A Republican fable

A Republican fable
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Well,  surprise surprise, another twist in the GOP race.

Despite being written off by all manner of pundits (including me) Rick Santorum somehow managed to pull off three surprise electoral victories this Tuesday, handily winning the caucuses in Minnesota and Colorado, as well as the primary in Missouri. Though no convention delegates were awarded (for a variety of complex idiosyncratic reasons), the press has predictably seized upon the trio of Santorum upsets as evidence of a “changing narrative” of last-minute Romney-phobia, which, of course, is very much what they, in their unsubtle pursuit of a feistier horse race to cover, had been hoping for all along.

With Santorum now expected to enjoy a bounce in the polls, the Super Tuesday mega-primary contest on March 6 may actually be worth watching. Barring another surprise (and in this race, you can never count those out) it seems Senator Santorum can finally state fairly confidently that he is the only remaining candidate truly capable of beating Romney head-to-head, and the only one who can truly appeal to the broad swatch of conservatives the former governor alienates. In contrast to Gingrich, Santorum has very little baggage, possesses an affable enough personality, and seems to evoke supportive, or at worst neutral sentiment from other right-wing pundits and politicians. “A tale of two defaults” might be the best summary for the race at this point.

As I wrote about before, what I find most intriguing about Santorum is the vast generation gap that seems to color perceptions of him. Young people, especially young liberals, tend to find him this outrageous, frightening, deeply odious character, largely because of his stance on gay rights — or, more properly, gay sex — while older observers seem to regard him as a fairly unremarkable, generic conservative. The first camp considers him almost hilarious unelectable, the other figure’s he’s more than electable enough. There’s been some interesting speculation as to the roots of this cleavage, and I liked Matt Lewis’ comment that some of it might be a Catholic thing.

Catholics, as a general rule, are quite overrepresented in the American conservative intelligentsia. Every conservative justice on the Supreme Court is Catholic. Leading FOX hosts Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly are Catholic. Pundits like Pat Buchanan and Robert Novak are Catholic. Venerated cultural figures like William F. Buckley, Jr. and Phyllis Schlafly are Catholic. The editorial board of the National Review is almost all Catholic. And, of course, Newt Gingrich and Senator Santorum are both Catholic too.

This overrepresentation has been a good thing for the conservative movement overall, since Catholics on the right, much like Jews on the left, seem particularly skilled at using the well-developed intellectual traditions of their faith as a cultural foundation for broader engagement with the philosophical questions of secular, civil life. And just as Jewish thinkers have left their mark on American perceptions of justice and equality, Catholic thinkers have played a large role setting America’s agenda of so-called “moral issues,” particularly those relating to life and marriage.

The point is, if one comes from this sort of intellectual Catholic conservative tradition, Santorum’s supposedly horrifying ramblings about how rape pregnancies are a gift from God, or how women are too hysterical to serve as soldiers, or how legalized contraception leads to man-on-dog sex, or whatever, can actually be viewed — if read properly and in full — as fairly reasonable critiques regarding substantial concepts such as the sanctity of human life, the social role of gender, and the appropriate balance between privacy and tolerance. To put it in other words, there is a substantial, highly influential portion of the American intelligentsia who simply cannot see Santorum’s greatest general election liability — his unappealingly regressive views on social issues — as a liability at all because they’re too enamored with the larger idea of the first intelligent, Catholic so-con president.

It’s getting increasingly difficult to say new things about this race at this point, but my new theory-of-the-moment is that Santorum basically has the anti-Romney vote sewn up. Unlike the governor, he has no conservative heresies in his past, and unlike Gingrich he was never powerful enough to make any high-profile enemies. Unlike Perry and Bachmann, he does not “read” as stupid or undisciplined, and unlike Cain he’s not new or wild enough to provoke any concern about a coming tumble of closet skeletons.

After crushing Gingrich in Florida, Romney happily assumed (with the press egging him on) that the February primaries and caucuses were nothing to worry about, and he’s now suffered for that pride. He enters Super Tuesday as a weakened figure precisely at the time when he needed to look strongest, and unlike the movie we saw last month, he can’t take it for granted that his leading opponent on the right will inevitability collapse under the heat of a critical media spotlight and the weight of his own scandals, arrogance, and incompetence.

Since the moderate wing of the GOP has virtually no power and certainly no vocal or influential advocates at the moment, Romney’s only real hope is to pray Gingrich stays in the race and splits Santorum’s vote. We’ve already seen what the alternative looks like: in Missouri, Gingrich was off the ballot and Santorum beat the governor by 30 points.

It’s an extraordinarily cynical strategy, but a default candidate really has no hope beyond a technical victory.


  1. @Cristiona

    Santorum's not really even a generic conservative; most right wingers would probably call him a squish, especially on matters relating to unions. He seems to be the opposite of a libertarian: socially conservative, economically liberal. Is there even a word for that combination?

  2. @ThePsudo

    Libertarians call it authoritarian.

  3. A Pol Sci Nerd

    Christian Democrat.

  4. @ThePsudo

    This is probably the best answer. "Authoritarian" and "totalitarian" are pretty extreme and not really the case in US/western politics.

  5. Jake

    A communist. Well if you take it to an extreme it is. He is a la Huckabee. The next GOP candidate will be more like Huckabee and Santorum. Populist Republican.

  6. Dryhad

    Totalitarian. Also, I think Nolan originally used "Populist" for that quadrant.

  7. Gray

    I've seen all of the above; the exact term does, I believe, depend on what variety of this you're talking about (much as there is a /big/ difference between someone who supports subsidiarity, someone who is an out-and-out libertarian, and a full-blown anarchist). I would say that Santorum is a Christian Democrat (albeit of an American variety); in an older context (perhaps from the late 19th/early 20th century), he might simply be considered a conservative.

  8. Jbot

    They call it a "Huckabee"

  9. Jon Bennett

    Newt isn't really Catholic. He supposedly converted, but by Catholic doctrine banning divorce, if he ever had sex with his second or third wives without annulling the previous marriages, he's excommunicated.

  10. Nicolasrll

    I don't think excommunication works like that. It's not an automatic thing, you need someone to actually go through the effort of excommunicating you. Since I doubt very much that this is likely to happen anytime soon, it seems Mr. Gingrich is free to have sex with his wife and calls himself a Catholic as much as he wants.

  11. Jon Bennett

    Anyone can call themselves Catholic. Nancy Pelosi can demand free abortions for all and call herself a Catholic. But to BE Catholic one needs to follow certain rules.

    Unless you're a Kennedy. Kennedy's can do whatever they want and still be beloved of the Church.

  12. Nicolasrll

    Nope, that's not how organized religion works. To be a Catholic you need to be recognized as such by the church, nothing more, nothing less. This is of course different from merely calling yourself a Catholic. But since the church authorities have not yet decided to expel Newt Gingrich, Nancy Pelosi and Rick Santorum (who supports torture as an intelligence gathering method, despite the fact that Catholic church called it an "intrinsic evil") from their fold, they can refer to themselves as Catholics with full legitimacy.

  13. @ThePsudo

    The Church considers you a Catholic until they go through the effort of excommunication. But to be adherent to Catholic principles requires you fulfill certain obligations. If Jon wants to judge by adherence and Nicolarsrll wants to judge by church paperwork, then you're talking about two different standards of legitimacy.

    It's an interesting problem when looking at demographic statistics. Demographics typically reflect self-identification when classifying people by religion, but those stats are always different than church records and are certainly different than criteria-based standards of adherence (which are typically too complicated for statisticians to manage).

  14. Nicolasrll

    My point would be that "adherence to Catholic principles" tends to be a rather subjective metric. Which principles do you need to infringe on to not be a Catholic anymore? How severely, or how many times, do you need to do something the church considers a sin? Rather than go down this road, it seems like it makes more sense to say "you're Catholic if and only if the Catholic church recognizes you as a Catholic".

  15. @ThePsudo

    If a person have done something that the Church would obviously excommunicate them for but has not been caught yet, are you counting them correctly when you call them Catholic? If the Church is in the process of excommunicating a person but it has not yet been carried out entirely, does that person count as Catholic? If a person is Catholic by Church records but attends Anglican or Baptist services each week and does not self-identify as Catholic, can you accurately describe them as "Catholic"? The standard you recommend includes quite a bit of subjectivity, too. It's primary benefit is ease of identification; if that's the goal, why not just ask the person? Many demographic statisticians do exactly that.

    All three systems of classification have their weaknesses. Declaring any one of them "the right way" is itself a subjective choice.

  16. Nicolasrll

    Well you're right that I should probably add "self-identify as a catholic" as a pre-requisite, but with this little modification the answers to the three cases you pose are easy to come to: yes, yes, and no. Really, when it comes to the Catholic church, determining who is and isn't part of this organization shouldn't be a problem at all, because there is an official head of the church who gets to decide what is and isn't part of church doctrine. The head of the church also gets to eject people from this organization at will, and is supposedly infallible. So it's pretty much a matter of definition to say that a good Catholic is a Catholic that follows and believe in the papal doctrines, and that final judgement on who is and isn't a Catholic is reserved to the church authorities. So we can argue about whether or not this or that politician is or isn't a good Catholic (until the Pope actually settles the subject); but to argue about whether or not someone like New Gingrich *is* a Catholic or not seems quite silly. He says he's Catholic, and the Catholic church says he's Catholic, so he's Catholic.

  17. @ThePsudo

    I think the conflict between "Ask the Church!" and "Check their doctrine!" is between trust or skepticism of the Church as an authority. When you ask the Church who is Catholic, you are asking them to enforce their standards of membership infallibly. Even if the Pope is infallible, his supporting bureaucracy clearly isn't; bureaucracy inherently suffers from logistical impediments. It's not impossible that a well-studied analysis of the Church's principles can be applied with more accuracy to some specific individual than the Church actually does solely because the Church has to give it's billion members equal attention and an independent analysis can focus on an individual.

    Consider a man who the Church records state is a Catholic, who self-identifies as a Catholic (perhaps out of cultural obligation), but does not believe in God. Is the latter point really of no consequence?

    Not that I actually favor principle-based analysis; if you were arguing for it, I'd be arguing that the Church has authority, both technical and official, to make the call and after two thousand years of practice cannot possibly be less skilled at making the judgement than any independent analyst. My intent is to show that appeal-to-authority and appeal-to-principle are both reasonable but flawed options. Only God knows for sure.

  18. Jon Bennett

    Also, not sure if Moderates would help Romney even if they had the opportunity. He's less Moderate and more "Stick-the-finger-to-the-wind"

  19. @ThePsudo

    So the theory is that Romney lost the nomination in 2008 because Evangelicals went against him, and Romney may lose the nomination in 2012 because Catholics might go against him? It's a plausible theory, but from a Mormon perspective it kinda sucks.

  20. J.J. McCullough

    The problem is that Mormons just aren't a great base for a national political career. I don't think it's necessarily anti-Mormon bigotry, especially not with Catholic intellectuals, but more just a lack of identification. There are a lot of Catholic conservatives who see Santorum as sort of an engaging, interesting figure, where as Romney is a very difficult person to relate to for everyone except the very rich.

  21. @Cristiona

    I honestly think Romney's faith has less to do with it and more that he is constantly shifting his positions. Clinton was mocked for waffling and ruling via opinion poll, and Romney looks to be that all over again, except even more blatant.

    He's further hurt with conservatives because he continues to stand behind "Romneycare" despite its miserable failure, its similarities to Obamacare, and the fact that the very concept of it is an anathema to fiscal conservatives.

  22. Colin

    I wouldn't necessarily say that. Being a MA resident since 2007, I've witnessed its coverage implementation reach a lot more residents who were incapable of it beforehand. While some medical bankruptcies increased in 2009, the pricing has still remained steady and there are no extraordinary statistics showing it as a miserable failure. On the contrary, the numbers work against you in terms of coverage, price, benefits, etc.

    In case you wanted more of the horse's mouth.

  23. Rebochan

    And the Ron Paul caricature makes me laugh the hardest, naturally.

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  25. Pete Zaitcev

    Meh, I'm voting Newt. He's the only candidate who knows what he's talking about, on any topic. I generally do not watch TV, but saw a bit of a debate where some quesitons about space were asked. Newt was THE ONLY guy in the room who even knew that Atlas V can be easily man-rated. Everyone else just spouted some dogma that had no connection to the topic at hand whatsoever. I heard from others who watched debates that this repeated every time any matter of substance was broached.

  26. Jonny

    I'd love to see something like the Apollo Project happen too, but seriously colonizing the Moon when there are so many problems at home? The fact that that was even a topic during the debate was just ludicrous.

  27. Gray

    You've hit on a very strong point as far as Santorum goes: A lot of his "scary" statements make sense in the context which they were given, but the quotes tend to end up flying /way/ out of context in no small part because a lot of the tradition which Santorum comes from isn't exactly sound byte friendly. In some other cases, he refers to essentially using the bully pulpit to raise issues rather than outright legislation…but any of this tends to get a rather explosive reaction from the left in the US.

    Do I think he's outside the mainstream on social issues? Not really (at least, any more than Dubya was), though I suspect he's more willing to fight on them (which is part of the concern on the left). The question of whether it matters come this fall is another question…referring to your "default victory" scenario from another cartoon/blog entry, I think it is not unreasonable that Santorum might be able to get up on the campaign trail and focus on the economy…and if the economy is still in a funk (let's say that gas prices break $4/gallon over the summer and the economy slows), independents might well take disagreeable positions on lower-salience social issues as the price of fixing the economy.

    An interesting question is whether, in some regard, a faction of the right in the US might not be putting up socially conservative policies not as a selling point to win votes but instead as a precondition. In essence, "If you want us to implement these economic policies, these other social policies go along with them." I am well aware that there are less charitable ways to put that. In general, there does seem to be at least some consensus that entitlement reform is necessary (even Obama seems to have been more playing for time to get through 2012, at least if I understand a lot of the deficit-related discussions right). I would also argue that a fair portion of the left has done this over the years (many Democrats from the Rust Belt in particular were elected as being more or less pro-life and anti-gay marriage [to the extent that the latter even entered the picture] and then came under pressure to move further over as time went on) It will be interesting to see if the right has simply decided to try and demand their social policies as their "price" for fixing the country If the 2010 primaries were any indication, there /were/ races where the GOP seemed quite willing to lose if the price of winning was putting up a socially liberal candidate (and there seem to have been a few cases where this worked out for them, too…in many of the remaining cases, the states are continuing into deeper and deeper fiscal holes). Santorum's recent "hollow victory" comments suggest this attitude as well.

    To pursue this hypothesis a bit, I wonder (given Santorum's history on some points) if those folks might not be willing to jettison some things of mixed popularity (the until now seemingly never-ending free trade push, for example) as part of their dogma. I don't think the "no new taxes" bit is going away (though any massive debt-cutting deal will likely involve at least /some/ form of arguable tax hike, even if it is through eliminating deductions of some kind), but might some other things get thrown under the bus? At the same time, I'm wondering if there might not be a calculation that those younger voters who find Santorum's social stances unappealing will either just stay home or will break to a third party (in other words, that a winning coalition might be possible without them and that most of the mud that can be slung on this point would depress turnout rather than converting voters).

    One point of interest is that in the CNN exit polls, Santorum and Paul both have support bases that trend younger versus Romney and Gingrich. Paul's slope is definitely steeper (and in some cases, Paul has managed to flood a contest with enough support from younger voters to overwhelm Santorum here), but they both do /far/ better among voters <25 than voters >65. Would you care to speculate on just what is driving this phenomenon? I ask only because it does leave me a bit short on an explanation given the conventional wisdom of younger voters being more at odds with him. Likewise, I'm also wondering if (assuming the presence of a generational cleavage, not at all improbable) the line might simply be /far/ younger than it would need to be in order to make the sort of impact that many would expect it to.

    I will say that I don't think it's necessarily that a lot on the right are enamored with a Catholic social conservative being either nominated or elected that would be blinding anybody on the right (to the extent that blinding is going on); I think there's an in-built assumption that these issues simply aren't likely to motivate independents against the GOP this time, period, because of the deficit/debt/economy.

    Finally…I do like the caricatures, as always.

  28. @Cristiona

    Those Santorum and Paul numbers don't bode well for a general election. For decades, we've be hearing about the awesome power of the "youth vote" and it never materializes; meanwhile, seniors are the largest voting bloc in the nation.

  29. Gray

    Well, the question is what those seniors will do in a general election. A lot of them will march out and vote GOP (or Democratic, at least where relevant) no matter what…and of course, it's worth pointing out that the GOP primary electorate skews sharply older anyway.

    I'd argue that the "youth vote" materialized in 2008…but that it was a one-off rather than a continuing phenomenon.

  30. Bill Stephens

    I just can't see how Rick Santorum has gotten the support he has. I'm a Pennsylvanian who is ashamed to say that he was once our U.S. Senator, and proud to say that I was one of the ones who helped turn him out of office by nearly a 20% margin in 2006. In fact, PA voters sent the first elected Democrat (although a DINO, or Democrat In Name Only) from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to the U.S. Senate in over a generation – 1962 seems to come to mind as the last time our voters elected a Democrat, even though we are a swing state with a slight "D" registration advantage.

    (No, we don't officially call ourselves "State" – Kentucky, Massachusetts and Virginia also call themselves "Commonwealths")

    Santorum actually turned my stomach the other day when he said that rape victims who become pregnant should keep the baby as a "gift from God." I would think the kid is more a spawn of Satan, and will probably be treated accordingly by the family and peers.

  31. @ThePsudo

    You don't call yourself a state, but the Federal Constitution does. Puerto Rico also calls itself a commonwealth. The term has no legal meaning; it's only a values statement.

  32. SES

    Harris Wofford won the special election after John Heinz died in 1991 (and then lost to Rick Santorum when he ran for a full term in 1994).

  33. Alex

    I think the analysis discounts the changes in momentum which could result from Michigan and Arizona.

  34. @ThePsudo

    It's hard to take into account things that haven't happened yet.

  35. PTBO

    I hadn't realized that American Catholics were so right wing. In Canada (more specifically, Ontario) the NDP is very dependent on Catholic votes- which explains why they support 100% public funding of Catholic schools.

  36. @ThePsudo

    I think JJ is saying that right-wing American Catholics are right-wing. Democrats have a strong Catholic following, too. I would guess that 3 in 4 Catholics are Democrats.

  37. @Cristiona

    Well, for now they are. This HCR flap may have interesting fallout.

  38. SES

    Polls haven't really shown that Catholics care about that issue that much. If anything, they're a little more likely to support the policy than the general public.

  39. Gray

    I think this came up in a discussion on here some time ago, but as I understand it:
    -On the one hand, self-identified Catholics are split pretty sharply (and roughly in line with the US population as a whole); however
    -Regularly attending Catholics break GOP by some margin versus this (McCain won this group, albeit narrowly).

    Part of the problem in analyzing this is "cultural Catholics": Self-identified but non-observing Catholics who simply keep the label and /may/ attend at a major holiday or for a wedding/funeral. Another factor for consideration is that you have a lot of Catholics who openly oppose the Church's position on many issues (hint: Kathleen Sebelius, the HHS Secretary who signed the contraceptive order that the bishops are up in arms about, is at least nominally Catholic).

    My point is more that "Catholics" aren't anything /close/ to a unified bloc in the US. There's a strongly Catholic bent among conservative intellectuals these days and a lot of prominent Catholics are fairly conservative…but among the "rank and file", things are more than a little bit muddled because of the sheer size of that rank and file.

  40. Virgil

    I think Catholics tend to be an odd type of political animal because some stances take them left…and others right. They feel ordered to help the poor and oppressed, which leads them to the left, but they also are conservative on the social issues, which leads them to the right. Santorum tries to square this circle by supporting aid to the poor at a more local level. Whether Catholics fall left or right tends to depend on which teachings they emphasize. This makes the HCR flap interesting as the bishops have tended to be in the center, supporting both points.

  41. dodobird

    " the press has predictably seized upon the trio of Santorum upsets as evidence of a “changing narrative” of last-minute Romney-phobia, which, of course, is very much what they, in their unsubtle pursuit of a feistier horse race to cover, had been hoping for all along."

    With Santorum now expected to enjoy a bounce in the polls, the Super Tuesday mega-primary contest on March 6 may actually be worth watching.

    It's like you berate the media in one sentence and then justify them in the next.

  42. Jbot

    Your caricatures of Ron Paul have been getting exponentially weaker every time you include him. If you're just going to resort to lazy, non-sequiturs, then why even bother at all?

    Oh right, you just want to feel superior to Paultards.

  43. @ThePsudo

    I don't think feeling superior to the Paulites is the motivation; that's too easily attained to be worth continuing effort.

  44. Gray

    I think part of JJ's point is that, at least within the GOP, Paul's campaign /is/ something of a non-sequitur when compared to the other candidates in the race. I think Nate Silver put it best when he said "Paul is in a sort of libertarian hyperspace that few of us can hope to understand". I at least understand it, I get what it operates on, but it is /very/ much at odds with the GOP at large.

  45. J.J. McCullough

    I generally respect the US two-party system, but I think Paul really, really makes the case for a third party. The fact that he goes through this phoniness of pretending to be a Republican when he is clearly something distinctive and unique unto himself is quite tiring. It's true, there's really no way to engage with him beyond acknowledging that fact, especially since so many Paulite talking-points are based around feigning indignant outrage that their guy isn't doing better among the GOP faithful.

  46. mtanous

    "The fact that he goes through this phoniness of pretending to be a Republican when he is clearly something distinctive and unique unto himself is quite tiring."

    I'd bet it is tiring to him too, but the two-party system (which really, IMO, amounts to a one-party system with two factions arguing between spending A LOT or MORE THAN THE OTHER GUYS – I'll let you decide which is which), and the media's focus on it, results in a requirement that – to be taken seriously at all – you have to pick one party or the other. Without choosing to be a Republican, Paul would have even less representation in debates/articles/etc.

    That said, the Republican Party itself *used* to largely agree with Paul – Goldwater, Eisenhower, even Reagan to a degree, talked about only defensive wars and civil liberties. Goldwater in particular gave a speech in 1981 to the Senate that was essentially a rant about "political preachers" ("Just who do they think they are? And from where do they presume to claim the right to dictate their moral beliefs to me?") – i.e. people like Santorum. That year, he was also quoted as saying, "I think every good Christian ought to kick Falwell right in the ass."

  47. Puddle

    For what it's worth, I like Ron Paul, and the punchline was funny enough to me to make me laugh out loud. I love the artwork and how each panel goes into the next one.

  48. Gray

    I'd be interested to hear your analysis on cultural/social conservatives (and I know the difference…you elaborated on it quite nicely some time ago) this time around, but speaking from experience (and I know that the plural of "anecdote" is not "data"), I think you've hit on something there. At least from what I've seen, there's a distinctly more religious group among younger folks…in a lot of cases, it's people whose grandparents effectively raised them with /their/ values (either by raising them directly or by having a strong hand in their upbringing…I know people in both boats).

    Combine that with the tendency of younger folks to rebel against the previous generation in some form and you get a very deep irony in recent years: Youth rebellion against the results of a previous youth rebellion (in the 60s and 70s) rather than continuing that rebellion themselves. I wonder if there was a substantial subset of this the last time around?

    One question (and I'd like to see this discussed in one of your essays eventually) would be the nature of three more youth-oriented political tendencies in the US (Occupy Wall Street, Ron Paul's campaign, and Rick Santorum's campaign) and what is making them tick (and attract people, given that the three are…very different animals). You seem to catch a /lot/ of your under-30 political activists, voters, etc. between the three (and /not/ in the tea party, at least in terms of sheer numbers from what I can tell).

  49. Nanon

    Wait a minute… Santorum and Romney basically tied in Iowa, widely considered the first important predictor of who might win the primary. Why is there any surprise, then, that Santorum continues to do well?

  50. Thomas

    Santorum would probably be the worst Republican candidate.

    There's only been one Catholic president. JKF. (I think he was the only Irish one too?)

    Santorum doesn't strike me as personable and present as JKF.

    Something about Catholics and voters doesn't mesh when it comes down to presidential elections.

  51. J.J. McCullough

    I don't think it's justifying as much as acknowledging the reality. But fine, point taken.

  52. Hugh

    It's disappointing the GOP candidates can only attract apologists, Santorum has no respect for the right of an individual to choose their sexuality, Newt's bizarre moon colony outburst is at odds with dealing with the deficit and/or reality and Romney for all his patriot posturing keeps his money in offshore accounts and exploits the tax system to pay 13.9%, the tax bracket for a person working for a salary one hundredth of his income.
    Ron Paul's push for deregulation and small government is on the fringe of mainstream politics but at least he's defined by his policies rather than the fluff and lesser evils of the other candidates.

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