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updated 1/22/2014 10:37:03 AM ET 2014-01-22T15:37:03

HARDBALL
January 21, 2014

Guests: Stan Brand, Michael Tomasky, Clarence Page


CHRIS MATTHEWS, MSNBC HOST: When does political hardball cross the line?

Let`s play HARDBALL.

Good evening. I`m Chris Matthews out in San Francisco.

Let me ignite things tonight with this statement by the former New Jersey
attorney general and former U.S. attorney Robert Del Tufo, that prosecutors
may be looking at a RICO charge against the office of Governor Chris
Christie.

Is this real? Is there a case that the pattern of politics here, evident
in the bridge closings, the possible denial of hurricane relief money to
Hoboken, the accusations by a Democratic sheriff of interfering with a
judicial proceeding in Hunterdon County, constitutes evidence of a criminal
enterprise?

Is this what led federal authorities to interview Mayor Dawn Zimmer? Is
this a federal charge that Would hold up to jury scrutiny, even a grand
jury? Is playing rough to build up your reelection vote possibly a pattern
of action that could be incriminating? Is running for president itself in
this case a criminal enterprise?

Well, the RICO statute, signed into law by Richard Nixon in 1970, allows a
person to be charged for actions which he did not personally commit. It is
used by prosecutors to reach someone who masterminds a criminal enterprise
without committing the actions himself or herself.

Again, can it be said that a governor whose people shut down traffic lanes
out of vengeance, who allegedly shut down the flow of hurricane money out
of reprisal, who maybe have interfered with a judicial proceeding to help
friends and punish prosecutors constitute criminal enterprise?

According to a former New Jersey attorney general and U.S. attorney, as I
said, this could be the Garden State trail that federal agents are now
pursuing. Our question tonight, when does hardball politics become a
crime? And is the behavior of the New Jersey governor and his tainted
political crew such a case?

Michael Isikoff`s the NBC News investigative correspondent, and Stanley
Brand is a former -- or actually, current public corruption lawyer. He was
general counsel to the U.S. House of Representatives.

Michael Isikoff, what do you make of what`s been said now by Del Tufo, the
former U.S. attorney and former attorney general, about a possible RICO
statute investigation?

MICHAEL ISIKOFF, NBC CORRESPONDENT: Things in the last few days have
gotten much more serious for Governor Christie. The allegations from the
Hoboken mayor, the fact that the U.S. attorney calls her in on a Sunday, on
a holiday weekend, to take her story and lock her in, and then today having
the assembly and the senate join together in a super-committee that`s going
to issue subpoenas and pursue the trail -- all that makes it very difficult
for the governor, and he`s you know, got real trouble ahead.

But you know, I think we`re a long way from a federal prosecutor naming his
entire administration or governorship a criminal enterprise. There are
still huge chapters in this that are blank. We don`t know why those bridge
closures were really ordered in the first place and who ordered them. We
don`t know if there is a connection behind the -- to the Hoboken matter.
We don`t even know in the Hoboken matter what the motivation there was. We
know that the project at issue was the Rockefeller Group, represented by
David Samson, one of the governor`s most closest political advisers. Were
there representations by Samson to the governor? Was he urging?

I mean, these are all matters of speculation at this point. But you know,
look, we`re -- you know, clearly, there`s a lot more we have to learn
before we can make the kind of leaps that you`re making there.

MATTHEWS: Well, it`s not my leap. Let`s listen to what Mr. Del Tufo had
to say earlier today on MSNBC.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ROBERT DEL TUFO (D), FMR. U.S. ATTORNEY, FMR. NJ ATTORNEY GENERAL: It
seems as if more things are popping up, and I wouldn`t be surprised if
there were a potential RICO case here, that the enterprise would be the
governor`s office or the state of New Jersey and the predicate offenses
would involve "bridge-gate," that would involve Hoboken and that would also
involve Hunterdon County, which is something that has not been addressed
very clearly.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Well, let me go to Stan Brand on this. Stan, what jumps out at
me after looking at these cases -- again, I always say this not being a
lawyer, and you are, and very familiar with these kinds of cases -- the
Hunterdon case, if it`s true that the governor`s people used muscle to
knock out a prosecution, then fired all the prosecutors because they were
protecting some friends of theirs, that seems to be a more grievous
situation and involving political muscle.

And maybe it does fit into a RICO statute. If you can`t trace to it the
governor himself fingering these actions, you got to look at a pattern.
What`s your experience tell you? I know you had the Rostenkowski case.
You`ve seen cases that you don`t think should have been brought, perhaps,
as a defense attorney. What do you make of Del Tufo`s reference to RICO?

STAN BRAND, FMR. COUNSEL, HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES: Overblown and
premature. It`s fun to spin those out. RICO, whatever you say, however
broadly it`s written, requires what we call predicate offenses -- that is,
a state or federal law that has been violated with sufficient criminal
intent to engage that statute.

I`m not sure I know what the crime is yet in this case. It may be that the
promises to the -- or threats of withholding federal moneys to the mayor in
Hoboken constitute the violation of an old Title 18 statute coming from the
1880s. There may be other statues at play. But to talk about RICO at this
stage I think is way over the top.

MATTHEWS: Isn`t it used to try to reach someone who doesn`t have
fingerprints on any particular act? Isn`t that how it`s used?

BRAND: It has been used that way. But as I say, there still have to be
crimes and there have to be crimes recognized on federal and state law
before one can invoke that statute.

By the way, whether Governor Christie is as insulated from all of this as
he says he is, is yet to be determined. That`s what the state
investigative committee is going to look at and that`s what the U.S.
attorney is going to look at. Remember, 17 subpoenas for his staff and the
Port Authority staff have been issued, and those people haven`t been heard
from yet.

MATTHEWS: Well, how would you defend a client if -- let me go back to the
issue of criminality here because you`re the lawyer. If it were
established by tape recording or whatever, by credible witness, that there
was a message delivered by the lieutenant governor, Guadagno, to Mayor
Zimmer that if she didn`t play ball on the Rockefeller project on the
waterfront there, she wouldn`t get any more federal money from the state --
I mean more state money -- would that be -- if that were determined to be a
fact, you`re saying that wouldn`t be criminal?

BRAND: Right. I would defend that the same way I defended on your show
when they promised Joe Sestak a job to get him out of the race against
Arlen Specter. It`s political maneuvering. Not every political maneuver,
not every hardball political threat is a crime.

MATTHEWS: Right. But how about denial of appropriate federal funding --

BRAND: Yes.

MATTHEWS: -- that would otherwise be due?

BRAND: Yes, that could cross the line. That could be a problem, if that
occurred.

ISIKOFF: But look, Chris, what you`re --

MATTHEWS: Well, that`s what I`m asking. That`s the case here. That`s the
matter here.

Back to Michael. That is the matter. These are all allegations and only
at that stage. But if these are proven, what are we talking about here, if
not RICO? What are we talking about?

ISIKOFF: Well, we could -- look, I mean, there could be multiple crimes.
But normally, what the FBI would have wanted in a case like this is, after
-- after the lieutenant governor made the statements that Dawn Zimmer said
she made, would have been for Dawn Zimmer to come to the FBI and they`d
wire her and then follow it through and get it on tape and be able to prove
it, and then show that there`s some nexus. That`s the way they would want
to make a federal case.

I don`t think they`ve got that here. So then the question is, what do the
records show? What do the documents show? Are they going to be able to
show that there was -- that there was a clear effort by the governor`s
office to get this project approved after getting communications from David
Samson or other people on behalf of the Rockefeller Group? And we don`t
know if they exist at this point.

BRAND: And the U.S. attorney, a Democratic appointee, is not going to
bring a RICO case based on a swearing contest between the lieutenant
governor and the mayor of Hoboken. He`s going to want what we lawyers call
corroboration. Is there contemporaneous evidence that substantiates and
will allow them to prove in front of a jury beyond a reasonable doubt that
these things actually occurred?

MATTHEWS: Well, let`s go to that point. Let`s go to that point, Stan. If
you have a diary entry which is scribbled in a diary and can be ascertained
to be authentic by experts in real time, as you say, a contemporaneous
corroboration, that stands up against an obviously self-interested denial.

Clearly, people are always going to deny their guilt. But here we have --
we`re looking at it right now. How do you ignore -- you say it`s just a
swear versus swear. I`d like to be on the side of the person who has the
diary entries against somebody who`s covering their butt.

BRAND: Right. And the diary would have to be -- believe me, the FBI will
look very hard forensically at that diary --

MATTHEWS: Right.

BRAND: -- to try to establish that it was written at the time. And if
it is, that`s very good corroborating evidence.

MATTHEWS: Well, I`m going back to the points at issue here. Again, you`re
the lawyer. If you can say that federal funding was denied somebody which
was appropriately due them, and you can produce corroborating evidence,
contemporary testimony in the form of a diary entry, don`t you have a
pretty good case to take to a grand jury in that instance?

BRAND: If you have those things, yes.

MATTHEWS: Well, you got them!

ISIKOFF: Well, no. What`s missing here, Chris, is that the Christie
administration did deny funds to Hoboken as a result of her refusal to
approve that project. It may exist, but look, they`ve pushed back very
hard on that. They say that Hoboken was getting its fair share of funds,
but what she was asking for there was about one third of all available
state resources.

So I`m not saying they`re right, and there`s still a lot we`re trying to
piece together about what really happened here. But all I`m saying is that
we`re missing a lot of pieces yet.

MATTHEWS: OK, let`s go -- let`s go to the house. Let`s go to the big
development today. The house and the senate in Trenton have done something
a lot of people were worried they`d wouldn`t do. They`ve combined forces.
They`ve formed a joint committee of the house in the senate legislative
investigative committees there. It`s called a super-committee. They`ve
got the same guy, Reid Schar, who`s this top flight guy coming in from the
Fitzgerald case -- or actually, the Blagojevich case out in Illinois, which
he won that prosecution.

Let me go to Stan. Does this look like an important development that
they`ve combined their legislative forces here?

BRAND: Big-time because you know, Chris, from working in the Congress,
when you have competition and rivalries between two chambers` investigative
committees, you have problems. So it`s much better for them to try to
coordinate and get together on this than be rival groups competing with one
another.

ISIKOFF: But at the end of the day, Chris, they`re going to be entirely
dependent on the documents and the e-mails --

MATTHEWS: I know.

BRAND: -- because given the U.S. attorney`s investigation, every key
witness, at least those who are not in office, and there`s a lot of them
right now, they`re going to take the same step Wildstein took, which is to
invoke their 5th Amendment privileges.

MATTHEWS: Well, what about the pattern now --

ISIKOFF: We`re not going to get live testimony.

MATTHEWS: What do you make of Bridget Kelly thinking that her own Gmail,
her own private AOL account, whatever it was, would somehow protect her
from subpoena, Michael? It seems to me that -- if that`s a continual
problem within these people, you`re going to see a lot of e-mail reaching
the jury here.

ISIKOFF: Well, actually, we`ve already seen a lot of these e-mails. And
in Bridget Kelly`s, it was Yahoo account. Every time they were discussing
the brass-knuckle political tactics that they were using, they switched
from their official accounts to their private e-mail accounts. And you see
that in a pattern in all the e-mails we`ve seen to date.

So look, that shields them from an open records request, but it doesn`t
shield them from subpoena. That`s how we got these e-mails. And look,
it`s clear there`s going to be a lot more because we have a lot more
subpoenas out. And I suspect we will be seeing a lot more.

But whether we`re going to get to the bottom of it because we won`t have
that live testimony before the committee because of the reason I mentioned
before, the 5th Amendment.

MATTHEWS: Stan Brand, last question to you. How many -- how high quality
of legal talent is he going to need, the governor here, to face all the
myriad charges, an investigative committee? He`s got the U.S. attorney
there. He`s got -- I don`t know what he`s got from the United States
Senate, but he`s certainly got the Trenton people after him. He`s going to
need one hell of a legal team.

BRAND: Well, you know, he was a U.S. attorney himself, so he should be an
excellent judge of what kind of legal talent he needs. And I assume he
will do that at some point.

ISIKOFF: And by the way, Chris, David Samson has retained Mike Chertoff,
the former U.S. attorney in Newark, former Homeland Security secretary, and
he just today retained another major super-lawyer in New Jersey, very close
to New Jersey Democrats. That`s for dealing with the legislature.

MATTHEWS: OK, thank you so much, Michael Isikoff. The case (ph) brew (ph)
continues. Stan Brand, as always, sir.

Coming up: How bad does the Republican Party need Chris Christie? Well, as
bad as it gets. Polls have consistently shown that he, Christie, is the
only one who can give Hillary Clinton a fight for the presidency. So what
do they do, the Republicans, if they can`t weather this storm and this
guy`s not up for it anymore?

Plus, President Obama`s candid and rare comments about race in this
country. The president said that there`s no doubt some Americans don`t
like him because they don`t like the idea of a black president. He just
said that. He also said some voters give him the benefit of the doubt
because he is African-American.

Well, it`s unusual talk from the president, who generally shies away from
the topic, as we know. Anyway, Mr. Obama said he might not be the big
change president people thought he`d be, an actually, he promised to be.
He`s now talking like he`s ready to tee things up for Hillary already in
2016.

Finally, "Let Me Finish" with Sarah Palin`s sinister remarks about the
president playing the race card.

And this is HARDBALL, the place for politics.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MILISSA REHBERGER, NBC ANCHOR: I`m Milissa Rehberger. Former Republican
governor Bob McDonnell of Virginia and his wife have been indicted on
corruption charges. McDonnell and his wife were charged in federal court
today. Authorities say they illegally accepted gifts, vacations and money
from Jonnie Williams, a wealthy Richmond businessman who wanted special
treatment from the state government. McDonnell denies those charges, and
here`s what he said just a short time ago.

BOB MCDONNELL (R), FMR. VIRGINIA GOVERNOR: I have apologized for my poor
judgment, and I accept full responsibility for accepting these legal gifts
and loans. However, I repeat again emphatically that I did nothing illegal
for Mr. Williams in exchange for what I believed was his personal
friendship and his generosity. I never promised and Mr. Williams and his
company never received any government benefit of any kind from me or from
my administration.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

REHBERGER: McDonnell left office when his term ended earlier this month.
He was succeed by Democrat Terry McAuliffe.

Back to Chris Matthews and HARDBALL after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL. New Jersey governor Chris Christie,
even politically wounded, could represent the Republicans` best shot at
electability in the 2016 presidential race. The headline of Michael
Tomasky`s DailyBeast article sums it up neatly -- "How bad does the GOP
need Chris Christie? Really bad."

And a brand-new Quinnipiac poll hammers home the point. In a hypothetical
head-to-head between Hillary Clinton and Chris Christie, even today,
Clinton beats the New Jersey governor by just 8 points, 46 to 38. But a
month ago, before the dam broke on Christie`s problems, the two were
virtually tied, with actually Christie up by a point, 42-41.

But even after a brutal couple of weeks, Christie still fares better
against Clinton -- remember this -- better against Clinton than any other
Republican prospect polled by Quinnipiac. Hillary Clinton beats Senator
Rand Paul by 10, 49-39. She beats former governor Jeb Bush by 11, an extra
point, 49-38. She beats Senator Ted Cruz by 15, 50 to 35.

Joining me right now, the DailyBeast`s Michael Tomasky and the great
HuffingtonPost editor-in-chief (sic), Howard Fineman, who`s also an MSNBC
analyst.

Let me start to Michael and we will get to Howard quickly.

This is astounding. The weakness of this bench is so strong. They have
got like one power point producer out there, and that`s Christie, and
nothing behind him except horizontal middleweights.

MICHAEL TOMASKY, THE DAILY BEAST: Yes, it`s really true.

And, you know, you didn`t even go through the whole field. But there are
other people who poll even worse. And the one that I`m most surprised by,
Chris, of that whole bunch is Jeb Bush. You would think Jeb Bush would
have a little bit better numbers than that. He is not way out there on the
crazy fringes like some of the rest of those guys. And he did a
respectable job as a governor of a huge state. But he is down there too.

And Clinton is close to or at 50 percent against all the rest of them. So
those are real danger signs for the Republicans. So they`re praying that
Christie can somehow limp his way through this.

MATTHEWS: Howard, you look at history of the Republican Party, and it`s
almost like the Democrats have taken the Republican Party methodology.
There is a Hillary Clinton waiting. It`s going to be her turn. She is
going to get it.

HOWARD FINEMAN, NBC CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Right.

MATTHEWS: For all our lifetimes, since we have grown up since we were
kids, you and I, the Republican Party has followed that pattern.

FINEMAN: Yes.

MATTHEWS: Nixon was on the ticket every year from `52 to `72 except for
one year. From `52 to 2004 or something or something, you had a Bush, a
Nixon, Bush or a Dole on the ticket in every year but one. They don`t mess
around with strangers.

The new kid on the basketball court is never going to get in the game. But
now they`re going to have to put a new kid in the game, if it`s not
Christie.

FINEMAN: Yes, I agree with you, Chris.

I think the two parties have reversed identities on this. The Democrats
have the royalty in waiting, which is Hillary Clinton, as you said. And as
Michael said, the shocking numbers really is about Jeb Bush. I would
normally say OK, who cares about Chris Christie? You have got Jeb Bush in
reserve.

MATTHEWS: Yes.

FINEMAN: He is from the ultimate swing state of Florida. He`s fluent in
Spanish. He is married to a Latina. He`s got a wonderful family. He has
-- as Mike said, he did a pretty good job as governor. He would be
perfect.

But I think that that sort of method of doing things has ended in the
Republican Party, which is now a sort of Tea Party mentality party
constantly trying to kick over establishments, constantly looking for new
answers, constantly desperate to try to think outside the box.

And the thing that was good about Christie before he got in trouble was
that in some respects, he was a traditional sort of moderate Northeast
Republican governor in a blue state, and yet his style was insurgent. His
style was the outsider style. He was a new kind of politician, outside the
box, you know, new thinking. And that was a great combination. Now the
Republicans don`t have anybody like that.

MATTHEWS: Well, let`s take a look, Mike. You sum up -- Mike, you sum up
the Republicans` 2016 problem this way -- quote -- "The fact that the GOP
establishment needs to come face-to-face with is that they have no one to
blame for this but themselves. They have reached the point where they
almost have to have a Northeasterner like Christie to run for president,
just as they had to settle for Romney last time. They have let their party
go so far off the deep end that practically no Republican officeholder from
any other region of the country could appeal to enough moderates in enough
purple and blue states to win back the territory the party ceded to the
Democrats the last two elections."

So this is ironic. The party that is based in the South and in the Rocky
Mountains needs a Northeasterner to win.

TOMASKY: It is. And it`s really interesting to me.

And, you know, this math is really something that everybody ought to know.
The Republicans come in -- whoever their nominee is, whether it`s Chris
Christie or, you know, Bobby Jindal, the Republicans come in to a
presidential race with a basically more or less solid of 206 electoral
votes of the states they have won in recent elections. The Democrats come
in to any election, whether it`s Hillary Clinton or somebody else, with a
more or less solid 257 electoral votes.

That leaves five swing states on the table, Florida, Ohio, Virginia,
Colorado, Nevada, and the Democrats only 13 shy of 270. So the Republicans
have a lot of heavy lifting to do, whoever these two personalities are,
Chris. They have a long way to go. They start from a really bad deficit
numerically in the Electoral College.

MATTHEWS: There is a couple of things, Howard. I notice who has been out
defending Christie. It`s the ethic guys of the Northeast, guys where you
and I grow up. They sort of identify with that Republican, Grimm, of
course, of course, from Staten Island and Giuliani and people like that.

I haven`t heard from Peter King yet, but it`s sort of Northeastern people
that became Republicans in the last 30 years, maybe one generation. And
the other thing I have noticed is that Jeb Bush isn`t going anywhere
because I don`t think he hates. I think you got to have -- maybe not be a
hater. That`s a strong word. You have to have some edge in your politics.

FINEMAN: Right.

MATTHEWS: And I don`t think he`s got that edge that appeals to the Tea
Party people, that edge of anger about the way things are.

FINEMAN: Right. That`s right. Yes, Jeb doesn`t have the accusatory style
that you need.

MATTHEWS: Yes.

FINEMAN: And that`s what was such a good combination about Christie, what
still is a good combination about him, the sort of moderate -- to some
extent moderate politics and the sort of outsider accusatory edge.

The problem the Republicans have isn`t just the Electoral College, although
it is that, as Michael said. It`s also related to demography. Chris
Christie in his inaugural address today talked about reaching out to
Hispanics, to other people.

But he is going to be tied down with investigations all over the place. On
paper, that`s what was good about Jeb Bush.

MATTHEWS: Yes.

FINEMAN: And because of the Bush family`s history of being able to woo and
win Hispanic votes. The Republicans` other problem here is that they`re
appealing to a dwindling majority, soon to be a minority, of white voters.

And you describe those people in the Northeast, Chris. Those were the
Reagan Democrats of a generation ago. Chris Christie is sort of like the
son of the Reagan Democrats.

MATTHEWS: Right. Right.

FINEMAN: But those -- there are fewer and fewer of those people to appeal
to. And that`s the other problem that the Republicans have.

MATTHEWS: OK. Howard, great thinking here. Michael Tomasky, great piece.
I think it shows the stakes of what we have been talking about the last
couple of weeks, the vitality, the importance, of course, of Governor
Christie to the Republicans.

Coming up, the pop star who is dying to ask President Obama about
extraterrestrial life. Well, that should grab you. And that is coming up
where it belongs, in the "Sideshow."

And this is HARDBALL, the place for politics.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: Back to HARDBALL and time for the "Sideshow."

First lady Michelle Obama celebrated her 50th birthday with a party at the
White House over the weekend. While the star-studded event included the
likes of Beyonce, Paul McCartney, the Clintons and Stevie Wonder, the White
House enforced a strict no-photographs rule, requiring all guests to check
their cell phones at the door.

Luckily for us, Jimmy Fallon had the scoop.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "LATE NIGHT WITH JIMMY FALLON")

JIMMY FALLON, HOST, "LATE NIGHT WITH JIMMY FALLON": Actually, the party
went on all the way to 2:00 a.m. on Saturday, which explains why on Sunday
Barack expanded health care to include Gatorade and Tylenol.

(LAUGHTER)

FALLON: I guess they partied pretty hard because the president is actually
getting a lot of attention over this new interview where he seems to be
changing his stance on marijuana.

He said -- that`s right. He said that marijuana is no more dangerous than
alcohol.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

FALLON: And he said, in fact, I know this one guy used to smoke tons of
weed, and he ended up president -- or let`s just say he did fine.

(LAUGHTER)

FALLON: He did really well.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

FALLON: I say too much?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: And check out Michelle Obama`s newly released Let`s Move promo
with players from the Miami Heat.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Drinking water is an important part of my pregame
routine, so I can stay focused and refreshed.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You can take it from me. Eating the right foods can
help make you a better athlete.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: And, finally, pop star Katy Perry is taking credit for winning
the state of Wisconsin for President Obama in 2012. In an upcoming article
in "GQ" magazine, the singer probably took a bit more than her share of the
credit before backtracking.


Quote: "I might have won Wisconsin for him. Actually, I didn`t do too
much, but he called on me a couple times, which was very nice."

But there`s an even wackier twist. She also said she wants to ask
President Obama about the existence of extraterrestrial life. Quote: "I
believe in a lot of astrology. I believe in aliens. I look up into the
stars and I imagine how self-important we are to think that we are the only
life form. I mean, if my relationship with Obama gets any better, I`m
going to ask him that question. It just hasn`t been appropriate yet."

Well, I somehow doubt that`s ever going to happen.

Anyway, up next, President Obama does something he doesn`t often do. He
talked about race. And that`s ahead.

You`re watching HARDBALL, the place for politics.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MILISSA REHBERGER, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT: I`m Milissa Rehberger. Here`s
what`s happening.

The massive winter storm punishing the East Coast could leave behind a foot
of snow in some areas. The storm is also packing high winds and
subfreezing temperatures, which could last for days.

Travelers are having a tough time of it on the roads and in the air.
Thousands of flights have been canceled today, and another thousand more
are canceled for Wednesday.

Governors in Delaware, New York, and New Jersey have declared states of
emergency due to those blizzard conditions -- now back to HARDBALL.

MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL.

The president`s delving into a topic he doesn`t often talk about, race.
And he is giving us some fascinating insights into how he thinks and feels
about it.

In a "New Yorker" magazine profile this week, the president had this to say
about his drop in support from white Americans. Quote: "There is no doubt
that there`s some folks who just really dislike me because they don`t like
the idea of a black president. Now, the flip side of it is that there are
some black folks and maybe some white folks who really like me and give me
the benefit of the doubt precisely because I`m a black president."

Well, in an intriguing comment about his political hero, Abraham Lincoln,
the president said this: "I also think that despite being the greatest
president in my mind in our history, it took another 150 years before
African-Americans had anything approaching formal equality, much less real
equality. I think that doesn`t diminish Lincoln`s achievements, but it
acknowledges that, at the end of the day, we`re part of a long-running
story. We just try to get our paragraph right."

So where is the president`s head right now and his heart on race?

Karen Finney is the author of -- the host of "DISRUPT" on MSNBC weekend
afternoons, and Clarence Page is a columnist for "The Chicago Tribune."

Karen and Clarence, I really want to hear from both you. And this is a
candid conversation, obviously, and a tricky one in some ways.

First of all, Karen, this -- I have never detected from the distance that
you and I work from him -- I`m not a friend of the president. I don`t know
him very well. I have met him three or four times, and it`s been cordial,
but I don`t know his heart. And yet he strikes me as someone coming from a
mixed background of a white mother, white grandparents who were active in
his upbringing, a distant, if -- missing is probably the right word,
African father, that he is somehow someone who has a benefit of seeing
things from many perspectives.

And my view is, he doesn`t take sides even, if you will, in any kind of
anger. But Sarah Palin, for example, today said he should stop playing the
race card. I have never seen him play it. Your thoughts.

KAREN FINNEY, MSNBC CONTRIBUTOR: But, you know, I mean, Sarah Palin and
those guys say those things because they want to stifle conversation, which
I think is dangerous. And I really give the president so much credit for
talking so candidly about this, because, I think, look, these issues have
been out there since he became president.

I think we have all been having these conversations in our various circles.
And so for the president to put it on the table I think is very important.
And here`s what I -- I completely agree with you. I also come from a mixed
background. My mother is white and my father is black.

And I do think it gives you a different perspective from both sides of the
color line in terms of how people view both within your culture and sort of
the other culture. And so I think the comment that he made was very
insightful, in very much the same way when he talked after the verdict in
the Trayvon Martin case, where I thought he was so candid, and, again, was
speaking from the heart and just speaking to the reality of the way things
are.

MATTHEWS: Clarence, do you think he meant to say 100 years after Lincoln
or 150? Was that a mis -- a rare misstatement by the president? He meant
to say in the `60s, when we got de jure equality?

CLARENCE PAGE, COLUMNIST, "THE CHICAGO TRIBUNE": Well, you know, I have
made enough verbal slips. I`m not going to fault him for saying 150 when
he might have meant 100.

But, at the same time, though, he says taken -- he was saying it has taken
us 150 years to get the beginnings of equality. Now, I would say we`re
past the beginnings of it. But we still got a long way to go. That was
his main point, especially now when you see the Supreme Court rolling back
part of the Voting Rights Act. You see prison incarceration has such a
tremendous toll on the black community, as well as others, that
conservatives are now joining in the push to depopulate our prisons.

I mean, we have still got a long way to go as far as de-racializing a lot
of class issues, for example, and opening up opportunity for all. I think
that was Obama`s point.

MATTHEWS: Do you think he has ever played the race card?

FINNEY: No.

PAGE: Oh, no, I don`t think he has played the race card.

I mean, I was in high school when Sarah Palin was still in the womb there
50 years ago.

(LAUGHTER)

PAGE: And I know the race card. I have had it played many times, and I
have seen it played every which way in Chicago and other places.

Obama has very carefully avoided trying to exploit race. He doesn`t even
bring up the topic usually, until somebody else brings it up, which I think
is what happened with David Remnick with "The New Yorker."

But Karen is right. It`s a big conservative talking point that Barack
Obama is another Jesse Jackson or another Louis Farrakhan or whatever.
And they keep pushing that.

(CROSSTALK)

FINNEY: But it`s also not just Barack Obama. I mean, look, the very
nature of the fact that we have an African-American president means we`re
going to have a different conversation than we did when Bill Clinton was
president, than George Bush being president, and that race may factor into
it.

MATTHEWS: Yes.

FINNEY: That doesn`t mean we`re playing the race card. That doesn`t mean
we`re racializing the issue. That means we`re acknowledging this is a
person who comes to this job with a different set of experiences, and,
frankly, a set of experiences that is more in line -- we`re becoming a
majority minority country, and that -- and, you know, that threatens some
people.

And I -- that`s not playing the race card. That is a conversation we
cannot be afraid to have in this country.

MATTHEWS: Well, here comes something that always impresses me, the
president`s candor here. Here he is in the "New Yorker" article, continues
here on the issue of race and the electorate. He says that the electorate
is not a Republican problem alone.

Listen to this. "There were times in our history where Democrats didn`t
seem to be paying enough attention to concerns of middle class folks or
working class folks, black or white. And this was one of the great gifts
of Bill Clinton to the party, to say, you know what? It`s entirely
legitimate for folks to be concerned about getting mugged. And you can`t
just talk about police abuse. How about folks not feeling safe outside
their homes?"

Clarence, I thought that was kind of a refreshing acknowledgment that
working people, black and white are the ones that face crime. You know,
they`re not exactly rooting for criminals. I mean, they`re the ones that
get knocked off, and look at the racial numbers on victimhood.

CLARENCE PAGE, CHICAGO TRIBUNE: That`s right.

MATTHEWS: And I think the fact that he can talk like this is refreshing.
Your thoughts?

PAGE: Well, it is. And I think Obama saw Bill Clinton de-racialized a lot
of our politics back in `92, in reversing the Southern strategy, if you
will. I think Obama is trying to do that now. He sees that working class,
blue collar whites in particular, have been most alienated from his side of
the political spectrum, and wants to point out, hey, we`ve got a lot in
common.

We shouldn`t let race, this one little thing relatively divide us from the
big things that we share in common, like income inequality, issues like
crime, education, et cetera.

I think he is making that outreach. I don`t know if it`s going to succeed,
but at least he is making the outreach.

MATTHEWS: Karen, I want you to interpret what the president does here,
because I tried to bring him into a hot issue, just to show he doesn`t play
the race card. I was talking about race in this question. He wouldn`t go
there with me. So, watch how he does this. Anybody like Palin who is
dingbaty enough to think this guys plays the race card, should watch this
answer.

Last month when I interviewed the president, I asked him about tough new
voter ID laws. I criticized the effort. He did too. He also had candid
remarks about the many Americans who don`t bother voting. Let`s watch.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Thirty-six states right now led by Republican legislatures have
been trying to make it difficult for minority people to vote, especially in
big cities and older people. Everybody knows the game. Republicans often
admit the game to deny people the vote.

How can -- what`s your reaction?

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: You can`t say you take pride
in American democracy and American constitutionalism, American
exceptionalism and then you`re doing everything you can to make it harder
for people to vote as opposed to easier for people to vote.

Our biggest problem right now is not the misguided efforts of some of these
state legislators. Our bigger problem is the one you alluded to earlier,
which is people`s skepticism that government in fact can make a difference.

Even in the best of years these days, we still only have about 40 percent
of the population who is eligible to vote that chooses to opt out. They`re
not being turned away at the polls. They`re turning themselves away from
the polls. And that is something that we`ve got to get at.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: I tried to get him to talk race, and he gave me the League of
Women Voters here. I mean, he didn`t go where I wanted him to go.

So, how can you claim he is playing race?

FINNEY: Exactly. And he did what he does so well, and that is, you know,
Chris, I think he gave you a very balanced answer. He acknowledged a nod
to the fact that yes, the voter ID and all the voter suppression we`re
seeing, that is a problem.

But it is true that a bigger part of the problem, and this is part of the
great struggle I think right now between progressives and conservatives --
progressives believe in government. And part of believing in government is
you want people to be engaged in the process. You want people to come out
and vote, not trying to suppress the vote or not trying to make people feel
like government doesn`t work, so why should I go out and vote anyway.

It was very interesting the way he kind of gave you a little bit of a
perspective from both sides there.

MATTHEWS: He sure did. He did not play race.

And I`m telling you, I`ve seen it as a pattern. Clarence and I have seen
it. Sometimes, it drives me crazy he is so diffident. He`s diffident.

PAGE: You`re not the only one, Chris.

MATTHEWS: Palin is out to lunch.

Anyway, thank you, Karen Finney. And thank you, Clarence Page.

Up next, President Obama is also coming to terms to the limits of his
presidency. Rather than being transformational now, he sees himself as a
relay swimmer in the river of history. And now, he is trying to set up I
think Hillary Clinton for the next leg of the relay.

This is HARDBALL, the place for politics.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: Pope Francis is, of course, one of those popular leaders
worldwide right now. And President Obama is headed to the Vatican to meet
with him. According to a statement out of the White House, the president
will meet the Holy Father on March 27th as a stop on his four-day trip to
Europe. The two leaders will talk about poverty and income inequality, two
things the president has tried to tackle during his second term.

And we`ll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL.

It`s hard to think of the circumstances under which Hillary Clinton decides
not to run for president 2016. But the University of Virginia`s Larry
Sabato had this to say today in a police in politico.

"Now in her 60s, she knows as much as any human being alive what an arduous
journey lies ahead, even for a heavily favored contender."

Well, there aren`t too many pols out there many shrewder than Hillary
Clinton right now. But as we watch with interest the unfolding event
surrounding Chris Christie, Mrs. Clinton may be watching and wondering if
she really wants to put herself back into the meat grinder of professional
politics all over again.

Joan Walsh is editor-at-large at "Salon", and Ed Rendell was governor of
Pennsylvania.

Joan, I want to start with you because you`re smiling, because you always
do. But if you`re Hillary Clinton and you`re thinking what a double edged
sword, I`m watching the number one guy that might be able to knock me off.
He was ahead of me by a point in the last Quinnipiac poll, and I`m watching
him getting ground like hamburger meat coming out of the grinder.

JOAN WALSH, SALON: Right.

MATTHEWS: And whatever survives ain`t going to look good.

Do I want to join that New York media market that`s gone writ large now so
the fact that we`re all in the New York media market right now it seems.
Everything every 15 minutes.

Your thoughts?

WALSH: Yes, I think she does. I have no inside information. We should
turn to Governor Rendell, because he`s more likely to. But I think all
signs indicate that she wants to do it. We will find out, I hope, later
this year, I hope we find out soon.

But, look, for all of Larry Sabato`s great points, very smart guy. She`s
not inevitable. I have to say, any person in the United States of America,
male or female, black or white, or Latino, or Asian, or Republican or
Democrat, if you want to be president of the United States, you want to be
Hillary Clinton.

There`s nobody better situation. So, all of this concern-trolling that
we`re going to -- that we`ll be reading about, for months and months, while
she makes her decision, she`s still the best positioned person to do it.

So I just find some of it a little bit exaggerated.

MATTHEWS: Governor, it seems to me, Hillary Clinton by any measure, I`m
talking about 80 percent of the country, would accept her competence to be
president, based on this resume alone and experience in public life at the
highest level. So the only way they can knock her is to hit her
personally, character, to her --

(CROSSTALK)

ED RENDELL (D), FORMER PENNSYLVANIA GOVERNOR: There`s no question. And I
think that it is something that she is considering. I think Joan`s
analysis is right. If you want to be president of the United States, right
now, you want to be Hillary Clinton, although, there`s no sure thing. She
certainly has the best chance of anyone alive to become president.

But the question is that she has to decide, does she want to get into that
meat grinder for two years, and then four or eight years as president, does
she want to live the next 10 years of her life in that type of pressure
cooker?

And remember, Hillary Clinton can be a rock star without running for
president. She may be the only person other than Bill Clinton, alive, who
can say that. She can be a rock star, she can go all over the world and be
greeted like a hero, just because she`s Hillary Clinton.

So, I`m not sure it`s a slam dunk. If she decides to do it, I don`t think
there`s a serious contender in the Democratic ranks, Chris. Even the vice
president, who`s been a good vice president, will find that Hillary Clinton
will have the heart and the soul of 80 percent, 85 percent of the
Democratic fund-raising base.

MATTHEWS: What do you make of this idea that Larry Summers, the genius
from Harvard, who`s a great economist, a numbers guy -- he doesn`t stand by
these numbers because they keep changing, but suggests that the best way to
look at this is, what percentage chance is it that she`s going to run? He
puts it around 80?

What percent chance if she runs will she win the nomination? He put this
around 80, although these numbers are changing, he said.

And then 60 percent chance if she gets to be the nominee at the convention,
will she win?

This seems the to me put up a model like this and you still only get a 38
percent chance she`ll be the next president.

So, even if all the things are in your favor, so many things can happen.
We can have a war. Something can happen to the president, something can
happen anywhere. The economy can be rocked.

Anything can happen between annoy and November of 2016.

Your thoughts on that and then over to Joan.

RENDELL: Well, absolutely, there are so many things that can happen.
There are so many external forces that can affect even a powerful person
like Hillary Clinton`s chances, although I think Larry Summers` numbers
don`t add up. But --

MATTHEWS: No, they do, 38 percent. You can`t argue with Larry about
numbers.

RENDELL: But I don`t think they make sense politically, because, she`s
certainly in the best position of anybody to become president, as Joan
says. The question isn`t that. The question is, does she have the
willingness to put herself through it.

I think in the end, she`s going to say yes. That`s the question.
Winnability, I think Hillary Clinton understands what the odds are, and I
think she believes she can win. And I think she believes she`ll be a good
president.

So, in the end, I think she`s going to do it, but it`s not an easy
decision.

MATTHEWS: OK, let me go to Joan, last question, quick. Yes, she wants to
resume, yes, she`ll win the nomination, a good bet. The general election,
will they try to terrorize her over something like Benghazi? Will this get
very personal?

WALSH: I`m sure it will get very personal. But the demographics are in
her favor. States that are tough for the president, I`m sad to say, for
racial issues like Ohio I think become easier for her.

But it`s really a matter of passion. Does she present herself as the
person to tackle income inequality? The person to tackle the problems that
are making it tough for a lot of people in this country, can she come at
this in a new way?

I believe she can, but she`s got to have that conversation with herself,
and then she`s got to have it with the American people. She cannot take
this for granted.

The three of us have said that over and over and over.

MATTHEWS: So well-said.

Thank you, Joan Walsh. Thank you, Governor Rendell.

We`ll be right back after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: Let me finish tonight with this.

Sarah Palin doing her darnedest to honor Martin Luther King Day, posted to
her Facebook account, "Mr. President, in honor of Martin Luther King Jr.
and all who commit to ending any racial divide, no more playing the race
card.

Well, there`s something truly sinister in this remark. Say what you will
about the president`s policies, about his politics, both are fair game.
But excuse me, Madam Former Governor, it`s my reckoning that this president
born to black and white parents has been extraordinarily free of bringing
race into politics. You can put the late Johnnie Cochran at one end of the
spectrum and him in the other.

Case in point: my interview with him. I gave the president a huge target
to speak about. I asked him what he thought about the Republican Party`s
efforts in three dozen states to suppress the votes of minorities.

Did he go for it? Briefly, yes. He questioned how a person could hold to
faith in American exceptionalism, and then do everything he could to make
it harder for people to vote.

Did he dwell on that point? No. He immediately moved to what he called
the bigger problem of people having given up so much of government in
politics, they don`t even bother to vote, even when it`s easy.

Play the race card? This president discards the race issues more than you
can imagine. What he said to David Remnick is so common, judicious and
street wise, and it should be applauded by the most conservative of
listener.

What other president has spoken about issues of crime and public safety in
such a common sense way as this one just did to David Remnick? Again,
everything this man has done with his life, his clean living, his raising
his family, his fidelity to his marriage, his commitment to his education
and to public service squares with what every white conservative holds as
the American ideal.

Hate his politics, hate his policies, but, please, don`t say he`s playing
the race card anymore that he`s played in his life, the cheap and nasty
stereotypes the haters carry so neatly and smugly in that their hearts. He
ain`t the guy you hate, unless you just hate.

And that`s HARDBALL for now. Thanks for being with us.

"ALL IN WITH CHRIS HAYES" starts right now.


END

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