Becoming a media buzzword is the public relations dream of every Washington policy cabal. It is the signal that the media is ready to collaborate. The great PR success story of the 1980s was the "supply-siders." The term, which suggests a conservative concern with investment and producer efficiency, is still applied to those who promoted the decidedly demand-side Reaganomics of economic stimulus through the deficit financing of military and private consumption.
So it is with the "New Democrats." The label creats the image of a collection of Democratic politicians and policy technocrats freeing the party from its bondage to a liberalism that is out of touch with mainstream America. Closer to reality, the term reflects a confused attempt to bring intellectual respectability to the moderate-conservative coalition that has ruled Washington for most of the past 25 years.
There is a great deal of overlap between New Democrats and those politicians who used to be known on Capitol Hill as Boll Weevils-- southerners who rose to committee chairmanships as Democrats and voted like Republicans. New Democrats include Senators David Boren of Oklahoma, Sam Nunn of Georgia, and John Breaux of Louisiana, and Congressmen Charles Stenholm of Texas and Dave McCurdy of Oklahoma. Southern conservatives who favor big business and expensive military budgets while opposing social spending are hardly new. They have been a fixture in the party even longer than big-city northeastern liberals.
But all New Democrats are not southerners. And those who sell their political wares under the New Democrat label insist they are an entirely new political phenomenon. In a June 6, 1993, Washington Post op-ed, Al From, director of the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), which holds the principal copyright on the New Democrat label, tells us their opinions add up to "a new public philosophy--a synthesis of progressive ideas and a nonbureaucratic approach to governing, grounded in mainstream values." He quotes Bill Clinton, when the latter was the chair of the DLC, saying that it "plainly rejects the old ideologies and the false choices they impose. Our agenda isn't liberal or conservative. It is both, and it is different."
The New Democrats score points with their criticism of the liberals, and some of their specific policy suggestions are reasonable--if not terribly new. But their reach to establish a new ideology far exceeds their intellectual grasp. When faced with such central public problems as falling real incomes, impoverished cities, uncompetitive industries, and stubbornly high unemployment, their vision falters. Like their own caricature of the Left, the New Democrats are trapped in a "politics of evasion," obsessed with abstract debates over social values, while the nation stumbles into decline. If it turns out that Bill Clinton truly is a New Democrat, then he was elected on the basis of bait-and-switch advertising, and America's next four years will be much like the last four.
The promise of being beyond left and right has perennial appeal in American politics. As George Lodge of the Harvard Business School pointed out years ago, we are among the most ideological of peoples, yet the conventions of American political life hold that politicians must present themselves as nonideological problem solvers. This has advantages. Ideological rigidity is not helpful in a complex, changing world, and liberals and conservatives can learn from each other. Moreover, there is a case for a posture of pragmatism; in any election, 35 to 40 percent of the electorate is locked into one party or the other; the contest is for the middle. Not surprisingly, most candidates for president present themselves as more "centrist" than the mainstream of their party.
So there is a useful role for honest "plague on both your houses" politics in America. But those who carry the intellectual baggage for the Democratic Leadership Council do not curse the House of Liberalism and the House of Conservatism with equal fervor. For them, liberals are clearly the enemy.
The spine of the New Democrats' argument is this: for the last 20 years, the Democratic Party has been dominated by its extreme left wing, which is out of touch with middle-class America. New Democrats represent a set of new, bold ideas uniquely relevant to the nation's problems. These ideas will bring back "Bubba"--the stereotype of the Reagan Democrat who defected from the party in the 1980s.
William Galston and Elaine Kamarck laid out the political case against liberals in a 1989 booklet, The Politics of Evasion, which became the guiding political manifesto of the DLC. In it, the authors, both of whom now work in the White House, declared that since the late 1960s the Democratic Party had been beset by a rigid "liberal fundamentalism." As a result, the public has come to associate Democrats with politically bizarre attitudes like "tax and spending policies that contradict the interests of average families: with welfare policies that foster dependence rather than self-reliance." According to Galston and Kamarck, "Liberal fundamentalism has meant a coalition increasingly dominated by minority groups and white elites--a coalition viewed by the middle class as unsympathetic to its interests and its values." Echoing the 20-year-old analysis of Kevin Phillips, Galston and Kamarck tell us the result is a political realignment working against the Democrats. Proof is that after 1988, the Democrats had won only one out of the preceding six contests for the White House.
The notion that the Democratic Party is a captive of left-wing extremists is a familiar one to readers of the American press. It has been a staple of conservative Republican doctrine since 1932. In itself, this does not make the point incorrect, although it suggests that it is a bit musty. Reminiscent of the analysis that has been nurtured for decades in places such as the National Review, New Democrats have a tendency to argue at a level of abstract generalization that permits them to leap over some facts that would otherwise puncture their case.
The first set of facts is historical. With the exception of McGovern in 1972, in five of the last six presidential campaigns, the Democratic candidates--Humphrey, Carter, Mondale, and Dukakis--ran as centrists. Humphrey was the establishment candidate against Robert Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy. Carter ran as a conservative southerner moderate on race. The centerpiece of Mondale's campaign (for which Galston served as chief issues adviser) was deficit reduction. And Dukakis ran as a technocrat who, until the last two weeks of his campaign, avoided attacking Ronald Reagan because he didn't want to sound too partisan. Even McGovern didn't run as a "tax and spend" Democrat; a central part of his platform was a proposal for a huge middle-class tax cut. Indeed, the Carter presidency--the failure of which still weighs heavily on the Democratic psyche--was the exemplar of the New Democrat spirit. The New Republic reports that when Al From talked with Carter about forming the DLC, the latter said: "Boy, could I have used a DLC to back me up."
Well, say New Democrats, it wasn't necessarily the candidate who was too liberal. It was the Democrats at the convention who were too liberal--that is, Ted Kennedy challenging Carter, Jesse Jackson challenging Mondale and Dukakis. In this version, the sin of the liberal fundamentalists is not that they have taken over the party but that they have taken over the convention every four years and forced the candidate to accept a far-out platform that has been an albatross around the candidate's neck.
For this theory to be credible, the New Democrats have to argue that the 1992 convention was different. Inasmuch as they claim credit for Clinton's victory, they have to claim that 1992 was their convention. True to form, the press generally has obliged by favorably contrasting the 1992 convention with the "liberal" conventions of 1988 and 1984. According to accepted wisdom, these two previous conventions were dominated by demanding minorities, feminists, labor unions, environmentalists, gays, and people with bizarre "styles" of political behavior. But as media critic Jim Naureckas has pointed out, the press ran the same story of moderation during the previous conventions as well. According to Naureckas, "every convention since 1984 has been hailed by journalists as the one where the 'special interests' lost their influence." He quotes press report after press report praising Dukakis in 1988 for appealing to "the middle ground and the middle class" (New York Times). For using words like "family, community, honesty, patriotism, accountability, responsibility, opportunity" (Chicago Tribune). For abandoning "the expansive promises of Democratic Party platforms of earlier years --the crowded bazaar of special interests and special pleading" (Washington Post).
In 1984 the New York Times headlined: "Democrats' Platform Shows a Shift from Liberal Positions of 1976 and 1980." The press lauded Walter Mondale's acceptance speech for its break with the past. "Look at our platform," said Mondale. "There are no defense cuts that weaken our security, no business taxes that weaken our economy. No laundry lists that raid our Treasury." Mondale himself, according to columnist David Broder, "embodies all the traditional middle-class values of the rural Midwest." Joining the journalistic consensus of the 1988 convention was Elaine Kamarck, then columnist for Newsday: "Interest groups and their demands were barely visible."
Naureckas concludes that "when the `pragmatists' lose badly with their centrist approach, they are repainted after the fact as radicals, so the strategy of tilting to the right can be tried again and again."
No reasonable reading of history since 1972 supports the premise that an extremist coalition of minorities and white liberals has dominated the Democratic Party. Nor can one make the case that those on the left of the party have been somehow destructive or disloyal. They ran their candidates and tried to influence the platform. When they failed, they rallied behind the centrist candidate. Certainly the liberals have supported recent centrist candidates, starting with Jimmy Carter, with more loyalty than the conservatives showed to the candidacy of George McGovern. The 1992 campaign is a case in point. The liberal coalition--labor, environmentalists, minorities, fundamentalists, gays--were the shock troops of Clinton's political army. They were the activists who knocked on doors, raised money, and organized precincts. In contrast, many New Democrats seemed to spend their time complaining that Bill Clinton was allowing these people too much say in the campaign.
Liberal loyalty to Clinton continued throughout the troubles of his first seven months in office. They stuck with his budget even after it had been gutted of the domestic spending that was at the heart of their agenda. Senate Democrats like Ted Kennedy and Paul Sarbanes battled for the president's budget, which disappointed their constituencies. At the same time, New Democrats like Boren and Breaux were willing to ruin Clinton's presidency in its first year in order to protect the oil and gas industry. The liberals' reaction to the creation of an economic inner circle of deficit hawks--Bentsen, Rubin, Panetta, and Rivlin--and the subsequent insulting appointment of David Gergen was silence. The New Democrats' reaction to the appointment of Lani Guinier was to throw a tantrum, forcing Clinton to withdraw his candidate in an embarrassing public defeat.
In their 1989 New Democrat manifesto, Galston and Kamarck set up and effortlessly demolished a series of straw men, the supposed "myths" through which liberal fundamentalists have succeeded in getting the Democratic Party to evade reality. One is the argument that greater mobilization of minorities will automatically return a Democrat to the White House. They belabor what people who understand simple addition know: there are not enough potential black and Hispanic voters to outweigh white, working-class Democrats who would be alienated by a campaign aimed at minorities. That is why they are known as minorities. The argument of Jesse Jackson--the primary target of Galston's and Kamarck's attack--was that Democrats should be appealing to the working class as a whole. One may object that Jackson is not the most effective person to make the appeal, but that is another question. Ironically, Galston and Kamarck divide the working class along racial lines in attacking this class mobilization thesis, and a few pages later they criticize the Left for believing that race is the main reason for the white, working-class departure from the party.
The most interesting of the purported "myths" is the supposed thesis that, as Galston and Kamarck phrase it, "it's all economics." Even discounting the extremist formulation (no serious Democrat believes it is "all" anything), Galston and Kamarck think this is "a very powerful tactic in the politics of evasion," because "it allows Democrats to avoid dealing with problems of vulnerability on national defense and social issues."
New Democrats insist that noneconomic appeals to the white middle class should take precedence. Writing in 1989, Galston and Kamarck tell us that the next Democratic candidate must be fully credible as commander in chief and "squarely reflect the moral sentiments of the average American." They grant that he needs to have a "progressive economic message, based on the values of upward mobility and individual effort." But they maintain that the white majority doesn't respond to progressive economic messages because people dismiss the Democrats on the basis of foreign policy and social issues. So next time around--1992--the Democrats need a candidate whose strengths lie in social and foreign policy. "Above all, the next Democratic nominee must convey a clear understanding of, and identification with, the social values and moral sentiments of average Americans."
They got the 1992 election dead wrong. Bill Clinton's strength was not as a credible commander in chief -- whether in Vietnam or the Persian Gulf--and he spent the campaign avoiding George Bush's call for debates on morality. Had the unemployment rate in October 1992 been 5.5 percent instead of 7.5 percent, there is little doubt that George Bush would be president today. Clinton's campaign was so focused on "the economy, stupid" that the very phrase has become a political cliché.
Moreover, Clinton's message on the economy was unmistakably liberal. He constantly attacked the "trickle-down" economics of the Republicans. And after outbidding George Bush with the promise of middle-class tax cuts flopped in the early primaries, Clinton overruled his DLC advisers and shifted to an emphasis on more government investment spending both as a way to jump-start the economy and to create more good jobs over the long run. He even argued that closing the public investment deficit was every bit as important as reducing the fiscal deficit.
But as Naureckas pointed out, the press lets the party conservatives rewrite history every four years, whatever the outcome.
There is some legitimate criticism to be made of the Democratic Party's activist left wing, but the New Democrat critique misses the target. The central failing of the Left is that it has not come to grips with the question of economic growth and stability in the new global economy. To some degree, the Left still views the world in the framework of the 1960s, when a growing pie of income and wealth could be taken for granted and progressives could focus on how to slice it.
Like the "liberal fundamentalists" they criticize, however, the New Democrats have practiced their own "politics of eva-sion" in avoiding the issue.
In his credo for the New Democrat, Al From denounces both the "borrow and spend" policies of the Republicans and the "tax and spend" policies of the Old Dem-ocrats that have failed to solve the country's economic problems. The failure, he says, "has produced two decades of anemic gains in personal income."
Again, the "plague on both your houses" stance is at odds with history. Jimmy Carter actually cut taxes in mid-term, a precursor to Reaganomics. Even Lyndon Johnson was not a "tax and spend" Democrat. In fact, history blames Johnson for not raising taxes to pay for the Vietnam War. Kennedy cut taxes, as did Truman before he raised them to pay for the Korean War. Postwar presidents--Democratic and Republican until Reagan--did use an un-indexed income tax structure that automatically generated accelerating revenues with economic growth, but one has to go back 50 years, to Roosevelt's financing of World War II, to find a Democratic president's economic policy that could be described as deliberately "tax and spend."
Once having set up the false dichotomy to place the New Democrats in that safe haven "beyond left and right," From runs out of gas. Faced with the question of how to reverse this two-decade slide of income and growth, he ducks: "No one has convincingly solved this riddle," he says. "But while economists search for answers, we need to reduce the deficit and long-term interest rates." One might wonder why, if we haven't solved the riddle of our economic problem, we should opt for the solution of deficit reduction. Macroeconomic policy aside, it is reflective of how "new" the philosophy of the New Democrat is. From is telling us what Michael Dukakis told us in 1988, Walter Mondale in 1984, and Jimmy Carter in 1980--and even George McGovern in 1972--that we must reduce the budget deficit. Indeed, if there is one plank in the economic platforms of both Democrats and Republicans that has not varied over the 20 years of anemic economic growth, it is the well-worn demand for deficit reduction.
In any case, New Democrats seem to prefer turning the conversation to social programs. In the summer of 1993, the DLC commissioned a poll of Perot voters which showed that three-quarters of them did not list the deficit as either the first or second most important problem facing the country. But the Perot voters did favor "radical change" in government more than did those who voted for Clinton or Bush. According to the Washington Post, when asked for an example of what radical change in government would appeal to Perot voters, Al From and pollster Stanley Greenberg "were initially stumped . . . . They then said welfare reform was the kind of change that would appeal to Perot voters."
But the welfare reform the New Democrats say they favor hardly breaks new ground. It is the traditional combination of a generalized denunciation of personal irresponsibility and support for specific programmatic changes liberals have advocated for years. New Democrats advocate ending welfare after two years. In fine print they want public sector jobs for all those who can't get work in the private sector, subsidized training, more earned income tax credits, and universal health care. And they want an initial $5 billion to finance it. One can argue over the details, but this is the kind of program that liberal welfare policy analysts have been talking about for years. Dukakis made welfare reform a central piece of his platform. The problem--as From says and everyone knows--is delivering on the commitment. What's new?
Indeed, when one actually reads the New Democrat social policy literature, it is hard to see what all the fuss is about. New Democrats move easily from a call to arms against the liberal fundamentalists to the level of cliché, that is, the belabored insistence that New Democrats are different because they are for Opportunity, Family Values, Individual Responsibility, Better Government, and so on. But when we get to programmatic details, the trumpet begins to squeak. New Democrats say they are for investment in education, for example, European-style worker training, and help to college students in return for community service. In terms of the specifics of social policy, New Democrats simply do not represent a radical departure from the things that the liberal wing of the party, its convention delegates, and its losing centrist candidates have been saying for years. It seems again that it is not liberalism they are quarreling with; it is the liberals.
New Democrats claim government reform is a new centrist idea. Yet Democrats, at least as far back as the Johnson administration's effort to promote "zero-based budgeting," have been much more interested in having government operate efficiently than have Republicans. Many of the specific proposals to free government agencies from the tyranny of annual budgets, to consolidate agencies, to promote public sector flexibility, and to inject more competition into the delivery of services are reasonable and indeed are part of the evolving American debate on public administration. By focusing some presidential attention on these issues, New Democrats have helped move the discussion forward. But when these issues are elevated to the level of a new public philosophy and used to attack liberals, the thinking becomes muddled and superficial, and the politics become conservative--encouraging the cheap shots against the public sector that have so poisoned popular political discussion in America.
Thus New Democrats roll out the anecdotes about government inefficiency: how long it takes for government to purchase new computers, how conscientious bureaucrats are frustrated in their efforts to save the government money by cutting red tape, how agencies are balkanized. There is much truth to these complaints, but to lay blame at the feet of liberal fundamentalists is absurd. It is not the liberals who entangle government agencies with restrictions and contradictory rules. More often than not, bureaucracy is a response to the micro-management of government agencies by legislators with economic interests to grind.
New Democrats claim they want to improve government to make it more credible. A worthy liberal sentiment. But the missiles of their reform are typically fueled by conservative obsessions with reducing labor costs and the size of government and are locked onto public sector labor unions as the ultimate targets. New Democrats also depart from liberals in showing little interest in the misallocation of resources represented by a bloated post-Cold War military budget. And although they promote competition and privatization of public services, their zeal for efficiency does not extend to the possibility of socializing activities where the public sector's record is superior--like the federal government's more efficient administration of Medicare as compared with the performance of private health insurers.
The New Democrat "reinventing government" balloon gets much of its lift from the hot air associated with the word "empowerment." Like Jack Kemp, they use it to oversell marginal and often counter-productive reforms such as tenant ownership of public housing, enterprize zones, and privatization. But Kemp's political agenda is to split minorities from the Democratic Party. He knows his history: the Great Society of the 1960s championed grass-roots empowerment as a substitute for big-time spending for the cities. It came to political grief when moderate and conservative Democratic officials decided that people were taking the promises too seriously. New Democrats may be playing with fire. Also like Jack Kemp, despite abstractions about empowerment, they are hostile to organizations that attempt to give any real power to the lower two-thirds of the income distribution. For example, they are hostile to labor unions, which are the major mechanisms in a market system for giving working people some measure of control in the workplace.
Tax reform is another area where the New Democrats' claim is more than their due. The Left has been making the case for reform for over 20 years. What liberal fundamentalist is not for taxing the rich, giving the middle class a break, and providing tax relief for the working poor?
Like many liberals, by focusing on tax issues, the New Democrats evade the deeper structural changes in the economy that are eroding middle-class incomes. In fact about 80 percent of the increase in income inequality in the 1980s occurred before taxes. Having no answer to this "riddle," they fall back to intellectual pillow-fighting with liberals.
The shallowness of the New Dem-ocrats' intellectual claims was revealed in an extraordinary debate on the MacNeil-Lehrer News Hour between Senator Charles Robb and Jesse Jackson in November 1989. Before his career was derailed by his falling out with fellow DLC-er Governor Doug Wilder of Virginia, Robb was a leading New Democrat hopeful for the 1992 race. He had just delivered the keynote speech to the Democratic Leadership Conference in which he challenged Democrats to choose between "liberal fundamentalism" and "mainstream values."
Jackson said he didn't know what liberal fundamentalism was. He said he is for aid to education, a war on drugs and poverty, a requirement that S&Ls that got bailed out invest more in their local communities. He said he was for a strong national defense but that he thought that building 100 stealth bombers at a half-billion dollars apiece when we could use the money for health care was not a good idea.
Robb's reply was: "On the basis of what he's suggested, there's not that much difference. We can find common ground and have previously. The concern here is also with style." Robb did not define what he meant by style. The exchange reinforces the notion that there is a murkier agenda at foot here. The line drawn in the sand gets filled in quickly and another must be drawn. The ground shifts from substance to style. The problem turns out not to be the liberal program but the liberals.
The New Democrats' mantra about social values and moral sentiments works as a political platitude. It doesn't work as a strategy for the Democrats. The fact is that in modern times national Democrats have always been somewhat out of sync with the social values of the average, white, and middle-class American. It is, after all, the progressive party. Its historic function is in part to champion the upward mobility of those who are different--immigrants, blacks, Hispanics, women wanting equal opportunity, gays in the military.
This is part of the burden of being a Democrat. Lyndon Johnson was right; the Civil Rights Act lost the South for the Democratic Party. The problem did not start in the 1960s, or even the 1950s; Harry Truman desegregated the armed forces in 1948. In the 1930s, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt were excoriated in racist limericks and jokes in working-class taverns and church suppers for their sympathies for blacks. Since the end of World War II, Democrats have also been seen as less hawkish than Republicans on foreign policy. Whatever the reality, to most voters Democrats were soft on communism, less supportive of the military, more interested in diplomacy than the big stick.
Nonetheless, the working class voted Democratic because Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy, and Johnson were seen as on their side on the central issues of jobs and economic security. The Democrats were for full employment, progressive taxes, and spending money to help the little guy. This identity was so powerful that Hubert Humphrey, dragging a party that had been splintered on race and shattered by the Vietnam War, almost won the 1968 election.
The identification faded under Carter, the first New Democrat. Carter ran against the government and governed as a middle-of-the-road conservative. Bewildered by the "riddle" of economic stagflation in the late 1970s, he reached for the old Wall Street bromide of deficit reduction and tight money. He cut domestic spending to balance the budget and hired Paul Volcker to strangle the economy with high interest rates. Voters in New York Times and CBS exit polls in November 1980 named unemployment as the number one reason for voting against Jimmy Carter. Strikingly, the subject rates exactly one citation in Carter's 600-page memoir of his presidency.
The New Democrats are a continuation of the politics of Carter, which in various forms has dominated the party ever since 1976. Their insistence that the nation cares more about social issues than economic ones reflects a fundamentally conservative view of the world, one in which the major economic forces shaping society are seen as beyond political control. This inevitably leaves economic policy decisions in the hands of those who purport to speak for the business community--primarily the high rollers in the financial sector for whom low interest rates and slow growth take much higher priority than full employment.
This has been the real politics of evasion that has characterized the Democratic Party over the last two decades of anemic income growth. The party has abandoned the search for a strategy to create good, permanent, full-time jobs with rising wages and benefits for Bubba and the rest of the party's basic constituency--the bottom two-thirds of the working class. Bubba may not like minorities, and minorities may not care much for Bubba. But they like less the prospect of working for the rest of their lives in a series of short-time, service sector jobs at a buck over the minimum wage.
Despite their claims to be the intellectual vanguard of the party, New Democrats have remarkably little curiosity about the central policy question the party faces. Al From says we must wait for the "economists" to solve the riddle of slow growth. Thus the faction of the party that attacks the Left for being elitist tells us to hand over the decision on the country's economic future to some shadowy group of unnamed scholars--and while we are waiting, let's listen to our betters on Wall Street who tell us to keep the lid on job growth.
People who purport to speak for the party's future should be less patient. The economic riddle is not insolvable. We already know the essential pieces of a high-wage answer. Clinton himself was on to it in the campaign. For those who need the authority, Nobel Prize economists have endorsed an investment-led growth strategy to put people to work now doing things that will make the economy more productive in the future. This will require a civilian public sector that is stronger, not weaker--and probably larger, not smaller. It will require a government that plans ahead and does not hide from the questions of how to deploy America's technology and labor force into the industries of the future. This, in turn requires a political party that gives the interests of producers at least as much attention as the interests of bondholders. And this in turn requires an intellectual leadership willing to engage the public in a mature dialogue over economic policy, rather than one that at the first sight of trouble will abandon the public sector to the political lynch mobs led by the likes of Ross Perot, Newt Gingrich, and David Boren.
Talk like this makes New Democrats uncomfortable, primarily, it would seem, because it makes Old Republicans uncomfortable. But in the absence of an economic program that might speak to the party's constituency, there is little room for compromise between its right and its left. Reflecting the strains in the larger society, the Right and the Left are trapped in deadly political combat over unresolvable issues of "style," like two scorpions trapped in a bottle. Moreover, lacking the will to risk exploring an economic strategy that would undercut their Republican affectations, New Democrats release the very forces they claim to want to suppress. Among Democrats, social liberalism, or liberal fundamentalism, is the natural corollary of economic conservatism. For example, if you can't spend money to put disadvantaged minorities to work, you are driven to support their upward mobility through affirmative action--which is what really makes Bubba crazy.
So in the end, the New Democrats do not live up to their billing. Their program cannot hold together. It is a tired mixture of conservative intention watered down with liberal tinkering in the hope that it will fill in the crack in the center. But it cannot build a new future for the party because it does not address the new economic reality. Neither can their effort to read the left wing out of the party succeed. Minorities, labor, feminists, and environmentalists were indispensable in Clinton's victory. Not only do they ring the door bells, organize the precincts, and raise the money, but it is ultimately on the left where the passion resides for the very idea of the Democratic Party. Take that away and Republicans will rule America for as far into the future as you can see.
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