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The Rachel Maddow Show, Transcript 04/23/14

Guests: Will Bunch, John Stanton

CHRIS HAYES, "ALL IN" HOST: That is "ALL IN" for this evening. THE RACHEL MADDOW SHOW starts right now. Good evening, Rachel. RACHEL MADDOW, MSNBC HOST: Good evening, Chris. Thanks, man. And thanks to you at home for staying with us for the next hour. OK. One of the things that Mitt Romney proposed when he was running for president is that there would be a new global designation for countries that the United States liked doing business with. Any country that met Mr. Romney`s criteria would be considered part of a brand-new international economic zone. And Mitt Romney had a great name for that new zone. It was going to be called the Reagan zone, the Ronald Reagan zone of economic freedom. And this is what Mitt Romney said that zone would look like. I`ve always thought this map sort of looks like the map of some sort of terrible, drug resistant outbreak of some kind. But this was, in fact, the PowerPoint slide that Mitt Romney presented the Reagan zone of economic freedom. Mitt Romney did not become president, so this did not happen to the world. But that has not dampened the Republican enthusiasm for naming things, naming really big things, naming whole swaths of the world after their hero, President Ronald Reagan. Congressman Darrell Issa of California last year proposed naming almost all of the coastal boundaries of the United States after Ronald Reagan. He wanted to create something called the Ronald Wilson Reagan exclusive economic zone, that would basically ring the entire country, 300 to 200 mails of ocean, off of every bit of coastline in the whole country, would be named after Ronald Reagan. And the coastline itself, the land, would also be named after Ronald Reagan. So, that would be something like 3.4 million square nautical miles of oceans and thousands of miles of coastline, all named Reagan. Had Darrell Issa gotten his way, you could not go to the beach in the United States of America would lying in the Reagan sand or splashing in the Reagan waves. House Republicans actually moved on that bill to rename the whole edge of America after Reagan, but in the end, it did not come to pass. Right now, what House Republicans are working on is naming this poor little mountain in Nevada after Ronald Reagan. Right now, this Nevada Mountain is called Frenchman`s Mountain. Obviously, that name has to go. Republican Congressman Joe Heck wants Frenchman Mountain renamed Mt. Reagan and House Republicans this year are entertaining his bill. Now, in part because there already is a Mt. Reagan in this country, there`s one in New Hampshire, Democrats in the House have reacted to this new Republican plan in the House to name another Mt. Reagan in Nevada mostly by laughing at it. This was Congressman Jared Huffman of California during the debate this year on naming yet another mountain, Mt. Reagan. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) REP. JARED HUFFMAN (D), CALIFORNIA: Mr. Chair, I think this is a terrific amendment. In fact, if anything, I would go one step further. I think we may want to consider going big with this Reagan-naming enthusiasm and just naming the planet -- we`ve already talked about a huge part of the ocean bigger than the United States itself and we`re sort of piecemealing our way with mountains and other things. But I`m beginning to see some possibility in this. If we went that natural next step and named the planet Reagan, I think that might be the breakthrough we`ve been looking for. (END VIDEO CLIP) MADDOW: Congressman Huffman was very dryly joking about renaming Earth after Ronald Reagan. Had he been a Republican congressman, though, it might not have been so easy to tell that he was joking. If you go to the Web site of the Ronald Reagan legacy project, they have a clickable interactive map that shows you all of the things that they have succeeded in getting named after Ronald Reagan since his presidency. Of course, their crowning achievement is, and probably will always be, the airport in Washington, D.C., which they renamed for Mr. Reagan. But there`s also, you know, the Ronald Reagan Florida turnpike and the Ronald Reagan Minuteman missile site in Cooperstown, North Carolina. There`s Ronald Reagan elementary schools and middle schools, everywhere from Nampa, Idaho, to Yuma, Arizona, to Grand Prairie, Texas. I mean, there`s everything from the existing Mt. Reagan in Coos County, New Hampshire, to a Ronald Reagan bust that is apparently inside a McDonald`s in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. It all counts. It`s all on the Reagan legacy project clickable map. Even the one in the McDonald`s. Conservative activists trying to pump up Ronald Reagan`s legacy have proposed that Ronald Reagan displace Ulysses S. Grant on the $50 bill. At one point, they even proposed that Ronald Reagan be put on the dime, which I think even they realize might be a little bit of a hard sell, since the guy who`s on the dime right now is FDR and he does have his fans. That sort of, I think, anticipated backlash led to their novel proposal that the United States should have two different kinds of dimes, some with FDR in them, some with Ronald Reagan on them. It`s one thing to have a quarter for every state, right? It`s collectible, but now you can have one dime specifically for Republicans and one dime specifically for Democrats. I don`t think that`s going to happen. After President Obama was elected in 2008, you might remember the Republican Party doing a really overt rebranding effort for themselves, which involved them putting up a sort of strange Web site on the official Republican national committee web page and it listed Republican Party heroes through the ages. Interestingly, this page has not survived. It`s not even in the way- back machine in terms of the Internet archiving that`s out there. But they really did, at the time that page still existed, they really did list Ronald Reagan under the name Ronaldus Magnus, on that page for the RNC Web site, Ronald the Great. And I don`t think they were kidding about it. Here`s the thing about this over the top, occasionally laugh out loud effort by conservatives and Republicans to rename everything after Ronald Reagan and turn Ronald Reagan into a saint. The thing about this is that there`s a reason they have to try so hard. There`s a reason they have to try so hard and the whole process has to be so overt, because the whole Mt. Reagan thing, putting him on the dime, that was never going to happen on its own without someone really pushing for it. This is interesting. I`m not sure this is widely known. It`s polling data from the Gallup organization. And, of course, Gallup keeps track of presidential approval ratings and they have for generations. Presidential approval ratings mostly get attention at the moment when they are announced. When there are signs that a president`s approval rating has ticked up or gone down for some reason. Presidential approval ratings get a lot of short-term attention. But that data exists in perpetuity. And if you step back from the day-to-day noise and uptick and downtick in those numbers, those numbers taken from a big picture perspective, they can actually give you a really interesting historical view about an empirically knowable question, whether or not presidents were liked. Not after the fact, not because somebody lobbied you that a president was great in retrospect, but whether or not they were popular when they were president, whether or not people liked them when they served this office. Here`s the overall average approval ratings for presidents over the course of their whole presidencies. This is while they were in office. This is contemporaneous to the time that they were president. This is them graphed since World War II. These are presidential approval ratings and we just ranked them from highest to lowest since World War II. The far left, the guy with the biggest approval ratings, that`s JFK. You can see right next to each other, sort of in the center to the right, that`s George W. Bush right next to Richard Nixon. They`re almost exactly the same for the average approval ratings over the course of their whole presidencies. Ford, Carter, and Truman actually fare a little bit worse than George W. Bush and Richard Nixon. People think of LBJ as having been so unpopular, right? Vietnam, deciding not to run for re-election and all of that, and we all think of Bill Clinton as being very popular as a president. But if you look at them over the course of their presidencies, LBJ and Clinton actually average out to be exactly the same, exactly the same, in terms of their approval ratings over the course of their presidencies. George H.W. Bush, he`s kind of a forgotten presidency, even if he is a beloved figure, forgotten presidency by both Democrats and Republicans. But over the one term that he served in office, he was sort of surprisingly very popular, right up there. He`s third there after JFK and Ike. See that? Where does Ronald Reagan fit into this mix? Let`s drop him in there. Ronald Reagan ends up being right there in the middle, 52.8. So, he`s between George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. A little bit better than George W. Bush, a little bit worse than Bill Clinton and LBJ. That is how people viewed Ronald Reagan over the course of his presidency, sort of fair to middling. If you look at the all-time approval rating highs and all-time approval rating lows for presidents since World War II, again, Ronald Reagan ends up fair to middling on those scores as well. Not the highest, not the lowest, kind of right in the middle. Ronald Reagan`s presidency had a lot of problems. He blew up huge, huge unprecedented deficits. The gap between the rich and the poor got much worse. The AIDS epidemic, which he did worse than ignore, the stock market crash in 1987, the Iran Contra scandal very easily could have got President Reagan impeached, it`s saw many of his top officials indicted, it might have saw a lot of them in prison had his successor not pardoned everybody. Part of the reason they created the Ronald Reagan legacy project in 1997, after he`d already been out of office for two terms, was because they needed one. Conservatives were really worried that Ronald Reagan was not going to be remembered well at all. In the early `90s, Jimmy Carter`s approval ratings as an ex-president were almost 20 points higher than Ronald Reagan`s were. In the `90s, things were not trending well for how Reagan was going to be remembered in the history books. And so, in the `90s, they created this legacy project to try to basically goose the history, to try to make people remember the good stuff about him and not so much remember the bad stuff. And so now, Tuscaloosa County, Alabama, has a bust of Ronald Reagan in their McDonald`s. And New Hampshire has their mountain and maybe Nevada will get their mountain too. Take that, Frenchman! And in today`s big national politics story, there is an object lesson in the perils of this type of strategy, this type of revisionist history strategy -- the perils of this strategy, when you decide to puff up the historical record a little bit and maybe it gets a little bit out of control. David Corn at "Mother Jones" magazine, he has started digging up tape from the past few years of public comments made by Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky. Senator Rand Paul is just now developing a big enough public profile that people are talking about the prospect of him running for president some day. But Rand Paul has been living a political life out in the open for a very long time. There`s a lot of tape of him out there, from his time as a full-time surrogate from his father`s many runs for the presidency. Also time from his own campaign for the United States Senate in Kentucky. That campaign started well before he was elected in 2010. The first round of headlines that David Corn`s research on Rand Paul generated were about then-candidate Rand Paul linking the motivation for the Iraq work to Vice President Cheney working at Halliburton. That tape from Rand Paul that David Corn dug up, that got the surviving neoconservatives in the Republican Party upset at Senator Paul. But you know what? There are not that many neoconservatives left, and Dick Cheney is, sorry, unpopular enough with everybody, that you`re never going to lose too many friends by insulting Dick Cheney. That was the first round of work from David Corn`s work on Rand Paul. But, today, the new scoop from David Corn, which is pretty much the biggest politics story in the country today, it is a much deadlier political sin that he has caught Rand Paul committing. He`s really gone and done it this time. David Corn has found not one, not two, but six different instances on tape of Rand Paul taking the Reagan`s name in vain, criticizing Ronald Reagan, saying that Ronald Reagan was not that great a president, saying Ronald Reagan was a disappointment as a president, comparing Ronald Reagan unfavorably to Jimmy Carter. Yes, Jimmy Carter was better than Reagan, says Rand Paul? Yes, he said that and said it multiple times. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIPS) SEN. RAND PAUL (R), KENTUCKY: The deficit went through the roof under Reagan. Everybody loves this budget. It was $100 million in debt. This was three times better than Jimmy Carter`s best deficit. You know, we wanted Reagan to have balanced budgets and he didn`t do it. It wasn`t anything personal against him. I think his philosophy was good, I just don`t think he had the energy or follow-through to get what we need. People want to like Reagan. He`s vey likable. And what he had to say most of the time was a great message. But the deficits exploded under Reagan. Domestic spending went up at a greater clip under Reagan than it did under Carter. I just want to say, well, good old days. We did one time when we had Reagan, we were fiscal conservatives. Well, unfortunately, even that wasn`t true. Jimmy Carter`s last budget was about $34 billion, $36 billion in debt. Well, turns out Reagan`s first budget turned out to be $110 billion in debt. During Reagan`s two terms, domestic spending went up faster than Jimmy Carter. Domestic spending rose faster under Reagan than it did under Jimmy Carter. We had a Democratic Congress, he didn`t use the veto. Neither did George W. Bush do the veto. George W. Bush presided over a $5 trillion to $10 trillion deficit. We have to admit our failings, because we`ve not going to get new people unless we become believable as a party again. (END VIDEO CLIPS) MADDOW: Rand Paul is right on the facts as he is explaining them there. But that last point, about how we`ve got to worry about our believability as a party, that ends up being a very key observation about this very big and ongoing problem for the Republican Party right now for the midterms and heading into 2016. You`ve heard of Bush derangement syndrome, right? Or Obama derangement syndrome? It`s this idea that some people are so driven by hatred of a particular president, like President Bush or President Obama, that they can`t actually recognize what that president is really doing. They hate the president so much, they cannot see straight when it comes to that president`s actual behavior and actual record. On Ronald Reagan, with this artificially manufactured effort to create this saintly legacy for him, what the Republicans have done about Ronald Reagan, they`ve created Ronald Reagan derangement syndrome in reverse. They don`t hate Ronald Reagan so much they can`t see straight, they love him so much they can`t see straight. They can`t see what he actually did. So, Ronald Reagan, yes, he did blow up the deficits and Ronald Reagan was not all that popular when he was in office. And he did risk getting thrown off office with Iran Contra, which was a terrible scandal. If you want to catalog his sins, even just from the Republican point of view, Ronald Reagan did raise the debt ceiling 18 times. He gave amnesty to millions of undocumented immigrants. He called for a world without nuclear weapons. He dramatically expanded the size of the federal government. In California, when he was governor there, he created the first emissions standards for cars. He expanded Medicaid. He signed an abortion bill, an abortion -- not an anti-abortion bill, it was an abortion rights bill. He made California one of the first states in 1967 to legalize abortion. Yes, that Ronald Reagan. But Republicans just cannot see these parts of the Reagan record. In the Republican mind, you know, Ronald Reagan crossed the Potomac and flew to the moon, personally killed Hitler and bin Laden. He invented lasers and he talked Rick Perry into those new glasses that make him look so smart. Ronald Reagan did it all, right? But, of course, Ronald Reagan did none of those things. And elected Republicans have a problem right now, because they are not allowed to admit that. They`re certainly not allowed to admit what was bad or ideologically inconvenient about the real record of Ronald Reagan. Senator Rand Paul wasn`t an elected Republican official when he said all of those impolitic things about Reagan`s real record being less than meets the eye. But now, as David Corn`s piece documenting all this tape comes out, now, Rand Paul is an elected Republican and he`s one with national ambitions. And so now, Rand Paul has to go through the humiliation of taking it all back and saying he really didn`t mean it. His response to David Corn`s reporting at "Mother Jones" today, and David Corn posting all of this tape, Senator Paul had to release this statement today, which it just -- it shows what a problem Republicans have created for themselves with this fake Reagan history, that they have been selling themselves and trying to sell the country. I mean, they turned a real man`s legacy into an ideological fairy tale that is not true. And now every Republican in the country is stuck having to hold up a little piece of that lie. And this is what happens when they fall down on the job. This was Rand Paul`s statement today, after he got caught out, not holding up his part of the Reagan lie. Quote, "I have always been and continue to be a great supporter of Ronald Reagan`s tax cuts and the millions of jobs they created. Clearly, spending during his tenure did not lessen, but he also had to deal with Democrat majorities in Congress." So Reagan did not increase spending anymore, according to Rand Paul. He just didn`t lessen it. And it was not Reagan who actually increased the spending or didn`t lessen the spending, it was those rascally Democrats who made Reagan do it. That`s not what you said before, over and over and over and over and over again for years. But most importantly now, Rand Paul wants you to know in this statement today that the thing he loves about Ronald Reagan is his tax cuts. We can all agree on Ronald Reagan and his tax cuts, right? You know what, Ronald Reagan raised taxes in California, he raised taxes as president, he raised taxes seven out of the eight years that he was president. No president in peacetime raised taxes, quote, "so much on so many people as Ronald Reagan did when he was president." But even a man who used to know that, Rand Paul, now has to pretend that he doesn`t know that at all, in order to not commit heresy against the Republican Party`s false saint. This is a sad and embarrassing thing for Rand Paul to have to twist himself into a pretzel and deny all these true things he previously said, without even being allowed to defend the truth of what he said. But it is bigger than him too. It`s a bigger problem for the Republican Party that has tried to recast itself in the image of Ronaldus Magnus, right? It is a bigger issue for the Republican Party that the gilded Republican history that they have told themselves about their hero is one that they are not even allowed to truthfully understand. (COMMERCIAL BREAK) (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) PAUL: Domestic spending grows faster under Reagan than under Jimmy Carter. Well, he had a Democratic Congress. Well, he didn`t use the veto. Neither did George W. Bush do the veto. George W. Bush resided over a $5 trillion to $10 trillion deficit. We have to admit our failings, because we`re not going to get new people unless we become believable as a party again. (END VIDEO CLIP) MADDOW: Back when he was not yet a senator, Rand Paul could say that kind of thing about Ronald Reagan. He could challenge the Republican fairy tale about Ronald Reagan, but now that he is an elected official with national ambitions, he has to start taking that kind of thing back. Which he did today rather dramatically after the intrepid David Corn at "Mother Jones" magazine posted a bunch of old tape of Rand Paul talking smack about Ronald Reagan`s time as president. Have Republicans taught themselves to love Ronald Reagan so much that they basically have Ronald Reagan derangement syndrome in reverse? Can they not see straight because they have told themselves that Reagan is such a saint? And if the real orientation of the Republican Party right now has settled on Reagan as their one and true hero, and yet they`re not allowed to tell the truth about that hero, what does that mean for the party going forward? Will Bunch is the senior writer at the "Philadelphia Daily News". He`s also the author of "Tear Down This Myth: How the Reagan Legacy has Distorted Our Politics and Haunts Our Future." Mr. Bunch, it`s nice to see you. Thanks for being here. WILL BUNCH, PHILADELPHIA DAILY NEWS: Yes, hi, Rachel. Seems like you and I were just talking about this before. MADDOW: Yes, this comes up periodically. And I think it will keep coming up as long as Ronald Reagan has to be the North Star. He`s the only thing every Republican can agree on. And the legacy project, which we all thought was such a hoot when it was launched in 1997, ends up defining how people think about him. Do you think it`s a derangement syndrome in reverse? BUNCH: I think so. You know, I think what`s going to be interesting to see is how this plays as kind of a generational divide possibly in the Republican Party. Because, look, I think there`s a certain Republican voter, people over the age of 50 or 60, certainly, who live through those down days in the `70s of the Watergate and the Jimmy Carter era, and then to them, Reagan restored pride in the Republican Party. And I think this appeal has been partly an appeal to them. I mean, they`re the one who is turn out in Republican primaries, certainly. You know, when I first heard those comments from Rand Paul, I was thinking, maybe this is a pitch to younger voters. You know, think about this. A voter who`s going to be 37 years old in the 2016 election is somebody who was only 10 years old when Reagan left office in 1989. So, clearly, there`s more and more voters every cycle who don`t really have much of a memory of Reagan. And you know, you have to wonder if Rand Paul thought, maybe this was a good time to reintroduce the truth about Reagan, to distinguish himself from the kind of old, tired brand of Republicanism that`s lost the last two presidential elections. But, then, you know, you see the statement this afternoon and I guess breaking up is hard to do with Reagan. MADDOW: Well, that was -- and to me, that`s what made this a much more interesting story. To see somebody who clearly knows hard truths about the Reagan legacy, things that are true about what happened in that era and will be willing to tell them until he wants to move up. And then it`s just, you`ve got to get in line on this issue or you`re really not allowed to be taken seriously in Republican politics. It makes me wonder, who enforces this? If this is sort of a top-down thing in the Republican Party that everybody agrees, we`re never going to speak ill of the king, or whether or not they`ve actually created enough pseudo-organic enthusiasm for the Reagan legacy, that for example, Republican primary voters might punish somebody who didn`t toe the line. BUNCH: Right, well, who are the enforcers in the Republican Party? I mean, the enforcers, by and large, are talk radio, right? Rush Limbaugh -- you know, Rush Limbaugh`s start in radio came at the end of the Reagan era. He kind of rode Ronald Reagan to his success. So, I think people like Ronald Reagan, people like Sean Hannity, who calls himself a Reagan kid, they`re emotionally invested in Reagan`s success, too. So they`re the ones who call out candidates who break from the orthodoxy and can cause somebody problems with those primary voters. MADDOW: Will Bunch, senior writer at the "Philadelphia Daily News," the author of "Tear Down This Myth: How the Reagan Legacy Has Distorted Our Politics and Haunts Our Future" -- you wrote that book a few years ago, it`s going to get more and more important towards the course of this year and towards 2016. Thanks for being here, Will. BUNCH: Thank you so much, Rachel. MADDOW: Thanks a lot. BUNCH: Thank you. I appreciate it, too. Thanks. Bye-bye. MADDOW: All right, why the size of Alaska, the enormous physical size of the place, may wind up mattering a lot for the national elections this year. It`s a weird story out of Alaska that I don`t think anybody realizes the national implications of, but we`ve got that coming up. Stay with us. (COMMERCIAL BREAK) (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) CLINT EASTWOOD, ACTOR: What I would I do if someone offered me these drugs? I would tell them to take a hike. (END VIDEO CLIP) MADDOW: Clint Eastwood in the late `80s, in that PSA, basically playing Robin to First Lady Nancy Reagan`s Batman. Mrs. Reagan`s crime- fighting, drug demonizing "just say no" campaign studded with celebrities and all the rest, was one of the crucial cogs of the `80s-era war on drugs, a war that is still causing casualties on all-sized today. Today, the U.S. government decided to take that war in a radically new direction, and really, nobody knows how this generation of Republicans is going to react to this change. It is the rarest of all things, a legitimately open question in our national politics, and that story is ahead. Stay with us. (COMMERCIAL BREAK) MADDOW: Here`s the thing I learned today. What this thing is, is not a tuning fork. Kind of looks like a tuning fork, I know. But what it actually is is a two-sided cocaine snorter. It`s a two- nostril snorter. Apparently, those parts right there go into the two nostrils in your nose and that part on the other end, that part goes into the cocaine. And this is a custom built device. It has to be, because if you think about it, there is a reasonable amount of variation between people in terms of how much distance there is between our two nostrils. So if you`re making one of these artisanal cocaine snorters for someone who doesn`t have the patience to snort cocaine one nostril at a time, you really do have to be precise. You have to measure. We learned that in 1977, the nation did, at least, when new "Newsweek" did a big feature article about how cocaine was the new it thing. "Newsweek" said all the cool kids were doing it, right? And in the course of doing this article, "Newsweek" interviewed a California jewelry designer who made things like diamond-encrusted razor blades and custom designed $5,000 cocaine spoons. And the jeweler explained to the magazine how hard it was to create a perfectly designed tailor-made two-nostril cocaine snorter. Quote, "We have to use calipers to measure the distance from one nostril to the other. It can get quite funny." I bet. By 1977, when the country was acknowledging in the pages of "Newsweek" that some drugs, like cocaine, were for fancy rich people with nose-measuring jewelers, by 1977, we were already, supposedly, many years into a full-on war on drugs in this country. Now, in retrospect, we mostly associate the war on drugs with the presidency of Ronald Reagan, but Reagan is not the one who declared it. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) RICHARD NIXON, FORMER PRESIDENT: America`s public enemy number one in the United States is drug abuse. In order to fight and defeat this enemy, it is necessary to wage a new all-out offensive. (END VIDEO CLIP) MADDOW: President Richard Nixon, 1971, announcing that drugs are the single biggest problem in the United States. Yes, right. By 1977, by just six years after that declaration of our nation`s public enemy number one, that`s when we had the national media profiling the makers of high-end caliper-wielding cocaine jewelers in San Francisco. In the 1980s, the supposedly already existing war on drugs did actually ramp up. And not coincidentally, it got redefined to focus national fear and law enforcement resources on some very specific drugs. This landmark story ran on the cover of "The New York Times" on November 29th, 1985. "New purified form of cocaine causes alarm as abuse spreads." This front page article was seen as the broad American introduction to the kind of cocaine that was used by poor people. And crack cocaine was not covered as funny or eccentric or glamorous or fabulous. Cocaine, in this form, was the scariest thing you could possibly imagine. "The Times" wrote about kids getting hooked on it left and right. They reported sexual degradation among women using crack. They said women experienced, quote, "increased sexual appetite and an interest in previously untried sexual practices." The article ended this way, quote, "It`s almost like we`re talking about a different drug here." Crack, in my meaningful way, was not a different drug. It`s just a cheap, concentrated version of the same cocaine that you could buy glamorous jewelry for. But the crack form of cocaine was treated very, very differently by the media and by the politicians and by the next year, after that front page "New York Times" article came out, by 1986, that national misunderstanding about whether or not this really was a whole different drug, that was made manifest in a way that had really big implications for policy. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) TOM BROKAW, NBC NEWS: At the White House today, President Reagan signed the major new anti-drug law, a law that stiffens the penalty for federal drug crimes and provides almost $2 billion for increased drug enforcement and education. At the bill-signing ceremony, Mr. Reagan said today, "This marks a major victory in our crusade against drugs." It is a crusade that Nancy Reagan has made her personal cause. Mr. Reagan said, "Our goal is nothing less than a drug-free generation." (END VIDEO CLIP) MADDOW: Anti-Drug Abuse Act signed by President Reagan in 1986. It created a huge disparity between how harsh your sentence would be if you got caught with crack cocaine versus getting caught with powdered cocaine. If you got caught with crack, you got a much stiffer instance. It was a 100 to 1 disparity. It also imposed mandatory minimum sentences, which tied judges` hands. Judges had no choice but to put people away for years if they were caught with crack, even if they didn`t necessarily think that the person deserved 10 or 20 years behind bars. And laws like had a huge impact not just on individual lives and individual communities, but on the whole country. This charts the annual growth of the prison population from 1925 to 1986, the year that President Reagan signed that landmark anti-drug bill. This is what happened to the prison population after 1986. In the last three decades, we`ve increased the population of people we keep in prison by 500 percent. Compared to the world in terms of the proportion of our citizens that we lock up, right now, we`re number one. Number two, you`ll see, well behind us there, is Rwanda. This huge population of the -- the huge explosion of the prison population in this country, to point where we are completely out of keeping with the rest of the world, except maybe Rwanda, trying to keep up, that eventually made it clear that something had to change. That`s in part because it became clear, for anybody who wanted to look at the facts, that our exploding prison population wasn`t because of something that was happening organically in this country, it wasn`t all about the crime rate, it was because of policy and politics. It was because of tough on crime conservative politics, fueled by media hysteria. That is how we built ourselves into this problem, where a full third of the entire budget for our whole Justice Department goes to paying to keep people in prison. Interestingly, though, although it was conservative politics that drove us to where we are today, there is, today, a strand of conservative politics that wants to get us out of this problem. That wants to reform the justice system in a way that will leave less people in prison. At the big CPAC conference this year, Rick Perry and Jeb Bush and Newt Gingrich and Rand Paul all talked about the small government virtues of shrinking the prison population, reforming the justice system to let, especially nonviolent offenders, especially, especially drug offenders out of prison, thereby saving money and reducing the size of government. I don`t know if we would have guessed back in the bad old days of the `80s and `90s, that prison reform would one day emerge as a potential area of bipartisan consensus, but it may have. In 2010, President Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act, which reduced the disparities in sentencing between crack cocaine versus powdered cocaine. It reduced them from the Reagan era 100 to 1 to something more like 18 to 1. It also got rid of some of the more onerous mandatory minimum sentences that were imposed by the Reagan drug bill in 1986. But that 2010 law that President Obama signed, it wasn`t retroactive. It didn`t help anybody who had already been sentenced under those old laws. Last year, President Obama commuted the sentences of eight people who had served more than a decade in prison for crimes that have resulted in a far lighter sentence today than if they`d been sentenced under today`s laws. They were all drug offenders who had spent years behind bars, eight people. Well, today, building on that in a big way. Today, a huge development in our nation`s policy on these issues, the deputy attorney general today announced that the Justice Department was putting out a broad call to federal prisoners all over the country, asking them that if they are in a similar situation to those eight people whose sentences were commuted last year, would they apply for clemency. The Department of Justice is going to ask all federal prisons whether they are nonviolent offenders who have served more than a decade for a crime that would get a much lower sentence today, using those and a few other criteria, the Department of Justice is going to consider which of those prisoners could potentially be set free or have their sentences dramatically cut. They`re also putting out a big, broad call, asking U.S. attorneys to recommend anyone that they think might fit the new criteria. They`re staffing up to offer pro bono help to any prisoners who actually do make it past the first stage, who might have a serious claim for clemency, for release, for mercy, ordered by the president. The Obama administration is basically doing everything they can to use the powers of the executive branch of the presidency to reduce the prison population. This is a big deal. This is something that has never been done before. And it`s being done by the administration on its own terms. They say they want Congress to react on its own terms and make those legal changes like they made in 2010 apply retroactively, but without Congress moving, they`re going to move themselves. Here`s the question. How are Republicans going to react to this? Because crime has not been much of a political issue, at least nationally, for a long time now. The tough on crime days haven`t been around for a long time. And there is this move now, on part of the right, even by potential Republican presidential candidates to advocate for essentially the sort of thing that the White House did today. Well, this afternoon, Congressman Bob Goodlatte of Virginia said that today`s announcement proves that President Obama has a, quote, "blatant disregard for our nation`s laws." Should we see him as a symbol that Republicans are going to go that route on this, that they`re going to revive the tough on crime politics of the `80s and `90s, or is there going to be a split in the Republican Party on this issue. Is this going to be the tough on crime wing, the old school guys, versus the new school guys who are actually trying to argue about this as a small government issue? This is a legitimately unanswered open question in our politics and that almost never happens. Joining us now is John Stanton. He`s Washington bureau chief for "Buzzfeed". John, thanks very much for being here. Really appreciate it. JOHN STANTON, BUZZFEED: Good to be here. MADDOW: Tough on crime politics and war on drugs politics were so front page in the `80s and in the `90s. A lot of people thought that Bill Clinton might dial it back. He did no such thing. How did those -- did those politics survive into this generation of Republican members of Congress? STANTON: For some of them, yes. I think some of the folks that are either older, just sort of age wise, or who fashion themselves after that sort of 1980s Reagan-era kind of Republican, they have sort of brought that along. I think most of the younger Republicans and newer Republicans in the House and the Senate see this as a problem. You know, there are some that would say -- well, that also coincided with the fact that there are now a lot of white people who are getting put in jail because of crystal meth or because of OxyContin and things like that. But there are some of these social factors that are causing this. But nevertheless, I think the parties are starting to come together on this notion that we sort of created this nightmare legal system, where people get put in jail, they do years and years and years for really things that aren`t hurting society that much. And there are a lot of Republicans that want to try to dial that back. You know, Rand Paul has been very, very vocal about it. You know, Rick Perry, who said at CPAC, there has been a pretty significant sea change I think on the right. MADDOW: You know, there`s -- we`re talking earlier in the show, both about Ronald Reagan, again, it`s Reagan day here, but also Obama derangement syndrome, which the way that, it`s parallel, Bush derangement syndrome, in the way that manifests that people like specific policies until this guy who they hate like the policy too and then they change their mind. We saw that on things like cap and trade, and immigration reform, you know, light bulbs, all sorts of things that Republicans have decided they hate because Obama likes them. Is that dynamic -- is that a dynamic we should watch to emerge on this issue as well? STANTON: I think so. I think what you`re going to see, I think, is a lot of Republicans that might be willing to support this under normal circumstances. They`re going to look at this, it`s 2014. They`re trying to take over the Senate, trying to take control of the House, trying to set up a 2016 fight. And what they`ve hit on as a party is this argument of, you can`t trust Obama. That`s why they`re fighting against immigration reform. You know, they point to the Obamacare changes, they point to some of the other kinds of things that he`s done, NSA, and say, you can`t trust him. And this really does sort of fall within that rubric. MADDOW: Just because it`s executive action. STANTON: Just because it`s executive action. And I think you`re going to see people say, I agree with the policy, he should not be doing this on his own, this should be stopped until congress can act. I think you`re going to see a lot of that on the right, which is, you know, for them, it puts them in sort of a tough spot. But politics right now, rules, everything in Washington. And Republicans are going to be under enormous pressure to toe this line, I think, and it`s going to be hard for them to get out from under. MADDOW: And what`s fascinating, there isn`t an action item here for Congress. The Justice Department and the White House are saying, we`d love if you guys did this congressionally, but you`re not acting on it, so we`re going ahead. They`re going to go ahead and this is going to happen regardless of what Congress does. I think the thing to watch is whether they shut up about it, pretend like it doesn`t have any political consequences at all, or whether they try to crusade. STANTON: That may be the best hope for folks who find themselves in this situation, that they sort of stay quiet on it. MADDOW: It`s amazing, it`s actual policy being made on a thing we used to think was completely intractable and everybody`s like, shhh. John Stanton, Washington bureau chief for "BuzzFeed" -- thanks for being here, John. Appreciate it. STANTON: Good to be here. MADDOW: All right. We`ll be right back. Stay with us. (COMMERCIAL BREAK) MADDOW: If you read one this week about this year`s elections, about the likelihood of whether or not Democrats are going to hold on to the Senate for the last two years of the Obama presidency, about the Republican hopes of taking the Senate back, if you saw or read one thing about that this week, it was probably "The New York Times" reporting to day that Democratic Senate candidates in the south, in Arkansas, North Carolina, Louisiana and Kentucky, they`re actually doing way better than the national press has been giving them credit for. Hmm, really interesting polling, analysis out today in the times, front page all over the Internet, deservedly so. And that has been making Democrats and liberals very happy. However, that is not at all the most interesting or determinative thing that has just happened about the midterms, and specifically about the Democrats chances of holding on to the Senate. That story it turns out is out of a totally different part of the country. It`s out of Alaska. Hasn`t had any national attention at all. But it looks like it could be a huge national deal. That story is next. (COMMERCIAL BREAK) MADDOW: The biggest state in the country by area is Alaska. Alaska is huge. Relative to the contiguous 48 United States, Alaska is almost as big as the whole Midwest. And the capital of that huge state is nowhere near the middle of that huge state. It is way down in the corner. Which means in practical terms that if you serve in the Alaska state legislature, it is totally possible that you getting to work is like you going from some where in South Dakota to some where in maybe Kentucky. That is among the reasons that Alaska`s legislative session is very short, 90 calendar days. Not business days. Consecutive days. So, they start the session for the year in January. And then it is 90 calendar days long. Then it is over. They do not come back until the following January. See you next year. And that puts a little drama into the end of the session every spring. I`ve mean when they wrap up they don`t come back for a really, really long time. That just happened in Alaska. It was time to cram everything in before the long trek home. Because it was the end of the session this past weekend, they had a lot to get done. Members of both the House and Senate, this year, had to report for work on Easter Sunday. That day was packed with marathon sessions, debates that ran late into the night, and then past midnight and into the early morning. When they went past midnight on Easter Sunday they actually officially slid past the 90-day limit on how long the session is supposed to be. Finally it was 4:00 a.m. when the senate president called it done. But even with that, down to the wire, and, past the wire, stay all night hustle, still, the Alaska legislature this year, they missed a bunch of their deadlines. They didn`t get stuff done they meant to get done. That may end up having political consequences for the whole country come this November, because one of the measures that is up for consideration in Alaska this year is, legalizing pot. Had the legislature acted in time, a ballot measure about marijuana would have gone to the voters during the primary election which Alaska is holding in August. But because the legislature didn`t act in time, the pot legalization measure is now expected to be on the ballot in November, for the general election. That means, marijuana legalization is going to be on the ballot in Alaska, alongside the hugely important nationally watched United States Senate race there, where Democratic Senator Mark Begich is facing not only Republican challengers, but a huge tide of outspending against him. Legalizing pot is one of the issues not only popular, the kind of thing that makes people turn out to vote who otherwise wouldn`t bother to vote. Recent George Washington University poll found that four in 10 people nationwide said they would be more likely to vote, much more likely to vote if marijuana legalization was on the ballot. And while you are there to vote for legalizing pot, have you noticed there is a Democratic U.S. senator running for re-election. One for whom the more people turn out to vote, the more likely it is that he`ll be re- elected. The only other issue the Democrats can count on to work like that for them is raising the minimum wage. Raising the minimum wage is one of the issues in the Democratic arsenal that turns people out to vote who might not otherwise show up. And it turns out the minimum wage issue is going to happen on the ballot in Alaska this November as well. The Republican-led legislature did not act quickly enough on the pot issue and they didn`t act quickly enough on the minimum age issue either. Both ballots expected to be on the same ballot in which Senator Mark Begich is going to be running for re-election. Both ballot issues are to drive turnout, to drive up turnout by people who may not have cared enough to show up to vote otherwise. But once they`re there in the ballot box they care about the minimum wage or they care about pot, they frankly are kidded to be more likely to support the Democrats also on the same ballot. While Alaska Republicans in the legislature did try to avoid this, they went to great, tricky lengths to try to prevent the minimum wage one from appearing on the ballot in November, actual voters in Alaska are really enthusiastic bout the policy. Republicans, Democrats, independents, everybody in Alaska is basically a huge fan of increasing the minimum wage. So, a humongous state inspires a short legislative session. That leads to a packed agenda. Which leads to a few blown deadlines which will put popular initiatives on the November ballot, which will mean that what happened in the dead of night in Juneau, Alaska, on Easter weekend may have resulted in the Democratic Party becoming significantly more likely to hold on to control of the United States Senate for the remainder of Barack Obama`s presidency. You see why I love state politics? 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