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updated 6/24/2011 2:34:27 PM ET 2011-06-24T18:34:27

Guest Host: Ron Reagan

Guests: Jack Jacobs, Richard Wolffe, Julia Boorstin, Ezra Klein, Joe Williams, Fred Sainz, John Aravosis, Alex Wagner, Josh Marshall

RON REAGAN, GUEST HOST:  -- in Afghanistan.  Now what?

Let‘s play HARDBALL.

Good evening.  I‘m Ron Reagan in Seattle, sitting in for Chris Matthews.

Leading off: About last night.  President Obama‘s announcement of troop withdrawals from Afghanistan amounted to what David Corn last night called the Goldilocks approach—not too much, not too little.  As it turns out, it wasn‘t enough for the anti-war left and was too much for the neocon right.  The questions tonight: What do we hope to accomplish over the next three years with fewer troops?  And how does this play out for President Obama politically?

Also, President Obama says his views are “evolving” on the subject of gay marriage, but they have evolved into taking a states‘ rights position on a civil rights issue.  We‘ll be watching tonight when the president tries to square that circle as he meets with gay and lesbian supporters.

Plus, breakdown.  First, Eric Cantor dropped out of the debt reduction talks.  A short time later, another Republican, Senator Jon Kyl, said good-bye.  That leaves no Republicans in the talks right now.  The issue is taxes.  The Republicans refuse to even consider any tax increases, no matter how wealthy the individual.  Do these guys want to save the economy or their campaigns?

And are the Republicans trying to save Medicare or kill it?  It appears the Democrats are winning that message war, with a majority the of Americans saying they‘d be worse off under the Paul Ryan plan.  And Ryan‘s numbers are in the dumpster, too.

Finally, will the real John McCain stand up?  Does he or doesn‘t he believe the Arizona wildfires were set by illegal immigrants?  Well, it depends on whom you ask, John McCain or John McCain.

We start with the plan to withdraw from Afghanistan.  Retired colonel Jack Jacobs is a MSNBC military analyst and a recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor, and Richard Wolffe is an MSNBC political analyst.  Welcome to you both, gentlemen.

Richard, let me start with you.  President Obama seems to have upset just about everybody, Democrats—Nancy Pelosi said in a statement, “It‘s been the hope of many in Congress and across the country that the full drawdown of U.S. forces would happen sooner than the president laid out.”  Senator McCain said, “I‘m concerned that the withdrawal plan that President Obama announced tonight poses an unnecessary risk to the hard-won gains that our troops have made thus far in Afghanistan.”

And then John Boehner comes up and sort of supports the president. 

Here‘s House Speaker John Boehner on the president‘s Afghanistan plan.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE:  I am generally supportive of the plan because there is enough flexibility in the withdrawal to take into considerations conditions on the ground, and that is critically important, I think, for the long-term success there.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

REAGAN:  Maybe it was just the golf game together, Richard.

RICHARD WOLFFE, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  Right.

REAGAN:  Has Obama hit the sweet spot here by annoying everybody?

WOLFFE:  Well, if you can have a political sweet spot in a war, then this would be it.  For this president, the idea of splitting the difference, of having people on the left and the right attack you and then being somewhere in a reasonable middle, and that reasonable middle being shoulder-to-shoulder with his new golf buddy, who happens to be clashing with him on just about every other subject—that‘s exactly what he wants to be.

And of course that‘s there not just because of what the troops have done in Afghanistan, but of course, because the whole landscape has changed, politically at least, with Osama bin Laden being assassinated.  That was the gutsy move that underlines everything else.  It is the be-all and end-all when you look at the politics of it.

But remember, this is a president, although he has split the difference to a degree and is in that middle ground—he fundamentally doesn‘t agree with the generals‘ strategy here.  He does not think there‘s anything to transfer to.  This is the beginning of the end, as he said.

REAGAN:  Richard, is he making a strategic judgment here primarily, or do you think what was really going on was not purely, perhaps, but primarily political calculation?  And what is that political calculus for the president?

WOLFFE:  I don‘t think—look, White Houses always say politics don‘t play a role.  They‘re aware of the politics, but this is way too tough a decision and way too serious for a president to look at this—including this president, to look at this and say, I‘m going to deal with this just on where the polls are at.

When it comes down to this strategy, the White House, the president‘s view, has been it‘s not just “clear, hold and build,” as the military keeps saying, but it‘s “clear, hold, build and transfer.”

What is the political solution?  The politics of it in Afghanistan. 

And because that has failed repeatedly, there‘s no one to hand over to. 

That‘s where the president runs out of patience and says, Another 10 years?  What does that give us?  There are other things we‘ve got to do.  And that‘s where it is not a confidence question about the troops, it‘s confidence in the generals, and that‘s where the generals have come up short.

REAGAN:  Jack Jacobs, the president has proposed pulling out 10,000 troops by the end of this year, another—I guess, the rest of the 33,000 or so troops by the end of 2012, or autumn of 2012.  What does that do to our mission, such as it is, in Afghanistan, the reduction of that number of troops?

COL. JACK JACOBS, U.S. ARMY (RET.), MSNBC MILITARY ANALYST:  Well, “such as it is” is a good point.  I don‘t think it‘s going to change anything very much at all.  Afghanistan is a very fragmented country, and we are working in it as it is a fragmented and discontinuous patchwork.  Some areas, we‘re doing very well.  Other areas, we‘re going to ignore and go home.

At the end of the day, anybody who perceives that there is going to be a unified country centrally governed from Kabul, I think, is not paying very much attention.

And as far as the president‘s decision is concerned, he made a decision, a political one a long time ago when he was a candidate and said that he was going to focus on Afghanistan, and then when mission was done, when we won, we were going home.  He has defined winning as leaving.

This is not necessarily a bad thing because if you get any general inside a room and ask him to tell the truth, he‘ll tell you that we need 200,000 to 300,000 troops, and like General McChrystal said, an entire decade to work this out.  We don‘t have the political fortitude to go do something like that in any case.

REAGAN:  No, that‘s not going to happen.  And Jack, what is your sense of what the actual mission is?  Originally, we were supposed to go in and get Osama bin Laden.  Well, he left for Pakistan, and suddenly, we‘re in a sort of nation-building situation there.  What are we actually doing in Afghanistan now?

JACOBS:  Well, the general notion is that we‘re not—we‘re supposed to build an Afghanistan that can take care of itself and to keep the Taliban away from al Qaeda.  That‘s not going to be anything that can be accomplished very soon.

Don‘t forget that we ignored Afghanistan—after the Taliban was driven out, we ignored it for seven years before we started doing something significant there.  The result is that we‘re going to focus on developing small, little places inside Afghanistan and places that really matter, areas and districts that really matter in Kandahar and Helmand, up on the border with Pakistan, and not pay very much attention to anything else.

And while we‘re doing that, we‘re going to withdraw.  We‘re going to withdraw, leaving, we hope, an Afghan army and a police force that can defend itself and districts that can defend themselves, but we are leaving in any case, whether they can do the business themselves or not.

REAGAN:  Richard, Barack Obama, President Obama, is the guy who got Osama bin Laden, which should give him a lot of leeway as far as what he does, you know, subsequently in Afghanistan.  Has he taken full advantage of that leeway, do you think, with this move?

WOLFFE:  No, because I think if you‘re just talking about political leeway here, that‘s going to play itself out through the 2012 election.  And we‘re seeing this kind of confusion on the Republican side.  Just take a look at how Mitt Romney launched his campaign, trying to portray the president as weak and ineffective, but having to concede that the president deserves full credit for bin Laden‘s death.

Now, it‘s hard to say that this president has been somehow weak and yet also effective when it came to getting America‘s nemesis.  And that‘s where this Republican argument that the president is an apologist for America, or unfocused or indecisive, really doesn‘t stack up to what really breaks through in terms of public opinion.  He is the president who killed bin Laden.  Bush didn‘t do that.  Clinton tried to do that and didn‘t do it, either.

So that advantage has got to be played out in a graceful way, I would expect, from the White House.  They‘re not going to go out and wave flags about it, but it‘s got to play itself out through 2012.

REAGAN:  Jack, I don‘t personally believe that we‘re ever going to completely leave Afghanistan, at least not in the, you know, mid-term, let‘s say—maybe long term, years and years from now.  And I‘m wondering what the real strategic reason for us being there is.  I don‘t think that we‘re interested in building schools and bridges over there, primarily.  I think we perceive a strategic interest in having permanent bases, more or less permanent bases, in Afghanistan.  Does that have anything to do with the borders that Afghanistan shares with Pakistan and Iran?

JACOBS:  Well, there a lot of people who say, quite correctly in many respects, that the real reason for Afghanistan is Pakistan.  You could argue probably persuasively that Pakistan is the single most difficult problem—international security problem we have now.  It‘s going to pieces and it‘s not very friendly and it‘s got nuclear weapons.  Anything is liable to happen, and they don‘t give us very much help—a little bit, but they don‘t give us very much help in keeping the bad guys away.  And so that the reason we‘re hanging around there is Pakistan.

You could argue the other way around—the reason for Pakistan is Afghanistan, too.  There‘s no doubt about the fact that we‘re not going to leave there completely.  Even when a complete withdrawal is effected, you can expect that we‘re going to have about 20,000 people or maybe even more in Afghanistan—special forces, special operations forces, mobile training teams and the people who support them.

So we‘re not leaving completely.  And not only that, we‘re going to have—we‘re going to have bases, and we have long-term leases on bases in areas not far away.  I think you‘re right, we‘re not leaving the area.  Pakistan‘s a big problem, and I think our focus is going to be there long after whatever mission we started in Afghanistan is over.

REAGAN:  Richard, real quick.  The last of the announced withdrawal—withdrawn troops are going to be out sometime around the election next year, 2012.  Coincidence?

WOLFFE:  No.  I think the president wants to say, I kept two promises on two wars, said I‘d end combat operations in Iraq, and I kept true to my word on pulling out the surge troops in Afghanistan.  You know, this is going to be part of him saying he cleaned up the mess that Bush left behind.  It‘s not pretty, but it‘ll have to do for now.

REAGAN:  Well, guys, I‘m sure we‘ll be talking about this—if not with me, you‘ll be talking about this much more later on.  Thank you, Colonel Jack Jacobs and Richard Wolffe.

Up next: President Obama is in New York tonight holding a big fund-raiser in the gay community, but he says gay marriage should be decided by the states.  Will that be good enough for gays and lesbians who see marriage as a civil right?  That‘s ahead.

You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

REAGAN:  Mitt Romney‘s the Republican frontrunner, and a new poll confirms he‘s in strong shape among rank-and-file Republicans.  Fifty-nine percent of Republicans say they have a favorable view of Romney, versus just 16 percent who view him unfavorably.  And better news still for Romney -- 85 percent of Republicans polled said they want their presidential candidate almost entirely focused on economic issues, not social ones.

We‘ll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

REAGAN:  Welcome back to HARDBALL. 

President Obama heads to New York City tonight for a fund-raiser with lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender supporters as the state senate in Albany may be getting closer to a vote on same-sex marriage.  The president has said his views on gay marriage are evolving.  Is that enough to shore up support from the LGBT community?

Fred Sainz is a vice president of the Human Rights Campaign and John Aravosis is editor of Americablog.  Welcome to both of you.

Here‘s President Obama back in December, explaining how his views on gay marriage are changing.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  My views on this are constantly evolving.  I struggle with this.  I have friends, I have people that work for me, who are in powerful, strong, long-lasting gay or lesbian unions.  And they are extraordinary people and this is something that means a lot to them and they care deeply about.

At this point, what I‘ve said is, is that my baseline is a strong civil union that provides them the protections and the legal rights that married couples have.  And I think that—and I think that‘s the right thing to do.  But I recognize that from their perspective, it is not enough.  And I think this is something that we‘re going to continue to debate and I personally am going to continue to wrestle with going forward.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

REAGAN:  Fred, President Obama back in the 1990s apparently filled out a questionnaire in which he stated his support for marriage equality.  I don‘t want to call it gay marriage anymore because there‘s no such thing.  There‘s marriage and the question is whether everybody gets to participate or not, so marriage equality.  He supported it back in the ‘90s, but now he says his thinking is evolving.  Is it evolving or devolving, though?  He‘s now—he‘s now claiming that he wants a states‘ rights position on this civil right.  That‘s a little odd.

FRED SAINZ, HUMAN RIGHTS CAMPAIGN:  Well, Ron, I think the president has told us his position is evolving, and frankly, that is the case for much of the American public.  It‘s our job as advocates to continue to push that conversation and this dialogue on this issue forward, but to be respectful of Americans where they‘re at.

I think I think one of the reasons why the gay movement has been so successful is because we don‘t put barriers up when we continue to talk to Americans about important issues to gay equality.  I know from my own personal experience that, you know, the conversation that I had with my family about coming out was a very difficult one.  I didn‘t speak to my father for an awful long time.  So it is our inherent experience that you can‘t necessarily rush to demand wholesale change in the way in which people think about issues.

Do we want the president to support marriage equality?  To that there is absolutely no doubt.  Should we judge him based upon the entirety of his record as being not only the best president in the history of the United States on behalf of gay rights?  Absolutely.  He should be judged for the entirety of the way in which he‘s made this country a more just and equal society.

REAGAN:  But Fred, there‘s a difference between demanding that people do something about marriage equality and simply stating unequivocally your position and your preference in the matter.  And President Obama seems reluctant to do that.

SAINZ:  Well, no.  I mean, I think the position that he stated is one that he, like many Americans, fair-minded Americans, are struggling with this issue.  And we do want him to evolve to a position one day in which he fully embraces marriage equality.  Do we think that he should do so?  Do we think he should do so soon?  Absolutely.  But we view the glass as being really half-full.

This president has done so much in order to improve the lives of millions of gay Americans, and we think that he should be judged on the entirety of that record.  But make no mistake about it, we believe that there should be marriage equality this country.  We think that it‘s the just and equal thing to do.

In the short-term, though, that right will come by achieving marriage equality in states like New York.  It will come through state legislatures and governors doing the courageous thing and bringing marriage equality into place.  It will come through an electoral strategy in which we bring marriage into places in states like Maine.  And it will come through a judicial strategy in which cases are introduced that basically get rid of what we know to be discriminatory laws.

But, most importantly, it will come by continuing to change the hearts and minds of Americans.  And I think that that‘s where the president is at.  He has told us, like many fair-minded Americans have, that he is on a process of self-discovery, on an evolution in which he is struggling with this issue.

And we know, not just as gay Americans, but as Americans in general, that people truly do evolve eventually to positions of supporting our full equality.  And I think that‘s where the president is at right now. 

REAGAN:  All right, John, how do you feel about this?  Because I‘m a little confused about the whole evolution analogy here, because, on the one hand, back in the ‘90s, he had already evolved, then he devolved, then now he‘s evolving—he‘s re-evolving now. 

ARAVOSIS:  Right.  Right. 

REAGAN:  How do you read this? 

ARAVOSIS:  No, I mean, it is a problem, because actually there were not just one, but two questionnaires in 1996 that the president filled out and said, I am for, you know, same-sex marriage.  I will defend it. 

And now—not now—back in 2004, he was saying, well, no, I‘m not for same-sex marriage.  Now he‘s saying—or marriage equality—now he‘s saying he‘s coming along and evolving that way again.

It‘s—I think it‘s caused a conundrum for him, because people can tell he is playing politics.  And for gay and lesbian people, he is playing politics with our lives and with our civil rights.  I think his record has been OK to date.  It has not been as overwhelming as Fred states. 

What we have found is, on don‘t ask, don‘t tell, the president was willing to drag his feet and they were going to wait until 2011 actually to do the legislation until the activists spoke up and said, no way.  We‘re going to protest at the White House.  We‘re going to stand up at your speeches and yell at you.  And they did. 

And it got the president‘s attention.  Things finally moved at the last second before the Republicans took over the House.  On marriage, we are not yet equal as a community.  We not yet equal as Americans. 

And to tell people, well, you know, I‘m basically playing political games with your right to get married and someday I may come along, I think the president has a real problem tonight.  He is going to New York, where this marriage debate is happening right now.  We‘re talking in the next couple of hours, we could know whether New York will or will not legalize marriage for gay couples.

REAGAN:  Right. 

ARAVOSIS:  And he is going to address it, we heard from the White House today, but he‘s not going to say he is for it.

Well, I don‘t think people are going to accept this, cutting the baby in half. 

REAGAN:  A Gallup poll out this spring shows that views on gay marriage have reversed from last year.  Americans favor legalizing marriage equality, let me say that, 53-45 percent now, vs. the 53 percent who opposed marriage equality and 44 percent who supported it last year. 

(CROSSTALK)

REAGAN:  John, as a tactical matter, is it defensible for the president to think or—you know, and say to his advisers, look, if I get out front on this issue, any Republican who is willing to go along and do the right thing will instantly flip and come out in opposition to marriage equality simply because I‘m now the face of marriage equality?

Is there any sense in that reasoning? 

ARAVOSIS:  I don‘t think so, because, ironically, what we have seen over the last several years has been Republicans almost running away from the gay rights issue. 

On don‘t ask, don‘t tell, sure, you had John McCain complaining, his usual self, but what we saw is the Republicans really didn‘t have the stomach to do a filibuster.  And in the end, two Republicans ended up joining on and voting for don‘t ask, don‘t tell repeal who we didn‘t even expect.  It was sort of like, where did these guys come from? 

On marriage, you have already got Dick Cheney and a whole bunch of other Republicans who have said they are really fine with gay marriage, basically.  I think the president is in a good position.  As you said, two recent polls show a majority of the public on his side—or on our side, I should say, in terms of favoring marriage equality.

And, overall, what we have found, what this administration has found politically, which is I think what is most important, is, when they finally made movement on don‘t ask, don‘t tell, and when they finally made small movement on the Defense of Marriage Act, another law we wanted repealed, all of a sudden, they saw the floodgates open and gay money start to come back to them for the reelect. 

The gay community supposedly is the only community where this sort of spigot of fund-raising has been turned back on because the president made steps in the right direction  So I would argue it is politically to his benefit with the public, but also with the gay community, to be a little bit more our fierce advocate, which he had promised. 

REAGAN:  Fred, how does this play out?  Is the president going to pay any sort of price for, let‘s be honest, dragging his feet a bit on marriage equality and pay any price within the gay community for that next—next year? 

SAINZ:  Well, I guess I would make two observations.

The first is I think that it‘s important to understand that marriage is not the—the only priority to the gay community, far from it.  In 29 states in this country, you could still be fired for your sexual orientation and in 36 states for your gender identity. 

There are still a number of issues that we have as priority.  Our kids are still bullied.  There‘s still an awful lot of work to be done.  Change has always come first and foremost in the states for gay and lesbian people.  Issues of equality have always been advanced. 

So, in that sense, we will see when hopefully New York joins it, the sixth state today to have marriage equality, and then a number of states will also follow.  At the federal level, let‘s also forget that, you know, the defense—the so-called Defense of Marriage Act also has to be overturned. 

So, I think that—I think that this president is tremendously popular among gay people, for all of the hallmark changes, advancements that he has brought to our community.  And I think they take him at his word when they understand him to be evolving, because it is their own personal experiences from their family and friends to continue a respectful dialogue. 

Should and can the president do more?  Absolutely.  And that‘s—it‘s our jobs as advocates to continue pushing in that direction. 

ARAVOSIS:  Right, but—but—

(CROSSTALK)

SAINZ:  But I think we see the glass as being half-full, as opposed to half-empty. 

(CROSSTALK)

REAGAN:  All right.

(CROSSTALK)

REAGAN:  Hey, guys—

(CROSSTALK)

REAGAN:  OK.  Go.  Go ahead, John, real quick. 

(CROSSTALK)

ARAVOSIS:  No, I think—real quick—what I think you have learned with this president is, take him at his word, but trust but verify, as Ronald Reagan Sr. used to say. 

(LAUGHTER)

REAGAN:  Doveri no proveri (ph), as he used to say.

ARAVOSIS:  Yes, I could—I have got to learn it in Russia.

(LAUGHTER)

ARAVOSIS:  But the bottom line is meaning that, yes, accept what the politician is telling you, but you better hold his feet to the fire, because if you simply say, hey, I trust this guy, he‘s going to do it, he‘s not going to do it.

And I think President Obama has shown that time and again.  Who does he listen to most?  The Republicans and the conservative Democrats who hold his feet to the fire.  And now it‘s been the gay community because the activists did the same thing.

REAGAN:  All right, we are going to leave it there.

Thank you, Fred Sainz and John Aravosis. 

Up next:  Will the real John McCain please stand up?  Does he or does he not think the wildfires in Arizona were started by illegal immigrants? 

You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.  

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

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

First:  Will the real John McCain please stand up?  On Saturday, the Arizona senator said there is substantial evidence that some of the wildfires in his state are caused by illegal immigrants. 

Last night, Jon Stewart took Senator McCain, in puppet form, to task. 

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

JON STEWART, HOST, “THE DAILY SHOW WITH JON STEWART”:  Senator, it is nice to see you again. 

(LAUGHTER)

STEWART:  Thanks for coming back on the show. 

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR:  I‘m happy to be here.  Build the dang fence!

I never said immigrants started the fire.  I just said immigrants start fires. 

(LAUGHTER)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR:  There‘s substantial evidence that these fires were started by illegal aliens, which is not what I was saying, but it‘s true anyway, and now I‘m saying it!

(LAUGHTER)

STEWART:  So, you are saying—

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR:  No!  Stop misquoting me!

(LAUGHTER)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR:  Jon, you have to understand something.  Mexicans start fires.  They are fire starters.  I saw one eat a plate of habanero peppers and fart blue flame. 

(LAUGHTER)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR:  Immigrants are stealing my pills.  They‘re making my leg twitch.  They took my reading glasses.  And I haven‘t been able to see a damn thing for three weeks. 

(LAUGHTER)

STEWART:  Were your reading glasses like the ones that are hanging around your neck right now, or that—

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR:  Oh!  Now they‘re just (EXPLETIVE DELETED) with me.  Those bastards!

(LAUGHTER)

(APPLAUSE)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(LAUGHTER)

REAGAN:  He is sad, but, occasionally—the truth, frankly, is, that‘s not too far from the real thing. 

Next:  Did the wheels come off the bus?  Yesterday, RealClearPolitics reported that Sarah Palin‘s bus tour was in—quote—“limbo” as the family regrouped in Alaska.

That didn‘t sit well mama grizzly.  On Facebook last night—Where else? -- Palin said reports of her tour‘s demise are greatly exaggerated.  The reason for the hiatus?  Palin says she has jury duty. 

(LAUGHTER)

REAGAN:  She added that the tour would resume when the time comes. 

Oh, I can‘t wait. 

Now to tonight‘s “Big Number.”

Congressman Tim Johnson of Illinois is a big believer in retail politics.  How big?  His goal is to call every household in his district during each two-year term.  How many calls does that mean? -- 300,000.  That‘s about 400 calls per day.  Talk about personal touch -- 300,000 call, tonight‘s getting-to-know-you “Big Number.” 

And coming up:  House Majority Leader Eric Cantor walked out of the bipartisan debt reduction talks.  So did Senator Jon Kyl.  The issue?  Taxes.  Republicans say everything‘s on the table, but not tax increases. 

Are they really serious about a solution to our economic problems? 

You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.  

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

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

A dramatic reversal, as stocks clawed back from big losses to finish widely mixed, the Dow Jones industrials ending 59 points lower after being down more than 200 early in the session.  The S&P 500 shed 3, but the Nasdaq ended up adding 17, with the help from the P.C. hardware sector.

The markets started out slowly lower as investors digested Wednesday‘s comments from the Fed, the surprise jump in weekly jobless claims, festering concerns about a Greek debt default, and a huge drop in oil prices. 

The International Energy Agency will inject 60 million barrels of oil reserves into world markets, including 30 million from the U.S. Strategic Reserve.  That news sent oil prices tumbling, impacting energy companies across the board.  But the market started bouncing back on a report that Greece had finally reached a deal with the E.U. and IMF on a five-year austerity plan that includes more tax hikes and spending cuts. 

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

HARDBALL. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE:  I know the frustration that he feels when Democrat members continue to want to bring tax hikes into this conversation.  And I think Mr. Cantor has made it clear that these conversations could continue if they take the tax hikes out of the conversation. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

REAGAN:  Some interesting stuff there from John Boehner, who is in—has his differences with Eric Cantor, perhaps. 

Welcome back to HARDBALL. 

Today, the bipartisan budget talks led by Vice President Biden blew up when Republicans said that, unless tax increases were off the table, there would be no deal. 

Democratic Congressman Chris Van Hollen, who had been participating in the talks, had this to say. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. CHRIS VAN HOLLEN (D), MARYLAND:  Until our Republican colleagues are more concerned about the need to reduce the deficit than they are worried about what Grover Norquist will say, we are going to have a really difficult time. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

REAGAN:  Ezra Klein is a “Washington Post” columnist and MSNBC analyst.  Joe Williams is deputy White House editor for Politico. 

Welcome, gentlemen. 

Let me play a little bit of tape for you.  This is what my colleague, my sometime-colleague Lawrence O‘Donnell—he did an exclusive interview with Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi today that will air later this evening on “THE LAST WORD.” 

They talked, in part, about Eric Cantor walking out of the deficit talks.  Here it is. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, “THE LAST WORD”)

LAWRENCE O‘DONNELL, HOST:  Eric Cantor is saying he‘s walking out of the talks because the Democrats now want to talk about taxation, and he doesn‘t even want to talk about it.  He only wants to talk about spending cuts.

And then he says he wants the president to come out and talk about taxes.  In other words, the game he is playing is:  I‘m walking out to try to force the president to go out there and make a speech, saying, this is exactly how I want to raise your taxes, so then we Republicans can attack that. 

REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA), HOUSE MINORITY LEADER:  It is an interesting tack.

It doesn‘t happen to be valid, because the point is, is that we are willing to have a balanced package.  They‘re not.  They‘re not.  They don‘t want to talk about taxes.  You can‘t—but it is interesting that they—

I knew and we all said, what they are going to do is say, even though we can agree on certain cuts, you won‘t go for them unless we raise taxes for the American people. 

No, we are not.  We are just saying to make our tax system fair, so everyone pays their fair share. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

REAGAN:  Ezra, what sort of game are the Republicans playing here?  What is this tactic that they‘re using here?  What do they want to get out of it? 

EZRA KLEIN, MSNBC CONTRIBUTOR:  There are a bunch of them, it turns out.

So, obviously, at the first level, they just don‘t want to be for tax increases.  And it isn‘t because tax increases are that unpopular.  Tax increases, particularly on the rich, are extremely popular, one of the most popular things you can do to reduce the deficit.

It‘s just because, as a party, the place they‘re in right now, there are going to be no tax increases.  But what you didn‘t bring up from Cantor‘s statement is that he said—he didn‘t say, we couldn‘t have that conversation on taxes.  He said, John Boehner would have to be the one to have that conversation for the Republicans.

So, he basically said, if there‘s going to be a tax deal any Republican leadership is going to sign off on that, it ain‘t going to be me, it‘s going to be him.

And in terms of their dynamic and their competition, that was a very sort of telling move on his part.

REAGAN:  Yes, Joe, I want to ask both of you how you feel about this.  But is this really all about taxes as an ideological or practical issue, or is Eric Cantor realizing that at the end of the day, there is going to have are to be some sort of compromise by the Democrats on spending, by the Republicans on taxes, and he doesn‘t want to be the one to walk back a compromise to the House with tax increases in it, he‘d rather John Boehner take that heat?  What do you think, Joe?

WILLIAMS:  Well that‘s exactly—sort of reminds me of a moment where you had some people writing today that said this was a “take my ball and go home” moment for Eric Cantor.  But, really, it‘s more like, I don‘t want to take that last shot, John, you take the last shot, no, you take the last shot—because taxes, as Ezra mentioned, anathema to Republicans, and anybody with any sort of economic balance realizes that revenue has to increase along with spending decreases, not only politically, the—another level here is politically, the Republicans have to be able to sell that to their constituency, which is going to be really, really hard.

So, he is going to need some Democrats to come along for the ride on this particular boat.

So, I think it‘s a combination of both.  It‘s a combination the fact that Republicans don‘t want taxes on the table at all or at least don‘t want to talk about them, and tacitly acknowledging reality that this conversation has to occur.  And then, thirdly, talking about the need that the leadership actually has to make that decision and Eric Cantor is making his move on that.

REAGAN:  Eric—Ezra, sorry, is president—are the Republicans cognizant again that they are going to have to agree to some tax increases here?  But this—I mean, this is disastrous for them.  They are against all tax increases always.  So, how are they going to swallow this eventually?

KLEIN:  I don‘t know what their aim in this and I‘m not sure actually they do either.  A couple days ago, people were very confident about the talks, but then somebody told me something that has been very useful for me, he said watch if anybody goes public, because if they go public, if the disagreements break out, that means they‘re trying to spin failure.

So, now that McConnell and Kyl sent out a statement after Boehner and Cantor and really roasted Obama, that means they‘re sort of looking for this to fail now.  As for their strategy, there‘s not a whole lot they can do.  If the president comes out and says, “I am for letting the tax cuts or the top 2 percent expire,” they don‘t have a great answer to that.

The argument that McConnell is making, that Boehner is making, that we need to hear from the president, we‘ve heard from him.  He‘s put tax increases on the table.

The question now is what their response is.  And if there‘s no response, what they think is going to happen when the market panics because we‘ve not raised the debt limit.

REAGAN:  This business of the taxes, Joe, it seems irresponsible to not have tax raises on the table here.  Chuck Schumer and Richard Durbin, Democratic senators, have both came out yesterday and said that they believe that the Republicans actually want to tank the economy, basically, for political reasons.

Could that—could this be part of that larger strategy?

WILLIAMS:  It would be a really, really bad thing.  And it‘s kind of a dangerous game because you actually are talking about people‘s lives here.  I mean, it‘s ironic that this move happened the same day that Tom Harkin had a committee on Capitol Hill talking about the real economic stress that people are under, the fact that folks are feeding their kids cereal at dinner time because they can‘t make ends meet, that they‘re taking two or three jobs if they can find them.

So, it would be a really disastrous move on the Republicans‘ part, because already, polls indicate the public blame them or would blame them if the debt ceiling does not get raise and U.S. defaults on some of their obligations.  So, it‘s a dangerous game politically and it‘s a dangerous game to be toying with people‘s lives this way who are already hurting and to start raise the prospect that they could hurt even more because of some politics.

REAGAN:  Well, this story isn‘t going away.  I‘m sure we‘ll hear lots more about this.

Thank you, in the meantime, Ezra Klein and Joe Williams.

Up next, Republicans are paying the price politically for voting to end Medicare.  The architect of their plan, Paul Ryan, is now the third most disliked Republican in a new poll.

Are the Democrats finally winning the message war?

This is HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

REAGAN:  Congresswoman Michele Bachmann is set to launch her presidential campaign this coming Monday in the Iowa town where she was born, a place called Waterloo.  Certainly, a name more associated with endings than beginnings.  Then, on Tuesday, Bachmann completes the early states trifecta.  She‘ll head to New Hampshire before jetting down to South Carolina for a couple days of campaign events.

We‘ll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

NEWT GINGRICH ®, PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  I don‘t think right wing social engineering is any more desirable than left wing social engineering.  So, there are things you can do to improve Medicare -- 

DAVID GREGORY, MODERATOR, “MEET THE PRESS”:  But not what Paul Ryan is suggesting, which is completely changing Medicare.

GINGRICH:  I think that is too big a jump.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

REAGAN:  We are back.  That was Newt Gingrich driving himself right into a ditch last month.  He later apologized to Congressman Ryan and then denied he was ever talking about Paul Ryan in the first place.  Oh, Newt, Newt, Newt.

Newt‘s not the only one struggling with a Medicare message mess.  A new Bloomberg poll shows just how much trouble the House Republican stirred up by passing Paul Ryan‘s budget plan that would end Medicare as we know it.

Fifty-seven percent of Americans say the plan would make them worse off than they are now, 55 percent say a candidate‘s support for that plan makes the idea of voting for that candidate less attractive.

And on a personal level, Congressman Ryan has a net negative rating now, 26 percent unfavorable and 23 percent favorable.  Maybe the only bright spot there is that 51 percent of us still don‘t know who he is.

Did Republicans really shoot themselves in the foot on this one?

“The Huffington Post‘s” Alex Wagner is an MSNBC political analyst and Josh Marshall is the founder and editor of “Talking Points Memo.”

Josh, I have been saying that this is an historic, gigantic political blunder by the Republicans, tipping their hand to the fact that they still want to destroy Medicare.  Would you agree with that?

JOSH MARSHALL, TALKING POINTS MEMO:  Absolutely.  I mean, you know, the polls speak for themselves.  You see it‘s already gotten a lot of attention out in, you know, districts around the country.

The big question in my mind is: is how much the Democrats are really going to grab on to it, both as a substantive policy issue, but also as a political issue?  And you see, you know, going back to your last segment in those budget negotiations, one of the things that‘s not being talked about that much is that what Republicans are trying to do is they‘re trying to force the Democrats to sign on to not exactly the same kind of Medicare cuts, but substantial Medicare cuts themselves.

And if they do that, then the issue politically will be really blunted.  And, you know, Republicans have a big political motive to getting some big Medicare cuts into whatever this global debt deal is, because, again, then they will be sort of the hook going into 2012, about passing this Ryan budget, which is, as you said, basically ends Medicare altogether.

REAGAN:  Alex, as Josh suggested, is that the way that the Democrats will snatch defeat from the jaws of victory here, by agreeing to ill-considered Medicare cuts that the Republicans will then turn around and blame them for in the next election, even though the Republicans insisted on the cuts in the first place?

ALEX WAGNER, THE HUFFINGTON POST:  You know, it‘s political chess.  And there is absolutely a long time between now and 2012.  The Democrats have done themselves disservice before.  But I think it‘s inarguable to say that, you know, President Obama accused the GOP of driving the country into a ditch.  Well, right now, the Republicans are driving themselves into a ditch, much like you said earlier at the top of the show.

This is, for—I mean, I think, you have to compliment the Democrats on the fact that they moved very quickly on messaging with this.  I mean, as soon as that budget was passed, it was really swift, really severe messaging around what the Republicans had planned vis-a-vis Medicare.  And I think, you know, it comes as no surprise that the country is upset and angry about this.

But I think the telling part is that independents are really looking at this as a bad thing.  I mean, you have not only independent support for Democrats handling Medicare, but you have general support for Obama‘s health care plan and now, you have really unfavorable numbers as far as what Ryan‘s trying to do with Medicare.

REAGAN:  Alex, Josh, for your edification, here‘s Donald Trump on the House Republican‘s plan a couple of weeks ago.  Everybody‘s getting in on this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, CEO, TRUMP ORGANIZATION:  Paul Ryan‘s plan—the timing of this plan was so bad, I happen to think the concept was bad also.  It almost seems as though the Republicans have a death wish.  When they tamper with Medicare—which happens to be a good program, but there‘s lots of fraud and waste, which we should take care of.  But when they tamper with Medicare, they have a death wish.

This is not going to happen.  And, frankly, I would protect Medicare.  It‘s not going to happen.  You can‘t win an election if you‘re going to be playing games with Medicare.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

REAGAN:  Josh, do the Democrats really have to do too much to capitalize on this?  I mean, even Republicans are, you know, trashing Ryan‘s plan.  Can they just kind of stand out of the way and let the Republicans shoot at each other?

MARSHALL:  You know, to a significant degree, yes.  But, I mean, politics is not an engine that runs of itself.  You really do have to make the case.

And, you know, separate from that—again, if Democrats get hoodwinked into passing really huge Medicare cuts themselves, that will genuinely sort of make it not a clear issue.  The Democrats aren‘t going to be in much of a position to say that the Republicans want to add Medicare if the Democrats have just signed on for dramatic cuts to Medicare.  I mean, you know, you need a message that‘s somewhat coherent.

Having said all that, look, this isn‘t rocket science.  It shouldn‘t surprise us.  Medicare is an extremely popular program.

That‘s not always clear inside Washington, but, again, this is sort of like, you know, coming out with a plan to get rid of apple pie.  It‘s only surprising inside Washington, D.C. that you pass a bill with, you know, a few minutes of debate that ends Medicare, even the ends Medicare as we know it is, you know, sort of excessive rhetoric.  It gets rid of Medicare, which is a single-payer plan, and gives you vouchers.  That‘s ending Medicare.  It should surprise us that overwhelmingly, the public is against it.

REAGAN:  It turns out people actually like their socialized medicine.

Hey, Alex Wagner and Josh Marshall, stick around.  We‘ll be right back to have a little bit more conversation.

You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

REAGAN:  We‘re back with Alex Wagner of “The Huffington Post” and Josh Marshall, “Talking Points Memo”—two sites I visit almost every day, by the way.

Here‘s a little bit more from the Bloomberg poll.  Two-thirds of the American public favor means testing to preserve Medicare.  About half favor new limits on Medicare coverage.  And 41 percent favor higher payroll taxes here.

Guys, and—Josh, to you first.  I‘m always struck when we have these discussions about Medicare, that it seems to start with money.  You know, how much is this going to cost, and are patients using too much medical care, and things like that.  Should that be the first question we ask when we‘re talking about health care in America?  Or should the question be more, how do we provide all our citizens with state of the art health care?

MARSHALL:  I think it has to be both.  I mean, you know, I don‘t think there‘s any question that this is, you know, it has to be partly about money.  I think the issues are, you know, really how much the risk and the burden is spread out through society, both on the revenue side and on the youth side.

You know, I don‘t—I don‘t think the money issue is one we can ignore.  The real, you know—there‘s a difference between Medicare and Social Security in terms of the national budget.  Medicare really is growing very quickly.  And the reason is not so much Medicare.  Health care costs are growing that quickly.  And it really does endanger the whole national economy.

The question is, is whether you can come up with ways to, as the policy geeks say, you know, bend the cost curve, get it to not grow quite as quickly.  And if you want to talk about something that a national challenge, a challenge the country really does have, that‘s one of them right here.  Just taking it and sort of fobbing the costs all of on people over 70, that‘s just ducking the real issue.

REAGAN:  Alex, a quick last word?  We got 10 seconds.

WAGNER:  Well, I think what this does is it forces the larger conversation about the American social compact and that‘s something where Democrats are going to stand really strong in a period of high unemployment and economic woes, you know?  This is good for them.

REAGAN:  All right.  Thank you, Alex Wagner and Josh Marshall.

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

More politics ahead with Cenk Uygur.

           

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