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updated 2/19/2014 10:57:38 AM ET 2014-02-19T15:57:38

HARDBALL
February 17, 2014
Guests: Matt Katz, Mike Kelly, Steve Israel, Susan Page, Douglas Brinkley,
Sean Wilentz

CHRIS MATTHEWS, MSNBC HOST: Calling the cops.

Let`s play HARDBALL.

Good evening. I`m Chris Matthews in Washington.

"Let Me Start" tonight with this. Who you going to call? You`re stuck in
traffic, can`t get to work, the hours pass, you go nuts -- you`re going
nuts. Then a policeman asks you to lower your window, asks if you`re
frustrated -- that`s the word he uses, "frustrated" -- tells you to call
the mayor of Fort Lee, tells you that`s where the problem`s coming from.

Get it? Not the bridge authorities, not the guy who appointed the people
who were doing this thing. No, if you want to know who to blame, blame the
mayor of Fort Lee, the guy the Christie people are out to punish, punish
good.

So now we come to who did this. Who recruited this team? Who gave them
their marching orders? Who let it all happen once he saw the Fort Lee
mayor was getting his punishment?

Governor Christie`s defense is that he didn`t get out there on the bridge
himself. Let`s listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

QUESTION: Governor, did you have anything to do with those lane closures
in September outside the George Washington Bridge?

GOV. CHRIS CHRISTIE (R), NEW JERSEY: Yes, I worked the cones, actually,
Matt.

(LAUGHTER)

CHRISTIE: Unbeknownst to everybody, I was actually the guy out there. I
wasn`t in overalls and a hat, so I wasn`t -- but I actually was the guy
working the cones out there. You really are not serious with that
question.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Well, sarcasm isn`t much of a defense, is it, now that we know
the whole escapade came directly from the governor`s office, that we know
that the police that did put the cones over the four days were part of the
politics, that they personally were telling drivers to deliver the dreaded
message, that the men charged with protecting lives on the George
Washington Bridge were the very instruments of this caper, delivering not
just the injury, but the insult, as well.

Are you frustrated? Are you? Just how ticked off are you? Tell me more.
You`ve got time. You`re going to be sitting here another four hours.
Well, who`s supervising this mayhem in September? Turns out it`s Governor
Christie`s guy on the bridge authority, David Wildstein.

Mike Kelly is a columnist for the Bergen "Record" and has been reporting on
Jersey politics for four decades. And Matt Katz is a reporter with WNYC
radio up in New York.

Mr. Kelly, it wasn`t until reading it all today -- maybe I`m slow on this
case -- to finally get sort of an old Polaroid view of what actually
happened. You`re sitting in traffic. You`re late for work. You`re going
to be really late, you can sense. And a guy asks you to roll down your
window and says, Are you frustrated? This is a police officer that`s there
to protect you and get you through traffic safely. And he says to you, Are
you frustrated? Well, if you are, you should go and make a phone call to
the Fort Lee mayor and blame it on him because he made a decision recently
that`s causing this.

And then apparently, dozens and dozens of calls like this went to the Fort
Lee mayor. Message delivered, I`m out to screw you. What`s the return
address on that letter? That`s the great question, Mike.

MIKE KELLY, BERGEN "RECORD": That is a great question, Chris. Yes, this
has been one of the mysteries, as I said, that`s been lingering around this
controversy almost since the day it broke. And that is if this, in fact,
is political retribution, how did the message on political retribution get
delivered to the mayor of Fort Lee?

And what I was able to put together was simply by connecting the dots and
interviewing some motorists, and also talking to some people in Fort Lee
and what actually they heard -- what they heard when the calls came into
the police station and into Borough Hall. And what was happening here was
a similar message that kept repeating itself over and over again, and that
was police instructing motorists to call the borough of Fort Lee and
specifically to complain to the mayor.

Now, I got to tell you, Chris, we don`t know exactly how many motorists
were instructed to do this. The best estimate that I could come up with is
that dozens were instructed this way. But what`s key here, what`s
absolutely key, is the similarity of the message. And that`s why -- that`s
why the legislative committee in Trenton that is investigating this is
taking this so seriously.

MATTHEWS: Well, let me get to this real point. I want to hang with you,
you`re doing such great reporting here. Those police officers, are they
career people? Are they political appointees or what are they? Because it
seems to me it`s hard for a police officer not to know he or she is
delivering a political message with a political purpose, payback.

What other reason could these policemen have for believing they were doing
this service to the public of saying, Blame the mayor of Fort Lee?

KELLY: Well, that`s a question, Chris, that I actually outlined in a
column I wrote for Sunday about this, and that is we don`t know exactly how
this came off, and we don`t know how these police officers were pulled into
this. I mean, cops, as you know, often just take orders and they go ahead
and they do their job.

Now, I got to tell you something. The Port Authority police are not
necessarily a politicized force. I know some of these guys from the 9/11
attacks. I spent a lot of time with them at Ground Zero. These are guys
that generally take an enormous amount of pride in the kind of work they do
and the training that they go through.

But in this case, what I think is the underlying question is, How did this
message get ordered down from the top? And how was it conveyed to the
cops? And that`s one of the questions that we`re still looking into.

MATTHEWS: OK. Anyway, Mike (INAUDIBLE) your piece in the Bergen "Record"
paints a truly remarkable scene, I believe, of where police were telling
all these ticked-off drivers to funnel their anger. Quote -- your piece --
"As motorists slowly rolled toward the bridge`s tollbooths, many rolled
down their windows and asked police what was causing so much congestion. A
pattern soon emerged. In numerous cases, say drivers, Fort Lee officials
and others familiar with the situation, aggravated motorists were told by
Port Authority police officers at the scene that they should call the mayor
or borough officials."

"And according to one driver, the police were aggressive in approaching
some drivers with that message." Quote, "As motorist Robert Michel
approached the single access lane to the bridge`s tollbooths, an -- a
police officer sought him out." Quote, "`He kind of motioned to me. `Are
you frustrated?` Michel said the officer asked. `What`s going on,` Michael
replied. `Call the mayor`s office to complain,` Michel said the officer
responded."

And it looks like many drivers did just that. Quote, "Dozens of motorists
telephoned either the borough`s municipal offices or the Fort Lee Police
Department, borough officials say. What was significant and suspicious,
they say, was the similarity of the message. The message got through to
the Fort Lee mayor, Mark Sokolich, so much that he wrote a panicked letter
to the Port Authority`s Bill Baroni when the closure spilled into day four.
He wrote, in part, `Adding insult to injury`" -- that was well said --
"`many members of the public have indicated to me that the Port Authority
police officers are advising commuters in response to their complaints that
this recent traffic debacle is the result of a decision that I`" -- that`s
Mayor Sokolich -- "`as the mayor recently made.`"

Let me go to Matt Katz at WNYC. This is what brings it home to me. After
all these weeks of trying to figure out the politics, the hands-on role
played by police officers who are not politicians carrying out a political
vendetta, the misuse of authority here over police officers, using them for
some cheap political number here on the mayor -- wittingly or not, these
cops were basically playing like they were ward healers, local pols running
around in a political army, doing the dirty work of Wildstein, Kelly, and
maybe the governor. We don`t know.

But this is terrible. This is -- cops are supposed to defend you and
protect you and get you to where you want to go safely. And they do try to
do that. These police officers were misused, abused, and contorted into
this political crap show. Your thoughts.

MATT KATZ, WNYC: Yes, and thanks to reporting from your own Steve Kornacki
this weekend, we know that one of these police officers was actually
escorting David Wildstein, who ordered the lanes closed -- actually
escorting him around that first day of the lane closures. Now, we don`t
know if this officer --

MATTHEWS: Are you solid on that, Matt? Are you solid on that right now?
Are we all solid on that? Do we know that for a fact?

KATZ: We know that -- we know that from the e-mails that have been
released, and the text messages, that this lieutenant was texting -- this
lieutenant in the Port Authority police was texting back and forth with
David Wildstein that morning.

MATTHEWS: I saw --

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: Damn good reporting because it`s the e-mails that, I`ll be
picked up at 7:28, 7:30. It`s very precise about the guy coming to get
him. You`re right. So what you think it tells us?

KATZ: We know that maybe -- I mean, it could tell us one of two things.
It could tell us that this officer was just escorting an official around
from the Port Authority because he thought there was a legitimate traffic
study, which is the excuse they used after the fact for these lane
closures. Or perhaps he was complicit in this whole scheme.

MATTHEWS: What do you make of the fact --

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: What do you make of the fact that the police union guy here
coming up with the idea of a traffic study after they already had the
traffic jams? I mean, that seems like collusion to me in, basically,
mayhem and mischief.

Why would you want to come up with an excuse for something that`s already
happening when you know it has nothing do with reality? Why would anybody
want to do that? Who`s benefited (INAUDIBLE) by that?

KATZ: There were documents indicating that there was some sort of traffic
study -- well, I mean, not like -- you know, very limited, but I mean,
there might have been a cover story being developed before this actually
happened.

So we don`t know the complicity of all the officers. We do know that the
police union endorsed Christie, which was unusual among uniformed police
and fire in this election. The Port Authority police union did endorse
Christie for reelection, which indicates --

MATTHEWS: Let`s get to where --

KATZ: -- some alignment there, for sure.

MATTHEWS: I want to get to where this is going, Mike. Back to you, and
I`ll be back to you in a minute, Matt. Here`s the question. You`ve got
Patrick Foye, who is the whistle-blower, basically, here, from what I can
tell, isn`t he? He`s the guy on the bridge authority, the top of the
(INAUDIBLE) said, Wait a minute. What is all this traffic stuff about?
What is all this jam about? I want to get to the bottom of it.

And now he`s got an investigation that he`s undertaken of the police and
the role they`re playing in this, but he`s saying, I don`t want Fedorko,
the head of the police department, having anything to do with this
investigation. He`s basically saying, I don`t trust this guy, whatever
he`s saying, I want somebody outside handling this.

Where are we going with this?

KELLY: Well, right now, Chris, we have a real credibility problem, which,
thank goodness, Patrick Foye, who`s the -- actually, the executive director
of the Port Authority -- he`s the top man there --

MATTHEWS: Right.

KELLY: He`s beginning to address this, at least. And this is a serious
issue because the Port Authority is essentially investigating itself. And
oftentimes, the general public simply doesn`t trust those kinds of
investigations. I think -- but it is a good start, I think, to walk down
that road.

Just to get back to one thing. The whole traffic study explanation was
developed after the fact. There was a lot of concern. If you go through
those e-mails that circulated ahead of time, you don`t see references to
how this was going to be a legitimate traffic study. So a major question
mark has to really be placed beside anything that says traffic study at
this point in time, and particularly now because the whole idea of a
traffic study has been basically discredited.

MATTHEWS: Who -- who -- when you go to try to find out -- I don`t know
where your reporting is on this -- you mentioned a few minutes ago -- who
told the police officers who are civil servants to start sort of teasing
the difficult -- the in difficult situation commuter, Oh, by the way, blame
the mayor of Fort Lee?

That seems to be an extraordinary role to play by a police officer.
Usually, they say, Move over to the side, let me see your driver`s -- your
license and registration, your taillight is out. Police officers deal with
very particular matters for motorists. They don`t deliver complicated
political messages about who to blame.

KELLY: That`s right.

MATTHEWS: I have to tell you, I was a cop for a while when I first came to
Washington, Capitol Police. Police officers do take orders, but I never
heard of an order that was to deliver a political message. It just seems
extraordinary. I`m sorry, I just don`t buy the fact that that`s normal
police behavior, blame the mayor of Fort Lee for some decision he made.

Who would tell the people to do that who wasn`t, like, a political
commissar, going around using the ranks to get a political message across?
That person who did that is a pol, a hack, a ward healer, and the police
were used as such. Your thoughts. How high up do you think it had to go?

KELLY: Well, I think, Chris, the question you raise there is something
that still is unanswered. How was this message communicated? What is
being looked at -- I can only tell you what is being looked at -- that
David Wildstein was at the bridge that morning and somehow, perhaps, a
message to the police officers was communicated from him.

That is not known yet, though. That`s not a fact. That`s something that
we`re still looking at. But what we do know is that the cops did get that
message.

Now, if you`ve been a police officer -- and I`ve hung out enough with
police officers -- you know that they tend to try to be as precise as
possible. And so I can guess -- and this is purely a guess on my part --
that they were probably wondering what is going on this morning. They may
have asked a superior. They may have asked each other. And this is
probably what they were told to communicate. But again, we don`t know how
many officers were involved and we don`t know how many motorists they
actually stopped.

MATTHEWS: Well, you wouldn`t -- you wouldn`t tell anybody who`s a driver
or a community to go make a phone call and complain about a political
decision or a policy. You wouldn`t make -- you might say, We hear it has
something to do with Fort Lee.

KELLY: Right.

MATTHEWS: You`d be very vague. You wouldn`t know. And then if you -- you
wouldn`t make that charge to the person out -- get out there -- like this
guy said, Roll down your window. Are you frustrated? Well, if you`re
frustrated, you should call the mayor. That doesn`t sound like some
scuttlebutt that`s through the ranks, like whether we`re getting comp time
or not.

KELLY: Right. Well, that`s why --

MATTHEWS: You know, that`s the kind of conversation police officers have,
you know.

KELLY: Right. Well, that`s why, Chris -- that`s why this whole scenario
is very, very suspicious. As you know, if you`re going to do political
retribution, you have to have a way of communicating to the target of that
retribution that, in fact, you are targeting him.

And so this is the best case scenario that has been put together for how
that message was put across. And believe me, the message did get across to
the Mayor of Fort Lee.

MATTHEWS: OK, great, guys. Mike Kelly, thanks so much. Matt Katz, thanks
so much. Please come back again, Matt.

Coming up: Is Bill Clinton fair game for Republicans campaigning against
Hillary Clinton in 2016? More to the point, will going after a very
popular ex-president be smart politics or bad politics?

Also, perception versus reality. The health care law -- well, we know it`s
getting better and better in terms of its implementation, but voters don`t
see it that way yet, certainly. Tonight, how Democrats hope to meet "Obama
scare" with a scare of their own. Not (ph) having it.

Plus, "House of Cards" is back, and Kevin Spacey`s character has a lot of
people talking about how he reminds them -- at least them -- of another
president who gets things done. Guess who it might be?

Finally, "Let Me Finish" with the difference between George Washington,
whose birthday is honored today, and the idiots who are screwing around on
his bridge.

This is HARDBALL, the place for politics.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: It`s been five years since President Obama signed into law the
$800 billion stimulus bill, and Speaker John Boehner used the occasion
today to say the stimulus has turned out to be a classic case of big
promises and big spending with little results.

Well, Boehner did not mention that five years ago, the country was losing
between 700,000 and 800,000 jobs a month, and that since then, there`s been
40 straight months of job growth. Unemployment has dropped from a peak of
10 percent down to 6.6, and the stock market has more than doubled since
this recession.

We`ll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MITT ROMNEY (R-MA), FMR. GOV., FMR. PRES. CANDIDATE: I don`t think Bill
Clinton is as relevant as Hillary Clinton if Hillary Clinton decides to run
for president. And in her case, I think people will look at her record as
the secretary of state and say, During that period of time, did our
relations with nations around the world elevate America and elevate our
interests, or were they receding? And I think her record is what will be
judged upon, not the record of her husband.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: I think that guy should go directly into the Hall of the
Presidents at Disney World. He looks great.

Anyway, back to HARDBALL. On "MEET THE PRESS" yesterday, Bill Clinton was
once again part of the conversation about Hillary Clinton`s political
future, just as she was three weeks earlier, when Rand Paul called former
president Clinton a "predator."

NBC`s Gregory asked Mitt Romney whether he sees Bill and Hillary as a
political pair. That`s when Mitt`s answer got a little more gritty.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ROMNEY: I think Hillary Clinton, if she becomes the nominee, will have
plenty to discuss about her own record. I don`t imagine that Bill Clinton
is going to be a big part of it.

That being said, the times when he was president were by and large positive
economic times for the country. On the other hand, he embarrassed the
nation. He breached his responsibility, I think, as an adult and as a
leader in his relationship. And I think that`s very unfortunate. But I
don`t think that`s Hillary Clinton`s to explain.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Well, in a three-week span now, two high-profile Republicans,
one who ran for president and one who wants to, have shown two distinct
ways of approaching questions about Bill Clinton`s past and Hillary
Clinton`s political future.

It all comes down to this. If Hillary Clinton runs, is Bill fair game?

Joining me right now is Howard Fineman, MSNBC political analyst and
editorial director for The Huffington Post Media Group, and Susan Page,
Washington bureau chief for "USA Today."

Lots of power here in terms of journalism.

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS: I`m listening to your circulation numbers coming out of "USA
Today." Four million people read that people every day. I`m sorry, share
it. Maybe eight million people read it.

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS: Two people in the family.

Let me ask you this, Susan. As a woman, as a great reporter, how is the
media and the politicians going to cover Bill? We all know the Monica
piece of it. But then there is the bigger piece of the popular Bill
Clinton presidency. How does Hillary Clinton, assuming she runs, benefit
from the good legacy of the Clinton presidency and skirt any problems with
that -- the more yuckier questions she might have thrown at her by anybody
who wants to -- any Webmaster can throw any question they want.

Any blogger can yell a question from the street corner. You can`t decide
what the questions are. Your thoughts.

SUSAN PAGE, WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF, "USA TODAY": You know, I don`t think
Hillary Clinton can run on either one, the bad things about Bill Clinton`s
tenure or even the good ones.

People remember fondly the economic good times under Bill Clinton. But the
next president they`re going to elect in 2016 has got to be looking ahead,
not back to 1992 or 1996.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: How do you prevent the press from pushing the question there,
like --

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: -- straight, mainstream reporter there obviously had to follow
up on what Rand Paul said. And he did it, and he got -- he got a great
story there, combination.

PAGE: It`s not that you can never talk about it, but can that be her
message? Her message can`t even be the good times from Bill Clinton. Her
message is, here is what I`m going to do looking forward.

And you know what? She has two terms as -- elected twice as a senator from
New York, served as secretary of state.

MATTHEWS: Yes.

PAGE: She has other things to talk about with her own record if and when
she runs for president.

MATTHEWS: Howard, how -- how is this going to be handled by the
politicians? Let`s talk turkey to politicians. Will -- will he be fair
game? Rand Paul says he is.

HOWARD FINEMAN, NBC CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Oh.

MATTHEWS: Mitt Romney, who isn`t running, was gentlemanly about it. But
he did tag on it.

FINEMAN: Yes, there was a little --

MATTHEWS: He did tag base there.

(LAUGHTER)

FINEMAN: I don`t think --

(LAUGHTER)

FINEMAN: -- that this election should be about the way Bill Clinton
embarrassed himself and the nation.

(LAUGHTER)

FINEMAN: No, no.

MATTHEWS: As an adult.

FINEMAN: No, no, no. Let`s not talk about that.

No, I think Rand Paul and the Tea Party types and CPAC, the big
conservative jamborees coming up next month here in Washington, they`re
going to be all over this. And they`re going to do whatever they to try
and discredit the Clintons as a unit.

And they will be utterly ruthless about it. But it may backfire on them,
because once you -- two things. First of all, voters under 30 don`t care
about the `90s, OK? Message, they don`t care about the `90s, either the
good stuff or the bad stuff. They don`t know anything about it.

That`s number one. Number two, remember that Hillary Clinton is a master
of and has succeeded at the role of the stoic victim.

MATTHEWS: Yes.

FINEMAN: And in the past, when people have overshot the mark with her --

MATTHEWS: Heroic victim, even.

FINEMAN: The heroic victim.

MATTHEWS: I would say heroic, yes.

FINEMAN: From stoic and heroic. When they have gone after her, it has
backfired. And it could backfire with women if they take too -- they think
they`re being clever by peeling off -- they think they`re going to peel off
some women.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: Remember the --

FINEMAN: I don`t -- Susan -- I don`t know what Susan thinks about it. But
I don`t think it`s going to work.

MATTHEWS: Remember when Jerry Brown, who has turned out to be a hell of a
governor the second time around, went after them on the Rose law firm? And
Bill Clinton did one of his great numbers. You can say anything you want
about me, but you don`t deserve to be on the same stage with Hillary.

That`s great, because -- every husband defending a wife.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: Everybody -- it`s heroic and chivalry in action.

What happens if Hillary Clinton stands up and says to, what`s his name,
Rand Paul or one of these guys on stage in a big debate, you know what?
I`m married to the guy, all right? And I love him and get off him. Get
off his back.

(CROSSTALK)

PAGE: I think that`s -- I think that`s exactly what she would say.

And, you know, if there is a way not to appeal to women voters, blame a
woman for transgressions of her husband from 15 years ago.

MATTHEWS: Yes.

PAGE: That is a guaranteed way to give Republicans even more problems than
they have today with women voters.

MATTHEWS: Are you listening, Reince Priebus?

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS: Here is Reince Priebus, the Republican National Committee chair,
says there will be no holds barred if Hillary Clinton is the Democratic
nominee in 2016. Here is Reince.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REINCE PRIEBUS, REPUBLICAN NATIONAL COMMITTEE CHAIRMAN: I think everything
is on the table. I don`t see how someone just gets a pass on -- on
anything, I mean, especially in today`s politics. So, I think we`re going
to have a truckload of opposition research on Hillary Clinton, and -- and
some things may be old and some things might be new. But I think
everything is at stake when you`re talking about the leader of the free
world.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Isn`t that an interesting image, a truckload of opposition
research?

But none of it -- he suggests it as sort of a generalized truckload. He
doesn`t say it has to do with the former first lady or the former
president. He`s very cute about that.

FINEMAN: No, no, that`s a great line when you`re going around talking to
the troops at the grassroots, saying, we have got a truckload of stuff.

Yes. The other thing that is going on here is some local politics with
Rand Paul. Now, for me, you know everything revolves around Kentucky. But
I will just mention, Bill Clinton --

MATTHEWS: You`re going there soon.

(CROSSTALK)

FINEMAN: Yes. Well, Bill Clinton is going into Kentucky to campaign for
the Democratic woman who is running against Senator Mitch McConnell.

MATTHEWS: Right.

FINEMAN: Rand Paul is doing Mitch McConnell`s bidding here.

MATTHEWS: He is going to do the truth squad.

FINEMAN: He is going to rough up -- they`re going to rough up, scuff up,
try to scuff up Bill Clinton, who, by the way, is very popular in Kentucky.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: Well, Bill Clinton is going into the lion`s lair here, and he`s
going to get roughed up.

(CROSSTALK)

FINEMAN: Yes, he`s going to what is now a red state.

MATTHEWS: And you think that Rand will attack him again?

FINEMAN: Sure. That`s part of what is going on. That`s the micro.
That`s the micro view.

MATTHEWS: OK. Let`s try to look at these two things.

I think everything is customized. I think Mitt Romney handled it pretty
well the other day. He still has to keep his street cred with the right,
the cultural right by saying embarrassed. Fine. But also said she has her
own record to run on, which makes him somewhat modern, actually pretty good
on that one.

But this other guy, Rand Paul, has to look a little bit like a mad dog,
doesn`t he, Susan?

PAGE: Right.

MATTHEWS: He has to be one, I`m going in there to fight this guy. Below
the belt? Maybe I will miss the belt a couple of times. I will aim
generally above the belt, but I may miss a couple of times.

I think he has to say, I`m going to fight. I`m your fighter dog.

PAGE: Because he is running for the Democratic -- the Republican
nomination for president in 2016.

Who goes to Republican primaries in places like South Carolina? It`s the
most conservative voters.

MATTHEWS: Red meat voters.

PAGE: They will be glad to hear anything what bad that can be said against
Hillary Clinton or Bill Clinton.

But didn`t we litigate this once in terms of national politics in 1998? In
the middle of it was Bill Clinton --

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: It`s a new audience, though. It`s a -- people don`t have -- I
think that they always say in show business, it`s easier to find a new
crowd than new material.

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS: They`re just going to keep going at it.

(CROSSTALK)

FINEMAN: But the thing is, Chris, my sense of it, and we will cover --
everybody -- the problem that Hillary`s got is, we will all cover it,
regardless. Whatever is thrown out there, we`re probably going to cover
irresistibly.

But the fact is that older voters who might be moved by this stuff are
already there on the Republican side.

MATTHEWS: Yes.

FINEMAN: The older conservative voters.

If the Republicans are going after younger voters, if they`re going after
diverse voters, if they`re going after people under 30, I`m saying, this
stuff ain`t going to work, because it`s ancient and it`s old news for those
kids or non-news, non-news.

MATTHEWS: I think the way -- I think the way -- I think you said the way
Secretary Clinton comes out of the chute next time, maybe a year from now,
around February next year, they think, maybe, if she makes her move then, I
think everybody wants to see the new product, what she is like now after
all the experience she has had at State.

That`s what people are focusing on Anyway -- and her new message.

Thank you, Howard Fineman. Thank you, Susan Page.

Up next, Kevin Spacey plays one bad dude, if you will, in "House of Cards."
He is so dark. So, which president does he remind you of? This is some
grim television, by the way. I have been watching every episode.

This is HARDBALL, the place for politics.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "REAL TIME WITH BILL MAHER")

BILL MAHER, HOST, "REAL TIME WITH BILL MAHER": Ted Cruz, who never forget
is the worst.

(LAUGHTER)

MAHER: Never forget Ted Cruz is the worst -- introduced a bill to deny
federal benefits to married gay couples in states that don`t recognize gay
marriage, because Ted defines marriage as an enduring love between one man
and himself.

(LAUGHTER)

MAHER: Ted, of course, was furious that the big storm back East shut down
the government. He said, that`s my job.

(LAUGHTER)

MAHER: But, you know, there is a big difference between Ted Cruz and snow.
Both are white and everyone is sick of them.

(LAUGHTER)

MAHER: But -- but, eventually, snow goes away. And --

(LAUGHTER)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Well, time now for the "Sideshow."

That was of course Bill Maher on Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, who has now
managed to alienate himself from his colleagues on his side of the aisle
after threatening to filibuster the debt ceiling vote last week.

Next up: Netflix received what variety called a massive increase in online
viewership after the release of season two of "House of Cards." According
to early data, 16 percent of subscribers watched at least two episodes of
the series on Friday night alone.

There is no question that the fictional Washington drama hits home with
American audiences. And lead actor Kevin Spacey has a theory why. It`s
not the dirty politics that fans love, he says. They love that his
character gets things done. Here was Spacey explaining the inspiration
behind his role on ABC`s "This Week."

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "THIS WEEK")

KEVIN SPACEY, ACTOR: Lyndon Johnson is a character that my character in
"House of Cards" admires. You know, during his lifetime and certainly
during his presidency, he took an enormous amount of criticism, certainly
for his policies in Vietnam.

But we also have to look at the fact that he passed three civil rights
bills in a very short presidency. And, yes, he was called ruthless and
Machiavellian and an SOB and a lot of things during the course of his life.
But people are sort of reexamining people who are willing to do whatever
they have to do.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: It`s amazing to see him out of character.

Anyway, it`s not hard to notice President Johnson`s influence on Spacey`s
character, Underwood. Johnson too was notoriously effective at getting
what he wanted. If you look carefully what is hanging on the walls of
Frank Underwood`s office, it`s no surprise to see two very famous
photographs of LBJ doing just that. This is what is known as the Johnson
treatment, bending legislators literally to his will and turning them to
his side.

Wow. Those are great pictures. George Tames took those pictures.

Up next: how Democrats hope to turn a little loser into a winner.

You`re watching HARDBALL, the place for politics.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

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

Another winter storm is dropping snow on Chicago and the Midwest. By
tomorrow morning, it will be bringing half-a-foot of snow to some areas of
the Northeastern U.S. as well.

President Obama is on his way back to Washington. The president spent the
long holiday weekend in California.

And after a visit to Abu Dhabi, Secretary of State John Kerry is headed to
Paris. While there, he will meet with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas
for talks on the Mideast peace framework -- back to HARDBALL.

MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL.

Get ready to hear the word Obamacare a lot this year. Republicans plan to
use the president`s health care law -- its name actually is Affordable Care
Act -- as a battering ram this November. And conservative groups are all
too happy to try to tie Democratic candidates this November to the law.
Take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

NARRATOR: "The Republic" said Ann Kirkpatrick refused to criticize Obama`s
Web site for weeks, hardly blowing the whistle. And just days ago,
Kirkpatrick voted against a bipartisan bill to help fix the health care Web
site, still loyal to Obamacare, not us.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

NARRATOR: Alex Sink` loyalty is to them, not Florida. Why else we should
continue to support Obamacare?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: If you like your health care
plan, you will be able to keep your health care plan.

NARRATOR: That was the lie of the year. But now we know the truth. So,
why does Congressman Joe Garcia still support Obamacare?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Wow.

So, what do the Democrats do to fight that? According to some reports,
party leaders say, don`t run from the issue. Rather, try to blunt it by
going on the attack. Politico has got its hands on a five-page Democratic
Party memo that includes 17 -- quote -- poll-tested lines of attack" --
close quote.

The gist? Republicans want to return to the bad old days when insurance
companies could deny you coverage or charge you excessive prices.

Well, is that a winning message? Great question for us tonight.

There is no one better than to answer it the chairman of the Democratic
Congressional Campaign Committee, U.S. Congressman Steve Israel from New
York. Also joining me right now is my pal and colleague Joy Reid, the host
of the new MSNBC show "THE REID REPORT" starting next Monday at 2:00
Eastern here on MSNBC. That`s about five hours before HARDBALL every night
for those who do things that way.

Steve, Congressman, let me ask you this, because it seems to me -- this is
HARDBALL -- and you have got to beat people who are coming at you with
battering rams. They`re going to maliciously blame Alex Sink, who is not
even a member of Congress, tie her to Obamacare. Everybody is guilty.
Everybody is bad. It`s a disaster, blah, blah, blah.

It seems to me you have got one thing going for you. If you get rid of the
president`s health care plan, we do go back to preexisting conditions
knocking you out. If you`re 50 some years old, you don`t get health care.
If your kids are becoming young adults, forget about them. There are some
things you can sell.

Is that what you`re going to do, say that if you knock out Obamacare,
you`re back to square one? And this is that true? Is that what the
Republicans want, to blow it away, get rid of it completely?

REP. STEVE ISRAEL (D), NEW YORK: Well, that`s exactly what they want.
Every election, Chris, is about who is on your side.

And every time the Republicans air those commercials, what they`re telling
the people of America is, we are on the side of insurance companies. We`re
on the side of giving them free rein over your health decisions, as they
did before.

We`re not on the side of a woman with breast cancer who was told by the her
insurance company that her breast cancer is a preexisting condition. And
their obsessive devotion to the repeal of the Affordable Care Act is going
to be used against them. They`re for repeal. They`re not telling us what
they`re for. They`re not telling us what -- how they would replace it.

And we`re going to hold them accountable for being on the wrong side of
this by important economic issue.

MATTHEWS: Well, Joy, it seems to me, first of all, but there is a
dichotomy here.

Not everybody is happy with this health care plan. We all know that. It`s
no -- it`s not a thrill ride for people. But it is a sense that, let`s not
go back to square one. I have seen only 38 percent, a little more than a
third of the country want to go back to nothing by repealing.

And I think that`s an argument for Democrats to say, wait a minute, a
minority opinion is to get rid of it so Republicans are the wrong side of
history if we play this right.

JOY REID, MSNBC CONTRIBUTOR: Absolutely, Chris. And see, the thing is
Republicans were on stronger ground before the Affordable Care Act was
actually implemented, because it`s always what have you got and what can be
taken away from you, right? So they had this scare tactic, like 85 percent
of Americans already have health insurance.

So, the thought that something called Obamacare could take away insurance
or make it more expensive really scared people, particularly older people
and it was a really strong ground for 2010. But now, you had like -- you
talked about Florida. Look at Alex Sink running in Florida. OK, they`re
running these ads against her.

Florida has enrolled 300,000 approximately people in the Affordable Care
Act. So, now, the question is what are you going to take away from them?

Republicans now have 300,000 or so people. That`s 60 percent of the target
for Florida has already been met. And that`s also true in Kentucky, it`s
true in Colorado. In a lot of these states, they are essentially saying,
you 300,000 people are going to lose something you`ve already got. That`s
a powerful position for Democrats to be in.

MATTHEWS: And the latest numbers on private insurance signups show what
you said, a much more positive picture of the law according to the
Department of Health and Human Services, 1.1 million Americans have signed
up for a private insurance plan in January alone that brings the total
since enrollment began to 3.3 million. And still about a million below
target.

But also some other good news -- the percentage of young and healthy
enrollees grew in January, 27 percent between the ages of 18 and 34 in the
previous three months. That percentage was 24 percent.

Anyway, the perception, however, is still that the law isn`t working.
Perhaps one reason is the overwhelming number of political ads on the
topic, according to Kantor Media, there is just over a thousand commercials
airing in January alone for House races that focused on health care, a
thousand ads out there. Of these, only seven, that`s seven, just seven,
did not contain negative messages about the Affordable Care Act.

Steve, how do you deal with this? Congressman, how do you deal with the
fact that you`re getting blown away? I remember the president, one of our
briefings years ago said, you know, $200 million against health care during
the presidential campaign of 2012. At least he had something to fight back
with.

But it seems like they`ve just got -- Boehner says this is all he wants to
talk about. McConnell it`s all he wants to talk about. They believe they
can take the Senate, build their strength on the House on this one issue
alone.

How are they wrong in their thinking, the other side?

ISRAEL: I`ll tell you how they are wrong. They have made a strategic
calculation that this is going to be a midterm election base versus base.
Their base is divided. It is weak. They`re in a civil war.

The only thing that animates their base, the only thing that gets there
base out to vote is obsessive devotion to the repeal of the Affordable Care
Act. Where they`re losing is in this area. The majority of moderate
voters do not want the Affordable Care Act repealed.

They want it fixed and improved. And so, we`re going to continue to talk
about fixing and improving where we can, what we can. They`re going to
continue to talk about repealing. And I believe that we`re going to win
the argument, particularly with those moderate and independent voters.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: What if they lie, Steve, and say they want to repair. They`re
going to fix it up little bit and give you all the parts you like but none
of the parts you don`t like. Supposed --

(CROSSTALK)

ISRAEL: See, here is the problem, Chris.

MATTHEWS: Yes?

ISRAEL: Here is the problem. They haven`t told the American people what
they would replace it with, except in one instance. Two weeks ago, for the
first time since the law was enacted, three Republican senators put their
replacement on the table. And the "National Journal" had a time the next
day, Republican plan, you pay more.

So they can lie. We`ll tell the truth. We`re fighting back. We`re going
on offense. Defense doesn`t work anymore. We`re going on offense. We`re
going to hit him hard with the facts. They`re going to spend a lot of
money lying, but we`re fighting back.

REID: And, Chris, I can`t think of anything crazier, I have to say, than
proposing that we relitigate a national health care plan. If that is
really what Republicans are going to do, I think that`s political
malpractice. I mean, I think a lot of the country really at this point
really has health care fatigue, and talking about the Affordable Care Act
is not as hot as it was in 2010, because people I think are a little
exhausted by it.

And if the strategy for the GOP is to relitigate it with their own plan,
that is crazy. So I hope that`s not their plan, because it doesn`t make
sense.

MATTHEWS: You know what`s good, Congressman, about election night and,
Joy? We find who`s right.

REID: Yes.

MATTHEWS: Thank you so much, Steve Israel, and thank you, Joy Reid.

ISRAEL: Thank you.

MATTHEWS: Up next, it`s George Washington`s birthday. So where does
number 44 rank with the first 43?

This is HARDBALL, the place for politics.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: Colorado`s decision to legalize marijuana for personal use has
turned out to be much more popular than many people imagined. And the idea
may be spreading. A Quinnipiac poll found that in New York state, a
significant majority supports legalizing small quantities of pot for
personal use, 57 percent to 39 percent. And when it comes to legalizing
medical marijuana, it`s not even close, 88 percent favor it, against only 9
percent who are opposed.

We`ll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: We`re back.

President Obama has spoken openly about his legacy in recent months. Last
month, he told the "New Yorker`s" David Remnick that at the end of the day,
quote, "We`re a part of a long running story. We just try to get our
paragraph right."

Well, a few weeks earlier, President Obama came to HARDBALL and said this
about his how his legacy of accomplishment will be viewed. Let`s listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The interesting thing about
now having been president for five years is it makes you humbler as opposed
to cockier about what you as an individual can do. You recognize that
you`re just part of a sweep of history, and your job really is to push the
boulder up the hill a little bit before somebody else pushes it up a little
further, and the task never stops at perfecting our union.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: As he continues to push that boulder up the hill, President
Obama`s legacy is up for debate. In honor of George Washington`s birthday,
"Politico" magazine asked 10 leading historians how President Obama rank
news among his predecessors.

Sean Wilentz is an historian at Princeton University. Douglas Brinkley is
an author and presidential historian at Rice University.

Thank you, gentlemen.

Doug, thanks for joining us.

You know, you look at the accomplishments that come off the tongue, you
know, first African-American elected and reelected, Affordable Care, killed
bin Laden, stopped two wars, all the economic stuff coming out, the fiscal
and financial crisis, how is he stacking up right now?

DOUGLAS BRINKLEY, PRESIDENTIAL HISTORIAN: I think he`s an above average
president. I`d put him around what Bill Clinton is able to do. Obviously,
there are different kinds of accomplishments.

And a little bit like Dwight Eisenhower, right? Eisenhower created the
Korean War. It was unpopular. He got us out of Korea.

You see Barack Obama getting us out of Iraq, getting us out of Afghanistan.

And I think he`s opened the net with gay rights to get more gay people
involved in the Democratic Party, at least in American politics, and
getting two women to the Supreme Court. Not great, not near great, but
above average at this point.

MATTHEWS: Biggest failure?

BRINKLEY: I think he`s biggest failure is underestimating Congress,
underestimating the blowback that he was going to get, maybe overselling
himself in 2008, creating really high expectations that were almost
impossible to live up to.

MATTHEWS: Professor Wilentz, thank you for coming on. What is your sense
at this point? People always listen to you. I know you get a lot of
attention when you do give these dicta. But this is a big one I guess.

Is it too early, first of all?

SEAN WILENTZ, PRINCETON UNIVERSITY: Oh, I think it is too early. I mean,
to an extraordinary degree, an unusual degree, I think President Obama`s
legacy is going to depend on who his successor is. Look, his biggest
things that he`s gotten done -- health care above all, getting the economy
back on track. Those are very vulnerable.

If he is succeeded by a Republican, I mean, Obamacare is over, right? The
economy, the legacies left behind on regulation and so forth, that`s going
to be gone too.

So, apart from being the first African-American president, which is
historic, and no one can take that away from him, I think that his legacy
is still up for grabs.

MATTHEWS: That`s so fascinating. I read all the short terse remarks by
the historians, including you, and I thought that was great because it`s
something you can see as a verdict rather soon, two years from now, two and
a half years from now we`ll know.

And is this like George Bush Sr.? His election in `88 was a validation of
Reagan and gave him an added punch for his place in history. And if it had
been Mike Dukakis pulling an upset, in the end there, it would have been an
upset, Reagan wouldn`t be Reagan today?

WILENTZ: Yes, but I don`t think -- perhaps. But I don`t think that the
election in 2016 is going to be quite like that. The fact is that Hillary
Clinton comes after the -- if she is the nominee, Hillary Clinton will be
at a very different place than George Bush was as vice president. He got
through. The problem for Bush was he was only going to be a one-termer
because of divisions within the Republican Party.

MATTHEWS: Yes, let me ask Douglas about this question. If you get
Clinton, I think Secretary Clinton is probably going to run. Who knows? I
think she`ll probably run if he runs. I have no information beyond that.

If she wins, does Obama become a Clinton sandwich? I mean, he wanted to be
a transformational president. He is simply transforming the country from
one Clinton to another, one could argue cynically, that the Clintons have
won that battle. Your thoughts?

BRINKLEY: Well, yes. If Hillary Clinton wins, you`re going to see Ronald
Reagan and the Clintons as being sort of the Seminole transformative
characters of the second half of the 20th century.

I agree with Sean`s general thesis. It`s so important what Obamacare means
to the Obama legacy. And if a Republican`s gone in and that got thrown
out, it won`t look good for Barack Obama`s presidency.

However, Hillary has a really great chance. And remember, there is such a
thing as an Obama Democrat. The African American community has stayed
behind him at historic numbers, 90 percent, 95 percent still behind him, he
can help deliver some of that vote for Hillary Clinton in Ohio, Florida,
Virginia and other states.

MATTHEWS: I agree with you, Doug. If he holds on to the Obama core, in
fact, if he holds on to the Obama vote, has to add more working class
whites and maybe some more conservative other people, but basically she`s
got the election won.

Let me ask you about where he can do something great. Sean, professor --
maybe this is close to nigh heart. If he finds a way of avoiding a war,
what I think will be a long-term war with Iran and Hezbollah, is that going
to be his big one? Your thoughts?

WILENTZ: Yes, I mean, I think foreign policy, if he can work out the
Iranian situation, get a treaty there, that will be even more than Iraq and
Afghanistan. That will be his biggest legacy in foreign policy, apart from
the bin Laden business. But that will be it, I think. That will be
historic and change things around for him. No question.

MATTHEWS: Douglas, your thought? Is that the big one, still waiting for
him?

BRINKLEY: Yes, but remember, he`s also helped us understand the limits of
American intervention abroad. You see Barack Obama in some ways like Jimmy
Carter in foreign policy trying to keep us out of wars and in the long run,
that`s going to be a big part of his legacy that we didn`t have an Iraq
debacle like we had with George W. Bush, during his presidency.

MATTHEWS: Well said. Thank you, gentlemen. It`s great having you on
today. By the way, it is George Washington`s birthday. I don`t know what
the mattress sale is all about. Presidents` Day.

Anyway, thank you. That`s a bug from me.

Anyway, Sean Wilentz, thank you from Princeton.

And, Doug Brinkley, thank you from Rice.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: Let me finish tonight with this:

Here we are on George Washington`s birthday, reporting on how a bunch of
knuckleheads celebrated the first president by shutting down the bridge
named after him. Well, now, the man, himself, led us to victory over the
British army, of course, then resigned as commission rather than become a
dictator which happened so often in the world, including this modern world.
He left the presidency after two terms rather that staying on for life.
Again, a pattern in so many other countries ever since.

It was another George who put it best. The king of England asked his
American painter, his portrait painter, Benjamin West, what he thought
Washington would do after winning revolutionary war. West, who had moved
to England, answered, "They say he will return to his farm."

Here`s what the English king said on hearing this, "If he does that, he
will be the greatest man in the world."

And so, he lived to see the difference between those great leaders who
understand the privilege of power, and those petty beings who know only
enough to abuse it. George Washington and the idiots on his bridge.

Happy birthday, Mr. President, from the people who know the difference.

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

"ALL IN WITH CHRIS HAYES" starts right now.


END

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