“You don’t ‘seize’ the center, you create the center”

imageWhen I learned it, I thought the motion for this month’s Intelligence Squared U.S. debate – “The GOP Must Seize the Center or Die” – was simply dreadful.  How could the opposing case possibly be made without fighting a losing battle with the proposition itself?  Of course the GOP needs to win more votes from the center; of course they’ve been successfully characterized as out-of-touch with centrists.  And indeed, the pre-debate poll showed a staggering 65% in favor of the motion and only 14% opposed.  This lousy motion seemed certain to succeed.

Yet Laura Ingraham and Ralph Reed, to their great credit, defeated David Brooks and Mickey Reynolds by successfully convincing the audience,* as Ingraham put it, that “You don’t seize the center; you create the center.”  And not only that, but that the GOP could successfully create a new center instead of settling for the one we have.

Both Ingraham’s and Reed’s performances were excellent, and Brooks and Edwards performed ably, but Ingraham’s closing deserves special mention:

I want to start by saying — you’re not going to believe I’m saying this. But I’m going to say you should reject this proposition that the Republican Party should seize the center or die because I have a lot of faith and respect in the decision-making that Barack Obama made when he could have gone that way. He could have, himself, seized the center. He could have seized it in 1985 when it looked like liberalism was on the run.  He could have seized in 1994, when this Newt Gingrich guy just took the country by storm, love him or hate him, but changed the face of politics. He could have given up hope in 2001 and 2002 when the whole country was rallying toward this war in Iraq, and he decided, "You know something? It’s — in my view, it’s the wrong thing to do. Because the establishment and everyone around him was probably telling him, "The center has moved. You’ve got to go that way."

He didn’t go that way. He had a certain set of principles. I disagree with him deeply, but he had a certain sense of himself and sense of principles that he decided to follow, and he followed in a new way by reaching out to all those disaffected Democrats who were kind of tired of the old way and Republicans who were kind of sick of where the Republicans were falling down. And, lo and behold, Barack Obama, by not seizing the center , unseated the establishment candidate of, of course, Hillary Clinton, decided, "Guess what? Liberalism is back. I never let it go. I never moved to the center, and I’m going to bring along constituency after constituency in looking at the world and the country in a new way." He found his center. Republicans, guess what? They know where they — what they believe and how they believe it.

Seizing the new center is political death. Please reject the proposition.

I strongly agree with Ingraham.  The premature reports of average Americans’ leftward turn are greatly exaggerated.  Polls show Americans still prefer state and local government to federal governmentMost want smaller governmentA vast majority favor making second and third term abortions illegal (64% and 80% respectively).  (Did you know that?  I didn’t.  Even the cited Gallup poll buries that underreported fact near the bottom of the page, underneath nonsense questions like whether people identify as “pro-choice” or “pro-life,” or whether Roe v. Wade should be overturned (ignoring that it’s already been largely overturned by Planned Parenthood v. Casey).)  The claim that most Americans are conservative even passes dejected fact-checker muster: Kevin Drum glumly exonerated Marco Rubio when he made the claim:  At least a plurality of Americans self-identify as conservative, and a Politico poll last year reported an overwhelming 61% of likely voters identified as conservative.

Ingraham is right: It would be folly to rush to adopt the views of such a “mushy middle” held together in large part by a personally popular president now in his second term. The problem with talking about “the center” is that it is a constantly shifting thing.  That a generally conservative nation has gotten on board with a big-federal-government lefty suggests that there’s lots of room for the GOP to remake the center – should the GOP get its messaging act together, that is. Best that the GOP not cash out during this string of bad hands.  Keep a seat at the table and wait for a new dealer – it likely won’t be another New Dealer, after all.

*Per the debate rules, the team that wins the most number of converts to its position by the end of the debate wins, no matter whether its side of the motion wins a majority of votes.

Tim Kowal

Tim Kowal is a husband, father, and attorney in Orange County, California, Vice President of the Orange County Federalist Society, commissioner on the OC Human Relations Commission, and Treasurer of Huntington Beach Tomorrow. The views expressed on this blog are his own. You can follow this blog via RSS, Facebook, or Twitter. Email is welcome at timkowal at gmail.com.


  1. 1. I’m well aware large groups of people want abortion banned in the 2nd and 3rd trimester. Of course, those same people also don’t realize 88% of abortions are done in the first trimester. Plus, I don’t care about the polling of civil rights questions. Unless you want me to bring up some numbers on how people feel about gun laws. 🙂

    2. That’s one Politico poll, where people were pushed to choose conservative or liberal with no option for moderate (I notice you didn’t link to that poll). Also, people choosing whether to claim themselves as conservative or liberal isn’t a question of their policy preferences, it’s a question of branding and for most of the past forty years, the claiming yourself as ‘liberal’ has taken a beating lately.

    3. At the end of the day, as has been said before, Americans are ideological conservatives, but operational liberals. They want a Swedish social welfare state on a Singaporean level of taxes, largely because they’ve been told by both parties that it’s possible. After all, I can find plenty of polls for big-time liberal positions even among Republicans (for example, a rise in the minimum wage.). I’m not even getting into the fact that politicians think their constituents are more conservative than they really are (http://www.theatlanticwire.com/politics/2013/03/politicians-vs-constituents-charts/62730/).

  2. Ingraham may have convinced the audience, but she did it by deceiving them, and it seems, herself. Barak Obama absolutely did seize the center. In any number of ways, he move to the center from where he previously had been, and that allowed him to be elected. Above all, on the very issue Ingraha highlights, Obama identified exactly where the enter of the country was, and went there. To some extent he was there already, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t seize it. By the time Obama decided he was well-positioned to seek presidency, the country – the center of the country had clearly swung to the view that the invasion of Iraq was a mistake whose execution had been hopelessly bungled. Meanwhile, they continued to think that the U.S. presence in Afghanistan was important for our national security. Voters with this basic outlook were the ones who catapulted Obama to the nomination and the presidency. Obama’s early opposition to Iraq makes it look as if a kind of principled anti-war leftism is what carreid the day. In fact, what happened is that the American people – the political center – shifted away from support for the Iraq war (which is the key fact that Ingraham omits from her analysis), and Obama found himself the best-positioned politician to take advantage of that newly-located center. The effect of his early, seemingly principled opposition to the Iraq war (in fact, how principled was it? – the justification he gave for opposition was simply that we was opposed to “dumb wars,” which is a principle in search of a principle: it just says that Barack Obama is for the wars he’s far and against the wars he’s against) was not to move the country by creating a new center; it was just to better-position him to take advantage of a change in the center created by very powerful set of on-the-ground facts that were the result of policy. And it better positioned him that way not because it allowed him to have a significantly different policy proposal from his rivals (well, it did from his eventual rival for election, who offered no policy alternative to the one people had recoiled from), but because it allowed him to claim a greater authenticity for his position that happened to offer what the center of the country was by then looking for.

    Perhaps that can be read as an endorsement of Ingraham’s view, inasmuch as Hillary Clinton arguably derailed her path from the Senate directly to the White House by embracing the centrist position on Iraq. What this ignores, however, is all the ways that Obama clearly did seek the center which made him electable at all, which was a prerequisite for his one “authentic’ position, on Iraq, to power him to the White House – from deep-sixing his previous position on health care (pro-single-payer), to bellicosity regarding dealing with terrorism, to strongly signaling an intention to maintain continuity with the approach taken by the Bush administration to the financial meltdown.

    The reality is that we are currently in the second term of the third straight president who has sought to seize, or in any case managed to succeed at seizing, the center, not create a new one. Yes the center shifts and has shifted. The main way it has shifted in the last twenty years is in response to the rare and dramatically destabilizing Black Swan event of 9/11, and then the governments various reactions and overreactions to it. That has caused politicians who were more nimbly able to seize the center to benefit compared to those with a more systematic, long-term approach to that strategy. But the basic strategy remains the dominant one: seize the center. If you can do that by having foresight on one or two issues that causes you to buck what for time is the conventional wisdom, great – that just lends your brand of centrism an appealing veneer of authenticity and integrity. But if the center doesn’t actually end up moving back toward that stance and that issue ends up being one at the front of voters’ minds, that veneer won’t matter.

    Politicians don’t move, or create, the political center. Events do. If you think events will move public opinion so that your principled positions become vindicated – great go with that strategy. Another strategy is to try to gauge where the center is and go there. Neither of these ways to approach the strategy are fool-proof: the first is risky, the second unappealing. But you will win or lose based on whether, when the time comes to make your pitch, you are in fact in a position to seize the center – and that won’t be because you have dictated to or shaped where the public (or, their center) is politically on the issues that matter to them. You’ll either be in the position to do that successfully, or not.

    • One small further detail in the Clinton vs. Obama centrism debate is the health care issue. Hillary was pro-mandate during the run-up to the election, IIRC, which is more liberal position than Obama took at the time.

      By focusing on Iraq, Ingraham pretends at clarifying a much muddier proposition.

      • …how exactly is mandate to buy health insurance a “more liberal” concept? Or indeed a liberal one at all?

        • It isn’t, really. But since it went from being an idea the Heritage Foundation could support to being Public Enemy #1 once it was part of Democratic health care reform, going to bat for it during primary season became the de facto “liberal” position.

          • Right, yet another reminder how petty & stupid mainstream political “thought” is. Gov’t requiring people to purchase a private product is somehow lefty now, even without the safety valve of “public” option.

        • I know its essentially irrelevant to these debates, but mandates plus gov offsetting costs actually works well in a number of places most notably Germany and Switzerland. It is a perfectly reasonable way of getting Uni coverage. It is not as well known as the Canadian or English models which are all anybody ever wanted to talk about.

        • It’s more leftist and less centrist in a left/right dynamic because in intervenes in people’s lives less.

          And good point, Doc. It’s interesting to note that of the past three presidents who seized the center, two went on govern more or less from the center of their party (i.e Obama adopted the IM b/c it was essential the party’s standing HCR approach; Bush abandoned his calls for a modest foreign policy and adopted the big stick-big-talk-go-big approach of his party’s recent past), in ways that did affect the mean political outlook in the country. So if the argument is that you govern (and do the politics of governance/reelection) by creating the center, that I’m more open to based on the evidence. But when you’re out of power, one way or another, you’re at the whim of public sentiments – you either follow them around or hope they drift your way.

      • By focusing on Iraq, Ingraham pretends at clarifying a much muddier proposition.

        That is exactly my view; well said. I was too far to the opposite end in saying it was crystal clear he seized the center (though I think it’s pretty clear.

      • Cool. It’s a case that is definitely open to how you see it. I definitely acknowledge that very plausible narrative could be told about the same events that draws the opposite conclusion. I took the strong opposing position just for the sake of hashing out the argument.

      • Very true. It’s different ballgame once you hold power. There, “when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out.”

        That changes politics, including what the center thinks. But it’s a crucial difference between the politics of governing and the politics of seeking office.

  3. After Clicking through to see how the final vote ended up i notice that the ingram faction while doubling from 14% to 28%, is still crushed by the 65% that already want the party to moderate.

    also seems like an unfair contest. i understand how Ingram and Reed “won” by the IQ debates rules, but when you still lose 2-1 maybe driving further off the right cliff is not the best of ideas?

    • The host/moderator acknowledged that, being in the middle of NYC, the audience was, per usual, “overwhelmingly liberal,” and thus a bit odd to ask them to choose between one panel of Republicans over another panel of Republicans. Without more specific info about the predilections of the audience, not really possible to make relevant claims about the initial pro/con votes.

      • which I think kills your point. there are large swaths of people voting democrat right now because the republican party seems to be moving into the fever-swamps of glenn beck and alex jones. if your party wants to win a national election then need to win cities. and if you cant win new york you may have problems. liberal it may be but i cant think of another city with more of the business wing of your party in it and influencing it.

        but nice to the that moderation is at least being talked about.

  4. Americans MAY say they: “prefer state and local government to federal government. Most want smaller government.” but the truth is something else. How do I know? They don’t vote for the cannidate that supported those positions. Bob Dole, Gingrich, Romney? Please.

    • Ron Paul knew that “smaller government” isn’t a compelling enough story, hence the newsletters, to appeal to a broader audience.

      • Small government is in the eye of the beholder. “Get government hands off my Medicare”, for instance.

        Small government is one of those great sounding things in theory. But when the rubber meets the road, people by and large like big government. What they hate is long lines at the DMV, complicated tax forms, and basically “hassles”.

        A great deal of government is, well, invisible to the average eye. Who really sees road construction or repair and thinks “That’s my tax dollars?” instead of “Glad to see they’re fixing that” or “God, need to find another route to work until this is done”.

        I mean, you ask people where they want to cut government and they always pick “foreign aid”. And you ask why, and it turns out they think it’s some huge percentage of the budget instead of practically a rounding error.

  5. As for smaller government:

    1) ask about lower spending vs tax hikes, & lower spending always wins. Ask people what they want to cut though, and they don’t cut enough for the resulting policy to make sense. Unlike Jesse I think it’s less a matter of consciously wanting both high spending & low taxes (besides, some people would agree to the higher spending w/ a “…but not for Them” rider, though that’s something else) then a reflection of how far removed most folks are from the actual process. When it largely doesn’t matter what your opinion is, importance of an informed one is greatly diminished.

    2) actual skepticism of the surveillance state & the idea of U.S. as world’s policeman would be nice. If I were y’all I’d take Rand Paul’s ball & run with it.

    • I tend to think that asking people if they prefer smaller or larger government, asking if they’re conservative or liberal, even asking of they prefer local or federal government… are all just about as meaningless as asking if they are pro-life or pro-choice. People just aren’t telling you what they really want; they’re just telling you how those labels sound to them.

      The 64% who want to ban second-trimest aborions do seem significant to me, if that is a stable and well-replicated result.

      • I’m skeptical about the abortion numbers myself. I suspect (though cannot prove obviously) that a lot of people find enormous comfort sitting on the fence by deploring abortion loudly as long as it remains legal (a form of having one’s cake and eating it too I submit). I suspect that nothing would be more devastating for pro life popularity than pro life advances in policy.

  6. If you tell people — for decades — that the government is filled with waste, fraud, and abuse and that tax cuts will increase revenue, the people will come to expect you can cut taxes, cut “waste fraud and abuse” and leave spending alone otherwise — or even increase it.

    Reality has not proven to be so kind.

    So what do you do? Well, Democrats flat out went with a combination of tax hikes and spending cuts or limitations, basically saying “This is what the people seem to want, and this is how to pay for it”. Whereas the GOP has gone with….continuing to pretend they can cut taxes to increase revenue, and that they can somehow find enough “waste, fraud and abuse” (where “waste” is not code for “someone else’s infrastructure project, which is wasteful, unlike the one in my district”) to make a difference.

    Which, after three decades of trying, they haven’t managed. (Indeed, two of the last three GOP Presidents gave up after one attempt and just raised taxes to cover the resulting whole. The most recent, of course, did not).

  7. I’ve become a bit wary of the “we’re a conservative nation” meme. I think that meme put conservatives into a kind of complacent state, thinking that the GOP would win because, this nation is conservative. I don’t think this is the case. Not that I think the nation is more liberal, but I don’t think it is the conservativeland we might think it is.

    I do think the GOP has to seize the center AND hold on to its base. The Democrats didn’t hold to their 70s era liberalism, but over time they were able to grab moderates and hold on to liberals. The GOP doesn’t have to become “centrist” but it does mean trying to reach out to moderates and persons of color. To do that it has to tailor policies that appeal to those folks and can also satisfy the conservative base.

    We don’t need to be the mushy middle. We do need to be willing to enlarge the GOP Big Tent (which it isn’t right now).

      • Tim, I’d love to do that. The post you link to was a great one and I’d love to riff off of that.

    • I’ve become a bit wary of the “we’re a conservative nation” meme.

      It only seems to hold up in a “self-identifying with a label” sort of way. When you poll Americans about actual policy questions it’s hard to come to the same conclusion. Take health care for example: When you ask people if they’re for or against “Obamacare” the results are fairly negative. If you break it up and ask about specific pieces of the legislation you see pretty strong support. So most people favor the actual legislation; they just don’t like it when you present it to them as “Obamacare.”

      Similarly, most people favor keeping at least first-trimester abortions legal; a growing majority favors gay marriage and liberalized drug laws, at least for mj; and most people favor President Obama’s deficit reduction strategy over the Republican plan, preferring to raise taxes on the wealthy to cutting welfarist programs.

      Based on the issues it really looks to me like a center-left country that’s been talked into thinking that being conservative is “cool.”

      • So most people favor the actual legislation; they just don’t like it when you present it to them as “Obamacare.”

        That’s not quite right. They like the “free stuff” from the legislation. They stuff they get out of the deal. But they don’t like the costs. The Mandate, Medicare adjustments, and the possibility of losing their plans. And in the aggregate, they’re not a big fan of all of it together.

        It’s not too much like they like most entitlement programs, defense spending, and public initiatives like NASA… but they don’t like the taxes that come with it (except “taxes on the wealthy” which won’t pay for it all) and they don’t like deficit spending.

        It’s hard to glean much ideological (or at least coherently so) from that. Which is one of the problems when Republicans and Democrats both point to polls supporting this (low taxes) or that (shoring up Medicare). I mean, hey, who wouldn’t like that in a vacuum? They’ll even support abstract things, like cutting government in the abstract, and Republicans like to point this out, right until it comes down to what to cut.

        Of course, Republicans are losing badly at the moment in part because they keep hanging their hat on their least popular tax platform. And are more generally seeking those very issues that differentiate themselves from mainstream public opinion (Going after birth control? Seriously?), not only hurting their elective prospects, but actually hurting the issues that they champion and have a reasonable amount of public support (Republicans have halted the shift towards abortion-skepticism, all on their own!).

        • Ya know, I was thinking of saying something like, “Maybe people are liberal for themselves and conservative for everyone else,” but it seemed to play too much on stereotypes. But now I think maybe there was a bit of truth there.

          Everyone likes the idea of receiving free health care or welfare or seeing their industry get bailed out… but no one likes paying for it.

          • I believe Americans are very generous of spirit, but drive apoplectic by the fear that some unworthy soul, somewhere is getting away with something. And that fear is sometimes enough worthy of bringing the whole enterprise crashing down.

            Or maybe that’s a human things and Americans are, as is our tendency, more brash about it than most.

          • Someone might want to do a larger post on that idea. It’s kind of like the “ideologically conservative, operationally liberal” idea, but different. It made me think of the bit I listened to on the radio on the way to work about LA city council debating whether to end the school lunch program. Everyone admitted they would not personally let a child go hungry, but they hated the idea of institutionalizing bad incentives. I.e., you’re telling me there are people who DON’T FEED THEIR KIDS??? 10 helpings of instant oatmeal costs less than $3 for 10 servings, and that’s for the fancy flavored variety. And something like 15% of people get food stamps. No one can believe that these parents CAN’T feed their kids — they’re convinced they’re lazy and neglectful, and that fixing this short term problem by a solution that amounts to ignoring the larger problem of parent neglect just assures us we’re going to face larger problems down the line (we can fix nutritionally malnourished kids, but we can’t fix psychologically malnourished kids; we ought to seize this opportunity to get these parents’ acts together somehow).

            Let’s see, I had a point here when I set out… it was about how, if the school fed MY kid that would be sweet, because I know I’m a good parent. But OTHER parents are lazy and neglectful and would take advantage of the system.

          • Gee Tim, i could post that on a liberal site and you get a lot up votes. Many people are just so stuck in their bubble they can’t imagine what life is like for poor people and just don’t like what they do know. Poor people are a convenient other.

          • People truly don’t know what it’s like to be different from what they are. It’s easy to scapegoat every “other” group. I was talking with a staff member at the OC Human Relations Commission recently and he told me about some families that wanted to sponsor the families of the homeless kids at the local high school in Huntington Beach. Expecting to find just one or two homeless students, they were shocked to learn there were more than 15, at just a single school. So even people who want to help have no idea how bad the problems are.

        • I don’t think the mandate, in and of itself, is a bad thing.
          What makes it bad is the failure to differentiate the most basic needs.
          If it were more like car insurance, where the option of carrying only liability exists, it wouldn’t be such a bad thing.

          Oddly enough, this comes on the heels of my realizing, from Elias’ latest post, that it’s not so much “helping the poor” or “providing social programs” that I disagree with, but only that those things should be done within reasonable limits.
          Exactly where “reasonable limits” lie is much of the issue there.

          I think it’s much the same with most, if not all, of the supposedly “devisive” issues.
          It is only that our paths lie on a shared continuum that produces the illusion of dichotomy.

      • I would actually argue that the nation isn’t liberal or conservative, but libertarian. Not in the sense of no government; we still want our social security, thank you very much. But I think people want a smaller government in the sense that I don’t think they are as comfortable with the kind of government we had from the late 40s to the 70s. Couple that with support for gay marriage and marijuana, I think we are moving less towards either pole and more towards some kind libertarian equalibrium.

        Just a thought.

        • What aspects of government did we have in that period that people aren’t comfortable with now, do you think? Are you thinking of things that were discontinued in the 70s, or just things that people aren’t as crazy about anymore. There were some things that actually got their start around then, and on whose popularity I think the jury is still kind of out – namely the regulatory state, in particular EPA and OSHA. It’s definitely true that people who are very conscious about a preference for smaller government are as hostile to those agencies’ functions as ever, but I’m not sure that everyone who says they generally favor smaller government actually want OSHA to dial back regulations in their workplaces, for example.

          It’s not really clear to me that that kind conscious and aware desire for smaller government – which knows exactly what it wants to see scaled back or eliminated – is particularly on the rise as a part of in the country at large, which is not to say that it doesn’t retain its consistent significant place in American opinion. For that matter, I’m not even sure I’ve seen data to support the idea that more people say they want smaller government just in generic terms. Which is not to say, again, that a significant proportion don’t say that – only that it’s not clear to me that it’s so big or growing so fast that it’s right to say that America overall is libertarian.

          Unless, that is, we’re willing to say that any preference to be left alone just certeris paribus – without any reason not to be – is libertarian. In that case, though, the concept becomes something entirely universal, and the term comes to fail to distinguish anyone with a greater such preference who might have a much higher bar for what they will accept as an acceptable reason for interference in her life from anyone else.

        • Or its just that a lot of Americans don’t fit ideological labels well. They take from the buffet what they like. Oh they may pick a label but it doesn’t necessarily mean they ideologically dogmatic in their views. We who hang out here spend a lot more time thinking about politics and policy far more then other, likely saner, people do.


    Now I hate conservatives more than ever. :-p

    • Whoops! Though I don’t know if you can even download the podcast or read the transcript without spoilers unless you can somehow shield your eyes from the prominent pie charts on IQ2 site.

      • I download the podcasts through the podcast app on my iPhone. They’re the abridged version, which I don’t like because I prefer to hear the whole debate (though they’re edited pretty well to make it feel like you didn’t miss anything important) but given that I tend to listen to them while on a run and I’m currently still maxing out around 7 miles, the hour long iterations are perfect for a single session.

        I also never really care who wins because A) their idea of “winning” is a bit skewed and B) the aforementioned issue with audience bias. I just like hearing smart people talk intelligently about an interesting topic, which is what they tend to get.

        • I also listen via podcasts, but I didn’t realize they were abridged until I re-watched parts of the debate online. I was disappointed to find that some of the parts they edited out were actually quite important. The abridged version is probably fine for most of the debates, but it would be nice if they offered the full debate for podcast download for those issues that particularly interest me.

          I usually don’t put much stock in who wins, either, but FWIW I think this was the first debate among the six or so that I’ve listened to where the winner went to the more conservative side.

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  10. There may be something to the idea that you create the middle. But on that metric I think it’s pretty clear that the GOP’s going to have to find a newest of issues/positions on which to create it, because their current ones clearly aren’t achieving that end. And given that the current ones they’re working off of are the ones held by the more conservative wing, and given that they’re the most resistant to change on issues…well, from a political strategy position, I just don’t see the immediate prospects for this new center-creation.

    One of my best friends is a GOP guy, former cap hill staffer, campaign operative, county party executive committe, and when I ash him, he doesn’t see it, either. We could both be wrong, of course, and he’s only a single Republican, but I mention him to emphasize that I’m not just saying this as an outsider. In a nutshell, while Ingraham may conceptually correct, talk is cheap. It’s easy to say you need to create the center, but it’s not so easy to do. And if the words become cover for just doing the same ol’ same ol’ that got you in the current position, well, then it just delays what ultimately needs to be done.

    • James, first of all, nice to see you back. Would you agree that “making the center” is a valid strategy but that it’s a long game and the current crop is just doing it wrong?

      I’m thinking of the way the GOP ascendency in the ’80s was the culmination of a lot of work that started in the ’60s with the creation of think tanks and such.

      • Rod,

        Yes, I think that’s what I think.

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