Playing hardball with Chris Matthews

There seems to be a misconception among some of Chris Matthews’ guests. Because they have been invited on “Hardball” and put in front of a microphone, they think they will not only be asked questions, but also get a chance to answer them.

If they had been paying much attention, they would know that MSNBC’s fantastically frenetic host often uses questions like a tennis player uses a backboard. Once he gets the ball back in his own court, he spins it, slices it, pounds it, to his heart’s content.

Matthews has become such a self-parody it’s not clear people notice anymore. But that changed this week with the passage of healthcare reform and the YouTube recycling of a volley, notable even by Matthews standards as overweening, blustery and just plain wrong.

On his Jan. 22 show, the MSNBC host all but laughed Democratic Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.) out of the studio for suggesting that healthcare reform could and would pass, despite the fact the party had lost a filibuster-proof majority in the U.S. Senate. “It’s not going to happen,” Matthews scolded Grayson near the end of a 5 1/2 -minute performance, in which he interrupted Grayson every 20 seconds or so. The host demanded names, dates and proof positive, suggesting that he -- a veteran of some 15 years as a congressional staffer -- knew far more than an upstart House freshman.

The onetime top aide to former House Speaker Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill Jr. represents something extreme, but far from unique, in the world of Washington punditry. Many others reacted to the January election of Republican Scott Brown to a previously Democratic U.S. Senate seat in Massachusetts as a death knell for President Obama’s healthcare reform measure.


Among them were Fox News commentators like Sean Hannity, Charles Krauthammer and Fred Barnes and ABC News political correspondent Rick Klein. Barnes declared on his Weekly Standard website: “Obama-Care is dead, with not the slightest prospect of resurrection.”

These insiders were guilty of nothing more than parroting the conventional wisdom, something that, conventionally speaking, often proves correct. But members of this Brotherhood of the Astute -- those insiders supposedly so informed on the ways of Washington they deserve our special admiration -- willfully declined to acknowledge the remaining uncertainties.

On the contrary, Matthews and company rejected the evidence in front of them. That included, most significantly, the suggestion by some Democrats that they might use the reconciliation process to expand healthcare insurance (and do many other things, including imposing taxes on so-called “Cadillac” health insurance plans) with approval of a simple majority.

If Matthews had paused to take a breath back in January, he might have heard Grayson struggling to point out that he had talked to Democratic leaders who had researched ways to defeat a filibuster and pass healthcare.

Instead, the interviewer boasted about his knowledge of Senate procedure and his own talks with congressional leaders. He accused Grayson of “pandering to the netroots” -- liberal activists clamoring online for passage of the law without understanding the Ways of Washington. Matthews ridiculed the idea that Grayson, filled with “outsider talk,” could know anything substantial about the inside Washington scene.

When I spoke to Matthews after his show Tuesday evening, he said that he intended to have Grayson back on “Hardball,” probably soon. But don’t set your DVR in anticipation of some Potomac-sized mea culpa.

Matthews told me that, smoldering YouTube clip notwithstanding, it was Grayson who got it wrong back in January. He said the congressman was obviously referring back then to the House passing a new piece of legislation, rather than signing on to the approved Senate health bill and then having differences reconciled.

“He denied the House had to pass the Senate bill and then have reconciliation,” Matthews said at one point. “I never got an answer from him, all I got was a posture. He wasn’t helping me explain it. He was just taking a position.”

Let’s just say that seems a tad, uh, ungenerous. Especially because the lawmaker had to make do mostly with sentence fragments, in the face of Matthews’ unrelenting inquisition. When pressed by Matthews, though, Grayson did manage to suggest taking further action on a bill “already passed with 60 votes.” That would seem to refer to the health reform passed by the U.S. Senate, not launching entirely new legislation.

Matthews further theorizes that Grayson wanted to use the reconciliation process as a backdoor to fulfill his goal of enacting the so-called “public option,” giving Americans a government-run alternative to private health insurance. I’m not sure how the MSNBC star would know that, though, since the congressman never mentioned the public option. And his interviewer never asked about it.

Finally, Matthews urged me to take more time and to speak to Senate leaders and parliamentarians. I would understand that he had it right all along. But it seems to me Matthews created this mess all on his own, just by being too much of himself.

Grayson is not one you would expect to shrink from this sort of high-tech, high-noon showdown. This is the guy who had to apologize after calling a female lobbyist “a K Street whore,” who suggested the Republican plan for healthcare amounted to “die quickly if you get sick” and who compared Dick Cheney to a vampire with “blood that drips from his teeth.”

But the onetime lawyer and telecom executive exhibited a marked restraint Tuesday when I asked about Matthews. “You have seen the clip,” he said. “I described exactly what has happened and I did it two months ago. I don’t think there is a single thing I said that didn’t turn out to be the God’s honest truth.”

Not quite. Grayson did predict the reconciliation would be completed in “30 days or less.” Unless something goes haywire in the Senate, it now looks like the process will be complete in a little more than two months. Will it survive all remaining challenges, political and legal? I wouldn’t begin to hazard a guess.

I suppose this showdown is the kind of thing Matthews is touting now in promos airing on MSNBC. He talks about his dogged style and concludes, “It’s my job to shake people up.”

In this instance, it appears he has shaken only himself, while Grayson appears to have been, at best, gently stirred.

Twitter: Latimesrainey