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updated 12/21/2010 11:45:06 AM ET 2010-12-21T16:45:06

Guests: Eugene Robinson, Chris Cillizza, Michelle Bernard, Richard Wolffe, Barney Frank, Charles Schumer, Thomas Hiter

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST:  He took a sad song and made it better.

Let‘s play HARDBALL.

Good evening.  I‘m Chris Matthews down in Washington.  Leading off tonight: Lame brain.  Turns out there was more smarts in this lame duck than most people expected.  This victory lap we‘re hearing about may be at least partially something that‘s well justified.  Let‘s tote up what President Obama has done since his shellacking on election day.  He oversaw the repeal of “Don‘t ask, don‘t tell.”  He got the country behind him on the new START treaty.  He prevented the Republican cavalry, if you will, from riding in next January and taking credit for that tax cut.  And there‘s a reality (ph) to the president‘s comeback, and maybe it‘s time for his progressive supporters to give him a soupcon of credit.

Another bill that appears headed for passage with President Obama‘s help is the money for 9/11 first responders.  Seriously, what are Republican opponents thinking?  When both Jon Stewart and Fox News anchor Shepard Smith say Republicans should be ashamed for passing tax cuts for billionaires while opposing money for 9/11 first responders and clean-up people, you know you‘re on the wrong side of history.

Plus, whatever happened to John McCain?  Now, there is a great question.  Whatever happened to John McCain?  The one-time maverick is now the leading voice against repealing “Don‘t ask, don‘t tell,” against the new START Treaty, against the kind of common sense approach he was once so admired for, in fact, adored for.  Is the man standing up now the real John McCain?  If so, what is the name for this man‘s pain?

And in case you can‘t make it, tonight, get ready, folks.  People in South Carolina are dressing up in period costume to celebrate the 150th anniversary of that state‘s secession from the union.  Let‘s see.  Secession led to the deaths of 600,000 Americans.  And come on, tell me that slavery wasn‘t actually at the heart of it.  So what precisely are people toasting tonight?

“Let Me Finish” tonight with what President Obama still needs to do if he‘s going to have a successful presidency.

We start with President Obama‘s less than lame performance in this post-election session of congress.  U.S. Congressman‘s Barney Frank‘s a Democrat from Massachusetts.  Congressman, you‘re a veteran member of the Congress.  You know what a good year is and a bad year is, what a good lame duck is, what a bad one is.  How‘s this square up?

REP. BARNEY FRANK (D), MASSACHUSETTS:  Oh, it‘s been a great year from the standpoint public policy.  Let‘s not forget, this is the year in which, obviously, I had a personal stake, financial reform.  We did more for consumers—the bill that was signed into law by the president in July does more to empower consumers to ensure that they get fair treatment as investors, as borrowers, than anything that‘s been done previously.  I think the health care bill was very important.  People may disagree with it, but it was a significant accomplishment.

Getting rid of “Don‘t ask, don‘t tell,” in addition to having done a hate crimes bill earlier this year, is a very important step.  Getting rid of “Don‘t ask, don‘t tell” basically gets rid of one of the major discriminatory laws on the books.  And it has broader implications because what it says is to America is, You know what?  Gays and lesbians can serve in the military.  And if you can do that, you can do anything because of the skills and the courage that that takes.  So I think it‘s been a very good year.

Now, there have been some problems.  The budget situation has been negative, and what we‘ve seen in the lame duck is the Republicans getting into a kind of reflexive opposition.  You correctly pointed out the surprising nature of their initial objection to rewarding—not rewarding, but paying medical bills for police and firefighters, people whom they would have considered their constituents.

Can I just add, Chris, on this whole lame duck thing—the notion that it‘s somehow illegitimate to do anything important in a lame duck—if you believe that, you must think impeaching the president United States is unimportant because the Republicans not only did that in the lame duck session of 1998, one of the three counts that they adopted against President Clinton would not have passed if the people elected the previous November had been the voters.  So on the whole, if you look at the accomplishments, it‘s been a very significant year.

MATTHEWS:  I love history.  Thank you for that.  I had forgotten that that was done in a lame duck session back in ‘98 by people who were held over, who had been beaten in some cases.

Let me ask you about this...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  ... what you said about DADT because I‘ve always been trying to figure out, growing up as you and I did in the years since World War II, how certain ethnic groups were able to get through.  Catholics and Jews, to a large extent, became much more assimilated because of their service in World War II, which was so gown (ph) and so integrated, if you will, in the main battles.  And now, if you have gay men and women who are involved in defending the country, that creates another new revolution of assimilation where people are recognized for having done what they‘ve been allowed to do.

FRANK:  No, it‘s absolutely right.  By the way, I‘ve always wondered what would have been the situation if I or another gay or lesbian official had said, We have this important idea.  Let‘s exempt gay and lesbian people from having to defend the country.  You talk about people complaining about special rights.

MATTHEWS:  Yes.

FRANK:  (INAUDIBLE) they had conferred on us over our objection the special right of all time, whether there was a draft or not.  But yes, I was reading the comments, one of the—a young Marine, an 18-year-old, who said, Well, I‘m against this because, you know, we‘re macho.  We‘re Marines, and gay men are girly.

Now, I will confess that I left my purse at home.

(LAUGHTER)

FRANK:  And I‘m sorry I didn‘t live up to his prediction.  But...

MATTHEWS:  There‘s the quote of the night!

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  OK, go ahead, Barney.  I‘m sorry.

FRANK:  But having—giving gay and lesbian people a chance to show, in the most important and challenging thing you can do in America, that we really are like everybody else, except for our choices about what we do in intimate moments...

MATTHEWS:  Yes.

FRANK:  ... that‘s a very important breakthrough.  This will do more to help us destroy the myth.  And you know, look, reality is the enemy of prejudice, and this is one more step in enabling us to present a reality that will help diminish prejudice across the board.

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask you about this—about the presidency.  I know you‘ve studied it, and you‘re a legislator, and you‘re a senior legislator, but when you look down the avenue, Pennsylvania Avenue, iconically, at that White House, is there something missing in terms of executive oomph?  Are there too many flacks there, to be blunt about it, too many people like Axelrod and Gibbs, who are pretty god at their jobs, but then the only people you see are the flacks?  is there enough executive structure down there?  The Republicans seem to be so much better at bringing in really heavyweight chiefs of staffs, like Baker, than the Democrats.

FRANK:  No, I...

MATTHEWS:  Do you think they should make a change in that direction, the Democrats?

FRANK:  Two things.  Let‘s, when we judge President Obama‘s successes, not forget, Chris—you‘ve been there—when you were here—this notion that everything takes 60 votes is really an extraordinary de facto wrenching of the American Constitution.

MATTHEWS:  Yes.

FRANK:  This is—people shouldn‘t take this for granted.  This is fairly recent.  The notion that everything takes 60 votes—that‘s really extraordinary, and it puts great stress on the whole system.

Secondly, and let me come to the defense—I hope, you know, people in your business won‘t be offended, but we don‘t choose who‘s on in the media.  The media chooses.  There are very substantive people—I work very closely with Shaun Donovan, the secretary of HUD.  One of my regrets is that I haven‘t had a chance to do as much in the affordable rental housing area.  We‘ve done too much home ownership and not enough rental house.  But Shaun Donovan is a superb, effective public official, but there‘s nothing scandalous (ph) about what he does.

I think Tim Geithner—here‘s an example of someone who was kind of caricatured early on who will be seen as a great successful secretary of the treasury in what‘s been done in terms of these things.  So yes, there are a lot of substantive people there.  They just don‘t get as much attention as I wish they would, not for their lack of trying, but because that‘s the way things play out.

MATTHEWS:  Touche.  Thank you, Congressman Barney Frank.  Happy holidays to you, sir.  Thanks for that update on everything—in fact, a great capsulization of what happened this year.  Thank you for joining us tonight.

FRANK:  Thank you, Chris.

MATTHEWS:  Chris Cillizza‘s managing editor of Postpolitics.com down at the White House and an MSNBC political analyst.  Thank you, sir, for joining us...

CHRIS CILLIZZA, WASHINGTONPOST.COM, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  Hey, Chris.

MATTHEWS:  ... from “The Post.”  You just heard Congressman Frank. 

You know, he sort of did a pretty good summation of the year.  He threw in

of course, he did a lot of work on it.  He was the lead guy, the point guy on finreg, and of course, the health care bill, he was very active on that, and energy on that point he played on that committee.  And then you get what‘s happened since the election.

But you know, that was a hell of a point.  It was the Republicans who basically trashed Clinton after they got beaten, basically, in the 2000 -- or rather 1998 election.

CILLIZZA:  Well, first of all, it‘s always hard to follow Barney Frank on anything because he‘s damn good on television.  I‘ll leave it at that.  But what I would say is—here‘s what‘s different, Chris.  Health care, financial regulatory reform, economic stimulus, all pre-lame duck, obviously, all not sold that well by the president.  The policy (ph) disagree on.  Plenty of people do.  The messaging clearly not good.  Republicans won the messaging war.

Fast forward.  After the lame duck, the president takes credit and gets credit for the economic—the tax proposal here, which includes as  big piece of it the extension of the Bush tax cuts.

MATTHEWS:  Well, how come his PR was better in overtime?

CILLIZZA:  Well, Chris, you and I both know this.  Elections have a tremendous clarifying quality to them.  And I think that‘s in some ways what happened with this president.  Look, I think people were saying the message is screwed up, the message is screwed up, the message is screwed up.  And he said, Let‘s wait and see.

MATTHEWS:  OK...

CILLIZZA:  Well, when you lose 63 seats in the House, six Senate seats, you lose governorships, you lose broadly at the state legislative level, you know, I think he gets the message and says, Wait a minute.  I‘m the best communicator...

MATTHEWS:  OK...

CILLIZZA:  ... that I have for me.  I‘m going to go out here and sell it more.  And that‘s what I think the difference has been...

MATTHEWS:  OK...

CILLIZZA:  ... him selling it better to the public.

MATTHEWS:  And the other end is the proof people are listening.  Here it is, a new CNN poll shows President Obama‘s approval rating among moderates rose 5 points.  Since last month, it dropped 8 points.  Fair enough.  It looks like the liberals were watching and the moderates were watching.  They both got the message.  He moved to the center.

CILLIZZA:  And Chris, I would say the best think that happened to President Obama from a purely political perspective during this lame duck, House liberal Democrats expressing their displeasure with the tax cut compromise.  He looked big.  He looked kind of like the level-headed voice, the guy who was looking at the big picture—Let‘s do what‘s good for America.  I don‘t know if they did it on purpose.  My guess is they probably didn‘t.  But that worked to—that accrued to the president‘s benefit.

Again, the bigger a president can look—and I mean, sort of bigger magnanimous, like you‘re doing the right thing for the country and not partisan, the better for your poll numbers.  Look, Ronald Reagan was great at that.  He always looked big.  He always kind of looked above things.  Bill Clinton‘s worst moments were when he was too in the weeds, getting in fights over smaller things.  His great moments were when he was big.

Barack Obama during the campaign was almost always big.  He was almost always grand speeches, big visions.  This election‘s about something big.  During his presidency, at times, he got bogged down talking about cloture and Senate arcana, debating little things.  He looked big in this lame duck, and I think that‘s why you‘re starting to see the numbers tick up a little bit.

MATTHEWS:  Well, there he is.  We‘re watching him shake hands with Mitch McConnell.  Does that augur anything for the future?  There she is—there he is next to Allison Schwartz (ph), probably somebody he‘s never met before, the woman for the—the suburban Philadelphia congresswoman, a liberal.  What do you make of this guy?

CILLIZZA:  Well...

MATTHEWS:  The president of the United States and Mitch McConnell! 

Are they going to ever meet again during the next two years?

CILLIZZA:  Both pragmatists, Chris.  Both pragmatists, I would say.  You know, I think Barack Obama got elected, everyone thought he was a liberal ideologue.  I actually think he‘s more of a pragmatist, if you go and look back at his career.  I would say the same thing about McConnell.  They both cut this deal because they thought it was good for them in the long run politically.  It‘s like when you make a trade in the NBA.  Both teams think they‘re helping themselves.  If one team‘s got the other one over a barrel...

MATTHEWS:  Yes.  Right.

CILLIZZA:  ... almost never happens.  So you know...

MATTHEWS:  OK...

CILLIZZA:  ... both sides think that they have the political gain here.  You know, time will tell who was right.

MATTHEWS:  You‘re so reasonable.  Thank you, Chris Cillizza.

(LAUGHTER)

CILLIZZA:  Thank you.

MATTHEWS:  Happy holidays.  Merry Christmas to you, buddy.

CILLIZZA:  You, too.

MATTHEWS:  Coming up: John McCain has emerged as the cheerleader of the opposition on all things.  He opposes all things now.  What‘s the story?  Whatever happened to the guy who was looking for solutions down the middle, the deal maker?  He‘s the deal breaker, or tries to be.

You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.  What happened to this guy?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Wow.  Here‘s some more good news for President Obama.  In this new CNN poll, 55 percent of the public now says they think the president‘s policies will move the country in the right direction.  Wow.  Where were they on election day?  That‘s 11 points higher than the 44 percent who say the policies of congressional Republicans will move the country in the right direction.  There‘s an advantage for you.  Makes you wonder why the mid-term elections turned out the way they did.

HARDBALL back after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Wow, we could have had this any time in the last couple months maybe, but it‘s time to do it.  It‘s time to do the question, What happened to John McCain?  The one-time maverick senator is leading the charge against—well, just about everything.  And this week, the START treaty.  He voted against the Dream Act after being one of the bill‘s original sponsors.  He went down fighting against the repeal of “Don‘t ask, don‘t tell” after saying for years ago he‘d consider altering the military‘s policy if the Pentagon brass requested the change, which they did.

In fact, take a look at what he said on the HARDBALL “College Tour” back in 2006, and then what he said on the Senate floor this Saturday—

180 reversal.  Let‘s watch.  Let‘s listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN ®, ARIZONA:  And I understand the opposition to it, and I‘ve had these debates and discussions.  But the day that this—the leadership of the military comes to me and says, Senator, we ought to change the policy, then I think we ought to consider seriously changing it because those leaders in the military are the ones we give the responsibility to.

I hope that when we pass this legislation that we will understand that we are doing great damage and we could possibly and probably, as the commandant of the Marine Corps said, and I‘ve been told by literally thousands of members of the military, harm the battle effectiveness which is so vital to the support, to the survival of our young men and women in the military.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Michelle Bernard and Richard Wolffe are MSNBC political

analysts. I‘ve heard from thousands—thousands of individuals have come -

well, that seems like a hyperbole to begin with.  But the animus there, the gut that we heard from John McCain there, was real.  I don‘t doubt his belief.  I don‘t doubt that in his mind, he‘s very much against this policy.  But there‘s an anger there, too.

MICHELLE BERNARD, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  Well, there‘s an anger there, but all of this is very confusing because when you talk about, you know, gays in the military and a lot of the things that McCain has come out against, I keep thinking to myself, Is this the same man that we saw speak just two years ago before the National Urban League, where he tried to explain his policies on affirmative action.  And he apologized and said, I was wrong when I initially, you know, voted against making Martin Luther King‘s birthday a national holiday.

This is a complete 180.  It‘s a completely different human being.  I actually question whether or not he means this.  I know he‘s a former military man, but I don‘t know how you go from one position to another so quickly just in a two-year turnaround time and actually say—I don‘t know how you define John McCain any longer.

MATTHEWS:  Richard Wolffe, you‘ve followed these policies.  You‘re very good at the psychobabble.  Let‘s hear it.

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  No, you are.  You do try to—I think psychobabble‘s important sometimes.  What is going on with him?

RICHARD WOLFFE, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  I remember a stemwinder of a speech he gave in 2000 in Michigan, where he came out portraying himself as Luke Skywalker coming out of the Death Star, and all the people he was fighting against, the Darth Vaders, were Mitch McConnell, all the senators, all the congressmen.  That‘s who we thought he was.  Maybe his problem is with authority in general, but it‘s more personal than we ever thought it was, more than the principle involved here.  Here‘s a guy who taunted candidate Obama saying, You‘ve never bucked your party.  You‘ve never stood up to your own party.  What‘s he doing now?  He‘s the party line guy.

BERNARD:  Absolutely.  Well, he‘s actually—he has gone so far right.  I mean, it‘s really—if you look at him, he has become his former vice presidential nominee.  He has become the male version of Sarah Palin.  He has gone so far right.  Maybe this is what he feels he needs to do to survive in Arizona.  They‘ve got that new Arizona immigration law.  That entire state is completely anti-immigrant right now.

MATTHEWS:  Well, here he is now.  Let‘s—here he is railing against the Democrats for pushing through repeal of “Don‘t ask, don‘t tell” and other legislative priorities of the Democrats.  Let‘s listen.  It‘s tough.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MCCAIN:  About six weeks after an election that repudiated the agenda of the other side, we are jamming or trying to jam major issues through the Senate of the United States because they know they can‘t get it done beginning next January 5th.  You somehow think that beginning next January 5th, we will all love one another and kumbaya?  I don‘t think so!

The American people have spoken in what the president of the United States described as a shellacking.  And everything we‘re doing is completely ignoring that message.  Maybe it will require another election. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Now, there‘s tough.  He‘s angry.  Guys, he‘s angry. 

BERNARD:  Well, it‘s personal. 

MATTHEWS:  He‘s mad at us. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Let me give me a reason why he might be mad at us, the media, OK?  And I try to see these through the other guy‘s eyes.

In the race against George W., a lot of us in the media saw McCain as the reasonable center.  And a lot of rooted for him, thinking, here‘s the reasonable center.  Bush is unprepared to be president.  This guy has got the resume to kill, served the country in battle, been a war hero, suffered for his country.  He was the guy a lot of Americans said was Mr. America, traditional American.  And we rooted like hell for him.

And then he goes up against Barack Obama, who a lot of us saw as the new kind of American, the new breed of American, the guy who represented another part of the American dream, which is opportunity for minorities, and sort of a new breed.

But we also like the traditional.  And a lot of Americans like both.  But this guy was coming, and McCain had missed his chance.  He wasn‘t as good in 2008 as he was in 2000.  Eight years later, he was not the guy he was in 2000. 

Like, the damn—the darn Republicans, they always run the guys last. 

They run them late.  They run them eight years—Bob Dole, 20 years later.  It‘s just the—Nixon, they just kept running the guy.  That‘s their problem.  But I can understand why he‘s mad at the media, because he was the charmed candidate with the media in 2000. 

WOLFFE:  And he gave us all the access we wanted, and we loved it.  But there were a couple of wrong assumptions people made, one, that he was socially in the middle, when he wasn‘t.  He was always conservative on abortion.  And maybe this is coming through now.  Maybe he was pandering...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  We have him on tape there saying he was for getting rid of don‘t ask, don‘t tell if the military came through. 

(CROSSTALK)

WOLFFE:  But I think he was always socially more conservative than we thought and maybe he portrayed himself.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  But he‘s an Arizona Republican.

(CROSSTALK)

WOLFFE:  Here‘s the thing.  If you are going to go out there as the man of principle, I‘m the guy who sticks to my guns, I‘m the maverick, and I don‘t care what the party says, if you‘re going to say I‘m going to follow the military leadership, never mind—we can argue about don‘t ask, don‘t tell, but what about military leadership on the START treaty? 

What do you think the military says, the whole national security apparatus says?  Pass this treaty.  And he‘s saying no to it. 

MATTHEWS:  So, what‘s his problem? 

WOLFFE:  I think it‘s personal. 

MATTHEWS:  What is the personal?  Get to...

(CROSSTALK)

WOLFFE:  He lost.  He lost the election.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  So, he‘s just mad at everybody?

WOLFFE:  It messes with your head.  It just does.  And John Kerry is still struggling to deal with 2004.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Here‘s Joe Klein.  Let him do the dirty work.  Here‘s Joe Klein, who does a lot of this psychological study.

Here he in “TIME” magazine over the weekend—quote—he‘s talking

about McCain—“His public fall has been spectacular, a consequence of

politics and personal pique.  He‘s a bitter man now, who can barely

tolerate the fact that he lost to Barack Obama.  But he lost for an obvious

reason:  His campaign proved him to be puerile and feckless, a candidate” -

“a politician,” rather, “who panicked when the heat was on during the financial crisis, a trigger-happy gambler who chose an incompetent for his vice president.  He has made quite a show ever since demonstrating his petulance and lack of grace.”

So, what he‘s talking about there is when John McCain, candidate for president, called for a meeting in Washington, a time-out from the campaign, came to a meeting with the president with the other candidate, Barack Obama, and when the president, at that time, George W. Bush, turned to John McCain, who called the meeting, and said, what do you think, he said nothing. 

WOLFFE:  More than that, he took a swipe at Obama because he said, I understand seniority. 

When Obama was speaking out of turn in terms of seniority, he tries to pull the Senate on him.  So this is the middle of this financial meltdown.  Everyone‘s looking to him for some kind of leadership, and he starts playing Senate politics with... 

(CROSSTALK)

BERNARD:  And then the whole wanting to pause the campaign, it did not instill any kind of sense of confidence. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  To make your point—I‘m sorry—I just—it will come up in a minute, but I have got it here on the sheet.  To make your great point, he wants to be in an avuncular relationship with Barack Obama, a big brother.  He doesn‘t want to be an equal with him.

Here he is: “I have said all along I would be glad to work with the president, glad to sit down and work with the president on a broad variety of issues, but the president has never sought my advice or counsel.”

(CROSSTALK)

BERNARD:  Waa, waa, waa.

(LAUGHTER)

BERNARD:  That‘s John McCain sucking his thumb.  The president doesn‘t have to come to him and seek his advice.  And he can offer his advice. 

MATTHEWS:  But he wants to be the senior emeritus. 

BERNARD:  He does.  He does.  But then he has to stick by principle.

Here‘s my question, though.  Is it possible that he has swung this far right because of the rise of the Tea Party, and maybe he‘s going to run again in 2012?

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Self-protection? 

(CROSSTALK)

BERNARD:  Is he looking to run for president again?

MATTHEWS:  Is he just like Orrin Hatch and all the other guys who are scared of the crazies on the far right who are going to knock—here‘s a tense and telling moment.  You can tell when I‘m reading prompter. 

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  A tense and telling moment between President Obama and Senator McCain during the health care summit back in February.  Let‘s listen. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN ®, ARIZONA:  I hope that that would be an argument for us to go through this 2,400-page document, remove all the special deals for the special interests and favored few, and treat all Americans the same under provisions of the law, so that they will know that geography does not dictate what kind of health care they would receive. 

I thank you, Mr. President. 

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  Let me just make this point, John, because we‘re not campaigning anymore.  The election‘s over. 

MCCAIN:  I‘m reminded of that every day. 

(LAUGHTER)

MCCAIN:  Could I just say, Mr. President, the American people care about what we did and how we did it.  And I think it‘s a subject that I think we should discuss. 

And I thank you.

(CROSSTALK)

OBAMA:  They absolutely do care about it, John.

And I think that the way you characterized it obviously would get some strong objections from the other side.  We can have a debate about process or we can have a debate about how we‘re actually going help the American people at this point. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Well, there, the president was clearly putting him down. 

BERNARD:  Thank you. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  This “John” stuff.  It wasn‘t the “honorable senator” stuff.  It was, John, back in your box. 

(CROSSTALK)

BERNARD:  And it was Obama at his best, yes.

MATTHEWS:  It was pretty condescending.  It was condescending. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  OK.  They ran against each other for president.  He‘s treating him like the pupil that was the slow kid in the class. 

BERNARD:  Yes. 

(LAUGHTER)

BERNARD:  And McCain is probably treating him like, I was the senior senator. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Oh, yes.  Well, remember that “Games People Play,” teaching

people how to relate to each other?  You never get along if you‘re trying -

if you‘re trying to relate as equals, the other guy thinks he‘s superior, it ain‘t going to work. 

BERNARD:  Yes. 

MATTHEWS:  It‘s like kids want to talk to their parents like equals. 

BERNARD:  Yes, and it doesn‘t work.

MATTHEWS:  It doesn‘t work.  Well, it shouldn‘t work, anyway, until you get really old.  Anyway, thanks.  Interesting subject.

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  I love talking about somebody else‘s personality.  Wouldn‘t you like to do about it you some time?

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Anyway, thank you, Richard.

And thank you, Michelle.

Up next with Sarah Palin taking swipe at first lady Michelle—I think she was.  Here‘s, I think, what you might call a cheap shot coming here, which we put in the “Sideshow,” where it belongs.

You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.  

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Back to HARDBALL.  Now to the “Sideshow.” 

First up: mama grizzly unleashed. 

Sarah Palin last night took a thinly veiled swipe at first lady Michelle Obama and her campaign against childhood obesity.  Here‘s Sarah Palin in her reality show.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, “SARAH PALIN‘S ALASKA”)

SARAH PALIN ®, FORMER ALASKA GOVERNOR:  Where are the s‘mores ingredients?  This is in honor of Michelle Obama, who said the other day we should not have dessert.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Kill dessert. 

Well, the first lady of course is not trying to ban dessert.  Her campaign looks to ensure that children have healthy food options available.  Isn‘t that something, Governor Palin, we can all get behind?

Next: Joe Manchin missing in action.  On Saturday, the U.S. Senate took up two of the most symbolic votes of the year, the repeal of don‘t ask, don‘t tell and the DREAM act.  The newest Democratic senator, however, didn‘t cast a vote.  In fact, Manchin didn‘t even show up on the Senate floor. 

Where was he?  At a holiday party, which he called a family obligation he just could not break.  Well, another factor might have been that he saw only negatives in voting either way on don‘t ask, don‘t tell.  Had he voted for it, he would have been viewed in West Virginia as a liberal.  Had he voted against it, he would be the only Senate Democrat in the country to vote against open service. 

That is not the kind of brand name you want to carry the rest of your Senate career.  Being a senator, having to go one way or the other comes with the job.  That‘s if you show up for it.

Now to tonight‘s “Big Number.”  In a new Gallup poll, 40 percent of Americans say they believe in strict creationism, that humans were created by God within the last 10,000 years, as in the Bible.  Well, how do you explain all those dinosaur bones, I ask?  How do you explain your oldest living relative, our oldest living relative?  Don‘t you love Lucy?

No surprise, that number is higher among Republicans, by the way.  How high?  Fifty-two percent, a majority of Republicans, more than half the Republicans reject the science behind evolution -- 52 percent, tonight‘s “Big Number.”  Think about that one during the primaries.

Up next:  Democrats in the Senate may have another big victory within

reach, a scaled-down version of the health bill to help those 9/11

responders and cleanup people.  It looks like it has the votes it needs to

pass

Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, one of the key sponsors, joins us next.

You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.  

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

AMANDA DRURY, CNBC CORRESPONDENT:  I‘m Amanda Drury with your CNBC “Market Wrap.”

Stocks trading in a narrow range heading into the shortened holiday week.  The Dow Jones industrials falling 13 points, the S&P adding three, the Nasdaq climbing six-and-a-half.  Light volume today on a lack of any big economic news.

And despite huge crowds in the stores this weekend, gains for retailers were few and far between, despite predictions of a potentially record breaking holiday sales season.  But analysts say holiday optimism is already priced into those shares, while deep discounts and growing online sales could be a drag for the brick-and-mortar set.

Well, energy shares are higher as oil closed above $88 a barrel and word that Carl Icahn has been building a solid stake in natural gas producer Chesapeake Energy.  American Express meantime skidding more than 3 percent on new caps for certain fees they can charge merchants.  And Boeing slipping as well on reports its new Dreamliner could be delayed an additional six months. 

That is it from CNBC.  And we are first in business worldwide.  It is now back to HARDBALL. 

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.

There‘s new optimism today for that 9/11 health care bill.  That‘s the bill that provides extra medical benefits to those who responded to and cleaned up after the World Trade Center attack.  This weekend, New York Senators Kirsten Gillibrand and Chuck Schumer announced they had modified the bill, reducing its overall price tag and changing the way it is paid for.

But some Republicans are still unhappy about it. 

With us now is New York Senator Chuck Schumer. 

Senator Schumer, after the horror of 9/11, it seemed like we were united as a country, Republicans and Democrats both, led at that point by a Republican president who would do just about anything to help the people at 9/11.  Has there been a sea change?  Why are the Republicans opposing this measure of yours? 

SEN. CHARLES SCHUMER (D), NEW YORK:  Well, I don‘t know if there‘s been a sea change, but we‘re almost 10 years from 9/11, and I guess people tend to forget. 

Those of us who were there at the towers can never forget the brave firefighters, construction workers who just rushed in.  And, remember, in the first few days, we thought there might still be people that would be alive in the rubble. 

And, so, people are forgetting.  People come up with excuses.  Some say this is the New York bill.  This is not.  First, there are victims in every state.  And, second, we don‘t ask where our veterans come from.  Are they from Texas?  Are they from Iowa?  We say, you served America and we‘re going to remember that, at a time of war, you risked your life for us.  We‘re going to be there to help you.

We should be doing the same for these people. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, tell the country now, if you have a minute or two, what about the unique health hazards that arose from those who went in, those 100,000 people, if you count them all, who had gotten involved one way or another in trying to deal with that horror?

SCHUMER:  Well, the—they are coming down with cancers that are rare types of cancers.  This is not typical.  Some people said, well, someone who smokes will say they got lung cancer.  These cancers are different. 

They are unique.  They come about when you get glass and other particulates in your lungs and your gastrointestinal tract.  The average age of the person who has died here is 46.  And they don‘t occur for any other reason.

So the idea that there are all kinds of illnesses that might not have been related to rushing to the tower and the horrible stuff that was in the air then is just wrong.  Secondly, we have been very careful. 

We know who was there at the towers.  There was strict security the days after.  Nobody is going to be able to dupe the system.  And, in fact, there‘s been a year-to-year system of health care.  It‘s not been as comprehensive or as thorough.  There‘s been virtually no fraud.

So, anyone who thinks the money is being wasted is wrong.  They haven‘t looked at the facts. 

MATTHEWS:  Let‘s take a look at Chris Wallace talking here, interviewing, rather, Jon Kyl, the number-two Republican leader, as he opposes your measure yesterday.  Let‘s listen. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, “FOX NEWS SUNDAY”)

CHRIS WALLACE, HOST, “FOX NEWS SUNDAY”:  Will you vote this week for the 9/11 bill that would guarantee health care for the first responders who went to Ground Zero?

SEN. JON KYL (R-AZ), MINORITY WHIP:  I don‘t know if that bill is going to come before us, but Dick tells me just a moment ago that he thinks that it will.  First question is, is it amendable, or is it a take it or leave it proposition?  The bill hasn‘t been through committee.  There are problems with it.

And I think the first thing Republicans will ask is do we have a chance to fix any problems that may exist with it.  And it‘s a lot of money, and so I—my early response is that I am skeptical about that bill.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SCHUMER:  Let me answer a couple of things.

MATTHEWS:  Sure.  Go ahead.

SCHUMER:  It will come for a vote.  Leader Reid has promised us that. 

Second, we have worked with Republicans.  That‘s why the bill is modified.  There will be an amendment on the floor, because we went to many of the Republicans.  We had every Democrat supporting the original bill that the House sent us.  But some Republicans said they didn‘t like the way it was paid for.  We gave them six or seven options. They chose the ones they like.  And that‘s what‘s here.

I believe that we have 60 votes for the bill so we can block cloture and our plea to Senator Kyl, we can‘t ask him to vote for it if he thinks it‘s the right thing to do, although I think if he read the bill thoroughly and studied it, he would come to the same conclusions we did, but not to filibuster needlessly.

This is now a bipartisan bill.  It passed for votes in the House and we should not—Christmas Eve in particular—turn our backs on these people who served us in a time of war, are no different than veterans.  America has always honored veterans who risked their lives in a time of war voluntarily.  We said, if you get injured on the battlefield, we‘re going to take care of you.  It is not different with these firemen, cops, construction workers who did the same thing.

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST:  Take a minute for the advantage of the people who are skeptical to tell me the fundraising or rather the financing plan for offsetting the cost of this measure.

SCHUMER:  The financing plans don‘t—first, the bill does not cost any money.  In fact, the pay-fors exceed the cost of the bill by $57 million.  So, it actual reduces the deficit.

Who do we—what are—who pays for it?  First, there are companies from a group of countries that bid on United States products and they don‘t allow the U.S. companies to bid on products from their government and contracts from their government.  We put a 2 percent surcharge on those.  It‘s not the major countries of the world.  They have treaties with us where our companies can bid for their government‘s contracts and vice versa.

Second, there are certain companies that abuse the H-1B process by taking foreign workers and bringing them here and training them and sending them home.  We increase the surcharge on those companies.  They are foreign almost exclusively; 50 percent of their workers have to be H-1B.

And third, there was a noncontroversial increase on visas for foreigners that for several years paid for travel promotion.  We increased that by a couple of years.

Every one of these is noncontroversial.  None of them affect American citizens and the health, of course, goes to American citizens who helped us in a time of need.

MATTHEWS:  OK.  It‘s great to have you one.  Chuck—

SCHUMER:  Anyone who says—Chris, anyone who says they‘re opposed to this bill, they‘re not looking at the bill, they‘re not looking at the facts and they ought to look at it again because the only way this bill will fail is if it‘s filibustered, otherwise, we have the votes.

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Happy holidays to you, Senator.  Chuck Schumer of New York, the senior—thank you, sir.

SCHUMER:  Thank you.  Merry Christmas.  Happy New Year.

MATTHEWS:  Tonight in South Carolina, there‘s a gala event marking 150 years since that state legislature down there voted to secede from the Union, triggering, of course, the Civil War.  The events planners say they‘re celebrating history, not slavery.  But the NAACP will be protesting.  Let‘s get to that one next.

This is HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Well, here‘s a name you won‘t offer hear among potential 2012 challengers, John Bolton, the arch-conservative former ambassador to the United Nations tells “Politico” he‘s seriously considering running for president in 2012.  It may not be so farfetched.  After all, Bolton has a platform.  He‘s got a regular gig on FOX News and he‘s on the cover of the forthcoming issue of “The National Review.”

But it would probably take a big foreign crisis for Bolton to break out the Republican pack and win the nomination—something like Armageddon.

HARDBALL will be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.

Well, in South Carolina tonight, a secession ball will mark the 150th anniversary of that passage of that state‘s ordnance of succession which, of course, helped set this country on the road to civil war.

Is the start of this country‘s deadliest war an event to be celebrated with a ball?  That will include a play, a dinner and dancing?

Thomas Hiter is a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.  And Eugene Robinson is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for “The Washington Post” and MSNBC analyst.

Let me go to Mr. Hiter.

Sir, tell me why you would celebrate at a ball, the passage of the ordnance by the South Carolina legislature?

THOMAS HITER, SONS OF CONFEDERATE VETERANS:  Well, obviously, Chris, first of all, I‘m not celebrating the ball.  I‘m not at the ball.  I‘m in front of a TV camera in Nashville, Tennessee.

But the SCV certainly supports the right of the people of South Carolina to celebrate the secession.  As our ancestors supported their right to secede.

Why would I support it?  For the very simple reason that we have freedom to peaceably assemble in this country.  I believe we still have that.

MATTHEWS:  Well, the Web site for this secession gala tonight advertised a 45-minute theatrical play re-enacting the signing of the original ordnance and says that the ticket cost also includes dinner and dancing.

And you say that—well, make your judgment, sir.  You‘re on the show here to talk about it.  Do you think it‘s an appropriate event?

HITER:  I don‘t think it‘s an inappropriate event if that‘s your real question.  I don‘t—I assume it‘s appropriate.  I assume it‘s properly planned.  I assume it‘s well-done.  Had I been invited, I might well have attended.

I see no reason not to celebrate things that our ancestors did 150 years ago.  But by the same token, obviously, not everyone agrees with that.  And we wouldn‘t be having this discussion.

MATTHEWS:  Yes.  I know.

Well, let me get to Gene Robinson.

I guess the question is: was it a good thing that South Carolina led the movement towards succession in the Confederacy?

EUGENE ROBINSON, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  Well, of course not.

MATTHEWS:  Was that a good thing?

ROBINSON:  No, it wasn‘t a good thing.  And it was—it was an illegal act and the illegality of that act was, in fact, litigated by the Civil War.  You know, this was—this was not something to celebrate.  It would be like celebrating some big terrorist attack or something like that, which in fact there was 150 years ago.  There was a terrorist attack against Fort Sumter that began the civil war.

I mean—so, no.  It‘s not a good idea to celebrate secession.  It is a celebration of slavery because that‘s what the civil war is about.  And, by the way, I‘m a, you know, proud native of South Carolina.  Somehow, my invitation to the succession ball must have gotten lost in the mail.

But—but do they have the right to do it?  Of course they have the right to do it.  We do have freedom of assembly of this country.  But it‘s not a—

MATTHEWS:  You know, some people would say—my son Thomas‘ an actor but we went out to one of these reenactments out in the country, on the battlefields.  I think they‘re great to do.  I think it‘s fine.

I mean, as a Northerner, I think it‘s fine that people plays the South and someone plays the North and they reenact the courage of those soldiers, the actual courage of the actual soldiers.  I can understand, celebrating the courage, wherever it is, in most places, not in some places.

But why would you celebrate a decision, a political decision to break up the Union of the United States?

HITER:  In the first place, Chris, if I may, that was an act of immense political courage.  To leave the Union was an act oft rebellion, as it often been called.  It was an effort to leave and they tried to leave peacefully.  Mr. Lincoln did not allow that and that later caused the war.

I disagree completely with Mr. Robinson‘s comparison of it to an act of terrorism.  It was not.  It was simply an act of political courage and political will to try to separate themselves from a Union government that was going in completely the wrong direction, as they understood it at the time.

I would agree with him that the civil war settled the matter.  And so, no one tries to secede anymore.  But, by the same token, the litigation was never conducted.  Never was it taken to court, especially to the Supreme Court, never debated carefully in legislative venues.  It was fought and cold steel and hot lid settled the question.

The question settled.  Make no mistake.  The northwest—

MATTHEWS:  What was—was Mr. Robinson correct—I just want to interrupt you a little bit—was he right in saying that the war was over slavery?

HITER:  I don‘t believe so.  But by the same token, I understand that many people do believe so.  Our commander in chief, Mr. Michael Givens, recently appealed to Mr. Al Sharpton, who said some extremely disrespectful things about the Confederacy on a recent TV program that we‘re really—we should be beyond the point of having these name-calling contests as just we‘re past the point of shooting at one another.  We ought to be able to sit down and respectfully disagree and explore the positions of one another.

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Gene?

ROBINSON:  Well, that‘s—with all respect, that‘s ridiculous.  I mean, that‘s utterly ridiculous.  If there was not from slavery, there would not have been the Civil War.  There were—there were 50 years of fights and battles and tensions over slavery that led up to secession and the Civil War.  That was the issue.

And state‘s rights was the wrapping and the bow that was—you know, in which the package of slavery was presented.  But in fact, that was the issue.  It‘s just very clear.  I mean, there‘s no other reading in history, and—

MATTHEWS:  Well, the immediate result of Civil War is the passage of the 13th Amendment outlawing slavery.  I mean, I don‘t know how you can—

Mr. Hiter—

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  -- why do you deny—ask you one question last question of the night, why do you deny the Civil War was over slavery?  Are you offended by that charge, or what?  Do you think that‘s not a reasonable assumption?

HITER:  I do.  Abraham Lincoln was quite clear in his first inaugural draws that he fully supported slavery.  He signed the original 13th Amendment which guaranteed slavery.  The original Confederacy was formed by seven states.  Lincoln‘s invasion of the South took six more out of the Union.  No, it didn‘t start over slavery.

Before it was over, was slavery an issue?  Absolutely.  Was, in fact, slavery an issue from the beginning?  In part, sure.

John Brown came from Kansas and tried to start a slave insurrection in Virginia, before the war.

So, was slavery an issue?  Absolutely.  Slavery was the great moral issue of that century, and it was a great moral—

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  What side would you have been—what side would you had been on that fight to free the slaves?  On the side of the slaveholders or the slaves?  Who‘s side—

HITER:  Well, it‘s not a fight to free the slaves.  That‘s the fundamental misassumption you‘re making.  The war didn‘t even involve slavery until 1863.

MATTHEWS:  No.  I‘m talking about John Brown.  Was John Brown a good or a bad guy?

HITER:  John Brown was a bad guy.

MATTHEWS:  Why?

HITER:  John Brown was a terrorist.

MATTHEWS:  OK, thank you.

(CROSSSTALK)

HITER:  And had I found myself alive in those days, I think, I hope to pray to God I would have fought the way that my ancestors did for the South.

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Thank you, sir.  Thank you, Mr. Hiter, for joining us and being so forthright.

HITER:  Thank you.

MATTHEWS:  Thank you, Gene Robinson, for being on the right side.

When we return, “Let Me Finish” with what President Obama needs to make sure to make sure that he has a good presidency.

You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  “Let Me Finish” tonight with some advice for President Obama.

The “Politico” today advanced the argument that President Obama should focus on his executive powers, things that he can do without getting something through the Congress next year.  Quote, “He needs to be CEO of America,” as former Clinton chief of staff John Podesta is quoted of saying.

Well, let me add my now-familiar belief that this particular president needs to dramatically bolster his executive command structure.  He thinks a chief of staff that will serve as chief operating officer.  President Obama should stop staffing the White House as if he were still a senator.

He doesn‘t need a staff operation.  He needs an executive operation.  He needs a chief of staff that could stand as the first among equals with the cabinet.  That way we would see a chain of command operating across the board like we do in defense and foreign affairs.

The one solid area this administration, when it comes to having a clear chain of command structure, is the Pentagon and State.  We can Robert Gates and Hillary Clinton firmly in charge, working firmly together.

The great executive weaknesses of this presidency have been the dull response to the BP catastrophe and the failure to make job creation real.

A strong executive structure would allow Americans to see their government taking action—that‘s an area where Obama needs work.  He must use these precious weeks to do the rebuilding.

That‘s HARDBALL for now.  Thanks for being with us.

Right now, it‘s time for “THE ED SHOW” with Ed Schultz.

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