State of the Union

Development of Non-Toxic 2016 GOP Agenda Continues Apace

The release of Rep. Paul Ryan’s anti-poverty “discussion draft” last week marks another milestone in a long, painstaking, and necessary project: the development of a non-toxic policy agenda on which the next Republican presidential nominee can run.

Zooming out, we see Republicans, like Tiktaalik, slowly transitioning out of the primordial soup of supply-side dogma. There was Rep. Dave Camp’s comprehensive tax reform proposal. It’s revenue neutral and maintains progressivity. Relatedly, Ryan takes care to insist his own proposal is “not a tax cut.” It’s true the conservative movement didn’t exactly leap for joy at Camp’s proposal—and there’s a myriad of reasons to doubt that the GOP could ever muster the courage to eliminate as many loopholes and deductions as it would take to reconcile the math of the Ryan budget.

But the larger point is this: a net tax reduction for the rich is now a radioactive position on the mainstream right.

Climbing down the income ladder, Ryan, in presenting his anti-poverty plan, with its devolution to states and consolidation of public assistance spending, noted that “this is not a budget-cutting exercise.” Yes, there’s the matter of reconciling these reforms with the harsh math of the Ryan budget. And the “accountability standards” to which states and local agencies would be held smells an awful lot to me like the anti-poverty version of No Child Left Behind.

But—and again—the larger point is this: a net reduction in spending on the poor and vulnerable is now a radioactive position on the mainstream right.

The recovery from “The 47 percent” and “You built that” will remain a tough slog over the next 18 months. However, the momentum is clearly in the direction of rational reform. The Tea Party era—in which “conservatism” for all practical purposes stood for an unholy alliance of plutocracy and Dixie revanchism—is clearly coming to a close.

Just how the all the manic energy of the last five years will be brought into the fold of a plausible governing agenda remains to be seen. The Room to Grow agenda represents the seedbed of ideas that might eventually become an appealing campaign platform. I like, in particular, Andrew Kelly’s ideas on higher-ed and job training, and Carrie Lukas’s emphasis on fiscal reforms that improve work-life balance.

Broadly speaking, the “reformocon” carriage is an interesting one, fraught with tension but full of possibility: that of the nontechnocratic wonk; of superintendence of the welfare state in a pro-market direction. Of bottom-up or middle-out reforms that issue from the top. The idea of a Medicare premium support system is qualitatively different than, say, Ronald Reagan’s original position on Medicare. But if the arrow is pointing in a rightward direction, can each faction of the right buy into it? Can you sell the idea of “reform” to people on a steady diet of Mark Levin, Ted Cruz, and Sarah Palin? Personally, I think the right would be better off it admitted—no, more than admitted—that “spontaneous order” does not and will not ever lead to a safety net or social insurance for the elderly.

But perhaps I worry too much. One of my themes in this space is the belief that the Tea Party was a cultural temper tantrum more than a granular programmatic shift. It may turn out that tea partiers can be lead to the water of an essentially neoconservative domestic agenda more easily than anyone currently imagines.

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House Democrats on Oversight Committee ‘Disappointed’ By IRS Director Taking the Fifth

Today the IRS official in charge of the exemptions unit where the targeting of conservative groups occurred went before the House Oversight committee, and refused to answer any questions.

The ranking member on the committee Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD) has called for Lois Lerner’s resignation already, and said during the hearing today that he was “disappointed” that she pled the fifth.

Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-MA) referred to the IRS’s behavior to this point as “stonewalling” that “can’t continue,” and suggested a special prosecutor might be necessary. “There will be hell to pay if that’s the route we choose to go down,” he said.

“I have not done anything wrong. I have not broken any laws,” said Lerner in a brief opening statement. “I have not violated any IRS rules and regulations, and I have not provided false information to this or any other committee.”

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IRS Scandal: Bureaucratic Failure or Political Corruption?

I just finished chatting about the IRS and AP scandals on the Marc Steiner show with Ari Berman of The Nation, the ACLU’s Gabe Rottman, and for the second half, FDL’s Kevin Gosztola. Podcast forthcoming here.

We disagreed, obviously, about how the IRS’s discrimination bears on campaign finance reform. I don’t see how the IRS scandal argues for putting even more power in their hands.

But I’d like to return to a finer point about which we disagreed but didn’t really get into. Berman seemed convinced that the discrimination was the result of front-line IRS employees deluged with a glut of new, post-Citizens United filings, that needed to come up with some criteria for sorting through it. This is more or less the argument the IRS itself has made (and somewhat similar to the one officials are making about Benghazi). For his part, Rottman contended that the politics didn’t matter so much as the discriminatory questioning itself. Here are four reasons why it’s hard to believe the IRS wasn’t just coping with an overflow of applications, despite the IG report’s assertion to the contrary.

  • The questions themselves — If the IRS employees did not know that 501c4s are not required to disclose their donors when they asked for lists, then they are shockingly incompetent. So why did they want them? Either they intended to embarrass the donors by leaking them, or somewhat more benignly, it was just another question in a litany of unreasonable requests designed to hold up the approval process.
  • Democratic calls to crack down on 501c4 groups — These are far from the only ones.
  • Behavior and connections of IRS employees — The IRS commissioner knew about the targeting for at least a year and hasn’t reported it. She’s not even the one getting fired, and currently runs the IRS’s Affordable Care Act office. Director of the exemptions unit Lois Lerner’s initial apology contained a number of statements that were untrue, such as the number of organizations targeted and that it was confined to the Cincinnati office. Last night Jon Ward reported a congressional source said that Lerner hasn’t agreed to testify before Congress, is in Montreal, and has hired the same lawyer as Dominique Strauss Kahn.
  • Leaks to liberal groups — ProPublica reported Monday that IRS employees leaked the applications of nine conservative groups. The National Organization for Marriage is now accusing the IRS of doing the same with their confidential information

There’s a lot we still don’t know, and today’s hearing of the House Ways and Means Committee (in progress) is only the first step in finding out. And IRS employees behaving in a partisan way does not imply White House involvement, of course. But I’d argue the totality of the evidence already points strongly toward there being political motivations behind the targeting.

Update: An early highlight from today

Update: David Freddoso, Garance Franke-Ruta, and Doug Donovan all point out that the Citizens United explanation is basically a red herring.

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Hagel in History’s Cockpit

The news that Obama will go ahead and nominate Chuck Hagel for Secretary of Defense is exciting beyond measure. No matter how the battle over his confirmation goes, it will  be educational and point the country in a better direction. To have capitulated without a fight to Bill Kristol and Jennifer Rubin—the twin nerve-centers of the anti-Hagel opposition—would have signaled to the world a neutering of Obama’s presidency by the Israel lobby, a terrible result for the president and the country as a whole.

The campaign against Hagel has been loud, persistent, but devoid of serious substance. Hagel is said, according to one continually recycled smear, to be a sort of borderline anti-Semite; the chief bit of evidence for this damning charge being that, in discussing AIPAC’s influence on Capitol Hill, he used the phrase “Jewish lobby” instead of “Israel Lobby”. But while that phrase, the “Jewish lobby” does sound awkward now, it was the very one used by AIPAC to describe itself in the 1980s, the time period when Hagel was presumably first forming his vocabulary on these issues.

The charges of Hagelian insensitivity to gay rights, based on several of past votes and one 1990s comment, have largely evaporated. Hagel, like most of the country, has “evolved” on the issue. If the question comes up in the hearings, it will be as a coming out party for  acceptance of the gay rights revolution by the Republican establishment. Those who have  been involved in the struggle will cheer, as indeed will many who have done no more than observe, often skeptically, from the sidelines.

That many of the attacks on Hagel are either trivial or scurrilous does not mean the ideological questions raised by his nomination are trivial. They are not. The cleavages uncovered by the Hagel choice exist within both parties: there are Republicans who, after the fact, became skeptical about the Iraq war and the ideologists who fomented it, just as there are important Democrats, Chuck Schumer for instance, whose reflexive support of Israel will give him little enthusiasm for Obama’s selection. It is not yet clear how senators of either type will vote. But does anyone believe that GOP Senate leader Mitch McConnell didn’t know that Chuck Hagel was an active Iraq war opponent, a skeptic about signing every AIPAC generated letter, and a general foe of the neoconservative foreign policy vision when he described Hagel in 2007 as “one of the premier foreign policy voices [and] one of the giants of the United States Senate” while adding, “Many of the predictions Chuck Hagel made about the [Iraq] war came true.”

Mitch McConnell on Sunday said that Hagel will receive “a fair hearing”—which is as much as he could say about any controversial nominee put forth by Obama. Of course some of the most hawkish Republicans—Lindsay Graham, John McCain, Texas Tea Partyite Ted Cruz—have already signaled their hostility. But in the lengthy sparring before the nomination, as Obama endlessly tested the waters, Hagel garnered an extraordinary amount of vocal, enthusiastic support from the foreign policy establishment, from former cabinet officers, diplomats, and military men. This  outpouring was by no means preordained; in fact its emergence was the critical revelation of the last two weeks.

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Big Government, Complex Government, and the Future of Conservatism

If this be nihilism, make the most of it. Michael Hirsh defends House conservatives’ opposition to the fiscal cliff bargain. The deal meets the standard for agreement-at-any-price “pragmatism”. On the other hand:

Tuesday’s “no” votes represented a wide variety of views. But many GOP House members were appalled at the failure to cut spending or change traditional ways of doing business, especially what The Washington Post noted was “dozens of rider provisions that had nothing to do with the cliff” (including one that kicked over $12 billion over ten years to the renewable-energy industry; another that will benefit the owners of auto-racing tracks in the amount of $78 million; and a $1 million break for coal-mining operations on Indian lands). The House members opposed to this old way–as naïve as they often sound–make up the core of a legitimate resistance movement in American politics, one that is trying to stop the relentless tendency of U.S. government to grow ever larger and more complex, and one that remains frustrated at the continuing inability of its representatives, both Republican and Democrat, to rein that tendency in.

Hirsh makes good points both about the nature of the deal and the sources of opposition. Like the “tea-party rebellion” he defends, however, Hirsh conflates two problems into a single destructive tendency–a misunderstanding that makes it hard to identify politically viable responses.

One issue is the size of government, as indicated by government spending per capita, government spending as a share of GDP, or other broad measures. The other is the complexity of government, as measured by the proliferation of the tax code and regulations, subsidies for particular industries, or other specific policies. Size and complexity often go together: the labyrinth of the defense budget is a good example. But they need not do so: although Social Security is fiscally gargantuan, it is a rather simple program.

Conservative critiques tend to identify gargantuan size as the main problem with modern administrative state. This argument, however, usually fails to connect with ordinary citizens, who generally like big government provided that it is delivered in a predictable and relatively transparent way. Social Security, again, is a case in point. According to this poll, for example, 53% of American prefer raising taxes to changing the retirement age or lowering benefits.

What Americans do not like are complex programs that require expert assistance to navigate, and therefore confer disproportionate benefits on those who can afford the assistance of lawyers, accountants, and lobbyists. Although it is hard to make out from polls, I suspect that this consideration is the basis of continuing disapproval for Obamacare. The issue here is not simply that providing universal health coverage would be expensive. It’s that the Administration’s plan for doing so is a Rube Goldberg contraption that threatens to make unintelligible the already confusing insurance system.

Dan McCarthy recently counseled conservatives to understand the struggle against big government as a long-term project rather than a unitary problem to be resolved by dramatic votes like that on the fiscal cliff or debt ceiling. The place to start might be to accept, at least temporarily, bigness in government while attacking complexity wherever possible. This strategy would allow conservatives to stake out a position against unnecessary regulation, expensive subsidies, and potentially criminal cronyism while reconciling them to the reality that Americans like their basic entitlements and are reluctant to change them. And that would be far from nihilism.

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Rand Paul Leading the GOP Charge to Court Youth, Latino Vote?

Politico’s Manu Raju caught up with Rand Paul on some of his legislative priorities in the next session:

[T]he Kentucky Republican plans to mix his hard-line tea party conservatism with more moderate policies that could woo younger voters and minorities largely absent from the GOP coalition. It’s the latest tactic of the freshman senator to inject the Libertarian-minded views shared by his retiring father into mainstream Republican thinking as the party grapples with its future.

In an interview with POLITICO, Paul said he’ll return to Congress this week pushing measures long avoided by his party. He wants to work with liberal Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy and Republicans to eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for pot possession. He wants to carve a compromise immigration plan with an “eventual path” to citizenship for illegal immigrants, a proposal he believes could be palatable to conservatives.

“Moderate” is kind of a slur among many who consider themselves Rand Paul supporters, and while it’s true that initial steps toward immigration reform and ending the drug war would have to be minor enough to garner any kind of widespread support, they don’t stem from any inclination toward centrism on the part of the Kentucky senator.

Nor do these initiatives suggest that he’s trawling around for a different approach after the alleged failure of the Tea Party agenda. But they do indicate his intention to be a leader among the GOP in reaching out to these constituencies, which could serve him well in 2016, should he choose to run.

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Michelle Malkin: Pragmatist in a Foxhole

Along with Michael Brendan Dougherty, I recommend Ben Domenech’s insightful take on the role reversal of movement conservatives and Beltway conservatives.

I have a small gripe, though, about Domenech’s gripe about GOP elites’ griping.

He writes:

Professional concern troll David Frum, who spent most of the primary season telling liberals why conservatives were never going to suck it up and go for Romney, now seems very concerned that they have.  Michelle Malkin, who could be taking the wood to Romney on a daily basis for his infidelity to the immigration hardline, has morphed into a loyal soldier …

If I may, I think Domenech’s take here is unfair to Frum and overly generous toward Malkin. Dougherty aptly brings up the example of the Tea Party’s pragmatic embrace of Sen. Scott Brown; sure, they thought, he’s a squish — but we have a rare shot at flipping Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat. We can live with a squish!

Frum has more or less taken the same tack with Romney’s candidacy all along. Not, to be sure, that Mitt Romney need be as squishy as Scott Brown. (He used to be, and at least in part because of the same Bay State contextual reasons — but table that thought for now). Frum can certainly chime in on his own behalf, but if I’ve been paying enough attention, it seems to me that he believes the Romney candidacy doomed itself by 1) wedding itself to the unpopular Ryan budget; 2) abandoning its original 59-point economic plan in order to make room for supply-side tax cuts that never will be enacted; 3) outflanking Rick Perry on immigration and thereby kissing off any prayer of winning Hispanics; and 4) tying itself in an impossible knot over the individual mandate and Romneycare.

We can argue about each of these points. The point is, from the point of view of “professional concern troll” David Frum, the fatal damage to Romney’s run for the White House was inflicted months ago, and at the behest of people like Malkin. To describe her, now, just weeks before the election, when it’s probably too late, as a “loyal foot soldier” is faintly absurd.

Look: I’m no fan of Romney’s, obviously. And there was a time when it seemed to me that Frum’s Romney boosterism read like Jennifer Rubin’s does now. But the idea that Tea Party conservatives are suddenly praiseworthy pragmatists — come on, Ben.

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A Word in Defense of Paul Ryan

Arguing that any judgment of the virtues of vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan must take place in the universe of the possible, Ross Douthat kindly links to my post on the Romney-Ryan strategy of deflecting attacks on Medicare reform.

To the extent that Ryan lacks boldness, Douthat writes, it’s more a function of his colleagues’ timidity than his own:

[I]n fact, the Medicare reform proposal that Ryan co-authored last year with Alice Rivlin, an Office of Management and Budget director under Bill Clinton, does include ‘a cost-sharing mechanism that would start in 2013,’ and that would save $110 billion over the decade before premium support is phased in. So he is on the record supporting immediate cuts; he just hasn’t persuaded his fellow Republicans to join him.

I think Douthat is right about this. As the last line in my post indicated, my beef is primarily with Romney, not Ryan; by promising to restore Obamacare’s cuts to Medicare providers, Romney is trying to have Paul Ryan’s cake and eat it, too.

Listen: I think Ryan is one of the good guys in Washington. My wife knew him when he was Capitol Hill staffer; we’re on his Christmas card list, and our band has performed at fundraisers for him. When it’s pointed out that Ryan wasn’t an ur-Tea Partier, I say that’s to his credit; after 2010, he had to disabuse many House freshmen of their fantasy that the budget can be balanced simply by eliminating “waste, fraud, and abuse.”

I don’t have a problem with the concept of premium support. In fact, I’ve written that it’s likely that in the future we’re all going to be under an “Orydencare” system — a “mixed bag of subsidies, private insurance, and regulated exchanges.” I have doubts about how much competitive bidding will hold down prices, but that aspect of the system can be tweaked as necessary.

My problem with Ryan isn’t on the entitlement reform side; it’s on the revenue side. His assumption that another round of supply-side tax cuts will spark growth and unleash pent-up consumer demand strikes me as just as wooly-headed as the Tea Party freshmen’s knowledge of the federal budget.

And it’s this outmoded Kemp-ism that undermines his best idea, i.e., premium support. If Ryan and the GOP would have agreed to a sensible compromise on new revenue — which can be accomplished without the higher marginal tax rates that Obama calls for — then a deal on Medicare would have been far more likely.

Indeed, if there is a Romney administration, this is exactly the kind of deal that will be struck if Republicans have any prayer of attracting Democrats.

But we could have broken the seal on this two years ago — and averted a lot of unfortunate nonsense in the meantime.

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Ted Cruz: Texas Establishment vs. Tea Party Establishment?

Sometimes Erick Erickson says interesting things:

One thing a lot of people will fail to comment on is that the Tea Party victories of 2010 have morphed into anti-establishment victories in 2012.

This strikes me as a clever way of hedging on the criticism that the Tea Party has been co-opted. In fact, he’s explicitly worried about it:

Already, as the sun rises this morning, there is a great game of co-opting happening. Republican leaders and conservative establishmentarians are already whispering that Ted is a “reasonable” and “smart” conservative. “He won’t be like Jim DeMint.”

But Republicans who praise Cruz’s credentials are not necessarily engaging in some kind of furtive attempt to claim him as a compassionate conservative. The distinction they’re making is not between the unreasonable, stupid Jim DeMint and establishment-ready Ted Cruz, it’s contrasting Cruz with truly unreasonable and stupid Tea Party candidates like Christine O’Donnell.

Furthermore, though Dewhurst was supported by a number of national politicians, the lion’s share of his support came from Texas legislators and the Rick Perry machine. It’s more accurate to call him a creature of the state establishment than a GOP apparatchik. It follows that Cruz’s victory might not be the kind of clarion call from the grassroots for the Republican Party to return to its principles that Erick Erickson and the Tea Party say it is.

Rehashing the endless and infuriating debate about whether the Tea Party is an authentically homegrown movement is not my intention, but consider this. What happened during the nine weeks between the primary and the run-off election? Did the delay (a.) allow Texan activists to organize get-out-the-vote campaigns in a grassroots groundswell that put him over the top? Or (b.) did it allow national groups like Americans for Prosperity and FreedomWorks–the ones mainstream outlets always describe as ‘Tea Party-affiliated’–to descend upon the airwaves and wage a campaign of media persuasion. Of course these things are symbiotic and answer is probably some of both, I’d suggest it’s more of the latter. James Rosen has more:

More important to his electoral fortunes, Cruz received critical endorsements and millions of dollars’ worth of contributions and other forms of support from the likes of Gov. Palin, who campaigned for him; Tea Party hero and fundraising powerhouse Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C.; the D.C.-based Tea Party group FreedomWorks, which is led by former House Majority Leader Dick Armey; the anti-tax, pro-free market group Club for Growth, whose top executive is former Rep. Chris Chocola, R-Pa.; conservative columnist and ABC News commentator George F. Will; and National Review, the venerated magazine founded by the late William F. Buckley, Jr. Ted Cruz, in short, was an establishment candidate in his own right.

And from the GOP establishment’s perspective, Cruz is probably a better choice anyway. There’s an “inescapable logic” to it, says Dave Weigel:

 Cruz is 42 and Hispanic. Dewhurst is 66 and white. …  Cruz could theoretically serve in the Senate for six or seven terms, chairing the Judicial Committee when President George P. Bush needs some lawyers put into robes. Or he could be picked, in his 40s, as the first conservative Hispanic on the Supreme Court.

With Cruz’s victory, everyone but the Texas Republican Party got what they wanted.

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The Normative and Political Arguments for Romney’s Unique Toxicity

Pausing briefly from what sounds like a pretty stunning Italian vacation (cough — I hate you!), Noah Millman thinks I probably shouldn’t be so wound up about Mitt Romney.

Songquan Deng /

The take-no-prisoners defense of unbridled finance capitalism is not a feature of Mitt Romney. It’s a feature of modern American politics in general and of the conservative movement in particular. Mitt Romney did not run for governor of Massachusetts on a platform of promoting the interests of the wealthy above all else. He ran as a moderate, centrist, business-friendly custodian of the public fisc. Kind of like Michael Bloomberg. So expelling Mitt Romney will do nothing to change the fact that a critique of the financialization of American capitalism has barely begun anywhere in American politics.

On that, I’m in complete agreement with Noah. I’m under no illusion that, with Romney’s political aspirations squelched, conservatives of my bent will suddenly have gained the upper hand. If Romney loses, Republicans will find all sorts of reasons to explain away his defeat. Some of those reasons might even be true: Romney’s lack of natural campaigning talent. The nontrivial number of Americans who say they’d never vote for a Mormon. Mainstream media sympathy for Obama. Demographic trends that are gradually marginalizing working-class whites. Etc.

However, my heated dislike of Romney doesn’t stem from any hope that conservatives will more closely scrutinize turbo-capitalism in theory and practice. I’m not that naive. But I am, I’ll admit, being something of a Boy Scout. Put simply, I don’t think you should be able get away with the kind of ideological rebranding that Romney is attempting to get away with. I believe it would lower an already low bar for intellectual integrity in American politics. The sheer cynicism of it makes a festering problem — lack of trust in institutions — that much more acute.

How so? Consider. Noah writes that “Mitt Romney did not run for governor of Massachusetts on a platform of promoting the interests of the wealthy above all else.” True! But he’s obviously not running for president the way he governed in Massachusetts. (If he were, I’d dislike him a lot less intensely.) The fact that he’s had to dramatically upend his political identity raises a question that liberals and conservatives talk about a lot: Since Romney turned whored himself to the movement right, how would he govern in office? Will he feel beholden to the conservatives who begrudgingly assented to his nomination? Or will he revert to his old Massachusetts self? That’s a terribly corrosive question to have to ask of a president. (An aside: mainstream conservatives might object that the same thing may be said of Obama — he campaigned as a centrist but governed as a radical. For my part, I think he has governed in the mold of a Clinton Democrat.) How Mitt Romney governs, on almost any given issue of substance, will always be entangled with suspicions about why he’s governing that way. And that rottenness will attach to him permanently, undermining his legitimacy.

You could call this the normative argument for why I think Romney is uniquely toxic.

There’s a political one, too.

As it happens, I don’t think Romney will be beholden to the Tea Party right. I’ve argued before that he’d generally govern like someone who wanted to get reelected. What that will mean, in practice, is that he’s going to try to implement policies around which the entire Republican coalition can coalesce. Overhauling Medicare in the fashion that Paul Ryan advocates is not (yet) one of them. Lowering the top income tax rate to 25 percent is one of them. Such a policy would have disastrous consequences to public finances.

Then there’s Wall Street and, more specifically, the financial services industry. Establishment Republicans and Tea Party Republicans are in basic agreement that it should be unleashed anew. Wall Streeters themselves wish to be rid of the encumbrances of Dodd-Frank and Sarbanes-Oxley. Tea Partyers, meanwhile, take the Tim Carney line that financial regulations actually enrich Wall Street.

Under a Romney administration, you’d have a pernicious convergence of ideology and rank self-interest. So while a Romney defeat may not spark a healthy critique of financial capitalism, we can be assured it will reopen the lid on its most ruinous qualities.

That’s why he needs to go away.

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