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The Rachel Maddow Show, Transcript 05/23/12

Guests: E.J. Dionne, Frank Rich

ED SCHULTZ, "THE ED SHOW" HOST: You don`t mess with deer hunting in Wisconsin. I can`t believe he`s done that. John Nichols, great to have you with us tonight. That`s "THE ED SHOW." I`m Ed Schultz. THE RACHEL MADDOW SHOW starts right now. Good evening, Rachel. I might just have to do a little bit of fishing the weekend before the vote in Wisconsin. I don`t know, I might have to do that. RACHEL MADDOW, HOST: I will warn the fish. I will warn the walleye that you are coming, Ed. Thank you, Ed. SCHULTZ: Thanks, Rachel. MADDOW: And thanks to you at home for staying with us for the next hour. It was 1977, he had had to resign the presidency of the United States three years early in disgrace, narrowly avoiding being impeached and convicted and thrown out of office. Frankly, he needed to make a little money. So, he agreed for a large fee to sit down for a series of TV interviews, in which he basically wanted to talk about anything other than Watergate. But he also wanted to defend himself on Watergate. He wanted to try to shape his legacy, to try to be seen as something other than just a disgraced crook who had had to resign as president. That effort -- that effort to try to rehabilitate his image, to defend himself on Watergate, led Richard Nixon to this iconic moment in the American presidency. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) RICHARD NIXON, FORMER U.S. PRESIDENT: Well, when the president does it, that means that it is not illegal. (END VIDEO CLIP) MADDOW: Richard Nixon was trying to rehabilitate his image there. That did not help. "If the president does it, by definition, it`s not illegal"? The president of the United States is above the law, just by virtue of being president? Richard Nixon is still and will forever be viewed as a crook and a disgrace to the presidency. Not only because of the crimes committed by his administration, but because of that outrageous assertion in his post- presidency interview with David Frost. If we are any one thing as a country, we are not a kingdom. We are a place where nobody is above the law, where no person is greater than the Constitution, even if they are the president. That is fundamental to who we are as a country and why we exist as a country. Less than 10 years after that Nixon interview, we had a new president who was the aesthetic opposite of him, where Nixon was shifty eyed and sweaty and seemed kind of paranoid, Ronald Reagan was sunny and upright and confident. He really was a very good communicator as president and he knew he was. But, you know, Ronald Reagan wrote over and over again in his diary as president about something that frustrated him. He wrote about the one thing that he felt was an exception to his ability to persuade the American people by virtue of his powers of communication. Ronald Reagan had high approval ratings, he had been able to get his way on tax policy, on social issues, and all sorts of things related to the cold war and the military. But, you know, he really, really wanted the U.S. to get involved militarily in Central America and despite all of his powers of persuasion, he could not persuade the country to do that. He lamented in his diary, "Our communications on Nicaragua had been a failure." Citing his pollster, "Dick Wirthlin`s poll figures were interesting and holding up well, except for the Nicaragua issue." He could get the public to go along with him on Central America. He could get the Congress to go along with him on Central America. This was the thing he could not persuade anyone to go along with him about. Now, it wasn`t for lack of trying. He talked about it all the time. He kept trying to persuade people, so everybody knew that he wanted to do it, but the answer was a really resounding no. From Congress, the answer was no within a exclamation point. Congress knew what Ronald Reagan wanted to do in terms of getting militarily involved in Central America. Congress responded by passing a law saying, we know you know you want to do this, you cannot do it. You cannot do it with the military. You cannot do it with the CIA. You cannot do it with any other agency. We know you want to do it, you cannot do it, it is illegal. No. N-O, no. And Ronald Reagan went ahead and did it anyway. And since it was illegal and he couldn`t get the money from Congress to do it, in order to fund this illegal thing he wanted to do, he sold weapons to Iran, seriously. And yes, this was after the hostage crisis. This was at a time when it was very clearly illegal to sell weapons to Iran. Illegal. Very obviously. It`s not like we weren`t paying attention to Iran at the time or where there was some loophole or something. It was blatantly, flagrantly illegal. Where Reagan got the money from and also what he did with the money, illegal. He broke the law overtly and on purpose. And these were huge, international, world-changing crimes. This was not putting a bug in the office of the Democratic Party chairman`s office, right? This was not stealing somebody`s psychiatric records, like Watergate was, right? This was missiles to Iran, that really did get delivered in order to fund the breaking of another law in Central America. And when Reagan got caught, as he inevitably had to, the Reagan administration`s justification for all this was, essentially, just an update of what Nixon had said about Watergate. Nixon had said, well, remember what Nixon said? (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) NIXON: Well, when the president does it, that means that it is not illegal. (END VIDEO CLIP) MADDOW: OK. The Reagan update on that was essentially, if the president does it and it`s about national security, that means it`s not illegal. Even though Reagan had done both sides of the hyphen in this scandal, both the Iran side and the Contra side, even though he had done both sides secretly, hoping nobody would find out, the Reagan administration`s after- the-fact justification for what he had done and why he had done it was that under Reagan`s commander in chief powers as president, it was perfectly legal for him to do anything he wanted to do, no matter what the laws were of the United States, because he was president. It`s crazy, right? I mean, this was a disaster. There were high- level indictments, administration officials went to jail. Amazingly, Reagan himself avoided impeachment, but when it came time for Congress to investigate this scandal, it was pretty much a slam dunk. They condemned not just what Reagan had done, but the outrageousness of that defense -- the idea that he could get away with breaking any law, just because he was president. It was not a close call. It was not seen as a particularly partisan verdict by Congress, when Congress investigated this scandal. But there was one dissent. There was a minority report -- a dissent to Congress` findings was filed by one congressman, who said that actually, he agreed with the administration on this. He agreed that if the president does it and it is about national security, then by definition, it isn`t illegal. He agreed that to a commander-in-chief, laws mean nothing. A president can do whatever he wants when it comes to national security. That was the little-noticed, pretty much totally overlooked minority report in the Iran-Contra investigation. That report was commissioned by a backbench, almost totally anonymous Wyoming congressman, whose name was Dick Cheney. Dick Cheney, of course, went on to become Dick Cheney. But his whole history in politics, his whole rise to power is filled with amazing stuff like this. When he was in Congress, Dick Cheney voted against asking the South African government to let Nelson Mandela out of prison. He voted against a federal holiday to recognize Martin Luther King, Jr. When Dick Cheney was in the Defense Department, he let out a little few million-dollar contract for a study, to see if it would be possible for a private company to handle all the logistics for a U.S. military operation abroad. So not just like a fuel contract here and a maintenance contract there, like we`d done before, but one big overarching sweetheart guaranteed profit deal to handle all of the logistics -- one company handling it all, building the barracks, feeding the troops, doing everything else the U.S. military used to do for itself, but doing it for profit instead. Dick Cheney paid a company to study whether or not that could be done. It was a company that we now call Halliburton. Halliburton looked into this the prospect and they decided that, yes, it could be done. But they also found that there was really only one company that could do it. Themselves. And so, lo and behold, they got that giant new kind of contract. And thus, a whole new business model was born, which very quickly became leviathan, in which the U.S. government spent at least $30 billion up in smoke during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars alone. After leaving the Defense Department, Dick Cheney obviously went to go become CEO of Halliburton, and that is where he was working when George W. Bush, then candidate George W. Bush, asked Dick Cheney to look into him who would be the best choice for him as his vice presidential running mate. Like Halliburton before him, Dick Cheney took that study on, decided to study the scene, look long and hard at all the options, and found, indeed, there was one great candidate to be George W. Bush`s vice president, but only one. Dick Cheney picked himself and that is how we ended up with a vice president who responded to somebody giving him a hard time about the Halliburton thing on the floor of the Senate by telling that United States senator on the floor of the United States Senate, "Go bleep yourself, Senator." Reflecting back on his vice presidency after leaving office, Mr. Cheney looked back on the "Go bleep yourself" moment fondly. (BEGIN AUDIO CLIP) DICK CHENEY, FORMER U.S. VICE PRESIDENT: It`s sort of the best thing I ever did. (END AUDIO CLIP) MADDOW: But, oh, Dick Cheney, how do you narrow it down when you`ve done so much? Mr. Cheney, you are the most astonishing figure in American politics. We expect some people to be very, very radical in American politics. We have a wide-ranging, wide-open, unconstrained political system. We expect some people to be really radical. We also expect some people to unexpectedly gain power in politics. But there is nobody who approaches your combination of maximum power and maximum radicalism. It is astonishing that somebody as radical as you got to be as powerful as you did in our country. If I sound fired up about this, I am. I fascinated by you. You know that book I wrote this year, "Drift," it is dedicated to Dick Cheney in the hopes that he will let me interview him about these things some day. I have a lot to ask him. But now, in today`s politics, we are still trying to figure out what it does to ourselves as a country, and specifically what it does to the Republican Party, to have had somebody that radical in the vice presidency for eight years. How the does that affect the party in an ongoing way, particularly as the party is still trying to find itself? I mean, when George W. Bush left office, his approval rating was 22 percent, but Dick Cheney`s was 13 percent. Herpes was more popular than Dick Cheney when he left office. America woke up from the Bush years by saying, oh my God, what were we smoking? But Dick Cheney is the concentrated distillate left in the bong water. He is everything America most hates and most hated about Republican radicalism in those years. It all went through him. Just his history alone is the history of what the Bush administration will be famous for if the history of the Bush administration is written by unkind people. He`s the guy who said, "Deficits don`t matter," and he meant it. He`s the individual from the administration who went to the CIA to personally comb through the intelligence to cherry-pick stuff that might be used to justify a war against Iraq that was not, in fact, justified. Those baroque and gymnastic and ultimately pitiful efforts to try to legalize torture -- that was mostly done through Cheney`s office. He had the oil companies come to the White House to secretly write the administration`s energy policy, and then he fought to keep secret the fact that they had ever been there. I mean, if you liked the war in Iraq, that was not only brought to you courtesy of the Cheney family secret recipe for cooking intelligence, but here`s exactly how much contempt he had for your views on the subject. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Two-thirds of Americans say it`s not worth fighting. CHENEY: So? (END VIDEO CLIP) MADDOW: So? It is amazing that Dick Cheney ever held high office in this country. The Bush administration in which he served is so deeply unpopular that the former president`s endorsement of the current Republican nominee was delivered from inside the closing doors of an elevator, and the former president has not said anything about it since. According to sources close to the Mitt Romney campaign, there are no plans to do any campaign events whatsoever with George W. Bush. They did not even put out a press release noting the endorsement of the former president of the United States. Now, it is not surprising that the Republican Party would not be all that enthused about the legacy of George W. Bush. But what do you make of the fact that they are all on board with the legacy of Dick Cheney? (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) REPORTER: Romney`s campaign is sending out e-mails announcing that former Vice President Dick Cheney will be hosting a July fund-raiser for that former Massachusetts governor at his home in Wyoming. (END VIDEO CLIP) MADDOW: That has not been retracted. It has now been a couple of days since it was announced that Dick Cheney would be hosting a fund-raiser for Mitt Romney this summer, a fund-raiser at which Mitt Romney will be present. That announcement was made two days ago, so it has now been long enough that we are pretty sure it was not a joke, it was not a misprint. Nobody has retracted it. That is really happening. And then today, former Bush administration secretary of state, Colin Powell, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, shined a huge spotlight on this issue by expressing his own incredulity at the number of Bush/Cheney holdovers that have turned up on the Mitt Romney foreign policy team. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) JOE SCARBOROUGH, MSNBC ANCHOR: Are you concerned with the foreign policy advisers that Mitt Romney surrounded himself with? We seem to have yet another Republican candidate who is sort of top heavy when it comes to neoconservatives around him. COLIN POWELL, FORMER SECRETARY OF STATE: I`ve noticed that. I don`t know who all of his advisers are, but I`ve seen some of the names and some of them are quite far to the right and sometimes they, I think, might be in a position to make judgments or recommendations to the candidate that should get a second thought. (END VIDEO CLIP) MADDOW: General Powell yesterday on the "Today" show expressed much the same sentiment, advising that people should not just choose between President Obama and Mitt Romney as individuals when they go to vote this November, but they should also look at, quote, "who they have coming with them." Seventeen of Mitt Romney`s 24 foreign policy advisers are Bush/Cheney guys. Even as Mr. Romney is shunning the endorsement and any joint appearances with the former president of the United States, George W. Bush, he is proudly publicizing and doing fund-raisers with Dick Cheney. We are still in the process of figuring out who the Republican Party is after Bush and Cheney. They did not become the party of John McCain when John McCain became their nominee in 2008. They did not become the party of Sarah Palin. We still do not exactly know who they are going to be. They`re still in the process of figuring it out. And with George W. Bush, they still don`t really seem to know what they`re going to do with him. But who could have predicted, who could have predicted that the guy they would decide they`re definitely still down, and they still want at the forefront of their party, the one guy they still want flying their flag is Mr. Go bleep yourself, Senator. I defy you to prove to me that anybody saw this coming. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Last weekend, I was watching C-SPAN and I saw Vice President Dick Cheney and he was being asked question about a whole host of issues, following 9/11, the affairs in the various countries in the world, and I was listening to him speak, and I say, whether you agree with him or disagree with him, this is a man of wisdom and judgment and he could have been president of the United States. That`s the kind of person I would like to have, a person of wisdom and judgment. (END VIDEO CLIP) MADDOW: Four more years. "New York" magazine writer at large, Frank Rich, joins us next. (COMMERCIAL BREAK) MADDOW: Two really smart and really amiable guests here in the studio tonight, Frank Rich and E.J. Dionne, both here. We`ll be right back. (COMMERCIAL BREAK) (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) ROMNEY: Last weekend, I was watching C-SPAN and I saw Vice President Dick Cheney and he was being asked question about a whole host of issues, following 9/11, the affairs in the various countries in the world, and I was listening to him speak, and I say, whether you agree with him or disagree with him, this is a man of wisdom and judgment and he could have been president of the United States. That`s the kind of person I would like to have, a person of wisdom and judgment. (END VIDEO CLIP) MADDOW: Mitt Romney, a person who is not joking -- the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, totally, completely, and apparently sincerely embracing the legacy of Vice President Dick Cheney and promising that he`ll look for somebody like that when he`s looking for a vice president. He will be attending a fund-raiser at Vice President Cheney`s house in Wyoming this summer. Joining us now is Frank Rich, a writer at large at "New York" magazine. His piece this week in "New York" magazine is called, "Post- Racial Farce," which argues that the nation`s conversation on race is as wacky and frankly hopeless as a new Broadway play called Clyburn Park. I should also mention, the previous works of Frank that I found myself reading again today, in seeing the Bush/Cheney years come roaring back in the Romney campaign, his book, "The Greatest Story Ever Sold: The Decline and Fall of Truth in Bush`s America". Frank Rich, good to see you. Thanks for being here. FRANK RICH, NEW YORK MAGAZINE: Great to see you, Rachel. MADDOW: I keep my Frank Rich archive close at hand for moments like this. RICH: I`m impressed, thank you. MADDOW: You were writing about how we don`t necessarily move on from either our good debates or our old debates. We tend to be stuck in some of the same ruts and we tend to talk ourselves into the idea that we are making progress when we are not. Is the Republican Party in a position that they have moved on from the Bush/Cheney years, or are we about to re- live them? RICH: It`s hard to believe that even most Republicans want to relive them. In fact, this whole, you know, tact that Romney`s taking that you just described is really odd. I mean, I don`t think -- the Republican base, some of it`s to the right of Bush/Cheney. They regard him almost as a leftist now, given how the party has changed in the Tea Party era, but this sort of revival, you know, as Colin Powell said, what is Mitt Romney thinking, exactly? The country turned on the war in Iraq, it turned on the war in Afghanistan. Both were mismanaged by Bush/Cheney and their team. They don`t even poll about them now, they`re so sort of discredited and Americans of all stripes are sick of them. So why revive, you know, not so fond memories of this, you know, foreign policy catastrophe, really? MADDOW: You`ve been -- in your piece in "New York" magazine this week, you summarize in this sort of horrible list, some of the really overtly racist things that have happened in this past year of campaigning - - everything from the president being called a food stamp president, to all of those other sorts of moments that we have had, on an issue that we keep thinking that we are getting over. I really want there to be a constructive debate between two articulate cogent sides, at least, maybe more than two. RICH: Yes. MADDOW: People who are talking about policy and who are presenting different ideas, and then we have a fight and the best side wins the argument and that`s the policy that we pursue. What is the fight over, substantively, right now? Are we having a substantive fight, or is it name calling on one side and internal politics on the other? RICH: Well, I think the fight the country is having right now is about mainly two philosophies of government. The fight over race is just a continuing -- that seems to be just a replay with different names, different forms for it, even with an African-American president, that just keeps playing out. It`s a stain on America that we`ve seem unable to shake. In foreign policy, I don`t think we`re really having a debate right now. I think that basically the country is kind of in agreement for the most part, which is less foreign involvement, protection against terrorism, obviously, and Obama sort of won that argument. Indeed, he won it from Bush and Cheney by getting Osama bin Laden when they actually failed to do it. So the idea of bringing back the neoconservatives and the whole Cheney team, I don`t know what debate that reopens. I think it`s a settled case about the Iraq war. MADDOW: And I think that`s the most interesting thing about it, because we had the NATO summit this week in Chicago. And remember, Mitt Romney wrote that op-ed in the Chicago paper, to sort of greet President Obama there and give his counterpoint to what President Obama might be saying at the summit. Never mentioned Afghanistan at all, didn`t bring it up at all, criticized the president for saying he was going to cut back in defense spending, but other than that, literally did not talk about the Afghanistan war. Dick Cheney is out there saying that the Iraq war shouldn`t have been ended, that we should still have troops in Iraq. He`s not explicitly said that about Afghanistan, but you get the sense that if somebody asked him, that he would be critical of the fact that we`re ending it. Romney isn`t going there on policy. It`s like he`s embracing Cheney on personality. RICH: On personality, and it seems the one way there is a policy over-lapse, it`s kind of an undifferentiated general truculence. That seems to be the Romney foreign policy. MADDOW: OK. RICH: Russia is still the biggest enemy we have. He wants to have a trade war with China apparently. He`s still involved with Eastern European Cold War countries that don`t exist anymore. He wants to have war with Iran, it seems, even though the Obama policy is proving to be quite successful in terms of tough sanctions. So, it`s sort of -- it`s almost like he`s embracing the truculence that Cheney represents without any real intellectual framework or engagement. MADDOW: Or Cheneyism. RICH: Yes, exactly. MADDOW: That the actually goes some distance to explaining why we would be embracing Cheney and not Bush. There`s been some effort to try to make second-term Bush seem like less of a cowboy than first time Bush seemed. Make him to seem, like he was sort of, I guess, less -- not aggressive, but he always seemed aggressive, but they certainly tried to dial up other aspects of his personality rather than just saying, "you`re with us or against us" guy. So maybe George W. Bush is less of a good vessel for that projection than Cheney is? RICH: He`s sort of a wuss now? Well, the truth is, you`re absolutely right. That we know that Bush distanced himself from the biggest parts of the -- the harshest parts of Cheneyism towards the tail end of the administration. At least, that`s the story we`re given. So, yes -- MADDOW: So he`s not of use anymore? RICH: Right. And also, getting back, I think another point is, precisely because of Obama took out Osama bin Laden, precisely because he is a Democrat who seems strong on foreign policy and national defense, then who`s the person -- what`s the personality you want to graft on to yourself to say that I`m even harsher and more draconian than the guy who took out Osama bin Laden. Well, I guess it`s Dick Cheney, although, I hope in that fund-raiser, Cheney`s not packing heat. We don`t want that kind of truculence. MADDOW: Already also been known for shooting a friend in the face on a hunting trip. Yes. RICH: Another way to look at it is, of course, in the NBC/"Wall Street Journal" poll this week, Bain had an approval rating, Bain capital, of 9 percent, Cheney at 13, it`s a step up. MADDOW: You have solved it! It`s changing the page to something more popular. Dick Cheney, right there, with herpes. Frank Rich, "New York" magazine writer at large -- thank you for being here, Frank. RICH: Thanks for having me. MADDOW: I sort of feel like we walked down a very winding path down there, but I appreciate it. RICH: No problem, love it. MADDOW: The news media -- that includes us here -- the news media is being challenged to a test. Not like a celebrity "Jeopardy!" kind of thing, but an actual test. Our number 2 pencils are at the ready. I hate tests. That`s ahead. (COMMERCIAL BREAK) MADDOW: It is extremely unlikely that you know the name of Miss Teen South Carolina 2007. I don`t. You don`t. You are forgiven for not knowing. But even without knowing her name, it is still likely that you remember her forever for this one piece of video. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) MISS TEEN SOUTH CAROLINA 2007: Some people out there in our nation don`t have maps and, I believe that our education, like, such as in South Africa and the Iraq, everywhere, like, such as. (END VIDEO CLIP) MADDOW: Yes, locked in the memory banks. The person who got a little lost during a beauty pageant, such as the Iraq, the maps, that whole thing, you may not remember her name, but she forever is the person who said that thing, that time. It`s like the solitary confinement cell of public awareness. Somebody says something publicly which is never, ever forgotten, and for which that person is remembered exclusively, forever. It doesn`t happen very often, but when it does happen, it sticks with you. And it has just happened again. It has just happened again right in the middle of the 2012 Republican revival of birtherism that`s happening right now. We have the tape. You need to prepare some space in your permanent memory for a new person who said that thing, that time, which you will always remember after you see this tape. It`s coming up. (COMMERCIAL BREAK) MADDOW: Nestled inside one of the stupidest fights in all of American politics right now is one of the most important ideas in all of American history. The stupid part is the supposed fight in the presidential campaign right now about whether or not the presidential candidates are going to talk about the thing they both want to talk about. It`s ridiculous. Both candidates really want to talk about Mitt Romney`s business record. Mitt Romney wants to talk about it because his record as governor of Massachusetts doesn`t have all that many applause lines. And because it makes him seem like he might have some technical know-how when it comes to juicing the economy. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) ROMNEY: For me, politics is not a career. For me, my career was being in business and starting a business and making it successful. I spent my life in the private sector. I understand how the economy works. I spent most of my life outside politics, dealing with real problems in the real economy. Career politicians got us into this mess and they simply don`t know how to get us out. (END VIDEO CLIP) MADDOW: Mitt Romney as a presidential candidate is not running as a politician, as a former governor, which he is. Instead, he keeps bringing up his time in business. President Obama also keeps bringing up Mitt Romney`s time in business. Because Mitt Romney was not in just any business, he was a leveraged buyout financier. And so the Obama campaign is thinking that in the immortal words of Mike Huckabee, the American people are not looking to elect a president who reminds you of the guy who laid you off. So both sides want to talk about Mitt Romney`s time making his zillions at Bain Capital. They both have their reasons to do it, and they both want to do it. And since both sides want to do, it is kind of dumb to expend all of this hot air fighting about whether or not both sides are going to do that. They are. But buried in that dumb debate is one very smart idea, about American history, about American thought, about our divided political heart. As E.J. Dionne describes it in his wonderful new book of the same name. It`s the tension, the debate, the fight, the American question about whether we as a nation prosper by virtue of the combined result, the accidentally combined result of us all just striving individually for our own self-interest or whether there is something we are trying to do, whether there is something we are aiming to do for us as a whole, for us as a nation. Whether we recognize and value and take responsibility for how everybody does in the country, or whether we are just looking out for ourselves. It is an interesting question. It is a central query in what kind of country we are, and it is an animating question for the kinds of political debates we have as people, as Americans. And in the midst of today`s dumb, fake fight that we`re having supposedly about campaign tactics, this important point keeps coming up. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: This is part of the debate that we`re going to be having in this election campaign, about how do we create an economy where everybody, from top to bottom, folks on Wall Street and folks on Main Street, have a shot at success. And if they`re working hard and they`re acting responsibly that they`re able to live out the American Dream. When you`re president, as opposed to the head of a private equity firm, then your job is not simply to maximize profits. Your job is to figure out how everybody in the country has a fair shot. And so if your main argument for how to grow the economy is, I knew how to make a lot of money for investors, then you`re missing what this job is about. It doesn`t mean you weren`t good at private equity. But that`s not what my job is as president. My job is to take into account everybody, not just some. (END VIDEO CLIP) MADDOW: Joining us now for the interview is E.J. Dionne, "The Washington Post" columnist and MSNBC contributor, Brookings Institution senior fellow, and author of the really, really delightful new book, "Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent." E.J., it is great to have you here. Congratulations on this. E.J. DIONNE, WASHINGTON POST: Thank you so much. MADDOW: It`s really great. DIONNE: It`s great to be here. MADDOW: We just -- I wanted to play that because the president is articulating this idea of looking out for everybody, of taking into account how everybody in the country is doing, because our cumulative well-being not only matters, but it`s something that we ought to take responsibility for. Are Republicans talking about that too? Are conservatives talking about that too, in a different way, but with different language, or are they not talking about it at all? Is this the fight that we`re having this year? DIONNE: I think it is. I think you described it really well, but I think something has happened to conservatism that`s not healthy for conservatism or the country. I think conservatives used to have a very strong sense of community, and the importance of community, and the idea of a divided political heart is that we Americans, on both sides of this, we do honor individual liberty and individual freedom and individual effort, but we also honor what we can do together. We honor our lives together. And I think the current brand of conservatism has embraced the kind of radical individualism, which I think is very different from the tempered American individualism that balances these two things. And I think that`s why you`re seeing Republicans opposing all kinds of things that government does that Republicans didn`t used to oppose. In some ways, my book could be said to be inspired by my favorite Rachel Maddow promo, which is Rachel at the dam. What is that promo about? It is about the fact that, yes, we do write things together individually, but we also build great things together collectively, not only through government, but often through government. And we are best when we do both those things. Yes, when we strive as individuals, but, yes, when we know how to take care of one another and how to do things together. MADDOW: Is the government the key, though? Is current conservatism devoted to the idea that we can do some things collectively, but we should never do things collectively through government, that there should only be other forms of collective association, whether it be religion or family or smaller forms of politics? DIONNE: I think that is what it`s about now. And I think that breaks -- you know, a lot of our friends in the Tea Party act as if the Founders did not create a strong government through the Constitution, but they did create a strong government. They seem to argue that government really didn`t get involved in things until the progressive era or the New Deal. Well, that writes Alexander Hamilton out of our story, writes Abraham Lincoln out of our story, it writes Henry Clay out of our story. Henry Clay, the Whig leader, who was Lincoln`s hero, talked about the American system and it was about doing internal improvements that we now in a more ugly way call infrastructure -- roads, canals, bridges, and also building up our manufacturing capacity. He called it the American system to distinguish it from British laissez-faire. You mentioned what the Club for Growth would make of that. He was saying the American way is to combine individual effort with collective effort, not just to leave us all out there on our own. MADDOW: Are American conservatives in a cyclical place that they have been in before, with this overweighting emphasis on individualism? Or is this something brand-new? And if it is brand-new, why now? DIONNE: I think it`s brand-new, except for one period in our history, which is the Gilded Age, the period after the Civil War. Even then, government did more than we let on. We had an enormous Civil War pension system that took up 37 percent of the federal budget back in 1894. But basically, that was the one -- that was the 35-year exception to a 235-year history. Since then, yes, you`ve had conservatives who talked a lot about individual liberty. Yes, they talk a lot about the free market. But I don`t think you`ve had them this firmly on a radically individualistic side before. And I think that`s why it makes this election such a fundamental choice. MADDOW: E.J., you write in a way, and you embody in your life as a public intellectual, this idea of mutual respect among people who disagree. And you write a lot about your administration for conservative thought in this book. And part of your prescription is that we need to respect balance and seek it. If you are seeking balance, how do you do that with people who reject balance out of hand? How do you start the conversation here? I know you believe that we can. I`m more skeptical. DIONNE: Well, I am skeptical of doing business right now with folks who reject balance. I mean, the fact of the matter is that for the moment, it`s progressives who are the moderates, because we are not out there saying, we want total state ownership of the economy. We`re not out there saying, we reject individual liberty as a concept. We`re arguing that if you look at the New Deal, Franklin Roosevelt talked all the time about balance. He didn`t wreck capitalism, he saved it. And so, I`m afraid that in this period, I do respect the conservative tradition and a lot of conservatives personally, but I think in this period, they have gone off track and this brand of conservatism has to be defeated, so conservatives themselves can return to the better parts of their own traditions. MADDOW: I feel like there is a weight lifting off my shoulders to hear you say that. Like, to hear you articulate it and to read you prove it in the book. I agree with you so much about that and I feel like I`ve been sort of shouting into the wind about it and not making very much sense about it and you`ve made a ton of sense about it in a historical context and in a really eloquent way. And I`m so glad you`ve done it. E.J., thank you. DIONNE: Well, thank you so much. MADDOW: The book again is called "Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle for an American Idea in the Age of Discontent" -- if you buy it now, it comes with a special RACHEL MADDOW SHOW blurb on the back, while supplies last. Actually, I think it`s just there. Anyway -- E.J., thank you. DIONNE: Thank you. MADDOW: All right. It was a rough week for planet whackadoo`s political talking point. The best video of the night by far, coming up next. (COMMERCIAL BREAK) MADDOW: News test, pencils ready, coming up. (COMMERCIAL BREAK) MADDOW: Meet Colorado Congressman Mike Coffman. He is a Republican. This is him speaking at a recent fund-raiser. (BEGIN AUDIO CLIP) REP. MIKE COFFMAN (R), COLORADO: I don`t know whether Barack Obama was born in the United States or not. I don`t know that. But I do know this. That in his heart, he`s not an American. He`s just not an American. (APPLAUSE) (END VIDEO CLIP) MADDOW: Congressman Coffman later issued a statement apologizing for his comments, sort of. He said he does think the president is an American citizen, but he doesn`t think the president has a sufficiently American philosophy, whatever that means. What does that the mean, actually? I mean, it`s one thing if this is just another random birther or pseudo birther fringe Republican congressman. It`s not that rare anymore in the Republican Party. But if this were your congressman or a congressman from where you lived, you might reasonably want more of an explanation for what he meant by that. And so reporter Kyle Clark from the NBC affiliate in Denver, Channel 9, put some shoe leather into this thing and tracked the congressman down to try to get more of an explanation. When he did finally catch up to the congressman, what happened next on tape is one of the all-time great moments of good cogent dogged local news reporting, catching up with a congressman who does not want to be caught up to. This tape is amazing. If you`re watching me on DVR, hit pause, go pop some popcorn, then come back, sit down, and watch this. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) KYLE CLARK, REPORTER: After your comments about the president, do you feel that voters are owed a better explanation than just, I misspoke? COFFMAN: I think that -- as I -- I stand by my statement that I I`m a spoke and I apologize. CLARK: OK, who are you apologizing to? COFFMAN: I standby my statement and I am a spoke and I apologize. CLARK: I apologize. We talk to you all the time. You are a very forthcoming guy. Who is telling you not to talk and to handle it -- COFFMAN: I standby my statement that I wrote, that you have. And I misspoke and I apologize. CLARK: Was it that you thought it would go over well in Elbert County where folks are very conservative and you would never say something like that in the suburbs. COFFMAN: I standby my statement, that I misspoke and I apologize. CLARK: Is there anything I can ask you that you`ll answer differently? COFFMAN: You know, I standby my statement, that I misspoke and I apologize. CLARK: Thank you, Congressman. COFFMAN: Thank you. (END VIDEO CLIP) MADDOW: I stand by my statement that I misspoke and I apologize. Wow. Between Congressman Mike Coffman making himself forever famous with that news clip, and the Arizona Republicans birther thing going down in flames this week, too -- this has really been a bad week in the Republican project of trying to convince people that President Obama is foreign and therefore secretly not really the president. What happened in Arizona is the Republican secretary of state had been threatening to keep President Obama off the ballot in Arizona because he said he wasn`t` convinced of the authenticity of the president`s birth certificate from Hawaii. (BEGIN AUDIO CLIP) HOST: If they refuse to comply with this, will you remove the president from the ballot? Will you exclude him from the ballot? KEN BENNETTE, ARIZONA SECRETARY OF STATE: That`s possible. (END AUDIO CLIP) MADDOW: That`s possible. Now, the Arizona secretary of state threatening to keep President Obama off the ballot. His name is Ken Bennett. He is also Mitt Romney`s campaign co-share for the great state of Arizona, perhaps needless to say. After increasing national attention to his shenanigans this week, after Talking Points Memo published the increasingly surreal and hilarious e-mail correspondence between the state of Hawaii and the state of Arizona on this matter, the Mitt Romney co-chair and secretary of state for the great state of Arizona has decided to apologize and back off. (BEGIN AUDI O CLIP) BENNETT: If I embarrassed the state, I apologize but that certainly was not my intent. He`s going to be on the ballot as long as he fills out the paper work in August just like everybody else has to. (END AUDIO CLIP) MADDOW: Congratulations, Arizona Secretary of State Ken Bennett, and Colorado Congressman Mike Coffman. It has been a bad week to try to get away with trying to be a birther in public. But it has been a good week for you becoming nationally famous, both of you. (COMMERCIAL BREAK) MADDOW: Today, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney did a press briefing on board Air Force One, a press briefing in which he went on offense in a big way, not against Republicans but against the press serving as uncritical stenographers for Republican talking points against the Obama White House. For example, there`s this new $10 million Karl Rove ad buy, which says President Obama`s unprecedented spending is just out of control. Well, on Air Force One today, Mr. Carney quoted to the press this passage from a new "Wall Street Journal" piece disproving that Republican talking point. Quote, "Of all of the falsehoods told about President Obama, the biggest whopper is the one about his reckless spending spree. Almost everyone believes that Obama has presided over a massive increase in federal spending. But it didn`t happen. Although there was a big stimulus bill under President Obama, federal spending is rising at its slowest pace since Eisenhower brought the Korean War to an end in the 1950s. Even hapless Herbert Hoover managed to increase spending more than Obama has." After reading that passage aloud to the assembled press corps on Air Force One, Jay gave the press an earful, stopping just shy of cursing. (BEGIN AUDIO CLIP) JAY CARNEY, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: I simply make the point, as an editor might say, to check it out, do not buy into the B.S. that you hear about spending and fiscal constraint with regard to this administration. I think doing is a sign of sloth and laziness. In the post-war era, the only two presidents under which the size of the federal government shrank, not Reagan, not Nixon, not Bush or Bush -- President Carter. How could that be? Well, it`s a fact. So next time you are lectured by a Republican member of Congress who voted for all the budget-busting measures under the previous administration, remind them of that record, on my behalf. (END AUDIO CLIP) MADDOW: It doesn`t make a difference to have the Democratic White House press secretary scold them over not fact-checking Republican claims. I do not know. But we are about to have a test of that. Watch. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) MARK HALPERIN, TIME: What would the United States look like at the end of 2013 in terms of jobs, unemployment and economic growth if you were president? ROMNEY: You would see a dramatic change in the perspective of small businesses, entrepreneurs, middle-sized businesses and perhaps even large multinationals. They`d say, you know what? America looks like a good place to invest again. HALPERIN: Would you like to be more specific about what the unemployment rate would be like at the end of your first year? ROMNEY: I cannot predict precisely what the rate would be at the end of one year. I can tell you that over a period of four years, by a virtue of the polices that we put in place, we get the unemployment rate down to 6 percent, perhaps a little lower. (END VIDEO CLIP) MADDOW: Mitt Romney talking with Mark Halperin today, promising to get the rate down to 6 percent or maybe lower by the end of his first term as president, 6 percent. Here`s the test. Mitt Romney wants to be held to 6 percent unemployment at the end of this first term. What did he say President Obama should be held to? (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) ROMNEY: Just this morning, there was some news that came across the wire that said that the unemployment rate has dropped to 8.1 percent and normally that would be cause for celebration. But, in fact, anything over 8 percent, anything near 8 percent, anything 4 percent is not cause for celebration. (END VIDEO CLIP) MADDOW: Sure, President Obama has brought it down, but anything over 4 percent is an Obama failure. Four percent unemployment is something we have seen precisely once since 1970, in the year 2000, at the end of the Bill Clinton presidency. But Mitt Romney says anything over 4 percent is a failure of the Obama administration. Then two and a half weeks later, he says his own goal is 6 percent unemployment. It should be noted that the Congressional Budget Office forecasters already said earlier that we are on track to hit 6 percent by that time frame anyway, under current policy. So Mitt Romney is pledging to get the unemployment rate all the way to the level it is expected to go to anyway, even if he does nothing. But anything less 4 percent right now for President Obama, that`s a failure. This is a test of the Washington press corps. This is the test for bloggers, or snarky opinion columnists or liberals on TV who talk about this stuff all the time. This is a test for straight up, report the facts, Beltway reporters, charged with the responsibility of conveying the importance of what the candidates say and do. Mitt Romney says he wants to be held to a 6 percent unemployment rate but if Obama isn`t at 4 percent, that`s a failure. This is a test. This is only a test. If there were real national investment in the rigor of Beltway reporting, your job would be on the line if you didn`t get this right. Now, it`s time for "THE LAST WORD" with Lawrence O`Donnell. Have a great night. THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED. END