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updated 3/14/2011 10:56:26 AM ET 2011-03-14T14:56:26

Guests: Arata Yamamoto, Chuck Todd, Simon Hobbs, Richard Wolffe, Dave Spector, Frank Vernon, Jim Walsh, Alexander Burns, John Nichols, Ron Reagan

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST:  Seismic.

Let‘s play HARDBALL.

Good evening.  I‘m Chris Matthews in Washington. 

Leading off tonight: Earthquake.  They are like scenes out of a disaster film.  When an earthquake struck off the coast of Japan today, it set off scenes of destruction the likes of which we have never seen before.  It set up a tsunami that swept over rural—both rural and urban areas with devastating results.  It was an 8.9 Richter scale quake, the strongest in Japan‘s history, one of the strongest anywhere on record ever. 

We‘ll get the latest from Japan and from experts here in the USA.  And the United States is offering to help with rescue and airlift operations.  The quake led to tsunami warnings in Hawaii, Alaska and the West Coast of the U.S., here in continental U.S. but there was no real damage.

Plus, so what‘s—so that‘s what it was.  Here‘s what Wisconsin‘s senate majority leader said, on Fox of course, about the battle against unions.  Quote—have you been waiting to hear this one? -- “If we win this battle”—that‘s against the workers out there—“and the money is not there under the auspices of the union, certainly, what you‘re going to find is President Obama‘s going to have a much more difficult time getting elected and winning the state of Wisconsin.”

Well, there you have it in black and white.  Look for Democrats to use that little thought from that senate leader as the rallying cry in 2012.  They‘ve admitted it‘s about politics.  It‘s about elections.  It‘s about beating the president.  That‘s what all this cutting off of wages and everything else is about.

Also, gas lines from Republicans.  First, Haley Barbour suggested that President Obama engineered price increases in order to get Americans to drive smaller cars and take trains.  Then John Boehner blamed the president, saying he‘s blocking energy production.  Apparently, Mr. Boehner never heard of Libya.  That‘s behind the latest stuff, and that‘s what‘s causing all this.  You have to wonder what‘s causing all the nonsense from the Republicans.  Remember, everything these Republicans are saying is a particular kind of language.  Everything that‘s being said between now and early next year is about the Iowa caucuses, the most far-right culturally voters in the Republican Party.  Everything‘s attuned to their ears.  So when you hear the craziest stuff out of somewhat normal Republicans talking like far-right Republicans, think Iowa.  They‘re giving Iowa a try.  Right out of the movies.

“Let Me Finish” tonight with how the unions‘ defeat in Wisconsin could lead to a comeback of the U.S. labor movement.

We start with the earthquake in Japan.  Arata Yamamoto is an NBC News producer based in Tokyo.  Sir, I‘ve been watching your coverage.  I‘ve been watching what you‘ve had to say about that.  And all I can tell you—I do see a lot of disaster movies.  This looked real and very scary.  What was it like?

ARATA YAMAMOTO, NBC PRODUCER (via telephone):  Yes, talk about scary.  This happened 188 miles north of Tokyo, but when the tremor struck here, we felt it here all the way down in Tokyo.  It was so bad that I couldn‘t stand.  You had to sort of crouch a little bit to, you know, not fall down.

MATTHEWS:  You know, I just saw a picture—we‘re looking at it.  You don‘t get the benefit of it.  We‘re a looking at a picture from the—looking through the windshield of a car, apparently on the streets up there.  You know, I remember being through a very mild earthquake in northern California, and if you‘re in a car, you don‘t even feel it.  But I‘m looking at that car rocking and rolling there.  Even in a car with shocks and tires, you can see the action.

You were watching—tell me what you were doing, what you‘re going to remember, what you‘re going to tell your grandkids about today and yesterday?

YAMAMOTO:  Well, you know, obviously, the pictures that have come through, the aerial pictures of the tsunami.  I think everyone‘s saying that it‘s not so much the earthquake itself, but the tsunami that was generated by this earthquake that‘s caused this massive destruction.  You‘ve probably seen pictures of cars rolling in the water like toys and...

MATTHEWS:  Yes.

YAMAMOTO:  ... which just sort of shows you the magnitude, the strength of the tsunami.

MATTHEWS:  Well, let‘s talk politics for a minute here, the government.  Is there a sense at this very early date, only hours from this tragedy beginning, that the government, the society of Japan, was prepared for this kind of event?

YAMAMOTO:  You know, I think it‘s really difficult to be prepared for anything of this magnitude.  The prime minister—Prime minister Naoto Kan, left about an hour ago in a helicopter, and he‘s going to be visiting, touring the scene near the epicenter.  And he has been handling the special task force.  And for instance, just about less than an hour ago, he had ordered residents living near one of the nuclear reactors—he‘s expanded the evacuation from three kilometers to a ten-kilometer radius.  So he has been the—he‘s been on top of it through this.

MATTHEWS:  You know, Arata, I have never—we‘re looking at these pictures right now.  What do they mean to you over there?  We‘re looking at cars going up -- (INAUDIBLE) cars going over a little waterfall, like in Philly down by the Mark (ph) Museum, just cars going over like little light toys.  These are tons -- (INAUDIBLE) cars that weigh a ton just going right over the water.  Now, we‘re watching a flow of water going through a town, crashing the buildings—crashing the buildings down and moving them like they‘re all made—look at these pictures!  I don‘t think Steven Spielberg can come up with this kind of stuff.  I mean, this is amazing stuff.

YAMAMOTO:  It‘s frightening.  But the fact that it happened during daytime, I think people were able to see—you know, we‘ve had a large tsunami before.  They happen at nighttime, and we didn‘t know—didn‘t really grasp the strength of it.  We just saw the destruction, what it left afterwards.  But this time, we saw it real-time.  We saw the waves coming into the coast, and the helicopters filming this followed it as it picked up the cars like—as you say, like toys.  And it just showed the magnitude of the tsunami this earthquake caused.

MATTHEWS:  Is that something you can anticipate with an earthquake that, when you‘re right near the coast, like in Japan, which is all near the coast, that there‘s going to be an offshore, there‘s going to be a tsunami?  That comes what, 10 or 15 minutes later?  Is that what happened?

YAMAMOTO:  Well, this one, right.  The meteorological agency issued a tsunami warning really, like, minutes after the earthquake struck Sendai.  The first batch of waves, as they predicted, came 15 minutes after the earthquake.  So you know, they can guess it.  They‘re not always accurate.  We‘ve had instances in the past where they predicted a huge tsunami, but it never turned out to be that big.  This time, you know, they were right.  It was very destructive.

MATTHEWS:  You know, I was thinking, we all grew up in this country—

I‘m a bit older than you, I think, and I‘m thinking about you and I grew up in this country, where you have the memory of San Francisco, sort of film history.  And I was looking at the numbers.  That was only a 7.9 Richter scale, the great—the great, infamous San Francisco earthquake that led to the fire out there.  This was an 8.9.  And I‘m told it‘s exponential.  I mean, even more than exponential.  That distance between 7 -- well, there we‘re looking at an office scene that‘s almost comical, it‘s so crazy—

7.9, but an 8.9 is a lot more than just about 10 points higher, isn‘t it.

YAMAMOTO:  That‘s correct, but you know, I think a lot of experts will also say that you can‘t just look at the numbers because, you know, we had a 7.1 last week in the same area, and it caused hardly any destruction.  It sort of depends on the timing, you know, whether it‘s high tide or low tide, also the terrain.  If it‘s flat, then—if there‘s no obstacles, then the waves will crash into the coast with much more destruction than if there are underwater terrain that are—act as obstacles.  Obviously, this time, it wasn‘t.

MATTHEWS:  Now, you have a new earthquake that came in overnight, after midnight out there.  What was that—what kind of damage does that do in the west, the western part of the country?

YAMAMOTO:  Yes, it was totally separate mechanics that caused this earthquake.  It registered 6.6.  So far, we have not heard any injuries from that earthquake.  We heard a report that one wooden building collapsed.  But so far, we have not heard any injuries.  But that could change.  It‘s getting light out now, so that—we might have a better assessment now in daylight.

MATTHEWS:  We‘re just going to look at these pictures for a minute.  Just let‘s watch these things for a minute here.  I‘ve never seen footage like this.  There‘s actually a peaceful part of the country.  But look at that big hole, that big (INAUDIBLE) What about the aid that‘s coming from America?  Have you got a sense that this early morning—it‘s dawn over there, the day after.  Do you have a sense that the Americans are coming with aid right now?  Is that a part of the story right now over there?

YAMAMOTO:  Unfortunately, it‘s not, not yet.  I‘m sure they will be needed down the road.  Right now, I think the Japanese self-defense force is demobilized to some of these areas.  First—you know, the first thing that has to be done is have a better assessment of the extent of the damage.  That‘s not even clear yet.

MATTHEWS:  Yes.

YAMAMOTO:  Communications are down.  The Japanese military has to fly more choppers to get a—you know, a bird‘s-eye view of the destruction, find pockets of areas where there might be—you know, areas where help is much needed.

MATTHEWS:  Wow.  Hey, look, great reporting, Arata Yamamoto.  Sir, thank you for this amazing historic reporting.  What a memory you‘re going to have.  Thanks for being on the air tonight.  We may have you back next week.  Thank you.

Dave Spector‘s an American who just happened to be over in Tokyo during all this.  Dave, thank you for joining us over there.  You‘re on Skype.  I think I‘m hearing myself over there, as well.  Tell me what you went through.

DAVE SPECTOR, AMERICAN IN TOKYO:  Well, I was in a car at the time, and the car started to shake rather violently.  You‘re seeing right now what I took with an iPhone that I had.  And it seemed maybe it could be the wind, but then it‘s too strong for the wind.  And then we noticed the traffic signals moving, and the car just wouldn‘t stop shaking.  And this went on and on for at least two minutes.  So I got out of the car.  I noticed people had all left the buildings that they were in, and everybody was looking up, expecting something to fall on their heads.  It was a very frightening scene.  And as you mentioned earlier, it was very (INAUDIBLE)

MATTHEWS:  Well, how are the people taking it over there, Dave?  Are they shook up, I mean, literally shook, obviously, but are they emotionally scared of another aftershock hitting them or what?

SPECTOR:  Well, Japan is the most earthquake-conscious country in the world, and they have so many tools in place to help the damage be as small as possible.  They have earthquakes all the time.  They have an early warning system, which actually alerts you to an impending earthquake 30 seconds and as long as a minute before it strikes, which means you can perhaps get under a table or turn off the gas or leave the building that you‘re in, your house.

MATTHEWS:  Yes.

SPECTOR:  So they‘re very, very good with earthquakes, if that‘s the proper way of saying it.  But one of this magnitude, there‘s just no way you could do anything about it whatsoever.  You just have to accept whatever fate you had.  And fortunately, people in Tokyo, at least, did not see the kind of damage that you‘re seeing on your screen right now.

The—behind me, there are some Japanese television news channels on 24 hours a day, and they are saying there have been—that there are 400 casualties that are known right now and over 700 people that are unaccounted for.  And I am afraid that number‘s going to increase a great deal today.

MATTHEWS:  Well, this tsunami—are they prepared for the eventuality within 10 or 15 minutes of an earthquake over there of this enormous tsunami we‘re watching, cars floating around here like they‘re made of balsa wood, going over waterfalls, this incredible sort of swamp of cars and other refuse all—I‘ve never seen anything like this thing.  Was this something we knew was coming.

SPECTOR:  Yes, the...

MATTHEWS:  After an earthquake of 8.9?

SPECTOR:  Any large earthquake, even a medium-scale earthquake, they issue tsunami warnings that are on the television screen throughout the period that you have to be careful of.  And it‘s very, very detailed and very particular.  People get warnings on their cell phones and television and radio.  So they knew that it would—the time of arrival of the tsunami is alerted to them rather precisely.  But a lot of people did not get out of the way in time.  Sometimes, it reaches further than it was expected.  So even though you see a lot of cars being tossed into the water, it does not, of course, mean that there are people inside those cars.  They did have time to get out safely.

MATTHEWS:  Yes.

SPECTOR:  That said, there are hundreds of casualties.

MATTHEWS:  I‘ve never seen cars float that well, by the way.  I‘m amazed at this.  Anyway, thank you, Dave Spector, an American in Tokyo, there for the history today.

When we return, we‘re going to talk to a seismologist about what to expect in the coming hours, plus the challenge of cooling down that damaged nuclear reactor.  This is opening up all the questions of nuclear energy in this country.  You got to bet that the critics of nuclear energy are going to go after this one and say, Look what happens.

HARDBALL‘s coverage of the earthquake, the tsunami and the whole story.  We‘re going to get back to politics in a few minutes, but we‘ve got to cover this history.  This is—I wanted you to see these pictures.  They are—I‘ve never seen anything like it.  We‘ll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Well, here‘s some good news.  Doctors say Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords continues to make leaps and bounds in her recovery.  She‘s walking and talking, talking complete sentences and breathing on her own now without the help of medicine.  And Giffords has—was told by her husband, by the way, that she was shot.  She has no memory of being shot.  Doctors are optimistic Giffords will be able to attend her husband‘s space shuttle launch next month.  Mark Kelly, of course, her husband, is scheduled to command—command the final voyage of the space shuttle Endeavor.

We‘ll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  The 8.9 earthquake that hit Japan this morning was the strongest ever recorded in the country.  The quake triggered a massive tsunami that overtook coastal cities in Japan.  Hundreds are dead, and still missing others.  Japanese officials, meanwhile, are trying to ease pressure on a nuclear reactor whose cooling system failed in the earthquake‘s aftermath.  What triggered all this under our earth, and what should we expect in coming hours?

Joining us right now is Frank Vernon, a geophysicist with the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, and Jim Walsh, a nuclear expert and research associate with MIT‘s Security Studies program.

Gentlemen, one at a time here—different topics.  First of all, to you, Mr. Vernon.  What happened under the earth?  Has this got anything to do with what happened in New Zealand, anything to do with what might happen now and later?

FRANK VERNON, GEOPHYSICIST:  What happened this morning in Japan was a subduction zone earthquake, which created a magnitude 8.9 event, which propagated a lot of energy into the shore there, creating a tsunami that propagated out that you‘ve seen all sorts of information and videos on and also provided a lot of damage on shore.

MATTHEWS:  Well, what—I mean, is there any way of—I mean, it‘s like asking what caused this weather.  What causes an earthquake?  Just what is the most basic—give me a basic primer on that.

VERNON:  Basically, what you see happening here is that there‘s a subduction zone that goes underneath Japan.  We‘ve got two plates moving together.  We have one goes under the Pacific Ocean, diving underneath Japan.  It‘s sliding down underneath Japan.  It has to break every once in a while, and this is a very large event which occurs on several-hundred-year recurrence intervals, but this is something that is not unexpected to happen in the long term.

MATTHEWS:  You know, I‘ve got relatives that live out—my wife‘s from out in San Francisco, and we have another relative—I won‘t mention her name, she‘ll be embarrassed—who‘s always afraid—in fact, she doesn‘t live out there anymore.  She‘s always afraid she‘ll be there for one of these things.  Do we know anything about the potential of something like this happening in northern California, for example, along the San Andreas fault?

VERNON:  The San Andreas fault is not large enough to sustain a magnitude 8.8 earthquake.  It can go up into about the magnitude 8.0, as you mentioned earlier.  The place that has actually has this kind of rift in North America is the Cascadia subduction zone, which is—spans between British Columbia, the state of Washington, the state of Oregon and into northernmost California, but not down as far as San Francisco.

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Hold on there.  I want to go right now to Jim Walsh at

MIT.

Jim, we have a big debate, as you know—you‘re part of it probably in this country—about the safety of nuclear energy.  We know we have an energy challenge.  We can‘t get as much gas as we‘d like at the price we would like, certainly, so people are looking to nuclear energy to take care of our energy needs in terms of electricity, et cetera. 

But is this going to—does this shake you, when in fact you realize that Japan has been somewhat unprepared here? 

JIM WALSH, INTERNATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST, MASSACHUSETTS INSTITUTE OF

TECHNOLOGY:  Sure.  Of course it does, because the scale is so large and we‘re facing—I don‘t think the nightmare scenario‘s going to happen here, but it could happen.

And the fact that it is even possible gives you pause.   I‘m less concerned about a Japan, a United States.  When people talk about a nuclear renaissance, they‘re mostly talking about the Third World, developing countries. 

Think about Iran.  Iran, with its brand-new nuclear reactor, how would they handle an 8.9 quake, when they‘re in an earthquake zone?  I don‘t think they will handle it very well.  So I think it does raise some fundamental issues about the future of nuclear power, at least in poor countries in areas where earthquakes are a big deal. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, we‘re used to taking precautions with radiation.  You go to a doctor‘s office, you always notice that he and his technicians and assistants leave the room when there‘s an X-ray.  We know how to take precautions.

Is there something in the economics of our society, of humanity, that they don‘t take enough precautions, that you say, I would rather get the fuel online and the energy online, and we‘re not going to make the major investments necessary to make sure as much we can there won‘t be an accident?

WALSH:  Sure, I think you‘re right about that, Chris. 

Now, you look at Japan.  Japan has the third biggest economy in the world.  It‘s advanced.  It has lots of earthquakes.  Many of its facilities were built to withstand an earthquake, but not an earthquake at this level, not an 8.9.  Why?  Well, because people thought, well, that‘s unlikely.  We‘re not going to spend a ton of money on something that‘s highly unlikely.

And yet then the day comes when the unlikely thing happens, and you‘re at risk.  So, there‘s definitely cost/benefit analysis at work here that tends to make you not prepare for those things that are unlikely, but could be catastrophic. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, let‘s compare this to the situation over there with that facility over there, that nuclear facility that we know all about today.  Compare that to Chernobyl or Three Mile Island and this issue of the coolant.  There was talk earlier today—I was on with Andrea Mitchell during the daytime, around 1:00 this afternoon.  There was a lot of talk about the United States would have to speed coolant. 

And I was thinking, why wouldn‘t the Japanese have a sufficient supply of this kind of material, if it was necessary to cool down a nuclear reactor? 

WALSH:  Well, you‘re right, Chris. 

I have been talking to a lot of my friends in this business today, and they were totally puzzled by Clinton‘s announcement.  The deal here is not a lack of coolant.  It‘s a lack of electricity.  The deal is, if you‘re going to keep this plant from having a meltdown or other problems, you have to cool it down. 

And to do that, you need electricity to have pumps that are pumping water into that reactor, so that it will cool down.  The problem is, the first set of pumps went down.  Then the backup set of pumps that were supposed to run on diesel, they got flooded and they went down. 

So, the real issues are, number one can they get—gin up some sort of electricity to get the pumps going again?  And if they get the pumps going again, are they going to run into any other technical issues?  And now they have evacuated people once.  They have evacuated them twice.  So there is some concern about that. 

We will know in the next 24 hours.  This is the critical period right now. 

MATTHEWS:  OK.

Jim Walsh, thank you very much from MIT.

Let me get back to Frank Vernon for one last question. 

What are the chances of subsidence on the Northern California area along the fault, the chance of subsidence, of the land mass slipping into the sea? 

VERNON:  It‘s essentially none.  There‘s—we will have tectonic motion, which we know which moves in very slow turns, but nothing would happen in scale of our lifetimes. 

MATTHEWS:  So I can rest assure all my relatives there will not be subsidence in Northern California?

VERNON:  Yes.  You can even buy your property there. 

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  Well, that‘s good news for us at least tonight.

When we return—thank you so much, Frank Vernon, Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

NBC News chief White House correspondent Chuck Todd with President Obama‘s response.  He will be here in just one minute, what the president is doing.  This could be one of those unusual opportunities for good relations between our country and another country, this one. 

Look at this.  They need help. 

You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.  

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  Our thoughts and our prayers are with the people of Japan.  This is a potentially catastrophic disaster, and the images of destruction and flooding coming out of Japan are simply heartbreaking.

Today‘s events remind us of just how fragile life can be.  Our hearts go out to our friends in Japan and across the region, and we‘re going to stand with them as they recover and rebuild from this tragedy.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Well, that was good work for the country and world actually.  There is the president. 

We‘re back. 

That was the president earlier today on the massive earthquake we have been watching for the last 20 minutes that struck Japan.  The president‘s has already committed two aircraft carriers to help the rescue and recovery effort.  And he told Japan‘s prime minister that the United States would provide whatever assistance his country needs. 

For more on the president‘s response to the catastrophe in Japan, let‘s turn to NBC News chief White House correspondent Chuck Todd. 

You and I don‘t usually talk about these things, but nature has spoken here, an incredible disaster that looked like a disaster film, actually.  It looked like something was done digitally.  But there it is.

CHUCK TODD, NBC NEWS POLITICAL DIRECTOR:  Right. 

MATTHEWS:  Is this a chance for us to do something good? 

TODD:  Well, look, it‘s amazing in this presidency in these two-and-a-half years—Brian Williams said it during our special report—the amount—the amount of different events that have just fallen into the lap of this president in the last two-and-a-half years, some of them—some of them having to do with nature and some of them not, this, of course, with nature. 

Look, Japan is America‘s, if you were going to rank them, probably second closest ally, after Great Britain.  It‘s a very tight partnership, particularly economically.  And so you‘re going to see—I think this is going to be, whatever they need, we‘re going to be the first country to come to their assistance in this case.  And don‘t forget how much military personnel we have over there.

And the president himself at the press conference, by the way, when asked by a Japanese reporter, what would—would those folks be put to use to help, the president had a one-word answer:  Yes. 

MATTHEWS:  You know, there was a nice moment in the press conference this afternoon.  It was an otherwise desultory press conference, I thought.

(LAUGHTER)

TODD:  OK.

MATTHEWS:  But there was a nice moment in it when the Japanese reporter—well, that was my view of it.  The guy called...

TODD:  Yes. 

MATTHEWS:  I do have opinions. 

TODD:  I know. 

MATTHEWS:  At the very end, when the Japanese reporter was called on, and he asked the president how he felt. 

TODD:  Right. 

And, look, this president is not one who wears his emotions on his sleeve.  And, in fact, sometimes, I have noticed that some allies of him get upset about it, that they wish he would do it more.  They wish he—there was more Bill Clinton in him, that he was one of those feel-your-pain type.

But he did.  He talked about how his connection with the Japanese culture, growing up in Hawaii—if you have spent any time in Hawaii, you know there is quite a few Japanese immigrants in that state.  And he—that was something that I had not heard from him before. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes. 

TODD:  I had not heard him talk about that.  But spending the time I have spent in Hawaii just covering him, it‘s clear of course he would have more of a—a little more of a connection and a familiarity with Japanese culture than those of us that have grown up on the mainland. 

MATTHEWS:  Sure.  There‘s so many Japanese people who—Japanese-rooted people who live in Japan—in Hawaii.  We all know that.

Was this a—sort of a good opportunity for the president to remind everybody that he grew up in the United States, in Hawaii? 

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  I mean, I thought it was—that‘s the first thing I thought of.  I said, you know, with all this crazy talk, something like a huge percentage of Republicans—maybe they do it just to sort of stick it to him, but such a large number of people believe he grew up in—you know, they‘re buying this thing that is coming from Huckabee, the misspoken comment by him...

TODD:  Yes. 

MATTHEWS:  ... the Newt Gingrich theory. 

He apparently did it a couple times this week.  Didn‘t he just say the other day:  We can‘t agree on everything; for example, I grew up in Hawaii?

He said that to a Republican group. 

TODD:  Well, that‘s—look, do I think that they thought this was another chance?  No. 

They called this press conference because they hadn‘t had an opportunity to speak about gas prices, and they realized this is something that‘s hitting close to home for a lot of people. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes. 

TODD:  And they hadn‘t—they were looking for a vehicle to do that.  That‘s why they called the press conference, is—sort of was the whole opening statement.  This is the case where events just crowded out the whole purpose of the press conference. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes. 

TODD:  So, that is an interesting theory.  It certainly did give him an opportunity to remind folks of where he grew up and the folks he grew up with. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes.  It‘s pathetic he has to do that.  But thank you so much, Chuck Todd.

Sorry to bring you into our intramural concerns here, but one of them is...

TODD:  No.

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  ... this strange critique of him from the right that he‘s not really one of us that never seems to end. 

TODD:  Yes.   

MATTHEWS:  Thank you, Chuck Todd, for that great reporting on it, an unusual, very strange topic. 

TODD:  Yes. 

Chuck will be substitute host, by the way, on “Meet the Press” this Sunday on NBC with Indiana Governor and possible 2012 presidential candidate Mitch Daniels.

He may get this guy to get in the race this Sunday.  It could be a big news making event this Sunday on “Meet the Press.”

Up next:  The Republican leader in the Wisconsin State Senate admits now his state‘s battle against unions is going to hurt President Obama‘s chances for reelection, in fact, hurt his fund-raising from unions, hurt him in Wisconsin, hurt him nationally.  This is a real politicization by the leader of the Republican Senate out there. 

And this fight isn‘t about the budget after all, perhaps.  To a large extent, it looks like it‘s about politics.  You break the union, you hurt the Democrats.  Get it? 

That‘s ahead.

You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SIMON HOBBS, CNBC CORRESPONDENT:  And good evening.  I‘m Simon Hobbs with your CNBC “Market Wrap.”

Stocks regaining ground after a rocky start, but finishing off their best levels of the day.  The Dow did reclaim 12000 during the course of the session, though, of course, much of the action today revolved around that massive quake and tsunami in Japan.  Ultimately, the market coming to the conclusion it will do more to boost growth than detract from it, the yen falling sharply at first, but trimming its losses as traders remembered its strong performance and ultimately rising because in the wake of the ‘95 quake, of course, insurers poured money into Japan. 

Many of the big-name companies based in Japan moved lower.  Nissan is reporting damage at four of its plants.  And Toyota is suspending production at some factories as well.

Oil prices skidded, U.S. crude down $1.89 to finish just under $101 a barrel, partly on the tsunami, but more importantly because of the day of rage didn‘t materialize in Saudi.  And that‘s good news for virtually everybody. 

Overall, however, it was a rough week for the markets, especially the Nasdaq, losing 2.5 percent.  Oh, those techs. 

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

HARDBALL. 

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.

Here‘s the Republican State Senate leader in Wisconsin.  We have been telling you about this quote—it‘s pretty powerful—just hours before the party maneuvered the push through a union-busting bill.  Let‘s listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SCOTT FITZGERALD ®, WISCONSIN STATE SENATOR:  If we win this battle, and the money is not there under the auspices of the unions, certainly, what you‘re going to find is President Obama‘s going to have difficult—a much more difficult time getting elected and winning the state of Wisconsin. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Clearly, that‘s not F. Scott Fitzgerald, one of the strangest, most bone-headed remarks in history. 

What does the union fight mean for 2012?  He just told us.

John Nichols is the Washington correspondent for “The Nation.”  And Alexander Burns is deputy politics editor for Politico.

Let me start with Alexander Burns.

Sir, I want an objective assessment here, no politics, no nothing.  Why would a politician say that a fight over—really about wages, ultimately, because it‘s about the ability to negotiate higher wages, about health benefits, about pension, serious bread-and-butter issues for the workers of Wisconsin and say, you know, there‘s a real beanie in this thing; we could screw the unions out of giving money to the Democrats?

Why would a guy say that right in the middle of a fight? 

ALEXANDER BURNS, POLITICO:  Well, Chris, I wouldn‘t want to try to put Senator Fitzgerald on the couch.

And politicians do say all kinds of things that are hard to explain.  But, clearly, this was a bit of a misstep.  It‘s no secret that defunding public sector unions would be a big, big political, tactical win for the GOP. 

I spoke to Senator Fitzgerald this morning actually, and he was sort of pointing out that Republicans now will have to contend with a pretty serious backlash from Democrats in the form of recalls next year, which could be the last chance for a lot of these unions to make an impact at the ballot box there. 

MATTHEWS:  Why would it be a last chance? 

BURNS:  Well, because they‘re going to have a much, much harder time collecting their dues once this law has sort of fully gone into effect. 

MATTHEWS:  Ah.

BURNS:  And after—you know, right now, Democrats, organized labor can ride a backlash to the way this law was passed.  Once that sort of activist energy subsides, they‘re just going to be dealing with much, much smaller bank accounts. 

MATTHEWS:  Is that your look at this, John?  Is this recall effort which is apparently under way strongly right now, is this a death rattle of the unions?  Is this their last stand, if you will? 

JOHN NICHOLS, “THE NATION”:  No, not at all. 

It‘s actually the first stand of what could be a very significant political play.  But, if they don‘t pull it off, then it‘s—then it will be the last stand. 

Here‘s the deal—the recall elections won‘t occur next year.  They will occur in four or five months, perhaps sooner than that.  If three Republican senators are defeated, then Democrats take control of the state Senate.  It is possible they could take control to have an impact on redistricting and also to begin on negotiation with the Republicans and this governor about undoing some parts of this bill.

So, this is high stakes politics, but I want to emphasize it could play out in short order.

MATTHEWS:  Well, how can they reverse this if they just took over one house of the legislation?  Once the bill‘s signed, passed by both houses, signed by the governor—aren‘t you pushing the advantages here of them winning these recalls?  How could they fix a problem that‘s pretty much done?

NICHOLS:  Sure.

MATTHEWS:  They‘ve been done, aren‘t they?

(CROSSTALK)

NICHOLS:  Well, they could be.  But this is an interesting thing. 

This bill is going to spend a lot of time in the courts.

MATTHEWS:  Oh, I see.  OK.

NICHOLS:  Those open meetings complaints as well as others, and if that court battle takes a long time, we could well see a kind of bizarre race between the recalls and the judges, to see, you know, when things might come back into play.  It is very possible our legislature might have to revisit this issue.

MATTHEWS:  Let‘s take a look at Richard Trumka, the head of the AFL-CIO.  Let‘s listen to him right now.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RICHARD TRUMKA, AFL-CIO:  Particularly, Scott Walker, thank you.  We probably should have had him, invited him to receive the mobilizer of the year award from us.

(APPLAUSE)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  You know, guys, let‘s start with Alexander.  I like Richard Trumka.  He‘s a very likable guy and a great union man.  But if you need a Republican governor pulling a trick like this to wake you up, aren‘t you admitting that you had a problem?  Shouldn‘t the labor—the leadership of labor be the ones rousing their membership and not hoping for a death knell to wake you up?

BURNS:  Well, Chris, it‘s a little bit like—I would compare it to the way Republicans responded to the health care debate nationally.  That party was in real trouble.  And then their base really, really woke up when it became clear what a unified Democratic federal government would be capable of doing.  And, you know—

MATTHEWS:  Yes, but that‘s a positive thing.  This is a negative thing.

That was going on the road to try to change history by giving people the right to health care in this country, a rid (ph) right they didn‘t have before.  Here‘s the case of a—you know, a death experience being the basis for a revival?

BURNS:  Well, but for Republicans in Washington, certainly, the idea that Democrats were going to pass health care was a big, big motivator for the conservatives in terms of the backlash.

MATTHEWS:  Oh, I got you.  I missed your point.  Very well said.

(CROSSTALK)

BURNS:  That‘s what similar to what we‘re seeing in Wisconsin, you know?

MATTHEWS:  I got you.

BURNS:  And as much Senator Fitzgerald is really a right that unions did face a really significant tactical setback this week, Richard Trumka‘s point here is well taken that, you know, going into 2012, they could have more of a base motivator from this fight than—you know, they could gain more from that in term of activism than they lose in terms of money.

MATTHEWS:  Yes.  The trouble is that—John, last word.  I just want to tell you something while you‘re here.  They already lost all these governorships.  You‘ve got Corbett.  You got Kasich, Christie (ph).  You‘ve got all these guys.  They have lost this battle.

There‘s more coming, I‘ll take your word on it.  But this first round went to the R‘s.

Thank you, John Nichols.  Thank you, Alexander Burns.

BURNS:  Thank you.

MATTHEWS:  Up next: Republican presidential candidates are now blaming President Obama‘s energy policy and attitude, I think, for rising gas prices.  Let‘s see how this works.  It‘s a race to the right and they‘ll say anything to appeal to those conservatives in Iowa.  Every word spoken from now until next year is about winning in Iowa, the most right-wing place they can go.

That‘s HARDBALL, coming up in a minute.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  The Secret Service today released the recordings of the radio traffic from 1981, just after the assassination attempt on President Regan.  Let‘s listen.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

ASST. TO THE SPECIAL AGENT IN CHARGE RAY SHADDICK:  Horsepower, Shaddick.

HORSEPOWER:  (INAUDIBLE)

SHADDICK:  Advise.  We‘ve had shots fire, shots fired.  There are some injuries, lay on.

Parr, Shaddick.

(INAUDIBLE)

SHADDICK:  Stagecoach, Shaddick.

SPECIAL AGENT IN CHARGE JERRY PARR:  Rawhide is OK.  Follow-up. 

Rawhide is OK.

(END AUDIO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  That‘s the great Jerry Parr, head of Secret Service, protection of the president.  He‘s the guy that got him to the hospital in three minutes and saved his life.  Rawhide, of course, was Reagan‘s Secret Service code name.  Secret Service is led there by Jerry Parr, a great hero for this country, able to get him to the G.W. Hospital, as I said, within three minutes.  We‘ll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE:  At a time when our economy is already in a position where it‘s not creating enough jobs, rising gas prices hurt the very people that we need to lead us out of our economic crisis and that‘s small businesses.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.

That was, of course, Speaker John Boehner just yesterday in his press conference, attacking the president‘s policies on energy.  The speaker and Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour have been vocal on their criticism of gas prices, who wouldn‘t be?

But does their message translate to independent voters?  And are they playing to a right wing crowd, a crowd that Barbour may soon face in Iowa?  Is that what this is all about?

Thank you very much.  We‘re joined by Richard Wolffe of MSNBC and Ron Reagan.

Thank you, Ron author of “My Father at 100.”  We didn‘t mention that last time.  We should always mention your great book, “My Father at 100.”

RON REAGAN, AUTHOR, “MY FATHER AT 100”:  Thank you, Chris.

MATTHEWS:  It gets a lot of kerfuffle out there.  We love to talk about it.

Let‘s talk about this gas price thing.  Now, Haley Barbour is basically, Richard, telling the world that this president‘s doing this on purpose.

RICHARD WOLFFE, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  Yes.

MATTHEWS:  He‘s running up the gas prices because he believes in trains and he believes alternative energy and he wants to ruin the experiences of the car driver.  So, gives up his car.

WOLFFE:  Right.

MATTHEWS:  Yes?

WOLFFE:  No, a president who wants to see higher gas prices, I don‘t know what alternative reality it is, but it does strike me as being a parallel of how people are still to this day playing out the Joe the Plumber comments.  On the right, they take these phrases, maybe from the last election cycle, maybe from recent ones.  In this case, I think it‘s from Steven Chu.

MATTHEWS:  Before he was in office.

WOLFFE:  Right.  And—

MATTHEWS:  All right.  In all fairness, here‘s Steven Chu.  He gave them the stuff.

WOLFFE:  Sure.

MATTHEWS:  As if Nixon would say, we gave them the sword and they plunged it in with relish.  Look at this: “Somehow, we have to figure out how to boost the gas the price of gasoline to the levels of Europe.”

Now, that‘s Steven Chu smiling there.  I shouldn‘t be smiling when reading this stuff.  Something he said before he was made secretary of energy.

WOLFFE:  Right.  Noble Prize winner, who knows what the context.

MATTHEWS:  It‘s an academic comment.

WOLFFE:  But it‘s irrelevant because for a lot of politicians on the right now and certainly on talk radio, you just extrapolate from that into the conspiracy that there‘s something strange going on, the politicians, i.e., the president, is trying to manipulate things and get to you and screw your life.  And that is not based in reality.  It‘s not the policy.

MATTHEWS:  Here‘s Haley Barbour.  He‘s talking to the Chamber of Commerce breakfast last week, quote, “This administration‘s policies have been designed to drive up the cost of the energy in the name of reducing pollution.”  Well, that‘s not bad.  “In the name of making very expensive alternative fuels more economically competitive.”

Well, that is pretty strategic, isn‘t it, for the Democrats?  I happen to think the Republicans think the Democrat Democrats, boy, they‘re clever those people.  Ron Reagan, this attack, everybody hates I guess?  Because I know out in the West Coast, in California especially, down to the southern part where people drive long distances in the western part of the country, they drive 100 miles to work.

REAGAN:  That‘s right.

MATTHEWS:  It does cost a lot more money right now to get to work.

REAGAN:  Yes, it does, $3.50.  I drive Subaru Outback that has a turbo engine.  I‘m paying $4 a gallon for my premium gas that I have to put in there.  But you got to wonder, this rhetoric—

MATTHEWS:  I think most people would have marked you for a Prius, Ron. 

But—

(LAUGHTER)

REAGAN:  Subaru Outback, it‘s the official car of Seattle.

But, anyway, I think this is all of a piece really with the Huckabee stuff that we were thinking, too, we were seeing a couple of days also, where you can blame President Obama for anything.

MATTHEWS:  Yes.

REAGAN:  You can accuse him of anything.  It doesn‘t matter because your constituents, at least the one you‘re trying to reach for the primaries, will believe anything about President Obama.  He‘s un-American.  He‘s not really an American.

MATTHEWS:  Yes, he‘s going to raise your gas prices and burn up your car.  I mean, he‘s like he‘s the Mau Mau gas prices.  I mean, let‘s throw it all in.

For the typical American family last month, the average household spent $328 on gas, about 8 percent of their monthly income.  These are the facts.  That‘s up 89 percent since February.

So, the Republicans are—you know, my belief about this next election, and it‘s not exactly brain surgery, is it‘s not going to fail because President Obama isn‘t smart.  He will be smart next year, he is now.

It won‘t fail because he doesn‘t a nice personality, an upbeat personality.  He will have one next year.  He‘s a charming guy.  Great looking, everything—he‘s got everything going, great family.

What will defeat him is objective reality, if it can be played right.

WOLFFE:  It‘s the economy.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Yes.  The numbers.  And if the Republicans can play those numbers and turn them as a knife against him, they will.

WOLFFE:  That‘s why this whole—

MATTHEWS:  Fair enough.

WOLFFE:  -- this whole pivot to gas prices may be opportunistic, but it‘s a whole lot better for Republicans to reach there‘s economically distressed voters than deficits because this is weird connection.  They got to argue that somehow budget issues will create jobs, they never really explained that.  But when you talk about gas price, they can understand.  OK, direct dissatisfaction, you talk to the Bush White House, every time gas prices ratcheted up another 5 cents, 10 cents—

MATTHEWS:  You know?  It‘s symptomatic.  It‘s not diagnostic.  It‘s symptomatic.  It‘s real to people.

Here‘s Boehner yesterday, the speaker of the House.  Here he is again. 

Let‘s listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BOEHNER:  Just ask about jobs, the American people recognize that Washington has been a big part of the problem when it comes to the price of energy.  The Obama administration has consistently blocked American energy production that would lower cost and create jobs in our country.  They‘ve canceled new leases for exploration, jeopardized our nuclear energy industry, and imposed a de facto moratorium on future drilling in our country.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BOEHNER:  Well, there‘s a call to arms, Ron Reagan.  You‘re right.  I think your point about blame everything on the president seems to be the theme.

REAGAN:  Yes, exactly, everything.  But you have to wonder how long you can do that.  I mean, at a certain point, the American people I think are going to look at some of this stuff, at least a majority of the American people, I hope, and say this just doesn‘t make any sense.  We understand there‘s unrest in the Middle East.  We understand that‘s why oil prices, or gas prices at least are rising right now.  We‘re not going to blame President Obama for his ideas about energy.

MATTHEWS:  Yes.

REAGAN:  I mean, that‘s just—that‘s crazy.

MATTHEWS:  How about Libya?  Read the papers.

REAGAN:  Yes.

MATTHEWS:  Anyway, thank you, Ron Reagan.  Great to talk to you.  I want to talk to you later.

Thank you, Richard Wolffe.  Thank you.

When we return, “Let Me Finish” with how the union‘s defeat in Wisconsin the other day could lead to a big comeback for the American labor movement.

You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  “Let Me Finish” tonight with the role of labor unions in this country in this century.  Right now, the percentage of the American workforce that is unionized is minuscule.  You get into the private sector and it‘s down to single digits.

That‘s not the way it was.  In the 1950s, we had major heroes of the labor movement, people like Walter Reuther of the United Auto Workers.  They were leaders in this country.  Not just the labor union, they were American leaders.

Even in the 1970s when I worked up in the U.S. Senate, George Meany, the head of the AFL-CIO, would come to testify.  And even Republican senators would race over to light his cigar.  He was a bigger deal than the Fed chairman.  Labor was a bigger deal than the country‘s central banker.

This wasn‘t 1,000 years ago.  It was a few decades ago.

Labor now has a chance for a comeback.  It can regain its footing with this Wisconsin deal.  People don‘t want to see selective bargaining killed and that may be the most promising development here.  If people want you to have strength, they may just be ready to back you when you use it.  Get it?

This is a potential, but only that for labor to rebuild.

I‘ve got some thoughts on the matter.  One is a simple matter of how labor comes across: card check.  The push to let labor unions organize by having them sign a card rather than a secret ballot election did not go over well.

Why?  You know why.  People could imagine.  It didn‘t take much of imagination that a group of tough labor union members would be showing up to the House of some of holdout, ask if they could commit and talk about this thing.

You know why it would be hard times skipping secret elections?  I‘ve got a reason.  This is the way we elect people in this country, the way we elect our president.  It‘s always secret ballot, the way we elect our mayor, whatever.

The secret ballot is the honest ballot, the free ballot.  It‘s how senators pick their leaders in both parties in the U.S. Congress.  How members of the House vote for their party‘s candidate for speaker—secret ballot.

Number two: the second thing they can do in a labor movement is get themselves on the side of bigger issues than their membership.  There was a time when the unions of this country were seen as visionary, looking out for the betterment for the country for fairness—fairness not just for their membership, but a better life for America, a better society.

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

More politics ahead with Cenk Uygur.

           

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