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The elections of two weeks ago revealed two things. First, Obama and his agenda are not electorally fireproof; second, Republicans will fail to capitalize on the Democrats’ newfound weakness if they do not find a message around which the entire party can rally.The first revelation came in Virginia and New Jersey; the second in New York’s 23rd congressional district, where the party faithful backed Conservative Party candidate over the Republican Party candidate, only to split the vote and lose the seat to a Democrat for the first time in over 100 years. As long as Obama and his agenda remain unpopular among conservatives and large swathes of independents, as the case seemed to be in Virginia and New Jersey, Republicans may repeat the recent electoral successes in 2010. But they will be transient victories. NY-23 showed that as long as the debate between “reformist Republicans” and “first-principles conservatives” is unresolved, the party base will be hopelessly split and in need of a unifying leader.

scozzafava-newserMost pundits have taken the Hoffman-Scozzafava duel in NY-23—in which Hoffman, the Conservative, won endorsements from many political leaders including Tim Pawlenty and Sarah Palin, and Soczzafava, the Republican, ended up dropping out and endorsing the Democrat—as a sign that Republican voters are disillusioned with their current representatives who seem willing to use government rather than limit it, and that the party is gearing for a return to the principles of individual liberty, limited government, and personal responsibility. But the return to first principles has already happened. Even though the internal debate is fierce, there is truly very little that separates the current reformist, Grand New Party Republicans from the traditional conservatives.

Reformist Republicans, who some might call “moderate Republicans,” want to use government policies to help the middle class, monitor only the most unseemly aspects of an otherwise free market, and promote strong families. This approach to public policy, however, is very similar to that of George W. Bush, who also wanted to use government for conservative ends. But President Bush used liberal means to promote conservative ends—providing federal funds for faith-based charities, expanding the Education Department to promote national accountability, and in general increasing government spending. There are some Bush era holdovers in Congress who will still think and act this way once in power, but most reformists wish to use conservative means to conservative ends.

The conservative way to use government is to create public policies that encourage individual liberty and personal responsibility. For the most part, this approach accepts that programs such as Medicare and Social Security aren’t going away. The question becomes how to make them work for conservatives. How do we maximize freedom, choice, and individual responsibility while maintaining a social safety net (or, to use a more fitting phrase, safety trampoline) that takes care of those in real need? Welfare reform was one of the greatest successes for such conservatives: it increased individual freedom and responsibility and reduced the size of government. But it also ensured that when you really need it, the government will be there to help you get back on your feet.

If the reformist Republicans—in short, those who want to use government, but in a conservative way, to help the middle class—had their way, the size of government would shrink dramatically and individual liberty would grow dramatically —there is little in their agenda with which traditional, limited-government conservatives would disagree. In education, students would have more choice in the form of vouchers or charter schools; in health care, individuals would have more control over their health decision through health savings accounts; in retirement policy, citizens would have more responsibility for their own savings.

When confronted with an actual policy issue, most first-principles conservatives would come to the same point of view as these reformist Republicans. The difference, then, for most Republicans is not in ideology, and it’s not even in the details—it’s in the message. Traditional conservatives would like a return to limited government—but they do not explain how limited government will help you or your neighbor. They just want it on principle. Most reformist Republicans believe in these same principles, even if they don’t go about reassuring the conservatives; but at least they try to explain how their principles will translate to real policies that help real people. The reformists believe in a government that helps people help themselves. It doesn’t just do things for them, as many Democrats would want; but it is there and it does help.

Traditional conservatives will invoke the presidency of Ronald Reagan as an example of first principles winning the day. But what made Reagan so remarkable was not only his unwavering belief in first principles, but also his ability to explain why those principles were good for America and good for public policy. Reagan, as he himself said, did not want a return to the past; rather, he wanted a past way of looking at new things. He wanted to apply first principles to the policy problems of the day.

The only way for Republicans to inspire voters is to learn to communicate how their principles will translate to a better life for the ordinary citizen. When Republicans advocate tax cuts, school vouchers, or decreases in government spending, they must argue how each of those policies promotes the very same goals many liberals desire: social justice, equality of opportunity, more and better access to health care. And Republican policies manage to do so while maintaining individual liberty and limited government, principles the Democrats often sacrifice but which are essential for maintaining a self-governing people.

Republicans can achieve more permanent victories in 2010 if they can express this message. To do so, the conservative and reformist Republicans must come together and realize that their principles are—for the most part—identical. What both are missing is a great communicator who can convey to the electorate and convince them why these principles are good for themselves, their communities, and their country.

28 COMMENTS

  1. A more thoughtful reply to come, but there are several problems with this interpretation about the Republicans split vote.

    1. I find it unfortunate that you have accepted hook, line, and sinker the conventional media narrative of the election of NY-23. Dede Scozzafava is a liberal, not even a moderate. She wasn’t nominated Her views on abortion, unionization, teacher unions, homosexual marriage, among other things. She was endorsed by the Daily Kos, for Pete’s sake!

    2. The fight isn’t over in NY-23. Hoffman may yet win it, as the absentee votes have yet to be counted. If he doesn’t, he will certainly win in 2010, as Owens broke four campaign promises in the first hour alone.

    3. There are a great many conservatives (or libertarians) who would rather lose elections than by Democrat-lite. And frankly, although I know you are enamored of the Grand New Party stuff, but it smacks of establishment conservatism rather than actual adherence to the principles of the Declaration. We shouldn’t make a separate peace with the Left on entitlements. We should work to abolish them. Why should we just create new entitlements for the groups we happen to like? The approach to the middle class smacks of trying to buy votes, rather than any real principles.

    4. The supposed conservative accomplishments of the President are not really conservative at all. Why should the President have anything to do with education at all? Why should church driven charities receive public money?

    5. You write, “When Republicans advocate tax cuts, school vouchers, or decreases in government spending, they must argue how each of those policies promotes the very same goals many liberals desire: social justice, equality of opportunity, more and better access to health care.” What we ought to be arguing is whether or not social justice or health care are things that government ought to be providing in the first place, not again, hoping to be Democrat-lite on these matters.

    • Re: 5.

      So should good, conservative Republicans be advocating a view of government that is socially unjust then?

  2. A more thoughtful reply to come, but there are several problems with this interpretation about the Republicans split vote.

    1. I find it unfortunate that you have accepted hook, line, and sinker the conventional media narrative of the election of NY-23. Dede Scozzafava is a liberal, not even a moderate. She wasn’t nominated Her views on abortion, unionization, teacher unions, homosexual marriage, among other things. She was endorsed by the Daily Kos, for Pete’s sake!

    2. The fight isn’t over in NY-23. Hoffman may yet win it, as the absentee votes have yet to be counted. If he doesn’t, he will certainly win in 2010, as Owens broke four campaign promises in the first hour alone.

    3. There are a great many conservatives (or libertarians) who would rather lose elections than by Democrat-lite. And frankly, although I know you are enamored of the Grand New Party stuff, but it smacks of establishment conservatism rather than actual adherence to the principles of the Declaration. We shouldn’t make a separate peace with the Left on entitlements. We should work to abolish them. Why should we just create new entitlements for the groups we happen to like? The approach to the middle class smacks of trying to buy votes, rather than any real principles.

    4. The supposed conservative accomplishments of the President are not really conservative at all. Why should the President have anything to do with education at all? Why should church driven charities receive public money?

    5. You write, “When Republicans advocate tax cuts, school vouchers, or decreases in government spending, they must argue how each of those policies promotes the very same goals many liberals desire: social justice, equality of opportunity, more and better access to health care.” What we ought to be arguing is whether or not social justice or health care are things that government ought to be providing in the first place, not again, hoping to be Democrat-lite on these matters.

    • Re: 5.

      So should good, conservative Republicans be advocating a view of government that is socially unjust then?

  3. Good insight in this article; an articulate spin on the general consensus on the midterm elections. I think trying to tie statewide elections to some sort of national political mood is a questionable effort in the first place. But, I would nonetheless disagree that the two governor’s races were outright refutations of Obama’s agenda.

    New Jersey as a state was/is just plain screwed up, and Corzine was immensely unpopular on a personal level. The fact that he made it close alone was surprising. Not to mention the relative significance of Dagget’s 6% which was undoubtedly made up of disillusioned Democrats. Seriously, in your best of all possible worlds, could you imagine any Republican candidate taking NJ in 2012? No, it is clear that this election was about state, not national, issues.

    The Virginia argument is perhaps even weaker. Virginia, no matter the spin, remains a conservative state., Deeds was/is a weak campaigner who had already lost an attempt at statewide office. Furthermore, the black turnout was certainly not as high as in November 08. Undoubtedly, there is a lot of anti-Obama sentiment in Virginia, as there is everywhere (remember only 52% of us voted for him) but it was not the dominant issue of the campaign and should not be construed as such. Viewing the Virginia election in terms of a national political sentiment is thus as misleading as using the New Jersery race, if not more so.

    A final word, Charles’ message is not one that will bring the Republican Party back to prominence. Remember, even Reagan had to appeal to moderates with his canned speeches pulled from The Conscience of a Conservative. Republicans, especially tea party conservatives, seem to miss the fact that NY-23 had been in Republican hands since the Civil War. Hoffman lost in some of the most likely terrain for victory, this does not bode well. It would be wise for both liberals and conservatives to recognize that America is not a conservative or liberal country, and that the middle of American politics was paid much more attention to by politicos of the 50’s,60’s, and 70’s. Maybe the Republicans need a Nixon, not a Reagan.

  4. Good insight in this article; an articulate spin on the general consensus on the midterm elections. I think trying to tie statewide elections to some sort of national political mood is a questionable effort in the first place. But, I would nonetheless disagree that the two governor’s races were outright refutations of Obama’s agenda.

    New Jersey as a state was/is just plain screwed up, and Corzine was immensely unpopular on a personal level. The fact that he made it close alone was surprising. Not to mention the relative significance of Dagget’s 6% which was undoubtedly made up of disillusioned Democrats. Seriously, in your best of all possible worlds, could you imagine any Republican candidate taking NJ in 2012? No, it is clear that this election was about state, not national, issues.

    The Virginia argument is perhaps even weaker. Virginia, no matter the spin, remains a conservative state., Deeds was/is a weak campaigner who had already lost an attempt at statewide office. Furthermore, the black turnout was certainly not as high as in November 08. Undoubtedly, there is a lot of anti-Obama sentiment in Virginia, as there is everywhere (remember only 52% of us voted for him) but it was not the dominant issue of the campaign and should not be construed as such. Viewing the Virginia election in terms of a national political sentiment is thus as misleading as using the New Jersery race, if not more so.

    A final word, Charles’ message is not one that will bring the Republican Party back to prominence. Remember, even Reagan had to appeal to moderates with his canned speeches pulled from The Conscience of a Conservative. Republicans, especially tea party conservatives, seem to miss the fact that NY-23 had been in Republican hands since the Civil War. Hoffman lost in some of the most likely terrain for victory, this does not bode well. It would be wise for both liberals and conservatives to recognize that America is not a conservative or liberal country, and that the middle of American politics was paid much more attention to by politicos of the 50’s,60’s, and 70’s. Maybe the Republicans need a Nixon, not a Reagan.

  5. To Doug,

    Reagan did not write The Conscience of a Conservative. Barry Goldwater did. Again, Hoffman has not yet lost the race in NY-23, so whether or not I am right remains to be seen. We’ve tried the approach of nominating the candidates that are considered moderate. John McCain, Bob Dole, Gerald Ford, the list goes on and on. These moderates are the ones that have been going down for defeat virtually everywhere they have run. What the country wants is decisive, bold leadership on the issues, not “me too” liberalism.

    The Republicans had their Nixon and much good it did them! Nixon was, by all accounts, a Democrat. He believed in welfare, progressive taxation, price controls, and a socialist draft.

    On to the other races you mentioned,

    In Virginia, even if the black vote had turned out, Deeds would have been walloped. He lost not only because he ran a poor campaign, but because the left has little to offer Virginia other than new tax and spend policies — the very likes of which have bankrupted or nearly bankrupted nearly a dozen states.

    In New Jersey, the six percent for Daggett was more likely disaffected Republicans. (Daggett ran for office before as a Republican.) I think you’re missing the point here, which is that conservative principles that deal in the particulars of local races will do well. For evidence, see Marco Rubio’s successful time as Speaker of the House, Bobby Jindal’s reforms of Louisiana, or Tim Pawlenty’s governance of Minnesota. Republicans are beginning the slow process of learning to speak the language of local issues, which incidentally is why I think that they are well positioned for 2010 and 2012.

    • All well done. You missed my sarcasm in the Conscience of a Conservative statement, I would elaborate but I’m sure all I have to do is say Ronald Reagan was a professional actor.

      • To Doug,

        Now, now. Ronald Reagan was an entertainer who made B movies. He didn’t ruin the country like Carter or this clown we have in now.

  6. To Doug,

    Reagan did not write The Conscience of a Conservative. Barry Goldwater did. Again, Hoffman has not yet lost the race in NY-23, so whether or not I am right remains to be seen. We’ve tried the approach of nominating the candidates that are considered moderate. John McCain, Bob Dole, Gerald Ford, the list goes on and on. These moderates are the ones that have been going down for defeat virtually everywhere they have run. What the country wants is decisive, bold leadership on the issues, not “me too” liberalism.

    The Republicans had their Nixon and much good it did them! Nixon was, by all accounts, a Democrat. He believed in welfare, progressive taxation, price controls, and a socialist draft.

    On to the other races you mentioned,

    In Virginia, even if the black vote had turned out, Deeds would have been walloped. He lost not only because he ran a poor campaign, but because the left has little to offer Virginia other than new tax and spend policies — the very likes of which have bankrupted or nearly bankrupted nearly a dozen states.

    In New Jersey, the six percent for Daggett was more likely disaffected Republicans. (Daggett ran for office before as a Republican.) I think you’re missing the point here, which is that conservative principles that deal in the particulars of local races will do well. For evidence, see Marco Rubio’s successful time as Speaker of the House, Bobby Jindal’s reforms of Louisiana, or Tim Pawlenty’s governance of Minnesota. Republicans are beginning the slow process of learning to speak the language of local issues, which incidentally is why I think that they are well positioned for 2010 and 2012.

    • All well done. You missed my sarcasm in the Conscience of a Conservative statement, I would elaborate but I’m sure all I have to do is say Ronald Reagan was a professional actor.

      • To Doug,

        Now, now. Ronald Reagan was an entertainer who made B movies. He didn’t ruin the country like Carter or this clown we have in now.

  7. Charles, thanks for the comments. I’ll respond to your rebuttal to Doug. You say we’ve tried the more moderate candidates, and that they lost shows the country wants decisive, bold leadership.

    How does that follow, exactly? Did the conservatives/Republicans who wanted a more conservative candidate end up voting for the Democratic candidate? And what about the Republican base that voted for these “moderates” during the primaries?

    Was Eisenhower not a “moderate”? Was Richard Nixon not a “moderate”? He was arguably more liberal in many senses than most recent Democratic presidents! George H. W. Bush wasn’t a “moderate”? And what about the recent Bush? I bet you’d argue he’s hardly conservative.

    So the only “leadership” the county has been seeking is…Ronald Reagan. I’ll grant you he was probably the greatest of all the above Republican presidents. But he’s the only example that provides any evidence for what you are saying.

    On your other points:

    First, (4): my point here was that the way George W. Bush went about it was the WRONG way. I don’t think you understood me here — I was not supporting his policies.

    There’s nothing really to respond to in (2) and (3)…I think Republicans who’d rather lose than be “Democrat-lite” is foolish. Why choose the worst of two evils?

    I’ll admit that Scozzafava does not represent the views of many Reformist Republicans, who themselves are not pro-choice generally, etc. But nevertheless NY-23 is good example of the tensions between the more moderate Republicans and the “conservatives.”

    But my whole argument is that they’re not that different. Reformist Republicans will reduce the size of government and increase individual freedom, but they actually have a chance of succeeding politically. Did Reagan destroy a single government department or agency? He was far more “moderate” when it came to politics than you give him credit for.

    • Ilan,

      If you look at exit polling, a lot of the GOP base stayed home. They didn’t have to vote for the Republican. They could have just stayed home or not voted on the ticket. The point I was referring to was that Reagan had the Reagan Democrats who though they differed with him on policy knew that he was a real leader who could deliver what the country needed at that time.

      As for the Republican base that voted for moderates during these primaries, John McCain had comparatively few votes cast for him in closed primaries. If you just look at the numbers of registered Republicans, he was on his way out until he won in New Hampshire. Romney, by contrast, got second in nearly every race and first in many.

      I don’t think it’s worthwhile to even talk about Eisenhower as the GOP as we know it today came out of Goldwater’s Conscience of a Conservative. Nixon was a mistake for the party, which I think it’s fair to say most people recognize in retrospect. He has no conservative achievements. We nominated Democrat-lite and it won, yes, but at what cost? And in fairness, we absolutely should have beaten Adlai Stevenson and Walter Mondale.

      The country has been looking for a Ronald Reagan like figure. Remember how he was dismissed as an extremist or a nut. He wanted to nuke the world and wasn’t a serious thinker. Well, he showed that he was. (I was also thinking more a Gingrich than a Reagan, though, in fairness.) Yes, neither Reagan nor Gingrich drastically shrank the size of government, but they also changed politics for a generation by creating conservative solutions to serious problems, and not just offering some of the silly solutions of the Grand New Party. They offered real negative liberty, as opposed to this positivist bunk about the middle class and tax cuts (really: subsidies) for children, which worked out so well with the Moynihan report, by the way.

      There are many Republicans that we don’t promote because we play by the rules that somehow we have to win this amorphous center, when in reality all we have to do is turn out our base and peal away a small chunk of the Democrats, which are not by nature united.

      Bush did not go about it in the “right way”? To me that just smacks of not really addressing the question. What is the right way? Why should we be promoting policies that favor the middle class?

      Scozzafava was selected by a committee. She had no primary to run in. That’s not the Republican way. NY-23 is not representative of anything. It was a freak occurrence and we may yet win it.

      Show me an actual “reformist” Republican. It sounds an awful lot like compassionate conservatism. On the final point about Reagan, he failed to reduce government but he grew it at a rate less than population. I’d call that a victory. His failure to capitalize on his successes and decision to anoint the hapless George Bush as his successor is something we are all paying for.

  8. Charles, thanks for the comments. I’ll respond to your rebuttal to Doug. You say we’ve tried the more moderate candidates, and that they lost shows the country wants decisive, bold leadership.

    How does that follow, exactly? Did the conservatives/Republicans who wanted a more conservative candidate end up voting for the Democratic candidate? And what about the Republican base that voted for these “moderates” during the primaries?

    Was Eisenhower not a “moderate”? Was Richard Nixon not a “moderate”? He was arguably more liberal in many senses than most recent Democratic presidents! George H. W. Bush wasn’t a “moderate”? And what about the recent Bush? I bet you’d argue he’s hardly conservative.

    So the only “leadership” the county has been seeking is…Ronald Reagan. I’ll grant you he was probably the greatest of all the above Republican presidents. But he’s the only example that provides any evidence for what you are saying.

    On your other points:

    First, (4): my point here was that the way George W. Bush went about it was the WRONG way. I don’t think you understood me here — I was not supporting his policies.

    There’s nothing really to respond to in (2) and (3)…I think Republicans who’d rather lose than be “Democrat-lite” is foolish. Why choose the worst of two evils?

    I’ll admit that Scozzafava does not represent the views of many Reformist Republicans, who themselves are not pro-choice generally, etc. But nevertheless NY-23 is good example of the tensions between the more moderate Republicans and the “conservatives.”

    But my whole argument is that they’re not that different. Reformist Republicans will reduce the size of government and increase individual freedom, but they actually have a chance of succeeding politically. Did Reagan destroy a single government department or agency? He was far more “moderate” when it came to politics than you give him credit for.

    • Ilan,

      If you look at exit polling, a lot of the GOP base stayed home. They didn’t have to vote for the Republican. They could have just stayed home or not voted on the ticket. The point I was referring to was that Reagan had the Reagan Democrats who though they differed with him on policy knew that he was a real leader who could deliver what the country needed at that time.

      As for the Republican base that voted for moderates during these primaries, John McCain had comparatively few votes cast for him in closed primaries. If you just look at the numbers of registered Republicans, he was on his way out until he won in New Hampshire. Romney, by contrast, got second in nearly every race and first in many.

      I don’t think it’s worthwhile to even talk about Eisenhower as the GOP as we know it today came out of Goldwater’s Conscience of a Conservative. Nixon was a mistake for the party, which I think it’s fair to say most people recognize in retrospect. He has no conservative achievements. We nominated Democrat-lite and it won, yes, but at what cost? And in fairness, we absolutely should have beaten Adlai Stevenson and Walter Mondale.

      The country has been looking for a Ronald Reagan like figure. Remember how he was dismissed as an extremist or a nut. He wanted to nuke the world and wasn’t a serious thinker. Well, he showed that he was. (I was also thinking more a Gingrich than a Reagan, though, in fairness.) Yes, neither Reagan nor Gingrich drastically shrank the size of government, but they also changed politics for a generation by creating conservative solutions to serious problems, and not just offering some of the silly solutions of the Grand New Party. They offered real negative liberty, as opposed to this positivist bunk about the middle class and tax cuts (really: subsidies) for children, which worked out so well with the Moynihan report, by the way.

      There are many Republicans that we don’t promote because we play by the rules that somehow we have to win this amorphous center, when in reality all we have to do is turn out our base and peal away a small chunk of the Democrats, which are not by nature united.

      Bush did not go about it in the “right way”? To me that just smacks of not really addressing the question. What is the right way? Why should we be promoting policies that favor the middle class?

      Scozzafava was selected by a committee. She had no primary to run in. That’s not the Republican way. NY-23 is not representative of anything. It was a freak occurrence and we may yet win it.

      Show me an actual “reformist” Republican. It sounds an awful lot like compassionate conservatism. On the final point about Reagan, he failed to reduce government but he grew it at a rate less than population. I’d call that a victory. His failure to capitalize on his successes and decision to anoint the hapless George Bush as his successor is something we are all paying for.

  9. Indeed, the whole point of my article is that I agree with you that we need a “great communicator” like Ronald Reagan. But he was great because he also knew how to work within the system and he knew how to communicate why conservative policies help people. He didn’t do it JUST on principle. He explained how that principle was better for society and for individuals.

    That said, I agree there are differences between GNPers and “conservatives,” but for the most part there IS a lot of overlap, and the GNPers do promote conservative policies, even if they don’t advocate gutting the entire federal government.

  10. Indeed, the whole point of my article is that I agree with you that we need a “great communicator” like Ronald Reagan. But he was great because he also knew how to work within the system and he knew how to communicate why conservative policies help people. He didn’t do it JUST on principle. He explained how that principle was better for society and for individuals.

    That said, I agree there are differences between GNPers and “conservatives,” but for the most part there IS a lot of overlap, and the GNPers do promote conservative policies, even if they don’t advocate gutting the entire federal government.

  11. Some of us believe that as extremists at both ends of the political spectrum become more vociferous and divisive, more and more Americans will move towards the Center.

    If you’re looking for provocative, but cordial and respectful, discussions and debate on national and international issues, please consider joining our brand-new Centrists Group at Linked In.

    We welcome all who believe consensus is not only desirable, but possible, whatever their party affiliation or lack thereof.

    No Flamers, ranters and ravers, script bots, or clandestine political operatives allowed!

    Please contact me at Linked In for an invitation.

    Thank you so much.

    Ellen Brandt, Ph.D.

  12. Some of us believe that as extremists at both ends of the political spectrum become more vociferous and divisive, more and more Americans will move towards the Center.

    If you’re looking for provocative, but cordial and respectful, discussions and debate on national and international issues, please consider joining our brand-new Centrists Group at Linked In.

    We welcome all who believe consensus is not only desirable, but possible, whatever their party affiliation or lack thereof.

    No Flamers, ranters and ravers, script bots, or clandestine political operatives allowed!

    Please contact me at Linked In for an invitation.

    Thank you so much.

    Ellen Brandt, Ph.D.

  13. I like how Nixon was just termed “Democrat-lite”, because he was a screwup and was a blemish to the party, and yet, if he had been great, you would have been touting him as the best thing since the wheel was invented.

    He was a Republican, and ran as such. Republicans have their rotten apples as well–runs on both sides of the political spectrum, and on no side more than the other.

    • He was effectively a Democrat! Price controls! EPA!
      Come on, how are either of those things conservative?

  14. I like how Nixon was just termed “Democrat-lite”, because he was a screwup and was a blemish to the party, and yet, if he had been great, you would have been touting him as the best thing since the wheel was invented.

    He was a Republican, and ran as such. Republicans have their rotten apples as well–runs on both sides of the political spectrum, and on no side more than the other.

    • He was effectively a Democrat! Price controls! EPA!
      Come on, how are either of those things conservative?

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