State of the Union

Israel, South Africa, and Romney’s Ignorance

We heard a great deal about Israel in last night’s debate. Obama repeated several times that Israel is “a true friend and our greatest ally in the region.” Romney tried to outdo him, promising that he’d prosecute Iran’s Prime Minister for threatening to “wipe Israel off the map”. As President, Romney claimed,

 I’d make sure that Ahmadinejad is indicted under the Genocide Convention. His words amount to genocide incitation. I would indict him for it. I would also make sure that their diplomats are treated like the pariah they are around the world. The same way we treated the apartheid diplomats of South Africa.

The promise to indict Ahmadinejad is mere posturing: the President doesn’t have the authority to indict anyone for anything. The reference to South Africa, on the other hand, is more interesting because it exposes Romney’s ignorance of the morally ambiguous realities of foreign affairs.

In the first place, Romney seems unaware that “we” did not treat South Africa as a pariah until quite late in the game. In the 1970s, the Nixon administration regarded the apartheid regime as a key ally against the spread of Communism. That strategy became  untenable in the 1980s. Even so, President Reagan and prominent Republicans in Congress including Dick Cheney consistently resisted efforts to recognize the ANC, which they regarded (with some justice) as a terrorist organization. In Romney’s view of history, the forces of good are always clearly aligned against the “bad guys”. It just isn’t so.

Much the same is true of Israel. Although Israel publicly opposed apartheid, the 1975 Israel-South Africa Agreement established close military links in response to both countries’ international isolation. On some accounts, that included nuclear cooperation. According to Romney, Iran can’t be trusted with a nuclear weapon because of the fundamental injustice of its government. But Israel may have helped his paradigm of a pariah state acquire the same weapons.

And what about Israel itself? Romney implicitly condemns apartheid as an intolerable violation of human rights. According to a survey released today, however, 58 percent of Israel’s own citizens believe that it practices apartheid policies. What’s more, many Israelis are quite satisfied with that state of affairs. The ultra-Orthodox, in particular, express overwhelming approval for denying votes, jobs, and even public roads to Arabs both within Israel proper and in the territories.

My point here is not that Israel is identical to South Africa. Bad as things are there, especially in the territories, there’s room for improvement within the existing political and legal system. That was not the case under apartheid.

But, as his secretly-recorded remarks indicates, Romney is unable to imagine how that improvement might occur. That’s because he imposes a largely simplistic script onto the messy, wrenching events and circumstances that constitute international affairs. We just had a president who saw the world with what he was pleased to regard as similar clarity. We will be lucky to avoid another.

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Why Have Debates?

I find presidential debates painful to watch. The main reason is that isn’t they aren’t really debates, at least in the traditional sense of extended presentations of dueling arguments on a single, predetermined subject. When Abraham Lincoln confronted Stephen Douglas in 1858, the opening speaker spoke for an hour, was followed by a 90 minute response from his opponent, and then offered a 30 minute rebuttal (Lincoln and Douglas alternated speaking first). The encounter between Obama and Romney two weeks ago, by contrast, consisted of a series ten-minute segments in which the candidates answered questions posed by a moderator.

That format transforms ancient tradition of political rhetoric into a kind of dual interview. As such, it encourages the participants to pursue “zingers” and non-sequitur soundbites. There’s no question that Romney’s performance was more effective than Obama’s. Read in transcript, however, it develops no argument or vision.

There’s reason to expect that tomorrow’s encounter will be even more inane. One problem is the “townhall” format, in which voters ask impromptu questions. Leaving the choice of subjects to a moderator is bad enough: who cares what Jim Lehrer thinks is worth discussing? But soliciting questions from a relatively large audience almost guarantees incoherence.

A second problem is that participation in the townhall meeting will be limited to undecided voters. That means that they’ll be representative of only a tiny slice of the electorate: about 6% of likely voters, according to Reuters. Why should their questions have priority over other citizens?

It’s bad enough that citizens whose views reflect the vast majority of likely voters are excluded from the debate. What’s even worse is that undecideds are, speaking generally, the least informed and interested of likely voters. They haven’t made up their minds because they don’t know or care much about politics. As a result, they tend to be more concerned with character and manner than ideological commitments or specific policies.

The campaigns can’t be blamed for using debates to go after the few “sellable” voters who remain. Journalists and commentators, however, should not be shy about identifying the farcical character of the exercise. With the exception of the Nixon-Kennedy encounter in 1960, debates between the nominees became a regular feature of presidential politics only in 1976. Unless the candidates want to return to something resembling Lincoln and Douglas’s example, we’d be better off without them.

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The Slow Death of Democracy in Europe

This morning I began to write a long post on the political implication of European Central Bank’s new bond-buying policy. To my chagrin, I discovered that Walter Russell Mead has beaten me to the punch. The key points:

This central bank is the only European body that can act. And as the only real actor in a continent in crisis, as the emergency deepens, its powers grow. National governments bluster; the European parliament wrings its hands…This is how you can tell where, in a mixed government, the true power of sovereignty resides.

And then,

People used to say that Prussia was an army with a state. Right now, Europe is a bank without one. This cannot last; Europe will lose its central bank or build a state. For now, however, Via Meadia salutes the first central bank in the world to achieve sovereign power. Mario Draghi is the most powerful banker in the history of the world.

Although I agree with Mead’s read of the situation, I can only hope that his salute to Mario Draghi is ironic. The Outright Monetary Transactions (OMT) program may or may not be good economic policy: the consensus seems to be that it will buy member states, especially Italy and Spain, some time to restore growth. But it is a profound blow to the principle of self-government. At least for the foreseeable future, the elected governments of Europe will have to submit their fiscal policies for approval to a council of unaccountable bankers. That makes them little more than administrators for the benevolent King Euro.

What I find most baffling about this development is that seems to have aroused so little resistance among the national elites. I can’t think of another case in which formerly ruling classes accepted similar encroachments on their power without a fight. The struggles between the kings and barons went on for centuries; American states fought a bloody rebellion against the national government. But as far as I can tell, most Europeans see the reduction of democracy to a formality as an irresistible destiny. Some even appear to welcome relief from the responsibility of governing themselves.

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Dead End: The NYPD and Domestic Spying

In the wake of September 11, the NYPD Intelligence Division set up a secret operation to monitor Muslims in the New York area. Working under the sinister title of the “Demographics Unit” and in collaboration with the CIA, officers attended sermons at mosques, hung out in cafes frequented by immigrants from the Islamic world, and infiltrated Muslim student groups at universities around the Northeast. The idea was that constant surveillance of legal assemblies and activities might provide early warnings of terrorism.

What has the NYPD learned from these tactics? According to the AP’s Adam Goldman (no relation of mine), who received a Pulitizer Prize for revealing the program’s existence last year, the answer is nothing. It’s not just that the secret team didn’t generate any prosecutions. According to the assistant chief responsible for the Intelligence Division, the Demographics Unit hasn’t produced any leads since he assumed command in 2006. That’s six years of domestic spying, often simply on the basis of religion and national origin. And without any results.

The legality of the program is in currently in litigation. But the failure to produce useful intelligence removes its practical justification. Threats of political violence may justify expansions of government powers. When the applications of those powers shows that those threats are exaggerated or non-existent, however, they should by removed or restricted. In short, I can understand why the NYPD and city officials once thought the Demographic Unit was necessary. Now the time has come to shut it down.

Of course, that’s not usually the way things go when it comes to emergency powers. Temporary authority has a way of becoming permanent. Criticism may force the NYPD to conceal the Demographics Unit, perhaps by reconstituting it under a different name or in a different division (it’s already been renamed the “Zone Assessment Unit”). But I fear that the domestic counterpart of the national security state is here to stay.

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In Afghanistan, Costs and Casualties Mount

Masonjar / Shutterstock
Masonjar / Shutterstock

Five Fort Bliss soldiers serving in Afghanistan were shot Tuesday by an Afghan wearing an Afghan Army uniform. One soldier, Pfc. Jeremy Young of Archdale, N.C., was shot 12  times before the attacker fled on foot and remained “at-large” as of Thursday.

The incident happened in the eastern province of Wardak, known for being a “Taliban hotbed.” (Yes, after nearly 12 years and a million soldiers and a dozen hearings in which generals tell us we’ve broken their momentum, there are still Taliban “hotbeds” in Afghanistan.) This, by the way, was the province where 38 people died when the Taliban shot down a Chinook helicopter carrying mostly U.S. military personnel, plus 8 Afghans, in August 2011.

It’s certainly not the first instance of “green-on-blue” attacks–Afghan “allies” engaging in surprise “fragging” of their international partners. On Monday, three British soldiers were killed in a similar fashion.

According to reports on Thursday, there have been a total of 19 such attacks involving 26 deaths, 13 of them American, as of early July. That nearly equals the number of attacks in all of 2011 — 21, with 35 deaths.

If you haven’t heard about any of this, don’t worry — the story barely registered a blip on the mainstream news radar. Years ago, a report that five soldiers were shot by a supposed Afghan ally would have raised a much bigger ruckus. As for fatalities, I bet you didn’t know we lost 165 servicemen in Afghanistan since the beginning of the year, 77 of them from improvised explosive devices (IED) planted by insurgents. We can only guess how many were injured by these IEDs but did not die because the Pentagon is not very generous with its non-fatal-injury statistics.

Read More…

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Egyptian Army Minds Its Own “Business”

Nora Shalaby / Flickr
Nora Shalaby / Flickr

If we reported there was a massive new sports center glittering like a jewel in the desert east of Cairo, complete with a resort hotel, five-lane highway, a stadium, and other shiny facilities, you would think Donald Trump or Steve Wynn had moved to town.

Not quite. Think the Egyptian military.

These days, everyone is speculating over the military’s role in the post-Mubarak transition to democracy. A week after it declared new laws expanding its own powers over the writing of the constitution, the budgets, legislative authority, and declaring war, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) was forced to acknowledge that the winner of the presidential runoff was not one of its own, but a candidate raised up by the civilian (and Islamist) Muslim Brotherhood, Mohamed Morsi–Egypt’s first non-military ruler since the military took power in 1952.

The question of the moment is what the military might do now–especially since it effectively weakened the role of the presidency in a soft coup d’etat last week. But let’s explore for a bit what it is not likely to do: namely, go quietly into the shadows.

There’s been a lot of talk about whether the United States can use for leverage the $1.3 billion in military aid it has promised to the Egyptians. Apparently, it plans to. According to a recent Financial Times report, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said last week the 2012 aid money is being held in an American bank where Washington can still exert some control over it. But what most Americans don’t realize is that unlike the American military, the Egyptian military is not entirely dependent on anyone’s sloppy trough. In fact, it runs a “vast business empire” that is lucrative, powerful, and right now impossible to pin down.

According to a BBC News report by Magdi Abdelhadi, the new sports complex (which is connected to a “vast new suburb called ‘New Cairo,’ where the rich and powerful, including members of [SCAF] have luxurious villas”) was built in under two years–”a testimony to the army’s ability to get things done quickly and effectively.”

No one knows, according to this report, how the major desert complex came to be built, how much it cost, or who would reap the revenues from its use. This is in keeping with the secretive nature of the military’s “state within a state.”

“This is typical of the many projects built and run by the army’s vast business empire, which includes manufacturing of consumer goods, food, mineral water, construction, mining, land reclamation, even tourism,” says Abdelhadi.

As the debate over the role of the military in post-Mubarak Egypt intensified, General Mahmoud Nasr, the assistant defence minister, told a press conference in Cairo last year that the army would never hand over control of these projects to any other authority, adding that these were not state assets but were “revenues from the sweat of the ministry of defences and its own projects”.

At around the same period it was announced that the army had come to the rescue of the ministry of finance by lending the state a substantial amount of money to shore up its rapidly-depleting coffers.

This sums up how the Egyptian military operates like a state within the state.

Abdelhadi then goes on say that no one knows how much of the Egyptian economy the military’s businesses account for because all of them are “regarded as classified.” Estimates stretch from as low as 8 percent of Egypt’s gross national product to as high as 40 percent of the GNP.

Imagine for a moment the Pentagon grabbing public funding with one hand and operating as a kind of  Rockefeller family empire with the other, with no public disclosure to speak of, including how much in taxes its businesses may or may not pay to the federal government. What’s more, think of the Pentagon putting Washington into its debt for major emergency loans. The full potential for corruption here is difficult to fathom.

But it gets worse–most of the civilian institutions and public-sector corporations in Egypt are run by former generals.

The country’s three main land-developing authorities (agricultural, urban and tourism) are headed by former military officers who, in addition to their pensions, receive lucrative salaries and perks associated with their civilian jobs. …
Any attempt to open up, let alone privatise, the military’s business empire will face stiff resistance, not just from the generals but also from powerful allies within the state bureaucracy; people who, besides benefiting personally from the status quo, are often by their very nature hostile to change.

So it would seem that SCAF is not only fighting to maintain control of Egypt’s political course but to protect its business interests as well. Those interests, the BBC points out, rest on a socialist or “state capitalist” economic platform established after the revolution that put the military and President Gamal Nasser into power over 60 years ago.

Followers of Nasser put up a candidate in this last election, and he came in third. As Abdelhadi points out, the military is now running what was left of Nasser’s legacy as its own private enterprise. Now a new non-military president will soon be “in charge,” but no one is certain whether he is strong enough to challenge the military’s authority. The economy is in a dangerous decline, and the military’s interests are so concealed that it is unclear whether they will hurt or help get Egypt back onto its feet.

A few bullet points on Egypt’s economy:

The economy contracted by 4.3 percent in the first quarter of 2011 and stagnated in the following three quarters.

The Brotherhood’s economic plan relies on private Egyptian and foreign investors and the group has pledged to move fast to negotiate a loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) once it forms a government….

An army-backed interim government kept the economy on the rails since Mubarak’s overthrow through a series of short-term measures that have brought the country dangerously close to fiscal collapse.

These include financing a burgeoning budget deficit by selling domestic treasury bills and bonds at steadily rising interest rates and shortening maturities.

The pile of local currency debt has built up to well over 600 billion Egyptian pounds ($99 billion) from about 500 billion pounds just before the uprising.

The borrowing has stretched the lending ability of local banks, causing the average yield on 1-year T-bills to surge to almost 16 percent, its highest in more than a decade, from 10.4 percent in January 2011.

The interim government borrowed an additional $6 billion in T-bills denominated in U.S. dollars that the new government, strapped for foreign currency, will have to repay or roll over when the first begin maturing in November.

The interim government has also drawn down foreign reserves by more than half, to about $15.5 billion, to support the currency, partly out of fear that an increase in the cost of imported goods would fuel inflation and political discontent.

The dangerously low level of reserves has left the country with less than three months of import coverage.

Just more evidence of how complicated the landscape there really is, and how little our own politics can influence it right now. Washington establishment scribe David Ignatius offered his own superficial take on the military question on Sunday:

The army needs to retreat now to the proper, reticent role of the military — protecting the state and the constitution, in extremis, but otherwise letting civilians run the show.

That would be just swell, except that after reading Abdelhadi’s report it seems that any real “retreat” may be impossible. For all we know, it could collapse the economy.

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Egypt’s Military Rule: Is Krauthammer Satisfied?

MOHPhoto / Shutterstock
MOHPhoto / Shutterstock

The Headline on National Review Online’s “The Corner” blog said it all: “Toward a Soft Landing in Egypt: The key is the military.”

Charles Krauthammer’s op-ed was reprinted from his regular column in the Washington Post on Feb. 4, 2011 which ran under the same headline–but the subhead, “The key is the military,” was NRO’s flourish. Yet it was apt. At the height of the uprising in Egypt, Krauthammer, a sage of the neoconservative right, was heard all about town calling for Egypt’s generals to step in as the only adults on the scene.

“The worldwide euphoria that has greeted the Egyptian uprising is understandable,” he purrs with condescension in his 2011 WaPo missive. “All revolutions are blissful in the first days. The romance could be forgiven if this were Paris 1789. But it is not. In the intervening 222 years, we have learned how these things can end.”

We find out pretty quickly how Krauthammer, who more than once claimed that our own president should defer to “his commanders on the ground,” wants Egypt’s revolution to end. Or at least, how it should get to where it’s going:

The Egyptian military, on the other hand, is the most stable and important institution in the country. It is Western-oriented and rightly suspicious of the Brotherhood. And it is widely respected, carrying the prestige of the 1952 “Free Officers Movement” that overthrew the monarchy and the 1973 October War that restored Egyptian pride along with the Sinai.

The military is the best vehicle for guiding the country to free elections over the coming months. Whether it does so with Mubarak at the top, or with Vice President Omar Suleiman, or perhaps with some technocrat who arouses no ire among the demonstrators, matters not to us. If the army calculates that sacrificing Mubarak [through exile] will satisfy the opposition and end the unrest, so be it.

The overriding objective is a period of stability during which secularists and other democratic elements of civil society can organize themselves for the coming elections and prevail.

[Mohamed Mustafa] ElBaradei is a menace. [Hosni] Mubarak will be gone one way or the other. The key is the military. The U.S. should say very little in public and do everything behind the scenes to help the military midwife—and then guarantee–what is still something of a long shot: Egyptian democracy.

Krauthammer and other Washington neoconservative foreign-policy pundits would give their blessing to Attila the Hun as Egypt’s next ruler before they’d accept the leadership of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood. Krauthammer has said as much, here in this Dec. 2011 appearance on Fox News:

The problem is what Obama is doing now. Two weeks ago, I think a week and a half ago, he urged the generals to transfer power to the elected representative. That is disastrous. The military is the only guarantor of a Democratic system in the future, the same way that in Turkey the military for 50 years after the Ataturk revolution in the early ’20s guaranteed a secular, open society. If the military is gone, as Obama had urged, and it’s a good thing the military didn’t listen to him, then what you are going to get is the rule of the Islamists, who, as you say, if you add up the vote, that’s over 60 percent of the vote. They can essentially rewrite or write a constitution that could be extremely repressive.

FOX NEWS HOST BRETT BAIER: And are people in Israel concerned about that possibility, the real possibility that everything gets rewritten?

KRAUTHAMMER: Absolutely, everything is rewritten if the Salafist[s] and the Brotherhood are in power. You could get outbreak of war which could engulf the entire region.

To Krauthammer, a civilian, even secular transition would “be a disaster.” Instead, he turns to the military, which raised Hosni Mubarak up from chief of the Air Force and Egyptian deputy minister of Defence to chief air marshal to vice president in 1975. Unelected, he took over the presidency in 1981 after President Anwar El Sadat was assassinated. He was a creature of the military, which in turn lived off the spoils of corruption (and U.S military aid) throughout Mubarak’s 30-year dictatorship. When he was no longer of use during the turmoil of the revolution, the military let him go.

“Mubarak was just the tip of an iceberg, the key base of which was the army, and the army is still in command,” noted Professor Gilbert Achar of the University of London in an interview about the transition of power to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) on Feb. 11, 2011, not long after Krauthammer’s pro-military remarks.

Looking back at the past year, and especially the last several days, has Krauthammer gotten what he asked for, a military “midwife” of democracy? Just the opposite: the military appears to be strangling democracy in the cradle.

Gen. Mohamed El Assar -- AP

The  “sweeping new powers” announced by the military (which last week imposed martial law on Egypt ahead of the presidential runoff) effectively give the military (SCAF) complete legislative powers, control over the budget, waging war, and who writes the permanent constitution. This came days after the High Constitutional Court (HCC) dissolved the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated parliament. SCAF also said it would not hold new elections for parliament until the new constitution is passed. Oh yeah, and the new rules effectively render the president a figurehead. There was also some confusing talk from one SCAF official who actually charged that whomever becomes president (to be announced Thursday) would be “a transitional one for few months only,” while SCAF officials separately and vaguely assured they would transfer power to the new president in a “grand ceremony” sometime at the end of the month.

The Muslim Brotherhood, which is claiming victory in the runoff, appears to be the biggest loser in all of this (right next to all those people who risked–and lost–their lives protesting in Tahrir Square for freedom against dictatorship last year). If the Brotherhood’s Mohamed Mursi wins, there will no doubt be a power struggle, with the military in the catbird seat. If the former prime minister and Mubarak appointee Ahmed Shafiq wins, then not so much. Shafiq, a former officer in the Egyptian Air Force, has been notably quiet about the military’s power grab. Meanwhile, the Brotherhood and the secular freedom movement have again taken to the streets.

And so why should Krauthammer be unhappy with this  “soft coup” everyone is talking about? He nearly exclaimed his “soft approval” for it when he reasoned through the High Court’s dissolution of the parliament on Fox News Friday:

[The Brotherhood] could strike a deal with the generals. The generals have been in charge since 1952 and they were not going to go quietly. The reason they disbanded the parliament is because just a few days ago [parliament] appointed a 100-man committee to draw up a constitution. And that is the threat. So the parliament is gone, I’m sure the committee will be dissolved.

The problem is there’s going to be president election. There is no constitution that will determine whether it will be an empty presidency, a symbolic one, or a strong one, as happened in the past. So the army wanted to make sure that it could control the writing of a constitution which would determine the powers whoever wins on this Election Day. I think the army is going to stay in charge. It looks at the experience of Turkey, that the army stayed in charge for 80 years, and I think that is how it sees its role. It’s not going to go quietly.

So “the threat” was that the democratically-elected parliament established a committee to write the new constitution? It seems to me that Krauthammer would much rather the military, which has propped up a corrupt dictatorship for the last 30 years, write it. He can try to lipstick that pig all he wants, but it appears that what he wanted all along was a return to the status quo, and he just might get it.

One wonders if he would have asked for that same “military midwife” had he been present at our own constitutional birthing. Thankfully, in that case, the citizens, not his kind of “adults,” prevailed.

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Robert Caro and the Lost History of the 1960s—Plus a Vioxx Note

The recent publication of the fourth long volume of Robert Caro’s biography of Lyndon Johnson demonstrates how much even the relatively recent printed past has almost totally disappeared from current consciousness.

Consider the 1958-1964 period covered by Caro’s current narrative, an era which might reasonably be called the political peak of Cold War liberalism, in which Caro focuses on the political maneuvers leading to Kennedy’s nomination and Johnson’s difficult years in the vice presidency. Many people have argued that the major political decisions made during the 1960s largely shaped modern America, but it is equally true that the political decisions described in Caro’s volume largely shaped those same 1960s. Yet what determined the political tide of those years and which media narratives shaped those decisions? Read More…

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Amash’s Use of Social Media is an Example to Conservatives

Yesterday Rep. Amash spoke at this weeks “Blogger’s Briefing,” a weekly discussion group held every week at the Heritage Foundation. Amash spoke on his views on the Export-Import Bank, his optimism on reaching the two thirds threshold for a balanced budget amendment, the rhetoric of the incoming class of representatives, and his use of social media.

Amash was an obvious pick to speak at such an event, having embraced social media with active followings on Facebook and Twitter. On his Facebook page, Amash explains each of his votes. Given that Amash’s record of voting on every vote called in the House, it is an active as well as informative page. Not only are Amash’s votes explained, but Amash himself gets involved in some the discussions that develop on the site.

Being the second youngest member of the House it is perhaps unsurprising how comfortable Amash is with social media engagement. However, what has surprised Amash are the issues that generate the most interest and passion. Read More…

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International Students for Liberty Conference 2012

This weekend Students for Liberty hosted the Fifth Annual International Students For Liberty Conference in Washington D.C. It was the largest libertarian student event in history, featuring students from across the world and a variety of speakers. As well as featuring breakout sessions on topics such as second amendment rights, political economy, public education, Austrian economics, and social media, the conference also included an exhibition hall that included organizations such as the Learn Liberty, The NRA, GOProud, the Cato Institute, and Young Americans for Liberty. What became clear throughout the conference was that while most of the students were fiercely uncommitted to party politics they all expressed sympathy with some beliefs shared in the conservative movement. Given the ideological tendencies amongst what is a growing voting group, it is remarkable that the Republicans are not engaging younger voters more effectively. Read More…

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