITCHELL: Well, White House officials are saying to me that, in fact, go back to the Bruce Riedel report, which led to the decisions of last March. We've all been saying the conventional wisdom in Washington has been that March is now moot, that the initial Afghan strategy is now being supplanted because of the changes, the decisions on the ground, and perhaps the political realities, although they will deny that.

MATTHEWS: Yes.

MITCHELL: But in fact, if you go back to the original questions that Bruce Riedel, a former CIA and NSC official, answered-on loan to the White House-it was, How do we come up with a strategy that will disrupt and end al Qaeda's influence and protect the United States? What we want to do is get into Afghanistan and disrupt al Qaeda.

And so the questions that the president is asking, to get to your point, are, How will these various recommendations lead to our goal? That goal remains to disrupt al Qaeda, to protect the security of the United States, and to enhance regional security, as well. Those are the questions he's asking. And right now, what he's getting are answers. At least-we don't know whether he's accepting the answers, but he's getting an intelligence briefing on how it relates to Pakistan today, followed by a regional diplomatic briefing from the secretary of state and her advisers. Obviously, Richard Holbrooke and others would be part of that. And then Robert Gates would give the military's perspective.

And what has changed today is that the Pentagon announced-Geoff Morrell announced from the Pentagon today, Chris, that they've actually given the president, officially given him...

MATTHEWS: Right. I know.

MITCHELL: ... the troop recommendations.

MATTHEWS: My concern is, as an American watching this, learning that Americans are building outposts of-to be manned by 140 people, it begins to look like "Beau Geste," one of these old French Foreign Legion movies, where we're putting troops, Western troops, our guys and women, out in the middle of these outposts...

MITCHELL: Exactly.

MATTHEWS: ... to guard land, to basically control the land of Afghanistan. That's the job of Afghans.

MITCHELL: And that is not-that cannot continue. In fact, as we know, that-unit was planning to withdraw and relocate. But I asked that very question today of Barry McCaffrey, of our military analyst. When you looked at the pictures of that ravine, what the heck were American troops doing in that location? It seemed absurd on the face. He said, I don't want to second guess a commander, an experienced commander in the field, but you're absolutely correct. What he was told was they were protecting supply lines, which makes some sense.

MATTHEWS: Yes.

MITCHELL: But...

MATTHEWS: But it begins to look like...

MITCHELL: ... I cannot imagine...

MATTHEWS: Andrea...

MITCHELL: Exactly.

MATTHEWS: ... it looks like the old game of strategic hamlets. We're developing control over land mass. We're trying to rule Afghanistan because their government's a failure. We're trying to supplant and replace a failed government. We're trying to be the government, in effect, of Afghanistan. I wonder if that is a smart strategy and whether it will ever allow us to leave.

MITCHELL: And I think that that is exactly what the president is wrestling with. There are no easy answers here. The other word out of White House officials is, Don't assume that all the reporting is correct, that what Joe Biden is talking about is tantamount to withdrawing and doing it by other means...

MATTHEWS: Yes.

MITCHELL: ... manned drones from outside. That's not what he's talking about. He is still talking about a robust force of boots on the ground. I think you're going to see some building up of warlords. They're going to try to work around the central government...

MATTHEWS: Yes.

MITCHELL: ... while they're trying to enhance it, and a lot of training.

MATTHEWS: Yes, I don't think that is the Biden-my sources tell me that that is not Biden's view. His view is much more middle-of-the-road here than that, certainly.

MITCHELL: Right.

MATTHEWS: Andrea Mitchell, thank you very much, the expert.

Coming up: What President Obama needs to do in Afghanistan. We're going to talk to a veteran of the United States Senate and of the United States war in Vietnam, a man who lost three limbs in Vietnam, Max Cleland. He knows something about these wars of attrition.

You're watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL. As the U.S. military begins year nine in Afghanistan-it's year nine now-the number of war dead in Operation Enduring Freedom-that's what it was called, and still is-has increased sharply. Already in 2009, there have been 239 military deaths on our side, far more than in prior years. As President Obama weighs his Afghanistan strategy, which he's doing right now, what will it mean for U.S. troops?

Max Cleland lost both his legs and an arm in Vietnam and went on to represent Georgia in the United States Senate. His new book, a hell of a book, "Heart of a Patriot: How I Found the Courage to Survive Vietnam, Walter Reed and Karl Rove." Well, that covers all the bases, Max.

Thank you very much, sir, for joining us.

MAX CLELAND (D), FORMER GEORGIA SENATOR: Thanks, Chris.

MATTHEWS: As you-it's a stirring account of what you went through, which is probably almost impossible for to you put into words, what it was like when that grenade went off and waking up and then living through the torture of the alcohol and your limbs and-oh!

Let me ask you about-let's start with what we were just talking about with Andrea Mitchell, who I respect a lot. Andrea says the president is now trying to decide whether we can achieve that particular goal we went into Afghanistan to achieve, catch bin Laden, destroy the Taliban-destroy al Qaeda, the terrorist group that attacked us on 9/11, with whatever strategy we follow.

What do you think when you look at this current situation?

CLELAND: What I think is-is a couple of things I learned in Vietnam.

First, fixed fortifications are monuments to the stupidity of man. So, if we try to fix one country with counterinsurgency and nation-building, all the Taliban-actually-excuse me-all the al Qaeda will do is move to another sanctuary. The point is, it is all about al Qaeda. It is not about Afghanistan. It is not about boots on the ground. It is not about the Taliban.

They did not attack us. Al Qaeda did. We have to go after al Qaeda. We have to kill or capture bin Laden. We have to go after al Qaeda central, which is in northwestern Pakistan. And we have to protect Pakistan's nuclear-nuclear weapons program.

The Taliban leadership actually happens to be in Pakistan, not so much in Afghanistan. So, the real question is, what's the mission? The mission is, clearly and simply, straightforwardly, go after al Qaeda wherever it is located. Right now, it is located in Pakistan. So, all the questions are about Afghanistan. Wrong questions.

MATTHEWS: You know, it is funny. And there's nothing funny about this, because you have been in combat and suffered tremendously. And, right now, I keep trying to tell myself, stop thinking about this as just a conversation.

There are men and women on posts right now in scary situations who have to get through the night tonight who are stuck out there in these outposts.

But let me ask you an ironic question. Wouldn't we be better off if al Qaeda did go back in-into Afghanistan? Then, we could just pick them off at will. They are hiding in Pakistan. Wouldn't-everybody says, well, the worst-the worst thing that could happen is that al Qaeda will go back into Afghanistan.

Great. Then just blow the hell out of them. Nobody is going to stop us. The Taliban is not going to be able to stop us. We can't bomb with impunity in Pakistan. We have got a friendly government there. If we have a hostile government in-in Afghanistan, then we can knock them off at our choosing, can't we, it seems to me?

CLELAND: The issue, if you if you go back to the first congressional resolution which was passed right after 9/11, it says we will go after those who attacked us and anybody harboring them.

If you are harboring al Qaeda, you better watch out. We are coming after, and you may get hurt...

MATTHEWS:

CLELAND: ... whether that is the Taliban or Yemen or Somalia or Indonesia or any other place in the world.

Now, we-our issue is with al Qaeda. We have to keep focused on that. The war in Iran distracted-distracted the American people, compromised the American Army. Now we are a spent bullet as a nation in terms of political will. Now we are pretty much a spent bullet in-a spent bullet militarily.

We don't have, in my opinion, the option and shouldn't have particularly the option of going after a counterinsurgency and nation-building in Afghanistan for five to 10 years. No, you go after al Qaeda wherever it is. And, right now, it is in Pakistan.

And you don't necessarily have to go after them with a hell of a lot of boots on the ground. That's not the big issue. The big issue, is what is the objective? What's the military objective? And it is al Qaeda, killing or capturing them, before they kill us.

MATTHEWS: You know, sometimes, I think that people think that the more input you put, the more suffering you endure, the more troops you have, the more successful you are.

I just wonder whether the more brains you have, the better you are going to do. Here's a-in your book, you wrote-quote-"When I lost my reelection bid for the United States Senate back in 2002, my life fell apart. With the start of the war in Iraq, my own post-traumatic stress disorder came roaring back nearly 40 years after I was in combat."

You know, I remember that campaign. And I remember the sleazy campaign ran by your opponent back in 2002, where he tied you in with the enemies of our country because you voted for a couple of amendments that the labor unions wanted to allow some people at the-at the Homeland Security Department to be unionized.

And he turned that somehow into an anti-American act, because he didn't like unions.

CLELAND: No, it's not-it wasn't that at all.

MATTHEWS: What was it?

CLELAND: It was the fact that the White House actually opposed the Department of Homeland Security. Me and Senator Lieberman actually on the Governmental Affairs Committee were for a Department of Homeland Security.

The White House did not want Lieberman to get a leg up because he had been vice presidential candidate, so they shifted their view. And then they accused me of somehow compromising the president's effort for homeland security. That was bull feathers.

MATTHEWS: Right.

CLELAND: And then they linked me in with Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. That was also bull feathers.

But it was part of the Karl Rove strategy that you go after the-you try to drive up the opposition's negatives, even if it is to take away military service. And they tried that against McKinney, and they were successful. They tried they that against me and they were successful. And they swift-boated John Kerry.

Now, the Obama campaign learned in '08 that you don't do that to an American hero, like McCain. You don't try to take away his service. And they stayed away from that, thank God.

MATTHEWS: Yes, well, they certainly-you think John McCain would learn a lesson he was dealing with dirt balls when he was dealing with the Bush crowd and Karl Rove. And, yet, he had to get back in bed with them in 2008.

Let's take a look. Here's the ad they ran against you, Max Cleland, as an incumbent and as a war veteran and hero who certainly paid a lot of price for this country. Here it is.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, POLITICAL AD)

NARRATOR: As America faces terrorists and extremists dictators, Max Cleland runs television ads claiming he has the courage to lead. He says he supports President Bush at every opportunity. But that is not the truth.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Well, there you have it.

Let me ask you about the-how it all fits together. You talk about the-Max, about experience of these wars, Vietnam. Do they all look like Vietnam now? Or what's the difference?

CLELAND: Well, I tell you, if you build up Afghanistan, if you put in

more troops, with the sanctuary right across the right across the border,

across the mountain range, you know, and you pour in more troops, and you -

and you try to focus on counterinsurgency and nation-building, that is Vietnam.

MATTHEWS: Wow.

CLELAND: And how did that work out for us? Zippo. Nada.

So, you go-go don't go that way. You have a swamp, you focus on alligators in the swamp and not draining the swamp. That's what I'm saying. And the alligators in the swamp in that region are al Qaeda. That is bin Laden. That is al Qaeda central. And that's protecting the nuclear weapons program of Pakistan and going after the Taliban leaders, which are not in Afghanistan.

They are in southern Pakistan. So, that's what you have got to focus on.

MATTHEWS: You know, right-everything stated, every you said is right.

Thank you very much, Max Cleland.

The book is called "Heart of a Patriot." It's right here. We are showing it again, a great book. You ought to buy it. It is about America and what we have been through the last 30 years, especially this fellow. There it is.

Up next: Steve Colbert's very funny take on some very serious business, the topic at hand, Afghanistan.

You're watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

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

First up: Everyone is a critic these days. Stephen Colbert last night took aim at the president on his slow decision-making on Afghanistan.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "THE COLBERT REPORT")

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We should take the fight to al Qaeda in Afghanistan. And that's why, as president, I will make the fight against al Qaeda and the Taliban the top priority that it should be.

STEPHEN COLBERT, HOST, "THE COLBERT REPORT": And Obama made it a top priority, right after banks, cars, the stimulus, health care, a dog, an herb garden...

(LAUGHTER)

COLBERT: ... the Olympics, and beer.

(LAUGHTER)

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

COLBERT: Now, we could go back to our old girl, Afghanistan. Well, guess what we forget? She's (EXPLETIVE DELETED) crazy.

(LAUGHTER)

(APPLAUSE)

COLBERT: That's why we left. She's moodier than a drunk hyena.

She's always broke, and she has a serious heroin problem.

(LAUGHTER)

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: All good comedy is founded on a certain hard truth.

Speaking of, the White House just released a list of 45 paintings that are now on loan at the White House. One in particular seems to encapsulate what it means to be the top decision-maker these days. Here it is, an Ed Ruscha's work. It's called, "I Think I'll"-we have got it there. Yes, no, maybe, on second thought.

It's the old Jack Benny joke. Your money or your life, demands the mugger. I'm thinking, says the miser.

Finally, remember this zinger from Democratic Congressman Alan Grayson last week?

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. ALAN GRAYSON (D), FLORIDA: If you get sick, America, the Republican health care plan is this: Die quickly. That's right. The Republicans want you to die quickly if you get sick.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Well, of course, Grayson rebuffed those Republican calls for him to apologize. And now he's pushing back even harder with a new fund-raising e-mail.

It features a spoof of this poster for the just-out movie "The Invention of Lying." Here's Congressman Grayson's version, "The Invention of Truth-Telling"-quote-"In a town where everyone can only tell lies, he is the only one telling the truth."

Well, I think this man is riding his own wave. And he's doing well.

Now for tonight's "Big Number."

There's been a lot of comparisons between Vietnam and Afghanistan in recent months. Here is another one. Today marks eight years of war in Afghanistan. How long did Americans' involvement in the Vietnam War last? Well, from the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution on to the Paris Peace Accords, it was eight years and six months, August '64 to January '73, which makes Afghanistan now just half-a-year shy of Vietnam. America's Longest war lasted eight years and six months-tonight's disturbing "Big Number."

Up next: Yesterday, we saw President Obama's judgment in the polls, up to 56 points. Today, the Republicans are gaining some ground on the congressional front. Will sort out what it means for the midterms and whether the Democrats can really hold on to power.

That's coming up next.

You're watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BERTHA COOMBS, CNBC CORRESPONDENT: I'm Bertha Coombs with your CNBC "Market Wrap."

Stocks stalling today, really, investors taking a wait-and-see approach ahead of Alcoa's earnings, the Dow Jones industrials losing about five points, the S&P 500 inching up almost three points, and the Nasdaq up just over six.

Alcoa did kick off earnings season this afternoon with a bang. The aluminum giant surprised Wall Street, posting better-than-expected third-quarter profits, in fact, its first profit in a year. Its revenues were stronger than expected, too.

Tech pushed higher after an analyst upgrade on Cisco. Experts say the company is poised to benefit from pent-up demand in the networking area unleashed by the-an economic recovery.

And the Congressional Budget Office finished its analysis of the Senate Finance Committee's health care reform proposal. It estimates the plan will cost about $829 billion over 10 years, cutting the deficit by $81 billion in the process.

That's it from CNBC, first in business worldwide-Now back to

HARDBALL.

MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL.

We're just over a year away from the 2010 congressional elections. Are the majority Democrats on course to stay, or is the majority in trouble? And how can President Obama help his party hold power?

NBC political analyst Charlie Cook is the publisher and editor of "The Cook Political Report." And John Harris is Politico's editor in chief.

Gentlemen, look at this new number here. This is an Associated Press poll. It shows that the president's approval rating has jumped up to 56 percent, and from 50 percent over a month. Far more fascinating to me, guys, is the fact that the negative-the disapproval, which was so high after all the crazy stuff of the summer, the tea parties, the birthers, the nut bags out there, it went up to 49 percent, has dropped 10 points in a month.

That, to me, is dramatic, a 10-point drop in the president's disapproval.

Charlie Cook, your estimate of what's going on?

CHARLIE COOK, EDITOR & PUBLISHER, "THE COOK POLITICAL REPORT": I

think that is an outlier poll. It does not look like the other data we are seeing.

The fact is, the Gallup poll is out every single day at 1:00. As of last night, it was a 51 percent approval rating. For all of last week, it was 52 percent. The week before that was 51 percent. The week before that was 52 percent. And that's sort of the thrust of what we are seeing more often.

And, so...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: How about the negatives? How about negatives? How about the disapproval number? What's that doing on your polling?

COOK: His approval rating-disapproval is 40 percent, 41 percent, holding very, very, very steady. So, I'm not seeing-I'm not seeing that kind of movement. There was a little bit of an uptick right after Senator Kennedy's funeral, around the time of Senator Kennedy's funeral.

But, you know, we have-there is-I don't think there is an uptick, and there is nothing in the news that would offer a suggestion why there would be an uptick right now. I think the president has had a pretty tough couple weeks.

MATTHEWS: OK, John Harris, your assessment from these numbers coming out from Associated Press showing a 10-point drop in his disapproval and a hike in six points in his approval.

JOHN HARRIS, EDITOR IN CHIEF, POLITICO.COM: Charlie is right. It's probably an outlier, although I think you can see some of the consumer numbers ticking up a little bit, and general sense that maybe the-we avoided the worst and that an economic recovery might be on the way.

I suspect that's-if other polls start to show this, I think that's probably going to be one of the factors. And I do think there is an emerging sense that he will get something on health care. And success is rewarded with success in the polls.

MATTHEWS: Yes.

Let's take a look at the Gallup poll and this other number which I find fascinating. It shows that, after having a very big lead of double digits in what's called the generic, which, not to make it too complicated, is the simple basis question, are you going vote for a Democrat or Republican next time? Do you want the Democrats or the Republicans to run the Congress of the United States?

There it is. It is almost even. It's 46-44, which is even, basically. It had been, as recently as July, a six-point advantage for the Ds. Charlie Cook, your thoughts? Is there movement there?

COOK: I think there is, Chris. If you look at the context of when these Democratic majorities were created in 2006, 2008, you are looking at 10, 12, 15, sometimes higher Democratic advantages in the generic ballot test. And now you are looking at, you know, two percent, three, four, two percent in this Gallup poll.

The way I would look at it is that this Democratic majority was like a greenhouse where you are growing orchids and tropical plants. It was absolutely perfect growing conditions for Democrats in every conceivable way. That the greenhouse isn't here, isn't there now. And what we are seeing is an increasingly hostile environment.

The polling I'm seeing shows-there was a Heart Research poll for the Economic Policy Institute that came out a few-last week; 85 percent of the American people think we are still in a recession. So you can line up PHDs and economics all day long to say the recession may be over. Until the American people say it is over, it is not over, politically speaking.

MATTHEWS: And that helps the Republicans?

COOK: Absolutely.

MATTHEWS: Even though the Democrat have only been in for, what, nine months now?

COOK: Everybody knows that this recession started-polls show that people know this recession started under President Bush. But every single day President Obama gets a little bit more vested in the economy. And I would argue the focus on health care-they ought to go back to the sign that was in the war room in 1992. It is the economy, stupid. And what-what Bill Clinton says as a candidate, focus on the economy like a laser beam.

Every day, every minute, they're focused on health care is a day that they are not focused on creating jobs.

MATTHEWS: Yes, and I think you are dead right. By the way, I agree with that. I think the great question in politics, John Harris, is does he care about people like me. And if the president is focused on his goal of health care, and not on the thing that people are worried about right now, you wonder if he cares about people like and you me. That's the fundamental disconnect here. Your thoughts, John Harris?

HARRIS: Again, we are-when we get to 2010 next year, we are not looking at a national picture. We're looking at individual districts where Democrats are likely to-historical trends say they are going to lose. They won seats in places that were typically Republican leaning districts.

So when you see the moderate voters and even conservative leaning voters that voted Democratic, if they are concerned about the economy and if they're concerned spending in Washington, that's a very difficult environment. We are seeing it, a think a preview of that this year in Virginia.

MATTHEWS: Here is the tough call. Let's go to Virginia while you brought it up here. We have the picture of Virginia. And the Pollster.com's trend line there saws Republican Chris Christie falling down in New Jersey. He has peaked a bit too early, a couple of weeks ago, whereas Corzine is coming back, you could argue. That is going to be very close.

In Virginia, you have another close one, but it looks like McDonald has got the advantage. Charlie Cook, I think the Republicans are headed towards victory in Virginia. What do you think?

COOK: There was a window right after the Democratic primary where Creigh Deeds, the Democrat, was ahead. And then suddenly it was like the whole weight of some of the problems, the president's problems, the party's problems start coming down him. And you started seeing independents moving away from them in droves. And the-the Republican lead, McDonald's lead got real, real big.

They whacked him back and they kind of were able to crawl back into the race for a while with this thesis thing. But it is-it is a tough road to hoe. The independents are getting to be very difficult. Keep in mind, this is a group that voted Democratic for Congress by an 18 point margin in 2006. And the president's job rating is now dropping from the 60s to the mid 40s among independents. It's independents that are the challenge for Democrats right now.

MATTHEWS: Let's take a look at the fight. Here is Deed against McDonald last night.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CREIGH DEEDS (D), CANDIDATE FOR GOVERNOR OF VIRGINIA: Frankly, a lot of what's going on in Washington has made it very tough, in that we had a very tough August, because people were just uncomfortable with the spending. They weren't comfortable with a lot of what was going-a lot of noise that was coming out of Washington, D.C.

We are reframing this debate on Virginia. And I'm confident that if we can successfully do that, and I think we can, we are going to win this election.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: John Harris, he was talking to you last night in that forum. Here is the question: can he lay off the blame on the president? That's what he seems to be doing.

HARRIS: Definitely the subtext on both sides. The Deeds people, Deeds himself, as you saw in that clip, saying what a tough year; the national climate is bad for us, in part because of decisions that Washington Democrats are making.

I think a lot national operatives are saying hey, look, what we have is a disparity in candidate skills between Deeds and McDonald, and he should look to his own campaign, his own candidates skills before blaming Obama and the Democratic Congress. Not good when you get a blame going on before the election.

MATTHEWS: It looks to me like we have a Daisy Chain here. The economy is bothering more people every day, because the feeling of a recession and the unemployment-the under-employment and the people that don't bother looking for jobs because they have given up-keeps getting worse. At the same time, they blame the president for that. Now they blame the president for the political situations in Virginia. So it is all going back to the economy.

Charlie Cook, as always, I respect your views. Although, I do like this Associated Press poll. John Harris, thank you for joining us.

Up next, who should we be fighting in Afghanistan, al Qaeda or the Taliban or both? What's the mission now? Eight years after we got in there, are we just punishing the Taliban? Are we ever going to catch bin Laden? That's a big Smerconish question.

By the way, we have the results of the Phillies/Rockies game here in Philly. It just happened. We are going to give you that when we come back. The politics of President Obama's very tricky decisions coming up. This is HARDBALL.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: We're back. Time for the politics fix with Salon.com's editor in chief Joan Walsh and syndicated radio talk show host Michael Smerconish, who is also an MSNBC political contributor, and is celebrating right now, as I am-let's put the hats on. The Phillies, five to one, won the first game of the playoffs. They've got a long way to go. Ten more games to win, to win the whole thing. We've done it. It is done. Let's move on.

JOAN WALSH, SALON.COM: Congratulations.

MATTHEWS: I want to ask you, Joan and Michael-I think we all vaguely agree, although there is some disconnect here among us-if the president gets 40,000 more troops or a substantial number more troops, maybe 10,000 or whatever he agrees to, will we still be fighting in Afghanistan with a large number of troops four, eight years from now? Your answer, Joan?

WALSH: I think we will, Chris. I don't think it's enough troops to completely take over the country. But I'm not sure we have enough troops. The irony here is that we're not clear about whether we're fighting al Qaeda or the Taliban.

I heard Richard Engel say something fascinating earlier today. He was asked to compare what Obama might do with the surge, which at least MARCHINI: worked in Baghdad, in Iraq. He answered, if we were going to use the principles of the surge, we would have to make peace with Taliban. That's what we did in Iraq. We made piece with tribal leaders and warlords. There is nobody else to make peace with or to shore up in Afghanistan.

We would have to pacify-a terrible word-the whole country. We don't have enough troops to do that. I think this is a losing mission. I don't think we can pull out precipitously. But I don't want to see another 40,000 troops in there.

MATTHEWS: Michael, your thoughts about what are we doing in Afghanistan? If the president agrees to any of this troop increase, I wonder if we'll ever get out of Afghanistan, whether we're not just in there for the long term, forever.

MICHAEL SMERCONISH, MSNBC CONTRIBUTOR: There are some false sense of bravado that's creeping up in this argument, which says that if you're against the McChrystal plan of allocating 40,000 or so troops to Afghanistan that it's a sign of weakness, and you're against the troops who have already served.

I don't see it that way. I don't know what the objective is right now. I can tell you what the objective should be. It should be to go over there and kill those who were responsible for the events of September 11th.

MATTHEWS: But they're in Pakistan.

SMERCONISH: We exhausted that ability. They are in Pakistan, Chris. You know I'm a broken record on this. There's a better argument to be made for our intervention in Pakistan than there is in Afghanistan. If we completely rid Afghanistan of the al Qaeda and their Taliban supporters, but the tribal regions, the Fatah region of Pakistan is a no-man's land, then where are we? We are nowhere.

MATTHEWS: Let any go to the absurd of this, Joan; the worst-case scenario of those who say if we pull out of Afghanistan is that al Qaeda will come back in, maybe even bin Laden will come back in. I say great, G-R-E-A-T, explanation point. Then we can kill them all. We get them out in the open. We can blow the hell out of every one of them when they come back. We can have them under surveillance from the air and destroy them out, with no government in our way. The Taliban is not going to stop us. Nobody is going to stop us.

We don't have to get permission from Musharraf or Zardari or whoever it is in charge of Pakistan. We don't have to mince around. We got them. I don't understand what's so dangerous about al Qaeda being in Afghanistan rather than hiding away in the hills of Pakistan.

WALSH: I think the thought was that they established a foot hold there before and they would get another one. I think that's a really faulty conclusion. I think we-we actually are the ones who originally put al Qaeda-those foreign fighters together with the Afghan mujahedeen when we funded them to fight the Soviets. Let's remember that history lesson, which nobody ever likes to remember.

But right now, I don't like the Taliban. Look, the way they treat women is a nightmare. However, there are lots of countries that treat women poorly. What they're doing now is trying to build a nation. And what we're doing is building a nation that hates us and that's trying to get us out. I think we have no-there's no certainty that the Taliban would let al Qaeda pick up its suitcases and move back in. I think that's a really kind of a faulty premise.

MATTHEWS: I just wonder-I raised this with a Congressman the other day, he thought I was talking about some other language. I said, what moral right do we have to go into some other country and kill the rebel faction? Who are we to defend a government that just won a corrupt election and there are people fighting it, and we say, we kill anybody who fights a corrupt government. What moral right do we have to kill those people? Some day we think they might let somebody come in that country who might come after us again?

I'm just wondering about the morality of this, Michael. What's wrong with the moral question? Do we have the right to keep killing Muslims? We've been killing them for eight straight years on international television. If you turn on TV anywhere in the world right now, you see American killing Muslims. That's what we do on world television every night for eight straight years.

I think it might make us some enemies in that billion-person world once in a while. If I were a Muslim, I would say, well, those Americans just keep killing us.

SMERCONISH: The moral foundation has to be a causal connection. You need to have a causal connection between those responsible for the events of September 11 in order to continue to kill them, or have knowledge that some impending attack will take place, unless you take care of them first. That's the answer to the question.

Let me just say that if when the president stands up in three or so weeks and says here's the plan-if he doesn't reference bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, then it won't pass my personal litmus test.

MATTHEWS: The last thing I want to hear is 10,000 more troops and a request for 40,000. Don't throw a 50-foot rope to a guy drowning 100 feet from the shore. If you believe it will work, do it. If you don't believe it, don't do it.

We'll be right back with Joan and Michael.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: We're back with Joan and Michael. We just got a new CBO poll-announcement that came out that told us that the Senate bill does pass muster. It lowers the deficit over ten years. Are things starting to go the president's way? Bob Dole has endorsed health care. Arnold Schwarzenegger has endorsed it. They may pick up a couple of these senators up in Maine.

Joan, are things starting to turn toward the president? I disagree with Charlie Cook. I think that poll that shows the president's disapproval down ten points is good news for him.

WALSH: It's absolutely good news for him. Things are turning around on the health care front, which I think turns around his overall approval rating, Chris. The CBO report is big news, good news for the Democrats. So many of the Congressional Republicans have pointed to other CBO estimates of other bills that do pump up the deficit. This cuts the deficit by 81 billion.

Let me add, interestingly, Olympia Snowe is an interesting figure here, because she wants the Baucus bill to cover more people. It still leaves 25 million uninsured and to be more generous. We'll see. There's still a fight.

MATTHEWS: Michael, we'll have you on again. Thank you, Joan. Michael Smerconish, as always. 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.

END

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