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updated 2/28/2011 12:44:24 PM ET 2011-02-28T17:44:24

Guests: Richard Wolffe, Richard Engel, Sherrod Brown, Martin O‘Malley, Eric Bates, John Pike, Josh Gerstein, Robin Wright

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST:  Workers of the world divide?

Let‘s play HARDBALL.

Good evening.  I‘m Chris Matthews in Philadelphia. 

Leading off tonight: Divide and conquer.  Rahm Emanuel famously said you never want a serious crisis to go to waste, and that seems to be the attitude among Republican governors: Do something, you need to do, fix that budget crisis, by doing something you want to do, shrink the power of public employee unions.  It‘s happening from Wisconsin to Indiana to Ohio to Florida to New Jersey.  The question tonight, who‘s going to win this one?

Plus, here‘s a story right out of “The Manchurian Candidate.”  “Rolling Stone” magazine reports that the Army, the U.S. Army, used experts in psychological operations—psy-ops—on U.S. senators to brainwash the senators into backing the war in Afghanistan.  I thought only North Korea did this stuff.

Also, in Libya today, more and more cities have fallen to anti-government forces, as the noose seems to be tightening around Gadhafi.  He‘s been using mercenaries to kill rebels by the thousands, or hundreds, in fact.  One effect, spiking oil prices here in this country.  We‘re going to get the latest from Richard Engel.  And he‘s in Tripoli, or somewhere in Libya.  We‘re not sure.

And what‘s behind the Obama administration‘s decision to not enforce the Defense of Marriage Act?  We‘re going to nail the politics of that decision.

Finally, it was Rumsfeld versus Jon Stewart on “The Daily Show” last night.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JON STEWART, HOST, “THE DAILY SHOW WITH JON STEWART”:  I think I know why you‘re here.  And let me just deflate the tension right off of the bat.  Apology accepted.

(LAUGHTER)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Well, good for Jon Stewart.  It‘s in the “Sideshow” tonight, but nothing funny about it.

Let‘s begin with the Republican assault on unions.  Senator Sherrod Brown is an Ohio Democrat, and Maryland governor Marty O‘Malley is chairman of the Democratic Governors Association.

Gentlemen, it‘s great to have you on.  This is one of the most interesting political fights we‘ve come along in a long time.  You have Republican governors in states where they dominate their legislatures—

Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Michigan and Wisconsin.  They own those states politically.  They‘re using this unique ability of power, really, to destroy one of their enemies, it seems.

Is that your assessment, Senator Brown?

SEN. SHERROD BROWN (D), OHIO:  Yes, that‘s—I mean, Governor Kasich won the election in the fall—in a, you know, huge Republican year, won by 2 points, and acts like he has a mandate to go after the union movement.

Collective bargaining, as you know, Chris, is a 75-year-plus tradition in this country.  It‘s a moral question.  It‘s why we have a middle class.  It‘s why people that work with their hands or work with their brains and create something and grow a business or grow or support a public service, teaching, police, fire, health care, Head Start, whatever, that they contribute, and their reasonable adequately rewarded for that.  And there‘s nothing to me more American than that value of working hard and being able to have a middle-class lifestyle as a result.

MATTHEWS:  Governor O‘Malley, your colleague up there—your Republican colleague, I should point out—up in Wisconsin got a phone call.  It‘s one of those prank calls.  They‘re sometimes very useful to figure out where a guy‘s coming from, or a woman‘s coming from, because in this case, he thought that he was talking to one of his benefactors, I think, David Koch, the big conservative money guy.

Let‘s listen to that conversation because this is probably better than any press conference because he doesn‘t know he‘s being listened to by us.  Let‘s listen.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

GOV. SCOTT WALKER ®, WISCONSIN:  I talk to Kasich every day.  You know, John‘s got to stand firm in Ohio.  I think we do the same thing with Rick Scott in Florida.  I think Snyder—if he got a little bit more support, probably could do that in Michigan.  When you start going down the list, you know, a lot of us—there‘s a lot of us new governors who got elected to do something big.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  You‘re the first domino.

WALKER:  Yes.  This is our moment.

(END AUDIO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  “This is our moment.”  You know, I was thinking of the movie, Governor O‘Malley—I was think of the movie “Goonies,” where the kids were going after One-Eyed Willy (ph), and they said, “This is our moment.”

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  You know what I‘m talking about.  “This is our moment”?

GOV. MARTIN O‘MALLEY (D), MARYLAND:  Oh!

MATTHEWS:  What is he talking about, Governor—

O‘MALLEY:  Oh, I don‘t know.

MATTHEWS:  -- that this is their chance to nail the unions?  It sounds like, you know, an astronomic opportunity to nail the other guy and it has nothing to do with the budget.

O‘MALLEY:  Chris, I‘ll tell you what else it has nothing to do with it.  It has nothing to do with job creation.  I mean, everyone in America, including in places like Wisconsin and Ohio, want their governors to be focused on creating jobs and getting people back to work.  And they want us to solve problems.  They don‘t want us to settle old political scores.

This is absolutely crazy.  It has nothing to do with what the people who elect us want us to do.  I mean, look, we‘ve had to have the difficult conversations in Maryland with our public employees unions, but we brought people to the table to solve the problems.  Were people happy?  No.  But we‘ve got to find a way to move forward.

This is absolutely crazy.  These guys apparently want to take advantage of the recession to drag us back to the days of Hoover and Coolidge.  This has nothing to do with creating jobs.

MATTHEWS:  Let‘s take a look at the game that the other side, the other governors, the Republican governors, seem to be playing here, and let‘s see if it‘s smart.  Here‘s governor Chris Christie in New Jersey talking about what seems to be a divide-and-conquer campaign on his part—in other words, get that modest resentment that you often get between the private and the public employees, where private employees obviously have less job security, that‘s the way that it is, looking at public employees, who seem to have more, or do have more, and work in that resentment line.

Here is Christie pushing that line, the governor of New Jersey.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GOV. CHRIS CHRISTIE ®, NEW JERSEY:  And in Wisconsin and Ohio, they‘ve decided there can no longer be two classes of citizens, one that receives rich health and pension benefits, and all of the rest, who are left to pay for them.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Indiana governor Mitch Daniels on the same talking points at a Republican dinner in Ohio just last night.  He called union members, quote, “the privileged elite,” and said public jobs grew while private jobs were lost.  Public salaries went up while private sector salaries are shrinking.  This is a divide-and-conquer strategy.  It‘s the talking point, Senator Brown.  What do you make of it?

BROWN:  Well, it takes me to the conservative politicians I hear in Columbus and in Washington, who have benefited from taxpayer-financed health insurance their whole lives, trying to repeal the health care bill and take benefits away from seniors and take benefits away from families with preexisting conditions.

I mean, this election in 2010 was all about the economy.  It wasn‘t about going after teachers and police and firefighters.  I had a roundtable today with a nurse, a teacher, a firefighter, a police officer and a couple of others—a couple of other state workers—state workers.  And you know, it was interesting because what the teacher said one of the things they bargain over collectively is class size.  And the police officer said one of the things that some police departments—some police officers do is bargain over actually having bulletproof vests.

So this is about safety.  It‘s about education.  It‘s not only about their wages, it‘s about lifting people in this country up.  And that‘s what collective bargaining‘s done is by creating the middle class for the last eight decades.

MATTHEWS:  Yes, that‘s true, and I agree with you philosophically completely, Governor.  But let‘s look at the facts in Ohio.  You got about 1 in 12 of private sector employees organized.  You‘re got a much bigger percentage, maybe two or three times that percentage of public employees.  Let me ask you—an opportunity here to talk about what goes on.  Is that because industry, the private sector, intimidates employees out of organizing?  Because public sector employees tend to organize much more frequently than private sector employees.  Why is that the case?

BROWN:  That‘s to me or to the governor?

MATTHEWS:  To you, Senator.

BROWN:  Yes, well, in part because the huge industrial job loss has been overwhelmingly good-paying union jobs that have been outsourced to China, gone to Mexico, whatever.  There have been very sophisticated, very expensive anti-union campaigns aimed at organizers when we try to organize.  I think almost all surveys show that many, many, many more people who aren‘t in unions would like to join, if they get an opportunity to.  But the laws don‘t always work that way in their favor.

And we would have a stronger middle class, we‘d have a more affluent society, more people would have pensions, more people would have health care.  I don‘t want to take it away from public sector workers, I want to help private sector workers get those benefits.

MATTHEWS:  Well, let‘s go to Governor O‘Malley on that point.  There seems to be a disconnect.  Every poll is fascinating to me, at least.  And I‘m fascinated by the fact that the public does believe we have to cut spending but—I think all governors believe in that.  But here‘s the question.  They don‘t—the public generally does not like taking away collective bargaining rights of public employees.

Have the governors of these states we‘ve mentioned, in Indiana, especially in Madison, Wisconsin, the governor out there, Governor—have they overreached politically?

O‘MALLEY:  I believe that they have.  What‘s more, I believe, Chris, that they‘re actually—I think their behavior and their desire to kind of sharpen their ideological axe on public employees unions is actually keeping them from solving the problem.

Governors—Democratic governors have actually had to also balance our budget every year.  We‘ve all had to cut spending.  We‘ve reduced the size of government.  But we‘ve done it in a way that focuses on solving the problem, not in a way that tries to punish our political enemies.

So you know, we‘ve asked a lot of our public employees for many of the same concessions they‘ve asked for in Wisconsin, but we‘re not going after the right of people to associate freely, to join unions if they should so choose, or to have collective bargaining.

And I think that‘s what you‘re seeing people reacting against.  They want us to solve problems and create jobs, not to try to drag us back to the days of Hoover and Coolidge and do away with unions.

MATTHEWS:  Back to Senator Brown.  Let‘s talk politics here, turkey.  Are governors like this newcomer out there, Scott Walker—are they working for the big right-wing people like David Koch, out there bankrolling the Federalist Society, out there paying for speech time for Clarence Thomas?  These guys have so much money, so much time on their hands, so much influence to peddle, it sounds like they‘re playing—they‘re beating the drum for every Republican who wants to make it in this country.  That‘s my hunch.

BROWN:  Well, you—yes, well, your hunch is right, I think.  Listen to—listen to the tape you just played about his conversations—

MATTHEWS:  Yes, who‘s working for who?

BROWN:  -- with all these other governors. yes, and—and I—you know, it‘s—we‘ve had conservative Republican governors.  Five of the six the last six governors‘ races in Ohio have been won by Republicans.  Governor Voinovich, a decent guy.  Governor Taft, a decent guy.  Not guys that were supported by unions, but they don‘t have this—this ideological hostility to the union movement.

They weren‘t particularly friendly to unions, but they didn‘t believe in putting out of business because I think 80 or 90 percent of the people in this country understand that we have a middle class because we‘ve had 75 years of management sitting down with labor, both sides have to give in the end.  Sometimes there‘s strikes.  We‘ve had significantly fewer strikes in Ohio since collective bargaining than we had before collective bargaining in the early ‘80s.  And we have figured this out as a country.

Now they want to dismantle that, and it clearly is an attack on the middle class and an attack on worker rights, collectively or individual worker rights.

O‘MALLEY:  Chris—

MATTHEWS:  Yes.

BROWN:  And it‘s just—it really is a moral question, ultimately, Chris.

O‘MALLEY:  Chris—

MATTHEWS:  Well, we‘ve figured out how to get through to Governor Walker in Madison, Wisconsin.  You want to make a direct call to him, just call up his secretary and say, Daddy Warbucks is on the line—

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  -- AKA David Koch, and you‘ll get right through.  You don‘t have to go through the executive assistant.  Your last word, Governor O‘Malley.

O‘MALLEY:  Chris, I just wanted to say that, you know, in the public sector/public sector, you have to work with the employees of any corporation in order to improve performance and accomplish meaningful things.  And these guys, if they were head of a private corporation, wouldn‘t last a second.  You‘ve got to bring your workers together.  You don‘t attack them and demoralize them.  You focus on solving problems and getting things done.  That‘s what we should be doing.

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Well, let me be the first to say to you, Governor, Happy St. Patrick‘s Day.  It‘s coming up soon.

O‘MALLEY:  Thanks.  Thanks a lot.

MATTHEWS:  Only three weeks off.  I know that you‘ll be playing the—

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Anyway, thank you, Senator Sherrod Brown.  Thank you, Governor Martin O‘Malley.

Up next: “Rolling Stone” magazine is reporting that the U.S. Army—this is the most amazing story! -- illegally ordered a team of soldiers in Afghanistan to run psychological operations, brainwashing operations, on visiting U.S. senators.  They‘re brainwashing the politicians to back the war effort.  The military‘s been trying to manipulate senators for years by providing troops, doing all this.  This is a great magazine break for “Rolling Stone.”  We‘re going to get to it, a hot, terrible story.

You‘re watching HARDBALL, from Philadelphia, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Well, the FBI says it‘s foiled a possible terror plot here at home.  Scary.  The former president, George H.—George Walker Bush—

W, Walker Bush—has been a target of this.  FBI agents arrested 20-year-old Khalid Aldawsari, a Saudi national.  He was arrested in Texas.  And agents say he was in the process of buying chemicals that could be used to make a powerful bomb.

Investigators also say they found documents in his home that show he‘d been planning an attack for years and was inspired by Osama bin Laden‘s speeches, as well as e-mails he sent himself, one of which was entitled “targets.”  It listed the home address of former president George W. Bush in Dallas.  Scary, bad stuff.

HARDBALL back after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  Just month after ending General Stanley McChrystal‘s military career with a big profile piece, “Rolling Stone” magazine reports another U.S. general in the spotlight.  This time, it‘s Lieutenant General William Caldwell, and the headline reads “Another runaway general.”  The story details how Caldwell, who‘s in charge of training Afghan troops, directed soldiers who specialized in so-called psychological operations to prepare background material and advise the general—him—on how to make the case to visiting American dignitaries for more resources and funding for the war effort.

This story names a number of high-profile leaders reportedly subjected to the effort.  Catch this, Senators John McCain, Joe Lieberman, Jack Reed, Carl Levin, Al Franken, along with Congressman Steve Israel and Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joints Chiefs.

Here‘s Senator Jack Reed reacting to the story about being brainwashed on MSNBC.  Let‘s listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JACK REED (D), RHODE ISLAND:  I think, first of all, it has to be clearly, I think, evaluated as to what went on.  What was the intent?  Were there any regulations violated? 

If there was, there has to be suitable punishment.  I didn‘t feel any

anything unusual going on.  And I think it‘s a result simply of trying to cast a vast net, talk to lots of people, not just in Kabul, but to go out on the ground. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Eric Bates is editor of “Rolling Stone,” and John Pike is a military analyst and director of GlobalSecurity.org. 

Gentlemen, let me start with this, Eric Bates.  Thank you.  Congratulations on this story.  I don‘t know if magazines are in still ineligible for the Pulitzer Prize, but you ought on win it with this baby.  This is astounding.  This is North Korea stuff.  This is “Manchurian Candidate,” the fact that we‘re using state-of-the-art psy-ops, brainwashing, to go after our own civilian people who are in charge of setting policy is amazing. 

Don‘t they give these generals copies of the Constitution, Eric? 

ERIC BATES, EDITOR, “ROLLING STONE”:  Well, apparently not in this case. 

(LAUGHTER)

BATES:  The general met him more than a dozen times with the leader of this unit, information operations unit. 

And—and one of the most striking things about this story is that the unit itself was protesting the order.  They were saying, look, we‘re not allowed to do this.  Federal law prohibits us from doing this.  Every defense bill has a propaganda rider to it forbidding us to do this.  And when they complained, they were ordered to doing it, and then they were investigated and reprimanded.  So—

MATTHEWS:  And given trumped-up charges, to boot. 

BATES:  That‘s right. 

So—so, you have a general who was very actively involved.  His chief of staff was saying things to this unit like, what do I have to plant in these guys‘ heads to get them to give us more—more people, clearly trying to rely on their expertise in psychological operations. 

MATTHEWS:  John Pike, I—I always remember “Manchurian Candidate.” 

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  I grew up very familiar.

And it‘s not funny.  You think it‘s funny.  I don‘t think it‘s funny at all.  I grew up with this stuff.

(LAUGHTER)

JOHN PIKE, GLOBALSECURITY.ORG:  I think it‘s preposterous. 

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  Why is it preposterous?  Tell me how. 

PIKE:  Well, you really have to wonder what else it is General Caldwell doesn‘t understand.  I mean, here he has long been an advocate of what he calls strategic communications, that you need to coordinate your public affairs operation, your government relations, and your propaganda against the enemy.

Well, that makes sense, but you have got to have different people doing it.  And if he doesn‘t understand that it would look bad to have his propaganda people talking to senators, you have to wonder, what else is it that he doesn‘t understand?

MATTHEWS:  Well, he didn‘t think that he‘d get caught.

PIKE:  Well, you always get caught. 

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  Well, you know what? 

PIKE:  No, I mean, you—you never do anything that you don‘t -- 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  This is—the problem with this is, if you think it through, they have got a guy like a—a guy I may disagree occasionally—occasionally—occasionally, John McCain, on other issues, but he‘s a true patriot, and Joe Lieberman, another one.  All these guys go over there with the idea of taking a little risk to find out what‘s going to. 

They go over there to meet with the generals they respect completely.  They meet with as many soldiers as they can.  They respect them and honor them completely.  They expect to get from them the facts.  They expect to get from them the skinny on what‘s really happening. 

Now we find out they have got baseball cards being made up on them studying what their proclivities are.  It‘s like in “Groundhog Day” when Bill Murray is trying to pick up the girl by going after what she said the day before to work her.

Now, I have to tell you, this is really trying to use all the capabilities that we have developed over the years in dealing with the enemy, and perhaps moving them around, against the people who are supposedly setting the policy. 

Don‘t these uniformed guys at the top know they‘re supposed to take orders from the civilian government, and not manipulate it psychologically? 

I want to go back to Eric Bates on this again. 

I know it‘s a rhetorical question.  I know the answer.  They ought to know. 

BATES:  They ought to know.  And I think that we‘re seeing something what‘s similar with the McChrystal case. 

In cases, what you‘re seeing is a disrespect of civilian command.  There are there very, very clear federal laws and military policies regarding this.  The men themselves who are being ordered to do this were protesting and saying, look, this is not right, this is illegal.  And, still, they continued to do it. 

I think it bespeaks how desperate they are to try and convince the civilian leadership that what‘s going on in Afghanistan is a success, when, in fact, I think most of the metrics show the opposite. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, I think there‘s a difference in quality here, don‘t you, between telling jokes about Joe Biden, which is relatively harmless, in effect—in effect—and manipulating politicians who come over to get the facts, where the effect is manipulative and wrong. 

Isn‘t there a difference? 

BATES:  It‘s a very slippery slope here. 

The—the general had a staff of two dozen people to do public affairs.  He has people who are trained to help him spin the lawmakers.  And all the lawmakers going over there know they‘re going to be spun, know they‘re going to get the story that the general wants them to hear, and he‘s going to make his case. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes. 

BATES:  But what he did wrong here was going to a completely different set of people who are trained essentially to be a weapon, to do propaganda against the enemy. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes, well, brainwashing, brainwashing, the stuff you do when you get a prisoner and interrogate him, the stuff you do when you‘re trying to screw up the enemy on the other side when you‘re in battle against him and you want to give him misinformation, right?

BATES:  Yes.  I think what actually wound up happening, as best we can tell, was pretty innocuous, because the unit itself was resisting this order.  So, I think that most of what they did—

MATTHEWS:  Thank God. 

BATES: -- Was pretty standard background dossiers.  I don‘t think we‘re going to find that there are a bunch of “Manchurian Candidates” running around in the Senate.  But that‘s not what the issue is.

MATTHEWS:  Well—

BATES:  The issue is whether—whether the law was broken.

MATTHEWS:  Well, let me go to Mr. Pike on that. 

I guess the good news here is that we know where John McCain was headed to begin with.  We know where Lieberman was headed to begin with.  They‘re both hawks.  We know where Al Franken is headed.  He‘s a smart dove, right?

PIKE:  Right. 

MATTHEWS:  So they weren‘t really manipulated, in effect.  There was an attempt to try to move these people around politically.  Thank God our politicians are better at politics than the generals are, even their psy-ops people are, probably. 

PIKE:  Well, no, I think that most these people who went over there, they pretty much knew where they stood on this.  They knew the right questions to ask. 

The problem, of course, is that, for those of us who are old enough to remember it, in 1968, you had Governor Romney, who was a presidential candidate, coming back from Vietnam and saying that he‘d been brainwashed about the Vietnam War. 

Now, anybody who doesn‘t remember that and anybody who doesn‘t worry about avoiding that kind of perception, I just have to wonder, what else is it that they don‘t understand? 

MATTHEWS:  Well, we have had a recent press secretary, a president, who never heard of the Cuban Missile Crisis.  You have got understand, Mr.  Pike, the memory of a lot of people isn‘t long.  Their history knowledge is zero in a lot of cases.  Don‘t be shocked that a lot of people don‘t know. 

I have got my commentary, by the way, already written.  I‘m glad you brought it up.  Or, actually, I‘m not glad you brought it up—I thought I could bring it up—that Mitt Romney‘s father was brainwashed, he said.

I hope Mitt, by the way, takes a shot at the Army for doing to these guys today what was done to—according to his father, to him.

PIKE:  That‘s right.  That‘s right. 

MATTHEWS:  It would show some loyalty to the old man and his memory. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Anyway, thank you, Eric Bates.  Thank you.  It‘s great to have you on. 

You know, Eric, you have done it again, hell of a piece.  I mean, your magazine is hot.  Thank you very much, Eric Bates, for—and good piece. 

And, John Pike, thanks for helping us with the facts here. 

Up next: Jon Stewart vs. Don Rumsfeld.  I don‘t know if that‘s a fair fight.  Stick around for the “Sideshow.” 

You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.  

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Back to HARDBALL.  Time for the “Sideshow” tonight. 

Last night: Jon Stewart vs. Don Rumsfeld, the topic, Iraq, of course. 

Ready, set, go. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, “THE DAILY SHOW WITH JON STEWART”)

JON STEWART, HOST, “THE DAILY SHOW WITH JON STEWART”:  I think I know why you‘re here.  And let me just deflate the tension right off of the bat. 

(LAUGHTER)

STEWART:  Apology accepted. 

(LAUGHTER)

STEWART:  There was no real momentum for a war in Iraq.  We had to focus the country on that. 

Would it be fair to consider that, in the effort that it took to sell us this, that we lost our—

DONALD RUMSFELD, FORMER U.S. SECRETARY OF DEFENSE:  That‘s a—that‘s a—

STEWART:  Sell is—

(CROSSTALK)

RUMSFELD:  A little strong, a little strong.

STEWART:  Let me back up.  In the effort it took the administration to

--

RUMSFELD:  Present. 

(LAUGHTER)

RUMSFELD:  I‘m just trying to help you. 

STEWART:  Thank you.  I appreciate that. 

(LAUGHTER)

RUMSFELD:  I sat down and prepared a list of all the things that could go wrong. 

STEWART:  The parade of horribles. 

RUMSFELD:  Exactly.  And one of them was, there might not be weapons of mass destruction. 

STEWART:  That‘s right. 

RUMSFELD:  And another one was, it might last six or eight years. 

STEWART:  Mm-hmm.   

RUMSFELD:  And other—

(CROSSTALK)

STEWART:  Did you—did you star those? 

RUMSFELD:  No. 

(LAUGHTER)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  There‘s something schizoid about Rumsfeld, some separate from reality, human experience, and the way he talks.  But there‘s nothing humorous about the deaths of 100,000 people, about a war based on a bad, baseless argument. 

Next: Jon Huntsman being there.  Last weekend, the U.S. ambassador to China made a family trip to a McDonald‘s in Beijing.  The hitch?  That McDonald‘s was right by a pro-democracy protest going on at the time.  Here‘s the edited YouTube making the rounds.  We have enlarged their subtitles so you can read them. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON (through translator):  Hi, Ambassador.  What are you doing here?

JON HUNTSMAN, UNITED STATES AMBASSADOR TO CHINA (through translator): 

I‘m just here to look around.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON (through translator):  So, you want China in chaos, don‘t you?

HUNTSMAN:  Uh?  No.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Now, the U.S. Embassy stresses that Huntsman‘s presence was purely coincidental.  Chinese censors aren‘t taking his word for it.  They have gone ahead and blocked searches for Huntsman‘s name on blogging sites. 

Time for tonight‘s “Big Number.”

Over the years, John McCain has had a reputation as a reach-across-the-aisle moderate time.  Well, time for a checkup on him.  “The National Journal” just came out with their ideological rankings based on votes in the Senate.  Where does McCain stand?  You won‘t believe this.  He‘s tied with seven other senators at number one, number-one conservative. 

Maverick?  Not lately.  John McCain up to the most conservative voting record in the U.S. Senate, tied for number one—tonight‘s big, bad number.  McCain is no moderate.  He‘s no maverick.  He‘s a right-winger now. 

Coming up:  Libya‘s blowing up, with Gadhafi hiring mercenaries to kill his own people.  We will get a report from our own Richard Engel, the best in the business.  He‘s on the ground over there. 

You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.  

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  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. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  We‘re back.  That was, of course, President Obama just yesterday issuing a forceful condemnation on Gadhafi‘s bloody crackdown on his own people. 

By all accounts, the popular revolt in Libya is widening.  Rebels are pushing closer to the capital of Tripoli, where Gadhafi has mobilized mercenaries and paramilitary units to defend his main stronghold. 

Earlier today, Gadhafi called into a—called into Libya TV and blamed Osama bin Laden and a youth population, he said, that was hooked on hallucinogens for fomenting the rebellion. 

For the latest, let‘s turn to NBC chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel, who is on the ground over there. 

Richard, thank you so much. 

Gadhafi seems like he‘s circled the wagons.  Is he playing for time or for a regaining of authority? 

RICHARD ENGEL, NBC CHIEF FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT:  I think he‘s playing for keeps. 

Gadhafi has no intention of losing power.  And it seems very clear that he wants to fight until the very end.  He‘s hired mercenaries.  We have heard reliable accounts of what those mercenaries have been doing, opening fire on civilian populations wherever they are deployed. 

And it seems that Gadhafi is willing to fight to the very end.  Today, in his—his speech, his radio address, it was very unusual, to say the least.  I have—I have been listening to speeches by Arab leaders in Arabic for, like, the last 15 years or so.

And he didn‘t sound sane.  He was mumbling.  He was—there were long pauses.  His—his train of thought was very difficult to follow.  He didn‘t just blame al Qaeda for this uprising.  He talked about the Unabomber.  He talked about the Kurds in Northern Iraq.  He talked about India.  He mentioned how it was al Qaeda giving hallucinogenic drugs to the protesters in Nescafe, which is an instant coffee mixed with milk. 

He said that the Americans were involved because they lied about the connections between al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein.  The—the speech was all over the place, and it didn‘t sound like it was being spoken by a sane individual. 

MATTHEWS:  What do you make of the fact that that‘s matched up with his private communications through Musa Kusa and Bill Burns, the undersecretary, that he is saying the same thing on the phone through his intermediaries that he‘s blasting over the airwaves?

ENGEL:  Well, it shows that he is not potentially in touch with—with the reality on the ground. 

He was speaking to a people who are fighting in a village called Zawia, which is about 40 miles west of Tripoli.  And he was calling on the people of Zawia to stop fighting, to wake up, to realize that they were being misled by these hallucinogenic drug and al Qaeda and a host of other conspiracies. 

It‘s unclear if he really believes this.  Listening to the speech, you could hear him just speaking extemporaneously, turning pages.  He didn‘t appear to be reading from notes, but he kept bumping into the microphone.

And then, after about 30 minutes, he hung up the phone, and there was a long dial tone pause, as the radio presenter didn‘t seem to know what to do.  And then they just pushed a button, and we started hearing cheers and nationalistic songs. 

So, I think even people in the state apparatus don‘t know exactly how

what—what to make of him right now. 

MATTHEWS:  Does this match up with the president, our president‘s hesitancy to be too condemnatory?  Is President Obama concerned that, if he uses the wrong language, it could trigger a really ballistic attitude by this guy, where he starts killing people with those mercenaries from Sub-Sahara Africa? 

ENGEL:  I think people here are very worried that he will do that anyway.  I don‘t think they are so concerned that—that President Obama‘s statements are going to trigger him to do that. 

They think that, if they push, the rebels push hard enough against Gadhafi, he could fight back.  Gadhafi‘s regime does have chemical weapons.  They‘re supposedly in fairly poor condition, but he does have them.  He has $32 billion in foreign funds, about $1 billion of that in the United States.  So, he still does have considerable resources.

I am in Benghazi right now, which is totally in rebel hands.  This is a rebel-held city and people here say this is a free Libya, where they have their own broadcasts right now.  They have their own messages that they‘re putting out to the country and they say they will take this movement and bring it to Tripoli.

People here say that President Obama has not been strong enough.  They would like to see some sort of direct intervention.  They heard his speech and thought he was still talking about a Cairo-style protest movement.  This not a Cairo style protest movement.  This is an armed rebellion.

MATTHEWS:  What—if you got to look at the order of battle on both sides, do the rebels have the force level to compete with the—with Gadhafi‘s forces at this point?

ENGEL:  They don‘t have—they have numbers.  But they don‘t have the conventional weapons.  They don‘t have the air force.  They have some armored vehicles, but no, they don‘t frankly have the same sort of level of power.  They‘re not that armed.

They‘ve been some defections by the military and I saw personally some

army units handing out heavy weapons, rocket launchers, mortars.  But if it

was a straight up battle between Gadhafi‘s loyalists and the mercenaries

who are holed up in parts of Tripoli, and the rebels, I think it would be a

well, maybe an even fight.

           

MATTHEWS:  Is there any talk of recognition by the United States or any other significant power of the rebel territory as a sovereign power?

ENGEL:  Well, official recognition probably not.  But unofficial recognition is already taking place.

There was a British warship in Benghazi, not far from the center of the city that was evacuating foreign nationals today, evacuating British nationals.  There‘s a British school in Benghazi.  And in order to do that, they were coordinating with rebels.  There are Chinese workers who are here.  They are also coordinating with the rebels.

The rebels are—have set up in the main—sort of court building here in Benghazi, their own government, judges and lawyers are out on the streets.  They were telling people even today to put their seat belts on.  They‘re trying to have a somewhat orderly society.

So, on the ground, they already are getting some recognition from the international community.

MATTHEWS:  Great reporting.  Thank you so much, as always, Richard Engel.

By the way, he‘s over there in Benghazi, just told us.

The violence in Libya has shut down half of the country‘s daily oil production, causing all prices to hit their highest level in more than two years now.  It‘s about $100 a barrel right now.  Just look at the jump over the last two months.  At the start of January, oil was at $88 a barrel.  Yesterday, it hit $100.  It‘s around there, hovering at $96 right now.

Well, is Gadhafi gotten away with bad behavior for decades because he sits on oil?

Journalist Robin Wright has interviewed Gadhafi twice.  She‘s now a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center.

Robin, thanks for joining us.

You know what I‘m focused on—I know the oil issue is hot right now.  But I‘m focused down the road in U.S. policy.  Do we finally have a consistent policy towards that region?  Do we want it to join the rest of the world with a push towards something like democracy?

ROBIN WRIGHT, WOODROW WILSON INTERNATIONAL CENTER:  Well, for six decades, both Republicans and Democrats have given lip service to democracy in the values of freedom, but they‘ve done very little about it.

The Obama administration was also slow off the mark in Tunisia.  It took really the momentum of the protest in Cairo to galvanize it to get out in front and say it‘s time for the leadership in Egypt to recognize the will of the people.  And it‘s taken a much greater step in Libya, in talking very bluntly about the outrageous behavior of a leader.

Remember, this was just 10 years ago that the Bush administration was trying to make Libya the example of a country that could be redeemed, that could, by cooperating on weapons of mass destruction, on counterterrorism, could be brought in from the cold for—at that point three decades and could deal again with the international community.

Now, we‘ve officially given up and there‘s no way that Colonel Gadhafi will ever be embraced by the United States and probably the rest of the world again.

MATTHEWS:  Well, it seems like at the very time we‘re trying to foreswear rotten deals, we look at the oil situation.  Saudi Arabia, once again, we‘re going to rely on them to start pumping at a higher level to make up for the deficit from Libya, right?  So, once again, they‘ve got a stranglehold on us.

WRIGHT:  Yes.  And the oil issue is why Libya is different from both Tunisia and Egypt.  There is that issue of it being one of the largest oil producers in the world even though it‘s population tiny.  It‘s only 6.5 million people, smaller than New York—a fraction of New York City.

And so, Libya—what happens in Libya is critical particularly to our European allies and that‘s why I think you see President Obama, first of all, being cautious in getting out there and saying Gadhafi has to step down because first of all, there‘s still some Americans and other foreigners trying to be evacuated from Libya.  And secondly, because we want to work closely with the Europeans.  They‘re the ones who have real leverage—by making this country untenable, not viable economically that forces Gadhafi‘s hand in a way that nothing else does.

MATTHEWS:  Yes, I just found out today that their sweet crude, as it‘s called, is the very kind of oil that they need in Europe because their diesel engines over there, they use much more diesel.  Anybody who goes to Europe on a vacation can smell the diesel fuel over there and that‘s what makes them so reliant on Libya‘s sweet crude, which is the engine—which is the oil they need for their refineries.

Thank you so much, Robin Wright, as always.

Up next: does President Obama have more to gain or lose—more to lose with his reversal, in his reversal to the Defense of Marriage Act?  He‘s not going to fight for its constitutionality anymore.  Let‘s talk about the politics of DOMA, it‘s called, and what it means to this president.

This is HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  President Obama‘s approval ratings are not what they were back in 2008, but he‘s actually gaining in some unexpected places.

Take a look at this: Obama‘s approval rating is higher than his both total in eight states, which means he‘s gaining strength.  Six of those states here in the Deep South, including the biggest gainer, Mississippi, where 47 percent now approve of the job this president‘s doing.

He‘s only got 43 percent of the vote in Mississippi back in ‘08. 

Well, he‘s gaining down there.  He probably still can‘t carry it.

We‘ll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  I believe that marriage is between a man and a woman.  And I‘m not in favor of gay marriage.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.

That was, of course, then-candidate Barack Obama just days before the 201 election.  Well, this week, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney says the president is personally grappling with the issue of same sex marriage personally.  Legally, the White House has made it clear already the administration will no longer defend the Defense of Marriage Act which says that marriage can only be between a man and a woman under federal law.

So, is this smart political strategy as the president heads towards reelection in 2012, or is it political strategy?

Josh Gerstein writes for Politico and Richard Wolffe is an MSNBC political analyst.

Gentlemen, I have to start with something I find very hard to figure out.

I want Josh Gerstein with this.

You got this interview with Mike Huckabee.  Now, I thought Mike Huckabee was crazy.  I think his Middle East policy is slightly crazy which is get all the Arabs out of Israel, out of West Bank.  But here he is saying if—Mike Huckabee said that this whole decision he‘s made about marriage between two—the same-sex is a problem for him.  He says two thirds of the poverty in this country would be eliminated of the mothers of the children were married to their fathers.

Well, what‘s that got to do with same-sex marriage?  Whether husbands, you know, abandon their wives when they have kids and not being responsible fathers or husbands?  What does that got to do with same-sex marriage?  Put it together for me in Mike Huckabee‘s thinking.

JOSH GERSTEIN, POLITICO:  Well, my sense is that he‘s suggesting that the whole phenomenon of same-sex marriage is essentially ripping apart or causing a fraying of the social fabric of the country and that somehow this is behind that phenomenon.

MATTHEWS:  You mean, husbands are running away from their wives to marry men because it‘s now legal?

GERSTEIN:  I don‘t think he‘s suggesting it quite literally in that way.

MATTHEWS:  It sounds like it.

GERSTEIN:  That there‘s a breakdown of moral order.  But, obviously, the sequence is off.  You know, people having kids out of wedlock started long before same-sex marriage was even on the horizon.

MATTHEWS:  Well, they‘re not—this is what, Richard Wolffe, please help me here.  What is the connection?  Is this just right wing crazy talk of the culture war that anything you don‘t like is related under some universal theory to something else you don‘t like?

Sure, since Moynihan would know there‘s a problem with breakdown of marriage in inner city and anywhere else.  It‘s a disaster in many cases, emotionally, personally, whatever, in many cases.  But to say it has something to do with gay orientation or gay legality or same-sex marriage, what is the connection?  Please help me here, Richard.

RICHARD WOLFFE, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  Chris, there isn‘t a connection.  It‘s hard to say how people wanted to get married to each other encourage divorce somewhere else in the country.  It doesn‘t make any sense.  But how it makes sense, you started the segment by saying, what‘s the political side of this.  What Huckabee did was arguably much more political than what the White House is doing—

MATTHEWS:  Right.

WOLFFE:  -- which is prompted by all these court cases.  Huckabee is speaking to that 30 percent of the population that still says that gay marriage, same-sex marriage should not be recognized and that is the hard core Republican—Huckabee, both in these primaries, coming up.  So, he may be speaking out of personal belief, but it also—it speaks to the people who got through Iowa last time.

So, if he has an ambition, if he has an audience of FOX, this is what they want to hear.  That‘s politics.

MATTHEWS:  That‘s what I want to get to.

Josh, this gets to his psycho bubble, but here‘s the question—people tell me that he wants to go into the presidential election for no other reason than to go into Iowa and knock off Mitt Romney, just take him out of the race for sheer delight, even if it means costing him some money.  Then you hear the argument that Huckabee wants to make the money, needs the money, says he‘ll be broke if he does run for president.  What‘s he doing sharpshooting here, going after an issue that‘s red hot on the far right, if he‘s not running for president?

GERSTEIN:  No, there‘s no question that he‘s trying to get as far out there in the far right plank as he can and catch attention, you know, out even beyond some of the statements Newt Gingrich has been making in recent week.  I think he probably is headed towards the presidential race and that‘s what Huckabee is up to.

I would disagree a little bit with what Richard said.  I think some people who oppose the defense of—who oppose gay marriage are people that President Obama is going to want vote for him in 2012.  They‘re not all out there on the far right.  And the president is gambling that economic issues are essentially going to be more important in 2012 than any of these—

MATTHEWS:  Richard, that is the problem for the president.  I‘m looking at the statistics here.  Thirty and under are definitely with same sex, 53 percent.  But once you get above 30, the people as a group and as an age group, from 30 all the way to death, I guess, are against it.

WOLFFE:  I don‘t know.  The latest polls say 52 percent believe there should be federal recognition of same-sex marriage.  That number was reversed, disapproved of it.  Just a year ago, these numbers are shifting around to the point where you have Dick Cheney, Ken Mehlman—I mean, these are major Republican figures out there who are saying it‘s acceptable, they support it.  So, I don‘t know that you can say the majority now—the majority opinion is somehow against what the president is saying.

And, by the way, the president hasn‘t said he‘s for same-sex marriage. 

It‘s just that he won‘t go out and defend—

MATTHEWS:  Yes.

WOLFFE:  -- the Defense of Marriage.  That is a nuance position which, frankly, doesn‘t hold a lot of water.  And I would not be surprised to see the president coming out, having grapple with this for a couple more years and say he actually now supports same-sex marriage, too.

MATTHEWS:  I think Republicans who want -- 51 percent of them don‘t want to talk about this.  They need the suburbs.  They can‘t do with this.  Women especially in the suburbs won‘t listen to this old stuff.  But out in the rural areas, it‘s golden.

Anyway, Richard Wolffe, thank you.  Josh Gerstein, congratulations on the interview with Huckabee.

Coming up: “Let Me Finish” with two words for the general in Afghanistan who reportedly ordered psy-ops, brainwashing of American politicians—civilian control.  It‘s in the Constitution.  More on that when we return.

You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  “Let Me Finish” tonight with this story of stealth and intrigue uncovered by “Rolling Stone.”  I don‘t know about you, but it makes me think of the “Manchurian Candidate,” that great movie about an American serviceman captured and then brainwashed by the North Koreans, then returned to the United States as an assassin.  Well, that‘s the movie.

In this real-life story just uncovered by “Rolling Stone,” it‘s the American military that‘s brainwashing our senators.  The people in uniform are supposed to be taking their orders from the civilians, but I get it, want to keep a war that‘s getting unpopular back home, we‘ll practice the dark hearts (ph) then on the ones coming up to check out the battlefront, give them so much B.S. they‘ll think victory is right around the corner.

I‘m waiting for Mitt Romney to say something about this.  His dad, by all evidence a good man, got himself knocked out of the 1968 race for president when he said he‘d been brainwashed by the generals in Vietnam.  Maybe Mitt ought to stand up now like a good son and say, “Dad may have had something.  Let‘s get to the bottom of this one.”

Somehow, I don‘t think he will.  The right wing is so fundamentalist now that it attacks as heresy any breach with the military or with Glenn Beck or with Sarah Palin, any word that carries a hint of independent, gutsy thinking.  Can‘t have any of that, can we?

Oh, by the way, maybe Senators McCain and Lieberman and other visiting VIPs should check their notebooks from their last trip to Kabul.

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

More politics ahead with Cenk Uygur.

           

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