Chris Matthews, Hardball
Maybe it's just a coincidence: As President Bush
's approval ratings are tanking, Chris Matthews
' ratings are surging. Compared to a year ago, the February audiences for his MSNBC show, Hardball
, doubled at 5 pm/ET, and the repeat at 7 was up significantly as well. If that's too early for you, Hardball
is getting a special repeat airing at 11 pm the week of March 6. Soon the show will be hitting the road to cover the major 2006 races in the Senate and the House of Representatives. The president's misfortunes mean there's a strong chance the House could end up back in the control of the Democrats, making it a compelling year for political junkies. But when it comes to politics, every year is compelling to Matthews, who recently spoke with the Biz.
TVGuide.com: It's been said that President Bush likes the sport of politics — that's what gets his blood pumping. Do you think he cares about low approval ratings or what people think about him now that he's not running again?
Chris Matthews: I think he's a very good people politician. If he were sitting here, he'd charm us, even at his worst. But for him to admit the other day that the "situational reality" of Hurricane Katrina was different than he thought it was and that the TV networks were ahead of him — to admit that, as president, you weren't aware of what was going on in a major situation and that broadcast TV was ahead of you — would that have happened during a political campaign when he was running for president? No. If he were out there on the stump getting the headlines every day, that discipline wouldn't have allowed this to happen. The trouble now is he reads the briefing books, he knows he has to do his homework every night, but then he gets on a different kind of clock, which is "I go home to bed at 9:30. I retreat to the ranch." The difference between a campaign-mode president and a president who is comfortable is that [in campaign mode] you're moving with the news cycle. Maybe he feels he doesn't have to move with the news cycle.
TVGuide.com: But why should he care?
Matthews: Because the American people are being asked to sacrifice their sons and daughters, and they have to believe in the Iraq war. And if we're running a war we don't believe in, he'll lose the Congress.
TVGuide.com: Do you think that will happen?
Matthews: He'll lose the House of Representatives. Fifteen seats — it's not so hard to get. It's doable. If this trend [in the poll numbers] continues, you're talking about a big turnaround. The generic number — which is the number we look at — [whether] you want to vote Democrat or Republican — is far wider than it was in 1994 (when the Democrats lost the House). Maybe the Republicans will run a brisker campaign or maybe [they'll get] lucky with some personalities. But the way it's going now, there is no doubt the Congress [will switch to a Democratic majority].
TVGuide.com: Do you have any special plans for covering the '06 races?
Matthews: We're going to do town meetings. My dream idea is to have [Penn State football coach] Joe Paterno welcome us to Penn State, and have Sen. Rick Santorum debate Bobby Casey in front of 10,000 kids.
TVGuide.com: So there will be debates with candidates in some of the key races.TVGuide.com: And then what?
Matthews: Clearly Pennsylvania is the hottest one. Schwarzenegger in California. Katherine Harris in Florida is kind of fun. Hillary Clinton, even though she's going to win — because at 11:15 on election night, the biggest story will be that the presidential campaign begins.
Every time the people have to pick a president, they have to figure out what they don't have that they want. What's the greener grass? When I started paying attention in 1952, we wanted a clean general to get us out of Korea. In 1960 Eisenhower
was getting a little old so we wanted a young hotshot. By '68 Johnson
was so messed up we wanted a slick political operator: Nixon
. By '76 we wanted a parson (Carter
), because it was too sleazy. In '80 we wanted a strong man to come in: Ronald Reagan
. In '88 we wanted someone kinder and gentler than Ronald Reagan. By '92 there was too much "New World Order" — we were probably wrong and Bush Sr.
was probably right — and it was the economy, stupid. Then by 2000, after Clinton
problem, we wanted a guy who went to bed early with his wife. So what do we want that's missing now? When we look at 2008, we'll want somebody on the ball. Somebody who can direct the traffic. Somebody with a system set up to tell them what's hot. Somebody who's a cop on the street corner during a four-alarm fire answering questions. No more rolling disclosure. People want connection. We'd like to have a president who at least catches the late news.