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updated 12/18/2009 4:08:29 PM ET 2009-12-18T21:08:29

Guests: Harold Ford, Julia Boorstin, David Axelrod, Rep. Anthony Weiner, Joan Walsh, Melinda Henneberger, John Heilemann, Todd Harris

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST:  Battle on the left.

Let‘s play HARDBALL.

Good evening.  I‘m Chris Matthews in Washington.  Leading off tonight:

To be or not to be?  That was Hamlet‘s question.  And tonight, Hamlet is a Democrat—to fight for the health care bill, or let it die.  Some who haven‘t been elected to govern would rather go home and pray for next year.  Most of the elected, the vast majority of the elected liberals, want to go for the gold, grab what victory‘s attainable and build on it in the future.

You know where I stand.  If you accept the role of governing this country, you accept the role of doing your best.  You don‘t quit like Sarah Palin or sit in the back seat and complain, like some are doing today on the left.  You drive the damn car.  One of the guys who‘s sitting in the front seat, David Axelrod, will join us in a minute.

Plus: What Peggy Noonan told David Axelrod this morning about health care can be applied to the Obama presidency in general.  He‘s losing the left, some of it.  He‘s losing the right—well, he‘s always lost that.  And he‘s losing some of the center.  Could it be, Peggy, however, he‘s losing those people because he believes it is the job of leaders to lead and to take the heat?

And so how do you fight this fight?  With the public angry at both the Democrats and the Republicans—let‘s be honest about that fact—who‘s got the moxie to make the best of it, save as many seats as you can, if you‘re a Democrat, win as many as you can, if you‘re a Republican?  We‘ll get that from the strategists tonight.

Also tonight, when our pollsters asked, What political figures over the past decade do you respect the least, who do you think came out on top?  Well, here‘s a hint.  They‘ll go down in history together—go down.

And Monica Lewinsky‘s back and talking about Bill Clinton‘s testimony under oath.  So is one of the prosecutors who was close to indicting Clinton.  Seems that one of the prosecutors, Robert Ray, was going to indict Bill Clinton after he left office if he didn‘t agree to accept that disbarment.  That‘s in the HARDBALL “Sideshow.”

Let‘s start with the health care bill.  David Axelrod‘s at the White House.  He‘s senior adviser to the president.  Let me—I want you to listen to this.  I know you‘re familiar with it because you were in the argument this morning, David.  Here you are taking on our own Ed Schultz—and he‘s a heavyweight—on “MORNING JOE.”  Let‘s listen.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DAVID AXELROD, WHITE HOUSE SENIOR ADVISER (via telephone):  Ed, let me ask you a question.  Why is the insurance industry so vigorously opposing this bill?

ED SCHULTZ, HOST, “THE ED SHOW”:  They‘re playing a shell game!

AXELROD:  Why—if this is such a gift to the insurance industry, if they don‘t believe that this is going to force competition and force them to adhere to some standards in terms of how they treat patients—by the way, let me just add parenthetically, we fought for years as progressives for a patients‘ bill of rights.  Everything that was in that patients‘ bill of rights is now enshrined in this legislation, and yet people say, Let‘s just throw it away.  We don‘t need it anymore.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  OK...

AXELROD:  Why is the insurance industry fighting us so hard...

(CROSSTALK)

SCHULTZ:  Respectfully, Mr. Axelrod, I‘ll answer your question if you answer mine.  I‘ll answer your question.  They have the money to play a shell game on the American people.  They‘re creating this facade that it‘s really bad for them.  It‘s not.  It‘s a handout.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MATTHEWS:  Well, I think that‘s a good question.  I‘ve done some homework, by the way, David, and it does appear that the patients‘ bill of rights died a sad death in the Senate back in 2002 because it was left at the desk.  They never passed it.  What is in that bill that‘s in this bill that‘s so important for people on the progressive side of things?

AXELROD:  Well, look, there‘s a whole array of elements of this bill, Chris, that go to protect people within the insurance system, that holds insurance companies accountable.  And that‘s one of the reasons why this bill is important for the 85 percent of Americans who have insurance, not just those who don‘t.  What this bill would do would (INAUDIBLE) pocket expenses, both annual and lifetime, so if you get sick, you don‘t go bankrupt.  If you have a preexisting condition, they could no longer ban you from getting insurance.  If you become seriously ill, it does away with that process of rescissions that would allow them to throw you off of insurance simply because you became ill.

There are a whole array of consumer protections that are built within this bill that will have enormously positive impact for people who have insurance today.  And that‘s not to speak of helping those who don‘t have insurance, the 30 million small—who are in the individual market, small business owners.  It will help them get affordable insurance.  It will bend the curve on costs, so it‘ll actually reduce our deficits.  And it will help reduce premiums over time for people.  That‘s—that is just an enormously positive thing.  It‘s a great step forward and we ought to do it.  And we ought to do it now.

MATTHEWS:  Why do you think people on the progressive side of things -

that‘s the current label used by liberals—I don‘t know what‘s wrong with the word “liberal,” but if you‘re not running for office, I don‘t know why you‘re afraid of the word.  I guess you might be afraid of somebody not voting for you if you‘re—some people won‘t even use the word “liberal” when they‘re writing columns anymore.  I don‘t understand it.

What are the people like Arianna Huffington and people like that going after you guys for?  Do you think they‘re just posturing?  Why are they doing this?  Why are they bringing down or trying to bring down the only health care bill in town?  What do you think‘s going on politically on the left?

AXELROD:  Well, first of all, let me say I think there‘s a lot of passion around this issue.  And I don‘t disparage anyone who—Ed Schultz is a very passionate person and I think he genuinely wants the best for people.  I think Arianna does, as well.

But the fact is, as the president said, there are things that we would like to—everyone can find something they‘d like to tweak in this bill.  It is so much better than what we have today.  It holds out such a better future for Americans that we have to set aside the things that we don‘t like and recognize that this has enormous good in it.

And it may be the last chance we get a shot like this.  President Clinton said today that it would be an enormous blunder not to move forward with this bill.  I think he‘s right.  And he knows.  He knows how hard this is to do.  Seven presidents have tried, seven have failed.  We‘ve been at this for 100 years, trying to resolve some of the issues that will be resolved by this legislation.  And we shouldn‘t let the differences we have keep us from doing what‘s so vitally important for families across this country and businesses across this country.

MATTHEWS:  How are you going to deal with the ultimate question of getting a bill through House-Senate conference on the issue of abortion rights?  The question came out from Stupak, who—Bart Stupak, who fought for that provision, which says you can‘t use any of this money—federal money to subsidize any insurance policy that provides for abortion.  That‘s a pretty clear-cut proposal.  I don‘t know how you refine it one way or the other.  Is there a way to find a compromise with that for the pro-choice people?

AXELROD:  Well, I think that there are discussions in the Senate that involve both pro-choice and pro-life members of the Senate.  And I think that there can be—remember, the goal here is not to use this as a bill to change federal law on abortion, and I think the concerns that pro-choice people have is that it not go beyond just maintaining the status quo.  And so this discussions are going back and forth.

I am confident that there‘ll be compromise because I believe what you said, I believe there are so many people in the Congress who genuinely understand the historic opportunity we have and they‘re working very hard to resolve these issues because we have agreement on 99 percent of what we need to do now.

MATTHEWS:  Yes, well, I wish I could shout from a mountaintop that you‘re right on this one.  I don‘t think you‘re always right, but on this one—I‘ll tell you, you go back and look at the records in the Michael Moore movie, back to Franklin Roosevelt, Democratic progressive presidents -- and you can‘t be more progressive than FDR—tried to do this.  He died.  Truman tried to do it.  He couldn‘t do it.  A lot of other presidents tried to do it.  Even Nixon tried to do it...

AXELROD:  Yes, he did.

MATTHEWS:  ... from the center-right.

AXELROD:  Yes.

MATTHEWS:  And he couldn‘t do it because nobody would get together because there was always fights between the Carter and the—you know all this.  The Carter and Kennedy people fought.  The Nixon and Kennedy people fought.  Everybody was always fighting and taking great pride in the fact that they fought, but nobody could take pride in passing a bill because no bill ever passed.

AXELROD:  Well, let me...

MATTHEWS:  Let‘s take a look at this fight today.  I want you to listen to this.  It‘s not definitely on your territory, but it‘s got to fascinate you.

AXELROD:  OK.

MATTHEWS:  Here‘s Joe Lieberman being told by Al Franken, the senator from Minnesota, to basically shut down and get out of the way, that you don‘t have any more time.  Let‘s watch this.  This is how fractious things are getting.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOE LIEBERMAN (I), CONNECTICUT:  ... will provide an opportunity for broad savings in health care and health insurance for pretty much everybody in our country...

SEN. AL FRANKEN (D), MINNESOTA:  Senator?  Senator, you‘ve spoken for

I‘m sorry—the senator has spoken for 10 minutes.

LIEBERMAN:  I wonder if I could ask unanimous consent for just an additional moment.

FRANK:  In my capacity as senator from Minnesota, I object.

LIEBERMAN:  Really?  Oh, OK.  Don‘t take it personally.  I will ask unanimous consent that the remainder of my remarks be included in the record as if read.

FRANK:  Without objection.

LIEBERMAN:  I thank the chair.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  I‘ve never seen that, David.  Working on the Hill, following the Hill, I‘ve never seen a senator cut short on a—you know, a casual request for an extra minute to continue speaking in a Senate that‘s allowed to speak forever.  Let‘s face it, we understand you can speak forever in the Senate.  Does that show how hot things are getting or what?

AXELROD:  Well, there‘s no doubt people are working overtime and very hard, that tempers are frayed, people are frustrated.  But boy, it‘s worth sticking with it, Chris.  You know, I have a child with a chronic illness and I‘ve dealt with some of these problems within the insurance industry.  I know what it‘s like to pay these...

MATTHEWS:  You mean personally?

AXELROD:  ... huge out-of-pocket expenses.  And I know what it‘s like to be told you can‘t get insurance because your child has—or she can‘t get insurance because she has a preexisting condition.  And it is heartbreaking and it is terrifying.  And I think my experience is very much like those of millions of other Americans.

We ought to put aside our differences now and do what‘s right for the American people.  And I‘m confident that at the end of the day, that‘s going to happen.  I understand you‘re a little bit skeptical about it, but I have to believe we‘re not going to let this opportunity slip through our fingers.

MATTHEWS:  Well, I‘m always worried about something not happening when I think it should happen.  Thank you very much.  And I understand that you and Susan know what you‘re talking about here, and thank you so much for that heart-felt thought.

AXELROD:  All right, Chris.  Thank you.

MATTHEWS:  I am with you on this one.  I think a bill is better than no bill, but we‘re going to fight it—I‘m going to fight it out with Anthony Weiner on that front in just a moment because he joins me right now.  Thank you, David Axelrod.

AXELROD:  Thank you.

MATTHEWS:  Happy holidays.  Let‘s go right now to Congressman Anthony Weiner from New York.  Congressman Weiner, you‘ve just heard the argument for getting something, half a loaf, you might see it that way, rather than a full loaf.  Where are you right now?

REP. ANTHONY WEINER (D), NEW YORK:  I agree with that.  Look, I don‘t think we should let the perfect be the enemy of the good, but if you look at who‘s been writing the bill the last several months—Olympia Snowe, Bart Stupak, Joe Lieberman—you know, I would like David Axelrod, who has his heart obviously in the right place and we‘ve gotten this far, so you can‘t criticize him for not having a good strategy—to finally say, Look, here‘s how we want our party, our base—these are our values.  We want them to be expressed in the final product, as well.  And I think that...

MATTHEWS:  Well, tell me how to do it.

WEINER:  Excuse me?

MATTHEWS:  Give me some advice.

WEINER:  Well, I‘ll give you some advice...

MATTHEWS:  They‘re all watching at the White House, Congressman.  How do you tell Blanche Lincoln, who‘s hanging on by her fingernails down there in Arkansas—how do you tell—Lieberman would do anything.

WEINER:  Well, let me give you an example.

MATTHEWS:  I mean, Al Franken was the first guy ever to tell him to do anything, which was to keep quiet.

WEINER:  Well...

MATTHEWS:  I mean, nobody can tell Lieberman what to do.  Blanche Lincoln is fighting for her life down there.  Ben Nelson was governor of Nebraska.  He knows more of that state politics than you‘ll ever know.  You can‘t tell him how to vote in Nebraska.  And the president can‘t tell him.

WEINER:  The president...

MATTHEWS:  So how do you—it‘s a democracy represented by people in politics.  You can‘t tell politicians what‘s good for them unless you know something they don‘t know.  What is it?

WEINER:  There has never been a big issue in our American civic life that the president of the United States hasn‘t gotten out there and said, These are what I believe on these specific issues.  Has the president gone into the state of Nebraska and given a speech about the high cost of insurance in Nebraska, about the lack of choices there, about the—what a public option would do to give those citizens more choices?

You know the history.  We cannot simply say, Let‘s let one senator or another write these important things.  Now, I believe that Governor Dean is wrong.  I don‘t believe that we should walk away from this process.  I want to be helpful to make the president a success.  But make no mistake about it, people like me who are the supporters of the president, who are trying to get something done, have been losing battle after battle to those people who don‘t want the bill.  That‘s the concern that I have.

MATTHEWS:  Well, what would you—you think it comes down to the president using the bully pulpit to bring to bear these outriders.  Do you think there‘s any way to bring Lieberman to bear on the issue of a public option, which I know you support as a minimal, on the issue of letting people buy into Medicare at the age of 55, on the really important stuff that I think would really be a plus in this bill?  How do you get these guys and women to do what you, from a liberal district in New York, support?  They‘re not from liberal districts in New York.  They‘re from Arkansas and Nebraska!  And you sit there on the East Coast of the United States and tell them how to vote when they had to squeak into those seats!

WEINER:  Well, hold on a second.

MATTHEWS:  Do you know how many votes McCain got in Arkansas?

WEINER:  Hey, Chris—Chris, just hold on a second.

MATTHEWS:  He won by 20 down there!

WEINER:  Hold on a second.  Dial it down with this, I want to tell them how to vote.  What I‘m saying is that the president of the United States has the ability to do more than he‘s doing.  That‘s what I‘m saying.

And you asked where the frustration comes from.  The frustration comes from reading that we worked for about a month-and-a-half to get Olympia Snowe to work for the bill in committee.  How did that work out for us in the end?

MATTHEWS:  Yes.

WEINER:  I mean, what we‘re doing now is—I believe that there are going to be some cases where the president‘s going to say, Look, we have to compromise.  I am prepared to.  I‘ve compromised for my compromise to my compromise!

MATTHEWS:  Yes.

WEINER:  The concern that we have right now is that sooner or later, someone has to say, Look, we believe in the idea of a public option.  I think the president does believe in that.  So why not fight for a little bit?  Maybe we lose it.

MATTHEWS:  Yes.

WEINER:  Look—look what Nancy Pelosi did.  She put a strong public option in the bill.  We tried to round up the votes.  We couldn‘t do it.  We all understand that.

MATTHEWS:  Yes.

WEINER:  We want to have that same sense of the White House.  And maybe it turns out we don‘t have the votes on some of these things.  But I agree with you and I agree with David Axelrod and I agree with the White House.  There‘s a lot of very good things in this bill.  Obviously, the House bill is worlds better than the Senate bill.  The Senate bill gets worse every day.  We‘re going to go into a conference and I think that we‘re going to try to—we‘re going to finally get something.

MATTHEWS:  OK...

WEINER:  And I can‘t be too critical...

MATTHEWS:  Do you think we should change the Constitution to make the Senate a more democratic body?  I mean, I‘m serious about this.  It‘s a body that can‘t operate by majority vote.  It doesn‘t operate that way.  You guys do.  I‘m so impressed by Nancy Pelosi as Speaker.  On five big issues—education, cap-and-trade, the tax bill—I mean, the stimulus bill—everything she‘s won on—health care—because you have a majority vote system in the House side.  You don‘t have it in the Senate.  You have the 60-vote rule.

WEINER:  You know, but here‘s what‘s—a couple things I think we should do first.  First, make them filibuster.  Make Joe Lieberman stand on the floor for hour after hour after hour, explain to the American people why he‘s against the public option, why he‘s against his own position on expanding Medicare.

MATTHEWS:  Yes.

WEINER:  That‘s one thing.  Secondly, we keep saying 60 votes.  Joe Lieberman won‘t even let his colleagues vote on a public option.  That‘s what‘s truly outrageous here.  I think that first...

MATTHEWS:  I know.

WEINER:  ... we need to change some of the dialogue.  Not just the threat of a filibuster, let‘s make some of these guys actually go out and filibuster and watch how their support erodes in their home constituency.

MATTHEWS:  OK.  I got an idea.  Call up Al Franken, the senator from Minnesota, and say, Not only let him filibuster, give him an extra minute because that‘s how fractious this is getting.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  ... you say let him filibuster and Al won‘t give him a minute.  Anyway, that‘s where it stands.  That‘s how hot it‘s getting.  I respect your position, sir.

WEINER:  I would agree with you, but I think, at the end of the day, we can‘t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.  I‘m trying to be helpful here.

MATTHEWS:  Oh!  That‘s me and my wife!  I argue that all the time to Cathy (ph)...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Don‘t let the enemy—how the hell you say it—don‘t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.  I love that.

WEINER:  Yes, but the problem is, you ain‘t perfect or all that good. 

That‘s your problem.

MATTHEWS:  Oh, well, you have a right to say that, sir, on this program.  Thank you, sir, much.

WEINER:  Take care.

MATTHEWS:  U.S. Congressman Anthony Weiner of New York state.

Coming up: President Obama‘s approval rating in the new NBC News “Wall Street Journal” poll is down to 47.  As you noticed, that‘s below 50.  It‘s a stunning drop in his first year in office, so what went wrong?  We‘re going to look at that and what happened to the president this year coming up next.

You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  2009 is almost over, as we all know, and President Obama‘s approval numbers, as we all know, are down, below 50 percent.  So‘s the country‘s mood is below 50 percent, you might say.  What happened to the feeling we had a year ago?

Harold Ford Jr. is a former Democratic congressman from Tennessee and also an MSNBC political analyst.  And John Heilemann is the great reporter for the national—well, he‘s national political correspondent and columnist for “New York” magazine.  He had the cover story, by the way, two weeks ago, “Whatever”—there it is—“Whatever Happened to Barack Obama?”

Let me start with John Heilemann. 

In your analysis—well, first of all, we will give you our analysis.  Look at the new NBC poll just out yesterday, last night, actually.  Four out of five people now think this year was a year of division and no compromise.  Look at that number, only 12 percent, one in eight, say it was a year of unity and reaching consent.  I think we all know that.

President Obama now has a 47 percent job approval rating in our poll. 

That‘s down from 60 percent, which he enjoyed right after his inauguration.  And 39 percent now think that President Obama has the right goal.  Only 39 percent of the people, less than two in five, think he has the right goals.  That‘s down from 54 percent in February. 

John, so, on the big three fronts, unity, and approval, and the right priorities, it ain‘t looking too good for the top man. 

JOHN HEILEMANN, “NEW YORK”:  No. 

And, you know, what—what I wrote about in that cover story, and I think is just as true today as it was two weeks ago, is that I think, you know, the president has become this sort of indistinct figure.  I think most people on Election Day last year and on Inauguration Day this year had a pretty clear idea of what they thought Barack Obama was about. 

And I think, right now, most people don‘t.  And I think that they‘re not sure.  He has managed over the course of the year to put himself in a position—and I give him enormous credit for taking on a huge plate full of big problems.  And some of policies have been solid, and some have been less solid.  Some of the tactics have been OK.  Some have been less OK. 

But what he‘s managed to do is, he has put himself in a position where he has no real friends right now.  You know, the center believes that he has been too partisan.  The left believes that he has sold out to conservatives and that he‘s been too mushy and too centrist. 

And he—he stands right now with only really the Democratic base behind him, the people who would be in favor of any Democratic president.  And he has no real core of real true believers left, people who were the core of new voters, the core of center voters who came to—who flocked to him last year. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Well, I don‘t agree. 

HEILEMANN:  All those people aren‘t sure who he is anymore. 

MATTHEWS:  But I don‘t agree. 

Our polling shows that almost 100 percent, 90-some percent of Democrats, self-identified, like him. 

HEILEMANN:  Yes. 

MATTHEWS:  So, I disagree.  I think Democrats like the Democratic president. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  I agree with you.  Men on the right and women on the right don‘t like him because he‘s successful and really believing they know where he stands and they don‘t like where he stands. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  They think he‘s a lefty.

HEILEMANN:  I don‘t disagree, Chris, in the sense that, as I said, Democratic partisans who would be in favor of any Democratic president...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  They‘re not in—the Democratic Party says they‘re not in favor of any Democratic president, because I worked for one, Jimmy Carter, who had about half support.

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  And we have had Democratic presidents, like Bill Clinton, who had all kinds of problems.  I think that he has a unique hold on the Democratic Party to start with.  And you can argue all this stuff about the center.  Obviously, the independents are worried about the economy. 

But I‘m telling you, he is very popular among Democrats. 

(CROSSTALK)

HEILEMANN:  Chris, have the last two days made you think that, when you hear the Democratic left trashing the health care bill and attacking the president? 

MATTHEWS:  Well, I don‘t consider them Democrats.  I consider them netroots.  And they‘re different.

HEILEMANN:  Ah.

MATTHEWS:  And if I see that—if I see that they vote in every election or most elections, I will be worried.  But I‘m not sure they‘re regular grown-up Democrats. 

I think a lot of those people are troublemakers who love to sit in the back seat and complain.  They‘re not interested in governing this country.  They never ran for office.  They‘re not interested in working for somebody in public office.  They get their giggles out of sitting in the back seat and bitching.  Excuse me.  That‘s a verb. 

Let‘s go right now to...

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  Let‘s go right now—let‘s go right now to Harold Ford. 

Congressman Ford, I hope you agree with me.  There are some people have a vested interest in complaining.  They are the squeaky wheels.  And, sometimes, the squeaky wheel get the grease, as my dad said.  And, statement, they‘re just the squeaky wheels.

HAROLD FORD, MSNBC POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR:  I think you‘re right. 

But I think President Obama and his team have a more fundamental problem.  The country believes that Washington is focused on a set of issues that albeit are important, but aren‘t necessarily critical and pivotal in their lives. 

Jobs, taxes, financial security are on—are at the top of people‘s minds, not only in Washington, in Tennessee, in New York, and all across this country.  Health care has swallowed up and consumed so much energy, so much attention and so much negative energy in Washington, that you turn off a good number of voters in the country. 

Democrats have really been arguing amongst themselves in the Senate about abortion, which has been introduced into the health care debate, about costs.  And, over the summer, we had an awful set of conversations about death panels and things that had no relationship at all to health care. 

President Obama and the team in the White House would be kind to focus on two things as this year ends, small businesses and middle-class families.  There are some political fault lines that do not change, Chris.  If people are working and they feel optimistic about their own financial future and their kids‘ future, they generally feel better about the country, themselves and politics. 

President Obama has ran head—has run head into a large number of Americans who are deeply and seriously and, I might add, rightly concerned about the direction the country‘s headed. 

I think the president and his team have tried hard.  Unfortunately, they‘re not connecting like they want.  They need to get beyond health care, find the compromise.  I would love to see a large health care bill that covers everyone, but, realistically, may not be able to get that.  Get what we can and move on to jobs and issues that the country‘s focused most heartily on. 

HEILEMANN:  Oh, I‘m with you.

MATTHEWS:  John, in your reporting, have you come across anyone who says that the president feels that he made a mistake, that he might have been better off offering a more refined reform bill, not come in with a big sort of social democratic approach to—a European-style approach to health care, but simply came in with the idea of simply fixing some of the problems, like preexisting conditions? 

Would—are there any people say that say that would have been the smarter approach? 

HEILEMANN:  I don‘t hear anybody in the administration who thinks that, Chris.

I think they believe that they had a once-in-a-generation or once-in-a-century chance to reach for this cherished Democratic goal of trying to get us close to universal health care.  And I think they still think that was a fight worth fighting. 

What I do think there will always be some debate is two different matters.  One is whether it was right to delegate so much of the writing of this bill to the congressional leadership, and for the president not to take a firmer stance on what kind of health care reform that he wanted...

MATTHEWS:  Yes, I know.

HEILEMANN:  ... and, secondly, on whether there should have been a—more of an economic emergency agenda, whether health care could have waited, perhaps, and with a focus that was in the first year strictly on the questions of the economy, financial regulation and jobs, as Harold was talking about a second ago. 

MATTHEWS:  Congressman, you were up there as a member and a voting member of the Congress.  Do you think it would have been smarter for the president, as John Heilemann speculates, if the president came out and said, I want a public option, I want a buy-in to Medicare, I want these various elements, and clearly stated to fight for them? 

I‘m afraid, if he had done that, they would have been beaten early by all the people we‘re hearing from now, and he would have looked like a loser back in February, not fighting for his life right now. 

FORD:  Well, remember, Chris, he got the stimulus package that he wanted very early, when the favorable ratings, when the standing with Republicans and independents were high at the beginning of the year. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes. 

FORD:  We have to remember just eight months where he was. 

The timing of this—I agree with John—we‘re—it‘s probably off base now.  With families now having to cut costs and—and tighten their belt, they‘re wondering why Washington and why government won‘t tighten its belt. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes. 

FORD:  The president has been, I think unfairly, tagged with running up the debt.  In many ways, he inherited huge problems that he had to confront.  And I admire him for that. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes. 

FORD:  But the White House ought to pay very, very close attention to those numbers right direction/wrong direction.  For 33 percent of the country to say we‘re headed in the right direction and we have the right policies, and more than half saying we don‘t, that‘s a clear signal that, as much as we may think we‘re right on health care as Democrats, the country‘s not there with us. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes. 

FORD:  And you can‘t lead and change as transformative of a kind of change that this president wants to bring to health care if you...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Yes.  You sound like you‘re moving right.  Congressman, are you moving—are you moving right these days? 

(CROSSTALK)

FORD:  I want to move ahead.  I‘m looking at my home state.  I live in New York now. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes. 

FORD:  But my home state of Tennessee, two Democrats have retired and said they will not seek reelection in 2010, John Tanner and Bart Gordon.

MATTHEWS:  Yes, I know.

FORD:  We will hopefully hold both of those seats.  But I got to tell you, Chris, if Democrats do hold those seats, they may end up having to position themselves against President Obama and some of his policies.  That‘s my only point.  I want to move ahead here. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  OK.  It‘s great, great having you on, Congressman Harold Ford of Tennessee, now keeping touch with the people back home, and John Heilemann with the “New York” magazine.  Thank you. 

Up next:  She‘s back.  Monica Lewinsky says Clinton lied under oath about their relationship.  That‘s in a new book about how close Bill Clinton came to being indicted.  Wait until you hear that second point, how close Robert Ray came to indicting him, if he hadn‘t accepted disbarment.  That‘s something we didn‘t know.

You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.  

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Back to HARDBALL and back to the “Sideshow.” 

First:  She‘s back!  Monica Lewinsky is now speaking on the record about her affair with former President Bill Clinton.  In an upcoming book on that scandal—it‘s called “The Death of American Virtue”—Lewinsky tells author Ken Gormley that she believes Clinton knowingly lied under oath when testifying about their affair. 

Politico has the excerpts.  She says—quote—“There was no leeway there on the veracity of his statements, because they asked him detailed and specific questions, to which he answered untruthfully.”

Another disclosure in the book, which I think is much more important, that prosecutor Robert Ray would have indicted President Clinton after he left office if President Clinton hadn‘t agreed to admit publicly that he had made false statements under oath and agreed to be disbarred, both of which he did do in a statement—we checked it out—in the last days before leaving the presidency.  Wow. 

Now for the “Big Number.” 

Things are still bad in Detroit, really bad.  What‘s the unemployment picture like in Motor City, or, if you like, Motown?  Using some seat-of-the-pants projections, like the number of people underemployed and the number of people who have given up looking for jobs, “The Detroit News” said as much as—wait until you see this number -- 45 percent -- 45 percent, almost half the people in Detroit, out of work, a harsh look at joblessness in Detroit.  Forty-five percent want jobs and can‘t get them—tonight‘s big, bad number. 

Up next:  The Democrats face serious headwinds in next year‘s midterm elections.  And with George W. Bush out of the picture now, back in Crawford, who‘s their best name for their pain?  Who to blame?  Who should they run against?  Our strategists open up their playbooks and tell us what the game will be politically next year. 

You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.  

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

JULIA BOORSTIN, CNBC CORRESPONDENT:  I‘m Julia Boorstin with your CNBC “Market Wrap.”

Stocks falling sharply today, as the dollar hit a three-month high against the euro—the Dow Jones average tumbling almost 133 points, the S&P 500 down 13 points, and the Nasdaq sliding nearly 27 points. 

Two big earnings reports coming out after the bell.  Software giant Oracle beating expectations on a surprise jump in sales.  And earnings for BlackBerry maker Research In Motion also coming in higher than expected.  Both companies‘ shares moving higher in after-hours trading. 

The financials getting clobbered today, after analyst Meredith Whitney slashed her earnings forecast for Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley.  Bank of America slipping almost 3 percent after naming Brian Moynihan president and CEO as of the end of this year. 

And Citigroup shares shedding more than 7 percent, after a secondary stock offering was priced below expectations.  Meanwhile, FedEx shares are down about 6 percent.  The economic bellwether said a slowdown in post-holiday shipping will cut into next quarter‘s profits. 

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

HARDBALL. 

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL. 

Nothing unifies a group like a common enemy.  After running against George W. Bush for the last two elections, 2006 and 2008, who should the Democrats run against now?  That‘s a question for our strategists, Steve McMahon, who is a Democratic strategist, and Todd Harris.

I‘m sorry about your dad, Todd.  You‘re out there.  What a good guy you are.  I‘m sure he was a good guy. 

TODD HARRIS, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST:  Oh, thank you, Chris.  Thank you. 

He was a great guy.  And he was a fan of yours. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  I‘m sorry.  Well, we will talk about that after the show. 

And I mean that. 

Let‘s—let‘s talk about this interesting new poll we have got.  It shows that—who are the least respected people in public life?  And here we have—interesting.  I love the way they put these lists together, because sometimes you‘re on both lists. 

Here‘s George W. Bush, 33 percent.  He leads the list of the least respected on the—in this country.  Dick Cheney, that‘s how you pronounce it, 27 percent, real close.  So, they‘re up there as the Katzenjammer Kids, I guess.  Al Gore is at 19 percent.  And Barack Obama is at 19 percent.  And Sarah Palin‘s at 16 percent. 

So, I will let you start, Todd.  How do you run a campaign for office next year as an R, a Republican candidate, given the fact that your two most recent highest officeholders, Bush and Cheney, are despised?  Thought.

HARRIS:  Well—well, neither one of them are on the ballot this upcoming election. 

You know, Chris, the problem that the Democrats have is that the public is angry about spending.  They‘re angry about the growth of government.  And they control every single lever of power in Washington. 

And, so, you have right now an anti-establishment mood that is really percolating in this country, where they want to throw all the bums out.  The Democrats, being in control, don‘t have the luxury of running against something.  They have got to run in favor of whatever agenda they‘re able to cobble together between now and 2010. 

So, what I‘m advising my candidates to do is to turn this into an election about checks and balances, present to the public the question, do you want your member of Congress to be a rubber stamp for the Obama Democratic agenda?  Or do you want someone who will be a check and balance on that agenda?  And by a two to one margin, including a lot of independents and Democrats, voters want checks and balances. 

MATTHEWS:  OK.  They want checks and balances.  Is it tougher to run as a Democrat next year, when you have to defend Barack Obama, the president, and to some extent Al Gore, if they can think about him.  But you still have these targets out there, Bush and Cheney, still immensely unpopular? 

MCMAHON:  It‘s tough to run as an incumbent.  Todd talks about checks and balances and that sounds really good.  But what the Republican party has been—there hasn‘t been any balance.  There‘s just been check.  It‘s been the party of no.  That‘s the way you run against Republicans.  You basically say here‘s a person, if it‘s a Republican incumbent, who didn‘t have any trouble voting with George W. Bush and Dick Cheney—which is how you leverage the negatives—didn‘t have any trouble voting with Bush and Cheney when they were taking the country into a ditch. 

But when it came time to pull the country out of a ditch, whether it was a stimulus package or health care reform or the minimum wage or other things that could help small business, the capital gains—

MATTHEWS:  But the old expression, what did you do for me lately?  What did you against me lately seems to be a potent question.  It‘s hard to do if you‘re a Democrat.  The Republicans haven‘t done anything against the country lately. 

MCMAHON:  They haven‘t done anything for the country either.  What

they did was they left the Obama administration a huge mess that the Obama

administration has been digging out of.  Listen, I‘m not disputing the fact

that—even though there‘s been some objective signs of economic recovery

you see 401(k)s are coming back; the stock market is coming back; real estate starts are up; unemployment numbers—the number of new unemployment figures is going down.  Those things haven‘t registered with people yet. 

So you have a 55 percent wrong track in this new “Washington Post”/NBC poll.  That‘s a really, really bad number.  But, over time, if the economy improves, if health care passes, and if the Democrats can make the case that health care reform is going to help people, it‘s going to be good for this. 

MATTHEWS:  John, pick up on this.  The NBC/”Wall Street Journal” poll came out late last night.  It asked respondents if they were more or less likely—more or less likely to vote for a candidate who supports Barack Obama; 35 percent said more likely; 45 percent said more likely. 

Keep going here.  The same question was put to—of other people.  They asked respondents if they were more or less likely to vote for or against a candidate who supports the Republican leadership; 32 percent more likely; 42 percent less likely.  Finally, they went down to the question of Pelosi, who is the Democratic leader in the House.  Are you more or less likely to vote for a candidate who supports Nancy Pelosi?  Twenty percent more likely; 52 percent less likely.  That‘s a killer. 

Is Pelosi going to be a target of the Republicans big-time starting next year? 

HARRIS:  Absolutely.  Remember, Chris, there are more than 80 Congressional districts that are currently held by Democrats that were carried by either Bush in ‘04 or McCain in ‘08.  These are Democratic incumbents who are on borrowed time.  You‘re going to see Nancy Pelosi tied around the necks of every single one of those incumbent Democrats. 

But, more importantly, you‘re going to see the issue of spending.  You‘re going to see the issue of the massive expansion of government, whether it‘s through health care, cap and trade, whatever the issue is.  People are fed up right now.  They‘re tired of this runaway spending.  They‘re tired of big government.  There‘s huge concern in the country right now for the direction that our nation is in.  There‘s a whole lot of people think the country‘s in decline.  And I would hate to be in power right now trying to run for re-election. 

MATTHEWS:  Here‘s one of the great ironies that you‘re faced with,

Steve.  Nancy Pelosi has been a superlative Speaker, in the sense that

she‘s kept party discipline.  The Senate‘s all over the place.  But she is

look at this.  She‘s won on stimulus.  She‘s won on cap and trade. 

She‘s won on health.  She‘s won on education.  She‘s won on financial regulation, reform of Wall Street.  Every time there‘s been a tough, critical party vote, she‘s won.  And yet doesn‘t that put her in a defensive position, having to defend everything. 

MCMAHON:  I don‘t think so.  There‘s no question the Democrats haven‘t told the story about what has happened in Washington to improve the lives of average Americans.  The fact of the matter is a lot has happened, and  Nancy Pelosi has been responsible on the House side for every single bit of it. 

They also probably haven‘t reminded people enough about the situation that they inherited when George W. Bush left.  The financial system in this country and in the world was on the brink of collapse.  The Obama administration brought it back. 

MATTHEWS:  You see these numbers here?  Fifty two percent are less likely to vote for a candidate that supports Pelosi.  Only 20 percent more likely.  That includes a lot of Democrats, that 20 percent. 

MCMAHON:  It does include some democrats.  Here ‘a question—

MATTHEWS:  Why would a Democrat vote against a candidate backing the speaker, the Democratic speaker? 

MCMAHON:  There are some people who—Todd‘s right about 84, I think, members of congress from districts have Bush or McCain carried.  There are some people nervous about appearing to go to the left.  And Speaker Pelosi is known for where she—

MATTHEWS:  Wow, I tell you, this is—

MCMAHON:  There is a stereotype about Democrats from San Francisco. 

MATTHEWS:  Where are you at right now, Todd?  Are you out west in San Francisco?

HARRIS:  I‘m in Berkeley. 

MCMAHON:  In Pelosi‘s district. 

MATTHEWS:  You‘re in a problem area, which I don‘t think is a problem area. 

HARRIS:  I‘m putting a disguise on after the show and I‘m going to sneak out of Berkeley, try to remain unharmed. 

(CROSS TALK)

MCMAHON:  Here‘s the question they didn‘t ask, Chris.  They didn‘t ask, would you be more or less likely to vote for a candidate from a party that just says no in Washington. 

(CROSS TALK)

MATTHEWS:  Last thought, Todd. 

HARRIS:  When the country thinks that the government, the Obama administration and the Democratic Congress is taking us in the wrong direction, being the party that says no to all that is not such a bad thing.  I‘m not sure this party of no message is going to resonate much longer. 

MCMAHON:  It‘s working.

MATTHEWS:  Steve McMahon, Todd Harris, we‘ll talk to you.

Up next, how close was Bill Clinton to being indicted after leaving the presidency?  New information on the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal.  The politics fix is coming up.  This is HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  We‘re back.  Time for the politics fix, with Melinda Henneberger, who is editor in chief of PoliticsDaily.com, and Joan Walsh, editor in chief of “Salon.”  Joan and Melinda, you two be the judge.  Here is Al Franken, the senator from Minnesota, calling the clock, if you will, on the—well, the highly disputed Joe Lieberman.  Here you decide whether this was personal or just parliamentarian.  Let‘s watch him say “no more time, senator.”

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOE LIEBERMAN (I), CONNECTICUT:  -- will provide an opportunity for broad savings in health care and health insurance for pretty much everybody in our country—

SEN. AL FRANKEN (D), MINNESOTA:  I‘m sorry, the senator has spoken for ten minutes. 

LIEBERMAN:  I wonder if I could ask unanimous concept for just an additional moment? 

FRANKEN:  In my capacity as senator from Minnesota, I object. 

LIEBERMAN:  Really?  Okay.  Don‘t take in personally. 

FRANKEN:  I won‘t. 

LIEBERMAN:  I will ask unanimous consent that the remainder of my remarks be included in the records as if read. 

FRANKEN:  Without objection. 

LIEBERMAN:  I thank you, sir.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Well, John McCain, Joe Lieberman‘s best buddy these days, jumped in on that.  Joan, you are first.  John McCain jumped in on that and said that was extraordinary to have a person sort of body checked like that, by Al Franken, who certainly has a point of view on this health issue, and point of view apparently on Joe Lieberman.  Do you buy the leadership argument, which came out in this statement I have in my hand here—here I am waving it.  This is the leadership explanation, “in an effort to make sure the health care bill can be finished by Christmas, Harry Reid has told all the presiding officers, those senators sitting in the chair on the dais to to make sure all members, regardless of party, are held within their allotted time to speak, not a minute or second more.” 

So do you believe this is just school-marm behavior by the leadership or do you think this was a direct shot into the bosom of the outrider? 

JOAN WALSH, “SALON”:  It was a direct shot.  There is no doubt about it.  You know what, Chris?  I sent that video around to my staff right before I left for this show.  It was such a fine moment, because I think you made the point best earlier in the show.  Nobody has done anything to Joe Lieberman.  No Democrat has said anything formal to rebuke him.  You have got the White House coming out and calling Howard Dean irrational, and declaring war on Howard Dean.  I disagree with Howard Dean, let me be clear on that.  But they are letting Joe Lieberman walk all over them. 

Let me tell you, that was a very, very satisfying moment for a lot of liberal Democrats. 

MATTHEWS:  Satisfying moment.  Melinda, do you have an emotional response to this like that or what? 

MELINDA HENNEBERGER, POLITICSDAILY.COM:  Well, it was funny, I mean, to have Joe Lieberman saying, I don‘t take it personal.  Translation, I take it personally.  And you know, even though, to me, Franken looked a little rude, and it was no coincidence that he was the first one to have the clock called on him, given that I‘m sure Franken wanted to come across the desk and kill him, maybe not so much. 

MATTHEWS:  so that is the word we are in right now.  Let me go after you, Joan.  I don‘t know where you stand.  I haven‘t seen you reporting on this.  So there is a battle here on the left.  It‘s a battle between those who say drop the ball, let the game end, we are not going to get what we want here, and those who say, if you are going to move the ball—using a sports metaphor again, if you‘re going to move the ball, you have it.  If you have governance, if you majority rule, and you are the party in power, and you have the presidency, do what you can.  Where are you? 

WALSH:  I‘m actually with you on this, Chris.  I believe strongly in the public option.  I‘m very—I‘m furious with the White House.  I really don‘t think they pushed for progressive provisions in the bill.  However, I do part company with my friends on the left who are saying kill the bill.  I think that, you know, history shows us—

I have asked people repeatedly, give me one example of a progressive reform that was killed by liberals for being not liberal enough that later passed in a better form.  And nobody has given me one.  Whereas we improved Medicaid.  We improved Medicare.  We improved Social Security to expand it.  Many problems with this bill, but we can‘t kill it. 

MATTHEWS:  You know how you know you are going to win if you pass anything?  The republicans will know they have lost.  We will be back with Melinda Henneberger and Joe Walsh.  Let them keep score and it‘s easy.  It‘s complicated when liberals get to keep score.  We‘re always arguing. 

Well, I‘m a liberal, too.  You are watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  We are back with Melinda and Joan.  Melinda, I don‘t know what you make of it, but this latest development in this new book, which shows that Monica Lewinsky, apparently, believed that the president was lying, President Clinton was lying.  She knew more than most people about the situation.  Here is the big news.  I think everybody agrees this is news.  Starr successor Robert Ray was prepared to indict—I‘m reading from the book now, the new book—“to indict President Clinton after he left office if he didn‘t agree, as he did, to admit that he had made false statement and also to accept disbarment.” 

In other words, if he hadn‘t did what he did just before he left office—and we checked, he did do that.  He accepted disbarment—all this, amazing. 

HENNEBERGER:  Remember, I interviewed Robert Ray right before that happened.  And I was shocked, because in the interview, he had said, you know, he is going for blood, basically, that he is not backing down.  He was under enormous pressure to stop the investigation, which people thought, at that point, had gone on way too long, cost way too much money. 

MATTHEWS:  Right. 

HENNEBERGER:  And he really said in the interview with me, you know, nothing is going to stop me from indicting this guy. 

MATTHEWS:  Who said this?

HENNEBERGER:  Robert Ray. 

MATTHEWS:  Well that is the news here, Joan, that the president faced indictment, I guess, for obstruction or for perjury, if he hadn‘t agreed to disbarment, as he did in the last couple of days before he left office. 

WALSH:  Well, you know, Chris, I actually disagree with you on that, because I think Melinda is right.  Ray was clearly going for blood.  I actually think that the real news in this book is that Professor Gormley, first of all, comes out and says himself that Starr was way off base for going after the Lewinsky mess.  And second, that he botched the investigation.  I mean, we learned that an attorney in Starr‘s own office was furious and tried to censure other attorneys for not getting Lewinsky a lawyer when she asked for one. 

MATTHEWS:  Right. 

WALSH:  And they went out of their way to hide—to hide her memo.  We learned that the director of the Secret Service felt that he was being bullied by Starr.  They were acting like you must know about this, and trying to turn him against Clinton.  The real revelations to me were of Starr‘s vendetta and a lot of—that the investigation was really legally botched.  So, that‘s what I take from it. 

MATTHEWS:  I think the news is going to be tomorrow that Bill Clinton faced indictment. 

HENNEBERGER:  Absolutely, that he came a lot closer than we knew. 

MATTHEWS:  That‘s the story.  The wire story by John Harris, who knows what was talking about, that was the news.  Thank you, Melinda Henneberger.  Thank you, Joan Walsh.  Join us tomorrow at 5:00 and 7:00 Eastern for more HARDBALL.  Right now it is time for “THE ED SHOW” with Ed Schultz. 

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

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