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updated 3/31/2011 12:45:50 PM ET 2011-03-31T16:45:50

Guests: Julia Boorstin, Sherrod Brown, John Nichols, Major Garrett, David Sanger, Ron

Reagan, Colin Goddard, Jeanne Cummings, John Heilemann

CHUCK TODD, GUEST HOST:  The fraying union label.

Let‘s play HARDBALL.

Good evening.  I‘m Chuck Todd in Washington, sitting in again for Chris Matthews, who‘s on assignment in Israel. 

Leading off tonight: Looking for the union label getting a little more difficult.  Unions are now under siege in four Midwestern states.  In Wisconsin, Indiana and Ohio, legislation is making its way through state governments that would dramatically limit the power of public sector unions.

Let‘s be clear about the political calculus here.  If the debate is about unions paying their fair share, Republicans win.  If it‘s about taking away workers‘ rights, Democrats are going to win.  That‘s what we don‘t know.

Plus, a show of hands.  Who wants a government shutdown?  Democrats may want one because they think Republicans will be blamed, as they were in 1994.  Republicans may secretly want one because the thing this time, things will be different.  Will it happen?  And who‘s right?  We‘ll find out.

Also, it‘s been 30 years to the day since President Reagan was shot outside the Washington Hilton hotel.  The shooting led to a nationwide movement at the time to limit the availability of guns.  But exactly the opposite has happened in the last 30 years.  Why is it that anti-gun violence advocates can‘t make any progress?

And failure to launch.  What if somebody threw a campaign and no one came?  Republican candidates still are going out of their way not to get in this 2012 race.  We‘ve even postponed a debate.  What‘s going on?

Finally, a word to the wise.  If you‘re a member to Congress and you make $174,000 a year, don‘t complain about it to your constituents.  That‘s not a good thing.  The congressman who did, he made it into the “Sideshow.”

But let‘s begin with big labor under siege.  Senator Sherrod Brown is an Ohio Democrat, and John Nichols has been covering these union fights for “The Nation” magazine.

John, let me start with you.  We‘re seeing this.  This is basically a fight here in the industrial Midwest.  These newly elected Republican governors believe they‘ve got a mandate and believe if they—if they don‘t do it now, they‘ll never be able to do it in their terms.  It‘s politically been painful for them so far, it looks like.

Today, the center is Ohio.  Messaging-wise, as you were watching this, as you heard in our intro, Republicans believe they can sell the message, This is about union workers having to pay a little bit more for their benefits.  Democrats believe they can win this fight if they can turn it into a fight about rights.  Who‘s winning the fight?

JOHN NICHOLS, “THE NATION”:  Well, right now, it looks like the unions, and frankly, the Democrats are prevailing in most of these states.  It‘s a pretty fascinating situation, though.  First off, the governors are bleeding in their poll numbers, going down in each of these states.  In Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, dramatic drops.

At the same time, you‘re seeing a real movement, especially among white working-class families with some union ties, over to the Democrats.  These are really the folks you used to refer to as “Reagan”—

TODD:  The “Reagan Democrats,” right.

NICHOLS:  -- Democrats,” or more conservative folks, yes.  And they‘re moving.  There‘s no doubt of that.  Now, how long will that hold?  That becomes a more complex question.  But I will tell you, you got to the heart of something here in your intro there.  If this is referred to as a fight over collective bargaining, the unions win in polling by a little bit.  If it‘s referred to as a fight over collective bargaining rights, if you just add that word “rights”—

TODD:  Right.

NICHOLS:  -- they add about 10 percent onto their number in the polls. 

Right now, that‘s what it‘s seen as.  They are doing well there.

TODD:  Senator Sherrod Brown, let‘s take—or talk about the fight that‘s taking place in your state.  We know this bill could get signed into law at any moment in Ohio.  It‘s making its way through the state house, then the state senate, Republican control of both.  Then it would get to Governor Kasich‘s desk.

But you have a loophole, essentially, in the state of Ohio that was not—didn‘t exist in Wisconsin, and that‘s this idea of taking this legislation and saying, Hey, let‘s make—let‘s let the voters have the final decision on it via referendum.  How likely is that going to happen in your home state by this November, Senator?

SEN. SHERROD BROWN (D), OHIO:  First of all, I wouldn‘t call it a loophole.  I would call it citizens‘ right to petition—

TODD:  Right, I—

BROWN:  -- the government and disagree with their government.  I—

TODD:  Fair enough.

BROWN:  I think it‘s absolutely certain that it‘s going to go to the ballot.  I mean, already people are organizing.  I‘ve got a Web site, Sherrodbrown.com/Ohio, people can come up—come on and sign up, begin to work against this legislation, which—you know, John Nichols is right.  It‘s taking people‘s rights away.

You know, I thought the elections in November were about jobs, the incredible job loss we‘ve seen kind of late—beginning (ph) the end of the Bush years and the end to—into now.  And we‘re doing better now, but not better enough.  But I thought it was about that.  Instead, it‘s been about going after a lot—a lot of abortion legislation, a lot of going after worker rights.  Now they‘re going after voter rights.

And that‘s why we fight back.  That‘s why—you know, that‘s why I said go on Sherrodbrown.com/Ohio and help us fight back because they‘re going after rights.  And they‘re—I just don‘t understand why—I mean, it‘s really our way of have of life as a nation.  We‘ve had collective bargaining for about eight decades, seven, eight decades.  That‘s when we built the middle class in this country.  It gives people a right to go to their employer as a group and say—

TODD:  Right.

BROWN:  -- Can we have some of the—we should share in some of the profits we create for your company.  And it works for public employees, it works for private sector employees, and the country‘s better off as a result.  So they‘re—they‘re making a terrible mistake for the American people, and they‘re frankly making a terrible mistake for their own political future, Governor Kasich and the legislator.

TODD:  Right.

BROWN:  But the important thing is this is our way of life in this country, and they‘re wrong.

TODD:  Well, Senator, let me ask you this, though.  What do you tell a school board or a school district that is seeing less money because we know tax revenues are down—this economy, particularly in Ohio—tax revenues are down and they‘re sort of limited, right?  They get boxed in a little bit on their budget.  But the collective bargaining agreement that they have with their teachers in that county or that school district make it so they can‘t move the numbers at all.  And instead, they feel like they‘re faced with, Well, I can‘t renegotiate this right now, so I‘m forced to lay off teachers.

Are you—are you for loosening up some of these rules on these collective—so that maybe negotiations get reopened more frequently?

BROWN:  I met—I met with a group—I did a little roundtable at an Episcopal church right by Statehouse Square maybe a month ago—police officers, firefighters, teachers, nurses others.  And you know, one of the things that came through—police officer negotiate for bulletproof vests at the bargaining table.  Teachers negotiate for class size.

If a school district‘s really threatened financially, as many are, I think they sit down with teachers through the bargaining process and they work through some questions.  Are you willing to give up something for your retirement now, put a little in more for yourself in order to save other teachers‘ jobs and keep classrooms smaller?  I think those are reasonable issues.

But one police officer said to me—a guy named Mike Taylor (ph), a police officer in Ohio, now retired, but very active for years—he said to me that—you know, he said before collective bargaining in Ohio, cops used to have the “blue flu.”  They used to call in saying they were sick because they had no other way of making their voice heard.

TODD:  Right.

BROWN:  We don‘t see that kind of labor strife now.  Collective bargaining‘s actually brought peace to labor negotiations, by and large, because people are talking to each other.  Why do these people want to take that right away?  Why do these Republican ideologues—they‘re not governing for practical reasons of creating jobs—

TODD:  Right.

BROWN:  -- and building the economy, or fixing the budget.  Their negotiating—very political, very ideological edge to it.  That‘s why we‘re fighting back.

TODD:  Hey, John Nichols, I‘m curious.  You‘ve been watching these fights in the states.  And I‘m going to ask the senator the same question, but I want you to have to answer it first, which is, it appears messaging-wise, Democrats are being more effective at taking this budget fights that are taking place in the states and turning it into a policy argument.  But they‘re able to do that at a state level, but not doing a very good job on the federal level.

Why do you think that is?  John Nichols first, and then Senator, I want you to have to respond to that.

NICHOLS:  Well, I hope I don‘t get in trouble with Sherrod Brown, who I‘ve covered on and off for about 30 years.  But I will tell you the bottom line.  I‘ve been in these states—Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin—and the reason they‘re doing better at the state level is because they‘re not listening to the messaging shops in Washington.

(LAUGHTER)

NICHOLS:  The Democratic Party, and frankly, a lot of the national unions do a lousy job of talking to the American people because they talk in stilted, weak, compromising terms.  In Wisconsin—

TODD:  Focus group language.

NICHOLS:  -- they started out with a message, “an injury to one is an injury to all,” old-fashioned labor talk.  And you know what?  Everybody got excited, not just union people, but farmers, retirees, students.  And so I just think that, in a sense, these state struggles have borrowed a page from some of the more militant Republicans, right?  Conservatives don‘t pull their punches.  They talk tough, and you‘re seeing these unions talk tough, be aggressive, and people like it.  They want a fight.

TODD:  Senator, so that‘s why I put the question to you.  We‘re watching this fight that you guys are having about the budget right now on the federal level.  And it seems messaging-wise, Republicans have won the fight because you are going over numbers.  You‘re not arguing over policy, you‘re arguing over numbers.

What do you say to this?  You‘ve been one of these populists.  You used a populist language.  You‘re not somebody I would mistaken for somebody that listens to focus group language.  But why is it that you‘ve struggled on the federal level and had a little more success here on the state level politically?

BROWN:  I think when the president weighs in more strongly, you‘ll see a different—you‘ll see a better, clearer message and you‘ll see us winning.  But I don‘t really disagree with John on that, or with some—with the presumption of your—with the assumption of your question.  I think that—I think I‘m learning from watching Ohio and Wisconsin do this because it really is, Whose side are you on?  And we‘ve got to fight back when they take away our rights.

And again, I ask people, without overdoing this, you know, go to my Web site, Sherrodbrown.com/Ohio—

TODD:  Yes.

BROWN:  -- and help us fight back because when we do, we‘re going to win because when you make the contrast—they‘re taking away our rights.  We want to help them solve this budget problem.  We want to help them create jobs.  But when their focus is take away rights, take away women‘s rights, take away voting rights, take away worker rights, you know, they‘re going to lose this fight because the American people understand what our way of life is all about.

That‘s why I‘m optimistic.  And the more that we in Washington learn from what Columbus is doing and what- they had rallies—

TODD:  Yes.

BROWN:  -- in Mansfield, Medina, and all over the state, smaller communities that would draw—

TODD:  Yes.

BROWN:  -- hundreds of people because they know that they‘re taking away something that‘s a long American tradition.  It‘s an American value.

TODD:  All right.  Senator Sherrod Brown, Democrat from Ohio—

BROWN:  Thanks.

TODD:  -- John Nichols of “The Nation” magazine.  I got to leave it there.  Thank you both for coming in HARDBALL.

BROWN:  Thanks very much.

NICHOLS:  Thank you.

TODD:  All right, coming up: From those state budget battles to the national shutdown showdown that we sort of teased out a little bit there, which side wants the shutdown?  Democrats may think a shutdown will still hurt Republicans, as it did in ‘95.  Republicans think things have changed this time around and think maybe the Democrats would get blamed.  Who‘s right?

You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TODD:  Well, some new poll numbers for President Obama.  They‘re not all that pretty.  Is it an outlier?  The new Quinnipiac poll has the president at their poll‘s all-time low, a job rating of 42 percent, with 48 percent disapproving.  It‘s an 8-point swing from a month ago.  In addition, half of those polls say he doesn‘t deserve reelection.

He‘s getting low marks on Libya, too, with 47 percent opposing U.S.  involvement there and nearly 6 in 10 saying the president hasn‘t stated the goals clearly.  Meanwhile, the Gallup daily tracking has him shooting back up.  So there you go.  These polls these days have been very hard to track.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE:  The Senate says, We have a plan.  Well, great!  Pass the damn thing, all right?  And send it over here and let‘s have real negotiations, instead of sitting over there rooting for a government shutdown!

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TODD:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  That was House Speaker John Boehner a bit fired up this morning.  He‘s playing tough.  Now so are the Democrats.  Here‘s Senator Chuck Schumer Tuesday, talking to colleagues before the start of a conference call with reporters that, by the way, that he didn‘t know that reporters would hear already and that they were recording.  Let‘s listen.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D), NEW YORK:  I always use the word “extreme.”  That‘s what the caucus instructed me to do the other week, extreme cuts and all these riders, and Boehner‘s in a box.  But if he supports the Tea Party, there‘s going to inevitably be a shutdown.

(END AUDIO CLIP)

TODD:  Well, here‘s House majority leader Eric Cantor reacting to Schumer late yesterday.  Take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. ERIC CANTOR (R-VA), MAJORITY LEADER:  Today I think we did find out that Chuck Schumer is intent on playing political games.  You know, when he decides to tell his caucus to depict Republicans in the House as not serious and that somehow to depict every spending cut as being nonsensible (SIC), that is the thing that‘s not serious.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TODD:  Well, there you go—shocked, shocked that politics is being played on Capitol Hill.  So is a shutdown looking more or less likely to happen?  Do both sides think they have the upper hand?  Major Garrett covers Congress for “The National Journal” and a former seatmate of mine in the White House briefing room, David Sanger, is the chief Washington correspondent for “The New York Times.”  And Major and I always know when David would show up in that briefing room, we‘d always wonder, All right, what does he have that he‘s got on us?

(LAUGHTER)

TODD:  We actually got some breaking news out of Libya that we‘re

going to touch on in a few minutes.  But Major, let me start with you about

you know, about the shutdown talk.  It was at a—I think it was at a “National Journal” forum yesterday where you had Howard Dean going—

TODD:  Yes.

TODD:  -- Hey, if I were the DNC chair, this would be great.  But I‘ve heard the same thing out of some Tea Party conservatives that have said the same thing about shutdown and all of this.  Who‘s right here?  And is either side really rooting for a shutdown?

MAJOR GARRETT, “NATIONAL JOURNAL”:  Well, I think there are factions on both sides, Chuck, who are rooting for a shutdown.  But the practical political truth is this right now.  Neither side can move the needle in their favor demonstrably enough to give them the ultimate confidence to provoke a shutdown.  So neither side is willing yet to go that route because they don‘t know how it‘s going to play out.

Democrats think Republicans will be blamed, just as they were in the mid-‘90s.  Republicans believe, because of the magnitude of the deficit and debt problems, Democrats at least will partially be blamed.  And neither side, when they look at the polling data internally, can be sure how it‘s going to play out, so neither side is prepared to go to the mattresses, at least quite yet, on the shutdown.

Now, here‘s the important thing that‘s happened in the last 24 hours. 

Negotiations have recommenced—

TODD:  Right.

GARRETT:  -- between the Senate majority leader‘s chief of staff, David Crone (ph), and the—Speaker Boehner‘s chief of staff, Barry Jackson (ph).  They‘re at least talking, something they haven‘t been doing for the last three or four days.

If they agree on a number, Chuck, then the next thing they have to do is agree on the underlying line-by-line spending cuts—

TODD:  Right.

GARRETT:  -- underneath that number.  Those are huge problems still unresolved.  That‘s where we are.

TODD:  You know, David Sanger, the surprising thing here, and frankly, maybe  it‘s not so surprising, is the role the White House is playing.  It‘s my understanding is Jack Lew has written this compromise that Harry Reid is trying to sell to John Boehner.  It adds $20 billion with the cuts, with the $10 billion would bring the total to $30 billion, which, by the way, the original—the original Paul Ryan ask was that $30 billion in cuts.

Of course, Tea Party said, No, no, no, no, no.  You got to make that number bigger.  So that‘s the—but the White House doesn‘t want to own this today.  Jay Carney at the briefing (INAUDIBLE) We‘re not getting behind any plan.  They really continue to want to stay out of this thing.

DAVID SANGER, “NEW YORK TIMES”:  They do, and the political reason, I think, was really touched on when you referred to 1994.  It‘s a huge risk for both sides about who would be blamed.  It‘s not clear whether either one would or both would.  And so my suspicion is that both of them want to walk up to the line of this and neither one of them wants to go over that cliff.

What‘s astounding to me about watching this debate, and having covered the ‘94 debate at the time, is that we‘re arguing over $30 billion, a big number, out of a national debt of over $12 billion (SIC), out of deficits that—I‘m sorry, national debt of over $12 trillion.

TODD:  Well, trillion.  Yes.  Don‘t forget the T.

SANGER:  And—the T. in there, right—

TODD:  Yes. 

SANGER: -- and annual deficits that we have been running, also with a

T. 

And, so, so far, we‘re arguing over rounding errors in all of this—

TODD:  Right. 

SANGER: -- as if the debate over whether you do $30 billion now or not makes a difference to the larger picture. 

TODD:  Major Garrett, the players have been fascinating to watch. 

So, you had Eric Cantor taking shots at Chuck Schumer about the language he was using. 

GARRETT:  Yes. 

TODD:  Here‘s Chuck Schumer defending himself about that conference call.  He had an interview last night with my colleague Lawrence O‘Donnell on “The Last Word.”

Take a listen. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, “THE LAST WORD”)

SEN. CHARLES SCHUMER (D), NEW YORK:  I used the word “extreme” on the floor a few hours before.  I have used the word “extreme” repeatedly.  I have no problem that reporters heard me tell my colleagues on the phone that I have used the word “extreme.”  And many of them have as well.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TODD:  So, Eric Cantor and Chuck Schumer, they‘re the ones—they‘re really hitting back at each other. 

John Boehner, yes, he had that little—he was a little—a little upset today, but you get the feeling that Boehner and Reid, they‘re trying to cut a deal.  Boehner and Bill Daley at the White House, they want to cut a deal.  But how much do Schumer and Cantor—is this a real fight that—and they want to fight more than maybe their leadership wants to? 

GARRETT:  Well, look, it‘s—to use a cliche, a shopworn cliche, it‘s a good cop/bad cop.  The speaker is the speaker.  He‘s trying to work out a legislative compromise with his counterpart in the Senate, the majority leader, Senator Reid.

Meanwhile, Cantor beneath Boehner and Schumer beneath Reid try to keep the base or the rank-and-file jacked up and ready to go to fight, because, until there is a compromise, both sides, again, are trying to position for maximum favorable impressions in the public mind.

TODD:  Right. 

GARRETT:  And until that solidifies, they are going to keep fighting. 

Now, to David‘s point, it is, in the main, a rounding error, but this is the prelude to the full-blown 2012 appropriations budget battle—

TODD:  Right. 

GARRETT: -- the debt ceiling.  And whoever emerges victorious will go into those fights with more momentum.  That is why this has become—

TODD:  And—

GARRETT: -- though it‘s a rounding error, significantly important within the—

TODD:  Right. 

GARRETT: -- intramural confines of Capitol Hill politics. 

TODD:  And I want to get to this Libya breaking news in a minute, but, Major, one final question following up to you, which is, how much do Republicans wants to get this out of the way right now, in order to clear some space for the big Paul Ryan budget and Paul Ryan‘s pledge—

GARRETT:  Well—

TODD: -- the House budget to—to tackle Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security?

GARRETT:  Well, that‘s one of the reasons that the freshmen and the Tea Party-inspired Republicans want the fight now.  They want to resolve it now on their terms or as close to their terms as they possibly can, so then there can a clean, open debate about entitlement reform, then the debt ceiling, then the full-blown 2012 appropriations process. 

There are many, many budgets to go.

TODD:  Yes. 

GARRETT:  Tea Party and freshmen Republicans want to resolve this one now.  But if—if Boehner and Reid can‘t, this will lead to a shutdown or another continuing resolution, and it will go on and on and on.

TODD:  And, you know, David, let me—one quick way to transition to Libya is, how much does the fact that this budget fight isn‘t dominating the front pages, it isn‘t above the fold in “The New York Times,” it‘s—I think I have to go to sometimes the national section in order to see it. 

SANGER:  Right. 

TODD:  I actually do thumb through the newspaper once in a while, not on an iPad. 

(LAUGHTER)

TODD:  You‘re not seeing it on the front page.  Who does that benefit? 

SANGER:  Well, to some degree, I think it probably benefits President Obama, because the more he keeps this off the front page, the more he keeps it from dominating the discussion back and forth, but I think Major made a very good point that there are budget battles to come and—

TODD:  This is the undercard. 

SANGER:  This is—this is—

TODD:  Yes.  This is the undercard, to use the boxing metaphor.

SANGER:  And I think the much harder vote for both sides is going to be the debt ceiling, because that does involve truly large numbers, truly trillions numbers, and that will be a tough vote for Democrats, as well as for Republicans. 

TODD:  All right, David Sanger, you cover foreign policy out of this White House as well as anybody.  We‘re getting some news that the Libyan foreign minister, Musa Kusa, has shown up in London and defected from Gadhafi. 

Explain who this guy is and why it‘s so important. 

SANGER:  OK.

Musa Kusa was the foreign minister of Libya and was the man who basically negotiated Libya‘s way back into the mainstream of the world.  After they gave up their nuclear weapons program in 2003, after they settled the Pan Am 103 case, he was the one who basically arranged for Libya to be reintegrated.  That‘s how come the United States opened up diplomatic relations with Libya again.

If he has defected—and there have been reports for days that he would—

TODD:  That he was thinking about it.

SANGER:  He was thinking about it—then that is the further isolation of Gadhafi, and also means that Gadhafi doesn‘t have at hand somebody who the U.S. and others feel they could talk to. 

TODD:  Interesting. 

All right, David Sanger of “New York Times,” Major Garrett of “National Journal,” I‘m going to have to leave it there.

GARRETT:  Thank you. 

TODD:  Thank you both.  A lot of stuff that we‘re covering these days. 

SANGER:  Thank you, Chuck.

TODD:  All right, guys.

Up next:  What‘s a surefire way for a member of Congress to alienate his or her constituents?  How about this?  Complain about your pay, but your government/taxpayer-funded pay.  That‘s what one freshman Republican did.  Oh, boy.  We have got it next in the “Sideshow.”

You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.  

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TODD:  Well, back to HARDBALL.  Time for the “Sideshow.” 

First up: more money, more problems.  At a recent town hall, Republican Congressman Sean Duffy, freshman of Wisconsin, was asked by a constituent whether he would cut his congressional salary of $174,000 to help bring down the deficit.  The constituent added that he had been forced to work as a bus driver because of the economy and that his wife, a schoolteacher, is facing a pay cut under the new Wisconsin budget plan. 

Well, here‘s Duffy‘s response. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. SEAN DUFFY ®, WISCONSIN:  I can guarantee you, or most of you, I will guarantee you I have more debt than all of you. 

With six kids, I still pay off my student loans.  I still pay my mortgage.  I drive my used minivan.  If you think I‘m living high on the hog, I have got one paycheck.  So, I struggle to meet my bills right now. 

Would it be easier if I get more paychecks?  Maybe, but, at this point, I‘m not living high on the hog. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TODD:  Well, look, the fact is, the congressman is right.  Members of Congress are underpaid.  They have got to keep two households, all that stuff, except, guess what, $174,000 sounds like a lot of money to a lot of people that live in that Wisconsin 7th District. 

Finally, the president is on prize patrol.  He was talking about drilling for natural gas this morning when he went off script a little bit.  Take a listen. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  I have asked Secretary Chu, my Energy Secretary, to work with other agencies, the natural gas industry, states, and environmental experts to improve the safety of this process.  And Chu is the right guy to do this.  He‘s got a Nobel Prize in physics.  He actually deserved his Nobel Prize. 

(LAUGHTER)

OBAMA:  And this is the kind of thing that he likes to do for fun on the weekend. 

(LAUGHTER)

OBAMA:  He goes into his garage and he tinkers around and figures out how to extract natural gas. 

(LAUGHTER)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(LAUGHTER)

TODD:  Man, he takes a shot at his own peace prize.  Of course, he holds his Peace Prize, and he is now waging three wars.  And that hasn‘t been lost on the president. 

By the way, HARDBALL intern—big shout-out to Ashley Banken (ph).  She covered this event at Georgetown University.  And she reports that that line from the president got the best response of that 50- -- 5-0 -- minute speech on energy. 

Now time for tonight‘s “Big Number.”

By now, you have heard of the deadly Egyptian cobra gone missing at the Bronx Zoo.  But you might not know she has got her own Twitter page.  I know.  I‘m following.

Well, courtesy of some enterprising Twitter fans, here‘s a sampling of her updates—quote—“On top of the Empire State Building, all the people look like little mice down there, delicious little mice.”

Or how about this one?  “Hey, Dear @CharlieSheen, know what‘s better than tiger blood?  How about cobra venom?”

In just a couple of days, how many followers has the elusive cobra gotten? -- 152,000 and counting?  Talk about making the most of your 15 minutes -- 152,000 Twitter followers, that‘s about 45,000 more than me.  I would like to have a little more on mine, @ChuckTodd.  I‘m just saying.

But, anyway, 152,000 -- tonight‘s “Big Number” on Twitter.

All right, up next, 30 years ago today, President Reagan survived an assassination attempt.  Many thought the country would adopt tougher gun laws as a result.  Today, however, guns are allowed virtually everywhere, and the laws in the states are getting more lenient every day.  We will take a look at how anti-gun advocates can‘t get any traction. 

You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

JULIA BOORSTIN, CNBC CORRESPONDENT:  I‘m Julia Boorstin with your CNBC “Market Wrap.”

Another strong showing for stocks, despite the global headwinds, the Dow Jones industrial average surging 71 points, the S&P 500 climbing eight, and the Nasdaq jumping 19. 

Light trading again today, with investors looking for yield around the world, pumping money back into the markets when they‘re not finding it. 

Natural gas companies benefited from President Obama calling today for less reliance on foreign oil in the transportation industry.

Visa and MasterCard gained after the Federal Reserve said new rules on debit card fees won‘t be ready by a late April deadline. 

Chemicals giant DuPont is giving Danish company Danisco another four weeks to consider a controversial $6 billion takeover proposal. 

And American Airlines shares spikes on reports a Florida group is considering a $3.25 billion buyout bid. 

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

HARDBALL. 

TODD:  Welcome back to HARDBALL. 

Thirty years ago today, President Ronald Reagan was shot by a lone gunman, John Hinckley Jr., outside the Washington Hilton Hotel.  In the initial moments after the shooting, Secret Service agent Jerry Parr thought Reagan had escaped injury. 

Here‘s an excerpt from the very recently released audiotape of that harrowing incident.  Rawhide was the Secret Service code name for Reagan.  Let‘s take a listen. 

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP) 

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

HORSEPOWER:  (INAUDIBLE)

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

Parr, Shaddick.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  (INAUDIBLE)

SHADDICK:  Stagecoach, Shaddick.

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

Rawhide is OK.

(END AUDIO CLIP)

TODD:  But a couple minutes later, the Secret Service realized that the president had been shot and rerouted the motorcade to George Washington Hospital.  Let‘s listen. 

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

THOMAS DREW UNRUE, SPECIAL AGENT:  Roger.  We want to go to the emergency room of George Washington.

MARY ANN GORDON, SPECIAL AGENT:  That‘s a roger.

UNRUE:  Go to George Washington fast.

GORDON:  Roger.  Sergeant Bell, Gordon.

SHADDICK:  Parr, Shaddick.

Parr, Shaddick.

PARR:  Shaddick, Parr.  George Washington.

SHADDICK:  Roger.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON:  (INAUDIBLE)

PARR:  Get an ambulance.  I mean get the stretcher out there.

(END AUDIO CLIP)

TODD:  The attempt on Ronald Reagan‘s life back in 1981 actually kicked off a legal and political battle over gun control. 

Joining us now to talk about that battle is the late president‘s son, Ron Reagan.  He‘s author of “My Father at 100,” joins us now. 

So, Ron, it‘s good to see you. 

RON REAGAN, POLITICAL COMMENTATOR:  Good to see you, Chuck. 

TODD:  I have got to ask, can you share with us—can you share with us what you remember, how you found out, everything that happened to you that day as you were watching these events unfold? 

REAGAN:  Well, it was 30 years ago, of course, but I remember it like I was in yesterday. 

I was in a hotel dining room in Lincoln, Nebraska, eating lunch with my wife.  I was getting ready to rehearse and perform with the Joffrey Ballet there that night.  And my Secret Service leader detail came into the dining room.  I could tell there was something wrong right away by the look on his face, told us that shots had been fired at my father, but that he hadn‘t been hit. 

We raced upstairs and got on the phone.  And, by that time, we discovered that he had been hit, got on a plane, flew to Washington, D.C., and went straight to the hospital. 

TODD:  And what—over those—those first couple of days, when did you feel like, OK, my dad‘s out of the woods? 

REAGAN:  Actually, I felt pretty good in the intensive care unit when he came out of surgery. 

We knew by that time, obviously, this was very serious, but he looked pretty good.  I mean, for a guy who had just been shot and nearly killed, his color was back.  You know, he looked OK under the circumstances. 

So, I stopped worrying a little bit there.  The doctors didn‘t seem so worried either.  They—they looked like they had a handle on things. 

TODD:  Well, at the time, of course, there was—became a debate about the issue, particularly of mentally ill folks getting their hands on guns and this issue of gun rights. 

REAGAN:  Mm-hmm. 

TODD:  And I‘m also now joined—Ron, we‘re joined now by Colin Goddard.  He is with the Brady Campaign.  He was one of the victims of the Virginia Tech shooting. 

Colin, thanks for being here.

I want to throw up some poll numbers for you about the issue of gun control vs. gun rights here and where things were in 1993, and where they were in 1999 in favor of gun control vs. expanded gun rights, and where they are today. 

In ‘93, it was 57 percent in favor of some form of gun control.  Just look at this line graph.  It now crosses where more people are in favor of expanded gun rights than they are gun control.

Colin, you‘ve decided to join the Brady Campaign after what you went through at Virginia Tech.  Virginia Tech—we have similar circumstances, the Tucson shooting had to do with a mentally ill shooter.  At Virginia Tech, it was a mentally ill person, with John Hinckley, a mentally ill person.

What‘s been the challenge particularly on this?  We know about this issue of gun rights and they don‘t want any contraction here.  But there hasn‘t even been any luck at dealing with mentally ill folks and preventing them from getting guns.

COLIN GODDARD, BRADY CAMPAIGN TO PREVENT GUN VIOLENCE:  You‘re right.  Actually, today, there are still over 1 million disqualifying mental health records missing from the background check system that the Brady Law enacted.  And not only are the records missing, but we actually don‘t apply that check on every gun sale, private sellers are not required to run background checks.  So, you can literally walk in to gun shows, you can go on the Internet and buy guns from people just by giving them money.

TODD:  And you went into a gun—you went in—you wanted to prove this yourself, and you went and had no background checks at these gun shows, and then you turned in these guns.

GODDARD:  Right.  And I found out that the guys who aren‘t running background checks were actually charging a little bit more that same gun than a dealer was with a check, because as one guy explained to me, there‘s no tax, there‘s no paperwork, that‘s got to be worth something.  And so, people who want to go around the background check, that‘s worth a lot.

(CROSSTALK)

GODDARD:  Yes, right.

TODD:  Ron, your own position on gun—on gun control, has it evolved over the years?  I mean, after that shooting, did you find yourself, you know what, this is—this is what I want to do?  I mean, where are you in this position now, where have you been?

REAGAN:  Well, I don‘t know that my position has evolved so much.  I was always pro-gun control even before the shooting, when my father was shot.  You know, I think we got an issue here that‘s broader than just guns though, and that has something to do with character or the psyche of the United States.  I mean, it isn‘t just guns.

The NRA people are right.  Guns don‘t kill people.  People with guns kill people.

TODD:  Right.

REAGAN:  Particularly crazy people with guns kill people.  But we fetishize violence and we fetishize guns in this country.  Look at the way our young people are brought up.  The sort of video games and computer games they play, the movies that we watch.

           

We are awash in violence, and we consider violence to be the first resort in almost any circumstance.  It‘s like we‘re walking around in our personal revenge fantasies all the time.  And that‘s a much bigger issue than just controlling this or that type of gun.

TODD:  And what‘s interesting, of course, the politics of this.  The NRA is politically very popular.  How can we prove this?

I‘m going to read three statements from President Barack Obama when he was a guy running for Congress, then a guy running for Senate, then a sitting president.

Here‘s where President Obama was on guns in 2001.  He said, “I know that the NRA believes people should be unimpeded and unregulated on gun ownership.  I disagree.”

In 2004, here‘s what the president had to say about guns: “I think it‘s a scandal that this president,” referring to George W. Bush, “did not force a renewal of this assault weapons ban.”

And here‘s the op-ed he wrote in the Tucson—“Arizona Daily Star,” this is the paper in Tucson, Gabby Giffords‘ hometown.  This just appeared about two weeks ago.  He said, quote, “My administration has not curtailed the rights of gun owners—it has expanded them, including allowing people to carry their guns in national parks and wildlife refuges.”

That‘s the same person.

This is, Colin, when you hear this president, and, Ron, I‘m going to go to you in a second.  Colin, when you hear this, do you feel like you have an ally on the issue of guns in President Obama?

GODDARD:  This is the first time a sitting president has actually addressed the gun control issue in more than 10 years.  So, I‘m happy—

TODD:  But he has also expanded it more than any sitting Democratic president in my lifetime and perhaps in history.

GODDARD:  It‘s also correct, you‘re right.  You can‘t deny that.  But he‘s trying to reach a middle ground here.  And now, we understand that, you know, that it‘s not just the gun that kills people.  It‘s the people.  So, we need to do a better job of checking those people and finding out who they are.

And so, you know, I am hopeful that this will ultimately lead to some reasonable ground that we can talk about.  But, unfortunately, if middle ground is reach, then the massive fund-raising mechanism that the NRA has built will no longer be as necessary and it won‘t bring in as much money.  And I think when you get to the bottom of all this, you will find it is a money issue.

TODD:  And, Ron, you don‘t get a conversation on this without creating an incentive.  And it looks like the NRA doesn‘t believe there‘s any incentive to even have this talk.  The White House invited, wanted to have the NRA come to the White House.  And here‘s what Wayne LaPierre said, he said, “Why should I or the NRA go sit down with a group of people that have spent a lifetime trying to destroy the Second Amendment in the United States?”

Do you see any way of incentivizing the NRA to come and sit down and have this conversation?

REAGAN:  No, not at this point, really.  You know, there‘s so little

reason in this discussion.  If you think about handguns, for instance,

which are a big problem when you talk about guns in the United States—

they are responsible for a lot of crimes and a lot of murders and suicides

and things like that.  When you buy a handgun for self-defense, you

announce that that is why you‘re buying this gun, I need to defend myself -

-

           

TODD:  Right.

REAGAN:  -- what are saying is “I may have to kill somebody,” because you don‘t shoot somebody to wound them.  You shoot somebody in self-defense to kill them.  Now, policemen train, you know, for a long period of time to do that sort of thing.

TODD:  Right.

REAGAN:  Shouldn‘t you at least have to prove to the state if you are buying a gun, to go through the training and also prove to them that you understand the legal ramifications for using that gun to kill somebody.  But there‘s no such law that I‘m aware of anywhere in the United States.

TODD:  And, Ron, before I let you go, where are you on this idea of John Hinckley getting more rights, more freedoms, being let go?  Where are you on this?

REAGAN:  I think he has personality disorder.  I think he has a narcissistic personality disorder.  That is a very intractable condition.  I‘m not saying that he‘s a flagrant danger of economy, but I would be—I would be very nervous about him walking around unmonitored.

TODD:  And so, you have been petitioning to make sure he does not?

REAGAN:  Yes.  Yes.  I‘m not—you‘re asking the wrong guy to do a favor for John Hinckley, believe me.

TODD:  Right.  I imagine.

All right.  Ron Reagan, good to see you on this 35th anniversary.

REAGAN:  Thanks, Chuck.

TODD:  Thank you for sharing those memories.

Colin Goddard, thanks for coming in.

GODDARD:  Thanks for having me.

TODD:  Up next: So far, only three Republicans have formed an official presidential campaign committee.  Four years ago, 17 had done so by this time.  As a result, the Reagan library debate has been pushed back from May to September.  You hear about those May/September relationship.  We‘re making it a September relationship.

So, what are we to make of the Republicans‘ failure to launch?  And what does it tell us about President Obama?  That‘s all coming up next.

This is HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TODD:  Mike Huckabee continues to be the candidate Republicans feel strongest about.  Check this out.  In Gallup polling, Huckabee generated the most favorable reactions of Republicans on the way they measure this, of people who recognize him.  Gallup calls it the positive intensity score.  It‘s the candidate‘s highly favorable rating minus their highly unfavorable rating.

Huckabee is at 26.  Guess who‘s next?  Michele Bachmann and Mitt Romney, they‘re tied for second at 20; followed by Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich, both at 19.  Sarah Palin is actually in the sixth place sitting at a positive 18 among Republicans.

We‘ll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TODD:  We are back.

We‘re approaching April, and still only three Republicans have formed presidential exploratory committees: Herman Cain, Tim Pawlenty and—you got it—Buddy Roemer, of course.  Without a full field in play, the Reagan Library, NBC News and Politico, we decided to postpone the first Republican debate, which was scheduled to take place on May 2nd.  We‘re now holding it in September, just after 9/11 at the Reagan Library.

Of course, for more on the waiting game, I‘m joined by John Heilemann of “New York Magazine,” and Jeanne Cummings from Politico, our partner.

Jeanne, let me start with you.  You can go ahead and talk about the decision we all decided on why to postpone it.  It was pretty obvious.  Not enough candidates.

JEANNE CUMMINGS, POLITICO:  Absolutely.  And the candidates, none of the big, serious candidates, other than Tim Pawlenty, who is considered to be competitive, they haven‘t gotten in.  And so, obviously, if we‘re going to have a debate, we want to have the most important voices at that debate.  It could well be that next month, many of them will ramp up their exploratory committees.  But even then, they won‘t be they may not be official candidates by May.

So, we decided to put it off until we‘re certain we‘ll have the right folks up there on the stage.

TODD:  Now, four years ago, we had the very first debate.  It was in late April.  But at that time, all those candidates, John Heilemann, they were in the race for three months—

JOHN HEILEMANN, NEW YORK MAGAZINE:  Yes.

TODD:  -- by the time April came along.  And, frankly, these candidates talking to the campaigns behind the scenes, they‘re pretty glad that we changed this because they want some time to get their sea legs, their campaign sea legs, that the way this was going here, we‘re going to announce and suddenly feel this pressure to do this debate at the god—basically at the godfather‘s presidential library.  You know, they can‘t say no to Nancy Reagan.  So, they were going to have to do it and they were comfortable with it.  And, frankly, we would have a campaign to cover yet.

HEILEMANN:  Well, I frankly thought you guys were going to be a forcing function.  I actually thought that one of the things that was going to force a lot of candidates to make decisions was going to be your debate and a couple of the debates that were scheduled in May.

TODD:  There are about three of them.  You wonder if all of them are now going to move.

HEILEMANN:  Are now going to have to move.  I mean, it‘s—look, it‘s fascinating.  But, you know, Chuck, that nobody wants to get in earlier than they have to get in.  That‘s just the truth, right?  And, normally the thing that makes people get in early is the presence of a front runner.

So, you think about, back in 2008, you had

TODD:  You have somebody to change, right.

HEILEMANN:  Hillary Clinton and John McCain.  So, if you were Barack Obama and John Edwards, if you were any of the other Republicans, you wanted to get early because you thought the frontrunner will lock up all the talent, will lockup all the money.  This race does not have a real front-runner.

TODD:  Well, and you‘re not alone in this description.  Jim DeMint, Jeanne Cummings, said this to Dan Balz, “I think there are a number of strong candidates looking it and I think probably there will be more who are waiting to see what happens.”  And if there is no one who is an immediate front-runner, he thinks there will be a cast of new candidates in a few months, perhaps in September or October, these late-starters.

Well, if you got a Jim DeMint saying that, isn‘t that incentive to wait?

CUMMINGS:  Well, I‘m not sure.  I think it might be incentive to get in and try to establish yourself as the front-runner, because the race could indeed get very messy if you have many late entries.  And if you look at some of the names that are tossed around, Sarah Palin or Governor Christie, these are people who could raise money very fast and generate a lot of publicity and attention.  So, if you‘re serious about running, it may be to your advantage to get in now and start trying to lock down all that talent and do the fundraising and so you frighten some of these other people out.

TODD:  All right.  Jeanne Cummings and John Heilemann, you both staying with us because we‘re going to talk next about: is the Tea Party dropping in popularity?  There‘s some polling that indicates just that.

You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TODD:  We are back with Jeanne Cummings and John Heilemann for more politics.

Let‘s talk about the Tea Party.  I want to show you this poll number -

favorable, unfavorable ratings.  CNN/Opinion Research poll of the Tea Party—look at this, this is their worst ratio, they‘re upside down, 32 percent favorable, 47 percent unfavorable.

           

John Heilemann, though, as we‘ve noted in our own polling, there has always been this mix idea or even negative view of the Tea Party among both independents and Democrats, but among hardcore conservatives, they still love them.  If you‘re a Republican running for president, how do you deal with this conundrum where the Tea Party is turning off independent voters, but it‘s turning on primary voters?

HEILEMANN:  Very carefully—

TODD:  Yes.

HEILEMANN:  -- is the answer.  I mean, look, it‘s a real problem and as we—I think a lot of this has to be driven by this budget situation.  People in the country, independents and certainly a lot of Democrats look at the Tea Party as the cause of what could be a real meltdown at the federal level and they look at it and say, this is—you know, this is bad for the country and it‘s going to be hard for a lot of Republican candidates who are going to have to balance because they can‘t win the general election if they go too hard to that—fight too much to that constituency.

TODD:  Jeanne Cummings, do you think a Republican can win the nomination without any serious Tea Party support, which right now that‘s the case for Mitt Romney?  Or do they have to somehow straddle the fence between the establishment and the Tea Party?

CUMMINGS:  I do think they‘ve got to have some appeal to the Tea Party.  And if only if you look at some of the early statements, the Tea Party has a pretty strong presence in South Carolina, strong presence in Iowa.  If you just—and New Hampshire as well—if you just look at those states alone, you could see that it‘s really difficult in a multicandidate primary to manage to get through without having some support or some attraction.  Certainly, to go all the way to the nomination, I think they‘ve got to find a way to connect with these voters, even if they‘re just their default pick, you know, that their favorite.

TODD:  All right.  Jean Cummings, our partner for the Reagan Library debate over at Politico, John Heilemann, the master of game change.

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

For more politics ahead with Cenk Uygur.

           

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