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Rand Paul’s Balancing Act

The new senator from Kentucky is not his father’s clone—or is he?

May 30, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 35 • By MATTHEW CONTINETTI
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I was interviewing Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky on February 17, in his temporary office in the Russell building on Capitol Hill, when his chief of staff Doug Stafford entered the room.

Rand Paul, Ron Paul

Rand and Ron Paul, October, 2010

AP / Ed Reinke

“Just giving you about a two-minute warning,” he said. “Maybe five. They’re going to do John McCain’s amendment first, and then yours. Once McCain is speaking, I’ll come in and get you and we can roll right over.”

Paul acknowledged him, then leaned back in his chair. His desk was littered with papers. A portrait of his father, congressman Ron Paul, hung on the wall behind him. A bookshelf was filled with free-market classics. He’d been reflecting on the Tea Party movement in Kentucky. The Tea Party’s amorphous nature, Paul had been saying, was not only a strength but also a weakness. The various groups marching under the Gadsden flag were often at odds. “I want them to coalesce and be the Kentucky Tea Party so they can have more influence,” he said, “and they sort of resist and do things by city.”

The friendly criticism was an illustration of Rand Paul’s approach to politics. In 2010, as an ophthalmologist who had never run for office, Paul was propelled to victory thanks to connections to his father and the Tea Party. As founder of the Senate Tea Party Caucus, he is perhaps more associated with the movement than any other freshman Republican. He has led opposition to renewal of the Patriot Act, quoted Ayn Rand from his seat on the energy committee, called for $500 billion in cuts in discretionary spending this year, said that to believe in a “right” to health care “means you believe in slavery,” and released a plan to balance the budget in five years. Not exactly a shrinking violet.

Yet Paul has a cool and pragmatic streak. He has a talent for networking, coalition building, and political maneuvering that—maybe you’ve noticed—many in the Tea Party and Ron Paul troop lack. While the substance of his positions is barely distinguishable from his father’s, and his goal of “constitutional government” is entirely in accord with the Tea Party, Paul avoids the fiery jeremiads and utopian demands of his allies. He’s willing to talk to and work with people who disagree with him. (Ron Paul’s office did not respond to my requests for an interview.) He realizes that tearing the federal government apart is impracticable. “I’m for incremental change,” he told me.

Take the amendment that Paul was going to support on the Senate floor. “It’s to keep the FAA exempt from OSHA,” he explained. “It’s just another ridiculous thing the Democrats are doing.” The Federal Aviation Administration voluntarily adopts the workplace standards set by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. But the Democrats want to enshrine the regulations in law and punish the FAA when it fails to comply. “There’s nothing to do with safety,” Paul said. “All it has to do with is adding more paperwork to the airlines.” He riffled through some papers. “And I’ve got a list here that I’m going to use on the floor.” He began to read. “Bankruptcies since 2000: TWA, US Air, United Airlines, US Air again, Aloha, Northwest, Delta, MAXjet—I mean, we don’t need to be adding paperwork and expense.”

Stafford appeared in the doorway: Time to go.

We made our way through the labyrinth of tunnels that connect the Senate office buildings to the Capitol. Paul walked with purpose, as if consciously trying to project a senatorial air. Virginia’s junior Democratic senator, Mark Warner, approached from the opposite direction. The two exchanged collegial nods.

Here was another difference between Paul and his father. Whereas Ron Paul is a lone wolf, Rand has quickly developed working relationships with several other senators. Nor is his circle limited to conservative stalwarts like Jim DeMint of South Carolina and Mike Lee of Utah. He’s collaborated with Susan Collins of Maine and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. “Rand is incredibly practical and principled,” Graham told me. “I have found him to be very engaged in trying to build coalitions. He is much more than just saying ‘No.’ ”

The genius of Rand Paul is that, by picking his battles and finessing his message, he earns mainstream credibility without jettisoning his small-government and non-interventionist bonafides. “I think he’s been great,” Brian Doherty told me. Doherty’s an editor at Reason magazine and the author of Radicals for Capitalism, a history of American libertarianism. “He’s been surprisingly excellent as a rhetorician for the ideas.” Doherty’s boss at Reason, editor in chief Matt Welch, has a cover story in the June issue on Paul. “He has done more to inject libertarian ideas into the Washington debate than any senator I can remember,” writes Welch, “all within his first three months in office.” 

For two years now Rand Paul has walked a tightrope between a particular strain of libertarian ideology and an agenda with broad appeal. So far he’s avoided the temptations of both the fringe and the GOP establishment. The rewards will be great if he can keep his balance. Indeed, he could turn out to be one of the most important conservative statesmen in decades.

Despite what you might have heard, the third of Ron and Carol Paul’s five children isn’t named after the bestselling Objectivist writer Ayn Rand. His parents named him Randal, which his wife shortened to Rand. He was born on January 7, 1963, in Pittsburgh. When he was five the Paul family moved to Lake Jackson, Texas.

His childhood was happy. He swam, mowed lawns, and worked at a miniature golf course. “My parents’ love and support has been unconditional,” Paul writes in his book The Tea Party Goes to Washington, “and I remain very much my father’s son.” He questioned authority from an early age. “I think some people are naturally more individualistic than others and are probably born that way,” he told me.

The liberal history taught in school did not impress him. “If I was taught that the Great Depression was caused by capitalism,” he said, “I wanted to know what are the arguments on both sides. I would never take just an answer from a teacher or a professor saying, ‘This is why capitalism failed,’ or ‘This is why the great industrialists were robber barons.’ ” He learned a different narrative from his father.

Rand was 11 years old when his dad ran for Congress for the first time in 1974. Ron Paul lost that race, but won a special election for the same seat in 1976. That year Rand traveled with his family to the Republican convention in Kansas City. His father was one of four congressmen to endorse Ronald Reagan over Gerald Ford. “I’ll always remember that, much like my father today, Reagan in 1976 was considered by many establishment types to be outside the ‘mainstream’ of the Republican party,” he writes. The definition of “mainstream,” he learned, changes over time.

When Rand turned 17, his father gave him the Ayn Rand novels: We the Living, Anthem, The Fountainhead, and Atlas Shrugged. He read them all. As an undergraduate at Baylor University he minored in English. His favorite novelist was Dostoyevsky. He read a lot of poetry. “My favorite poem, I don’t know why, is ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ by Eliot,” he said. His taste in political theory was similar to his father’s: “I read a lot of the other things that influenced libertarian conservatives,” he said. “Bastiat, Murray Rothbard, von Mises, Hayek.”

Rand zipped through Baylor in two years. “I wasn’t a perfect kid,” he said. “I went out and drank beer and probably did some other things, too.” But he was a good student: He got into Duke Medical School, one of the top programs in the country. He wanted to be an eye surgeon. After Duke he interned at a hospital in Atlanta. One day he went to an oyster roast at a friend’s house. He was talking to someone about Dostoyevsky when a young woman joined the conversation. Rand was smitten. He and Kelley Ashby went on their first date the next day and got married a year later, in 1990. They have three sons.

Rand and Kelley settled in Bowling Green, Kentucky, to be near her family. He opened his ophthalmology practice, joined the Lions Club International, and founded Kentucky Taxpayers United, a group devoted to limited government. Mainly, though, he stayed out of the headlines.

The Pauls’ version of libertarianism—Austrian economics married to a noninterventionist foreign policy and a radical critique of centralized government—had few supporters nationwide. In 2005, as Brian Doherty was completing his book on the libertarian movement, he didn’t think it necessary to devote more than a few pages to Ron Paul. “At that point Ron Paul just seemed like this curious little weird outlier,” Doherty said. Rand didn’t rate a mention in Radicals for Capitalism.

What changed things was the Iraq war. The bloody insurgency and sectarian strife that followed the overthrow of Saddam Hussein drained President Bush’s energy and his support at home. The war opened a fissure—small at first—between Beltway Republicans and parts of the conservative grassroots. Young people in particular turned against the conflict. They found one another on YouTube, MySpace, and Facebook. They wondered when Republicans became the party of No Child Left Behind and Medicare Part D. They wanted no part of compassionate conservatism or George W. Bush’s flailing presidency.

The pressure from below built up slowly and steadily. Each new catastrophe—Hurricane Katrina, the nomination of Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court, the Dubai Ports deal, the amnesty immigration bill, congressional spending and corruption—widened the chasm. And by May 15, 2007, at a Fox News Channel presidential debate in Columbia, South Carolina, many of the disaffected had found a spokesman: Ron Paul.

This was Paul’s second run for president. He was the only Republican candidate who opposed the war in Iraq, looked skeptically on the war in Afghanistan, and questioned every other U.S. intervention and alliance. His exchange with Rudy Giuliani at the Columbia debate over the roots of 9/11—Paul argued U.S. foreign policy had invited the attack—seemed to doom his (already slim) chances for the nomination. But the reality was more complicated.

Paul was always a long shot as the antiwar candidate in a pro-war party. What the Giuliani fireworks did, though, was elevate Paul over the other vanity candidates. He stood for something larger than self-regard. The video of the Columbia debate went viral. Money rushed in over the Internet. Paul gained a host of followers—and in the end won more delegates to the 2008 Republican convention than Giuliani.

A candidate and movement so at odds with political norms attracted a diverse and eccentric following. The “Ron Paul Revolution” was populated with truly exotic fauna: pacifists, 9/11 Truthers, Buchananites, and Birchers. Many of Ron Paul’s fans had never been active in the party. A newcomer to Paulism would show up at a rally because he opposed the Iraq war and would depart a newly minted goldbug. “Forty to 45 percent of Americans aren’t voting at all in elections,” Brian Doherty said. “And I definitely get the impression that Ron is drawing a lot from that 40-45 percent.” 

Rand Paul was a surrogate for his father on the campaign trail. He traveled to New Hampshire, Tennessee, Montana, and elsewhere to spread the gospel of sound money, small government, and peace. He was the keynote speaker at a rally in Faneuil Hall in Boston on December 16, 2007, that the Paulists consider the first contemporary “Tea Party.” One thousand people showed up. “We raised $6 million in one day,” Rand said, “and showed that the grassroots could really wake up and do something for a candidate who no one considered to have a chance.”

Nor did he have a chance. Ron Paul ended his campaign in June 2008, having won no caucuses or primaries but come second in several of them. His noninterventionism was too barbed to appeal to a majority of voters. He reminded too many Republicans of a lovable but slightly kooky great-uncle. He was talking about the economy, the Federal Reserve, and how monetary policy fuels unsustainable booms, and no one in the mainstream media paid attention. Paul could never shake off the whiff of the political fringe. He didn’t seem to care.

So he returned to Congress. Rand Paul went home to Bowling Green. And on September 15, 2008, came the great crash.

Not only did the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers vindicate Ron Paul’s warnings about the housing bubble. The financial upheaval also thrust Barack Obama into the White House—and the government’s response to the economic chaos helped create the Tea Party. Ask Rand Paul why he ran for office and he says simply, “The bank bailout.”

President Bush’s decision to back Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson and Fed chairman Ben Bernanke’s TARP program for the banks, and extend bridge loans to GM and Chrysler, unleashed conservative fury at elites in government regardless of party. “We’ve had contradictions before,” Rand said. “But the government owning banks is such a contradiction that it really essentially is part of what started the Tea Party movement.”

In the eyes of Tea Partiers, Obama was not so much a departure from the Bush administration as a consolidation and deepening of it. Obama maintained the bailouts of banks and auto companies. He signed a $1 trillion stimulus into law that followed the $150 billion package Bush had signed in 2008. He built upon No Child Left Behind and Medicare Part D with ambitious plans to reshape education and health care. His immigration policy was the same. His Treasury Department continued Bush’s weak-dollar strategy to promote American exports.

Bernanke maintained negative real interest rates while attempting to reinflate the economy through money creation. Obama institutionalized many of the tools Bush had used in the war on terror, followed the terms of the 2008 status of forces agreement with Iraq, and surged troops into Afghanistan. On economic and foreign policy, the difference between Bush and Obama was a difference of degree, not kind.

The Tea Parties that blossomed in the spring of 2009 suggested to the Pauls that their ideas were gaining traction. Rand visited a Tax Day Tea Party in Bowling Green where 700 people showed up. “It was the biggest political rally I’d ever seen in Bowling Green,” he said. “Our whole downtown was filled.” The energy was palpable. “I knew something big was happening, something was going on in our country.” The mounting debt, growing government, and conservative reaction suggested an opportunity: a bid for the Senate.

Kentucky’s junior senator, baseball legend Jim Bunning, had been flirting with retirement. He’d raised little money for a reelection campaign. His approval rating was dismal. That Kentucky’s senior senator, Republican leader Mitch McConnell, wanted him out was no secret. The Republican president of the state senate, David Williams, told associates he’d like to run. Kentucky’s Republican secretary of state, Trey Grayson, was also interested. Then there was Rand Paul.

Bunning was in the midst of an unpopular struggle to ensure the Senate obeyed pay-as-you-go rules when funding unemployment benefits. He was using senatorial privilege to hold up legislative activity until the benefits were paid for by cuts elsewhere. Rand Paul was one of the few people to support him. “I stood up and said, ‘He’s a good conservative, we don’t need to be pushing him out of office,’ ” Paul told me.

Bunning kept Republicans guessing as to his plans until late July. The waffling deterred Williams from entering the race. So Bunning’s decision not to run left Grayson and Paul as the two possibilities. Grayson was the early favorite. Paul started at 15 percent in the polls.

Grayson realized the race wouldn’t be a cakewalk when he and Paul went to the Fancy Farm picnic, in the far western corner of Kentucky, on the first Saturday in August 2009. The event features old-fashioned stump speeches before a lively audience. The festivities, Grayson told me, are “red-meat oriented. It’s a pressure-filled environment.” All the state media showed up.

So did a lot of Ron and Rand Paul fans. “Rand had a sense of confidence,” Grayson said. At a women’s club luncheon the day before, a heckler had accosted Grayson for meeting with donors and officials in Washington. Grayson was taken aback. “Whoa,” he remembers thinking, “these are sort of guerrilla terrorists.” They weren’t going to let him have an easy ride. Paul followed up his star turn at Fancy Farm with an August 20 “money bomb” that raised $258,000.

What Grayson hadn’t counted on was that the bailouts and spending had soured conservatives on anyone connected to the Beltway. The backing of party stalwarts like Vice President Cheney, Rick Santorum, Rudy Giuliani, Mitch McConnell, and Kentucky congressman Hal Rogers was less a help than a hindrance. Rand Paul’s pedigree gave him entrée to free conservative media on Fox News Channel and talk radio. Donations from the nationwide Ron Paul Revolution freed Rand from time-consuming fundraising. 

The Grayson campaign believed that Paul’s stances on national security would scare Republican voters. The campaign built a website, “Rand Paul’s Strange Ideas,” and criticized Paul on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo, and abortion. Late in the campaign Grayson authorized an ad, which he says he regrets, attacking Paul for raising the possibility of increases in Medicare deductibles and age of eligibility. But nothing stuck.

The primary became a microcosm of divisions within the Republican party—between an establishment entrenched in Washington and new faces who entertained radical solutions to the country’s looming insolvency. Kentucky Republicans worried Paul would bolt the GOP and run as a Libertarian, handing the election to the Democrats. “We didn’t want to engage him too early and drive him out,” Grayson said.

Grayson drew national support from Republicans anxious that Paul’s election would mean one less vote in the Senate for an assertive foreign policy and support for Israel. Grayson raised hundreds of thousands of dollars, he told me, from pro-Israel donors. But national security and Israel were not the most important issues for Kentucky Republicans. The economy, the debt, and opposition to President Obama mattered more. 

Rand Paul, meanwhile, was creating a sort of Tea Party counterestablishment. One of his volunteers sent a letter via registered mail to Sarah Palin’s home in Wasilla, Alaska, asking for her endorsement. The Palin team responded a few days later. They were interested. Before endorsing him, though, Palin called Rand to get a sense of his politics. She asked him about Israel. “I said that Israel was an important ally, the only democracy in the Middle East, and that I would not vote to condemn Israel for defending herself,” he writes. He reassured Palin that his libertarianism did not preclude a pro-life stance on abortion. “Oh, we all have a little libertarian in us,” Palin said. She made her endorsement public on February 1, 2010.

Others followed. Senator Bunning, who had been friendly to Grayson in the past, backed Paul on April 14. “He told me one time,” Paul said, “ ‘If you had told me I was going to do this a year ago I would have said you’re crazy.’ ” In early May, days before the primary, Senator Jim DeMint endorsed Paul as well.

The primary was May 18. The old rules of politics counted for little in a post-crash, post-TARP context. “My last commercial had McConnell looking at the camera saying, ‘I need Trey Grayson in Washington,’ ” Grayson said. “The voters didn’t care about that.” He lost by 24 points.

What Sean Hannity dubbed the “Randslide” vaulted Paul to the frontlines of American politics. And he almost bombed. On May 19 he woke up at 4 a.m. to give the first of 15 interviews that day to national media. His last, in the evening, was with Rachel Maddow of MSNBC. Paul wasn’t prepared for Maddow’s line of questioning: whether the candidate believed the U.S. Civil Rights Act of 1964 should be repealed, and under what conditions private businesses might discriminate against customers on the basis of sex, race, or religion. Paul has never said the Civil Rights Act should be overturned. But he did engage Maddow in a theoretical and entirely self-defeating discussion of freedom of contract and association in a libertarian utopia.

The interview was the closest Paul has come to sacrificing his potential on the altar of libertarian dogma. He canceled an appearance on Meet the Press and other interviews to rest, regroup, and attend his son’s confirmation. The blow was damaging but not fatal. Paul’s Democratic opponent, Kentucky attorney general Jack Conway, blasted him on civil rights and entitlements. When those issues failed to gain traction, Conway went after Paul’s religious faith, questioning his commitment to Christianity on the basis of a stunt he pulled in college.

Paul was disgusted. “I’m 48 years old,” he told me. “I’ve been married for 20 years. I have three kids. We have a president who wrote a book about doing crack, we’ve had Supreme Court justices who’ve said they smoked pot. I thought we were sort of at an age where people weren’t going to go back and ask you what you did in college.”

Kentucky voters felt the same way. The Conway fusillade did nothing to change the debate over the Obama agenda. In fact, the desperation and ultimate futility of the Conway campaign highlighted Rand Paul’s political guile. Try as they might, Paul’s opponents in both the Republican and Democratic parties have been unable to exile him to the borderlands where conservatism mingles with conspiracism.

This inability is particularly frustrating because Paul and his father share core beliefs. “We both believe in limited, constitutional government, that government should be much smaller than it is now, that government should balance its budget every year and we should have honest money, and that we should have a sensible, reasonable foreign policy,” Rand told a New Hampshire voter in late April. “That means our primary focus is to defend our country, that we don’t let anyone attack our country, that we are forthright in trying to prevent terrorist attacks on our country, but that we’re not going to war without congressional debate or without congressional authority.”

The younger Paul situates that philosophy within the broader traditions of Republican and American politics. His differences with his father lie entirely in approach. He and his dad, he told me, are “different people” with “different ways of presenting things.”

This commonsensical strategy is a boon for the Paulists and other advocates of limited government. But it is also a challenge for conservatives who believe that a preponderance of American power and a forward-leaning foreign policy are necessary to secure global public goods and maintain international stability. A Democratic president and a looming fiscal crisis have made the environment friendly to Republicans eager to scale back America’s foreign commitments and cut defense spending.

Foreign policy used to be the ceiling that prevented Ron Paul from breaking into the Republican mainstream. But, whereas Ron Paul criticizes U.S. interventionism in tropes familiar to the left—anti-imperial blowback, manipulation by neocons, moral equivalence—Rand Paul merely says America doesn’t have the money. “I think we do need to go back to a constitutional foreign policy,” he told another New Hampshire voter, “which would include some savings by not being everywhere all the time.”

He added that he would shut down “some” overseas military bases. But, he told me, he would never vote against the troops: “Even in Iraq and Afghanistan, where I think we should be diminishing what we’re doing and coming home, I’m not going to vote for no funding.”

Then there’s his position on foreign assistance. Ron Paul has raised the specter of the “Israel Lobby,” voted against condemning the United Nations for its scurrilous Goldstone Report on the 2008 Gaza war, and declared America should be neutral between Israel and the Palestinians. Rand Paul simply says sorry, we can’t afford the aid. “We can’t give away money to any country, even to our allies,” he told me. “I think Israel is our friend. I’m not making any political statement about our continued friendship to Israel.”

Israel, Paul suggested, actually would be better off without American aid. “There was an article written that quoted a lot of people from Israel who think that it ties Israel’s hands, it makes Israel dependent, and that they lose some of their sovereignty because if you’re a vassal state that depends on [American] money, then you have trouble because the United States can tell you what to do all the time,” he said. “So it really has nothing to do with Israel to my mind.”

Paul’s adamant refusal to pursue ideological dead-ends—with the glaring exception of the Rachel Maddow slip—is part of the reason he defeated Jack Conway by 12 points on Election Day 2010. It’s also why there’s no telling where he may end up. One day I asked Paul if he could see himself carrying his father’s banner and running for the Republican presidential nomination.

“We’ll see,” he said softly.

On April 28, Paul went to the Merrimack County Republican Committee breakfast at a Holiday Inn in Concord, New Hampshire. For a moment, though, it seemed like the crowd had bought tickets for the Rand Paul Comedy Hour. “I’ve come to New Hampshire today because I’m very concerned,” he said. “I want to see the original, long-form certificate of Donald Trump’s Republican registration.”

Big laughs.

“You all remember Tip O’Neill,” Paul went on, “who was in Washington for many years. And he was famous for saying that all politics is local. One time he walked into a room, and his aide was with him, and he said, ‘Who’s that?’ And the aide said, ‘That’s John Smith.’ And O’Neill walked up to him and said, ‘John, how’re you doing, how’ve you been, how’s your back?’ And the aide was amazed. He said, ‘You didn’t even remember his name. How’d you remember he had a back problem?’ And O’Neill said, ‘Well, son, everybody’s got a back problem.’ ”

Rimshot.

“I go to a lot of buffets,” Paul said. “And this was at a Rotary buffet in Paducah the other day. There was a guy in front of me with two big plates of food. He was filling up a third plate. The guy next to him said, ‘You’re not going to live very long eating like that.’ And he said, ‘Well, my granddad lived to be 103.’ The guy looked back at him and said, ‘He didn’t live to 103 eating like that.’ And he said, ‘Nope. He lived to 103 by minding his own business.’ ”

The country would be better off, Paul went on, if the government minded its own business, too. His speech touched on the deficit, the debt, and the necessity for compromise. But it’s a specifc type of compromise that Paul is interested in: “The compromise is really in where we cut spending.” The budget can’t be balanced unless we’re willing to cut defense and entitlement programs. The House budget resolution authored by Representative Paul Ryan, he continued, doesn’t achieve balance quickly enough. “I like a lot of what Paul Ryan’s doing,” Paul said, but “his 10-year plan adds about $6 trillion” to the debt. 

Paul ended his speech with a not-so-subtle appeal. “What I would ask,” he said, “is let’s look to Republicans who not only talk the talk but walk the walk. Let’s look to Republicans who said ‘these are problems’ when the housing bubble was rising, who predicted the coming housing decline, the people who have been talking about the Federal Reserve, and talking about our budgetary problems. And I think if we do, if we find the right candidate, I see no reason why we can’t win in 2012.”

The committeemen applauded enthusiastically.

After the speech and Q&A, Paul mingled with the crowd. A man approached me and introduced himself as New Hampshire Republican state representative Norm Tregenza. “Who do you write for?” he asked.

“The Weekly Standard,” I said.

“Ah,” he said. He looked slightly taken aback. “I read The New American.”

“What’s that?” I asked.

“It’s the magazine of the John Birch Society,” Tregenza said. He explained how the Birchers are growing. They’d helped organize the December 2007 Tea Party at Fanueil Hall where Rand Paul gave his famous speech. And there are several other members of the John Birch Society in the New Hampshire legislature. (New Hampshire has 400 state representatives.)

Every now and then, during my conversation with Tregenza, I glanced at Rand Paul as he worked the room. He signed autographs, posed for photos, and talked to reporters. He’s a personable, non-imposing figure, of average height, and as he listened to other people talk he would roll back and forth on the balls of his feet, as though he were trying to keep his balance.

The tic was revealing. Holding steady in a turbulent world isn’t easy. There are so many choices. And it takes only one false step to plunge off the edge.

Matthew Continetti is opinion editor of The Weekly Standard.

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