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updated 11/22/2010 12:20:53 PM ET 2010-11-22T17:20:53

Guest Host: Michael Smerconish

Guests: Hampton Pearson, Sherrod Brown, Michael Crowley, Roger Cressey, Bob Baer, Gregory Meeks, Ernest Istook, Pete Hegseth, Brian Katulis

           

MICHAEL SMERCONISH, GUEST HOST:  The president is getting it from all sides.

Let‘s play HARDBALL.

Good evening.  I‘m Michael Smerconish, in for Chris Matthews. 

Leading off tonight: Getting it from the left as well as the right.  Senate Democrats are fighting mad at President Obama.  They blame him   And here‘s what they want him to do—lose all that bipartisan talk, put on the boxing gloves and cast Republicans as the party beholden to special interests.  Ohio senator Sherrod Brown will be here to offer his advice on how the president can regain the upper hand.

Plus, it‘s a cloak-and-dagger story set in cyberspace.  A malicious, sophisticated computer worm that infected Iran‘s operating systems was likely a state-sponsored cyber-attack to sabotage the country‘s nuclear program, and all signs point to Israel.  This may be the new way to take out Iran‘s nuclear facilities.

And let me get this straight.  Republicans won‘t extend unemployment benefits for people struggling to find work, but they‘re pushing for tax cuts for the rich.  Can Democrats call them out?

Also, when will our troops leave Afghanistan?  President Obama is meeting with NATO leaders in Portugal to map out the way forward.  He previously set July 2011 as the start of the drawdown, but today Vice President Biden called 2014 the “drop dead” date.

And “Let Me Finish” tonight with some thoughts about my week filling in for Chris.

Let‘s start with Democrats unhappy with President Obama.  Is he becoming a lightning rod for his own party?  Senator Sherrod Brown is a Democrat from Ohio.  Thank you for joining us, sir.

SEN. SHERROD BROWN (D), OHIO:  Good.  Good to be with you.

SMERCONISH:  I want to show you some of the reportage from Politico today about what went on in that caucus meeting that you attended last night and Florida senator‘s Bill Nelson‘s frustration at the president.  They reported, “Nelson told colleagues Obama‘s unpopularity has become a serious liability for Democrats in his state and blamed the president for creating a toxic political environment for Democrats nationwide, according to two Democrats familiar with his remarks.”

Is that an accurate report?  Can you paint the picture of what went on behind closed doors?

BROWN:  Well, I don‘t want to talk about a meeting that was held in private that was not—that was not open to the public.  But I will say that, of course, the president‘s controversial, but among Senate Democrats, we want the president to stand strong.

We want him to sharpen the differences, as you just said at the onset

of the show, that—that the Republicans want to block unemployment—the

maintaining of unemployment benefits for the millions of unemployed workers

that are going to see those benefits run out.  At the same time, the

Republicans want to do $700 billion in tax cuts for the 2 percent

wealthiest in the country.  We want the president to make those distinksons

distinkson—distinctions—sorry!- sharply because that clearly will win the message and will help us govern the way we ought to govern.

SMERCONISH:  To what extent does that limit his ability to deal with the right, particularly these new Republican House members, if he gives those on the left what they‘re looking for?  Can he have it both ways?

BROWN:  Yes, that‘s not giving people on the left what they‘re looking for.  I mean, what -- 80, 90 percent of the country would prefer, if it‘s a choice, to maintain unemployment benefits, rather than giving tax cuts to the wealthiest people in the country, who have had a very good 10 years anyway.  You know that 90 percent of the country, the broad middle class, has seen wages flat or worse in most of the last 10 years, while the wealthiest 2 or 3 or 5 or 10 percent have done very, very well.  So why do we give a tax break to those who have done so well and have our children and our grandchildren pay for it with an even bigger budget deficit?

So it‘s pretty clear that‘s not a left-right thing, that‘s a good government, middle class—fight for the middle class, fight for people that aspire to the middle class thing.

SMERCONISH:  Senator Brown, as another indicator of just what‘s going on in terms of problems within the president‘s own party, I want to show you James Carville at a recent breakfast hosted by “The Christian Science Monitor.”  Let‘s all watch and listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Is he being a wimp or is he sounding the right tone (ph), being on the right course, and is his approach (INAUDIBLE)

JAMES CARVILLE, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST:  Well, I don‘t know because I‘m the guy (INAUDIBLE) campaign said if Hillary gave him one of her balls, they‘d both have two.  So I don‘t know.  (INAUDIBLE)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SMERCONISH:  Indicative of what‘s going on within the Democratic apparatus or an old wound left over from what went on in the primary season of the last presidential cycle?

BROWN:  Yes.  I don‘t know.  I don‘t comment on people (INAUDIBLE) that way.  But I look at it this way.  The president of the United States, the majority—the Republican leader—I‘m sorry—the Republican leader in the Senate has said on at least one occasion that his goal for the next two years, speaking for his Republican colleagues in the Senate, is to make sure that—his number one goal is to make sure that Barack Obama fails and that he doesn‘t—excuse me—that he doesn‘t have—that he is only a one-term president.  This same Republican leader, we‘re seeing this same kind of behavior.  They wouldn‘t—they refused to meet with the president this week.  Boehner and McConnell, the two Republican leaders, refused to meet with the president of the United States.

Someone in “The Washington Post” wrote that the Democrats—when the Democrats moved to the center, the Republicans moved the center.  And that really is what Boehner and McConnell are trying to do.  The president needs to stand up—the president—for instance, in Ohio in 2008, the president got 2.9 million votes.  All the Republican candidates for Congress this election, in this wave election, got only a total of 2 million, I believe, 11,000 votes.  Obama got 900,000 votes, 20 to 30 million votes nationally more than the Republicans got this year.  So there‘s no mandate to do tax cuts for the rich and deregulation and more of these outsourcing free trade agreements.  That‘s not what the country—

SMERCONISH:  Well, how much—

BROWN:  -- needs to do.

SMERCONISH:  How much of the problem within the Democratic Party is his problem, the president‘s problem, as compared to driven by Senate Democratic leaders?  In other words, I‘m wondering how much of the angst that was exhibited in that meeting last night was self-directed.  Was there introspection on the part of you and your colleagues?

SMERCONISH:  Oh, introspection all the time and—of course.  But I -

and there‘s always—there‘s always some difficult times after a losing election.  I mean, the Republicans went through it in ‘06.  The Republicans went through it in ‘08.  They decided immediately in January 2009, even though you could argue President Obama had a mandate, they said No, no, no, no.  They gave him a good day on January 20th, 2009.  The Republicans cooperated.  But the next day, they were saying no and have been saying no for two years.

I‘m not saying no to the Republicans, but I‘m also not—I‘m also saying we‘re not going to do more tax cuts for the rich, more deregulation of Wall Street, more job-killing outsourcing free trade agreements.  Those things don‘t work for the American public.  They don‘t work in Cleveland or Toledo or Mansfield or Dayton, and they don‘t work for the whole country.

SMERCONISH:  Senator Brown, I‘ve given you two indications of the president‘s problems within his own party.  One, of course, being what went on in the caucus, as reported by Politico, then James Carville.  There‘s something else.  Sam Stein reported in The HuffingtonPost that George Soros told progressive donors the following.  “We have just lost this election.  We need to draw a line.  And if this president can‘t do what we need, it is time to start looking to somebody else or somewhere else.”

Does he face any kind of a realistic threat within his own party in terms of the 2012 nomination?  Do you expect there‘s going to be a battle?

BROWN:  No.  I expect no.  They‘re always—whenever you lose an election, there‘s second guessing, there‘s disappointment, there‘s anger, there‘s anxiety, there‘s, How are we going to face the next few months?  The president will lead.  The president‘s strong.  The president needs to step up and make the distinction better.

I mean, when he reaches out to Republicans and they slap his hand again and won‘t even meet with him, when John Boehner says no compromise, when Mitch McConnell says, My major goal is for him to be a one-term president, the president‘s going to stand up and make that contrast.  The voters don‘t like that, when one party says, We‘re not even going to meet with him.  We‘re not even going to work with him.  The president said he‘ll work with Republicans.  They don‘t seem to want to.

So it‘s time the president stand up, make the sharp distinction on trade, on jobs, on health care, on the budget and taxes.  And when he makes that sharp distinction, it‘s clear Democrats win.  I ran a race on that in 2006.  I‘d run a race on it again, when I‘m up in two years, on the contrast between what they stand for, the direction they want to take the country, and the direction we want to take the country.  I want to work with Republicans.  I‘ll work with Ohio‘s junior senator, Rob Portman.  But I‘m not going to vote for tax cuts—

SMERCONISH:  Understood.

BROWN:  -- for the top people in this country, the richest people.

SMERCONISH:  Senator Sherrod Brown, many thanks for your time.

BROWN:  Glad to be with you.  Thanks.

SMERCONISH:  With me now is “Time” magazine‘s Michael Crowley.  Michael, how much room does the president have to move?  I asked the senator if he gives progressives what they‘re looking for, what does he do relative to his ability to make any deals with the Republicans?

MICHAEL CROWLEY, “TIME”:  I think there‘s basically no ability to make deals with Republicans right now.  So what I think the left wants is clearer, as they say, messaging.  And I think Senator Brown hit on what is probably the most profitable theme available to the White House right now, which is this issue of the tax cuts.

Now, I‘d actually say—you know, it‘s interesting because you hear this grousing among Senate Democrats, but they have handled the tax cut issue terribly.  I mean, they had a chance to really press this before the mid-term elections, to force Republicans to defend cutting taxes for the wealthiest, which is a really unpopular position that Republicans sort of defend because it‘s built into the infrastructure of their ideology right now.  And Senate Democrats couldn‘t—and the House, as well—couldn‘t get it to a vote, couldn‘t get consensus on it.

I do think this is a place where Obama can really start to hammer, and he has not done so thus far.  But it‘s not like Senate Democrats have been a model of brilliant political strategy on this particular question.

SMERCONISH:  But politically speaking, weren‘t Senate Democrats equally culpable?  I mean, I think of health care by way of example.  No one ran on it who was seeking reelection.  It seems like everyone just—just hid on the issue.  Wouldn‘t they have been better served if they said, yes, that‘s exactly what we did, and here‘s why, and tried to sell it to American people?

CROWLEY:  You mean on the Obama agenda broadly?

SMERCONISH:  Yes.

(CROSSTALK)

SMERCONISH:  I‘m saying, why is all the culpability—politically speaking, why is all the culpability at his end of Pennsylvania Avenue?

CROWLEY:  Right.  No, I see what you‘re saying, and again, I think the tax cut fight is a good example where they didn‘t force the issue in the right way.  There were some House candidates who—in particular, who tried to ride—tried to own his agenda, tried to run proudly on it.  Tom Perriello in Virginia is an example.  Perriello outperformed, I think, what would have been the baseline expectations in his district.  It wasn‘t enough for him to win.

I think Russ Feingold tried to do the same thing.  I‘m not sure I see the evidence that the handful of people who really worked that strategy were able to win.  But look, Michael, at the end of the day, unemployment in this country is close to 10 percent.  So to some degree, I think all the talk about messaging is overstated.  There‘s only so much that Democrats can do running into the gale-force headwinds of an economy like this.  And they just have to kind of hope and pray that it gets better before the next election.

SMERCONISH:  Michael Crowley, many thanks for your time.  Appreciate it.

CROWLEY:  Thank you.

SMERCONISH:  Coming up: Who‘s behind the computer worm aimed at destroying Iran‘s network of nuclear centrifuges?  Experts now say the computer program was designed to speed up and destroy the centrifuges which Iran is using to enrich uranium.  We‘ll go inside this cloak-and-dagger mystery next.

You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SMERCONISH:  The Democrats are looking for a senator to run their senatorial campaign committee, which, as the name implies, exists to elect Democrats to the Senate.  So far, no takers.  That‘s because the Democrats will be defending a whopping 21 Senate seats in 2012, plus the two independents who caucus with him.  It‘s a daunting task, and it could prove to be much tougher for the Democrats than even this year was.  Some of the senators who could be up to the challenge are Washington‘s Patty Murray, Virginia‘s Mark Warner and Colorado‘s Mark Udall.

We‘ll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SMERCONISH:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  A state-of-the-art computer worm known as Stuxnet that affected operating systems and equipment in Iran earlier this year was likely a state-sponsored cyberattack aimed at destroying the country‘s nuclear program.  The worm was designed to rapidly speed up the rotation centrifuges used to enrich uranium, causing them to blow apart.  And clues found in the coding of the virus point to Israel.

For more on this international cyber-intrigue, let‘s turn to NBC News terrorism analyst Roger Cressey, who‘s a former National Security Council staffer, and Bob Baer, a former CIA case officer who‘s now the intelligence columnist for Time.com.

Bob, is this a substitute for an aerial attack?

BOB BAER, TIME.COM, FMR. CIA FIELD OFFICER:  Oh, I think absolutely.  If we look at the archaeology of this, four years ago, Israel was pressing the United States to attack the nuclear facilities in Iran.  The Bush administration refused.  It was too dangerous.  And I think what‘s happened is Israel has turned to these indirect attacks, if you like.  We had the case of a nuclear scientist killed in Tehran, and now we have the case of this virus, this Trojan horse, which is very sophisticated.  So we see the Israelis reverting to indirect attacks.

SMERCONISH:  Is your hunch that it‘s state-sponsored?  I ask that question—maybe I have the movie “Social Network” on the brain, about Mark Zuckerberg.  I mean, could it be some cyber-geeks who are based in Israel and took this into their own hands?

BAER:  No, no.  It was very directed.  It was very—and it‘s a very complicated Trojan horse.  They knew exactly what they were doing.  They‘re -- I understand they‘re very expensive to make.  And in this case, like this, an intelligence operation, you have to see who benefits, and it‘s the state of Israel who does.

SMERCONISH:  Roger Cressey, how does it actually work?  Hopefully, you can explain it to me in lay terms that I‘ll follow.

ROGER CRESSEY, NBC TERRORISM ANALYST:  Well, think of it this way.  It was targeting industrial control systems, Michael, and it was going after what‘s called the PLC, the programmable logic controller.  So you think of a control system that‘s used in gas pipelines, power plants, all sorts of critical infrastructure.

What happened here was somebody was able to get this into the infrastructure, probably on a programmable thumb drive, a USB drive, and then it started exploiting vulnerabilities, four of which were never before exploited before.  And it compromised and compromised and compromised to the point it got to its target and then began, as you—as you described, start to spin these electric converters in a way that took the centrifuges well beyond the speed of what they were supposed to do.  So that type of sophisticated approach—this is what I would call a cyber—

(CROSSTALK)

SMERCONISH:  Something more than touching the “send” key.  I mean, I‘m constantly bombarded with e-mails that I know I shouldn‘t open.  Something more sophisticated than that.

CRESSEY:  Oh, completely.  As Bob said, this is not a group of 16-year-olds in someone‘s basement with time on their hands.

SMERCONISH:  Right.

CRESSEY:  There were over 4,000 programmable functions in Stuxnet.  There were multiple layers to it.  It was very, very complex, and one of the most impressive pieces of malware—malicious software—that we‘ve seen in cyberspace in recent memory.  So that‘s why I think it was state-sponsored and—

SMERCONISH:  Gentlemen—

CRESSEY:  -- that‘s one of the reasons, it was so effective.

SMERCONISH:  On that subject of state sponsorship, today‘s “New York Times” reports that, “In recent weeks, officials from Israel have broken into wide smiles when asked whether Israel was behind the attack or knew who was.”

Bob Baer, to you, I ask what about the U.S. Role?  Do you think the United States was involved in this?

BAER:  I don‘t—the Israelis could do this on their own.  I‘m sure that this administration was supportive of this attack.  I mean, it‘s better than going to war with Iran.  You know, and the Israelis aren‘t admitting it.  They need plausible deniability.  They—for the Iranians, they want to remain a mysterious force.  And I think it was actually a brilliant operation, absolutely brilliant.

SMERCONISH:  Roger, I hope I‘m not catching you cold with this, but to the extent we were playing a role, would it be legal?

CRESSEY:  Oh, whatever role we played would be legal because it would be done under covert authorities.  The issue always is, whenever you launch an attack in cyberspace, the traditional covert authorities, the traditional way that we do covert action doesn‘t pertain because—I said this was a cyber-precision-guided munition.  That is true, but there is still collateral damage associated with it.  You can‘t control things when they‘re launched in cyberspace.  So I guarantee that if the government—

U.S. government did have a role—and I wouldn‘t be surprised if it did—that this was very much covered under existing authorities.

SMERCONISH:  On one hand, to the extent that this is the way it played out and if it were successful and spared either the United States or Israel from launching an aerial attack, then I applaud it.  On the other hand, it raises questions as to our vulnerability.  Roger, what‘s your thought on that?  I know that both you and Richard Clarke have published extensively on that subject.

CRESSEY:  That‘s right.  And as Dick said in his most recent book, “Cyber War,” the difference between offense and defense is often the click of a keystroke.

What you‘re now seeing is the Department of Homeland Security and others in the United States are looking at the performance of this worm, and saying, with our critical infrastructure, are there vulnerabilities that could be exploited the same way?

And I think the real concern, Michael, is that you‘re going to see some out there who will take the code associated with Stuxnet, maybe work it on the edges and launch it in a different way.  So, once something is shot into cyberspace, you can never bring it back.  And that‘s why you have that problem.

(CROSSTALK)

SMERCONISH:  On that question, I also read that it‘s extended beyond Iran—India, by way of example.  So, how do we prevent Stuxnet from entering the United States? 

CRESSEY:  Well, the biggest issue, though, is what it‘s going after.  It‘s going after these electric converters and the centrifuges.  So, you could have a computer that is infected with Stuxnet, but it‘s not going to affect its performance, unless it‘s a computer associated with type of functions.

So, there has been over 100,000 known infections of Stuxnet worldwide, but in terms of what it‘s actually hurting, it‘s only those things that it was—originally targeted, these program—programmable logic controllers.

SMERCONISH:  Bob, it reminds me as well of the taking out of that Hamas leader January of this year in Dubai, something else widely attributed to the Israelis and to the Mossad.  They seem to relish in the reputation that they‘re enhancing that they can carry out such attacks. 

BAER:  Oh, they want to intimidate.  There‘s no question about it.

Now, in Dubai, I don‘t think they wanted to get caught, as they did.  But in this case, it‘s—the Israelis sometimes are very good and, sometimes, their operations don‘t work.  They‘re like any other intelligence agency.

SMERCONISH:  Roger, is this a short-term fix in Iran?  In other words, to the extent we have been successful and the centrifuges are now running haywire, for how long will that be the case?  Is it a permanent fix? 

CRESSEY:  No.  It‘s not a permanent fix, Michael.  This is a really cruel operation, whoever did it.  And what it does is, it buys us and the Israelis and the West time, time to continue to work this issue in a non-military means.

It was extremely successful and demonstrates there will be other attempts to set back Iran‘s nuclear program through cyberspace and non-military means.  Secretary Gates said last week he does not think the military option is viable.  So you‘re going to see us and the Israelis look at other options, like cyberspace, to set the program back. 

SMERCONISH:  I appreciate your time very much.

Roger Cressey and Bob Baer, thank you for being here. 

BAER:  You bet.

SMERCONISH:  Up next:  Vice President Joe Biden gave a very diplomatic response after listening to Sarah Palin say she could beat President Obama. 

Stick around for the “Sideshow.” 

You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.  

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SMERCONISH:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  I‘m Michael Smerconish.  It‘s time now for the “Sideshow.” 

First up: the TSA body scan.  Nobody, it seems, escapes a pat-down. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, “THE TONIGHT SHOW WITH JAY LENO”) 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Jay, what‘s—what‘s all this extra security about tonight? 

JAY LENO, HOST, “THE TONIGHT SHOW WITH JAY LENO”:  We have President Bush on the program tonight, so everybody gets patted down. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Like, even you?  I mean, this is your show. 

LENO:  Makes no sense at all. 

GEORGE W. BUSH, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  Tell me about it. 

(LAUGHTER)

BUSH:  Listen, go easy, grope-master. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, “LATE SHOW WITH DAVID LETTERMAN”)

DAVID LETTERMAN, HOST, “LATE SHOW WITH DAVID LETTERMAN”:  But my problem is, after one of those—and, boy God, I‘m all for it, because if there‘s a guy walking around with this bomb, bomb in his—yes, I want to know about that.

So I don‘t mind the excessive, you know, the groping and probing.  My problem is, when it‘s done, I don‘t know how much to tip the guy. 

(LAUGHTER)

LETTERMAN:  I -- 

(APPLAUSE)

LETTERMAN:  I never know.

(APPLAUSE)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SMERCONISH:  And, today, the TSA announced one group of people who will not have to go through the body scanners or the pat-downs: pilots. 

Now to Vice President Joe Biden, who found himself in an unfamiliar situation today, momentarily speechless.  Here he is on “Morning Joe,” along with the Sarah Palin clip that he‘s reacting to.  Let‘s listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, “MORNING JOE”)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, ABC NEWS)

BARBARA WALTERS, ABC NEWS:  If you ran for president, could you beat Barack Obama?  If you ran for president, could you beat Barack Obama? 

SARAH PALIN ®, FORMER ALASKA GOVERNOR:  I believe so. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

JOSEPH BIDEN, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  Well—

(LAUGHTER)

BIDEN:  Well, I—look—

(LAUGHTER)

BIDEN:  I don‘t—you‘re going to get me in trouble. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  OK.  OK.

(LAUGHTER)

BIDEN:  I—I—I don‘t think she could beat President Obama.  But, you know, she‘s always underestimated.  So, you know, I think—I think I shouldn‘t say any more. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SMERCONISH:  Speaking of 2012, “The Des Moines Register” gives a blunt assessment of Newt Gingrich‘s chances.

The paper‘s political columnist writes—quote—“He may be intellectually gifted, but Gingrich is no rock star.  He‘s 67, and looks his age.  He‘s working on the paunch with a personal trainer, but he can‘t match Palin or even Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour when it comes to charisma.”

Ouch. 

And now for tonight‘s 2012-related “Big Number.”  How much will it cost to run for president?  Republican leaders estimate that the minimum amount of money a GOP candidate will need to run for president in 2012, $35 million.  That‘s tonight‘s “Big Number”: $35 million. 

Up next:  Republicans block unemployment benefits and at the same time they are pushing to keep Bush tax cuts, interesting the ones for the wealthy.  Democrats say that Republicans are helping the rich and hurting the poor, but can they make them pay politically?

That‘s ahead.

You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

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

Stocks stuck in neutral late in the session, after a rocky start, the Dow Jones finishing 22 points higher, the S&P and the Nasdaq adding three points.  Take a look at the Dow this week.  That big sell-off Tuesday, bouncing right back on Thursday, but in the end, the markets finished right where they started. 

Retailers and consumer discretionaries in general were the standouts this week.  Look at Ann Taylor, soaring 8.5 percent on a big jump in same-store sales.  Foot Locker also delivering stronger-than-expected quarterly earnings.  Nike shares swooshing higher after raising its dividend for the ninth consecutive year, citing a strong balance sheet and growing sales. 

And really an incredible year of cloud computing company Salesforce.  Sales have been climbing steadily since January.  Punctuate that with an amazing 18 percent increase today on a bigger-than-expected bump in quarterly profits.

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

HARDBALL. 

SMERCONISH:  Welcome back to HARDBALL. 

Last night, House Republicans and a few Democrats voted to block a temporary extension of unemployment benefits. 

Here‘s Vice President Biden today on “Morning Joe” reacting to that vote. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, “MORNING JOE”)

BIDEN:  I think they‘re making a gigantic mistake, not only in terms

of what historically this country has done when unemployment is this high -

we‘ve always extended unemployment—but also in terms the economy.

The single biggest stimulus to the economy are the unemployment benefits we‘re paying.  These people go out and they spend the money.  They go out and they have to get by to everything from paying their mortgage or buying food or just getting by.  It has a significant impact on economic growth and the continuation of economic growth.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SMERCONISH:  Democratic Congressman Gregory Meeks of New York sits on the Financial Services Committee, and Heritage Foundation fellow Ernest Istook is a former Republican congressman from Oklahoma. 

Congressman Istook, the optics seem bad for the GOP, refusing to extend unemployment benefits on one hand, but wanting to extend the Bush tax cuts for the upper 2 percent on the other.  Defend that discrepancy, if it is one.

ERNEST ISTOOK ®, FORMER U.S. CONGRESSMAN:  Well, what we really want is for people to have jobs, not for people to be dependent upon more government payments. 

And, remember, the unemployment taxes are eventually borne by employers, as well as by the taxpayers.  The circumstance here is that if we want the economy to do well, we cannot raise taxes on anybody right now. 

When you have the opportunity for taxes to stay the same, it should be the same across the board.  The problem right now, a big reason that businesses are sitting on some $2 trillion in retained earnings is because they fear the potential of tax increases.  They fear the huge regulatory burdens that are about to come their way, that are pending in the Obama administration. 

The best thing that we can do for businesses is to say you‘re going to have certainty, and you‘re not going to have higher expenses.  And that‘s how we get them to hire people and get people back to work, rather than depending upon unemployment. 

SMERCONISH:  Congressman Meeks, for how long should we continue down this path of extending unemployment benefits? 

REP. GREGORY MEEKS (D), NEW YORK:  Look, we have got to fix the economy.  We agree that those two million people who are out of work, they want to work.  And this is just a short-term pain for long-term gain. 

And so what we want to do is extend it so that they can make their monthly payments for their rent and buying food.  But we want to fix and create jobs.  And I think that‘s what we have got to do.  And I think that we‘re going to move this economy.  In fact, under the Obama administration, we have been moving.  We are—we have been creating jobs, not enough.

And I think as we start to deal with infrastructure and we start dealing with exports, where we‘re exporting more—and the president has been talking about an export agenda—we begin to create the jobs, more unemployment begins to go down, and then you don‘t have to worry about extending employment.

But, right now, people are hurting. 

SMERCONISH:  But, Congressman—

MEEKS:  We have got two million—two million—two million Americans who the holiday season will be dependent on. 

SMERCONISH:  Are we at some facilitating dependence?  I guess that‘s my question.  If we continue this in perpetuity, aren‘t we building into the system dependence on the system? 

MEEKS:  No, because what it sounds like, people are saying that unemployment is like giving someone welfare, for example.  There‘s two different things. 

Unemployment is an emergency situation that individuals, because of the economy—and, by the way, a lot of the individuals, when you talk about the upper 1 percent of individuals that get those tax cuts, they helped destroy this economy.

But, because the economy‘s so bad and unemployment is so high, we‘re talking about a temporary, we‘re talking about a short-term situation, what I said, short-term pain for long-term gain.  We want these people to go back to work.  They‘re not dependent.  They don‘t want unemployment.  They want a job. 

SMERCONISH:  Congressman—Congressman Istook, same question to you. 

At what point, if at all, are we fostering or facilitating dependence? 

ISTOOK:  There‘s no clear line, but I‘ll tell you, when we have already had unemployment benefits extended for 99 weeks, there are a lot of people that have become dependent upon them. 

It‘s sad, but it‘s true.  What we ought to be doing is listening to the people who create the jobs, listen to the businesses that say we cannot afford a big tax increase that we‘re about to be hit with on January 1.  We cannot afford these big new regulations that the Obama administration has that they‘re trying to move through the pipeline and hit the economy with those expenses. 

Again, there is $2 trillion locked up in companies right now that they could be using to create more jobs, to expand, to improve the economy.  But they‘re telling us it‘s the uncertainty created by the federal government that is the biggest barrier to them.  Let‘s listen to the people who create the jobs.

SMERCONISH:  But you would agree—Congressman Istook, you would agree that the Republican Party could easily overplay its hand?  I mean, I understand emboldened from the recent election results, no doubt, but next week is Thanksgiving.  The optics of this are not going to be pleasant if this denial continues at a time as we‘re heading into the holiday season?

ISTOOK:  If you have ever watched the World Series of Poker, you know that anybody can overplay their hand, unless they are sitting there with a straight flush, a royal flush.  And nobody‘s holding a hand like that.

So, sure, Republicans can overplay their hands, but, believe me, the Democrats could, too.  The only bipartisan position in Washington right now is to say, let‘s continue the lower tax rates for everybody across the board.

You have a number of Democrats who have joined with Republicans on that theme.  And the number of Democrats who say anybody‘s taxes should increase seems to be going down. 

SMERCONISH:  Congressman—go ahead, Congressman Meeks.

MEEKS:  Let me address that real quick.

SMERCONISH:  You respond.

MEEKS:  Number one, 97 percent of Americans—well, actually, all Americans will receive a tax cut under what is proposed, because I think that one of the things that‘s not clear, when you talk about the $250,000 per family, it‘s a middle-income tax cut, so everybody up to $250,000 will get a tax cut. 

So, if you‘re a millionaire, up to that first $250,000, you get the same tax cut.  If you‘re a family under $250,000, that means everybody gets that tax cut.  You can deduct your entire tax cut for the entire salary. 

ISTOOK:  We wouldn‘t be having the—this argument if that were true.

MEEKS:  But it is true. 

(CROSSTALK)

SMERCONISH:  How is it not true, Congressman Istook?

MEEKS:  It is true.

ISTOOK:  Well, he‘s trying to say everybody gets the same tax cut. 

That‘s not his case at all. 

(CROSSTALK)

MEEKS:  No, what I‘m saying, up to $250,000.

(CROSSTALK)

SMERCONISH:  Well, I mean, he‘s saying everybody gets it on the first $250,000. 

(CROSSTALK)

MEEKS:  Everybody gets it on the first $250,000. 

(CROSSTALK)

ISTOOK:  You want to raise taxes on the people who are already paying the majority of the personal income taxes in the country. 

(CROSSTALK)

MEEKS:  Listen, everybody—

ISTOOK:  They‘re already paying the majority of personal income taxes. 

(CROSSTALK)

MEEKS:  Everybody up to the first $250,000 gets a tax break.  And we are also concerned about the deficit.  And we‘re also concerned about you how to pay for it. 

(CROSSTALK)

ISTOOK:  Then stop spending so much.

SMERCONISH:  Congressman Meeks, I want to talk about the debt. 

Congressman Meeks, I would like to talk about the debt. 

MEEKS:  Yes. 

SMERCONISH:  I‘m glad you raised it. 

Here‘s former Senator Alan Simpson, co-chair of the president‘s debt commission, this morning with Joe Scarborough. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, “MORNING JOE”)

ALAN SIMPSON, CO-CHAIRMAN, NATIONAL COMMISSION ON FISCAL

RESPONSIBILITY AND REFORM:  Anybody that says, if you get rid of earmarks and waste, fraud and abuse, and all foreign aid, we will get there, that will get you 5 percent of the hole we‘re in. 

So, just babble at them the next time.  Don‘t listen to anybody giving you that.  You have got to go where the meat is.  And the meat is health care, Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, not balancing the books on the backs of poor old staggering seniors to make the damn thing solvent. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SMERCONISH:  If the recommendations of Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson were to come before you to vote on, Congressman Meeks, could you vote yea on that?

MEEKS:  I can‘t vote on everything, but there are parts of it.  And fact of the matter is that along with my staff, we‘re going through it now and trying to see what I could vote on because there are some items that we have to take serious reference to reducing the deficit.  But we‘ve got to make sure we‘re not doing that on the back of seniors.  We‘re not doing that that‘s going to be, you know, damaging to one segment.

And that‘s why I‘m saying that even now, as you‘re talking about the taxes are concerned, we‘ve got to be sure that we‘re not just giving multimillionaires an additional tax break and hurting some of the average every day Americans and hard working seniors.  One of the things that we‘re going to see real soon, because—you know, when you‘re campaigning, it‘s one thing.  But when you have to govern or something else, is I want to see what the Republicans would do when you have to raise the debt ceiling.  And that‘s, you know—and that‘s something that‘s going to really come up very early in the 112th Congress.

SMERCONISH:  What about that, Congressman Istook?  Respond to the question about the debt ceiling.

ISTOOK:  He wants to raise the debt ceiling in order to pay for the bills that he and the current Congress have been running up with their level of spending.  I‘ve been talking a lot with some of the incoming freshman members of Congress. 

And part of that they describe is that the American people are responsible on these issues.  They realize government cannot give them everything, cannot pay for the same level of health care, cannot continue with Social Security system or Medicare system under their current terms that are going to go bankrupt and benefit no one.  So, they‘re ready to make some tough decisions that would require people to—

SMERCONISH:  Congressman Meeks—

(CROSSTALK)

SMERCONISH:  Allow me if I may to show you what John Boehner—

Congressman Meeks, I‘m going to give the chance to respond, I promise.

Here‘s what John Boehner told reporters on this issue about the debt ceiling, quote, “I‘ve made it pretty clear to them that as we get into next year, it‘s pretty clear Congress is going to have to deal with it.  We‘re going to have to deal with it as adults.  Whether we like it or not, the federal government has obligations, and we have obligations on our part.”

Respond so that if you would, Congressman Meeks.

MEEKS:  Well, I think that now we‘re going to really see about government.  I mean, a lot of these same people when they were campaigning campaigned against raising the debt ceiling.  But the United States government does have obligations.  And we would now see when it‘s not campaigning time, when it‘s actually—are you going to shut down the government, are we not going to pay our obligations, are we going to raise the debt ceiling?

The other thing that I just want to say because I can‘t let him get away with what he said, this administration inherited a huge debt.  It wasn‘t created by—

ISTOOK:  Made it worse.

MEEKS: -- it was created by this administration.  We were in the worst recession since the Great Depression due to eight years of the prior administration.

(CROSSTALK)

ISTOOK:  And it got worse under your policies.

SMERCONISH:  Gentlemen—

MEEKS:  No, no, no, it would have been worse if we didn‘t do what we did.

SMERCONISH:  I appreciate both of your time.  Congressman Gregory Meeks, former Congressman Ernest Istook, thank you.

ISTOOK:  Good to be with you, Congressman Meeks.

MEEKS:  Good to be with you.  Good to see you again.

SMERCONISH:  Thank you.  There you go.  Some civility on HARDBALL.  We like that.

Up next: President Obama‘s in Portugal, talking about the war in Afghanistan with NATO allies.  And there‘s new concern that the 2011 deadline to bring the troops home is sliding back.  We‘ll get into that when we return.

This is HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SMERCONISH:  A week after the midterms, President Obama is planning to confront Senate Republicans in a high stakes gamble on foreign policy.  The president wants to get the Senate to pass the new START arms control treaty.  Senate Republicans who are lead by Arizona‘s Jon Kyl will try to block it, at the risk of damaging U.S. relations with Russia and the international coalition that opposes Iran‘s nuclear efforts.

And if the president fails to get the votes that he needs, he will re-enforce the perception that he‘s been weakened both at home and abroad.  It‘s a big fight to watch in the days ahead.

HARDBALL will be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SMERCONISH:  President Obama is in Portugal, meeting with NATO allies about security issues and Afghanistan.  Back home, Vice President Biden talked about the plan forward in Afghanistan today on “MORNING JOE.”

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JOSEPH BIDEN, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  We are going to begin to transition.  We‘re keeping that—that commitment will be kept.  And we said then the slope and the pace at which we get out depended upon the circumstances.  But we will begin to transition.

And 2014 is now a date that everyone has agreed upon, NATO, as well as the Afghanis.  That‘s kind of a drop-dead date.  But that doesn‘t mean we‘re going to have anywhere near 100,000 troops in 2013.  This is—just like the commitment we made in Iraq.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SMERCONISH:  Iraq veteran Pete Hegseth is the executive director of Vets or Freedom.  Brian Katulis is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.

Pete, a headline today in the “Washington Post,” is troublesome at least to me, and a bit mystifying.  It talks about how our first heavy tank use is about to commence in Afghanistan.  I thought we were on our way out.

CAPT. PETE HEGSETH, IRAQ WAR VETERAN:  Well, I don‘t think it‘s up to you or I to determine what tactics we should be using to get the job done there, but this has been the problem all along.  The problem with the vice president‘s word today—it‘s always for this administration been about finding a way out.  How soon can we get out?

You read Woodward‘s book and it‘s all about how do we make sure we placate the left while getting out as soon as possible.

SMERCONISH:  Well, what should it be?

HEGSETH:  We want to win our damn war.  I mean, at the end of the day, what happens on the ground in Afghanistan matters.  There‘s a reason President Bush recommitted to Iraq, is because it was important how we finish it.

The same thing is at play in Afghanistan.  We can‘t have a safe haven for terrorists.  We need a place—we can‘t have the rest of the world—

(CROSSTALK)

SMERCONISH:  But by all accounts, it seems like there‘s no—it sounds like there‘s no representation of al-Qaeda even left in Afghanistan.

HEGSETH:  But it‘s not just about how many members—numbers of members of al Qaeda in Afghanistan.  It‘s what kind of institution do we leave behind to prevent them from coming back.

There‘s this fantasy land that—this idea that folks think that we can just leave and if we do, things will get better or al-Qaeda‘s not there anymore so they won‘t come back.  They‘ll come back and they‘ll use it again and the Taliban—you know, we‘ve seen this movie before.

So, either we commit now and get it down sufficiently with the right general, General Petraeus and a counterinsurgency strategy that the president has laid forward, or we pass this problem to the next generation.

SMERCONISH:  I mean, I hear you but it‘s up to me when you‘ve seen it before.  It‘s like Groundhog Day.

Brian, what am I missing?  This seems like war without end.  And now, it‘s been pushed back from 2011 to 2014.

BRIAN KATULIS, CENTER FOR AMERICAN PROGRESS:  Well, I think one thing we‘re missing and you‘ve talked about this, Michael, we‘ve talked about this—is the simple fact that 3,000 Americans is the simple fact is that 3,000 Americans were killed on 9/11.  We‘re in Afghanistan because of that.

The previous administration didn‘t get the job done.  It actually distracted country by going into an unnecessary war in Iraq.  And now, we‘re actually got to get bin Laden and al Qaeda.

And this administration, the Obama administration, has committed more resources in doing that.  And rather than being passive like the Bush administration in Pakistan, we actually are much more aggressive there and like Pete likes to fulminate and shake his pom-poms on the sidelines about this, but like this administration has targeted the al Qaeda network out there, much more—in a much more focused way by ending the unnecessary war in Iraq and actually committing more resources to Pakistan.

SMERCONISH:  The longer—

KATULIS:  And Afghanistan, I think, you know the big challenge right now is actually—how do we actually bring this to completion so that we can fight the real enemy?

SMERCONISH:  I mean, I think what we‘re trying to do is get out of there as quickly as we can, leaving some form of stabile government behind?

KATULIS:  Right.

SMERCONISH:  But nobody wants to be there forever.

And, Pete, I have to say, I‘m shocked that on the home front, particularly in the last election cycle, that there wasn‘t more concern expressed over the cost.  Frankly, Afghanistan, wasn‘t even an issue in the recent election, and yet the economy was.

HEGSETH:  I certainly wish Afghanistan was a larger point as well.  I

it was disappointing to see—to Brian‘s point, hey, the Obama administration—the Bush administration may not have fought the Afghan war correctly—fine and it‘s good that we‘re going into Pakistan and taking on elements there.  Those are all good things.

           

But that doesn‘t mean—I mean, why would we abandon Afghanistan?  So at what part of abandoning Afghanistan is good policy?

(CROSSTALK)

SMERCONISH:  I don‘t understand.  I don‘t understand.  This is going to come across as antiwar and—I don‘t know what.  I don‘t know what the mission is.  I don‘t know why we‘re still there.  I don‘t know why we‘re spending all of this money.

Bin Laden is not there.  Bin Laden is in the tribal regions of Pakistan.  That‘s one place where we‘re not, where we should be.

KATULIS:  Absolutely.  Yes, Michael, and I have to say—we are spending can about $100 billion this year in Afghanistan and that‘s actually is the amount that we sent on the Department of Homeland Security and all of our intelligence agencies combined.  So, like when you‘re getting your pat down at the airport on Thanksgiving holiday, all of that.

I think that we‘re in overkill mode in Afghanistan.  We need to realign our priorities to Yemen and to Pakistan and other places, too.

SMERCONISH:  Pete and Brian, on this subject of Bin Laden, I‘ve got to show you President Bush being questioned on this subject by Jay Leno last night.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE W. BUSH, FORMER U.S. PRESIDENT:  I was determined to bring justice to those who attacked our country and worked that way for 7 ½ years.

(APPLAUSE)

JAY LENO, THE TONIGHT SHOW:  Why do you think that we haven‘t been able to—to find Osama bin Laden?  Why has this eluded us?

BUSH:  You know, if we knew where he was we‘d have him.

LENO:  Right.  Right.

BUSH:  And he‘s hiding in a very remote part of the world, I guess.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SMERCONISH:  And that remote part of the world is presumably the federally administered tribal area in Pakistan, where we still aren‘t and where I wish we were.

Pete, thank you for your service.  I may disagree with you on this, but I applaud what you do for your country.

Brian, I don‘t know that the predator drones are going to get that job done.  In fact, I believe they probably won‘t.

KATULIS:  Yes, I agree with that.  I mean, look, on the predator drones, we‘ve had three times as many as predator drone strikes in Pakistan under Obama administration compared to Bush who was quite passive.

SMERCONISH:  That‘s a good thing.

KATULIS:  We need to take further steps to get the Pakistanis to take care of this business and I think that we‘re starting to do that.  I mean, when the history‘s written on all of this and we fulminate about like Iraq and other things, the real challenge and in almost all of the terror plots that we see in America have come out of Pakistan.  And that passive approach by the previous administration that really let things go to hell in Pakistan, that‘s been reversed.  And that‘s one thing that many Republicans, conservatives, really don‘t have much of an answer to.

SMERCONISH:  Well, men—

KATULIS:  Including George Bush himself.

SMERCONISH: -- I wish that I had more time because I love this issue and it needs more attention.

I want to thank Pete Hegseth and Brian Katulis—I appreciate you being here.

KATULIS:  Great, thank you.

SMERCONISH:  When we return, I‘ll have some thoughts about my week filling in for Chris Matthews.

You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SMERCONISH:  This concludes what has been a real privilege for me, guest-hosting for a week, a program that I love.

Chris has a great staff.  And to them, I say, thank you so much.  It‘s a pretty heady experience to come to Rockefeller Center, across from Radio City and work in an iconic building familiar to most Americans.  They‘d been some good moments that made the air and a few interesting ones that didn‘t.

I think it‘s been a pretty good week, but I have a few regrets.  I probably should have not asked newly sworn-in Senator Chris Coons if he was paddled as part of his initiation.

But I am glad that I admitted to Senator-elect Richard Blumenthal that I once wrongly told Chris that he‘d never win.

And maybe my commentary about Roger Waters of Pink Floyd was ill-suited for the HARDBALL audience.

I‘d like to apologize to Tamron Hall for returning her segment on the beer caffeine drink Four Loko into a primer on whippets.

You know they do “The Jimmy Fallon Show,” across the hall.  I had no idea that the British voice they heard a few nights ago was Daniel Radcliffe or I would have tried to score an autograph for our sons.  Fallon must have a happening program.

I‘ve never watched but I intend to because the night after I missed “Harry Potter,” there was a guy strumming an acoustic guitar behind a closed door across from where I‘m now seated.  It was Bruce Springsteen, I didn‘t meet him either.

The closest I came was giving a nod to little Steven Van Zandt who for me will always be Silvio.

Speaking of celebrity moments I had a brief but nice chat with Rachel Maddow.  But maybe when I met Brian Williams, I shouldn‘t have led with, hey, I loved you on “30 Rock.”

My personal goal this week was not to create anything for YouTube.  I thought that I made it until the producer named Chris Pendy told me that he cut some tape of me exhibiting a few of my idiosyncrasies during commercial breaks.

(VIDEO CLIP)

SMERCONISH:  I‘m going home now.  But not before I stroll past the 75-year-old Norway spruce that‘s in a stand out front next to the ice rink.   Some look to the White House, but for me, the nation‘s Christmas tree has always been the one right here in New York City.  This year‘s tree was donated by Peter and Stephanie Acton.

Peter Acton is 38 years old.  He‘s a veteran New York City firefighter and a 9/11 responder.  Fittingly, the Rockefeller Center tree scout discovered the family‘s spruce this year on September 11th.

Have a nice Thanksgiving.  And thanks for watching.

           

           

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