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updated 3/30/2011 11:31:34 AM ET 2011-03-30T15:31:34

Guest Host: Chuck Todd

Guests: Chris Cillizza, Howard Fineman, Susan Page, Bill Maher, James Clyburn, Paul Broun, Clarence Page

CHRIS TODD, HOST:  How do we know when we‘ve won?

Let‘s play HARDBALL.

Good evening.  I‘m Chuck Todd in Washington, filling in for Chris Matthews, who‘s in Israel on assignment.  Leading off tonight: The day after.  What everyone seems to agree on is that the president did a good job explaining why we went into Libya.  What‘s still unclear is how we plan to get out.  Republicans are, in some cases predictably, condemning the president‘s speech for the lack of that, but even Democratic support has been a bit tepid.  Ultimately, the president will be judged by whether we win, but what does winning look like?  Is it simply getting rid of Gadhafi?

Also, let‘s get ready to rumble.  Comedian and political commentator -

and provocateur sometimes—Bill Maher joins us.  We‘ll get his take on the Tea Party, Libya, the race for the Republican nomination, and then there‘s Donald Trump, among other things.

And speaking of Trump, we said last week he dipped a toe into the birther waters.  Well, now he‘s dived in head first and declared, The water‘s fine, come on in, and he‘s producing his own birth certificate.  Is Trump serious about being a birther, or is he just serious about getting a little bit of attention?

Also, the shutdown showdown.  The Democrats are trying to drive a wedge between the mainstream Republicans and the Tea Party.  But let‘s face it, when Democrats and Republicans are not arguing over whether to cut but over how much to cut, then the Republicans are winning this message war.

Finally, is it possible for the U.S. to become a country of secular atheists that is also ruled by radical Islamists?  Newt Gingrich seems to think so.  That‘s in the “Sideshow.”

But we‘re going to start with President Obama‘s speech on Libya.  MSNBC political analyst Howard Fineman—he‘s the senior political editor for The HuffingtonPost—and Susan Page is, of course, the Washington bureau chief for “USA Today,” and I have to call her Madam President...

(LAUGHTER)

TODD:  ... of the Gridiron.  And she‘s on there today.

Howard and Susan, at first we outlined four questions for President Obama to answer in his speech, and today we‘ll see how he did.  But first, let‘s take a look at some of the Republican responses to the speech since he gave it.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN ®, ARIZONA:  He made a very puzzling comment, and that was regime change by force would be a mistake.  Gadhafi must have been somewhat comforted by that.

TIM PAWLENTY ®, FMR. MINNESOTA GOVERNOR:  Now we‘re in this position of having a president of the United States saying Gadhafi must go, but we‘re not going to necessarily make him go.

SEN. RAND PAUL ®, KENTUCKY:  How our commander-in-chief chose to handle this new dilemma raises serious questions about his understanding of constitutional checks and balances.  While the president is the commander of our armed forces, he is not a king.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TODD:  And Howard Fineman, I want to read a little of what Richard Lugar, who‘s the senior Republican on the House—on Senate Foreign Relations.  He said.  He said, “The president still has not clearly stated what our goals are or what would constitute success.  The president did not provide estimates for the cost of our military intervention and humanitarian aid to the Libyan people.”

By the way, John McCain couched that criticism early on, Howard, later today in a speech.  Yesterday, he was a little tougher on the president than he was today.  I almost wonder if the White House said, Cut us a little bit of slack on this regime change argument.  But overall, the Republican criticism, where do they have a point?

HOWARD FINEMAN, HUFFINGTONPOST.COM, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  Well, I would look to Dick Lugar for that because he‘s not running for president and he‘s regarded, in many ways, as the dean of serious Republican foreign policy analysts.  And I think when Dick Lugar says, What‘s the end game, how do you define victory and what is it going to cost, and how are we really going to be involved henceforth, I think those are legitimate questions that serious people of all stripes have about this and that the president didn‘t answer.

TODD:  Susan Page, I want to play one of the president‘s bites from last night.  It was in response a little bit to how we framed our question, What happens the next time there‘s a humanitarian crisis?  Here‘s what the president said on this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  Some nations may be able to turn a blind eye to atrocities in other countries.  The United States of America is different, and as president, I refuse to wait for the images of slaughter and mass graves before taking action.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TODD:  Susan Page, on this question, there seemed to be a little bit of conflict in the speech.  On one hand, the president said Libya was a special case.  On the other hand, he made this a little broader statement, which gave you a hint at what the Obama doctrine was in a case like this.

SUSAN PAGE, “USA TODAY”:  Well, the Obama doctrine seems to be, if there‘s a big humanitarian crisis looming and we can act to help, we will, except if we don‘t have international support or except if—I mean, it‘s not exactly a clear, bright, primary-color kind of doctrine, it‘s something that Mitt Romney criticized as “nuanced.”

Now, supporters would say nuance is a good thing in a complicated world, but he—I think you could read that entire speech and not be clear on exactly the circumstances which would command U.S. military response and those that would not.  I think that‘s a fair criticism of the speech.

FINEMAN:  Yes, Chuck.  I think, you know, it wasn‘t so much a doctrine as a statement of a process for deciding things.  It was very legalistic.

TODD:  In fact, it was not a...

(CROSSTALK)

TODD:  It was not a big picture speech.

FINEMAN:  Having been through...

TODD:  It was a small...

FINEMAN:  Having been through law school and sat and listened to how law professors analyze things, it‘s, OK, here‘s the big principle, but here are the three or four qualifiers.  We have to apply cost, we have to apply coalition, we have to apply amount of humanitarian danger.  So it was a process of his thinking more than a doctrine.

TODD:  Here‘s a little bit more of the president essentially offering up a taste of this Obama doctrine, and let‘s see if you guys agree with that.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA:  In this particular country, Libya, at this particular moment, we were faced with the prospect of violence on a horrific scale.  We had a unique ability to stop that violence, an international mandate for action, a broad coalition prepared to join us, the support of Arab countries and a plea for help from the Libyan people themselves.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TODD:  Susan Page, that goes to what you were just saying.  He set, actually, a pretty high bar for how this gets replicated in, say, a Syria, which, of course, has been of (ph) the questions that this administration‘s been getting over the last 48 hours.

PAGE:  You know, I think it—I guess I disagree a little bit with Howard.  I think he has laid out a doctrine.  It‘s just a doctrine that‘s situational and—and there are hedges on it.  And what he says is that there are times we‘ll act and there are times we will not.  And there a whole series of considerations we‘re going to take into effect (ph).  That is not very satisfying to partisans on either side who would like...

TODD:  Right.

PAGE:  ... a kind of a stronger statement of principle, but it may be the way the world works at this moment.

TODD:  Gray area, Howard, is basically the argument.

FINEMAN:  Well, Susan and I are arguing over semantics here.

TODD:  Yes.  You‘re agreeing...

FINEMAN:  It‘s a doctrine...

TODD:  ... that you disagree a little bit.

FINEMAN:  It‘s a doctrine of process.  And if you noticed, in the case of Libya, he laid out about five or six different criteria for having made the decision that he‘d made.  He didn‘t add cost, whereas later on in the speech, he says...

TODD:  Yes.

FINEMAN:  ... Oh, by the way, it‘s also if we can afford it.  So we have to have a coalition, we have to have support from the region, we have to have a call from the people, we have to have a humanitarian—severe humanitarian crisis, and we have to be able to afford to do it with the kinds of weapons that we have.  The other thing that he said in the speech was, in this case, our air power...

TODD:  Unique capabilities.

FINEMAN:  We had unique capabilities, so...

TODD:  That‘s a phrase that‘s become oft used.

FINEMAN:  That is a very legalistic but very Obama-esque kind of doctrine.

TODD:  All right, the second question we posed is, What‘s the end game for U.S. involvement?  Here is how the president dealt with that last night.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA:  Going forward, the lead in enforcing the no-fly zone and protecting civilians on the ground will transition to our allies and partners, and I am fully confident that our coalition will keep the pressure on Gadhafi‘s remaining forces.  In that effort, the United States will play a supporting role, including intelligence, logistical support, search and rescue assistance and capabilities to jam regime communications.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TODD:  Now, Susan Page, a mere supporting role—we‘re 22 percent of the funding that goes into NATO.  That is combined—that is more than France and Britain‘s contribution to NATO combined.  Is he sort of—this is sort of hiding behind NATO, which is really a U.S.-led organization.

PAGE:  You know, it‘s not as though by turning over command responsibilities to NATO, somehow, the United States is not a part of it.  But the idea—his language he used that talked about, We‘re going to play a supporting role, very much in line with where U.S. public opinion is.

We had a “USA Today” Gallup poll out last night that showed that 6 out of 10 Americans want to have no role at all or a minor role.  Only 10 percent want the U.S. to really be taking the lead in this.  So he‘s addressing, I think, concerns Americans have that we‘ve got a war in Afghanistan, a war in Iraq, we do not need to be taking the lead on a third war in that part of the world.

TODD:  And Howard Fineman, you brought up cost.  Let me just quickly throw to a presidential bite about that specific topic.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA:  Because of this transition to a broader NATO-based coalition, the risk and costs of this operation to our military and to American taxpayers will be reduced significantly.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TODD:  Now, our Pentagon correspondent, Jim Miklaszewski, broke down a

broke this down for us.  So far, it‘s cost about $600 million, this operation, over eight days, the U.S. portion of it.  And as it gets handed over to NATO, it‘s going to approximately cost $40 million a day, I believe.

FINEMAN:  Well, that‘s compared to nearly a trillion, as he said, in the Iraq war.  It‘s a sliding scale of conscience and cost for this president, and that‘s very pragmatic.  It‘s a mix of high intention and cold-eyed pragmatism.  That‘s the mix that the president has tried to project throughout his campaign and presidency.  That‘s what he‘s trying to sell to the American people now.

TODD:  And Susan Page, you know, there‘s something about his speech last night, what he said during the campaign, what he said when he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize—there is a remarkable consistency here on how he wants to use military power.  It just seems, as you pointed out, it‘s not black and white.

PAGE:  That‘s right.  It‘s very consistent, last night‘s speech, with his Nobel Peace Prize speech, where he talked about the importance of multilateral action, not the kind of unilateral action that George W. Bush favored.  And that means there are times when you might delay giving a speech like he did last night.  It might be a time where you make compromises on articulating exactly what the goals are.

You know, multilateral action is different in its nature than the kind of “go it alone” stance we saw for eight years under George Bush.  And there has been—there‘s no inconsistency on this issue with where Obama stood during the campaign, in the early years of his presidency and right now.

TODD:  Very quickly, Howard Fineman.  Were you surprised by the Iraq shot?

FINEMAN:  That he mentioned Iraq?

TODD:  Yes.

FINEMAN:  No, because it was part of his explaining this sort of calculus of how you decide things and how it‘s different.  I think it made sense within the context of the speech.

TODD:  Howard Fineman, Madam President, Susan Page...

(LAUGHTER)

TODD:  ... I‘ll always get that right because I think I‘m always being hazed at this point (INAUDIBLE) thank you both.

PAGE:  Thank you.

FINEMAN:  Thanks.

TODD:  Coming up, the one and only in real time right here, Mr. Bill Maher.  We‘ll get his take on the race for the Republican nomination.  I think his favorite candidate, Michele Bachmann, though, the favorite ticket that he‘s hoping for, Bachmann-Trump or Bachmann-Turner Overdrive.

You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TODD:  Well, get this.  We learned today that federal prosecutors have been considering manslaughter charges against the executives of BP in the wake of last year‘s oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.  The Associated Press and Bloomberg reported that manslaughter charges could be brought against the managers aboard the Deepwater Horizon rig that exploded, killing those 11 workers.

In addition, investigators are looking for discrepancies in congressional testimony by BP executives, including then CEO Tony Hayward, to determine whether they lied about the explosion and the spill.  This is going to be messy.

We‘ll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BILL MAHER, HOST, HBO‘S “REAL TIME”:  Michele Bachmann this week threw her hat into the ring, kind of.  We think she‘s going to be running for president.  For those who find Sarah Palin too intellectual...

(LAUGHTER)

MAHER:  ... Michele Bachmann for president.  As a comedian, all I have to say is, Where can I donate to this cause?

(LAUGHTER)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TODD:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  Bill Maher‘s show, “Real Time,” is currently in its ninth season, going strong, and his brand of no-holds-barred politically incorrect comedy makes it an interesting thing to watch every Friday night for a lot of us on HBO.

Mr. Maher, welcome to HARDBALL.  Apologies that Chris isn‘t here to give you a hard time.  Let me start with last night‘s speech, the president, Libya.  You were pretty tough on how this country got brought into two wars over the last 10 years.  How‘s the president handled Libya?  Did he explain it to you better last night than he had the previous 10 days?

MAHER:  I thought I was pretty clear on it from the beginning, but you know, there‘s a lot of folks in this country, mostly on the right, who, of course, are going to oppose him no matter what he says, so he keeps having to explain it over and over again.

You know, this is not a news-cycle president.  I think that‘s one thing that bothers them so much.  He works on his time, the right time.  He did everything right.  You know, he got the Americans out of Libya.  Then he formed a coalition.  Then he led the bombing campaign.  And of course, we should bomb first because we have the know-how how to kick butt.  That‘s what America does very well, especially in that part of the world.  And then he passed it off, as he‘s doing now, to other people so that we don‘t have the cost and we don‘t have to be holding the bag if something goes wrong.

I don‘t know how anyone can look at this and say this is (ph) exactly how it should have been done.  I don‘t back the president on everything, but on this one, yes, I think he did everything right.  And yet I saw a poll today—I think it was a Reuters poll, like...

TODD:  Yes.

MAHER:  ... a small percentage of people see him as a strong and decisive leader, but they say he‘s cautious and consultative, like they‘re somehow mutually exclusive.  Why can‘t cautious and consultative also mean you‘re strong?  I think it can.

TODD:  We‘re in a Twitter news environment, Bill.  Don‘t you know that?  All right, I want to go to—you‘ve been getting hammered—you‘ve been getting hammered in the conservative blogosphere, among a lot of conservative talk show hosts, about some off-color comments you made about both Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann.  Any regrets on what you said?

MAHER:  Well, you know, I‘ve been through this so many times.  I mean, there‘s a lot of people in America who have, of course, nothing to do except look for something to get mad at.  And I‘ve been a frequent target, and I‘m happy to provide that service.  So you know, I always say, as I‘ve said many times in these kind of situations, if I hurt somebody‘s feelings, I‘m always sorry about that.  I‘m not trying to hurt somebody‘s feelings.  But if you want me to say I‘m sorry, what I said was wrong, no, sorry, I can‘t go there.

I know they were upset about—I was in Dallas Sunday night doing my stand-up comedy show, and apparently, I was so off-color.  And Dallas, you know, a really bastion of liberalism.  Here‘s the headline from the review.  “Nothing but love from Maher.”  And on the next page, “Maher a hit in Dallas,” is the other headline.  That‘s from “The Dallas Morning News.”

So you know, I go by the “community standard” standard.  You know, people have won cases about pornography based on this.

TODD:  Right.

MAHER:  They say, Well, you know, if the community says it‘s OK.  And apparently, the community—I mean, you hear the laughter.  If the audience likes it, I think that‘s where the community standard is.  You know, am I a little more out there than the rest of the guys?  Yes.  And I want to stay out there.  That‘s what I do.  That‘s why people watch it.  But I don‘t think I‘m really beyond where the community is.

TODD:  You know, where do you—where do you say about yourself when somebody says, You‘re a member of the media, and you say, Well, I‘m an entertainer, I‘m a comedian.  But you‘re a member of the media and you‘re a comedian.  Do you have different rules than I have?

MAHER:  Yes, I do, Chuck.  I have to be funny...

TODD:  Well, fair enough.

(LAUGHTER)

MAHER:  ... because I‘m a comedian. 

(LAUGHTER)

MAHER:  And that—that is like a very, very big rule that Bill O‘Reilly and like lots of other people do not have to follow. 

And, yes, do I think that gives you a little more license?  I certainly do, because we‘re all just, you know, folks with an opinion at the end of the day. 

Now, you‘re a little more of a reporter.  You know, you do some real journalism work.  And I appreciate that, and I take my cap off for that.  And people who are, like, covering wars, you know, the Richard Engels of the world, that...

TODD:  Right. 

MAHER:  ... those are real men.  I mean, I‘m not—I‘m—believe me, I‘m not comparing myself to people like that, who do real work and get information that I can then comment on. 

But, as far as for the people who just sit behind a desk in a studio and give their opinion, I think, if you‘re going to do that, at least be funny about it. 

TODD:  Well, speaking of funny, I—the whole Michele Bachmann thing, it‘s been—as you have said, it‘s been a gold mine to you. 

(LAUGHTER)

TODD:  What—it seems to me liberals in particular are obsessed with her. 

And what I find funny about it is, her own party rejected her.  Her own party said, we don‘t want you a member of leadership.  John Boehner and Eric Cantor, they did everything they could to orchestrate it to make sure she was not a face of the House Republicans.  And what did she do?  She said, OK, I‘m going to Iowa.  And guess what?  She‘s now looking like the face of the Republicans. 

MAHER:  Well, of course this is something that the Democrats will want to—going to want to promote.  If you were the leadership of the Democratic Party, wouldn‘t you want to do this exact strategy? 

Get Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann and other people like that out there as the face of the party, because you have to understand Iowa especially is a roach motel for Republican candidates.  They...

MAHER:  They crawl in with their crazy stuff about social issues and -

and saying insane stuff about the president not being an American and all this stuff. 

But when it comes time for the general election, they have to crawl back out.  And they can‘t do that.  I mean, that—that‘s why Mitt Romney, I think, now is probably looking like he‘s going to skip Iowa, because it is controlled...

TODD:  No, not—he‘s not even going to announce.

MAHER:  ... by that small..

TODD:  He has yet to announce.

MAHER:  Right... 

TODD:  And you do start to wonder...

MAHER:  ... small group...

TODD:  if he like wants to just stay away from this. 

MAHER:  Yes.  I mean, it‘s a terrible trap for Republican candidates who—now, we all know America does have a short memory, but, still, I mean, what you say during the campaign, the primary campaign, is going to come back in commercials in the general election. 

And what they have to say to win the nomination and to win Iowa—and, by the way, I love Iowa.  I used to spend time in Iowa.  It‘s not a...

(CROSSTALK)

MAHER:  ... state.

TODD:  I have more relatives buried in Iowa.  Don‘t—yes, don‘t dis on Iowa. 

MAHER:  Right.  It‘s...

TODD:  More relatives of mine are buried in Iowa than any other state. 

MAHER:  Right.  It‘s just that the small group of fanatics who control the Republican Iowa caucuses present this problem for their party.  And they‘re not doing that party a favor, but don‘t let them hear me say that. 

(LAUGHTER)

MAHER:  You‘re doing your party a favor. 

TODD:  All right, let me ask you this.  You were, to me, one of the guys that made Comedy Central, the channel, something to watch over the last couple of decades, when you had “Politically Incorrect” on there. 

Did you ever think that one of the...

(CROSSTALK)

TODD:  ... celebrity roastees, who most recently, it was Donald Trump, would be taken seriously as a presidential candidate? 

Well, let me ask you, do you take him seriously as a presidential candidate? 

MAHER:  I don‘t take him seriously even as a guy who runs casinos. 

(LAUGHTER)

MAHER:  And after this...

(LAUGHTER)

MAHER:  And he‘s a charming guy in person.  You know, I mean, Don...

TODD:  Steve Wynn doesn‘t let him into Vegas.  That says a lot.  Steve Wynn won‘t let him into Vegas. 

(LAUGHTER)

MAHER:  Don, you know, when you meet him in person, you can‘t not like him. 

TODD:  Very likable. 

MAHER:  But he—you know, he‘s a salesman.  He‘s very likable, a major B.S.er. 

I mean, he has been telling me—I‘m not kidding—it‘s—I‘m glad you mentioned “Politically Incorrect” and that era, because we were on “Politically Incorrect” from 1993 to 1996.  We were in New York at the time.

Don has been telling me he‘s going to be doing my show since 1993... 

(LAUGHTER)

MAHER:  ... and has never appeared once.  I—I—he called me a couple of weeks ago: “I‘m coming on.”

It‘s—I said, “Don, it‘s been 18 years now.”

(LAUGHTER)

MAHER:  “That‘s a—you‘re a—you‘re a—I know you‘re busy, but that‘s very busy, that you have not found a hole in your schedule.”

“Bill, I‘m coming on, I‘m coming on.”

And I think he‘s doing it to forestall me making jokes about him. 

But, Don, I have got to tell you, I‘m going to make jokes anyway. 

But it just amuses me.  And, by the way, this stuff where he‘s coming out as a birther, I like Don, and I have stayed at his hotel.  I cannot stay in a birther hotel, I swear to God.  That‘s all I think now when I see Trump, is birther, birther hotel. 

TODD:  Why do you think he‘s doing this?  Do you buy it?  Do you buy that he really believes it? 

MAHER:  That—I do not buy that. 

I have got to think he‘s serious about running for president.  Look, he‘s got the same problem that Newt Gingrich has...

(LAUGHTER)

MAHER:  ... three wives, which probably doesn‘t go down that great with social conservatives. 

So, he‘s got to do something to get his bona fide crazies up, because, again, when you crawl into the roach motel in Iowa, you have got to crawl in crazy. 

(LAUGHTER)

MAHER:  So, he‘s—he‘s doubling down on birther stuff. 

TODD:  Well, I think you will—I think your caveat on Iowans will make it so that you don‘t get too much hate mail on Iowans.

Look, we all have to—growing up in Miami, I lived with roach motels all the time, because you had to get rid of the roaches.  So let‘s—let‘s take it easy on our friends in Iowa. 

Bill Maher, thank you very much.

MAHER:  Oh, I love Iowa. 

TODD: “Real Time”...

(LAUGHTER)

TODD: “Real Time” airs Friday nights 10:00 p.m. on HBO. 

And on April 17, you‘re performing at the Morris Arts Center in South Bend, Indiana—go, Irish—and on April 21 at the Memorial Auditorium in Raleigh, North Carolina. 

Bill Maher, always entertaining to have you on.

MAHER:  I love the red states, Chuck. 

(LAUGHTER)

TODD:  There—wait.

MAHER:  Thank you. 

TODD:  North Carolina, both were blue states in ‘08, brother. 

MAHER:  That‘s right. 

TODD:  All right. 

Up next—thank you, Bill.

Newt Gingrich seems to think the United States is, at once, becoming a country of secular atheists, but who will also be ruled by radical Islamists.  If that sounds like a paradox, that‘s why it‘s in the “Sideshow.” 

You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.  

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TODD:  Back to HARDBALL.  Time for the “Sideshow.” 

First up:  Marco Rubio breaks his silence.  The Florida senator sat down this week for his first national interview, the topic du jour, you guessed it, 2012. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

QUESTION:  Are you not ready to be president?

(CROSSTALK)

SEN. MARCO RUBIO ®, FLORIDA:  I think the problem, I just got elected three months ago, and so how can I be a full-time United States senator if my eye is already on running something else. 

QUESTION:  Are you qualified to be president?

RUBIO:  No—well, now what you‘re asking me is something different.

QUESTION:  Right. 

RUBIO:  You‘re asking me, do I have a clear vision for the role that America‘s government should play in America?  I do.

(CROSSTALK)

RUBIO:  Even speculating about it is problematic, because when you speculate about it, what you‘re basically saying is, I‘m thinking about something other than the job that I have before me.

QUESTION:  OK.  I‘m not asking you to speculate.  Just, I mean, would you rule it out?

RUBIO:  No, you are asking me to speculate.

(CROSSTALK)

QUESTION:  ... we could end all speculation...

(CROSSTALK)

RUBIO:  Yes, I‘m not running for president in 2012. 

QUESTION:  No—no way?

RUBIO:  No. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TODD:  Well, I will tell you, I know he wants to shut the door.  But “Do I have a clear vision?”  Hmm.  And that also means Rubio is leaving ample room there maybe to accept the number-two slot?  That‘s where my money has been for quite some time. 

Next up:  Remember Roy Moore?  Well, he‘s back.  He‘s the one-time Alabama judge famous for building a Ten Commandments monument outside the state‘s courthouse.  It was a stunt which ultimately cost Judge Moore his job.  And with two failed bids for governor behind him, Moore is setting his sights even higher again.  He‘s always been playing around with this idea of running for president.  He says he may do it again.  An aide says Moore will announce that he‘s setting up an exploratory committee in mid-April. 

Moving on, Newt Gingrich in overdrive on Sunday.  Gingrich spoke before controversial Pastor John Hagee‘s church in Texas.  In that speech, Gingrich warned of a takeover by atheist radical Islamists—quote—“I have two grandchildren.  Maggie is 11.  Robert is 9.  I am convinced that, if we do not decisively win the struggle over the nature of America, by the time they‘re my age, they will be in a secular atheist country, potentially one dominated by radical Islamists, and with no understanding of what it once meant to be an American.”

Secular and Islamists.  Anyway, kind of tough.  You have to be one or the other—tough to be both at the same time.  Then again, a spokesman later clarified, saying that Gingrich meant to add an “or” between those two scenarios. 

OK.

On a lighter note, Patrick Kennedy, he has given up bachelor life.  No American royal family on the market anymore.  The 43-year-old former congressman, son of the late Ted Kennedy, got engaged this weekend to a middle school teacher in New Jersey.  As for his post-politics career, Kennedy has accepted a fellowship at Brown University and is coming out with a memoir, “Coming Clean,” in November of this year. 

Now to tonight‘s “Big Number.” 

Think the birther conspiracies are dying down?  Well, think again.  A new CNN poll out this week:  How many Republicans say that they think the president wasn‘t born in the United States?  Ready for this number?  Forty-three percent.  Almost four—more than four in 10 Republicans believe that the president was probably not born here or definitely not born here. 

That number continues to go up over the last four years as this conversation continues to be had.  It makes you wonder if maybe we should be stopping having this conversation—anyway, tonight‘s “Big Number.” 

Up next: shutdown showdown.  Democrats are trying to drive a wedge between mainstream Republicans and the Tea Party, Republicans trying to drive a wedge between Senate Democrats and the White House.  But, as the budget battle wears on, Republicans are the ones winning the message war, it seems.  That‘s ahead. 

You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TYLER MATHISEN, CNBC CORRESPONDENT:  I‘m Tyler Mathisen with your CNBC “Market Wrap.”

Stocks advanced in light trading, despite a couple of weak economic reports today, the Dow industrials up 81.  The S&P 500 tacked on nine, and Nasdaq gained 26.  Extremely light volume again today, as investors wait out that—all the global uncertainty that‘s in the air.  Traders shrugged off another drop in home prices and falling consumer confidence.  They know the Federal Reserve is still on deck with another round of stimulus spending. 

Energy companies were the big movers today on a solid outlook from Halliburton and concerns about the future of nuclear power. 

General Electric announced plans to buy the French electrical equipment maker Converteam for about $3.2 billion. 

And Home Depot says it will use the proceeds from a $2 billion debt offering to buy back a billion dollars of its own stock.  And that helped that company‘s shares today.

And the trendy yoga-wear maker Lululemon Athletica shares jumped after its board approved a two-for-one stock split. 

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

HARDBALL. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. CHARLES SCHUMER (D), NEW YORK:  Just as the Tea Party forced mainstream Republicans into extreme territory before, they are doing it again.  At this point, the only hurdle left to a bipartisan deal, the only obstacle in the way is the Tea Party. 

Mr. Speaker, it‘s time to forget the Tea Party and take the deal. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TODD:  Welcome back to HARDBALL. 

That was New York Senator Chuck Schumer today.  Senate Democrats are trying to divide House Republicans in this budget fight.  Speaker Boehner‘s spokesman, Michael Steel, responded—quote—“Senator Schumer is not part of the C.R. negotiations, and he is making up fairy tales, trying to derail serious discussions on funding the government and cutting spending, because he believes his party would benefit from a government shutdown.  At this point, the House has passed a bill to fund the government through the end of the year, while cutting spending.  The Senate has not.  And Senator Schumer‘s inaccurate rants won‘t change that.”

That seems to be the stalemate today.  Do the Democratic talking points tell us that they think they have Republicans—that Republicans have the upper hand right now? 

In a moment, we‘re going to talk to Georgia Republican Congressman Paul Broun. 

But, first, we‘re joined by South Carolina congressman James Clyburn, who‘s the assistant Democratic leader on the minority side there. 

Congressman Clyburn, nice to see you. 

REP. JAMES CLYBURN (D), SOUTH CAROLINA:  Well, thank you so much for having me.

TODD:  All right.  I want to start with what seems to be—there‘s a

a message war here.  And forgive me for being cynical, but the Republican talking point of the day seems to be, the Senate Democrats haven‘t come up with a plan; we have passed two. 

The Senate Democratic talking point of the day seems to be, oh, look at the House Republicans; they have been captured by the Tea Party. 

You know, Congressman, does this mean we‘re not going anywhere in these negotiations, that we‘re stuck in a stalemate of talking points? 

CLYBURN:  Well, I would hope not. 

I think the fact still remains that the ball right now is on the—in the House court.  We have done—since the lame-duck, when we did $41 billion, we have now done two short-terms, $4 billion and $6 billion.  That gets us to $51 billion.  I think that it‘s up to us now to come up with something within the next two weeks. 

I hope it will be a long-term C.R., because I think that we make a mistake if we don‘t think that these short-term C.R.s do not have an adverse impact on families.  We seem to be thinking only in terms of what‘s good for us up here in Washington and what‘s good for us politically.

The fact of the matter is, we are fighting two wars.  We have action going on in Pakistan, action going on over in Libya.  And the families of these men and women need stability in their lives.

So, we ought to get serious about doing a long-term C.R. so that everybody can stabilize their families and their businesses.

TODD:  But why shouldn‘t Senate Democrats—why shouldn‘t they offer up a plan in this back-and-forth?  I mean, do House Republicans have a point when they say, hey, look, they have thrown out a couple of different plans, they have passed a couple of these things, why not have the Senate Democrats do a full-fledged plan?  Instead, they have been going behind the scenes.

CLYBURN:  Well, Todd, you know I never get into the business of trying to figure out why the Senate will do anything.

(LAUGHTER)

TODD:  Yes, Congress is—there‘s bipartisanship sometimes—or there‘s partisanship times, that‘s called the House versus the Senate.  But, anyway, go ahead, Congressman.

CLYBURN:  That‘s exactly right.  I think that‘s what‘s going on here a little bit.  The fact of the matter is, we got serious back during the lame duck.  Democrats cut $41 billion out of the continuing resolution before putting it forward.

Now, since that time we see that the Republicans have come up with only $10 billion.  Now, we know that the White House has made it very clear, the senators have been very clear on another $20 billion.  That gets us around $71 billion.

I always say, Chuck, that if the distance between me and the other person are five steps, I don‘t mind taking three of them.  And I think if you look at this, we‘ve taken more than three steps.  We‘re trying to meet them more than halfway and they seem not to be willing to do a deal.

TODD:  OK.  Well, we‘re going to get to the other side on that in a second.  Congressman Clyburn, thanks very much.

So, let‘s now go to Republican Congressman Paul Broun of Georgia.

Congressman, I want to ask you this issue of—this idea that maybe House Republicans are a little bit divided between where the leadership is and the deal that they may be willing to cut with the White House versus where the Tea Party Caucus is within the Republican House Caucus.  Is there a split between the two?

REP. PAUL BROUN ®, GEORGIA:  I don‘t think so, Chuck.  Thanks for having me tonight.

Actually, the split is between the Democrats who I believe are planning and have been since the lame duck session to shut down the federal government for political purposes.  In fact, they could have passed a long-term C.R. that would have taken us through this whole fiscal year.  But Nancy Pelosi refused to do so.  She gave us one through March the 4th.  Why would she do that?

I think it‘s their plan politically to shut down the government so that they could elect Barack Obama, put Nancy Pelosi back in the speaker‘s chair, give Harry Reid a bigger majority in the Senate so they can force through their big government, high spending, high taxes, more borrowing type of agenda that‘s killing jobs in America.  I think that‘s been their object all along since the lame duck session.

And House Republicans are just proposing some actually meager cuts to begin this process.  And when you‘re talking about a $3.8 trillion federal budget, cutting just $61 billion is just a pittance.  It‘s just—

TODD:  Well, Congressman, as you know, the White House has said they don‘t want—they‘re not going to sign a bill, any sort of long-term continuing resolution or short term, that contains so-called riders—these political statements that are trying to defund NPR, defund Planned Parenthood.  Are you going to be able to support a deal, a compromise, that doesn‘t include these riders?  Do you believe that any bill has to include these riders or you won‘t support it?

BROUN:  Chuck, we need to talk about where we‘re going to cut in the federal government and those so-called riders are just cuts of various programs.  I don‘t believe in across-the-board cuts.  We need to cut specific programs.  We need to make major cuts.

We‘re facing an economic emergency in America.  And it is absolutely critical that we start sending powers back to the states and the people.  We are headed towards an economic collapse of America if we don‘t stop this outrageous spending and borrowing that Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid and Barack Obama have been doing.  And we‘ve got to stop it.

We‘re in a critical situation.

TODD:  Yes.

BROUN:  When you‘re in a critical situation, you have to take emergency measures and we need to cut—

TODD:  But it sounds like these riders—these riders, that you‘re willing to let it go?

BROUN:  Well, I‘m willing to talk and compromise over which federal program we‘re going to start cutting.

TODD:  All right.

BROUN:  But we‘ve got to make major cuts, that‘s just the long and short of it, to create jobs in America and to put us back on the right economic footing as a nation.

TODD:  OK.  All right.  Congressman Paul Broun, I‘ve got to leave it there.  Thank you for your time.

BROUN:  Thank you.

TODD:  Up next: as Wisconsin goes, so goes Ohio.  Ohio is on the verge of limiting union bargaining rights to a far greater degree than anything that‘s been discussed in Wisconsin.  Can the unions win this fight?  This one could actually be at a ballot box this November.

This is HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TODD:  Huckabee and Romney lead the Republican field in a new Pew Poll.  But there‘s a religious divide among Republican primary voters.  Thirty percent of regular churchgoers and evangelicals like Mike Huckabee, former pastor; while 24 percent of those who don‘t go to church regularly prefer Mitt Romney.  Huckabee hasn‘t decided whether he‘ll run yet, but he has said that he hasn‘t made a decision not to run.

By the way, Haley Barbour has been courting Huckabee‘s support.

We‘ll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TODD:  And we are back.

This afternoon in Ohio, a House committee approved a measure on a party line vote that will curb the collective bargaining rights for public employees, sending it to the full house for a vote as soon as tomorrow.  This bill then would go even further than the one that passed in Wisconsin and should it go through, unions plan on fighting this bill with a referendum on the ballot in November of this year.  Imagine the stakes on that one.

So, for more on the politics of this battle, I‘m joined by Chris Cillizza of PostPolitics.com and Clarence Page of “The Chicago Tribune.”

Chris, let me start with you.

CHRIS CILLIZZA, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  Sure.

TODD:  A referendum in Ohio—we‘ve seen these referendums in Ohio before.  They‘re one of these few states east of the Mississippi that does a lot of referendums with their legislation.

CILLIZZA:  Right.

TODD:  This would be huge.  Can labor gets this on the ballot?  Obviously, they think they have a better shot at winning this battle there than in the legislature.

CILLIZZA:  Well, look, Chuck, the short answer is I wish I had a better answer in this.  We don‘t know.  I would say, go look at Wisconsin.  If you believe what labor and the Democratic Party there are saying, they have more than 50 percent of the signatures that they need to get some of these recall elections going in the spring and summer of this year.

So, look, the unions have the organizational heft theoretically to collect the signatures and get it on the ballot.  From my perspective, they do get on the ballot, and I know you reel (ph) here me, Chuck.  What a fascinating thing to have on the ballot one year before in Ohio what we know—

(CROSSTALK)

CILLIZZA:  It will be a trial heat for the turnout operations and for everything else.  And this will be as big if not bigger than anything else on the ballot in 2012 if unions are able to get it on there.  And that‘s a heavy lift.

TODD:  Clarence Page, look, I want to show this Quinnipiac Poll on Governor Kasich in Ohio.  He‘s been—it‘s not been as high profile as Scott Walker in Wisconsin.

CLARENCE PAGE, CHICAGO TRIBUNE:  Right.

TODD:  But he‘s been off to a rough start.  He‘s job approval rating is upside down, 30 percent.  That‘s a March poll, 30 percent approve, 46 percent approve.

I can‘t help but wonder if it has to do with some of the fights he‘s been picking in Columbus, in the state legislature here.  But Charlie Cook has this theory that maybe the public isn‘t that much attention, that really it‘s the hard partisans on both sides, the ones that are paying to this fight.  And that it really isn‘t seeping into the mainstream.  What say you?

PAGE:  I think there‘s a lot of truth to that, which actually I‘d say bodes well for the unions, if they do have a referendum—an off-year referendum this year because, you know, just like with the midterm election here recently—

TODD:  It‘s about intensity.

PAGE:  Yes, intensity is everything.  And there would be a lot of intensity with the union people.  And also, Quinnipiac Poll showed a lot of sympathy for collective bargaining, especially if you call the collective bargaining rights.

TODD:  The word “rights” matters a lot.

PAGE:  It matters a lot.  But, you can get over-the-top as far as over half the voters.  At the same time, the state is having terrible financial problems, like all the upper Midwestern states, like Wisconsin, like Illinois.  These are tough issues.  The general public, though, made us get more excited on behalf the union folks, once they started knocking on doors and making phone calls.

TODD:  Chris Cillizza, very quickly, we‘ve seen some Republican governors in other states back off of this fight.

CILLIZZA:  Yes, Mitch Daniels notably, Rick Snyder backed off.

Look, I do think Scott Walker—did what happened in Wisconsin turn him a little bit into a national conservative hero?  Yes.  Is Wisconsin the redoubt of conservatism?

TODD:  Right.

CILLIZZA:  No.  So, good for him nationally, probably bad for him locally.  I would say the same thing about Chris Christie, frankly.  Bad for him politically in New Jersey, good for him nationally.  Yes.

TODD:  Yes.

CILLIZZA:  Ultimately, these guys have to get reelected there.

TODD:  That‘s right.

Chris Cillizza, Clarence Page, stay with us because we‘re going to talk—have a little bit of fun here.

Donald Trump and what he is betting on for his presidential campaign.  There‘s more on that, straight ahead.

This is HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TODD:  We are back with Chris Cillizza and Clarence Page to talk more politics—this time in New York with Donald Trump‘s possible candidacy for president and his calls for the president to release his official birth certificate, which, of course, he‘s done about umpteen times.  They‘ve posted it online, all of those things.  This is the certified copy the state of Ohio gives you.  It‘s a certificate of live birth, which some people question.  Both my kids have certificates of live birth.

And, Chris, I think your child, if it‘s a certificate of live birth, not a birth certificate.  What is Donald Trump up to?  First, he released a certificate of birth, it turned out that was the hospital certificate.  So, he didn‘t even get the right one the first time.  Now, he‘s releasing this one.

But what‘s—why is he doing this?  You know, I mean, obviously, the obvious answer is publicity.  But there‘s more to it.

CILLIZZA:  Yes, I mean—look, Chuck, I think you have to take him semiseriously—semiseriously being the key word—for a couple reasons.  He‘s known by everybody in this country.  You go up to anybody in the street and you say, “Who‘s Donald Trump?” they know who he is.  And he said he would spend $600 million on his campaign.

That said, these kinds of things, which seems to be either, like you said, either kind of a publicity provocateur move or just a transparent play to kind of this conspiracy theorist element among a very small segment of conservatives, it doesn‘t make any sense to me.  Either way, I don‘t think it‘s going to work.  Either way, it doesn‘t speak of someone who is serious about this.

And we have some indications that he is somewhat serious about this.

TODD:  Exactly.

CILLIZZA:  This seems like kind of a path that‘s—there‘s no—this is a dead-end.  He‘s headed toward a political cul-de-sac, whether he knows it or not.

TODD:  And, Clarence, that‘s what I understand—look, if he is

American—if he wants to be America‘s salesman, which in some ways, I

want to get in there and beat up the Chinese, and get some good trade deals

why is he going down birtherism?

      

PAGE:  Well, you know, Bill Maher made a good point earlier that the whole, what, social Christian conservative wing of the party, that‘s kind of taken now.  He‘s in a difficult situation as far as reaching out to them.  No better off than Rudy Giuliani was.  So, that means you go to the birthers.

What‘s interesting to me is the very fact that by taking this birther stance, by challenging President Obama‘s birth certificate, he actually enhances his chance as a candidate if he looks (INAUDIBLE).

TODD:  Do you believe that?  Do you actually think it enhances—

(CROSSTALK)

PAGE:  -- he will be a candidate, but I think in this party right now—yes, I do.  Why does the speaker of the House himself, while he says he believes Obama, saying to everything else, well—

TODD:  Very quickly, Chris.

PAGE:  That kind of pussyfooting that my friend David Brooks calls both cowardly.

TODD:  Yes.

PAGE:  So, it‘s where the party is right now.

TODD:  Cillizza, very quick.

CILLIZA:  I think Clarence is right, Chuck, that there‘s an element, but I think it‘s a very small element of the party.  There is no winning coalition to be put together in a Republican presidential primary by advocating that President Obama might not be born in this country.

TODD:  Right.

CILLIZZA:  I‘ve seen no evidence that that‘s the case.

TODD:  Well, all right, Chris Cillizza and Clarence Page—I don‘t get it, I don‘t understand why we keep talking about it.  I for one think it‘s ridiculous and we should stop talking about it.

That‘s HARDBALL for now.  Cable catnip, right?  Thanks for being with us.

More politics ahead with Cenk Uygur.

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