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updated 2/24/2011 11:47:10 AM ET 2011-02-24T16:47:10

Guests: David Corn, Pat Buchanan, Trish Regan, Howard Fineman, Marty Beil, Richard Socarides, Jonathan Allen, Steve McMahon, Todd Harris

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST:  America supports labor.

Let‘s play HARDBALL.

Good evening.  I‘m Chris Matthews down in Washington. 

Leading off tonight: Man alone.  Win or lose in Wisconsin, that state‘s governor is beginning to look like General Custer at the battle of the Little Big Horn.  Nobody‘s coming to the rescue.  The governors may have hoped—the governor out there may have hoped for reinforcements from fellow Republican conservative governors in other states, but they‘re not coming, and it looks like they‘re not coming at all.  This is Governor Walker‘s fight, and he‘s got to win it in Madison.

Here‘s one reason for Wisconsin‘s isolation.  A new “USA Today” Gallup poll shows that most Americans oppose stripping collective bargaining rights from public employees.  So are we getting the verdict?  Has Walker‘s showdown with the unions backfired for the Republicans?  Has it given a boost, a big boost, to the labor movement?  That‘s our top story tonight.

Another huge story today, President Obama as of today will not defend

will not defend the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act, DOMA.  His attorney general will not go into court to enforce either of the act‘s two big provisions, the one keeping the decisions of one state from affecting another state and the policy of the U.S. government itself, that only a marriage between a man and woman will be recognized under federal law.  That‘s a huge victory for gay rights activists and a big debate tonight here on HARDBALL.

And high noon a-comin‘.  The Republicans act like they‘re ready for a fight.  So do Democrats.  And history shows that when that‘s the case, you get a fight.  Watch this battle of chicken when neither truck wants to swerve.  Government shutdown on the way.  Both sides think this is a fight they can win, and who‘s right?

Plus, John Thune says he‘s sitting out the 2012 election for president because President Obama would be too tough to beat.  Well, that tells you what you need to know about how strong politically the president seems to be getting and why some Republicans, the smarter ones, are staying on the sidelines.  We‘re going to check in with the HARDBALL strategists on that point.a

And watch what happened when someone asked Newt Gingrich how he squares his personal marital history with his well-professed admiration for family values.  I love it when students get to ask the questions.

Finally, President Obama‘s expected to speak some time in the next half hour about Libya.  This could be a very important announcement.  It‘s coming at any minute, we believe.  We‘re going to bring you the statement live when it comes and also talk to Chuck Todd from the White House about what it may mean for the future.

Let‘s start in Wisconsin.  Marty Beil‘s the executive director of the Wisconsin chapter of AFSCME.  Mr. Beil, thanks for joining us.  You‘re standing in front of the state capitol, and I was thinking, is this the battle of the Alamo for labor in this country?  Is this the big one?

MARTY BEIL, EXEC. DIR., WISCONSIN AFSCME:  This is the defining moment.  This is ground zero for labor, starting here in Wisconsin.  We‘re going to make sure we win here in Wisconsin, Chris.

MATTHEWS:  What do you make of the fact that other guys, conservative Republican governors, are jumping on this?  Let‘s take a look.  Here‘s Chris Christie, who seems to have the hot hand among conservatives in the country, jumping on this issue.  Let‘s listen to what he has to say, and then I want your reaction, sir.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GOV. CHRIS CHRISTIE ®, NEW JERSEY:  I haven‘t gotten any cooperation yet from the unions in New Jersey on any level.  I asked the teachers last year—you all remember this.  We had to cut $820 million from K-12 education.  I said to the teachers union last year, You freeze your salary, just freeze it for one year, and contribute 1.5 percent of your salary to pay your health benefits, and I won‘t have to lay off one teacher.  And you know what they told me?  Go to hell.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Well, there you have the fighting words from a conservative governor.  It seems like this fight is spreading across the country.  Your reaction, sir.

BEIL:  Well, this is a much bigger issue than here in Wisconsin.  This is about taking workers‘ and citizens‘ voices away.  You know, trade unions are the last vestige of voices for the middle class.  And you know, the right wing, whether it‘s Christie or Walker or whoever it may be, wants to take that voice away.  That‘s what‘s happening here.  That‘s what‘s happening in New Jersey.  That‘s what‘s happening in Indiana.  That‘s what‘s happening in Ohio, in Florida, and other states.  This is a much bigger agenda than what happens here in Madison, Wisconsin.

MATTHEWS:  You know, sir, I grew up with the labor movement being big and strong (ph).  There used to be a term “big labor,” and you had guys like George Meaney.  And when I worked for Tip O‘Neil, they‘d come to Capitol Hill and people would light their cigars.  This—these—you guys had power.  Nobody messed with you.

And I look now, you got 7 percent of the private sector.  That‘s all you got, you know, 1 out of 13 or something in the entire private sector.  You got 7 percent organized.  Even among public employees, which you‘ve done a pretty good job in, you‘ve only got 36 percent.

Why is there such a puny percentage of organization, if it‘s still a movement?  Is it a labor movement?  Is it moving?  Or is it just holding on for life right now?

BEIL:  Well, I believe it is, and I think you see it right here in the people‘s house here in Wisconsin.  But also, you see it in Ohio, you see it in Indiana, you see it in Washington, all across this country.  I think we have a rebirth of the labor movement here.  You‘ll see labor get stronger and stronger and stronger.  I can‘t speak for the past, but I can speak for the future, and I know labor will be here one day longer than the right wing.

MATTHEWS:  OK, I want you to make a point now.  I‘m going to give you free advertising.  Take a minute and speak to the unorganized private sector employee out there making $30,000, $40,000 a year, somebody making an average income in this country, and maybe there are two people working and maybe they‘re making a little more.  Why should they organize?  Why should they join the labor movement, if you will, if it still is a movement?

BEIL:  Because labor movements are all about dignity in the workplace, and these folks who don‘t have unions have no dignity in the workplace.  They work at the beck and fancy of their employer.  And maybe they have a decent salary, maybe not.  Fringes probably not.  But the union brings dignity to the workplace, and that‘s what‘s very important, protections and dignity in the workplace.  And non-union people—

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  -- meeting that focused on the—

MATTHEWS:  Here‘s President Obama speaking on Libya.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  Secretary Clinton and I just concluded a meeting that focused on the ongoing situation in Libya.  Over the last few days my national security team has been working around the clock to monitor the situation there and to coordinate with our international partners about a way forward. 

First, we are doing everything we can to protect American citizens.  That is my highest priority.  In Libya, we‘ve urged our people to leave the country, and the State Department is assisting those in need of support. 

Meanwhile, I think all Americans should give thanks to the heroic work that‘s being done by our Foreign Service officers and the men and women serving in our embassies and consulates around the world.  They represent the very best of our country and its values. 

Throughout this period of unrest and upheaval across the region, the United States has maintained a set of core principles which guide our approach.  These principles apply to the situation in Libya. 

As I said last week, we strongly condemn the use of violence in Libya.  The American people extend our deepest condolences to the families and loved ones of all who‘ve been killed and injured.  The suffering and bloodshed is outrageous, and it is unacceptable.  So are threats and orders to shoot peaceful protesters and further punish the people of Libya.  These actions violate international norms, and every standard of common decency.  This violence must stop. 

The United States also strongly supports the universal rights of the Libyan people.  That includes the rights of peaceful assembly, free speech and the ability of the Libyan people to determine their own destiny. 

These are human rights.  They are not negotiable.  They must be respected in every country.  And they cannot be denied through violence or suppression. 

In a volatile situation like this one, it is imperative that the nations and peoples of the world speak with one voice and that that has been our focus. 

Yesterday, a unanimous U.N. Security council sent a clear message that it condemns the violence in Libya, supports accountability for the perpetrators and stands with the Libyan people. 

The same message, by the way, has been delivered by the European Union, the Arab League, the African Union, the Organization of the Islamic conference and many individual nations.  North and south, east and west, voices are being raised together to oppose suppression and support the rights of the Libyan people. 

I‘ve also asked my administration to prepare the full range of options that we have to respond to this crisis.  This includes those actions we may take and those we will coordinate with our allies and partners or those that we‘ll carry out through multilateral institutions. 

Like all governments, the Libyan government has a responsibility to refrain from violence, to allow humanitarian assistance to reach those in need and to respect the rights of its people.  It must be held accountable for its failure to meet those responsibilities and face the cost of continued violations of human rights. 

This is not simply a concern of the United States.  The entire world is watching.  And we will coordinate our assistance and accountability measures with the international community. 

To that end, secretary Clinton and I have asked Bill Burns, our under-secretary of state for political affairs, to make several stops in Europe and the region to intensify our consultations with allies and partners about the situation in Libya. 

I‘ve also asked Secretary Clinton to travel to Geneva on Monday, where a number of foreign ministers will convene for a session of the Human Rights Council.  There she‘ll hold consultations with her counterparts on events throughout the region and continue to ensure that we join with the international community to speak with one voice to the government and the people of Libya. 

And even as we are focused on the urgent situation in Libya, let me just say that our efforts continue to address the events taking place elsewhere, including how the international community can most effectively support the peaceful transition to democracy in both Tunisia and in Egypt. 

So let me be clear.  The change that is taking place across the region is being driven by the people of the region.  This change doesn‘t represent the work of the United States or any foreign power. It represents the aspirations of people who are seeking a better life.

As one Libyan said, “We just want to be able to live like human beings.”

“We just want to be able to live like human beings”—it is the most basic of aspirations that is driving this change.  And throughout this time of transition the United States will continue to stand up for freedom, stand up for justice and stand up for the dignity of all people. 

Thank you very much. 

MATTHEWS:  Howard Fineman joins me right now.  Howard, this—this was not much of a statement in terms of—I guess it‘s to get the headlines out there in terms of the people in the region.  He strongly condemns any action of any violence by the government.  Of course, it‘s been outrageous.  He calls it outrageous.  They‘ve been using mercenaries from Africa, from sub-Sahara Africa, to gun down their own people, young men, with semi-automatic weapons—pretty horrendous stuff.  I wonder if that was pretty tame language, given the horror that‘s going on in Tripoli.

HOWARD FINEMAN, HUFFINGTONPOST.COM, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  Well, I think it was.  He talked about intensifying consultations and preparing the full range of options and a lot of soft of diplomatic and Pentagon-ese that doesn‘t really say anything to the people in the region or to the people in the United States who have become fixated on what‘s going on in this part of the world.

MATTHEWS:  You know, Bill Kristol made a statement—you and I don‘t normally side with him, but he did make a statement today in “The Washington Post” that the president ought to get a little more aggressive.  Now, he‘s talking about using of armed forces, which is a typical Kristol kind of response.  But shouldn‘t the president be—look like he‘s doing something?

DAVID CORN, MOTHER JONES, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  Well, I think—you know, he could say we‘re collecting evidence, you know, we‘re watching, we‘re interviewing the defectors who are coming out.  There‘s talk about having a multi-lateral no-fly zone.  I have a friend whose husband is with the protest in Benghazi, and she hasn‘t spoken to him in a couple days, but when she was talking to him a day or two back, they were all asking the same question: Where‘s the United States?  They wanted to hear a little bit more.  They don‘t expect the U.S. or Obama to do anything for them, but they want to hear a little bit more.

MATTHEWS:  OK, let‘s try to do the analysis we do here—I think we do rather well, which is politics.  Is the president concerned that if he shows any kind of muscle here, any kind of interference, that it will somehow undermine the legitimacy of this new revolution?

FINEMAN:  Well, possibly, but I think he may be seduced a little bit by the success of his relative silence in Egypt.  I mean, Egypt—that thing was pushed along by the military, by a lot of very organized forces within the country, including their military, which was in close consultation with ours.

This is a very different situation.  Gadhafi is playing his hand in public in a very violent and crazy way, both in his own personal statements and in the violence he‘s unleashed there.

MATTHEWS:  Right.

FINEMAN:  So the proportionate response from the president I think needs to be more forceful both in his language and in the threat to—as David said, the no-fly zone, the taking of evidence.  We‘ve got to get more serious.  This is not Egypt.  Every one of these things is its own.  Barack Obama‘s natural inclination is caution.  That‘s often very good in a diplomat, but this is a different situation from Egypt.  And as somebody who‘s—like everybody else, who‘s watching him perform as a global leader, this seems a little—this seems a little—

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  This statement could have been put out by the first President Bush.  It has the aspect of an Arabist statement—I shouldn‘t be too strong here, but it doesn‘t have any dignity.  I mean, Ronald Reagan, to his credit, said “evil empire.”

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  He said, “Tear down this wall.”

CORN:  He called Gadhafi a mad dog, which might not have helped much back in those days.

MATTHEWS:  Right.

CORN:  But no doubt, the White House is scrambling to put together a response with allies and so forth.  But I think the president could have shown a little more passion—

MATTHEWS:  Why did he do this tonight?

CORN:  I think there‘s been a lot of demand for him to speak.  But if this is all he‘s saying, I‘m not sure it serves him that well unless he has a little more to offer because you could have guessed at all this.  What else did he have to say—

(CROSSTALK)

FINEMAN:  The other thing is we don‘t have control of the situation here, anymore than we really did in Egypt.  The difference is, in Egypt, other responsible people had control.  Here there isn‘t anybody.

MATTHEWS:  Let‘s hope some of the language reaches the people over there.  “Live like human beings” is a pretty personal statement about the situation there.  Anyway, thank you, Howard Fineman.  Thank you, David Corn.

Coming up: So much for talking or tacking to the center.  Gay marriage advocates are thrilled now that the Obama administration says it will no longer defend the constitutionality of DOMA, the Defense of Marriage Act.  Just happened today.  This is a big development, a big change in policy by this administration, now coming out almost in support of same-sex marriage, very close to it right now.

You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Wow.  Former White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel is, it looks like, the next mayor of Chicago.  Rahm cruised to victory yesterday‘s election.  He won 55 percent of the vote in a field of six candidates, avoided a runoff.  Carol Moseley Braun got about 9 percent.  According to “The Chicago Tribune,” Rahm won the predominantly white wards in his former congressional district up on the North Side, and he racked up strong margins in predominantly African-American neighborhoods, as well, a real across-the-board victory for him.  Rahm succeeds Richard Daley, who‘s been Chicago‘s mayor since ‘89.  What a victory for this guy.

We‘ll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Back to HARDBALL.  A huge reversal by this president, President Obama, and his attorney general, Richard—or Eric Holder today.  The Obama administration says it will no longer defend the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act, which presents—prevents, rather, the decision of one state on same-sex marriage to affect another state, and also says that only a marriage between a man and a woman will be recognized under federal law.  What will this decision by the Obama administration mean for the fight to legalize same-sex marriage?  And how will it play out politically in 2012?  Two great questions, two great guests.  Richard Socarides is president of Equality Matters and Pat Buchanan is an MSNBC political analyst.  Welcome.

Richard, it seems to me that the president of the United States has a constitutional responsibility to defend laws that have been signed by presidents.  Why do you think this president is not doing what you‘d normally consider his duty, which is defend the law?

RICHARD SOCARIDES, FORMER SENIOR ADVISER TO PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON: 

Well, he has a duty to enforce the law, which he is going to continue to do.

But, fundamentally, what he said today is, I don‘t believe this law is constitutional, and, because I believe it‘s constitutional, I‘m going to not continue to defend it.  He—he was obviously increasingly uncomfortable by doing this.  There are many other instances—

MATTHEWS:  Why wouldn‘t it be constitutional for states—I will be an advocate of what I think is fact, not a point of view, and that is that states get to set marriage laws. 

SOCARIDES:  Well, states—

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  We have always—

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Every state‘s been a little different.  Why can‘t a state set one law, another state set another law?  That‘s what DOMA says. 

SOCARIDES:  And they can.  And even after the president‘s action today, in theory, they will be able to do this. 

The president‘s action today relates to benefits and a challenge to that benefit section of the law, which says that the federal government doesn‘t have to pay benefits to people who are legally married in other states.

MATTHEWS:  So, that‘s the only part of the law he‘s not going to defend?

SOCARIDES:  That‘s the part of the law he‘s not defending.

MATTHEWS:  He‘s not going to defend the good faith and credit kind of thing? 

SOCARIDES:  Well, I think it will lead to the eventual overturning of the entire law.

MATTHEWS:  Pat, there‘s two provisions in DOMA, as you know.

PAT BUCHANAN, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  Right. 

MATTHEWS:  One says, if you‘re a Virginia, you don‘t have to do what Connecticut or Iowa are doing.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  And the other says the federal government—federal government for its purposes will not recognize any marriage except those between a man and a woman.  Your view on the president‘s decision today? 

BUCHANAN:  Well, I think the president‘s position has changed, as you pointed out, Chris, and we have got to ask why he did. 

Has he been sitting down studying the Constitution?  Of course not.  This is a political decision.  There‘s no doubt he‘s under great pressure from his political base, part of which is the gay rights and the more militant gay rights community.

And I think he simply capitulated.  Chris, we have a very weak president, quite frankly.  You take a look.  He did not face fiscal financial disaster.  You saw his statement on Libya.  The man is not a strong leader. 

And I think what he and Holder are doing—

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Who have been strong presidential leaders in your lifetime? 

BUCHANAN:  Well, I think—well, frankly, Richard Nixon was strong. 

Harry Truman was strong.  I think Ronald Reagan was a strong leader.

I think, in some ways, though I disagreed with him, Bush was, Bush II. 

SOCARIDES:  Actually, you know, I think this shows incredibly strong leadership.  And I think it builds on the momentum that the president and the White House—

(CROSSTALK)

SOCARIDES: -- don‘t ask, don‘t tell.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Why did he change his mind, to get to Pat‘s point?

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  I think the country is changing its mind.  Is he changing his mind? 

(CROSSTALK)

SOCARIDES:  Well, I think he says he‘s in the middle of an evolution, but I think what you see is that they saw the success don‘t ask, don‘t tell, the repeal of don‘t ask, don‘t tell had.  It was singularly the most popular—

(CROSSTALK)

BUCHANAN:  Politically popular—

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  You‘re sitting next to someone who doesn‘t believe in evolution. 

(CROSSTALK)

SOCARIDES:  The most important and the most popular thing the president did. 

(CROSSTALK)

BUCHANAN:  But popular—you use the word popular.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  I think the president is in the middle of an evolution.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  OK, maybe, but let‘s state.  Here he was in December of last year talking about his feelings on this issue of same-sex marriage, where he opposed it, remember.  Let‘s listen. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, DECEMBER 22, 2010)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  My feelings about this are constantly evolving.  I struggle with this. 

I have friends, I have people who work for me who are in powerful, strong, long-lasting gay or lesbian unions, and they are extraordinary people, and this is something that means a lot to them and they care deeply about. 

At this point, what I have said is, is that my baseline is a strong civil union that provides them the protections and the legal rights that married couples have.  And I think—and I think that‘s the right thing to do. 

But I recognize that, from their perspective, it is not enough.  And I think this is something that we‘re going to continue to debate and I personally am going to continue to wrestle with going forward. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Well, he‘s wrestling with it to the point now he says he will not defend the constitutionality of a bill which basically works against it. 

Here‘s the poll, to make your point, Pat, latest polling.  Pew poll, not a right-wing poll by any standards, 48 percent of the country, of Americans oppose gay marriage -- 42 percent support it, as a whole, the country. 

When you break it down to just independents, which we‘re always fighting for in political debates here, 44 percent were in favor, 43 percent not. 

So, the independent voter is slightly—in fact, let‘s just call it 50/50 on the line.  So, the Democrats tend to be for it, the liberals are for it.  Conservatives are against it.

No surprise there.  What do you think?  It‘s not clearly a big benefit to him among independents, so why is he doing it?

BUCHANAN:  I said first it‘s his base. 

But, Chris, look at this.  Here‘s a man almost 50 years old, a constitutional lawyer presumably.  Moral truth doesn‘t change because of polls, and the Constitution doesn‘t change because of polls. 

How are you grappling and evolving with an issue when we know the law and we know the Constitution?

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Pat, the Constitution and the way we interpret it obviously does change. 

(CROSSTALK)

BUCHANAN:  Well, you can change the interpretation, but you cannot change the Constitution. 

(CROSSTALK)

SOCARIDES:  I was going to say, he really has been clear on this from the start. 

He said that this law—even when he was running for president, he said this law was unfair and was wrong and should be repealed.  What he‘s doing now is bringing the government, bringing the Justice Department in line—

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Let‘s talk about the world we live in. 

BUCHANAN:  Sure.

MATTHEWS:  Plessy-Ferguson said it was all right to have separate but equal in schooling. 

SOCARIDES:  The world is changing.

MATTHEWS:  Brown came along, right, the Warren court—

BUCHANAN:  Brown was based on sociology. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  And Brown basically said you can‘t -- 

(CROSSTALK)

BUCHANAN:  It was based on sociology.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Right. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Well, this may well be based on sociology. 

BUCHANAN:  Well—

(LAUGHTER)

(CROSSTALK)

SOCARIDES:  Pat, the world is changing.  You have to agree the world is changing.

(CROSSTALK)

BUCHANAN:  Richard, if you don‘t like DOMA, I can understand it.  Put something up to the Congress of the United States and change it. 

SOCARIDES:  Well, that‘s what he tried to do.  But if you can‘t do it

--

(CROSSTALK)

BUCHANAN:  Don‘t send the Department of Justice—

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  OK.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  You know what?  And that is a good, defensible, Scalia-type position. 

SOCARIDES:  That‘s right. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Judge Scalia once said when I interviewed him, “I like laws.”  Congress should take these issues on. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  But this Congress isn‘t going to do it.

(CROSSTALK)

SOCARIDES:  This president said that, my first choice would be to have Congress repeal it, but I can‘t get it.

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Politics.  Can I ask you a political question, Richard?

SOCARIDES:  Yes. 

MATTHEWS:  Will this help him with gay groups? 

SOCARIDES:  It will help a lot.  This is a very significant—

(CROSSTALK)

BUCHANAN:  I don‘t think it will help with our crowd. 

(CROSSTALK)

(LAUGHTER)

SOCARIDES:  Well, but this is—listen, the mood of the country is changing.  Discrimination against gay people is no longer popular. 

(CROSSTALK)

SOCARIDES:  You showed those polls, but some of the other polls are even—

(CROSSTALK)

SOCARIDES: -- 50/50.  

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Very quick point, 10 seconds. 

BUCHANAN:  Look, moral truth exists, and it doesn‘t change.  And all things are not equal, Richard. 

SOCARIDES:  But people‘s views on these things change.  Pat, even you‘re evolving on this, Pat.  I can tell.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  You‘re not going to change his mind by—

(CROSSTALK)

SOCARIDES:  Yes, I‘m going to change his mind.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Richard Socarides and Pat Buchanan.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  This is not a physical argument here.

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  Thank you, Richard Socarides.

Thank you, Pat Buchanan. 

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  A very good debate here tonight.  I thought it was very civilized. 

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  Up next:  Newt Gingrich is probably running for president, so today he heard from a student.  A college kid asked him about his own marital history.  You know, it‘s great.  Sometimes, reporters aren‘t as nervy as these college kids.  He just said a great question to this guy.  We‘re going to watch this.  It‘s part of politics.  It‘s in the “Sideshow,” where Newt always belongs.

You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Back to HARDBALL.  Time fort “Sideshow.” 

First up: an affair to forget.  Newt Gingrich yesterday was pressed by a University of Pennsylvania student on how he squares his known and admitted extramarital affair during the Clinton impeachment with his own family values conservatism. 

Let‘s watch the reaction. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  My question for you, Mr. Gingrich, is, as a successful politician who is considering running for president, how you would set the bar for moral conduct, and as a trusted voice of the American people, how do you reconcile this—this hypothetical interpretation of the religious values that you so vigorously defend? 

NEWT GINGRICH, FORMER SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE:  OK.  Now, that you I hope feel better about yourself --.

(LAUGHTER)

GINGRICH:  I will be totally candid.  I have had a life which has had

which, on occasion, has had problems.  I believe in a forgiving God. 

The American people will have to decide whether that‘s their primary concerns. 

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Well, anyway, that‘s the kind of question that happens when young people who aren‘t afraid to ask tough questions get close to big-time politicians.  In this case, that kid was a College Democrat. 

Next:  Scott Walker gets pranked.  Everyone is trying to get a direct line to the union-fighting governor of Wisconsin, so consider this.  Yesterday, a man posing as billionaire financier David Koch got straight through to Walker‘s office and secretly taped this telephone conversation.  Listen as Governor Walker compares himself to Ronald Reagan. 

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)  

GOV. SCOTT WALKER ®, WISCONSIN:  Thirty years ago, Ronald Reagan, whose 100th birthday we just set celebrated the day before, had one of the his most defining moments of his political career, not just his presidency, when he fired the air traffic controllers. 

That was the first crack in the Berlin Wall in the fall of communism, because, from that point forward, the Soviets and the communists knew that Ronald Reagan wasn‘t a pushover. 

And I said, this may not have as broad world implications, but in Wisconsin‘s history—little did I know how big it would be nationally—in Wisconsin‘s history, I said, this is our moment.  This is our time to change the course of history. 

(END AUDIO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  One fat, big difference here.  Ronald Reagan fired the air traffic controllers who had endorsed him in the previous campaign after they wildcatted, in violation of a union-approved contract, big difference between that and what Walker is doing to the free labor of Wisconsin. 

Time now for tonight‘s “Big Number,” the latest Republican talking point—catch this—President Obama is apologizing for America.  Let‘s watch.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SARAH PALIN ®, FORMER ALASKA GOVERNOR:  I do not believe the majority of Americans share the same views that Barack Obama does when he‘s out there apologizing for America‘s exceptionalism. 

MITT ROMNEY ®, FORMER MASSACHUSETTS GOVERNOR:  I will not and I will never apologize for America. 

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

ROMNEY:  I don‘t apologize for America, because I believe in America. 

DONALD RUMSFELD, FORMER U.S. SECRETARY OF DEFENSE:  I think he has made a practice of trying to apologize for America.  I, personally, am proud of America. 

TIM PAWLENTY ®, FORMER MINNESOTA GOVERNOR:  Mr. President, stop apologizing for our country. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Wow.  I think they pass these things around. 

Anyway, “The Washington Post” fact-checked that claim.  Their rating:

four out of four possibly Pinocchios, a rating reserved for the biggest whoppers of all.  Republicans claim that the president is an apologist earns four Pinocchios—tonight‘s “Big Number.” 

Up next:  Republicans think the public is behind them if they—well, if and when the budget standoff leads to a government shutdown.  We will see.  Or will President Obama be the big winner, just like Bill Clinton was back in ‘95? 

And if you missed our documentary on Bill Clinton, you have got to watch it.  It‘s online.  It‘s so easy to go to.  Just to go HARDBALL.MSNBC.com, or go to MSNBC, look up the HARDBALL icon and punch it. 

You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TRISH REGAN, CNBC CORRESPONDENT:  Hi there, everyone.  I‘m Trish Regan with your CNBC “Market Wrap.”

A second day of declines, as oil tops $100 a barrel, the Dow tumbling 107 points, the S&P off five—the S&P 500 slipping eight -- 500 would be quite a big deal—the Nasdaq Composite Index off 33, 2722 the closing level there.

Lots and lots of concerns about oil today, but the energy companies, take a look at this, they were in the spotlight again today, as oil continues to climb on concerns about all this unrest in the Middle East.  What does it mean?  Higher oil prices, therefore higher stock prices, more profits for the oil companies, investors bidding those stock prices higher today. 

Hewlett-Packard plunging after lowering next year‘s revenue outlook on weak demand and disappointing results from its services arm.  Apple up slightly after shareholders rejected demands that it share its succession plans for CEO Steve Jobs. 

And home improvements giants Lowe‘s, also Home Depot slipping today despite better-than-expected quarterly profits from Lowe‘s today and strong results from Home Depot on Tuesday, including news that the company was boosting its dividend and full-year outlook. 

Finally, homebuilders, they struggled today, despite a jump in mortgage applications and home sales, on word that home prices, they fell to their lowest level in nearly nine years in January.  So, the pain still there for the real estate market. 

That‘s it from CNBC.  We‘re first in business worldwide.  I‘m Trish Regan—now back to HARDBALL. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, maybe I‘m wrong, but I‘m usually right about these things.  I think there‘s a fight coming.  And I think the fight is going to lead us to a shutdown of the federal government for a period of time. 

Welcome back to HARDBALL. 

If Congress doesn‘t pass some kind of government spending bill by next Friday, the 4th of March, then the federal government is going to shut down, lights out, doors shut, and closed for business. 

Is it really going to happen?  And who will be the winners and losers if it does? 

MSNBC‘s political analyst Howard Fineman is with the Huffington Post, and Jonathan Allen covers Congress for Politico.

Gentlemen, you both know what is going on.  What‘s the latest on the fight?  Will there be one? 

HOWARD FINEMAN, NBC CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT:  Well, the latest on the fight is that the Republicans are now trying to look like they‘re the reasonable ones here, and they‘re putting out word that they are willing to do a short extension on the House side, a short extension from March 4, for a couple weeks, only take a little bite out of the budget, try to force the president to accept that as a kind of appetizer for the big meal to come later. 

But they want to show they‘re reasonable, because they‘re going to dare the president to say, I will veto that, too, even though they‘re only talking about $3 billion or $4 billion worth of cuts over a two-week period.

MATTHEWS:  So this pissant little cut they can get the Democrats to say no to, they win? 

FINEMAN:  That‘s what they think. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Well, it sounds like—I hate to say it, but it sounds like a smart move.

FINEMAN:  I think it is.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Is that the smart move, Jonathan, to just say you guys are opposed to government cuts in principle? 

JONATHAN ALLEN, POLITICO.COM:  That‘s right.  You have got a binary and mutually exclusive situation here, where Senate Democrats want to extend to March 30 without cutting a single penny.  John Boehner says he won‘t vote for a bill, he won‘t put a bill on the floor unless it does cut some money, as Howard said, $2 billion a week for the next two weeks through March 18 on the House side.

Somebody‘s going to give here.  This isn‘t a matter of negotiation with these mutually exclusive goals.  Someone is going to lose this fight, or we will have a government shutdown.  A lot of people think that means the American people lose. 

MATTHEWS:  OK. 

We argue about this all the time here with the producers, and I have got to tell you, the principle of government spending cuts always wins, the reality, not so sure. 

Howard, if the sure is principles, should there be any cuts?  The country overwhelmingly says there ought to be some cut.  If it‘s my Social Security check or Medicare bill or whatever, no, OK?

But right now, it‘s sort of the principle.  Haven‘t the Republicans found the high ground with a little puny 4 percent cut?

HOWARD FINEMAN, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  The move they have made—the move they have made on the chessboard, yes, because they say—and I haven‘t looked at the details of this $2 billion a week would be—

MATTHEWS:  General government.

FINEMAN:  Yes.  They‘re going to find some way to make it sound inconsequential.  And it‘s not going to affect anybody.

MATTHEWS:  How about NPR?

FINEMAN:  You know, whatever, it‘s not going to affect anybody.  It‘s going to come out of the president‘s teleprompter budget or whatever.

MATTHEWS:  Right.

FINEMAN:  So, they‘re going to try and make it seem so inconsequential for the president and the Democrats to reject it.

MATTHEWS:  Will the Democrats go for the debate or will they say just stand up and say, no cuts, no time, we did our cuts last time?

FINEMAN:  I think they may be forced to go for it.

MATTHEWS:  OK.  What do you think?  Will they break and run, Jon?  In other words, all you need is about—on the Senate side, about four to pop and say, I‘m not taking that hit.  Ben Nelson—I‘m running for reelection in Nebraska, I‘m not going to be the guy that held out against any cuts in the federal government.

JONATHAN ALLEN, POLITICO:  That‘s right.  A huge portion of the Senate Democrats are up for reelection this time.  Republicans are hoping to throw the hot potato to Harry Reid while he‘s got his hands tied by these Democrats who are going to want to vote for spending cuts.  There‘s no question about it.  They‘re going to want to be able to go home.

And that‘s one of the reasons this is different from 1995.  The public opinion on spending cuts on deficits is different right now than it was back then.

MATTHEWS:  Yes.  You‘re with—you‘re with Gene Robinson on that.  He wrote the other—he‘s a liberal columnist.  He‘s on the show all the time.

He says he thinks he‘s not sure that this is a—that this is a dunk for the Democrats, that the shutdown of the government, if it‘s about spending cuts, the Republicans may be able to craft a fight to their advantage.  It looks like they‘re doing it, at least in a fine way today.

What do you think?  Is that right, Jon?  Can they win this fight if they fight it on principle, not on hurting people?

ALLEN:  I think that‘s absolutely right, Chris.  I think they got an easier position to defend here, that if Democrats can‘t find $1 that they‘re willing to cut from the government, that‘s not going to play well with the public.  Everybody thinks that there‘s something that can be cut.  Some people think it‘s the F35 or bombers.  Other people think it‘s the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

MATTHEWS:  Got you.  Thanks, guys.

Howard agrees with you, I think.  Anyway—

FINEMAN:  I do.

MATTHEWS:  He does.  He shook his head.  He‘s with you, likes (INAUDIBLE).

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  Anyway, thank you, Howard Fineman, my great man and friend. 

Jonathan Allen, as well, thank you—smart guy.

Up next: did you catch what Senator John Thune said about President Obama when he announced he wasn‘t going to run against him?  It‘s one of the rare times that the guy says I can‘t beat you.  What an amazing comment for a politician to say it‘s about politics.

Well, how strong is the president right now?  Our strategists are going to join us to talk about how fit the president is to get reelected right now.

You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Well, you can score another victory for President Obama‘s health care overhaul.  A federal judge upheld the constitutionality of the law today.  Judge Gladys Kessler of the federal district court for the District of Columbia became the third federal judge to validate the Obamacare bill.  Two other federal judges have struck down the key provision of the law, the individual mandate, which is a tricky part.

So, if you‘re keeping score, it‘s now 3-2 with the three judges who upheld the law, all Democratic appointees; while the two who have struck it down are Republican appointees.  I guess judges have opinions.

We‘ll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.

Republican Senator John Thune gave an unusually honest answer on why he chose to sit out the 2012 presidential race.  He came to the conclusion, he said, that President Obama would be tough to beat, calling the president a shrewd politician.  He said, quote, “As I observed his response and reaction to the midterm election, that was all part of my assessment of the landscape.  Any incumbent is a tough race, and he‘s no exception.  I think he‘s got plenty of vulnerabilities, but I also observed how adept politically he was.”

Well, does the GOP have a uphill climb to take Obama down, make him a one-termer?

Let‘s listen to our strategists, McMahon—Steve McMahon and Todd Harris.

Gentlemen, I‘ve never heard a fald (ph) admit he‘s a fald before.

STEVE MCMAHON, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST:  Yes, he was very honest.  He

was very honest.  He‘s right.  Incumbents are always difficult, an

incumbent with $1 billion, and that‘s what the Obama campaign has said

they‘re going to raise this time, and rising poll numbers because he‘s come

to the middle going to be especially difficult.  I think it was an astute -

-

           

MATTHEWS:  But Thune—excuse me to keep this rolling, but Thune was one of your guys I thought that was inoffensive, likable, lanky, western like Gary Cooper type, without being too religious in a bad way, but yet acceptable to the far—you know what I mean, like you.

TODD HARRIS, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST:  Yes, look, he would have been a formidable candidate, unlike me, but this is hardly a red-letter day.  This is not a banner headline.  First of all, I could have told you six months ago that I didn‘t think John Thune was going to run for president.

MCMAHON:  But you didn‘t.  But you didn‘t, in fact, we talk about it.

MATTHEWS:  But the list is growing.

HARRIS:  Wait, hold on, hold on.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Jeb‘s not running.  They started to make a list.

HARRIS:  Jeb was never planning on running.  Christie said he hasn‘t been in office long enough.  John Thune wasn‘t preparing a presidential campaign back when the president‘s numbers were in the tank.  So, no one should be surprised now that he‘s following through on that.

MCMAHON:  He was warming up for one.  He was warming up for one.  And he was one of the people that Republicans talked about.  He went to the CPAC convention last week, gave a speech that wasn‘t very inspirational, I‘m told, I heard.  And, of course, he voted for the financial bailout, which I think among conservatives makes it a difficult run for him in a primary.  And he‘s from a state where it‘s hard to raise money.

So, there are a lot of things that sort of—that were sort of lined up against him, would have made it hard, and I think he made a very smart decision for a political career of a young man.

HARRIS:  Here‘s the real politics.  This has far more to do with his belief that Republicans are going to take over the Senate in two years than his belief that, you know, somehow Obama can‘t be beat.

MATTHEWS:  But you are being left with the crazies now, or still in contention and the real people are getting out this race.  Jeb, Christie, these guys are real people.  Now, the whacks are still there.  You got Huckabee is still running.

Now, Huckabee runs—he‘s a lunatic.  You got Huckabee saying he‘s going to clear out all the Arabs in the West Bank, just get rid of all.  This is why—I‘ve never heard a politician in America say interfere in a country, he wants to get rid—talk about ethnic cleansing?  He says he‘s going to do it.

HARRIS:  Well, I‘m not sure he‘s going to run.

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Good.  It will be good for you if he‘s not.

Let‘s talk about this thing that I really think is below the belt.  It‘s a question of whether anybody on the right or left should be attacking the other person‘s spouse.  Now, here‘s Rush Limbaugh on Monday.  Let‘s catch the Rushbaugh here.  He is targeting Michelle Obama.  Here he is on Monday, as I said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RUSH LIMBAUGH, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST:  The problem is, and dare I say this, it doesn‘t look like Michelle Obama follows her on nutritionary, dietary advice.  And then we hear that she‘s out eating ribs at 1,500 calories a serving, with 41 grams of fat.  I‘m trying to say that our first lady does not project the image of women that you might see on the cover of the “Sports Illustrated” swimsuit issue.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Well, he doesn‘t look like he lives in a cage of lettuce either, that guy.  But here‘s the question I have to ask you: Is this OK?  First of all, who wants to compare themselves to swimsuit people, the cover of “Sports Illustrated”—they‘re models.  What a ridiculous comparison to make anybody had to live up to.  Your thoughts.

HARRIS:  Look—

MATTHEWS:  What‘s he doing this for?

HARRIS:  I don‘t know.  I don‘t even know what to say about that.  I think for the first lady to come out and say people ought to eat healthy, you know, that‘s about the least controversial thing you could possibly say.  I think for both sides, you know, lay off the first ladies, lay off the spouses, lay off the kids.  Just—

MATTHEWS:  Well, here‘s congressman --   well, here‘s responded to congresswoman—or actually Michelle Obama‘s breastfeeding remarks last week.  Quote, “No wonder Michelle Obama is telling everybody you better breastfeed your baby.  Yes, you better because the price of milk is so high.”

What is this all about, Steve?  Why are they going after her?

MCMAHON:  You know, I don‘t know why they‘re going after her.  If you look at her numbers, it‘s actually not very smart politically to go after her because she‘s a very, very popular figure.  She‘s doing things that are good for the country.  She‘s talking about kids getting more exercise, eating better and weighing less, which is—which is one of the best things we can do to lower health care costs over the long term and eliminate diabetes.  I don‘t know why anyone would go after her.

MATTHEWS:  Well, why would Palin trash the first lady for talking about breast feeding.  Here‘s what the first lady or actually governor of Alaska said back in 2007.  Quote, “Breastfeeding Awareness Month in Alaska,” saying at the same time she would “encourage all residents to recognize and support the importance contributions breastfeeding makes in improving the quality of life for all Alaskans.”  So, there she is absolutely speaking with a forked tongue, having endorsed the policy or the advice for health reasons, and then trashing the first lady.

Does she remember what she said four years ago?

MCMAHON:  No.  The answer is no.

HARRIS:  As you know, I‘m not always quick to defend Sarah Palin on this show, but I think she was trying to make a joke, you know?

MCMAHON:  How did that go for her?  How did that whole jokey thing go?

MATTHEWS:  What is going on?  It used to be it was out of bounds, this kind of stuff, attacking spouses.

HARRIS:  It should be.  It should be.

MATTHEWS:  Michelle Obama has stayed out of politics pretty much.

HARRIS:  It should be out of bounds.

MCMAHON:  Well, I mean, it should be out of bounds.  And frankly, I think some of the things that go on in politics routinely ought to also be out of bounds.  I thought the question that was asked of Newt Gingrich about the way he left his wife was something that probably in political discourse doesn‘t need to be present.  The notion that we‘re going to attack people for what goes in their family, outside of their public lives, outside of the positions they take, is something that frankly is relatively new in politics.

MATTHEWS:  You know, I think it‘s race, too, again.  I rarely race this flag, but I think there‘s disdain from people like Limbaugh for this first family as a family.  There‘s a disdain towards them.  He wouldn‘t talk about another first family who were white like this.  He has a disdain which has come on.

And again and again, Beck has it, too.  It‘s ethnic disdain.  And they feel happy doing this, because they know their followers out there like it.  They‘re in the business of keeping a radio listenership.  They know it doesn‘t offend their type ditto heads, or they wouldn‘t be saying it.

HARRIS:  Well, I don‘t think—I don‘t think it has anything to do with ethnicity.  There was a disdain on the left for George Bush and the Bush family.

MATTHEWS:  Who went after Laura Bush?

MCMAHON:  Nobody.

MATTHEWS:  Who went after Barbara Bush?

HARRIS:  The disdain of the Bush family fueled the rise of an entire radio network.

MATTHEWS:  You want to give me a list of any attack by anybody on the left, center-left or anywhere Laura Bush ever.

MCMAHON:  I have never seen it.

MATTHEWS:  Any attack on Barbara Bush ever?

HARRIS:  Look, the level of vitriol aimed at Bush and the Bush family was—

MCMAHON:  It wasn‘t for the Bush family.  And it was for taking us into war in Iraq, it was for ruining the economy, spending—

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Usually, usually, you exercise discretion on this program.  You can defend anything.  These full mooners now, you‘re defending, attacking the guy‘s wife is—

HARRIS:  I‘m not defending attacking their wives.  I‘m saying that it‘s happened on both sides.

MATTHEWS:  Steve McMahon—this hasn‘t happened before like this. 

Thank you.  This is about race.  Thank you, Steve McMahon and Todd Harris.

When we return, “Let Me Finish” with who has the real power on the right.  It‘s scary.  It‘s people like that.  It‘s not who you think.

You‘re watching HARDBALL, only the MSNBC.  It‘s the Glenn Beck types.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  “Let Me Finish” tonight with a stunning development on the American right.

If you haven‘t noticed the real power vortexes on the right these days are not elected public officials or even candidates.  People who have to win majorities are no longer leaders.  The leaders now on the right are the people behind the mike, the people in the radio booth, the people who have to connect only with the fringe as long as it‘s an excitable fringe.

Here‘s what I‘m talking about.  Here‘s U.S. Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, quote, “We need to simply tell the feel the facts, like Glenn Beck with the chalkboard.  That man can explain anything.  I think if we give Glenn Beck the numbers, he can solve this.”

She‘s talking about the budget.  Are you ready for this?  Here‘s an elected member of Congress with a significant staff of legislative and policy assistance, with access to the Congressional Budget Office and the staffs of all the major fiscal committees—appropriations, budget, ways and means—and she‘s saying that her best bet for numbers and analysis, her best bet to solve the government‘s deficits and growing debt challenge lies with Glenn Beck.

Glenn Beck who said recently the administrations of the two President Bushes acted to protect the future capital of the coming caliphate that will stretch from the Mideast through Europe—the man who sees the Bush family, father and son, as agents of the caliphate as our best bet to solve our fiscal challenge?

Beck, the guy who regularly says, “Shoot me in the head,” and tells his listeners to shoot other people in the head and tell us to store food in our basements and warned us just today that the U.S. dollar will become, as he put it, quote, “toilet paper”?  That he has the faculty of shrinking the federal deficit?

Well, this is what the right is descending to: politicians trying to curry support on the fringe and going to the fringe for their own solutions.

If you can follow Beck‘s reasoning, if you truly listen to this guy, why would any sane person say we should take his counsel involving matters involving the real world?

Listening to Bachmann listening to Beck, you would get the idea that the American right—at least their corner of it—has just jumped head first into the twilight zone.

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

More politics ahead with Cenk Uygur.

           

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