Don’t blame GOP for Obamacare’s demise

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Erik Kain

Erik writes about video games at Forbes and politics at Mother Jones. He's the contributor of The League though he hasn't written much here lately. He can be found occasionally composing 140 character cultural analysis on Twitter.

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  1. Avatar Michael Drew
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    says:

    This argument would work great if Obamacare wasn’t essentially the Republican alternative to Clintoncare repackaged. I do buy that if a proposal is utterly anathema to a legislator’s values, she should oppose it unstintingly. And Democrats ultimately are the ones who failed to maintain the perfect party cohesion necessary to enact this part of their agenda (though in fact super-perfection was necessary, as two of their supposed 60 were not in fact members of the party). But that principle doesn’t get you to perfect uniform opposition across the minority when some of these very same people were around when their party actually proposed a similar plan fifteen years ago. This is not to say Democrats aren’t responsible for their failures — only that Republicans are demonstrably pursuing a political strategy of opposition that is clearly not in every case a principled stand on policy. Republicans can do what they want, but to say that in every single case their true views couldn’t possibly allow them to support this plan is demonstrably false. This political opposition forces the Democrats to enforce perfect party discipline to enact the key piece of the program they ran and won on, and that is an inappropriate standard for legislation that is similar to a Republican proposal of recent memory. It would be different if that plan really did violate every single Senate Republican’s core commitments, but history shows otherwise.Report

    • Avatar Koz in reply to Michael Drew
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      says:

      “But that principle doesn’t get you to perfect uniform opposition across the minority when some of these very same people were around when their party actually proposed a similar plan fifteen years ago.”

      Yeah, yeah, yeah, the world’s different now than it was 15 years ago, are you not paying any attention at all? JHC on a popsicle stick.Report

  2. Avatar mike farmer
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    says:

    Obama could have passed something early on if the Democrats had allowed Republicans part ownership by including a couple of their ideas, but the Democrats misread their “mandate” and went ahead with their plan, not listening to Republicans and not reading public unrest. The Republicans didn’t cause the unrest, they were late responding, too, and by the time the public was fully against the Democrat reforms, the Republicans were trying to catch up with public sentiment and then were framed as obstructionists — the media and the left have done a good job framing the Republicans as obsructionists, but it’s all to cover up their orginal over-confidence and over-reach. It would have been simple to pass bi-partisan reform in the very beginning. Now, the Democrats are paying for their hubris and ignorance of the precaurious “mandate” they thought they had.

    So, it’s not that Republicans are the “opposition” — they are merely representing the opposition, jumping on the bandwagon before they are kicked out of office, too. The majority of the people are the opposition. If any Republicans ignore the opposition and join the Democrats to pass anything resembling this mongrol horror of a bill, they will be punished more severely than Democrats.Report

    • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to mike farmer
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      says:

      I suppose if fiscal stimulus had not been necessary in theory this could be right. (I’ll repeat I am extremely interested to eventually read reliably-sourced histories of the early period of this health reform effort.) If it shown that Democrats failed credibly to seek even minimal Republican buy-in, the clearly Republicans are fully exonerated. On the other hand, from the perspective of the WH and Democrats, the question of the need for massive stimulus in Jan. 09 was perhaps one of the most clearly-established policy consensi in recent memory — clearly in the urgent national interest — yet at the encouragement of Rush Limbaugh Republicans exhibited lock-step opposition to even that measure. Even if history shows that Democratic efforts at achieving minimal bipartisanship on health care in 2009 were lacking (I concede a maximally bipartisan consensus approach was never considered), I would argue that the history of the conduct of the minority party in the 111th Congress in its earliest days when confronted with clear national imperatives clearly indicated the political strategy that was to be scrupulously followed subsequently and materially degraded prospects for substantial future outreach and concessions from the majority. Neither side in that scenario would be absolved from responsibility for the resulting paralysis.Report

      • Avatar Kyle in reply to Michael Drew
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        says:

        “reliably-sourced histories of the early period of this health reform effort”

        Those will be an interesting read when they get published.

        On the other hand, from the perspective of the WH and Democrats, the question of the need for massive stimulus in Jan. 09 was perhaps one of the most clearly-established policy consensi in recent memory — clearly in the urgent national interest — yet at the encouragement of Rush Limbaugh Republicans exhibited lock-step opposition to even that measure. Even if history shows that Democratic efforts at achieving minimal bipartisanship on health care in 2009 were lacking (I concede a maximally bipartisan consensus approach was never considered), I would argue that the history of the conduct of the minority party in the 111th Congress in its earliest days when confronted with clear national imperatives clearly indicated the political strategy that was to be scrupulously followed subsequently and materially degraded prospects for substantial future outreach and concessions from the majority.

        There’s some interesting style and substance here. First, the GOP as controlled by Rush Limbaugh was pretty transparently a marginalizing strategic move coordinated between the WH and Congressional leadership.

        As for the stimulus, the GOP’s ballpark dollar figure was pretty much exactly what then President-elect Obama called for before the inauguration. Which could have been strategic but to be fair, there was so much obvious pork thrown into the bill that Democrats did give the GOP some substantive reasons to oppose the bill. Those may not have been the controlling reasons but they did exist. (How is family planning stimulus? and Why is the most employed state in the union (North Dakota) getting so much money? These are legitimate questions about the content.

        I wish we could no definitively how much was strategic opposition and how much was substantive. I just think it’s a tricky question in part because it was entirely unclear that lock step opposition less than a month after the inauguration would actually pay off.

        As for healthcare (perhaps surprisingly) agree with your big-picture read of the situation. The Democrats never went for a maximally bipartisan consensus approach and chose the minimalist one (they did, and assertions that they didn’t are just wrong).

        That said, in a bit of counter-intuitive thought, I think the minimalist approach was the one with the least potential for success. There were two gangs of six. One: Bingaman, Baucus, Conrad, Snowe, Enzi, and Grassley. Two: Snowe, Collins, Lieberman, Landrieu, Ben Nelson, and Wyden.

        Gang One was like trying to come out of Korean six-party talks with a human rights agreement, you’re not going to get it because a solid third of your participants are opposed. So that was months barking up the wrong tree.

        However, the Democrats by eschewing anything bigger than the minimalist approach, invited the second Gang of Six. Which included two fiscal conservative Republicans from Maine who rarely sign on to transformative legislation. Joe Lieberman, unreliable and testy. Ben Nelson whose D would more accurately stand for Decepticon than Democrat, and Mary Landrieu who’s vulnerable, in a state that got much redder after Katrina, and Ron Wyden who unlike most other Senators is a wonk and in the words of Ezra Klein, “it’s always easier to bargain with a dealmaker than a policy wonk.”

        So from the outset Reid made it clear HCR would leave the Senate on a 60-40 maybe 61-39 vote. Which gave him absolutely no room to maneuver within his caucus.

        I think I was harsher on the Democrats than they deserved for choosing the minimalist option, but I do think I can legitimately criticize the soundness of the strategy, the alienating execution of the strategy, and ultimately the hubris reflected in choosing the minimalist strategy in the first place.Report

        • Avatar greginak in reply to Kyle
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          says:

          i dare anybody to show me what the R’s were actually willing to compromise on with healthcare. Even R’s in congress can’t say what they are/were willing to compromise on. Remember “HCR will be obama’s waterloo” remark.

          despite all the D failures the R’s have allways been against HCR.

          How about PAYGO rules Kyle? Are R’s willing to work with D’s on that or are they just in lockstep opposition?Report

          • Avatar Kyle in reply to greginak
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            says:

            Well I seem to remember Olympia Snowe voting for the Finance Committee bill and Anh Cao voting for the House bill. Weak, yes, but they were Republicans that evidently found some compromises worth voting for.

            I have a problem with your question, I think it’s unfair. In your mind greg, there’s some sliding goalpost of what is and is not “R’s,” so you can excuse evidence like the kind I just gave you as not enough. You can point to Senator DeMint’s “waterloo” comment but how is that substantially different from Rahm Emanuel’s “can’t let a crisis go to waste?”

            The biggest point, however, is Mark’s about vector and not scope. Healthcare reform is an issue that is in large part an area of great philosophical difference between the two parties. As a result both the types of compromises and the number of people open to making them are excessively small in number.

            As for Paygo, as nice-sounding as the name is, the policy and ramifications are far more nuanced than “ooh Republicans oppose fiscal prudence/sanity.” PAYGO isn’t a deficit reduction measure, it’s a tool to prevent increases in the federal deficit. So while that would – in theory – spell doom for another stimulus, it would essentially lock in spending and taxes now, which you may have noticed are at levels the Republicans oppose. PAYGO gives cover to tax increases and makes tax cuts harder to enact. In terms of GOP policy aims, there’s precious little accomplished by PAYGO and quite a bit obstructed, not to mention they have the votes to block a fair number of spending measures in the Senate so I don’t think they’re excessively worried about the deficit increasing significantly before they retake one or both chambers of the House.Report

            • Avatar greginak in reply to Kyle
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              says:

              how does Rahm’s comment have anything to do with this. HCR has been a priority among Libs for decades. I still have yet to see how the R’s were willing to do anything about HCR.

              Umm Paygo is about paying for things, not just spending. How does it lock in anything. It means pols cant just talk about being fiscally sound and responsible, they have to do something about it. If they want to spend then they need to offset it. R’s love to talk about being responsible and fiscally responsible, but PAYGO is one way of doing that.

              So you are saying the R’s can block any measure they want, so they don’t need PAYGO and it would later obstruct them when they get congress back? How is that a defense of R responsibility. I already know the R solution to everything, tax cuts, how does PAYGO interfere with that?Report

              • Avatar Kyle in reply to greginak
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                says:

                Because cherrypicking unflatteringly partisan quotes isn’t good argument nor persuasive evidence, whether it’s DeMint or Emanuel.

                I didn’t defend their responsibility, merely explaining why weren’t inclined to vote for it. If you don’t understand how tax cuts and PAYGO are related, I suggest you read up on it.

                It’s a deficit capping measure, meaning any legislation that will increase the deficit has to be paid for. Tax cuts increase the deficit and therefore have to be paid for.Report

        • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to Kyle
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          says:

          “it was entirely unclear that lock step opposition less than a month after the inauguration would actually pay off.”

          No, there’s an almost opiate logic that makes clear that lock-step opposition is the winning strategy. From a game theory standpoint (I’m no expert, but) it seems like it;s the only square that contains a win of any kind for the minority. With a crisis demading action of an obvious nature, the opposition can claim to disagree with that obviousness and oppose the policy around which there is consensus (and there was consensus around stimulus). If they succeed in derailing the policy, the country (in this case) plunges into depression (or not) and incumbents are tossed. If the measure survives their opposition and works, they lose but would have had they joined the consensus. If the measure is enacted but substantially fails, they score a large victory, having been right and demonstrated to be so. The same dynamic applies on the question of stimulus size. More so in fact, because a too-small stimulus is guaranteed to appear to substantially fail to “work” (~10% unemployment through to elections), but if it is signed into law, then it is the poliy of the majority and was opposed by the minority. I struggle not to insist this is a too-obvious-to-deny calculation that any politician would make. That there was actual principled opposition to the stimulus is no doubt true; some Republicans would always have rejected it on that basis (perhaps secure in the knowledge they could free-ride on confidence of its safe passage). But not every single one.

          That Rush Limbaugh advocated this position (if I am not mistaken both claiming the principled stand and making explicit the strategic advantages), and called Republicans who wavered on the basic strategy fearsomely to account is not I think a matter of historical ambiguity. The White House would have committed political malpractice not to be sure the playing out of this process as visible to the noncommitted as possible.Report

          • Avatar Kyle in reply to Michael Drew
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            says:

            I don’t think we disagree here. You’re saying it was a solid – maybe even the best – strategic move. I’m saying there was no guarantee the strategy would pay off. Unless I’m missing something those aren’t mutually exclusive.

            Similarly, that Rush Limbaugh advocates a position does not mean that everyone who does what he advocates does so because of his encouragement. Small points perhaps but important to me nonetheless.Report

      • Avatar Art Deco in reply to Michael Drew
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        says:

        For a stimulus program, the President could have requested for the next year or two a grant of authority to suspend at his discretion the collection of Social Security taxes. The stimulus would have been channeled to the sector most likely to spend and maintain aggregate demand and could have been timed with greater precision to achieve the necessary stabilization with the minimum feasible public sector borrowing. Of course, people will spend the funds on what they want rather than on what Democratic Party hacks want, so it does post a problem.Report

  3. Avatar mike farmer
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    says:

    I think a close, objective analysis will uncover is that Democrats chose the radical route because of irrational exuberance and a misreading of the election. More intelligent, savvy and humble thinkers would have seen an opportunity to make manifest what Obama had promised — a new kind of government, undefiled by partisan game-playing. Pelosi and Reid, like the small-thinkers they are, saw an opportuniy to bull-doze over Republicans, frame them as irrelevant, and create a permanent majority by passing their form of healthcare, thereby controlling a large voting block who would fear Republican leadership would seek to curtail the new entitlement. The Tea Party movement, uncorfortable with such major intervention of government into their lives, and moderate democrats responding to the opposition, and the Mass. election, foiled the Democrat power-grab.

    The Republicans had very little to do with any of it, to be fair. But, before the opposition was strong, and with the right compromises, they would have gotten Snowe-like Republicans on-board to pass a bill. It was Democrat over-reach fueled by greed for power and an inability to stand up to powerful special interests which killed healthcare reform. If the Democrats don’t admit this, they will fail miserably.Report

    • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to mike farmer
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      says:

      This is an entirely entirely plausible account of what may have happened (minus the attached value judgements, which are entirely a question of individual reaction). Until we have a reliable record of the events, there is no way to know where various types of culpability lie.Report

      • Avatar Kyle in reply to Michael Drew
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        says:

        Agreed entirely. (with Michael to be clear)

        I’m curious as to what you think about this, but the thing that strikes me most isn’t what Mike was saying. It’s that the Democrats had a very gnome like political plan.

        Phase 1: Get Elected.
        Phase 2: ??????
        Phase 3: PROFIT!!!

        If there’s an area where America is legitimately center-right, it’s in faith in the government to work. The left believes that government programs, collective action can solve problems and works to create and implement plans that do such. However, Americans are deeply skeptical that government can work, a separate question from whether it should be doing this, that, or the other.

        While the liberal base chalked government failures to the incompetency of the Bush Administration, without really examining whether those failures had less to do with personality and the quality of leadership than structural problems.

        So part of why healthcare failed and the stimulus attracted the tea partiers and what not, is because Democrats assumed their election was more than just proof of public faith in the party but also proof in public faith in government. So rather than demonstrate that government can work, they skipped that and went straight to a push for a greater government role in healthcare which is not so much a national problem as it is a national anxiety.Report

        • Avatar greginak in reply to Kyle
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          says:

          yes Kyle exactly. Americans hate medicare and the VA and social security and SCHIP. yup people don’t think gov can provide health care.

          Gee i wonder why people might have become anxious about HCR GAAAAAAA DEATH PANELS GRAMMAS GOING TO GET WHACKED. there is certainly an argument to be made for Americans distrust of gov. But say that without noting the fear mongering, sleaze and that one party makes a point of harping on the fear is just completely disingenuous.

          I don’t think you have been paying attention the HCR. the D’ s weren’t going with the underpants gnome theory for HCR. they were going with the lets try to pass good legislation theory. Now if you want to see some underpants gnome action take a look at the R’s HCR plan.

          But then again it doesn’t seem Con’s can ever hold R’s responsible for their own lack of a plan.Report

          • Avatar Art Deco in reply to greginak
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            says:

            I am inclined to hold the Republican caucus responsible. However, let us be realistic. Any revision to a benefits configuration will injure someone’s material interests, and the news media will find the potentially injured parties and put them, and their sob stories, on the nightly news. You can take it to the bank.Report

          • Avatar Kyle in reply to greginak
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            says:

            Really, greg? You’re better than this comment.

            I didn’t say people hate government, I said they’re skeptical of it. From Katrina and H1N1 vaccine shortages to the Christmas Day bomb plot and an inability to catch bin Laden, there all sorts of non-political things that can be justifiably pointed to as government failures.

            In 2008, before the death panel fearmongering you so a historically point to, trust in governance was 26% which was near the all-time low of 23% in 1973. It had steadily declined since 2002. Specifically, trust in the government’s ability to handle domestic issues was 47%.

            September 2009 – from Gallup’s annual governance poll trust in state governments (not subject to the pulling the plug on grandma complaints) hit an all time low of 51%

            There’s nothing completely disingenuous about my pointing out that Americans are very skeptical about government, that skepticism isn’t tied to HCR, it’s a consistent trend going back years and affects the federal government in all branches and state governments.

            Nor did I say this was true of health care. I said the Democrats’ political plan, which is and was far broader than health care. On health care, I’d bet that people are more anxious about losing their coverage or being denied coverage than they are so-called death panels. I wasn’t talking about anxiety with respect to specific health care reform proposals, I was talking about anxiety with respect to health care and health insurance itself which, as I understand it, is part of why Democrats wanted to reform the whole shebang in the first place.

            Also, why would it be germane to my comment on the Democrats’ political approach/strategy to evaluate the Republicans’ health care proposals? That doesn’t make sense to me, greg.Report

            • Avatar greginak in reply to Kyle
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              says:

              well of course people are skeptical of government, that is sewn into our DNA. I’ve read or talked to plenty of people who are upfront about their lack of trust in government, but still warrentless wiretapping is just fine, or torture, or single payer health care ( medicaid) or british style health care ( the VA) or single payer health care for people who cannot afford it ( SCHIP for kids) or the drug war, or etc. There is big difference between trust in government and specific policies. Plenty of people are just ducky with many specific government policies and programs, while distrusting generic government.

              D’ss were for doing the “whole shebang” at once because it doesn’t’ seem rational to do it in bits. and i don’t mean from a political point of view but from a how to you fix our problems well point of view. If you split it into bits then people just do the popular stuff and ignore unpopular stuff like paying for it and cutting waste. but the unpopular stuff has to happen also for anything to work.

              Once people accept and like, single payer and british style “socialized” health care, objecting to, on grounds of principle, the HCR bill is ideologically incoherent. In fact the public option or single payer for everybody is considered “radical” or “far left”, when we have that for some people now.Report

              • Avatar Art Deco in reply to greginak
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                says:

                I’ve read or talked to plenty of people who are upfront about their lack of trust in government, but still warrentless wiretapping is just fine, or torture, … or the drug war, or etc.

                The police, the military, and the espionage services do no perform services that can be readily devolved upon private companies.Report

              • Avatar Kyle in reply to greginak
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                says:

                I didn’t mean the bill when I said whole shebang, I meant the health care system. If it were about covering the uninsured, we could do that. The bill aims – intentionally – to cover the uninsured, reform medicare, tackle the rate of health care inflation/cost growth of people who already have plans.

                I don’t see the value in rehashing a health care argument. My point is that the Democrats never addressed the skepticism, they skipped right to all the amazing things government will provide for you, which is a belief among those on the left and a source of skepticism for those in the center and on the right. You’ll note they’re not skeptical of the things that already exist, they’re skeptical of changes to those things (like medicare) and of new promises.

                I think you’re glossing over a lot of reasonably complex points in venting your frustration with the current state of HCR.Report

          • Avatar Jaybird in reply to greginak
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            says:

            You’ve gotta admit, that whole “we aren’t going to deny unnecessary treatments!” argument was going gangbusters until those (probably-backed-by-Republicans!) doctors wrecked everything by coming out and saying “yearly mammograms are no longer considered necessary”.Report

        • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to Kyle
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          says:

          I agree that in terms of belief in government efficacy this is a center-right nation, and Democrats have to deal with that. But that makes a decisive electoral victory fought on just those questions all the more convincing about what it means about the voters’ grant of if not a mandate then at least permission to address major questions with the approach outlined in the campaign. This all the more deligitimizes Republican intransigence (Democrats are always expected to work woth Republicans on their priorities after Republican victories, and contra E.D.’s claims in the attached article, almost always do — by my count 11 Democratic Senators voted for the 2001 Economic Growth and Tax Relief Reonciliation Act of 2001.) Democrats and not Republicans would be the ones to face the backlash f they ended up overstepping on an actually-enacted policy; Republicans would be the beneficiaries of same. If they believed that would occur, they would dispatch the very few necessary moderates to make sure the process goes forward. Republicans then have not shown that the policy in question would in fact be an overstep that the public would reject; on the contrary they fear it would be a resounding success with decades of happy returns for Democrats. Rather so far they have merely shown that they can make the process ugly enough to collapse voter confidence in the proposals being worked over, er, on. Masterfully.

          Or at least, that would be my utterly speculative rejoinder to the equally coherent and equally supported one Mike offers above.Report

          • Avatar Art Deco in reply to Michael Drew
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            says:

            You have no claim to co-operation from the political opposition on matters not implicating national survival. We ain’t fighting World War II here. What is at stake is the Democratic Party’s Rube Goldberg welfare scheme.Report

            • Avatar Kyle in reply to Art Deco
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              says:

              No, but in Michael’s defense, you do have a claim to co-operation from the political opposition when they repeatedly agree that the status quo is bunk and in an assessment of the main problems. So had the GOP simply said we don’t think health care needs reform, I’d agree with your art. They didn’t, so I actually agree that it’s not unreasonable to expect the GOP to work to fix a problem they assert exists.Report

            • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to Art Deco
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              says:

              I’m not arguing that Republicans are delinquent in some affirmative duty. They really can do what they want. Only that the voters have every right to observe, describe, and evaluate how they’ve served during their time in the majority.Report

  4. Avatar Scott
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    says:

    I don’t see how Repubs could be to blame. By the time all the necessary Dem votes in the Senate were bought, the HCR had morphed into something the House Dems wouldn’t support.Report

    • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Scott
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      says:

      Their fiscal profligacy sort of inspired the Dems. “Hey, if we’re going to be spending money like it’s water, let’s spend it like *THIS* instead of like *THAT*”

      Had the Republicans been a choice rather than an echo, maybe we wouldn’t be having this conversation.Report

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