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updated 11/30/2009 10:52:56 AM ET 2009-11-30T15:52:56

Guests: Hampton Pearson, Chuck Todd, Gen. Barry McCaffrey, Robert Gibbs, Craig Shirley, Tony Blankley, Melinda Henneberger, Joan Walsh, Craig Shirley, Tom Carper

CHUCK TODD, GUEST HOST:  Finish the job in Afghanistan?

Let‘s talk turkey, and let‘s play HARDBALL.

And good evening.  I‘m Chuck Todd in Washington, in tonight for Chris Matthews.  Leading off: finishing the job in Afghanistan.  That‘s what President Obama said he planned to do.  But as “Politico” put it this morning, will the president finish the war, or could it actually finish him?  He needs to convince Democrats that he‘s not escalating the war too much, while convincing Republicans he‘s giving the military what it needs.  In a moment, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs on the president‘s options.  And General Barry McCaffrey, who just returned from Afghanistan last week, will have an on-the-ground report.

Plus, the GOP purity test.  Will the proposed checklist of appropriate conservative Republican values help avoid rifts in the party or cause more of them?  We‘ll look at the list and try to figure out whether even Ronald Reagan was conservative enough to pass this test.

And getting to 60.  Republicans and moderate Democrats won‘t vote for a health care bill with a public option and liberal Democrats won‘t vote for a bill without one.  So how exactly does a health care bill get passed in the Senate?

Also, the new “Time” magazine calls this “The decade from hell.”  Will the next one be any better?

Finally, President Obama said today there are many moments that remind him of why he ran for president.  Today, he says, was not one of them.  Check out the HARDBALL “Sideshow.”

But we start with Afghanistan and the president‘s speech on Tuesday at West Point in New York.  White House press secretary Robert Gibbs joins us now.  Robert, tell me this.  Why West Point?  Why give the speech there, not at the White House?  These things obviously are talked about behind the scenes.  Why West Point?

ROBERT GIBBS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY:  Well, look, Chuck, I think West Point is a wonderful location for the president to talk about his vision for Afghanistan and for the country.  Obviously, he‘ll be doing that in front of the men and women that will lead our military in the many years to come.  I think it‘s a fitting location to roll this speech out.

TODD:  Robert, let‘s take a listen to what your boss said Tuesday about Afghanistan.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  It is my intention to finish the job, and I feel very confident that when the American people hear a clear rationale for what we‘re doing there and how we intend to achieve our goals that they will be supportive.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TODD:  Now, Robert, I also want to show a new Gallup poll, which you‘ve seen, because I think it was interesting the president seemed to almost allude to the fact that the country is somewhat divided on this issue of Afghanistan.  The Gallup gave a basic idea, add 40,000 troops, add 10,000 troops, don‘t add any troops or start taking it away.  Bottom line is it broke down 47 percent for either decreasing—you know, increasing troops somewhat and 48 percent saying start pulling them out or don‘t add any more, a divided country.  The president seemed to acknowledge that he has to speak to that divide.

How important is it that he convince at least a majority of Americans that the decision he‘s come to is the right one?

GIBBS:  Well, look, Chuck, obviously, the president understands how important it is to describe the process that he‘s gone through and the decision that he‘s going to make and the way forward in Afghanistan.

I will tell you—you‘ve heard me in this briefing room admonish polls.  Chuck, if this were all the decision about a number, that would be one thing and I would be more of a slave to those polls.  This is a complex decision.  It does not just depend on what number we put in there.  It depends on what our interests are there, what our exit strategy is, how long are we going to be there, convincing the American people that what we‘re doing is in our national interests.  It‘s more than just a number, and I think the president will talk about that on Tuesday.

It‘s not just about American involvement.  It‘s about international involvement.  This isn‘t one country or one region‘s problems, and obviously, what Afghanistan is going to have to do from a corruption and governance perspective in order to step up because, Chuck, the president has said time and time again we will not be there forever.  We are going to clear and hold and make more secure parts of this country, and it‘s going to get transferred to the Afghans to provide their security.  We have to ensure that there is a force structure in Afghanistan, as well as a governing structure in Afghanistan, to be able to take those secure areas from NATO and American troops and hold them for their own while we go home.

TODD:  Robert, will the American people have an understanding of how this war ends or how American involvement ends after the president speaks on Tuesday night?  I mean, will he be able to convey sort of not necessarily an exit strategy, that, you know, this is the day that we sign the treaty and that the troops come home...

GIBBS:  Right.

TODD:  ... but will there be a picture of what the end looks like, at least, for the American people?

GIBBS:  Chuck, absolutely.  I think one of the things that the president has spent probably the most amount of time in, in these Situation Room meetings with his national security team, is, as I‘ve said before, not just trying to figure out how many we get in but how we get our troops out.  How do we create a series of conditions that meet our national security goals, that allow our men and women to come home that have fought bravely and protected our freedom?  What are we going to do to train the Afghan national security forces, their army and their police, to be able to control these areas to prevent the Taliban from creating a safe haven for al Qaeda where al Qaeda can then plan attacks on the United States?

That‘s all part of the process that the president will outline on Tuesday from West Point.

TODD:  Will there be a timeline?  Will we know, look, this is a three

·         you know, if in three years, things aren‘t getting better, we‘re going to revisit, or is it a, We‘re revisiting every six months, or is there going to be some sort of timetable that we‘ll hear from the president?

GIBBS:  Well, look, you‘ll hear the president discuss some very specific benchmarks to measure our progress and to make sure that we understand, even as we go along, what we‘re doing and whether we‘re meeting the very lofty goals that we ultimately set out.  And the president will understand—I‘m sorry—underscore for the American people that this is not an open-ended conflict, that we will not be here forever, that we have to pass this on to the Afghans, that it‘s their responsibility to secure their country.

TODD:  Robert, is the president going to brief General McChrystal in person in some form?  Is General McChrystal going to be at West Point on Tuesday?  Should we expect to see that?

GIBBS:  Well, we‘re trying to figure out some of the logistics.  Obviously, General McChrystal and Ambassador Eikenberry are half a world away.

TODD:  Right.

GIBBS:  But suffice to say, Chuck, that before the president walks out at West Point, he will have walked not just General McChrystal and Ambassador Eikenberry but everyone else here through the orders that he‘s giving for the mission going forward to secure Afghanistan and ultimately transfer that responsibility back to the Afghans.

TODD:  Does the president view himself—this was always very important to President Bush.  Does the president view himself as a wartime president?  And what does that—and whatever that means?

GIBBS:  Well, you know, my guess is that varying people have varying definitions.  I think this president understands that when he put his hand on the Bible on January 20th, he inherited a situation where we had troops on the ground in Iraq, troops in Afghanistan and in many other places in the world.  Chuck, you know that he has instituted a plan that will draw down our forces in Iraq.  And he has already added in part of his administration double the number of troops in Afghanistan to provide focus on a very important region of the world.

I think he understands—certainly, every day he spends time working through it, and I dare say, Chuck, spends probably a little time every day thinking about the very men and women that he mentioned today that he‘s thankful for protecting our freedom.  He spends time thinking about them each and every day.  He understands he is a president in two wars.

TODD:  Robert, have a good Thanksgiving.  And I‘m sure that there are a lot of...

GIBBS:  To you and your family, Chuck...

TODD:  There are a lot of...

GIBBS:  ... happy Thanksgiving, and to everyone watching.

TODD:  You got it.  A lot of people going to be rooting for the War Eagles on Saturday, I bet, in that Iron Bowl.  We‘ll see.  (INAUDIBLE) joining you.

GIBBS:  I‘m going be rooting hard for them.  An upset would be a very early and well deserved Christmas present.

TODD:  Nothing like messing with the BCS.  Robert, thanks very much.

Joining me now is retired general Barry McCaffrey.  He‘s obviously an NBC News military analyst, and he just came back from Afghanistan.  You hear the words.  The president says “finish the job.”  What does—what does that mean?  What is the definition of that as far as the commanders are concerned?  What does that mean that they‘re going to get?  What tools are they getting to finish the job?

GEN. BARRY MCCAFFREY (U.S. ARMY, RET.), NBC MILITARY ANALYST:  Well,

may have heard a pretty good outline of what the president‘s going to say on Tuesday night, and it‘s an encouraging message.  Look, he‘s got to articulate to the American people what is the objective we‘re trying to achieve.  He‘s got to give a determined amount of resources, a jolt to the system to get this thing moving again.  And then, to some extent, he has to satisfy the American people it‘s not going to be an endless war for another eight years.

I think he‘s got three years of latitude, max, before the next election.  In three years, by giving McChrystal the political support, as well as the economic and troop levels he needs, can we turn this system around?  By the way, I came back this time, Chuck, feeling better about it by far than I went over there.

TODD:  Why?

MCCAFFREY:  Well, first of all...

TODD:  Because you hear mixed stories.

MCCAFFREY:  Yes.

TODD:  I mean, from our own reporting and from—why do you feel better now?

MCCAFFREY:  A couple of things that are unarguable.  The command and control is no longer screwed up.  For seven years, you couldn‘t sort out who was in charge of what.  Now we got McChrystal in charge of NATO and U.S. forces.  We got a tactical headquarters that‘s going to give instructions to all the allies, 42 nations, plus, essentially, to the Afghans.  We got one training system which is NATO now, not U.S. and NATO.

TODD:  But what about the McChrystal and Eikenberry relationship? 

Isn‘t that not—I mean...

MCCAFFREY:  That...

TODD:  It‘s been a problem?

MCCAFFREY:  Be interesting to hear the testimony at the Congress.

TODD:  Yes.

MCCAFFREY:  I think, by the way, Eikenberry is a brilliant fellow, a tremendous amount of experience in Afghanistan.  There won‘t be a conflict between these two guys.  I think what Eikenberry was charting out was a reluctance on the part of many people in that embassy to see a counterinsurgency campaign.  That‘s a legitimate viewpoint, but not at this point in the debate.  It would have been legitimate in February and March, and probably now it‘s too late to articulate that outcome.

The short-term problems in Afghanistan, if we fail, are so intense...

TODD:  Right.

MCCAFFREY:  ... Pakistan‘s standing with nuclear weapons, our NATO allies, never mind the slaughter of the innocents that would take place in Afghanistan.  So the president had to move forward.  I didn‘t see there was much of a choice there.

TODD:  What is the difference between 30,000 troops and 40,000 troops? 

Why...

MCCAFFREY:  Nothing.

TODD:  I mean, obviously—I mean, is there a big difference between...

MCCAFFREY:  No.  Of course not.

TODD:  ... going 30,000 and 40,000?

MCCAFFREY:  It‘s all on the margin.  The real question is, are we going to give McChrystal a jolt of energy?  And will we hear political rhetoric out of the president of the United States on Tuesday night that indicates a determination to achieve an outcome of building a stable Afghan state?

TODD:  It sounds like—OK, what do you mean by “determined political rhetoric”?  You‘re saying he‘s got to go out there and say that, We‘re going to win this war, whatever this...

MCCAFFREY:  Well...

(CROSSTALK)

TODD:  ... defines it or...

MCCAFFREY:  I don‘t think...

TODD:  What do you mean by that?

MCCAFFREY:  I don‘t think it‘s to win this war.  I think this is a situation where he says, I‘m going to ensure the Afghans have a police force and an army capable of providing internal security, and then I‘m going to draw U.S. combat forces out.  And by the way, we‘re going to make sure the economic system to some extent works.  Right now, all you can do is grow opium.  So they need to grow apples and bulgur wheat and that sort of thing.  So we got our work cut out for us.

Again, I—you know, I‘ll just tell you, I came back feeling a little bit better about this.  The first team‘s there.  The embassy‘s got five U.S. ambassadors in it, very experienced people.  McChrystal‘s the best we‘ve produced in the last 10 years of warfare, and the president‘s going to give him some more tools to use.  We‘ll see.

TODD:  What do you think of the West Point setting?  Is that appropriate?

MCCAFFREY:  Oh, it‘s perfect.  Look, you got 4,000 of these beautiful kids.  They are the—some of the most determined, enthusiastic college kids in America.  They came in the Army knowing they were going to fight and...

TODD:  Knowing they were going to fight.

MCCAFFREY:  ... and this beautiful setting—it‘s outside of Washington, which is important.  I think it‘ll add to the gravity of the message.  He‘s talking to the American people, and in the background, he‘s talking to America‘s future generals.

TODD:  General McCaffrey, thanks very much.

MCCAFFREY:  Good to be with you.

TODD:  Have a good Thanksgiving.

Coming up: The GOP wants to give a purity test that states 10 essential principles to being a good Republican office holder.  But how many Republicans could flunk?

You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TODD:  And welcome back to HARDBALL.  A group of conservatives unveiled a new litmus test of sorts for potential Republican candidates to abide by.  The so-called “purity test” would require the Republican Party to withhold campaign money and support from candidates who don‘t follow at least eight of the ten core principles on the checklist.  So will this proposal unite the Republican Party to prevent what happened in that upstate New York race, or cause more internal division?  And would Ronald Reagan have passed this test?

Syndicated columnist Tony Blankley is former Reagan aide and aide to Newt Gingrich, press secretary for him.  And Craig Shirley is author of “Rendezvous with Destiny” about Ronald Reagan and the campaign that changed America.  He‘s also the CEO and president of Shirley and Bannister (ph) Public Affairs.

Gentlemen, let‘s go over the quick 10 points very quickly, and then we‘ll discuss the merits of having—having one of these tests.  This is a proposed resolution of the Republican National Committee that they could take (ph) under in January.  Number one, smaller government.  Number two, being for market-based health care reform.  Number three, being for market-based energy reform, against cap-and-trade, it‘s called.  Number four, being against so-called “card check” or this idea of union elections.  No amnesty for illegal immigrants, for victory in Iraq and Afghanistan and giving the generals the troops that they want.  Number seven would be contain Iran and North Korea on nuclear weapons.  Number eight, before for the Defense of Marriage Act.  Number nine, no health care rationing or abortion funding.  And number ten, no gun restrictions.

A few things jumped out at me when I read this.  One was a ton of references to Ronald Reagan.  And Craig, I put this to you.  The youngest person to have cast a vote for Ronald Reagan is 43 right now.

SHIRLEY:  Right.  Right.

TODD:  OK?  In 2012, that person will be 46.

SHIRLEY:  Right.

TODD:  How much—how—you know, can you keep going back to Reagan as the rallying point for the party?

SHIRLEY:  Well, it‘s not just—but it‘s—I think it‘s a mistake to think it‘s about Reagan.  It‘s always been about his principles.  And he would say that it wasn‘t about him, it was about the principles that he derived from the Constitution, from Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson that the individual is more important than the state.  That‘s what these principles are about is reducing government and returning power to the states and localities.  And so I don‘t think that he would have a particular problem with this.  I don‘t think these sort of litmus tests ever came up in...

TODD:  But the idea of...

(CROSSTALK)

TODD:  Yes, but the idea—I mean, it—what it says here—I mean, you got guys like, look, Mike Castle (ph).  You can‘t win a Delaware Senate seat without Mike Castle.

SHIRLEY:  Well...

TODD:  Mike Castle wouldn‘t—you know...

(CROSSTALK)

SHIRLEY:  Reagan won in 1966 in California when California was a 2-to-1 Democratic state.  It‘s not always about party.  It‘s also about your message and your ideology, is that we are a right-of-center country.  We have over 40 percent of Americans are self-identified conservatives.  So right there is the basis for the remaking of the Republican Party after all of the excesses of the last eight years.

TODD:  One thing you said to one of our producers was you thought this was too pessimistic, though.  There was...

(CROSSTALK)

SHIRLEY:  Exactly.  And I think that it‘s all about the presentation. 

You know, Reagan evolved very dramatically from ‘76 to ‘80.  His...

(CROSSTALK)

SHIRLEY:  ... much more optimistic and much more inclusive.  He wasn‘t anti-abortion, he was pro-life.  He wasn‘t anti-communist, he was pro-freedom.  So I think the presentation, if I was going to give them any advice, is make the presentation more inviting.

TODD:  Tony, where are you on this?  Look, you were there at the ‘94 revolution for the Republicans.

TONY BLANKLEY, FORMER REAGAN AIDE:  Yes, and the ‘80s and the...

(CROSSTALK)

TODD:  And a bunch of—but a bunch of those Republicans that won in 1994 wouldn‘t have passed this litmus test.

BLANKLEY:  Yes, look, I mean, I‘m not particularly for litmus tests.  I think factions in parties often try to push that.  If, in fact, the issues they‘re pushing are broadly popular with their party, then most politicians will be tropic to a popular position.

TODD:  Sure.

BLANKLEY:  If it‘s not, it doesn‘t matter. 

So, I think it‘s, in one sense, sort of silly and—and futile.  On the other hand, I think what is motivating this I agree with.  And what is motivating it, I think, is, there‘s this great reaction to the excesses of the current administration.

And the Republican Party needs to embrace and be part of that, not be to the side of it in some way or carping at it.  And—and...

TODD:  I understand that.  But there‘s a lot of people that are going to say, hey, wait a minute.  The Republicans were in charge when these wars were going on.  republicans were in charge when—when the debt...

BLANKLEY:  What does that have to do with...

(CROSSTALK)

TODD:  I‘m just saying—when the debt ballooned.  And so...

(CROSSTALK)

BLANKLEY:  That would be the Democratic argument.  I understand that. 

TODD:  Right. 

BLANKLEY:  The point is that, right now, the energy...

(CROSSTALK)

TODD:  ... rally around.

BLANKLEY:  ... the energy in this country is about trillion—multitrillion-dollar deficits, about confiscating General Motors.  It‘s about events that we have never seen in our history. 

There‘s a lot of people—whether it‘s 40 percent or 60 percent of the people, we will find out next November.  And that Republican Party has to be...

TODD:  Confiscating General Motors? 

(CROSSTALK)

BLANKLEY:  Nationalized them, Nationalized them.

TODD:  Forced them to file bankruptcy. 

(CROSSTALK)

TODD:  I hear you.

(LAUGHTER)

(CROSSTALK)

BLANKLEY:  My point is that, if Republicans were to nominate real liberals, like that woman in New York 23, which was—she was more liberal even than her district, more than the Democrat—that‘s—we have to ride that wave, but we can‘t enforce it.  It has got to be a natural process, where candidates stand up and relate to that force. 

And I think there is some concern that maybe it won‘t happen. 

Now, look...

TODD:  Do you think this makes it harder to invite new Republicans into the tent a little bit by saying, hey, you‘ve got to have this test? 

BLANKLEY:  Marginally. 

(CROSSTALK)

BLANKLEY:  It is obvious that if you are running in certain districts, you can‘t embrace those positions.  I would much rather have Nancy Johnson in a Connecticut seat, who‘s a moderate Republican...

TODD:  Right. 

BLANKLEY:  ... rather than a liberal Democrat... 

(CROSSTALK)

TODD:  Club For Growth wouldn‘t want that. 

BLANKLEY:  I understand.  I disagree with them.  I think they have resulted in nothing but defeating Republican candidates. 

TODD:  You wanted to jump in on this? 

CRAIG SHIRLEY, AUTHOR, “RENDEZVOUS WITH DESTINY: RONALD REAGAN AND THE

CAMPAIGN THAT CHANGED AMERICA”:  No.  Go ahead. 

TODD:  No, no, no.  OK.

But what do—these party primaries are going to push some of these

candidates to the right.  And some will argue that it‘s going to put a—a

Mark Kirk, for instance, in Illinois.  He is obviously very nervous about -

·         he‘s watching what is happening to Charlie Crist in Florida.  So, he went out and asked for Sarah Palin‘s endorsement.  And he has come very critical on some issues, on Gitmo, trying to win some favor with conservatives. 

If that makes it so that he can‘t win the general, then have you...

(CROSSTALK)

SHIRLEY:  Let me be a voice in the wilderness for polarization. 

I think it is intellectually dishonest to go out there and present to the American people a party that has liberal Republicans, moderate Republicans and conservative Republicans, a Democratic Party that has conservative Republicans, moderate Republicans, and liberal Republicans—or Democrats—is, that when you have two parties with diametrically opposing views, one organized around the concept of freedom, the other organized around the concept of justice, and they give the American voter an honest choice, I think that that is much more intellectually honest for the American voter, so that they have a clear choice of who and what set of principles they want to lead this country. 

TODD:  Tony, would this be easier if this were Europe, and the way the Europeans are set up?  Before then you could have coalition, because essentially we have two parties that have three coalitions inside each party, right?

(CROSSTALK)

BLANKLEY:  Yes. 

A national governing party in America is always a coalition, because there isn‘t a majority for one or the other.  We are a right-of-center country now.  During the ‘30s, during the ‘60s, we were a left-of-center country.  But you still have to have a coalition.

Roosevelt was a coalition of Southern segregationists and Northern integrationists.  Good heavens. 

TODD:  Right. 

BLANKLEY:  So, of course there has got to be a coalition. 

And, by the way, some of my conservative friends who are worried that if we let a moderate or liberal win in New England, it will affect the party.  Look at the Democratic Party, which got back to their majority by reaching out to moderate candidates in Montana and other places.  Yet, they have got the most left-of-center Democratic leadership caucus now since 1933.

So all that happened was, by putting in moderates, that gave them the majority.  It didn‘t move the party to the right.  This is as left as the Democrats have been, but they‘re now left and in the majority. 

If—the Republican Party is always going to be right of center, and if we have enough new members, then we are a majority right of center. 

TODD:  So, what is it that you—how do you stop these people?  Is this a problem that the RNC, there is not enough leadership there to sort of stop these things, that because there is no central figure to organize around, you‘re going to have these factions pop up...

(CROSSTALK)

TODD:  The Club For Growth is now a player.  Everybody is their own player. 

SHIRLEY:  But it is healthy.  But it is healthy. 

A year ago, the Republican Party was brain-dead.  You couldn‘t find a

pulse if you put it into the emergency room.  These vigorous debates are a

good sign that there is vitality in the party.  And there‘s going to be a lot—it is going to be like the bar scene from “Star Wars.”  There‘s going to be chairs flying around.  And there‘s going to be disagreement, there‘s going to be agreement.  But, eventually, there is going to be commonality. 

(CROSSTALK)

TODD:  For the record, though, you said bar scene from “Star Wars,” and not...

(CROSSTALK)

(LAUGHTER)

SHIRLEY:  This is going to organize around populism once again, anti-Washington populism.

(CROSSTALK)

BLANKLEY:  The Republican Party is fighting because there is something to fight over.  And that is the chance to...

(CROSSTALK)

TODD:  ... feel like they can win. 

BLANKLEY:  We can win, so it‘s a prize worth having.  So, there is going to a fight. 

SHIRLEY:  Right.  Right. 

TODD:  Tony Blankley, Craig Shirley, thank you for sharing your views. 

Happy Thanksgiving to both of your families. 

BLANKLEY:  Happy Thanksgiving.

TODD:  Up next, a presidential pardon.  One lucky bird was spared by President Obama today at the White House.  And guess where the turkey gets to retire?  The “Sideshow” is next. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TODD:  There it is.  Should be a gobble. 

Welcome back.  It‘s time for the “Sideshow.” 

First up, well, it is Thanksgiving, so let‘s talk turkey.  This morning, President Obama, joined by his daughters, Sasha and Malia, granted his first pardon.  And it went to Courage, the 45-pound Thanksgiving turkey. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  You know, there are certain days that remind me of why I ran for this office.  And then there are moments like this, where I...

(LAUGHTER)

OBAMA:  ... pardon a turkey and send it to Disneyland. 

(LAUGHTER)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TODD:  Some rare moments of honesty there, right, when you are jumping

·         when you are admitting some of these—some of these moments are not the—the most presidential-looking. 

Courage, you have been pardoned by the president of the United States.  So, instead of being served up on a platter tomorrow, you are flying first-class across the country to Disneyland. 

And moving on to another presidential tradition, last night, the president and first lady hosted their first state dinner, and it was an affair to remember.  The guest of honor, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, and over VIP guests crowded into a huge tent on the White House South Lawn for a mix of American- and Indian-influenced food and entertainment. 

The president proudly raised his glass to toast his guest of honor. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA:  To the future that beckons all of us, let us answer its call and let our two great nations realize all the triumphs and achievements that await us. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TODD:  The star-studded guest list included our own NBC‘s Brian Williams, CBS News anchor Katie Couric, Hollywood moguls Steven Spielberg and David Geffen, political superstars Republican Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, Colin Powell, and the sometimes Republican, sometimes independent, sometimes Democratic Mayor of New York City Michael Bloomberg. 

But all eyes were on radiant Michelle Obama, who was wearing an elegant strapless gown by Indian designer Naeem Khan.  And all of the reports say the Obama‘s first state dinner was a big success.

Now time for the “Big Number.” 

You know how Republican leaders in Congress keep attacking Democrats for spending so much money.  Well, House Minority Leader John Boehner might want to look at his own greens fees.  According to FEC filings dug up by Politico, Congressman Boehner‘s political action committee has spent almost $83,000 on golf outings so far this year at courses from his home state of Ohio to Virginia to Florida. 

Congressman Boehner and friends have teed off to the tune of $82,998.  That‘s tonight‘s “Big Number.” By the way, John Boehner is still waiting for an invite to go golfing with the president.  Hasn‘t happened yet. 

Up next:  Getting to 60.  Is the public option standing in the way of passing the new health care bill in the Senate?  We talk to a Senate—senator that is critical to the debate. 

You are watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

HAMPTON PEARSON, CNBC CORRESPONDENT:  I‘m Hampton Pearson with your CNBC “Market Wrap.”

Stocks climb higher today on some surprisingly good indicators—the Dow Jones industrials adding 30 points, the S&P 500 climbing five, and the Nasdaq up almost seven points. 

New jobless claims falling more than expected last week to their lowest level since the collapse of Lehman Brothers in September 2008.  Personal spending and consumer confidence also up more than expected.  Reports show incomes have increased and consumers‘ overall economic outlook is improving.  But there is some lingering anxiety about personal finances. 

Gold hitting a new record high today, after a report India may be considering buying more bullion from the IMF. 

On the earnings front, Deere shares climbing more than 2.5 percent today, despite a net loss due in part to weak equipment sales.

And shares in Tiffany up almost 5 percent after beating earnings expectations and raising its full-year outlook.

That it is from CNBC, first in business worldwide—now back to

HARDBALL. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. HARRY REID (D-NV), MAJORITY LEADER:  We know not all 60 senators in my caucus agree on every aspect of this bill, but they agree on the vast, vast majority, probably more than 90 percent for sure. 

I support a strong public option.  I welcome Senator Schumer, Landrieu and Carper, who Senator Landrieu said that they are working together to find a public option that is acceptable to all Democrats. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)        

TODD:  And welcome back to HARDBALL. 

Harry Reid says the Democrats are working on a public option plan that works for all of them, 60 of them.  Will they find a compromise to get those 60 votes?

With me now is one of the senators that Harry Reid was talking about that is working on finding a deal, Delaware Democrat Tom Carper. 

Senator Carper, I want to start with simply getting some lingo out of the way.  It seems to me, when we hear about the words public option, a government-run insurance program, we hear the following phrases or word, opt in, opt out, trigger. 

Can you explain what the opt in is, which is I think is what you are working on, the opt out, which I believe was in the original bill that Harry Reid introduced, and then the trigger, which is the Olympia Snowe idea?

SEN. TOM CARPER (D), DELAWARE:  For folks who find all of this confusing, I don‘t blame you. 

(LAUGHTER)

CARPER:  If you have a national public option that would be, say, present in every state, could be offered in the exchange of every state.  Every state will have an exchange, which is a way to purchase health insurance over the Internet. 

But for the states that select—elect not to be participating in the public plan, they would have the opportunity to opt out, say we don‘t want... 

(CROSSTALK)

TODD:  How would they opt out, legislature, would the governor, or both? 

CARPER:  Yes, it will probably a legislative act, then to have the governor sign, sign that legislation. 

(CROSSTALK)

TODD:  OK.

(CROSSTALK)

TODD:  So, there is the opt out.  The opt in? 

(CROSSTALK)

CARPER:  What will be in the bill that we debate on the floor, start debating next week, will be a public option, every one of the 50 states listed on the exchange reach of the states, with the opportunity for states that didn‘t want to do that to opt out. 

That is what will be in the bill that we start negotiating. 

TODD:  OK.

CARPER:  The idea of an opt in is different.  And it would presume that there wouldn‘t necessarily be a public option in any state, unless the state said, by an action of the legislature, by action of the governor, we would like to participate in that.  So, that would be opt in. 

And, as it turns out, I think where we may end up in is an approach that says, why don‘t we do this?  When we are ready to begin standing up these exchanges in a few years, check and measure the affordability of health insurance in all the 50 states.  Those states where affordability is not a problem, where there‘s a lot of competition, they would not have a public option right away.

But for those states where, we will say maybe 30 states where affordability is a real problem...

TODD:  Right. 

CARPER:  ... those states could have a public option negotiated, I believe, not by the government, necessarily, but maybe by a nonprofit board appointed by the president, confirmed by the Senate.  And they would have to act pretty much with a level playing field with other private insurance companies.

I think that may be where we ultimately end up, where we keep away from government-run, government-funded, but we have a level playing field with the private sector, but we have competition where it is needed. 

TODD:  So, you don‘t think the trigger, the third thing that I brought up here, which is the Olympia Snowe idea, and which some at the White House will argue that is—they think is more robust in the long run than an opt in or an op out, you think the trigger is off the table? 

CARPER:  Well, some people what I just described there, where the standard of affordability is not met in a number of states, some people would describe that as a trigger or as a fallback mechanism. 

TODD:  Yes. 

CARPER:  I think it is actually a good way to make sure that we have competition for the private companies, private health insurance companies, where it doesn‘t exist. 

TODD:  Why is it that Olympia Snowe and Joe Lieberman, two people that were thought of to be potentially supporters of this health care reform plan, why are they both so adamant against the opt out and the opt in versions of public option right now? 

CARPER:  Well, I spoke with Senator Lieberman today.  And I hope to speak to Senator Snowe over the weekend. 

Now, Senator Lieberman‘s concerns, he‘s mindful of the fact we have these huge budget deficits.  The deficit, the national debt in the last eight years, basically, grew...

TODD:  Sure.

CARPER:  ... by as much as it did in the first 208 years of our country.  He‘s concerned that something we will do, that we will pass here will simply enlarge deficits further.  And we have to make sure there is a way not to let that happen. 

And one of the ways to do that is to say, if we create this public option that would be in a number of the states, that they would have to act like—pretty much like a regular insurance company.  They would have to have—retain earnings, they would have to create reserves, so in case they started losing money, the reserves would be there to cover the losses, not the taxpayers. 

So we have to address the deficit concern.  I think we can do that. 

Senators—

TODD:  What did Lieberman say?  You said you talked to Senator Lieberman today.  What did he say to you?  Did he say, I can‘t be talked into any version of the public  option?  Or Tom, I‘ll think about it; let‘s go further?

CARPER:  No.  We‘re going to talk about it a fair amount more. 

TODD:  You don‘t feel like he is out of it.  

CARPER:  His basic principle is this: he wants to make sure that somehow we don‘t balloon or swell the deficit—the nation‘s debt further by what we do with respect to a public option. 

TODD:  I interrupted you about Senator Snowe. 

CARPER:  I have that concern.  I‘m sorry. 

TODD:  I interrupted you about Senator Snowe.  So what is your pitch to her?

CARPER:  Well, my pitch to her is if you listen to what I actually described, it sounds a lot like what you have been talking about, Olympia, for a number of months.  I think, at the end of the day, we would be wise, as Democrats, to  make sure we have some Republicans to vote for this proposal, especially if they have good  ideas. 

Olympia has a lot of good ideas.  I hope, at the end of the day, part of her contribution, a big part of her contribution, can be embedded in the legislation we are going to take up next week. 

TODD:  Senator, part of the—part of the maybe cynicism some on the right have about health care reform and how this is being paid for is that there isn‘t this belief that the Medicare cuts or the cutback in Medicare increases—however you  want to describe them—that  somehow the Congress won‘t be  able to go through with it next  year or the year after or the  year after.  What reassurances are you going to have to the deficit hawks on this issue of whether the Medicare  cuts will really stick?  There won‘t be some sort of fix on the other side of this in a year, two years, three years.  

CARPER:  I‘ll use an example.  You may have heard the term BRAC, Base Realignment Closing Commission.

TODD:  Yes, the base closing commission.

CARPER:  Twenty years ago, we didn‘t close any military bases.  And the Department of Defense said let‘s close 50, 20, 30, 40 bases.  We never closed them. 

TODD:  Of course not.

CARPER:  We changed the way that we do base closures.  There you go.  The secretary of defense, about every four or five years, says these are bases we ought to close, consider closing, and we literally vote up-or-down on the whole package, and we have to pass a motion  of disapproval in the House or Senate.  That means the House and Senate have to vote against the recommendations as a package, of the secretary of defense. 

We are going to take that idea, and we‘re going to have a commission, really smart people who know health care well.  They‘re going to recommend  changes to us that will help provide better outcomes, maybe for a lot less money, and the way we deliver health care through Medicare.  Their ideas will come to us.  And unless two thirds of the House, two thirds of the Senate and the president agree, those recommendations will stick. 

TODD:  Those things will stick.  Very quickly, senator carper, you are close with Congressman Castle.  You‘re close with the Baden family.  Is it going to be a tough vote for you if it is Congressman Castle and Bo Baden for the US Senate in 2010, in your home state?

CARPER:  Bo I have known since he was a little kid.  He‘s now in his early ‘40s.  I feel almost paternally toward him, almost as if he were my own flesh and blood.  Mike Castle and I have worked together for years as governors and congressman, and even before that. 

In the end, I will vote for Bo.  I hate to see two people that I really have a great affection and respect for have to run against each other.  We have so many states where we could use either one.  We have to make the choice, I‘m afraid.

Bo hasn‘t announced.  I expect he will.  He will be a terrific senator.  Michael, god bless him.  I wish we could elect both of  them. 

TODD:  Thank you, Senator Carper.  I hope you and your family have a happy Thanksgiving. 

CARPER:  You as well.  Thanks so much. 

TODD:  Up next, President Obama is sending  more troops to Afghanistan.  But does he have the public behind him? Can he get the public behind him?  his is HARDBALL, only on  MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TODD:  We are back.  It is time for the politics fix, my favorite part of the show.  Melinda Henneberger is with PoliticsDaily.com, and Joan Walsh is editor in chief of “Salon.” 

The president will address the nation with his decision on Afghanistan Tuesday night at 8:00 from West Point.  Joan, I want to start with you.  What—he‘s going to announce some sort of troop increase. 

JOAN WALSH, “SALON”:  Right. 

TODD:  What does he have to say to those folks in the anti-war left of the party who are very concerned about sending more troops?  What is he going to have to say to sort of convince him to at least give his strategy a chance?

WALSH:  Oh, I don‘t know.  I‘ve been thinking about this all day, Chuck.  I really think the symbolism of doing it from West Point—I have family friends who went to West Point.  It is a center of heroism.  But it is a militaristic backdrop for this.  So it sort of tips his hand a little bit that, yes, this is an escalation.  I think the left, and not only the left,  the nation is quite  concerned about it. 

TODD:  I was just going to say, Joan, our poll, it is literally right down the middle; 48 percent don‘t want any new troops, maybe even start pulling troops out; 47 percent want some increase.  So it is a divided country.  It seems like they are looking for somebody to tell them what the right answer is. 

WALSH:  Well, and that‘s his job.  So I think there will be a lot of open minds.  I‘m not sure how open the minds will be on the anti-war left.  But I‘m not saying it is impossible for him to convince the nation, but it is very difficult, Chuck. 

I just think he is going to try to sell an escalation as an exit strategy.  That is a very tricky thing to do.  The costs are supposedly about a million dollars per new soldier being sent in there, at a time we can‘t—we are being told we can‘t afford a lavish health care bill.  People, increasingly, even  Republicans, are focused on jobs and creating jobs, and think the economy has to be the top focus. 

So it is an awful time for him to have to face something of this magnitude.  I will be watching and listening and trying to keep my mind open.  But I‘m very pessimistic about it.  

TODD:  Melinda, Joan outlines a great challenge that it seems that he has got with potentially members of his own, party, particular in Congress as a war supplemental comes up.  You have a Republican party that seems eager to oppose him on a lot of things.  If they‘re not there for him on this, could he be out there on  an island on Afghanistan?  

MELINDA HENNEBERGER, POLITICSDAILY.COM:  I‘m confused by this down the middle strategy that he seems to be moving toward.  On the one hand, the left in his party won‘t be happy if he sends single additional soldier.  And on the right, he could cure cancer and they‘d say, what a socialist. 

As you say, with the polls and the public so divided, I don‘t think he‘s  going to make a lot of people happy with this middle ground of 25,000 or 30,000 more troops.  I can see the argument for go big or I can see the argument for go home.  But kind of sort of in the middle seems like the  worst option to me. 

TODD:  So you think he should have said no, General McChrystal, here‘s 50,000 troops.  You want 40?  Here‘s 50. 

HENNEBERGER:  Nobody thinks this can be done cheaply.  And nobody thinks this can be done quickly.  So you either go in massively or you pull out.  He doesn‘t seem like he‘s moving in either of those directions.

TODD:  Joan, this surtax idea that David Obey, the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee threw out there, does that have some legs, that that could suddenly become a serious proposal, that he‘s going to have to figure out how to fight back, if he wants to get a supplemental through Congress?

WALSH:  I think it‘s fascinating.  I think it‘s a potential poisoned pill.  I think it would be really fascinating to make people who support this legislation vote in favor of a tax increase. 

It‘s got a little bit of politics behind it.  I don‘t see it ever happening.  Most polls, even polls that show the public divided about Afghanistan, people don‘t want to pay higher taxes for a war they don‘t entirely understand, and that doesn‘t feel like it‘s obviously in our immediate self-interest, Chuck.  So I think it‘s a great—I don‘t want to call it a stunt, because that sounds cheap.  But I think it‘s an interesting political maneuver that can force people to reckon with, you want to do this?  This is what it‘s going to cost.  Let‘s make the American people pay up and then see, you know, if they think this is worth doing. 

TODD:  Joan brought up the setting, West Point, that he was tipping his hand that he was clearly doing some sort of escalation.  It‘s striking that he‘s not using the White House as a backdrop.  He hasn‘t done that.  President Bush didn‘t like to use the White House when it came to these war decisions.  How much does this backdrop matter?

HENNEBERGER:  I think that West Point probably helps him more than the White House would have done.  But back to this war tax point, I think the other bit of that message says, since the  privileged are not typically those who send their sons and daughters to war, maybe this is a way that they can participate, if they support it. 

TODD:  We should be careful of throwing out ideas out there that we think won‘t get traction.  Sometimes they can get traction.  We‘re going to be back with Melinda and Joan for more of the politics fix.  You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TODD:  And we‘re back for more of the politics fix.  The cover of “Time” Magazine” says it all.  Apparently, they‘re giving thanks to the decade from hell.  But will things get better next year or next decade?  Melinda Henneberger with PoliticsDaily.com, Joan Walsh, editor in chief of “Salon.”

You know, it  was striking to me to see this cover today, because it was a realization, oh, my good, the  decade is over.  It is coming to an end.  First of all, we never figured out what to call it, right the 0‘s or whatever.  But let‘s recount everything they talk about.  It started with the fact that we couldn‘t count ballots in the state of Florida in 2000.  Then, of course, 9/11 was probably the defining moment.  We had two wars, invading Afghanistan in 2001, Iraq in 2003.  The tsunami of 2004, which  killed thousands of people, Hurricane Katrina on our shores here in the United States.  And it all ends with this economic meltdown. 

Joan, I start with you.  Is this a fair characterization?  Is this the worst decade maybe in 100 years of American history, or world history?

WALSH:  I don‘t know if it‘s the worst decade in 100 years.  We‘ve had wars.  You know, Andy Serwer, the writer of the article, makes the case that it‘s the worst decade since World War II at least.  I might push back on that too, because the ‘70s were really a bummer, energy crisis. 

TODD:  A bummer, there you go. 

WALSH:  Carter administration. 

HENNEBERGER:  Yeah, man. 

WALSH:  Slipped back into the ‘70s.  But I think what‘s striking—I  mean, to start the decade with that contested election, and then to have it followed up so closely with 9/11, really, those were two shocks to our system  that I don‘t think we have ever completely reckoned with. 

I guess the other thing I‘ll say—I‘m trying not to be too partisan here—but the things that Andy identified—I think that being lied into a war in Iraq was perhaps the worst thing that happened in the decade, next to 9/11.  And then the deregulation, which started in the Clinton administration, but has its roots with Ronald Reagan.  We had decades of deregulation, and a deligitimization of the public sector, disinvestment, leading to Katrina, bridge collapses.  Our bridge here, the Bay Bridge, was shut a couple of weeks ago because of an  infrastructure issue. 

Whether we recover, Chuck, really depends on whether we draw the right conclusions about why these things happened.  I‘m not sure that Obama is. 

TODD:  Is—should we be painting, Melinda, a brush that, hey, it is not a coincidence all of these terrible things seemed to happen in one decade?  Is that a coincidence?

HENNEBERGER:  The list you ticked off is so festive.  It really has me in the Thanksgiving spirit.  But, you know, these were the Bush years.  Would it have gone differently?   I think it might have, certainly what Joan was saying about deregulation and the Iraq  war, which we can pretty much say was a colossal error.  Yes, I think might have been different.

But I just don‘t think—the decade may be over, but the  clean-up is only beginning.  So I don‘t think we could or should look to a really quick turnaround because it didn‘t take a minute to get into this.  And especially the environmental damage that was done in the last decade is really going to take a while to -- 

TODD:  Melinda Henneberger, Joan Walsh, I hope you both have good Thanksgivings.  It is the best holiday out there, right?  There‘s no ideological ownership of it. 

Chris Mathews will be back Monday night at 5:00 and 7:00 Eastern for more HARDBALL.  Happy Thanksgiving to you and your family from all of us here at HARDBALL.  Right now, it‘s time for “THE ED SHOW” with Ed Schultz.

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