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updated 3/1/2011 6:04:53 PM ET 2011-03-01T23:04:53

Guests: Ed Rendell, Eugene Robinson, Richard Wolffe, Sue Herera,, Jeanne Cummings, Susan Molinari, Sen. Jim Webb, Gov. Pat Quinn

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST:  Starving the Democrats.

Let‘s play HARDBALL.

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

One-two punch.  First Republicans on the Supreme Court opened the flood gates for corporate money into political campaigns.  The big winners, the Republican candidates the corporations are backing.  Now comes the second punch, kill the major source of Democratic money, the labor unions.  Most union members are now public employees.  Killing the public employee unions is a brilliant way to kill the Democrats‘ number one backer of money and shoe leather.

So let‘s get clear on what‘s happening in Wisconsin.  It‘s the second salvo of a one-two punch against the Democratic Party.  The push against unions strips them of dues and memberships and robs Democrats of the foot soldiers and the money they need to get and stay elected.

Plus, President Obama‘s looking, to Republicans at least, like a winner next year.  Only five flawed or poorly known candidates look ready to take the plunge.  To quote Peggy Lee, is that all there is?

Also, who blinked on the government shutdown?  Democrats agree to cuts, but they were cuts President Obama had already called for.  The real story here may be that once again, neither side is ready to actually cut those big ones, Social Security and Medicare.  You get hurt doing that stuff.

And did you catch this from the weekend?  Defense Secretary Robert Gates told West Point cadets that any defense chief like him who advises the president to send another large land army into Asia, the Middle East or Africa should, quote, “have his head examined.”  Did Gates, the guy W.  named secretary of defense, just say that the Iraq war was a mistake, finally?

And finally for us, “Let Me Finish” tonight with a great man who made what may be his last appearance at the Oscars last night, someone who truly deserves our praise.

We begin with what the Republicans are up to as they take on the unions.  Pat Quinn is governor of Illinois.  Ed Rendell was the governor of Pennsylvania for two terms, now is an NBC News political analyst.

Governor Quinn, thank you for joining us.  For the first time in history now, Governor, more union members work for the government rather than the private sector.  In the public sector, 7.6 million are union members.  In the private sector, just 7.1 million, a big turn of events there.  Governor, is this push by the Republican governor of Wisconsin a war on the Democratic Party‘s main financial and worker base?

GOV. PAT QUINN (D), ILLINOIS:  Well, it‘s a war on workers.  You know, the people who teach our kids, who plow the snow off our interstates, those are working men and women, and they deserve a decent pay and decent retirement.  They‘ve already given up concessions in that area.  The right to have a union and collectively bargain and work about your conditions, working conditions, that‘s a fundamental American right.  So what Governor Scott Walker‘s doing in Wisconsin is just plain wrong.  And I think he‘s going to realize that the people of America are not on his side.

MATTHEWS:  Well, what would happen if he wins?  If he were to win and crush this union‘s right to collective bargaining on issues like pensions and medical benefits and perhaps even the ability to get a raise above the COLA, what happens then?  If he wins this fight, what happens to workers, what happens to the party that they generally support, the Democratic Party?

QUINN:  Well, I think we‘ve seen that people all over Wisconsin, and my cousins, included, as well as people in Illinois and many other Midwestern states have come to Wisconsin.  We‘re banding together to protect the right to collectively bargain, to have a union.  We‘re going to be aggressive and progressive on that fundamental American right.  And I just think Governor Walker is just plain wrong.  He didn‘t show up at our governors conference here in Washington.  I think that he know—even Republican governors, many of them, know that he‘s on the wrong track and he‘s not going to help working people and middle class people...

MATTHEWS:  OK...

QUINN:  ... retain a good job in America.

MATTHEWS:  Well, here‘s a voice on the political right, “The Weekly Standard,” on the political stakes of this union fight out in Wisconsin.  Quote, “Reducing the money flowing from public employees to the Democratic Party means jack-hammering one of the foundations of contemporary liberalism.”  So—and Rick Hertzberg of “The New Yorker” raised this this week, a liberal.  On both sides, it seems like the stakes are bigger than just the union.  It‘s if you kill the public employee unions, you take away the Democrats‘ base politically in terms of workers and money.  Governor Rendell.

ED RENDELL (D), FMR. PA GOV, NBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  I think there‘s no question that‘s correct, Chris.  In the long term, it‘s devastating to the Democrats.  Look, unions last year gave about $87 million to Democratic causes in the 2010 election.  Wipe that out almost entirely because without the dues, they‘re not going to be in a position to do that.

But most importantly, are the foot soldiers, the foot soldiers who canvassed for weeks before, who manned the phone banks and who go out on election day.  That‘s a huge loss that‘s irreplaceable.

In the short run, though, I think it‘s catching a tiger by the tail.  I think union members will be so angry, so angry if this occurs, that I think they‘ll be out there in 2012 and out there in force.  But in the long run, it‘s devastating.

MATTHEWS:  Let me talk to Governor Quinn about this.  My experience in politics tells me that public employees are very good in campaign season, teachers especially, but not just them.  They‘re very good at ringing doorbells, very good at talking on the telephone.  They‘re very articulate, to use a word that‘s overused, perhaps.  They know how to work politically.  Has that been your experience, that they‘re good party workers?

QUINN:  Well, absolutely.  They‘re the middle class of our state of Illinois and of Wisconsin and everywhere else.  You know, we need teachers in America.  They sacrifice some of their present to help their kids‘ future.  And they‘re special people.  They believe in public affairs and getting involved.  Same way with—you know, Illinois about four weeks ago had the worst blizzard we had in recent memory.  We had workers out 12 hours in a shift in whiteout conditions, plowing 16,800 miles of highway in Illinois, and they did it with great distinction.

Those are our best of the best.  They‘re public servants.  They deserve a decent pay.  They deserve to have a union.  I don‘t agree with everything the unions say.  I negotiate with them.  But that‘s what America is all about.  It‘s talking with each other, not just trying to kick the other guy in the shin and exterminate him.

MATTHEWS:  Well, you know, in the old days up in Boston, Tip O‘Neill told me they used to give snow buttons to the party workers.  If you had a snow button, you got to plow snow at Christmastime.  You made some extra money.  So don‘t tell me there‘s not a connection between helping the party and getting a good job.

Let‘s talk about the Democrats.  You‘re a lawyer.  Look at the issue, Governor Rendell.  The Supreme Court says it‘s OK for corporations to give all the money they want to give.  We know which party they‘re going to give it to, Citizens United decision, right?

RENDELL:  No question.

MATTHEWS:  So the first punch is to give all the corporate money you want to the Republicans, and then you say, Let‘s squeeze closed that faucet from the Democrats‘ side.  They‘re pretty smart, the Republicans these days, aren‘t they.

RENDELL:  Well, it‘s a devastating imbalance, although I don‘t think you‘re going to see what‘s going on in Wisconsin—I assume eventually the senators come back and the bill passes.  I don‘t think you‘re going to see that in other states, Chris.  And let me tell you why, because in Wisconsin, it was a sneak attack.  It happened too fast and no one had a chance to mobilize.

The majority of Wisconsin voters don‘t like it because Republicans didn‘t campaign saying they‘re going to get rid of collective bargaining.  I think you won‘t see an effort—or you‘ll see an effort in Ohio and Pennsylvania and places like that, but I think the effort will fail because the unions will have time to rally public support against it.

MATTHEWS:  Yes.  Let me ask you, Governor, you watch the—you had your own race and you won successfully.  And congratulations on getting elected this time.  But it seems to me that Wisconsin Democrats got blown away.  Russ Feingold knocked out by double digits.  The legislature came in like bandits, the Republican side.  The governor comes in.  Did labor—did the Democratic Party in Wisconsin know the stakes when they got blown away, that this was coming?

QUINN:  Well, those legislators, those senators from Wisconsin, are right now in Illinois, and we welcome them.  We welcome legislators from Indiana.  They can stay as long as they want.

I really think this is a national struggle.  It‘s all about jobs, middle class jobs, hard-working people who really do a good job.  And we‘re not going to give in and roll over here.  The governor of Wisconsin is just plain wrong.  And I noticed today, or this past couple days, many other Republican governors are not buying into this trying to bash unions and bust unions and hurt working people.  That‘s not what America is all about.  We believe in hard work and rewarding that with decent pay and a decent retirement.

MATTHEWS:  What kind of living conditions do those Democratic legislators have in Chicago?  Are you feeding them?  Are you keeping them entertained at night?  What are you doing for these guys and women?

QUINN:  Well, you‘ve been there, Chris.  I had dinner with you one time in Chicago.  There‘s a lot of good restaurants...

MATTHEWS:  I know, at a great Mexican restaurant with Richie Daley and Maggie (ph).

QUINN:  Yes.  So we have a lot of good restaurants, a lot of things to do, a lot of museums.  But I think the bottom line is the senators know that to empower that governor right now in Wisconsin is to permanently hurt working people, people who live from paycheck to paycheck, the heart and soul of Illinois, the heart and soul of Wisconsin, heart and soul of our country.

MATTHEWS:  It seems to me, Governor Rendell, that this is about a very amazing Republican onslaught.  They thought going into this last November election they were going to blow Obama away.  This was the first step.  And then they got this big ambition they‘re going to blow away the unions, the public employee unions, now the mayor union in the country, the public employees.  These people are on the attack.  But I‘ve noticed, in World war I, the side that‘s on the attack tends to lose.  And I just wonder whether they‘re going too far with this thing.

RENDELL:  Yes, I think so.  I think you see in the public opinion polls that they‘re overreaching, number one.  And number two, they may dismantle the unions for a period of time.  But there‘s going to be a hornets nest out there next year, I guarantee you.  Even if there are no dues, the union workers will be out there with a vengeance.

MATTHEWS:  Well, what do these guys in Pennsylvania—I know they‘ve backed you for years, Leo Gerard (ph) and those guys—difficult, some of the public employee unions, because you‘ve had to deal with them as mayor.  But are they all—are they starting to get animated now, some of these guys, and realizing that their lives depend on winning now?  There‘s no more losing anymore.

RENDELL:  Sure.  I think Governor Walker had the benefit of that sneak attack, but in states all throughout the country, the unions are gearing up and they‘re gearing up to make their case to the public.  Look, I saw a poll in Wisconsin, over 60 percent don‘t believe...

MATTHEWS:  I know.

RENDELL:  ... they should do away with collective bargaining.

MATTHEWS:  Well, here‘s the president finally jumping in.  I think he‘s been a little hesitant on this.  Maybe he doesn‘t want to look like he‘s big-footing Wisconsin and making himself the bad buy (ph).  Here he is, Governors.  Both of you, Governor Quinn and Governor Rendell, here‘s the president today talking on public employees.  Let‘s listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  I don‘t think it does anybody any good when public employees are denigrated or vilified or their rights are infringed upon.  We‘re not going to attract the best teachers for our kids, for example, if they only make a fraction of what other professionals make.  We‘re not going to convince the bravest Americans to put their lives on the line as police officers or firefighters if we don‘t properly reward that bravery.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  He‘s finally making a strong statement, Governor Quinn.

QUINN:  I was there.  I was proud of Barack Obama, our president.  He really stood up for our firefighters, our policemen, our teachers.  You know, a lot of these men and women also volunteer for the military, as National Guard members or reservists.  So they‘re on the front line for democracy in our country, in our world, and they should be entitled to democracy in the workplace and having a voice at the table.  That‘s what collective bargaining and unions are all about.  And for those who don‘t believe in that, they ought to go back and soak their heads.

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  OK.  That‘s interesting!  Anyway, thank you.  Go back and soak your heads.  Thank you, Governor Pat Quinn of Illinois, and thank you, Governor Ed Rendell, for joining us.

Coming up: Just four months ago, Republicans were calling President Obama a one-term president.  Now they seem afraid to one against him.  Where are these guys?  Pretty paltry crowd that‘s talking about running against him, a motley one, too.  Let‘s take a look at the five guys who are willing to show their hands and run against the president.  Four years ago, they had 10 candidates out at the Reagan library.  Not much of a show this time, and it‘s a pretty weak showing, the ones that are running.

You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Guess what?  Sarah Palin isn‘t exactly lighting up the Republican faithful like she used to do.  A new “Des Moines Register” poll of Iowa Republicans found that 18 percent of likely Republicans hold a very favorable opinion of Palin.  That‘s 18 percent.  That‘s down 9 points from last year.  Still, a plurality of Republican voters, 47 percent, said they have a mostly favorable opinion of her.  But the number of Republican voters who view her as very unfavorable has doubled over the last year.  It‘s up to 10 percent.  She‘s creeping downward in Iowa, which was her strong place to start.

We‘ll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GOV. CHRIS CHRISTIE ®, NEW JERSEY:  Well, we don‘t have a field yet, first of all.  No one‘s declared.  And what I‘ve said is, let‘s judge the complete field once they all get in.

GOV. MITCH DANIELS ®, INDIANA:  Others keep suggesting there are these deadlines, and then they keep passing.  I think it‘s one of the great breaks we‘ve had in voters that this thing didn‘t start.

GOV. HALEY BARBOUR ®, MISSISSIPPI:  Whether or not anybody else runs is irrelevant to my decision.  I‘m going to make a decision based on things that I think, and I don‘t want to take everybody else‘s time going through all the things that I would have to think that I‘m thinking about.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Wow.  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  That‘s a bunch of Republican governors talking about running for the 2012 presidential nomination.  Today‘s “Politico” newspaper says that after last November‘s big win, quote, “a more sober GOP is wincing in the light of day as they consider just how difficult unseating an incumbent president with a massive war chest is going to be, even with a still dismal economy.”  That‘s a hell of a sentence.

The first Republican debate is set for just two months from now out at the Reagan library, but where are the candidates?  We‘re joined now by MSNBC political analyst Richard Wolffe and Eugene Robinson, who‘s also a columnist for “The Washington Post,” and a great one.

You know, I just think it‘s odd.  You know, I was thinking, four years ago, we had about 10 candidates at that Reagan library debate.  I moderated it.  And that was a big house with all these guys all running, lots of crazy people on that list, you know, cats and dogs.  Now look at the list of them there, guys!  That isn‘t happening this time around.  I don‘t know if they‘re even going to make the gate by May.

And here‘s the question.  You‘ve got the—we‘ve got five people we think are showing real signs of running, Romney, Pawlenty, Gingrich, Santorum and Haley, who hasn‘t quite said he‘s running, but it looks like he‘s moving toward it.

Your view.  Is that the five we should be looking at—basically Mitt, Newt, Rick and Tim?

EUGENE ROBINSON, “WASHINGTON POST,” MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  Well, look at them.  Look at Ron Paul, who I assume is going to run.

MATTHEWS:  Oh, you‘re going to add to this list.

ROBINSON:  Well, I‘m going to add to the list, yes, but...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  ... talk serious.  You think they‘re really going to run, or you just want to play with this with some crazy people?

ROBINSON:  Well, I...

MATTHEWS:  You just want to bring some crazy people!

ROBINSON:  Number one...

MATTHEWS:  Ron Paul can‘t run!  He has to give up his House seat.

ROBINSON:  Number one, it‘s getting really crowded up on that fence. 

You know, they‘re all on the fence and deciding...

(CROSSTALK)

ROBINSON:  I don‘t know why.  I don‘t know why.  I think some definitely—actually think that Barack Obama is going to be more difficult to beat, and so they‘re thinking whether they want to...

MATTHEWS:  Let‘s go over the list.  Let‘s take a look, just to get this set up again, everybody absorbing these exciting names here.  There they are—Romney, Mitt, Pawlenty, Tim, Gingrich, Newt, Rick Santorum and Haley Barbour, Haley Barbour being the closest to not running, but he looks like he‘s running.

That‘s not a colorful field of people, Richard Wolffe.  There‘s nobody in there with any panache, excitement, pizzazz, charisma, anything like charisma, anything like it!  I mean, Haley Barbour is a good ol‘ boy with all the negatives and positives, which you‘ve noted in your column.  Fair enough.  And he‘s going to carry them around like—you know, like—who was—who was Ebenezer Scrooge‘s partner, Jacob Marley, carrying those chains around.  But the fact is—and there‘s nobody in that room that‘s going to knock the socks off...

(CROSSTALK)

RICHARD WOLFFE, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  The good thing about a campaign is that it gives them a chance to proves themselves.  So Romney...

MATTHEWS:  What, Romney‘s going to get exiting?  When he‘s getting his racing stripes?

WOLFFE:  Maybe it‘s going to be Haley.  Haley can come up with...

(CROSSTALK)

WOLFFE:  This is a man who says that lobbying is actually what presidents have to do, so it‘s OK to be a lobbyist.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  You‘re playing with me, Richard!

ROBINSON:  No, but with your field, look, Romney can raise money.  Romney has great hair.  He looks presidential.  So he—you know, he‘s a credible candidate.  I don‘t think he would beat Obama, but he‘s a credible candidate.

MATTHEWS:  Just to have fun with you—Mitt Romney, you‘ve described the box he came in.  What about the content?

(LAUGHTER)

ROBINSON:  Well, the content is changeable.  The content is what you wish.

MATTHEWS:  OK...

ROBINSON:  That is the brilliance of Mitt Romney.  He will be what you want him to be.

MATTHEWS:  OK, let‘s take a look—here‘s President Obama today and Mitt—Mike Huckabee, who is a smart guy.  I don‘t agree with him on some things.  But here‘s Mike on Sunday.  Let‘s listen to them both.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA:  I know that many of you have asked for flexibility for your states under this law.  In fact, I agree with Mitt Romney, who recently said he‘s proud of what he accomplished in health care in Massachusetts, supports giving states the power to determine their own health care solutions.

MIKE HUCKABEE (R-AR), FMR GOV., HOST, “HUCKABEE”:  “The Wall Street Journal‘s” analysis of the Massachusetts health care bill showed that it was exactly almost a carbon copy at the state level of what “Obama care” was at the national level.  I don‘t think it disqualifies him.  It‘s not a good plan, but he attempted something that he wanted to see would it work.  I don‘t have a problem with a governor in any state taking risk, trying something bold.  But if it doesn‘t work, for heaven‘s sakes, let‘s not put it in all 50 states.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  OK.  They‘re now going to call—you first, Gene. 

ROBINSON:  Well...

MATTHEWS:  You‘re laughing your butt off here because it‘s Obama/Romney or Romney/Obama. 

ROBINSON:  It‘s going to be Romneycare. 

MATTHEWS:  It‘s become the same bill.

ROBINSON:  It‘s Romneycare now.

And—and they‘re all going to say, well, I don‘t have a problem with him trying the same mandate that Barack Obama tried. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  The individual mandate.

ROBINSON:  I mean, they‘re going to mention it and say they don‘t have a problem... 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  How does he get off the horns of that dilemma, having pushed and succeeded in passing the exact thing that all the Republican candidates are attacking, the requirement you have health care? 

ROBINSON:  Well, I think he doesn‘t.  I think his problem is getting nominated.  I think he‘s actually a credible candidate in the general election.  But I think he has real problems getting nominated.

MATTHEWS:  Well, that‘s a year-and-a-half from now. 

ROBINSON:  Yes. 

MATTHEWS:  Richard Wolffe, you‘re being...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  You‘re like—you‘re the Cheshire cat here.  You‘ve been really cool here.

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  What‘s going on with this field of five? 

rMD+IT_rMD-IT_WOLFFE:  No, I think—I think social issues are—

Romney cannot—cannot run away from his own position again.  He will get the whole authenticity problem all over again. 

Huckabee, he‘s a Romney-seeking missile.  He‘s out to take that man out of the game.  I don‘t know that he has...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  See, that‘s what I love, personal.

Why does he want to destroy—why is he staying in this race, according to I think your thinking, just long enough to destroy Mitt Romney?

WOLFFE:  They obviously did not get on last time around.  I think there is a class discussion debate going on there. 

MATTHEWS:  He resents the...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  ... background of this guy. 

WOLFFE:  It‘s Main Street and Wall Street. 

MATTHEWS:  Elite.

WOLFFE:  It is.

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Well, let‘s take a look at Bill Kristol, a conservative, a neoconservative, if we will.  He took umbrage with some potential Republican contenders who say they won‘t run. 

He wants them out there.  Here‘s what he said today on Laura Ingraham‘s radio show—quote—“It‘s a crucial election, a crucial election for the future of the country, the future of the size of government, the future of our foreign policy, the future of the Supreme Court.  And people are sitting around wringing their hands and saying they won‘t run.  For me, honestly, I think—I like John Thune.  I have dealt with him.  But when I see a quote like that, I don‘t ever want to support that guy again.”

Now, what he‘s talking about, guys, he‘s talking about John Thune of South Dakota saying, you can‘t beat this guy, so why should I run against him? 

ROBINSON:  Well, especially if there‘s another election in four years, when there won‘t be an incumbent president. 

And, look, you know, people may calculate...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Have you ever heard of a candidate saying I really would like to run, but I can‘t beat the bum? 

ROBINSON:  No, you don‘t say that. 

MATTHEWS:  But he did.

ROBINSON:  You think that, but you don‘t say it. 

WOLFFE:  By the way, people are saying the other side has got all the money.  They don‘t.  The White House is fretting enormously about raising $1 billion here. 

So, the other side, they‘re all trying to lock down those donors.  It‘s a mountain to climb.  Think of the hours they‘re going to have to spend...

(CROSSTALK)

WOLFFE:  ... for that kind of money. 

MATTHEWS:  You get federal money.  But it‘s federal money.

WOLFFE:  No, they have got to raise that money privately. 

(CROSSTALK)

WOLFFE:  The Obama campaign..

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  That‘s what I mean.  No, you‘re missing my point.  It‘s federal money.  It‘s election money.  You have to get $2,300 a shot each time.

WOLFFE:  Oh, yes, right, right, right, right, right.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  That‘s the term we use.

(CROSSTALK)

WOLFFE:  But they‘re going to bust those limits, so they have got to raise an enormous—how are you going to do that and...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Let me ask you a question.  This will sound anti-Obama.  Believe me, it‘s not.  It‘s just sheer analysis.  If we‘re in an economic reset situation, which we all talk about—and we all fear it for our children, for our own lives as we go on.  If the economy is going down and 9 percent or 8 percent becomes the new normal, and young people coming out of college don‘t have the chance that the kids 10, 20 years ago are having, and that looks real and permanent, and this president‘s not changing that, how can he get reelected, objectively?

ROBINSON:  Well...

MATTHEWS:  If he looks like...

(CROSSTALK)

ROBINSON:  ... it depends on who‘s running against him. 

MATTHEWS:  Really? 

(CROSSTALK)

ROBINSON:  It does.

MATTHEWS:  How can you blow it if you‘re facing an incumbent who‘s admitting he can‘t do anything about a downturn?

ROBINSON:  He‘s a good, talented politician who‘s able to inspire hope and change and all that hopey, changey stuff. 

(CROSSTALK)

ROBINSON:  He‘s good at it.  And you have to have somebody who‘s good up against him. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes, I know.  I still think the question looms.

WOLFFE:  I think the conventional wisdom has swung way too far saying this guy is a shoo-in.

MATTHEWS:  Right. 

WOLFFE:  Unemployment is the key.  But as long as Republicans want to talk about the size of government, like Bill Kristol is, they‘re missing the point.  It‘s about jobs.  It is about economic security. 

MATTHEWS:  It‘s about hope. 

WOLFFE:  And winning the future, it may sound great, as the president keeps saying it.  But how about winning the present? 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Are they saying—are they smart in saying it‘s the deficit‘s fault, the reason the economy‘s not growing, in other words, that‘s the problem? 

WOLFFE:  Yes, that‘s a roundabout way of saying it‘s about jobs.  But that‘s like saying health care is about jobs, too. 

MATTHEWS:  OK. 

WOLFFE:  They‘re talking about their own subjects, when people want to know about jobs.

MATTHEWS:  OK.  OK.  I want you to give me the morning line right now, Gene. 

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  Do you really think it‘s anything better than a 50/50 for this president to get reelected?  Karl Rove says a slight favorite. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Do you think he‘s a slight favorite?

(CROSSTALK)

ROBINSON:  No, I think it‘s better than 50/50.  It may not be better than 55/45. 

MATTHEWS:  How about you, Richard?

(CROSSTALK)

WOLFFE:  Incumbents always do better than 50/50, but, honestly, we‘re going to have three or four cycles of failure and success before we... 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  I look at the electoral map, and I see a very difficult time for him to get 53 percent, like he got last time.  And I look at the industrial states, Indiana, tough, Ohio, Wisconsin, tough. 

And I see a problem even in Pennsylvania.  He will probably take Pennsylvania, but these others are tougher. 

Anyway, Gene Robinson, I—I‘m looking at this practically.  If I were a Republican politician, I would run against the guy.  It‘s the year.  It‘s your chance.  Eugene Robinson, thank you—Richard Wolffe. 

Up next:  Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas may not be saying anything from the bench, but he has sure got a lot to say about his liberal critics, like Common Cause.  Stick around for that in the “Sideshow.” 

You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.  

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

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

First up:  Clarence Thomas answers his critics—sort of.  Common Cause is out there pushing for the Supreme Court justice to recuse himself on the big case involving the constitutionality of Obama‘s health care because Thomas‘ wife lobbies on behalf of Tea Partiers. 

Well, in a Saturday speech to law students, Justice Thomas shot back. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CLARENCE THOMAS, SUPREME COURT JUSTICE:  One of the things I want to do is, I want to go to my grave knowing that I gave everything I have trying to get it right. 

I have watched my bride, who is doing the same thing, when she started her organization.  She was able to give them 24/7 every day in defense of liberty.  We love being with each other because we love the same things.  We believe in the same things. 

So, with my wife and with the people around me, what I see, I‘m reinforced that we are focused on defending liberty. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  On that point, we are still waiting here at HARDBALL to hear from the Federalist Society that paid that justice and his wife for a four-day trip to Palm Springs two years ago.  Did they or did they not host a meeting in Palm Springs in January of 2008?  If not, why did they pay for that four-day trip?  We want to know and we‘re going to keep asking. 

Next up:  Where are the candidates?  We just told you that Republicans are skittish about the lack of 2012 announcements.  When should we expect the calls?  Well, NBC‘s political unit just came out with its look at what the possible candidates might be up to. 

Newt Gingrich and Tim Pawlenty look to be first out of the gate with decisions within the next couple weeks.  Mitt Romney will likely decide some time this spring.  But let‘s face it, he‘s been running since Election Day 2008.  Governor Haley Barbour won‘t decide until the Mississippi legislature ends in April, its session in April.  And Jon Huntsman, still on the White House team as ambassador to China, could announce after his ambassadorship ends in April, in fact, April 30th

Governor Mitch Daniels, like Barbour, will make the call by early May, when his legislature ends its session.  Rick Santorum, who doesn‘t have a job, also says he will announce by May.  Mind you, he‘s already been in Iowa 10 times. 

Mike Huckabee says he will decide by this summer.  Donald Trump says he will decide in June, just after he finishes his work on “The Apprentice.”  We will see about all that. 

Now to tonight‘s Big Number.  A new Gallup survey asked residents of each state to identify their political views.  Which states had the highest percentage of conservatives?  Fascinating.

Working our way upward, at number five, we have got Utah.  Also out West, we have got Wyoming at number four.  At number three, we move all the way south to Alabama, runner-up, Idaho.  And what‘s the most conservative state of all?  You got it, Mississippi.  More than half in the state, 51 percent, call themselves conservative.  Mississippi, number-one conservative state in the union—tonight‘s “Big Number.”

Up next:  Senate Democrats and House Republicans may have headed off a government shutdown for now, for the next couple weeks.  They‘re heading closer to a deal to keep the government running for two weeks.  Which side blinked and who has got the better hand politically right now?  You‘re going to see. 

Come back and watch HARDBALL in just one minute. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SUE HERERA, CNBC CORRESPONDENT:  I‘m Sue Herera with your CNBC “Market Wrap.”

Stocks closing out the month on a high note, the Dow Jones industrials climbing nearly 96 points, the S&P 500 adding seven, and the Nasdaq tacking on about a point. 

A little stumble last week not enough to keep the markets from racking up their third consecutive month of gains.  And today, we had the Commerce Department reporting the biggest jump in incomes in nearly two years.  But consumers are using it to rebuild their savings, keeping spending at modest levels. 

In stocks, some of the big names enjoyed some healthy gains, as portfolio managers spruced up their end-of-the-month holdings with some strong performers.  Berkshire Hathaway gained after Warren Buffett told shareholders his trigger finger is itchy for major acquisitions.  Humana jumped after winning back a multibillion-dollar contract with the Defense Department that had been going to UnitedHealth.

But Amazon slumped on concerns that plans to add streaming video might force it to jack up costs.

And that‘s it from CNBC.  We‘re first in business worldwide—and now back to HARDBALL and Chris. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE:  To not address entitlement programs, as in the case with the budget the president has put forward, would be an economic and moral failure. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Wow.  An economic and moral failure not to go after Social Security and Medicare?  Wait until we see what happens when they do go after it.

Welcome back to HARDBALL. 

While it appears there may be a deal coming to keep the United States government funded for another two weeks and open for business, avoiding a shutdown, the question remains whether Congress or the president will do something to curb the big, growing cost of programs like Social Security and Medicare.  Or is it all talk and no action, for the obvious reason?

Susan Molinari is a former New York congresswoman.  And Jeanne Cummings is assistant manager editor at Politico. 

Jeanne, just in strict analytical terms, watching these folks, I wonder if anybody who wants to get elected again in Congress is willing to put their hand up and say: “I want to cut the benefits going to people on Social Security.  I want to cut the health benefits.  You‘re not going to get dialysis for more than three months, X-many months.  You‘re not going to get the artificial limb reworked after seven years.  You‘re not going to get the following”?

When it comes to the realities of cutting these programs, will any politician actually do it? 

JEANNE CUMMINGS, ASSISTANT MANAGING EDITOR, POLITICO.COM:  I don‘t think we‘re going to see that any time soon, and without a great deal of change here in Washington, Chris, for the reasons that you make clear. 

It‘s politically very, very difficult.  You have down in Florida Representative Adam (sic) West, who has actually talked—he‘s a Republican, a freshman—and he‘s talked more than many of them about some of the changes that would have to come to those programs. 

And the Democrats are immediately targeting him.  And that—those are the very issues they‘re using against him. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes. 

CUMMINGS:  So, it‘s going to take a sea change.

MATTHEWS:  All you have to do—Paula Hawkins, remember—I‘m sorry. 

But, remember, Paula Hawkins was a senator from down there, never did anything wrong, except she did what they told her to do.  She voted to—she came out in public support of cutting for the COLAs for Social Security.  Got blown away.  Jeremiah Denton. 

I think it‘s the only issue, Susan—you were in the House—that you can be beaten for, just one vote.  Vote to cut Social Security, vote to cut Medicare benefits to people, what happens to you? 

SUSAN MOLINARI ®, FORMER U.S. CONGRESSWOMAN:  Well, except nobody‘s talking about cutting benefits of the recipients right now.  What they‘re talking about is changing programs in the future.  And I think...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  But, in the end, doesn‘t that do the same thing? 

MOLINARI:  I think the Republicans are going to take that chance. 

Look, John Boehner has just said it.  The speaker went out there and said it.  Eric Cantor has said it.  Paul Ryan has said, when he unveils his budget in a few weeks, there‘s going to be entitlement change.  Governor Christie has stood up and has staked his claim.  Mitch Daniels has.

I mean, you‘re starting to see—and, look, it‘s a different...

MATTHEWS:  It‘s easy for Christie.  He‘s not doing this.  He‘s telling them to do it. 

(CROSSTALK)

MOLINARI:  It‘s a different world now, though. 

MATTHEWS:  OK. 

(CROSSTALK)

MOLINARI:  This is a different world. 

MATTHEWS:  OK, Susan Molinari, I respect your judgment.  Here‘s the latest “USA Today” poll, Gallup poll -- 61 percent of Americans oppose cutting Medicare spends -- 64 percent oppose cutting Social Security spending.  These are two-thirds votes. 

MOLINARI:  I think the American people told the Republicans when they elected in the majority that they wanted this deficit to come under control and that they wanted a little sanity and some validity. 

MATTHEWS:  I agree with all that.

MOLINARI:  We‘re starting to see this with the C.R.  We‘re starting to see this with what the new Republican budget is going to do.  I think you‘re going to be surprised by the leadership that the Republican Party is going to show.

And I think the American people are going to present them with reelection at the polls for showing that kind of leadership.  I think what the last election about—was leadership. 

MATTHEWS:  Every time, Susan—or, Jeanne, every time we poll people

and I did this back in, I think, 1971, working for a senator from Utah. 

You poll people and you ask them what they would like to see government cut, they say foreign aid and general government expenses.  They want to see more money on education.  They don‘t want any cuts in Social Security or anything like it. 

If you ask them, do they want to see government waste cut, they don‘t want real cuts.  For example, I was just out doing something for Alzheimer‘s this past week out in Las Vegas, trying to raise awareness for the big group out there that is working on research.  Imagine telling people who have an Alzheimer‘s victim in their house and they‘re a caregiver—oh by the way, we‘re cutting spending on research that you‘re going to face another 20 or 30 years of Alzheimer‘s hell in this country because we can‘t solve the problem.  Do people really want those kinds of cuts?

CUMMINGS:  Well, I think in addition to those challenges that you‘ve just outlined, there is an additional one for this Congress and the White House if they really want to do anything.  And that is that there is a sizable majority in the 60 percents in a recent poll by Kaiser who thinks you can fix Medicare and Social Security by just cutting the other parts of the budget.  So, the public, while they may be coming around, they aren‘t ready for this debate yet.  There‘s a lot of education that would have to take place before Washington could move in a serious and fundamental way.

What struck me with the deficit commission in December was they made recommendations that would change Social Security, for instance.

MATTHEWS:  Yes.

CUMMINGS:  These—the effect of—the effect of those changes wouldn‘t take place, wouldn‘t affect anybody until 2050, OK?  That‘s a long time from now.

MATTHEWS:  I know.

CUMMINGS:  And, yet, they were criticized roundly on both sides of the aisle.  And nobody‘s been willing to touch that one.  So, until they deal, they bring the public with them, I think this will remain, they‘ve got to educate the public.  But until they do that, I think it‘s going to be a very tough issue.

MATTHEWS:  So, you‘re 26 years old and this will affect you.  I‘m going the math.  It‘s 39 years from now.

MOLINARI:  Twenty-six-year-olds, 52-year-olds don‘t rely on Social Security for our benefits.  I mean, we‘ve all grown up with the reality we don‘t think it‘s going to be there for them.  That is why I think—you know, look, the line is being drawn.  The abdication of leadership by President Obama in following in anything that his deficit commission—

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Who on the other side is doing it?

MOLINARI:  Three week, Paul Ryan, and you just heard John Boehner say they‘re going to make some changes in terms of entitlement reforms.  When they come forth with their budget when they‘re done cleaning—

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Do you think that‘s a smart move on their part?

MOLINARI:  I think it is a smart move for this country.  And I think the voters understand it now.  I think it is a different time than when Paula Hawkins and others—

MATTHEWS:  Jeanne, do you think the Republicans are going to be the first ones to move on this?  Not the Democrats?

CUMMINGS:  I will be—I think they are going to do something. 

They are promised to do it and there will be something in their budget.  Whether that is a serious proposal or not, I‘m skeptical of.  Only because we‘ve been in this town for a long time and there are a lot of proposals that are supposedly serious proposals but they really aren‘t.

So, we‘ll see if they will be first out and it will be a serious proposal.

MATTHEWS:  I will be very impressed—negatively or positively, I‘ll be impressed if your party, the Republican Party, actually says, raise the retirement age, reduce the benefit levels, something that a person can see when they watch a program like this and read the paper, they can get it.  They are cutting the benefits.

MOLINARI:  This is the party that‘s at least proposed the spending cuts for C.R. that the Democrat Party was suppose to pass last year and moving toward September.  So, let‘s give them credit for what they‘ve done so far.

MATTHEWS:  You‘ve just done that.  That‘s sufficient.

Anyway, thank you, Susan Molinari.  It‘s great to have you on because you are a good partisan.  But I‘m waiting for the Republicans or anybody—because I watched this under Reagan.  And he was as popular as you could get in this country, and he got burnt on this thing.

Up next: Defense Secretary Robert Gates says something I never thought a defense chief would say.  He said it was wrong to go to war—it‘s wrong to go to war in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.  He says any defense secretary that recommends such action, quote, “should have his or her head examined.”  Wow.

Is Gates saying the war in Afghanistan was not winnable?  That we went into it wrongly?  Is he saying the same about Iraq?

This is HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  The last surviving American veteran of World War I has died.  West Virginia native Frank Buckles died yesterday at the age of 110.  Buckles enlisted as a 16-year-old back in 1917 after telling a recruiter he was older than he was.  He served two years as an ambulance driver in England and France, rising to the rank of corporal.  Later in World War II, Buckles was a prisoner of war in the Philippines and was held for more than three years.  What a life for his country.

As President Obama put it today, Frank Buckles lived the American century and he fought for us.

We‘ll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  We‘re back.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates issued a sober warning against waging another major ground invasion like Afghanistan or Iraq, when he spoke to West Point cadets this Friday.

Here‘s what he said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ROBERT GATES, DEFENSE SECRETARY:  But in my opinion, any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should have his head examined.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Wow.

Senator Jim Webb is a Democrat from Virginia.  He sits on the Armed Services Committee, was secretary of the Navy under President Reagan.

Senator, sometimes somebody says something in Washington.  It‘s not just words.  I was stunned by that.

What was your reaction?

SEN. JIM WEBB (D), VIRGINIA:  Well, first of all, I think he‘s the right person to be saying this because he has long experience in national security policy.  He was secretary of defense under President Bush and he‘s continued under President Obama.  And we‘re hearing, you know, a lot of wisdom and good advice.

I know—when 9/11 happened, I wrote a piece a day after it, talking about my views on how you should fight international terrorism.  And I had one paragraph in there that said, do not occupy territory, because in a situation such as international terrorism, you lose your maneuverability and you create situations where you have to go on defense to defend the territories that you occupied.

So, I would think looking forward what Secretary Gates is saying has a lot of wisdom to it.

MATTHEWS:  What does it say about the current war in Afghanistan?

WEBB:  Well, there‘s a concept in negligence law called assumption of duty.  And what that means is once we have assumed a duty in a certain way, we‘re obligated to carry it out and I have been supportive of the strategy as they put it together.

But there comes a time, too, when you have to recognize that we‘re in a little bit of mission creep, I think, in Afghanistan.  There‘s only so much we will be able to do until we leave.  And the best way to address international terrorism is through mobility and through maneuverability.

And the other question that I‘ve had and I‘ve stated this on many occasions is that the enormous amount of attention and national resources that have gone into Iraq and Afghanistan have drawn us away from our true strategic first priority, and that‘s in Northeast and Southeast Asia.  We have kind of lost the bubble over there.

I spent a lot of time in that part of the world in my life.  I just got back from a trip to Japan.  And, you know, we really need to focus again on our economic, security and cultural relations in Asia.

MATTHEWS:  Could we have achieved the political ambitions of the previous administration after 9/11 without going to a war in Afghanistan?  Could we have gone after effectively al Qaeda internationally without going into Afghanistan, for example?

WEBB:  First of all, I‘m one of those who strongly believes that the invasion of Iraq was a strategic blunder and it took our eye off of the way that we could have been dealing with situations in a number of other places.

I was in Afghanistan as a journalist in ‘04.  I spent most of my time with a Marine Corps unit over there.  And the way they were handling the situation, I think, was the way we should be doing it.  They were a maneuver force.  They were out taking on the elements of the extremist Taliban and al Qaeda.

But the question becomes these larger scale occupations, and the political objectives that they have.  And I think Secretary Gates is correct in saying that in the future, there are probably better ways to do that.

MATTHEWS:  Do you think the message—I mean, I remember Doug MacArthur saying never go into a land war in Asia after World War II and after Korea.  And then we went ahead and did it in Vietnam.  I mean, do we ever listen to these advisories from the experts?

WEBB:  There are different moments in history where you put your military into places with different adversaries, and in different schemes of operation.  I happen to believe that our involvement in Vietnam was appropriate.

I think if you listen to people like Lee Kuan Yew, the minister mentor of Singapore, he‘s one of the brightest minds Asia has ever produced, you know, he was saying that what we did in Vietnam stabilize the region around Vietnam and allowed these incipient governmental systems coming out of colonialism to stabilize and allowed their economies to grow.

But what we have now really is a war against international terrorism that requires an enormous amount of maneuverability.  And then at the same time, we have the strategic objectives of the country, which are best served by strong Navy, technology, anti-penetration through cyber warfare, these sorts of things.  And we need to have a valid ground element—

MATTHEWS:  OK.

WEBB:  -- but not necessarily what we‘re doing here.

MATTHEWS:  In real time, we‘ve got none of this information from Gates.  We got none of this information from Rumsfeld.  Now, Gates tells us it was a mistake to go into Afghanistan and Iraq after we‘ve already gotten in there, telling us now.  We‘ve got Rumsfeld telling us now there were no nuclear weapons in Iraq, no attempt to build them, no attempt to buy them.  No, nada nuclear weapons.

These guys tell us after the fact the facts.  What do you make of it?

WEBB:  Well in all fairness to Secretary Gates, I don‘t think that‘s what I thought he was saying.

MATTHEWS:  OK.  So, let‘s focus on Rummy then.  How about Rumsfeld?

WEBB:  I think there were a lot of people in that administration who got blinded by bad information and who really wanted a war in Iraq for a lot of other reasons.  But Secretary Gates took the hand off and I think he‘s been enormously responsible as a secretary of defense.

MATTHEWS:  Why are you leaving the Senate?

WEBB:  Well, I think six years is a good period of time to be in the Senate and I remain—I intend to be fully involved in issues, even though I‘m leaving in two years.

MATTHEWS:  Yes.  Thank you.  I want to ask you more about that later.  I want to know what‘s wrong with the Senate, I‘m curious.

Anyway, you seem like a good guy.  Anyway, thank you, Senator Jim Webb.

WEBB:  Thank you.

MATTHEWS:  When we return, “Let Me Finish” with the man on the stage last night in the Oscars, during the Oscars, there he is right now, and how I‘m going to remember that guy.  He‘s the guy that broke the blacklist, Kirk Douglas.

You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  “Let Me Finish” tonight with an important figure at last night‘s Academy Awards.  Kirk Douglas gave the award last night for supporting actress at the age of 94.  It was unusual for a fellow of his age to be out there on stage in what is always a youth-dominated Oscar night, especially this year when ABC made such an obvious effort with Anne Hathaway and James Franco to get the targeted demographic to watch.

Well, so, let me tell you about this fellow, Kirk Douglas.  First of all, he‘s always been a politically active middle-of-the-road Democrat.  I remember him up there with Lyndon Johnson and Danny Thomas at the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City.

Douglas, let‘s face it, is the American story.  He grew up poor, the son of Russian-Jewish immigrants in the early part of the last century.  He had nothing and made himself an American actor and American movie cowboy star in his day in movies like “Gun Fight at the O.K. Corral.”

Of course, as a kid, I always think of Kirk Douglas in “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.”  Douglas played the whaler who saved the Nautilus from the giant squid—one of the great scary action scenes.  I love that movie.

Later, Douglas made his classics, the anti-war “Paths of Glory,” and “Spartacus,” the story of the slave revolt against the Roman Empire.  That was the movie where Douglas personally decided to break the Hollywood blacklist.  He hired a blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo to pen the screenplay and put his name, Dalton Trumbo, right up there in the credits, no hiding him behind a front.

Dalton Trumbo wrote “Roman Holiday,” “Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo,” “Exodus,” and a lot of other great movies, winning Academy Awards under different names.

Well, “The heads of the studios were hypocrites,” Kirk Douglas declared.  “My company produced ‘Spartacus,‘ written by Dalton Trumbo, a blacklisted writer under the name Sam Jackson.  Too many people were using false back then.  I was embarrassed.  I was young enough to be impulsive, so, even though I was warned against it, I used his real name on the screen.”

Kirk Douglas refused to let the system punished people for their political views.  He believed Americans are smart enough to know what they‘re watching and can see the message as easily as someone can send it.  They don‘t need to be protected from people, from writers like Dalton Trumbo.

Well, last night was about youth, I wanted to say something important tonight about an older guy who deserves it.

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

More politics ahead with Cenk Uygur.

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