Announcer: This is THE CHRIS MATTHEWS SHOW. Today...
CHRIS MATTHEWS, host:
The politics of war. Months ago the big death counts from Iraq were ushering in the Democrats. Now with the war toll down, how does Barack Obama keep the heat on Iraq? Will Americans vote to end the conflict that seems to be calming?
The good soldier. McCain was for the troop buildup even before the president was. Will progress on the ground make McCain look smart or will he still get blamed for the war itself?
And finally, stand and deliver. It's on his signs and in his speeches.
Barack Obama is promising change in Washington. But could the new kid on the block work the deal?
Profile: BBC's Katty Kay, NBC's David Gregory, Gloria Borger of
CNN and US News & World Report, and The New York Times columnist
David Brooks discuss presidential campaign; Tell Me Something
I Don't Know!; the Big Question
CHRIS MATTHEWS, host:
Hi, I'm Chris Matthews. Welcome to the show.
Katty Kay covers American politics for the British Broadcasting Corporation.
David Gregory chief White House correspondent for NBC News and host to "The
Race for the White House" on MSNBC. Gloria Borders senior political analyst
for CNN and a columnist for US News & World Report. And David Brooks is a
columnist for The New York Times and an analyst on "The NewsHour."
First up, America's seemingly endless war rages on, but things have quieted
down a bit in recent months thanks to the surge. And the surge was something
John McCain was pushing long before George Bush ordered it. Despite some
strong opposition from all sides, McCain stuck to his guns.
Senator JOHN McCAIN: (April 11, 2007) I would rather lose a campaign than a
MATTHEWS: The surge's success has been a point of honor for McCain.
Sen. McCAIN: (June 23) The new strategy, which I know is succeeding. I
don't think, I know because the facts on the ground show that this new
strategy called the surge is succeeding.
Victory in Iraq
NBC News/Wall Street Journal Poll
MATTHEWS: But most Americans are still opposed. In a recent NBC poll, 54
percent said victory in Iraq is no longer possible. And Barack Obama is using
that sentiment to his advantage, even while acknowledging recent improvements
Senator BARACK OBAMA: (From CNN, February 21) I think it is indisputable that
we've seen violence reduced in Iraq, and that's a credit to our brave men and
women in uniform. But this is a tactical victory imposed upon a huge
MATTHEWS: David, how can Barack Obama continue to be the major war critic in
this general election campaign and acknowledge some calming of the violence
DAVID GREGORY reporting:
I think the straddling that's going on right there is a recognition that Obama
is trying to reach voters who have already rendered a judgment on the war,
that it has failed, that it was a strategic failure. Yes, the violence may be
down, but he wants to focus on the cost of staying there. Is it a kind of
muddle? Is that what we're there for, a kind of political strategic security
muddle in Iraq, and is that what Americans want to pay for in lives, $10
billion a month, a protracted commitment there that may stir up additional
terrorist elements in that part of the world against the United States?
That's what he's counting on, that voters have essentially moved on; because
McCain is relying on people really filleting this debate up and saying, yes,
but he was for the war but he was for more troops and he would have gone about
a different tactically. That's asking a lot of voters.
MATTHEWS: So it's the big question of whether it was right to go and whether
it's right to stay a long time.
GREGORY: He wants to fight George Bush.
MATTHEWS: The big question.
GREGORY: He wants to argue the brief about whether we should have gone in in
the first place. A lot of Americans, because they're disconnected from the
war, have already rendered a judgment.
MATTHEWS: So he's still arguing the mind set, the big picture question of our
fight in that theater of the world. Now, can McCain turn it around and say,
`No. My differences with Bush are strong enough to merit giving me a shot for
Ms. GLORIA BORGER (CNN Senior Political Analyst, US News & World Report
Columnist): Well, McCain is making the case, of course, that he would not
have mismanaged the war the way George Bush mismanaged the war. And that's
going to be his case to make to the American people, that he's more competent.
MATTHEWS: Good war, wrong strategy.
Ms. BORGER: Wrong...
MATTHEWS: Can he win that argument?
Ms. BORGER: Wrong strategy.
MATTHEWS: Good war?
Ms. BORGER: Well, it depends...
MATTHEWS: Can he win it, it's a good war?
Ms. BORGER: The American public has made up its mind on this war. The surge
is working, yet that hasn't moved public opinion, which I think is really
Mr. DAVID BROOKS (The New York Times Columnist, The NewsHour): But that
doesn't--that doesn't explain why when you ask people, `Who do you support?
Who do you trust on the war?' John McCain has a slight advantage over Barack
Obama. And I think that's because they have exactly made up--made the
distinction David talked about. They're against the idea that we should have
gone in. They think it was a mistake. Going forward they have a very
different view. They don't want to stay there forever, but they don't want to
get out too soon. And I think what they sense about Obama is that what he
says--what he says sometimes, which is getting out within 16 months, he's just
not going to do that. And I think they understand that.
Ms. KATTY KAY (BBC Washington Correspondent): I think, I mean, isn't it
almost as well more of a gut reaction than having a clear policy? Do voters
think, `Well, I'm not sure if we should get out in 18 months or maybe we
should get out in five years or it depends on Iran.' I think it's almost that
people look at John McCain and they see war hero, and they see an older man,
and they assume that he has more experience. And there is a concern amongst
the Obama campaign that even if the war is going badly in Iraq, if it's on the
front pages of the papers come November, then people will think John McCain is
Mr. BROOKS: I think...
Ms. KAY: ...that he has more experience and, `We feel safer with John
MATTHEWS: So you believe that the prevalence of the war in our faces, that
the fact of casualties or whatever puts it on the front page or on the nightly
news is good for whom?
Ms. KAY: I think it could be curiously good for John McCain because people
feel safer with him.
MATTHEWS: Does everybody buy that, that making a noisy war, a horrible
war--all wars are horrible...
Ms. BORGER: I don't think...
MATTHEWS: ...but the noise level is good for McCain?
GREGORY: I don't agree with that and here's why.
Ms. BORGER: I don't.
GREGORY: I think that there has been a feeling among a lot of Americans that
a knee jerk reaction to get out and get out immediately is the wrong decision.
As long as it's not as prevalent a story about violence surging.
GREGORY: If there can be some calm, that Americans are willing to settle into
what David talked about, which is, `OK, who's going to manage this exactly
Mr. BROOKS: McCain.
GREGORY: We know McCain is going to be more prudent, but he doesn't, you
know, there's some who believe he wants to be there for a long time. When
Obama says we have to be as careful getting out as we were careless getting
in, that's the line.
GREGORY: That's a signal that says he's not yanking them out right away.
Ms. BORGER: And he also has to acknowledge the success of the surge; because
if you're running against McCain who you want to portray as a third term,
you're saying Bush was a president who never admitted failure. He has to be
someone who admits success and faces the reality of what's going on there.
GREGORY: And he hasn't really done that. David, what about--he has not
really done that yet?
Ms. BORGER: He's got a start.
Ms. BORGER: He has got to start.
MATTHEWS: Let me ask a question of policy. Right in the middle of this
debate is a question of policy. If you vote Barack, you're basically saying,
`I don't think the war was a good idea. I'd like to have a reasonable
withdrawal over several years, to get out. We hope he'll be prudent about
it.' If you vote for McCain, you're voting for the mindset of George Bush,
which is a long term commitment of some kind militarily in that world, over
there in Iraq. Right?
Ms. BORGER: If you're...
MATTHEWS: Aren't you voting for something different, David Brooks?
Mr. BROOKS: Yeah, I'm not sure. I think we're going to be there...
MATTHEWS: You're saying we're voting for the same policy?
Mr. BROOKS: No, there might be a difference in how gradually we withdraw. I
don't think there's a difference in kind. What you're voting for is two
things. You're first voting for a world view. How dangerous do you think the
world is and how big a threat are our enemies? The second thing, you're
voting for character. When Obama talked about change when he opposed the war
in the beginning, that was a symbol of the change message. That was about his
character. `I am something completely different.' When McCain risked his
campaign to be for the surge--and I rode with him, you've showed a clip from
April 11th, I rode with him in a van for an hour and a half that day,
absolutely convinced it would cost him the presidency that day. And so that
was a sign of his character. So this is an issue about character. Obama's
change character. McCain's guts and willing to take on an issue even though
it may cost him.
Ms. BORGER: Well that's...
Ms. KAY: But that's why I'm saying I'm not sure that people are looking so
sophisticatedly at the actual policy and the nuts and bolts of when America
gets out and whether Iran is involved and whether you can get out after 18
months so much as whether they're looking for reassurance.
Ms. BORGER: Well...
Ms. KAY: And I think that's where the character issue comes in.
Ms. BORGER: I think they're also looking for truth.
Ms. KAY: And that's where McCain can play up his independence and his
distinction from Bush as well as his own record.
Ms. BORGER: They're looking for truth. They're looking for somebody who's
not going to change with the winds, which is the way McCain wants to portray
Obama as somebody who will change his mind, and McCain will not because he
wants to do what's best for America. And he says he knows what's best for
America. But they want somebody they can believe on this war, which is
why--getting back to our other point--I believe Obama has to admit that, yes,
the surge has been working.
MATTHEWS: Let's go to the bottom line. We asked the Matthews Meter, 12 of
our regulars, will voters give McCain credit on Iraq for supporting the surge
or will they hold him accountable for Bush's decision to invade in the first
It's close. Seven say McCain will be given credit for backing the surge, but
five say he'll still be held accountable for the whole war itself. Katty,
Gloria and David Brooks, you all voted with the seven who think McCain will
get credit for being different from Bush for backing the surge and smartening
up the policy. Right?
Ms. BORGER: Yeah.
Ms. KAY: Yeah.
Ms. BORGER: Yeah.
Ms. KAY: Because if you look at how unpopular Bush is on this war, and Bush
is being seen as the person who went in for reasons that many Americans now
think were the wrong reasons or erroneous reasons. He's also being held
accountable saying, `You mismanaged this war.' Well, all McCain has to try to
do is distance himself to some extent from Bush's position over the last few
Ms. BORGER: Which he's done.
Ms. KAY: Which he's managed to do successfully.
MATTHEWS: David, you voted differently.
GREGORY: Yeah, I'm still struggling with this a little bit because I go back
to this point of if Americans had made a judgment about the war that it
failed, are they going to give McCain a lot of credit for having opposed the
troop levels and some of the implementation of the strategy? I just--I think
it's difficult. And I think, as a contrast to Obama, he looks much closer to
Bush, not just on Iraq but on Iran. And I think that scares a lot of people.
Ms. KAY: But he doesn't look just like him.
MATTHEWS: Yeah, looking forward...
Ms. KAY: But he doesn't look just like Bush.
GREGORY: He does look like Bush but...
MATTHEWS: I think, looking forward--well, looking forward, are we saying that
Bush is still closer to McCain? McCain is still closer to Bush and Barack is
still the odd man out? He's different than those two?
Ms. KAY: Yeah, clearly. Clearly Obama is more...
Ms. BORGER: But the difference is...
MATTHEWS: He offers a shift in strategy and approach.
Ms. BORGER: But the difference is that McCain will tell you that, `I
acknowledge reality and that George Bush never acknowledged reality, that I
understood the problems in Iraq and that I wouldn't have stuck with Donald
Rumsfeld as my secretary of defense.' And so he makes those differences.
MATTHEWS: OK, let's go back to competence and character on the front. Will
John McCain benefit from the whole question of Iraq in the fact of his
military experience, his support for the surge, his character, if you will, of
supporting the war against popular opinion, will the war be a plus for him?
Ms. KAY: I think, you know, paradoxically I think this war might be a plus
for John McCain. And I do think he's managed to distance himself enough from
George Bush. Of course he's not Barack Obama, but he's not George Bush
GREGORY: Even Obama's closest advisers do not believe they are going to win
the foreign policy or commander-in-chief test against John McCain despite the
war. So I don't think the war is a big enough negative for McCain and it is a
character play for him.
Mr. BROOKS: Oh, because he's still got the military experience.
Ms. KAY: It's not just the war.
MATTHEWS: So his record as a military man still triumphs.
GREGORY: His record as a military guy and a guy who stood up.
Ms. KAY: And the national security.
GREGORY: He did step up on troops. He opposed Rumsfeld and he backed the
surge. And it is a question of principle, like David says.
Mr. BROOKS: Right.
Ms. BORGER: And everything will be about national security for John McCain,
Mr. BROOKS: Well, the lesson of the war is we need a president who will take
it to the generals and tell them how wrong they are. George Bush was
unwilling to do that. John McCain has been taking on generals for 20 years.
He's comfortable doing that. Whether Obama can take on generals, that's sort
of an open question.
MATTHEWS: Interesting. Before we break, Americans say they're fed up with
the partisans wars of Washington so we keep hearing both Obama and McCain talk
about working across party lines. But haven't we heard all of this before?
Listen to George W. Bush back in 2000.
Mr. GEORGE W. BUSH: (October 3, 2000) It's going to require the ability of
a Republican president to reach out across the partisan divide and to say to
Democrats, `Let's come together to do what's right for America.' It's been my
record as governor of Texas. It'll be how I conduct myself if I'm fortunate
enough to earn your vote as president of the United States.
MATTHEWS: But like Obama's skeptics today, some people back then were
wondering about Bush's promises to be a new kind of leader. There was so much
skepticism about Bush that "Saturday Night Live" imagined a post convention
chat between George W. and his father, Bush 41.
(Clip from "Saturday Night Live"/Broadway Video, April 8, 2008)
Unidentified Actor #1: Now you're the nominee, time to do that dance over to
the middle, that middler dance in there, where "King Centrist" rules because
that's where politicians get elected. That vast middle area.
Unidentified Actor #2: Didn't I beat McCain by cozying to the right?
Actor #1: Listen, son, McCain wasn't afraid to tell people his honest
opinion, straightforward. What a nut.
Actor #2: Don't worry, Dad. I'm a reformer with results. I'm a
compassionate conservative. I'm a uniter, not a divider. I'm a uniter, not a
divider. I'm a uniter, not a divider.
Actor #1: Snap out of it.
Actor #2: But I'm a uniter, not a divider.
Actor #1: Don't make me do that. Look, no one knows what the hell that
(End of clip)
MATTHEWS: After the break, Barack Obama's got change written all over his
campaign, but can a Democrat who's promising bipartisan compromise really make
that happen? Plus scoops and predictions right out of the notebooks of these
top reporters, TELL ME SOMETHING I DON'T KNOW!
Be right back.
MATTHEWS: Welcome back. Historic numbers of Americans say the US is on the
wrong track. Voters want both parties, therefore, to work together to make
real change possible. That's Barack Obama's biggest pitch. But John McCain
insists Obama's not the real deal. Listen to McCain talk about that gang of
14 Democrats and Republicans, including himself McCain, who brokered a deal to
end that big partisan standoff over judges.
Sen. McCain: (May 6) By the way, Senator Obama had a choice of joining the
gang of 14. He chose not to. He chose not to. And under the most really
remarkable statements opposed Justice Roberts to be chief justice of the--to
be justice of the United States Supreme Court. Remarkable statements. And
then says he wants to work together.
MATTHEWS: Obama says he appears more partisan than he really is.
Sen. OBAMA: (Courtesy "Fox News Sunday," April 27) It is true that when you
look at some of the votes I've taken in the Senate, that I'm on the Democratic
side of these votes. But part of the reason is is because of the way these
issues are designed are to polarize. They're intentionally designed to
MATTHEWS: Who's right? Can Obama shake up Washington the way he promises he
can by finding compromises with politicians whose business it is to oppose
him? David Brooks, in a recent New York Times column, you wrote this, "He's
the most effectively political creature we've seen in decades. Even Bill
Clinton wasn't smart enough to succeed in politics by pretending to renounce
politics." David, let's get to the point. Can this guy cut deals?
Mr. BROOKS: I'll tell you something that's happened to me a couple of times.
Go up to the Congress, go up to the Senate, sit among Republicans and try to
make the case, I've tried to make the case, he's actually different. He
understands conservatives. He may not agree, but he understands the
arguments. This is what I get back from Republican senators, `He is a
complete con man. You're an idiot. He doesn't do any of that. He never
worked with us.' They like Hillary. They think Hillary works seriously with
them. They say, `He never worked with us. We've tried to have bipartisan
backroom discussions where we just talk about things, he and his staff would
never take part in those discussions. You are being conned. This guy doesn't
do any of that stuff.' Now, I'm not sure I guy their case, but I've heard that
case made to be forcefully time and time again.
MATTHEWS: Gloria, what's your hunch about his ability to walk over, cut an
interesting deal and actually get something done? I don't mean dramatic like
Nixon going to China.
Ms. BORGER: Right.
MATTHEWS: But how about patient's bill of rights, how about something that
breaks the log jam?
Ms. BORGER: Well, first of all, if he were to become president he may have
such a Democratic Congress that he might not have to walk across the aisles,
number one. Keep that in mind.
MATTHEWS: OK. But you still need 60 senators...
Ms. BORGER: Number two, there is...
MATTHEWS: ...to get anything done.
Ms. BORGER: Right. There is this sense, just to echo what David is saying,
and talking to senators up there, on both sides by the way, that Barack Obama
has a certain arrogance. And of course he's young. He's only been in the
Senate a few years and there he is running for president. Of course he's
arrogant. But there is a worry that they're not going to be inclusive enough
and that his staff has not been inclusive and that he has not been willing.
And remember John McCain...
MATTHEWS: What's wrong with these people?
Ms. BORGER: John McCain got in a huge fight with him...
MATTHEWS: Why can't they get together?
Ms. BORGER: ...over ethics reform.
Mr. BROOKS: OK, I agree. He jumped ship. He didn't stick with it. Fine
MATTHEWS: David, let me switch partners here. Let's talk about President
Bush. He came in--like we showed in that "Saturday Night Live" thing--he was
going to be the guy that had cut the deals back in Austin with the Democratic
legislature. In fact, his own lieutenant governor was a Democrat.
MATTHEWS: He was able to do that. That hasn't worked.
GREGORY: No, it didn't work, and it didn't work almost right away. He had a
much different environment in Texas, and Bill Bullock down there was--became a
mentor to him, and the setup was obviously--Bob Bullock, I think, excuse me.
A much different setup. And then he came to Washington and had a difficult
time forging relationships with Democratic leadership, 9/11 happened. I mean,
it just got off on a much different course. And, you know, I think Bush did
have some capability to do it. Look, he worked great with Ted Kennedy on
education when he got No Child Left Behind through.
MATTHEWS: No Child Left Behind.
GREGORY: You know, he really showed some of his muscles to do it. But when,
you know, he started with tax cuts, that really soured the mood. And then
once you got passed 9/11 it completely deteriorated.
MATTHEWS: OK, let's go with you.
Ms. KAY: I mean, I want to tell me what one...
MATTHEWS: I've got to ask you the bottomline--the bottomline.
Ms. KAY: Go on.
MATTHEWS: Who's the best one, Obama or McCain, at cutting deals across the
aisle and actually breaking the log jam? It's really stopped Congress from
getting anything really done in 40 years.
Ms. KAY: Well, McCain has more history of working across the aisle, but he
has much more history in the Senate as well. Remember, I mean, you know, it
is worth remembering he's only been there for two years, Barack Obama.
MATTHEWS: So McCain.
Ms. KAY: So he hasn't done a huge amount of anything very much, frankly, in
MATTHEWS: Qu'est-ce que c'est? I keep asking the question, `What has he
done, is he a show stopper?'
Ms. KAY: I mean, you know, that--it is really worth remembering that.
MATTHEWS: And McCain still the better deal maker?
GREGORY: I think he is, but I think Obama, if he becomes president, has the
kind of mandate that he could do some. Just because he hasn't done it before
doesn't mean he's incapable of it if he's got the right platform. It's going
to take more of a leap of faith, he doesn't have the record of doing it.
Ms. BORGER: It's his nature. Look at the way he's tacking to the center and
the general election campaign.
GREGORY: He had to do business to get elected.
MATTHEWS: Going back to your reporting that he just hasn't done it and he
can't do it.
Mr. BROOKS: I think it's possible. It's just, as David said, it's an open
question. I just wish he had shown some evidence of actually doing it on the
gang of 14 or something. But that's--with him it's a leap of faith.
Ms. KAY: One thing is that Republicans are so dissatisfied with their party
at the moment and with their party's leadership over the last few years that
it may be that Barack Obama comes in at a time when Republicans are also
looking for a new direction.
Ms. BORGER: I'll tell you where he's done it. He's done it on the personal
responsibility issue. He's done it on the values front to a certain degree.
But he hasn't done it...
Mr. BROOKS: He said fathers should look after their kids.
Ms. BORGER: Well, OK, fine.
Mr. BROOKS: Big whoop. I mean, I'm not giving him a lot of credit for that.
MATTHEWS: I still don't know why these guys can't, women can't cross the
aisle, figure out what the other side wants, take a piece of that, bring it
back, put their name on it and pass it.
I'll be right back with scoops and predictions right out of the notebooks of
these top reporters, TELL ME SOMETHING I DON'T KNOW!
Be right back.
MATTHEWS: Welcome back. Katty, TELL ME SOMETHING I DON'T KNOW!
Ms. KAY: Chris, picking up on what we were talking about and your big bug
about the demise of bipartisanship on Capitol Hill, somebody told me recently
that they blame it all on the airlines, that back in the old days you couldn't
fly out of Washington on Friday night and come back on Monday morning. So
lawmakers used to hang around together. They'd go to barbecues and their
families would get together, and so they built relationships. Now, they say,
because of those damn airlines, the fact that you can get flights so easily to
anywhere in America, people leave town. There's no relationship.
GREGORY: I predict that "bug bear" is going to become part of common parlance
in America over the course of summer.
MATTHEWS: (French spoken) What does bug bear mean, by the way?
GREGORY: Oh, it's kind of like "Peaches & Herb" or the other expressions she
uses. Anyway, I think that the real focus for Hillary Clinton is going to be
health care. With Senator Kennedy's illness, I think that that's really going
to be a big focus for her. She's going to own it. And I think Barack Obama
has signaled that if he's president, that's going to be maybe the top issue
that he comes out of the gate with.
MATTHEWS: And she's going to be the leader.
GREGORY: She's got to own it.
MATTHEWS: OK. Gloria?
Ms. BORGER: We've been talking a lot during the primaries about these
white/blue collar voters, men and how they're going to vote. I'm going to say
that it's not going to be about the men, it's going to be about the women.
And there will be a large gender gap in this election, women voting for Barack
Mr. BROOKS: First, "gobsmacked" is my favorite Briticism. But as to--the
Obama people are already talking about what they're going to do if elected.
And the first two pieces of legislation they're going to try to enact are
SCHIP health care and stem cell, to get things done quickly and to clearly
differentiate themselves from the Republicans.
MATTHEWS: Do you know this?
Mr. BROOKS: I was told this.
MATTHEWS: Oh, wow. I'll be right back with this week's big question. That's
not a prediction, that's a fact.
Who's going to win the debates? That's a prediction. We'll be right back.
MATTHEWS: Welcome back. Three presidential debates are set for the fall, so
who's going to win? Katty:
Ms. KAY: I think there's such a generational issue in this campaign it's
going to be Barack Obama.
MATTHEWS: On appearances? David:
GREGORY: Yeah, I think this is going to be one of McCain's best formats. I
think he likes it...
GREGORY: ...he's going to interact with it. I think he's going to be the
MATTHEWS: One to one.
Ms. BORGER: I think he's--McCain's going to do well as expected in town
halls; but one-on-one on the issues, Obama will come out.
MATTHEWS: Two to one Obama.
Mr. BROOKS: Obama is a law professor.
MATTHEWS: Three to one?
Mr. BROOKS: Yep.
MATTHEWS: Three to one. Wow, I'm not going to vote. Thanks to a great
roundtable. Katty Kay, David Gregory, Gloria Borger and David Brooks.