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The Rachel Maddow Show, Transcript 07/18/12

Guests: Bob Herbert, Michael Waldman

RACHEL MADDOW, HOST: Good evening, Ed. Thank you. SCHULTZ: Thank you. MADDOW: And thanks to you at home for staying with us for the next hour. Happy birthday to Vin Diesel. Vin Diesel turned 45 years old today. And on the occasion of the birthday of the movie star who oddly looks like Newark Mayor Cory Booker a lot, Vin Diesel`s wildly successful car-related, fast-paced explody movie "Fast and Furious" is back in the news. At least it`s back in the newspaper. This is an ad -- look at this -- this is an ad that ran in "The Washington Times" today. "The Washington Times" is the moony newspaper in Washington, D.C. In my opinion, it is not a particularly credible newspaper as a source of news, but it is a conservative milk piece of source, so the Washington times does get read, at least by Republicans. In "The Washington Times" today, a $100,000 reward is offered for verifiable evidence of White House involvement in Operation Fast and Furious. A bounty. So, years of obsessive conspiracy minded investigations by House Republicans did not turn up any evidence of this. But maybe this reward money in the moony newspaper in Washington will. This ad was linked to "Roll Call" newspaper today. The group that took out the ad in the times is a project of something called the Conservative Caucus, which it should be noted, has a very entertaining Web site. If you go to the issues section of the Conservative Caucus Web site, the number one issue for the Conservative Caucus is the Panama Canal. Their idea, roughly speaking, is we need to invade Panama and talk the Panama Canal back because obviously, communists or something. The Panama Canal and up all night hair-on-fire fantasies about communists coming up the canal to come get us in the middle of the night, that -- those have been around for a while. In the 1970s and the 1980s, the Panama Canal was the Fast and Furious, birth certificate, the president is a secret Muslim conspiracy theory of its day. And when that Panama Canal conspiracy theory was lighting up the tin foil hats of the far right wing a generation ago, it was an ambitious politician named Ronald Reagan who took that issue from the fringe and decide today mainstream it into national mainstream Republican politics. In 1976, Ronald Reagan based his presidential campaign in part on this insane idea that the Panama Canal was basically an American state that we can`t let the communists steal this American thing from us. He mainstreamed this paranoid, far-right fantasy that if we went along with our treaty obligations to let Panama run its own canal, then America would seize to exist. We would be destroyed as a nation. If Panama got control of the Panama Canal, that would be the beginning of a very quick and bloody end for America. This worked great for Ronald Reagan in political terms. This was one of the main issues he rode to power on in the late 1970s. Even as people on his own side of the aisle, people in his own party, even his own friends, saw what he was doing as disgusting and craven and bad for the country. Quoting from a book about this chapter of history that I wrote, While William F. Buckley and America`s beloved tough guy, John Wayne -- yes, that John Wayne -- campaigned full on for the ratification of the Panama Canal Treaty, Reagan demagogued with a vengeance. Reagan said on his weekly, the loss of the Panama Canal `would contribute to encirclement of the United States by hostile naval forces and thereby threaten our ability to survive.` Even after John Wayne sent Reagan a private and personal note offering to show him point by goddamn point in the treaty where you are misinforming people and offering fair warning that`s it`s time for the Gipper to shut his pie hole, saying, if you continue to publish these remarks, someone will release the letter saying that you`re not as thorough in your reviewing of this treaty as you say you are, or you`re damned obtuse when it comes to reading the English language." Even in the face of that, from his friend, the movie star Jon Wayne, Ronald Reagan doubled down. And you know what? We did end up giving the canal back to Panama, and the United States did not cease to exist. Ronald Reagan was totally wrong about the whole Panama Canal thing being a major threat to us. And from his private correspondence, it seems like Ronald Reagan knew that. But publicly, he carried on. It was too tempting -- it was too temping for him not to use it anyway. And that craven decision on his part is a little tiny piece of why not everybody thinks Ronald Reagan should be on Mt. Rushmore. However much you may like Ronald Reagan, this is part of his legacy, too. And politicians confront questions like this all the time, the opportunity to mainstream really destructive, prejudicial, hysterical stuff, to mainstream conspiracy theories for your own political gain, that is something that politicians of lots of different eras have confronted on a fairly regular basis. And you know what? It is always a moral test of leadership when that happens. Ronald Reagan frankly failed that test when it came to the Panama Canal nonsense, which if the sounds unfamiliar to you as a thing about Ronald Reagan`s biography, is because the Panama Canal nonsense has essentially been written out of his biography because it is a little unflattering. Now, John McCain, whatever else you think about the rest of John McCain`s career in politics, John McCain is someone who did not fail that moral test of leadership when he ran for president in 2008. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I can`t trust Obama. I have read about him and he`s not -- he`s an Arab. He is not -- SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: No, ma`am. No, ma`am. UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: No? MCCAIN: No, ma`am. He`s a decent family man, citizen, that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues. That`s what this campaign is all about. He`s not. Thank you. (END VIDEO CLIP) MADDOW: You know, John McCain`s vice presidential pick Sarah Palin did at times in the campaign traffic in presidential conspiracy theories about Barack Obama, but John McCain pretty much did not. And the campaign, as directed by John McCain, really did not. John McCain was offered the opportunity to traffic in conspiracy theories about Jeremiah Wright and Bill Ayers and the president being a secret terrorist or secret Muslim or maybe just secretly foreign, and by large, John McCain just said no. I mean, a lot of the right said yes, but the candidate himself pretty much in 2008 said no. And John McCain today in the United States Senate stood up and took that same kind of moral stand again. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) MCCAIN: Rarely do I come to the floor of this body to discuss particular individuals. But I understand how painful and injurious it is when a person`s character, reputation, and patriotism are attacked without concern for fact or fairness. It`s for that reason that I come to the floor today to speak regarding the attacks recently on a fine and decent American, Huma Abedin. Recently, it has been alleged that Huma Abedin, a Muslim American, is part of a nefarious conspiracy to harm the United States by unduly influencing U.S. foreign policy at the Department of State in favor of the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist causes. These allegations about Huma Abedin and the report from which they`re drawn are nothing less than an unwarranted and unfounded attack on an honorable citizen, a dedicated American, and a loyal public servant. These attacks have no logic, no basis, and no merit. And they need to stop. They need to stop now. Ultimately, what is at stake in this matter is larger even than the reputation of one person. This is about who we are as a nation and who we aspire to be. Unjust acts that malign the good name of a decent and honorable person is not only wrong. It is contrary to everything we hold dear as Americans. (END VIDEO CLIP) MADDOW: Huma Abedin has long been a top aid to Hillary Clinton both in her time in the United States Senate and now as secretary of state. What John McCain was referencing there and railing against was this conspiracy theory we talked about last night on the show. It`s a conspiracy theory that was cited by protesters in Egypt who threw tomatoes at Hillary Clinton during her recent visit there this past week. It`s the accusation that the United States government is somehow in bed with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. The source of the conspiracy theory as cited by some of the protesters themselves in Egypt was all of the cockamamie sources on the American right that traffic in this kind of conspiratorial stuff. It`s former Republican presidential candidate and congresswoman, Michele Bachmann, who is now demanding a State Department investigation into Huma Abedin. That call is coming from Michele Bachmann and four other fringe members of Congress. It`s coming from the same people who helped orchestrate the Monica Lewinsky scandal during the Bill Clinton administration. It is a conspiracy theory that originated in part in "The Washington Times", the same paper that today is running the Fast and Furious $100,000 bounty ad. Again, the conspiracy theory here is there`s a secret Muslim infiltrator high up in the State Department plotting to take over the country. John McCain did a genuinely moving, across the aisle, honorable thing in defending that member of the Obama administration from these crazy conspiratorial attacks by people in his own party. You know what? John McCain is not the presidential candidate this year for the Republican Party. And conspiracy theories are out there on the right like they always are. And they`re all over the place, about not just this State Department stuff, but a lot about the president, the president being secretly Muslim, being secretly foreign, him being surrounded by foreigners. He can`t be trusted, you should fear that maybe President Obama isn`t even the dually elected political leader of our country, but he`s some other country`s effort to take us over. These conspiracy theories are out there. The Muslim Brotherhood is taking over. Obama has a secret plan to turn us into an Islamist (INAUDIBLE). The Mitt Romney campaign and Mitt Romney personally have now the same decision to make about this that other politicians have faced in their own eras and in their own elections. It is a moral test of leadership, this time, like it is every time. And here is how they`re handling it this year. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) JOHN SUNUNU, ROMNEY CAMPAIGN: He has no idea how the American system functions. And we shouldn`t we surprised about that because he spent his early years in Hawaii smoking something, spent the next set of years in Indonesia, another set of years in Indonesia. (END VIDEO CLIP) MADDOW: He has no idea how the American system functions. He`s foreign. A couple of hours after that, that same top Romney campaign official, John Sununu, appeared on a Romney campaign conference call where he said this. (BEGIN AUDIO CLIP) SUNUNU: I wish this president would learn how to be an American. (END AUDIO CLIP) MADDOW: Now, that specific line, I wish this president would learn how to be an American. The Romney campaign had him walk that line back, but not the rest of it. The Indonesia, Indonesia, he`s been smoking something, he doesn`t know how we Americans do stuff -- that stuff, they`re not walking that back. In fact, quite the contrary. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Celebrating success instead of attacking and denigrating makes America strong. That`s the right course for this country. His course is extraordinarily foreign. (END VIDEO CLIP) MADDOW: His course is extraordinarily foreign. Mr. Romney goes out of his way to say over the applause. It is a theme that Mr. Romney returned to later in the same event. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) ROMNEY: The course we`re on right now is foreign to us. It changes America. (END VIDEO CLIP) MADDOW: President Obama, foreign. Here`s Mr. Romney today in Ohio. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) ROMNEY: This idea of criticizing and attacking success, of demonizing those in all walks of life who have been successful, is something which is so foreign to us, we simply can`t understand it. (END VIDEO CLIP) MADDOW: This appears to be the new stump speech that Mr. Romney and the Romney campaign are unveiling as they`re telling the press to expect a new phase in their campaign. They are apparently going to talk about the president as secretly foreign. An adviser for Mr. Romney told the Web site "BuzzFeed" today they`re going to hit President Obama for among other things, his admitted teenage drug use. So, it`s conspiracy theories about the president being secretly foreign, which, of course, is Donald Trump and Joe Arpaio territory. And it`s also the president`s behavior as a teenager. You sure you want to go there about the teenage years, Mr. Romney? You want to talk about your time in high school? You want to talk about your behavior as a teenager? Is that where we`re taking this campaign? Part of the Republican common wisdom about how Barack Obama became president, the Republican common wisdom about why the Republicans lost to him so badly in 2008, is not they think because Mr. Obama ran a better campaign or even that the country was ready for a change after eight very long years of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. Part of the Republican wisdom about what happened in 2008 is that -- simply that John McCain wasn`t disgusting enough. That John McCain wasn`t willing to indulge in the -- to indulge that enraged batty old ladies of his audience who heard somewhere that Obama is an Arab. Part of the Republican establishment thinks the lesson of 2008 is that John McCain was too decent. And if you just get down there and wallow with the birthers and he`s a secret Muslim folks, if you just run your campaign out of the comment section of YouTube videos about the Panama Canal and the Fast and Furious and the secret Muslim Brotherhood conspiracy taking over the State Department, part of them thinks that`s how you win. The question is: are they right? Bob Herbert joins us next. (COMMERCIAL BREAK) (BEGIN VIDEO CLIPS) ROMNEY: Celebrating success instead of attacking and denigrating makes America strong. That`s the right course for this country. His course is extraordinarily foreign. The course we`re on right now is foreign to us. It changes America. This idea of criticizing and attacking success, of demonizing those in all walks of life who have been successful, is something which is so foreign to us, we simply can`t understand it. (END VIDEO CLIPS) MADDOW: Mr. Romney himself now pushing the line that President Obama is kind of foreign. Joining us now is Bob Herbert, distinguished senior fellow at Demos, public policy advocacy center and a contributor for Mr. Herbert, it`s great to have you here. BOB HERBERT, DEMOS: Hi, Rachel. Good to be here. MADDOW: Is this a difference between John McCain and Mitt Romney as people or does this reflect an overall change in Republican politics that now the candidate can just hold that "he`s a foreigner" banner? HERBERT: No. It`s a difference between McCain and Romney for sure. But McCain is the exception to the GOP rule here. The Republican Party has been a safe house for bigotry for decades. That`s what the Southern strategy was all about. You know, we`re in the process now of canonizing George H.W. Bush, but it was George H.W. Bush who gave us the Willy Horton ads in 1988. And Ronald Reagan who has already achieved sainthood in the GOP, he started this general campaign in 1980 in Philadelphia, Mississippi, and that`s where the three civil rights workers were killed, and that was just, to me, such a reprehensible thing to do. I was good friends with the mother of Andrew Goodman, one of those civil rights workers who was murdered. And she died a couple years ago, and I`m still good friends with his brother, David Goodman. That family never recovered from those murders. And to give aid and comfort to the people who killed that young man who was only 20 years old at the time, is just beyond the pale as far as I`m concerned. MADDOW: The Republican Party as a safe house for bigotry is strong terms and you`re making the case for why you`re using language that strong. I wonder, though, if as a matter of political practice, the country is also a safe house for that kind of bigotry. I mean, the thing that underlied that whole Fred Davis proposal earlier this year, that we would - - that we`d see the Republican candidate run against Barack Obama as the other, that whole weird, metrosexual black Abraham Lincoln thing. HERBERT: Yes. MADDOW: As soon as that was brought to light, ended up in the front page of "The New York Times," it was roundly denounced. But the underlying thinking about was that John McCain lost because he didn`t denounce Barack Obama in racist enough terms. Is that -- is that right as a matter of political practice? HERBERT: I actually think it is not. I don`t think that`s why John McCain lost the election the last time around. There is, and anyone who has followed my writing over many years will know, that there is a great deal of racism still in the United States of America. I have been -- I have been calling people out on it for the longest time. But this country has become consistently less bigoted throughout my lifetime, and this is the period of the least bigotry that I have seen. I think that we`re moving slowly and it`s difficult, but I think we have been moving in the right direction and we`re going to continue to move in the right direction. And the people that keep pounding the bigotry -- and I call the Republican the safe house because they tolerate it more, much more than the Democratic Party does -- the people who keep pounding this theme, they`re the outliers, the dead enders, to steal a term from our former vice president. They`re on the wrong side of history on this issue. And I think that that is the wrong tactic for the GOP to take in this election. I could be proved wrong, but I hope and I think that I`m correct. MADDOW: Do you think that there`s a bright connecting line between the Obama as other idea -- I mean, seeing Mitt Romney repeatedly all of a sudden starting to use this word foreign with his top advisers -- (CROSSTALK) HERBERT: Oh, yes, I could see him in front of the mirror, foreign. MADDOW: Foreign, making -- even as the applause, making sure he gets the foreign line in there so that is on the record and so that gets quoted and that gets repeated, and then going back to it again and again. Is there a bright connecting line between the idea of foreignness and race? HERBERT: Oh, no question about it. Lee Atwater explained it. He said that in the early days of the Southern strategy, you could come out and you could use the bigoted term, you could say the N-word over and over again and pound it and get, you know, the segregationist bloc to come out and you`d win those votes, he said. But after a while -- and this goes to the change that I`m talking about that has been occurring over the decades -- after a while, he said you can`t keep pounding that theme over and over again. So, you have to use other terms. You have to use code words. And now with Barack Obama president, the code words are foreign, perhaps Muslim, maybe not Christian. It all means not one of us. And what they mean by us is a certain kind of white person. But I don`t believe that that`s the prevailing opinion or prevailing view among whites in the United States in 2012. I think that it`s a losing theme in this election. MADDOW: That, in that assessment is shared by top Democratic operatives who have responded to this pivot today by the Romney campaign. The last couple days by the Romney campaign with glee. Essentially saying if that`s all you got, we`re in good shape. HERBERT: Yes, I think that`s true. MADDOW: Bob Herbert, distinguished senior fellow at Demos Public Policy Advocacy Center -- Bob, it is always good a stimulating conversation with you. Thank you for being here. HERBERT: Great to be here, Rachel. MADDOW: All right. An open letter from me to the undisputed king of the conservative media. That`s coming up. (COMMERCIAL BREAK) MADDOW: The undisputed king of conservative talk radio is a talk show host named Rush Limbaugh. He said one of the -- I don`t know, five craziest things ever about a presidential campaign yesterday. It was about the new Batman movie and the name of a villain and a conspiracy to help the scheming Democrat Party. You may have heard about this on last night`s RACHEL MADDOW SHOW. Well, today, Mr. Limbaugh had a retort to our reporting of his remarks. And when our reporting is questioned by the source of that reporting, we do feel a duty to look into it. So we did. Part of me wishes we didn`t have to do this tonight, but part of me is really looking forward to tonight`s "Department of Corrections". That`s coming up right at the end of the show. (COMMERCIAL BREAK) MADDOW: What do you think about the idea of Texas as a swing state? (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: You`re not considered one of the battleground states although that`s going to be changing soon. (END VIDEO CLIP) MADDOW: President Obama speaking to a very enthusiastic crowd in the great state of Texas yesterday. If you are a Republican, the idea of Texas as a swing state is probably a very worrying idea. But look, Texas has now officially become a majority/minority state as of the last census with Latinos leading the new majority group in Texas. If you`re a Republican politician, the view from the top of the ticket on the subject of your appeal to Latino voters is not a good view. In the latest Latino Decisions poll, which was just released today, President Obama`s lead over Mitt Romney among Latino voters is 48 points. Not that he`s got support of 48 percent of Latinos -- 48 points is the margin of President Obama`s lead. This is a big Republican problem. So what does the Republican Party do about the horrible polling with the fastest growing minority group in the country? (ROMNEY CAMPAIGN AD) MADDOW: There is this new ad airing in a handful of states featuring a handsome Romney offspring speaking in Spanish about the family`s Mexican roots. Last week, we reported that the Romney campaign was spending just $10,000 on that ad buy in order to actually get it on the air. Today, "The Washington Post" reports that the Romney campaign is upping the ante. They`re now spending almost $250,000 to put one of Mitt Romney`s sons speaks Spanish ads on the air. So, there`s that. They`re doing that -- $250,000 of Romney Spanish speaking progeny. Is that enough to close the gap? There`s always plan B. The Republicans have something else working in their favor this election year that may stand to help them with their staggering shortfall among minority voters. They have Republican governors and state legislatures in the states working to make it harder for minority populations to vote. Doesn`t matter how many of them there are or what they think if they`re not allowed to participate in the election, right? Since the big Republican sweep of 2010, they passed new laws requiring them to present specific documentation in order to be allowed to vote. Documentation you never had to show before and that everyone has. And the people who don`t have that documentation are disproportionately minorities. The Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan public research group that studies voting rights reports as many as 11 percent of eligible voters do not have the kind of documentation that these new laws are demanding you have to show before you are allowed to vote. The 11 percent is even higher among seniors, among low-income voters, among students, and yes, among minority voters. Today, the Brennan Center is out with a new study of the nation`s strictest new make it harder to vote laws. And what those laws might mean for all of those millions of eligible voters who don`t have the documentation that the states now demand. In order to get away with putting a new legal barrier between you and your right to vote, they`re supposed to help voters get free ids they`ll be allowed to show at the voting place. They`re supposed to be free because if you have to pay for a document you suddenly need to vote, you`re essentially asked to pay a poll tax. You`re being charged a fee in order to vote. And in America, that`s unconstitutional. But according to the Brennan Center`s report today, quote, "This promise of free voter ID is a mirage. In the real world, they find shuttered offices, long drives without cars, and with spotty or no bus service and sometimes prohibitive costs." Brennan Center study focused on these 10 states which have the strictest voter ID laws in the country. Eight are enacted by Republicans after the 2010 elections. In these 10 states, with strict ID laws for voting, in this new report, the Brennan Center says 1.2 million eligible African-American voters and half a million eligible Hispanic voters live more than 20 miles from the nearest state ID issuing office. Nearly half a million don`t have access to a vehicle and live more than 10 miles from the nearest state ID issuing office. More than a million voters in these states live below the federal poverty line, and live more than 10 miles from the nearest state ID issuing office. And even if the thing they now need to vote is free, in order to get that thing, in order to get the quote, "free state ID," people often have to pay for the government documents like birth certificates or marriage licenses, the things that you need to show in order to get what they are calling this free thing. Right now the Republican candidate Mitt Romney is losing Latino voters to President Obama by nearly 50 points. He`s losing African-American voters to President Obama by 90 points. But if millions of those voters are not allowed to cast ballots on Election Day, the margin could will be 100 points. No one will be counting when it counts. Joining us now is Michael Waldman. He`s president of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law. Mr. Waldman, it`s good to see you. Thanks for being here. MICHAEL WALDMAN, BRENNAN CENTER FOR JUSTICE: My pleasure. MADDOW: Let me ask if I have misstated anything from the report or got anything wrong? WALDMAN: Sadly, you got it right. The fact are pretty clear that despite the promise and the constitutional requirement of making this ID available to everybody. In reality, it is going to be very hard to get to the place where you get the ID to get the documents for a lot of our fellow citizens. And that really runs counter to the basic premise of American democracy, to the idea that we`re all created equal going back hundreds of years. It really -- it`s going to be a real challenge to that. MADDOW: In terms of legal challenges to these new legal barriers to voting, is it the sort of thing where you just have to on paper say the IDs are free but it doesn`t matter if nobody is access them? Have the courts tended to look on issues like this as something where you just have to get it right on paper, it doesn`t really matter how it works in practice? Or is the scrutiny of how it works in the real world, whether there`s a real world effect on disenfranchising people? WALDMAN: Well, it`s a great question. The reality is a lot of these laws are so new that we don`t know how the courts are going to rule on that kind of question of the reality of it. But the fact is, in 2011, as you said, many states as soon as the Republicans got a pinky on a lever of power in the state legislatures, they rushed through laws to cut back on the ability to vote. That was last year. What`s interesting is this year, a lot of those same laws have hit a wall of opposition from the courts and from the voters, so that you had just today in Wisconsin, a judge blocked the voter ID law there. You have had the Justice Department saying that the Texas law, and the South Carolina law, violate the Voting Rights Act. And all over the country, you`re seeing real resistance to it, but there are some places like Pennsylvania where the Voting Rights Act isn`t as relevant and we don`t know how that`s going to play out. MADDOW: In terms of the real world impact of these disenfranchising laws. At this point, time and short and the river is rising. I mean, whether or not these things are in the long term going to be upheld constitutionally, whether or not they`re susceptible to litigation or to other more oblique forms of political resistance in the long term, the real question is what`s going to happen in time for the November election. How do you think these things are going to be resolved, especially in the swing states where they are going to be newly in place for the first time for November? WALDMAN: Well, it`s a scary prospect. All of us should be doing everything we can to make sure that people get the ID they need as much as possible. To let people know that even if these obstacles are there, they can still vote. There have been barriers placed in their way, but in a way, it makes it even more important that people take the responsibility to go that extra distance. And in some places, it`s going to be hand to hand combat in the courts, all the way up until Election Day, because you got local officials purging people from the rolls, you have people challenging voters at the polling place. And unfortunately, we`re going to see this kind of thing play out all across the country for the rest of the year. MADDOW: In political science terms, we know that it is at least believed by political practitioners that a smaller electorate benefits conservative candidates, benefits Republican candidates, and that is what explains the Republican motivation to try to shrink the electorate by excluding voters, particularly when they can target exclusions in a way that are going to affect people who are going to most likely vote Democratic. Is there -- from your perspective studying these things nationally -- is there any connection between the types of barriers put between voters and their right to vote and any legitimate effort to combat voter fraud? That`s the Republican line on this. We`re just trying to keep the vote fair. There`s too much fraud and this will stop fraud. If fraud were as big a problem as they say it is, are these the laws that would stop it? WALDMAN: Well, look, the only kind of fraud that would stop this kind of very narrow voter ID requirement, which is basically saying you need a driver`s license or some particular kind of paperwork that one out of 10 eligible voters don`t have, the only kind of misconduct that stops is impersonating another person. Walking in and saying you`re someone else. But there are many, many ways in which our election system is a mess. Our voter registration system is ramshackle. It`s from the last century, and we could find ways to improve that that should be acceptable to people from all political points of view. If we modernized the voter registration system, used computer technology to say, you know what, from now on, the government is going to keep the list and everybody who`s eligible to vote is on the list permanently. That would add up 65 million people to the rolls, it would cost less, and for people worried about fraud, it would solve that problem too. It would curb that potential. We could move past these partisan voting wars if we wanted to. But we`re seeing a classic case where politicians are manipulating the rules to benefit themselves. We kind of look back at Tammany Hall or these other things in the past and think why did people put up with that stuff? Unfortunately that impulse by people in power to preserve they power by manipulating the rules knows no boundaries of time or party. I mean, this is just -- right now, we`re seeing it with the Republicans, but we could do a lot better all across the country in a nonpartisan or bipartisan way. MADDOW: Yes. But then more people might vote. We can`t have that. Michael Waldman, president of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law -- what the Brennan Center does, not just in terms of explaining this stuff, but actually providing the hard data so that everybody can say about it whatever it is we have to say it about, is really a great public service to the country. So, thank you for what you do at the Brennan Center. Thanks for being here. WALDMAN: Thank you. MADDOW: I appreciate it. All right, "Department of Corrections," special Batman and Rush Limbaugh edition coming up. Sorry. (COMMERCIAL BREAK) MADDOW: Immediately next on the show, we`ve got a report from the most dangerous place in the world right now, a place that may have just gotten a whole lot more dangerous depending on your perspective. Plus a special batman-themed department of corrections at the end of the show. Stay with us. (COMMERCIAL BREAK) MADDOW: The largest country in the Middle East in terms of population is Egypt. And the people of Egypt overthrew their government last February. That was just a few months after the people of Tunisia overthrew their government. And then the people of Yemen overthrew their government. And then the people of Libya overthrew their government. The Arab spring has seen dictatorships toppled, if not exactly like dominos, then at least in quick succession. Even though these revolutions are all linked, not all countries and not all Arab spring revolutions are the same, and nobody knows, for example, how things are going to turn out in the end in Bahrain, although the protests and the violence there for a time were quite intense. But the government there did not fall. And, of course, in Syria with its big Russian-armed military and its huge stocks of chemical weapons not fake, supposed WMDs, like before the war in Iraq but real ones, real, documented usable WMDs that everyone acknowledges are there. In Syria, the Arab spring is more of a long, hot, awful summer with fighting there now for 17 months between the Assad regime and its military on the one side and the civilian population and the relatively lightly armed opposition on the other side. In part because of the extreme difficulty that outside reporters have had getting in to cover the fighting here, it`s been hard to follow the momentum sometimes in Syria. Who has the upper hand? Who controls how much territory? Which side is achieving its objectives? Well, today, amid reports of the most intense fighting yet, the battle being brought to the streets of Damascus, the country`s capital. Today, after 17 months of the slow, bloody devolution in Syria, today, there was a moment of shocking and violent clarity -- a multiple assassination of top Syrian leaders. A bomb exploding apparently inside the meeting room when Syria`s top military leaders were gathered there. The defense minister, the former defense minister, President Assad`s brother-in-law who was also another top military leader, they were all killed. Others were seriously wounded, in the inner sanctum of the regime. NBC`s chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel filed this report. (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) RICHARD ENGEL, NBC NEWS CHIEF FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Government troops fight to retain control of Damascus after an attack that has shaken the regime, and raised doubts about its survival. Buildings in the capital smolders in fighting so intense, the army had to call in helicopters. This just hours after state television announced that a bomb exploded Wednesday morning during a national security meeting, killing at least the defense minister, his deputy, who was also President Bashar al Assad`s feared brother-in-law, and a vice president. More than a dozen others in the meeting were reportedly injured, perhaps killed. It`s unclear if President al Assad was there. The government isn`t saying. PRES. BASHAR AL ASSAD, SYRIA: It`s part of the conflict. ENGEL: Assad has not been seen publicly since this interview with German television two weeks ago. The opposition says it planted the bomb with inside help. OMAR SHAWAF, SYRIAN NATIONAL COUNCIL: And the Syrian, Free Syrian Army can reach anyone inside Damascus, even Bashar al Assad himself, he is not safe anymore. ENGEL: After 17 months of fighting, Syrian rebels have carved out rule safe havens. Brought the fight to Damascus, and now brought it to Assad`s inner circle. LEON PANETTA, DEFENSE SECRETARY: Good morning. ENGEL: Defense Secretary Leon Panetta called today`s attack a real escalation. PANETTA: This is a situation that is rapidly spinning out of control. ENGEL: Already in rebel-held provinces in Syria, they`re celebrating, hoping today`s bombing is a sign that Assad`s days in power are numbered, as U.S. officials renewed their calls for the Syrian president to immediately step down. (END VIDEOTAPE) MADDOW: NBC`s Richard Engel reporting tonight. And as the Syrian regime appoints replacements for these top military leaders who were killed today at a national security meeting, we`re also now getting reports that two more Syrian generals have defected and fled to Turkey, adding to at least 20 other generals who are already known to have deflected. The U.N. Security Council was supposed to vote today on whether to impose sanctions on Syria. But after this bombing, the U.N. decided to delay voting on that until tomorrow in the hopes, frankly, that the United States can get Russia to give up defending the Syrian regime as their ally. The U.S. wants a resolution that calls for non-military sanctions now, but would leave open the possibility, however distant, of using force, using military force, to get President Assad out of power. Russian President Vladimir Putin reportedly agreed to something about Syria today. In a telephone call directly with President Obama, Mr. Putin agreed to work with the U.S. to find some kind of solution. But at this point, it is hard to tell exactly what that means, since the Kremlin also said today that Mr. Putin still has unspecified differences with the U.S. approach. Like, perhaps, differences about whether the global community should do more than suggest that President Assad stop killing his own people and resign. We do know, we do know, at this point, that the U.S. and the Russians are talking. But we don`t yet know what`s going to happen. This conflict in Syria has reached a dangerous and uncertain moment. It has lasted nearly a year and a half now. But frankly, it may not have that much further to go. (COMMERCIAL BREAK) MADDOW: On this show last night, we tried to shine a little light on the latest conspiracy theory emanating like the smell of something old and moist from the bowels of the conservative media. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) RUSH LIMBAUGH, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: Do you know the name of the villain in this movie? Bane. The villain in "The Dark Knight Rises" is named bane, B-A-N-E. What is the name of the venture capital firm that Romney ran, and around which there`s now this make-believe controversy? Bain. The movie has been in the works for a long time, the release date`s been known, summer 2012, for a long time. Do you think that it is accidental that the name of the really vicious, fire-breathing, four-eyed, whatever it is villain in this movie is named Bane? (END VIDEO CLIP) MADDOW: Now, I love conspiracy theories. But that is not even a good conspiracy theory. It`s -- good conspiracy theories have to be vaguely plausible. This one is too insane. It requires like a time machine where the creators of Batman knew 20 years in advance to create a villain with that particular name, so that in 2012, it could -- Mitt Romney -- what?! It doesn`t even make sense. It`s not even a good conspiracy theory. After getting made fun of for his not very good Batman villain conspiracy theory yesterday, where it`s all a plot against Bain Capital, the conservative radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh got back on the air today to say that he didn`t actually say that crazy thing that he said about Batman. Look at the headlines he got for it. These credulous headlines, "Rush Limbaugh: no Batman conspiracy"; "Rush Limbaugh`s Batman Conspiracy: I Never Said Villain was Created for 2012 Campaign." Here`s Mr. Limbaugh on his radio show today, also known as Bain-gate part 2, walk-backing it. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) LIMBAUGH: Everybody`s out there running around out there thinking I`ve got this conspiracy theory against the Batman people, the creators, the comic book creators created this thing to campaign against Romney with the -- I never said that! I didn`t say there was a conspiracy. The Democrats were going to use it! (END VIDEO CLIP) MADDOW: You know what? That`s not true. Mr. Limbaugh did say it was a conspiracy. I think he`s just embarrassed now that he`s been called out on it. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) LIMBAUGH: Do you think that it is accidental that the name of the really vicious fire-breathing, four-eyed, whatever it is villain in this movie is named Bane? (END VIDEO CLIP) MADDOW: I understand you`re embarrassed. Come on. Mr. Limbaugh is now purporting to be outraged that the liberal media is laughing at him for trafficking in one of the stupidest right-wing conspiracy theories of all time, and it`s got competition. But you know what? It is not only OK to laugh, I think it is almost sort of important to laugh. I think it is almost sort of important to make fun of this stuff, like we did last night on this show. It is at least worth coming up with some way to pay attention to these conspiracy theories on the right, because when the conservative media gets behind stuff like this, they really can make huge swaths of the Republican population of this country believe something totally unbelievable. And the next thing you know, you know, Oklahoma is banning Sharia law and they`re holding Eric Holder in contempt of Congress and our secretary of state is being pelted with tomatoes by protesters who don`t know that the Muslim Brotherhood conspiracy theory nonsense that they read online from America was actually just from Michele Bachmann and Glenn Beck and really it`s seriously not real. In this bifurcated media world that we live in, where it`s conservative media over here, and then, space, and then everything else, and never the twain shall meet, it is at least worth knowing enough about the latest right-wing conspiratorial claptrap going on over there to make fun of it. Because if you haven`t been monitoring the quite literally fantastical stories that conservatives tell each other about the forces arrayed against them in the word, then you have no idea where this stuff is coming from when they actually try to make public policy out of it. And if I were Rush Limbaugh, yes, I`d probably try to pretend I never said this Batman thing either. But you know what? You did. And no time machine can erase that tape. That does it for us tonight. We`ll see you again tomorrow night. Now it`s time for "THE LAST WORD" with Lawrence O`Donnell. Thanks for being with us. THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED. END