During MSNBC's Battleground America coverage, Chris Matthews stated that Tennessee Democratic Senate candidate Harold Ford Jr. is "not as good a candidate as [Maryland Republican Senate candidate] Michael Steele," citing an incident in which Ford approached his opponent outside a campaign event. Matthews compared this to a 2000 presidential debate in which Al Gore approached George W. Bush; Matthews said Gore was "being a fool" and "a dork" for doing so. However, in a 2002 book, Matthews wrote that Gore "turned in his best performance" during that debate.
During the 2 p.m. ET hour of the November 5 edition of MSNBC's Decision 2006: Battleground America, Hardball host Chris Matthews called Maryland Republican Senate candidate Michael Steele, who is African-American, "a gentleman of the first order" who is "unthreatening," a comment that Matthews described as "so ethnic." Later on the same day's edition of Hardball, Matthews stated: "I do think it'd be great if Michael Steele pulled it off because I think he's up against so much," despite the fact that he believed Steele to be "vapid in his presentation."
During the discussion on Battleground America, Matthews joined fellow MSNBC host Joe Scarborough in comparing Steele with Tennessee Senate candidate Harold Ford Jr., a Democrat and also an African-American. Matthews claimed that Ford is "not as good a candidate as Michael Steele" because of an instance in which Ford confronted Republican candidate Bob Corker at a Corker event. Matthews said Ford's confrontation with Corker was the same as when "Al Gore did this to George W. Bush," an apparent reference to a 2000 presidential debate in which Gore approached Bush. Matthews added of Gore: "He thought he was being tough. He was being a fool. And we pity the fool, as we say in this country. We don't vote for the fool." Matthews also claimed that Gore was "a dork" for standing "face to face" with Bush. But while covering the debates in 2000, Matthews praised Gore's performance. Moreover, the weblog The Daily Howler noted that Matthews, in his book Now, Let Me Tell You What I Really Think (Free Press, 2002), said the third debate, in which Gore approached Bush, was when Gore "turned in his best performance."
During a discussion of the third Gore-Bush debate on the October 18, 2000, edition of NBC's Today with co-host Matt Lauer, Matthews praised Gore's performance and seemed surprised that polling indicated the voters preferred Bush:
LAUER: So, OK, so now that we have that difference drawn, who won the debate?
MATTHEWS: Well, I think Gore was more aggressive last night, and you look at all the polls, he won on a couple of points there. But clearly the interesting question again, who do you like? Bush won. It's interesting. People keep saying -- even the Bush people say Gore's good on the debate --
Similarly, in his book, Matthews said he agreed with the general reaction in the media about Gore's performance in the third debate and wrote that after "[w]atching the performance the night before, I, too, thought Gore had turned in his best performance" (Page 31). Matthews went on to note that after looking at polling of viewers' reactions, it was clear they "took away an impression of negativity and condescension" (Page 32). But despite claiming in his book that Gore "turned in his best performance" in the third debate, and despite reporting on Today that "Gore was more aggressive" than Bush and that Gore "won a couple of points there," Matthews nevertheless claimed on November 5 that Gore was "a dork" and "being a fool" by confronting Bush in the debate.
As Media Matters for America has noted, Matthews has a history of praising Republicans and smearing Democrats.
From the 2 p.m. ET hour of the November 5 edition of MSNBC's Decision 2006: Battleground America:
MATTHEWS: Thank God in Maryland, thank God in Maryland -- I completely join your sentiments on that. Neither of us are African-American, but I must say, it must get to people in Prince George's County and in Baltimore after years of Democratic rule, when do they get a piece of the pie? And I think you voiced it very well, whether that's the sentiments of those communities or not.
But Michael Steele has ran a first-rate campaign. He's a gentleman of the first order. You talk about meeting -- I've met him at so many football games and baseball games, and he's always great to hang around with him, but that's all I really know about him. But the commercials have been so positive. He's so -- I hate to say this because this sounds so damn ethnic -- unthreatening, which a lot of white voters like to see from an African-American. Unthreatening. You almost have to be castrated to take the fear away from some people. And this guy comes on as a funny guy, a lighthearted, positive guy. And the people go, "God, this guy is a guy I'd like to have living next door," although that may be pushing it in some cases.
SCARBOROUGH: Well, I would have played that up, though.
MATTHEWS: So I have to tell you, we have an ethnic problem in this country.
MATTHEWS: And it's coming to the fore, this race problem we have.
SCARBOROUGH: And isn't that the problem with Harold Ford? I have worked with Harold Ford.
MATTHEWS: He's not as good a candidate as Michael Steele.
SCARBOROUGH: I like Harold Ford so much. He reached across the aisle. He was a moderate man. I think he's got a real future in the Democratic Party. But I was thinking when he got off of that bus and he challenged Corker and he got in his face, I thought, "Oh, my God, Harold, you're going to cost yourself the race" because white voters who were trying to put 100 or 200 years of prejudice behind them are going to be offended by that. And I don't think that's oversimplifying.
MATTHEWS: Because the voters, especially male voters, white voters if you will, are worried, "Hey, I'm going to get in a road-rage situation with somebody, accidentally cut off, and all of a sudden he's ticked off at everything else in the world and I'm the target that day." So this guy walks up to the guy -- hey, Al Gore did this to George W. Bush. I will never forget it. It was ludicrous. He walked up to him in that final debate and stood two feet from him. Americans want distance from each other. We're not like Arabic people that talk into each other's faces so you know what they had for dinner. We don't talk like that. We want two to three feet from the other guy.
SCARBOROUGH: Right. And it's like [New York Republican Senate candidate Rick] Lazio and [Sen. Hillary Rodham] Clinton [D-NY].
MATTHEWS: And when you walk up to another guy and you stand face to face, you're a dork. And that's what happened to Al Gore that night.
SCARBOROUGH: Yup. Right.
MATTHEWS: I swear he lost the election. By the way, the Bush people tell me they were rehearsing this. They knew Gore was going to pull it. And so they catch him coming up, and Bush did that up and down on him -- remember that look -- up and down on Gore like, "What kind of a jackass are you?" And Gore just that moment, I swear, threw it away. He thought he was being tough. He was being a fool. And we pity the fool, as we say in this country. We don't vote for the fool.
SCARBOROUGH: Right. We pity the fool. That's right. Mr. T., the political analyst.
MATTHEWS: That's Mr. T. But it's so true. It is so true.
SCARBOROUGH: And I bring up the point about Harold Ford walking up to Corker because he talked about Michael Steele.
MATTHEWS: Oh yeah. He looked like he was serving him -- you know who else did that?
SCARBOROUGH: You talked about Michael Steele being -- not being threatening in Maryland. If you're an African-American unfortunately and in this country you're running for office, below the Mason-Dixon Line, you've got to be so careful, extra careful. And Harold Ford, I don't think was.
MATTHEWS: Hey, how about above the Mason-Dixon Line? Up above the Mason-Dixon Line, you've got to either have won a war or be a Harvard lawyer with, you know, a 5.0 in college and look like a million bucks, and then maybe they'll make you governor. I mean, the standards are so frickin' high if you're a black in this country to get elected. And if you make one mistake, goodbye. That's the permission slip for a lot of people. "Goodbye. You had your shot, buddy." So we've got [Democratic gubernatorial candidate] Deval Patrick up in Massachusetts, just on this ethnic front. Michael Steele is making the run of the century. If he pulls this off in Democratic Maryland, liberal Maryland, anti-Bush Maryland, and he's running on a ticket -- Republican ticket. It's astounding he can pull this off, astounding. I don't think -- I think it's almost -- well, I don't want to take it away from the guy. Let's see what happens. Let's see what happens.
SCARBOROUGH: We'll see what happens. Yeah, I would be stunned, too, especially 2006, where Republicans have so mishandled spending, the war in Iraq, and just about everything they've put their hands on. Hey, Chris Matthews, thanks so much for being with us.
From the November 5 edition of MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews:
MATTHEWS: I'm a romantic, I do think it'd be great if Michael Steele pulled it off because I think he's up against so much. A party, a state -- everything says don't run. He ran.
RON CHRISTIE (former special assistant to President Bush): And he would do so much for the United States Senate.
MATTHEWS: But I agree with him [Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson], he's vapid in his presentation.