American dynasty

The US is a country formed in rebellion against dynasty. So why are 18 members of the country's Senate family legacies?

We Americans know that the head of state in a monarchy is an inherited position. But we rebelled against that system and created a republic, in which men (and later women) would be chosen to lead the republic on the basis of their own accomplishments, not their family ties. Sure, we had the Adamses, and we may well be fortunate that neither George Washington nor Thomas Jefferson had a son. And there are other dynasties, often combined to one state, like the Longs of Louisiana and the Breckinridges of Kentucky. Representative Rodney Frelinghuysen is the sixth member of his family to represent New Jersey in Congress, dating back to the 18th century. One of his ancestors inspired the classic campaign song, "Hurrah, hurrah, the country's risin'/For Henry Clay and Frelinghuysen!"

And today, of course, we face the prospect of replacing the son of a president in the White House with the wife of a president. We may have 24 or more years of Bush-Clinton-Bush-Clinton. One leading Republican strategist has recommended that Florida governor Jeb Bush run for president this year, on the grounds in this of all years he won't lose points for being a dynastic candidate: what are they going to say, "don't vote for the president's brother, vote for the other president's wife instead"?

Lynne Cheney, whose husband served as a congressman from Wyoming before becoming vice president; state house majority floor leader Colin Simpson, the son of former senator Alan Simpson; and two of Thomas's three sons, Greg and Patrick.

Posted on March 28, 2014  Posted to The Guardian,United States

An unsuitable job

US elections 2008: If John McCain wins the nomination, he shouldn't put a foreign policy novice like Mike Huckabee a heartbeat away from the presidency

With John McCain's narrow wins in New Hampshire and South Carolina making him a shaky Republican frontrunner, people have engaged in some absurdly early speculation as to whom he might choose as a running mate. One early favourite is former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, the darling of the evangelicals. But if McCain is the man he and his supporters say he is, he won't do that to the country.

McCain's official campaign biography says: "As the son and grandson of distinguished Navy admirals, John McCain deeply values duty, honour and service of country." That's the theme of his campaign. His determination to prove his own integrity inspired his decade-long fight to impose strict new regulations on campaign finance. Told that his support for the Iraq war might doom his presidential candidacy, McCain repeatedly says: "I'd rather lose an election than a war." Newspaper endorsements, like this one from the State in South Carolina, echo those sentiments:

John McCain has shown more clearly than anyone on the American political scene today that he loves his country, and would never mislead or dishonour it. He is almost unique in his determination to do what is right, whatever the cost.

Posted on March 28, 2014  Posted to Foreign Policy,John McCain,Mike Huckabee,The Guardian,United States

Sex, religion and conservatives

Why do conservatives support laws against discrimination for characteristics that they approve of, but not for characteristics they don't approve of?

In their attempt to oppose laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation (that is, laws supporting gay rights) while supporting other such laws, conservatives have long tied themselves in knots. You shouldn't compare antigay discrimination to racial discrimination, they said, because race is an immutable characteristic, while homosexuality is a chosen behavior. Thus it's appropriate to ban discrimination on the basis of race. And also, they'll allow, all the other characteristics protected in the US by the 1964 Civil Rights Act - race, color, religion, sex and national origin.

But wait a minute, I used to say to conservatives. It's obvious to thinking people that sexual orientation isn't chosen - it may be genetic or environmental, but it certainly isn't chosen. As far as the individual is concerned, it's an innate or immutable characteristic. So if that's your standard, then discrimination against gays is just as unreasonable as discrimination against blacks. (Yes, conservatives could counter that orientation might be immutable, but sexual behavior is still chosen. Sort of like saying that you might be born Jewish, but you could stay in the closet and not practice your faith, and then you wouldn't suffer any discrimination.) And meanwhile, religion is a chosen behavior. Right? In most Christian churches, you must make a conscious decision to join the church, and that decision is normally made after reaching the age of reason.

Posted on March 28, 2014  Posted to Conservatives,Equality,Gay rights,Religion,The Guardian,United States

Jim Webb’s identity-based populism

The potential vice-presidential candidate supports liberal economic policies because of his Scots-Irish heritage

Richard Just at the New Republic magazine is not impressed with Virginia senator Jim Webb as a running mate for Barack Obama. Webb is fundamentally illiberal, he writes, a misogynist and an ethnic nationalist and "something of an apologist for the Confederacy." So why do lots of liberals like Webb, Just asks. "In the years since he left the Republican party, Webb has found his way to certain policy stands that liberals correctly find attractive. He was right about Iraq, and, on economics, he is right to criticise the disparity between rich and poor." Just can't figure out how a fundamentally illiberal Scots-Irish nationalist can arrive at all those good liberal tax-hiking, big-spending, trade-restricting positions that "liberals" like.

But in fact Webb's liberal positions on economic issues stem directly from his self-image as an oppressed working-class white man. When I read his book Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America, I was struck by how it burned with a passionate hatred of the English in both England and America, who in Webb's view had been keeping his people down for hundreds of years. Throughout the book he complains about "the Wasp hierarchy" and the "Cavalier aristocracy" from which the hard-working Scots-Irish have been systematically excluded. Just notes that too: "Perhaps the most unappealing thing about Webb's worldview is that it seems to be built largely on resentment. In his book Born Fighting, you can practically feel the resentment coming off the page."

Posted on March 28, 2014  Posted to Race issues,The Guardian,United States,US economic growth and recession,US elections 2008,US politics

Obama’s shock doctrine

On the economy, Obama is trying to scare the American people in order to ram through a progressive agenda

"Profound economic emergency," the president says. Failure to pass his spending plan could "turn a crisis into a catastrophe". Any delay will mean "paralysis" and "disaster". It's all out of the "shock doctrine" playbook: scare people to death and then demand that your agenda be enacted without delay.

Naomi Klein made waves two years ago with her book The Shock Doctrine, in which she claimed that conservative governments use crises to ram through free-market policies. As she put it in an interview: "The Shock Doctrine is a political strategy that the Republican right has been perfecting over the past 35 years to use for various different kinds of shocks. They could be wars, natural disasters, economic crises, anything that sends a society into a state of shock to push through what economists call 'economic shock therapy' rapid-fire, pro-corporate policies that they couldn't get through if people weren't in a state of fear and panic."

And that's just what we're seeing today only in reverse.

Last year the US economy was hit with one shock after another: the Bear Stearns bail-out, the Indymac collapse, the implosion of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the AIG nationalisation, the biggest stock market drop ever, the $700bn Wall Street bail-out and more all accompanied by a steady drumbeat of apocalyptic language from political leaders.

And what happened? Did the Republican administration summon up the spirit of Milton Friedman and cut government spending? Did it deregulate and privatise?

No.

It did what governments actually do in a crisis it seized new powers over the economy. It dramatically expanded the regulatory powers of the Federal Reserve and injected a trillion dollars of inflationary credit into the banking system. It partially nationalised the biggest banks. It appropriated $700bn with which to intervene in the economy. It made General Motors and Chrysler wards of the federal government. It wrote a bail-out bill giving the secretary of the treasury extraordinary powers that could not be reviewed by courts or other government agencies.

Now the Obama administration is continuing this drive toward centralisation and government domination of the economy. And its key players are explicitly referring to heir own version of the shock doctrine. Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff, said the economic crisis facing the country is "an opportunity for us". After all, he said: "You never want a serious crisis to go to waste. And this crisis provides the opportunity for us to do things that you could not do before" such as taking control of the financial, energy, information and healthcare industries.

That's just the sort of thing Naomi Klein would have us believe that free-marketers like Milton Friedman think. "Some people stockpile canned goods and water in preparation for major disasters," Klein wrote. "Friedmanites stockpile free-market ideas." But that is exactly what American left-liberals have been doing in anticipation of a Democratic administration coming to power at a time when the public might be frightened into accepting more government than it normally would. For instance, the Centre for American Progress, run by John Podesta, who was President Bill Clinton's chief of staff and President-elect Obama's transition director, has just released Change for America: A Progressive Blueprint for the 44th President.

Paul Krugman, the Bush-bashing New York Times columnist, endorsed Emanuel's enthusiasm: "Progressives hope that the Obama administration, like the New Deal, will respond to the current economic and financial crisis by creating institutions, especially a universal healthcare system, that will change the shape of American society for generations to come."

Arianna Huffington had called Klein's book "prophetic". As the Obama team began drawing up plans, she proved just how right she was, declaring: "A crisis is a terrible thing to waste. And it might be this particular crisis that will make it possible for the Obama administration to do some really innovative, bold things on healthcare, on energy independence, on all the areas that have been neglected."

None of this should surprise us. It's crazy to think that most governments will respond to a crisis by reducing their own powers and deregulating the economy, as Klein would have us believe. Political leaders naturally respond to crisis by riding in as the man on the white horse and taking control.

As Rick Perlstein, liberal historian, wrote: "The Oval Office's most effective inhabitants have always understood [that a crisis is the best opportunity to make radical change]. Franklin D Roosevelt hurled down executive orders and legislative proposals like thunderbolts during his first hundred days, hardly slowing down for another four years before his window slammed shut; Lyndon Johnson, aided by John F Kennedy's martyrdom and the landslide of 1964, legislated at such a breakneck pace his aides were in awe. Both presidents understood that there are too many choke points our minority-enabling constitutional system, our national tendency toward individualism and our concentration of vested interests to make change possible any other way."

Robert Higgs, the libertarian historian, is less enthusiastic. In Crisis and Leviathan, he demonstrated that government growth in the US has not been slow and steady, year in and year out. Rather, its scope and power tend to shoot up during wars and economic crises.

Occasionally, around the world, there have been instances where a crisis led to free-market reforms, such as the economic reforms in Britain and New Zealand in response to deteriorating economic conditions. Generally, though, governments seek to expand their power, and they take advantage of crises to do so. But they rarely spell their intentions out as clearly as Rahm Emanuel did.

Posted on March 28, 2014  Posted to Barack Obama,Books,Democrats,Global recession,Obama administration,Republicans,The Guardian,United States,US economic growth and recession,US economy,US politics,World news

A belief that dare not speak its name

There seems to be a dearth of prominent atheists in America. Can there really be just one in Hollywood?

News flash: an American congressman has acknowledged that he is not a religious believer. That's one out of 535. Pete Stark, a leftwing Democrat from the San Francisco Bay Area, says he is a "a Unitarian who does not believe in a supreme being." The old joke is that Unitarians believe there is, at most, one God. But really, if you're not a believer, why join a religion? Oh well, many of Pete Stark's ideas are incomprehensible to me.

So the American Humanist Association celebrated the discovery of a nontheistic member of Congress by taking out an expensive quarter-page ad in the Washington Post. (It's in colour online but not in the newspaper.) The ad notes that Stark and other humanistic, nontheistic Americans are in good company and includes photographs of some other impressive nontheists.

Posted on March 26, 2014  Posted to Religion,The Guardian,United States

David Boaz: In Obama’s economic stimulus push, we’re seeing Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine in reverse

On the economy, Obama is trying to scare the American people in order to ram through a progressive agenda

"Profound economic emergency," the president says. Failure to pass his spending plan could "turn a crisis into a catastrophe". Any delay will mean "paralysis" and "disaster". It's all out of the "shock doctrine" playbook: scare people to death and then demand that your agenda be enacted without delay.

Naomi Klein made waves two years ago with her book The Shock Doctrine, in which she claimed that conservative governments use crises to ram through free-market policies. As she put it in an interview: "The Shock Doctrine is a political strategy that the Republican right has been perfecting over the past 35 years to use for various different kinds of shocks. They could be wars, natural disasters, economic crises, anything that sends a society into a state of shock to push through what economists call 'economic shock therapy' – rapid-fire, pro-corporate policies that they couldn't get through if people weren't in a state of fear and panic."

And that's just what we're seeing today – only in reverse.

Last year the US economy was hit with one shock after another: the Bear Stearns bail-out, the Indymac collapse, the implosion of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the AIG nationalisation, the biggest stock market drop ever, the $700bn Wall Street bail-out and more – all accompanied by a steady drumbeat of apocalyptic language from political leaders.

And what happened? Did the Republican administration summon up the spirit of Milton Friedman and cut government spending? Did it deregulate and privatise?

No.

It did what governments actually do in a crisis – it seized new powers over the economy. It dramatically expanded the regulatory powers of the Federal Reserve and injected a trillion dollars of inflationary credit into the banking system. It partially nationalised the biggest banks. It appropriated $700bn with which to intervene in the economy. It made General Motors and Chrysler wards of the federal government. It wrote a bail-out bill giving the secretary of the treasury extraordinary powers that could not be reviewed by courts or other government agencies.

Now the Obama administration is continuing this drive toward centralisation and government domination of the economy. And its key players are explicitly referring to heir own version of the shock doctrine. Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff, said the economic crisis facing the country is "an opportunity for us". After all, he said: "You never want a serious crisis to go to waste. And this crisis provides the opportunity for us to do things that you could not do before" such as taking control of the financial, energy, information and healthcare industries.

That's just the sort of thing Naomi Klein would have us believe that free-marketers like Milton Friedman think. "Some people stockpile canned goods and water in preparation for major disasters," Klein wrote. "Friedmanites stockpile free-market ideas." But that is exactly what American left-liberals have been doing in anticipation of a Democratic administration coming to power at a time when the public might be frightened into accepting more government than it normally would. For instance, the Centre for American Progress, run by John Podesta, who was President Bill Clinton's chief of staff and President-elect Obama's transition director, has just released Change for America: A Progressive Blueprint for the 44th President.

Paul Krugman, the Bush-bashing New York Times columnist, endorsed Emanuel's enthusiasm: "Progressives hope that the Obama administration, like the New Deal, will respond to the current economic and financial crisis by creating institutions, especially a universal healthcare system, that will change the shape of American society for generations to come."

Arianna Huffington had called Klein's book "prophetic". As the Obama team began drawing up plans, she proved just how right she was, declaring: "A crisis is a terrible thing to waste. And it might be this particular crisis that will make it possible for the Obama administration to do some really innovative, bold things on healthcare, on energy independence, on all the areas that have been neglected."

None of this should surprise us. It's crazy to think that most governments will respond to a crisis by reducing their own powers and deregulating the economy, as Klein would have us believe. Political leaders naturally respond to crisis by riding in as the man on the white horse and taking control.

As Rick Perlstein, liberal historian, wrote: "The Oval Office's most effective inhabitants have always understood [that a crisis is the best opportunity to make radical change]. Franklin D Roosevelt hurled down executive orders and legislative proposals like thunderbolts during his first hundred days, hardly slowing down for another four years before his window slammed shut; Lyndon Johnson, aided by John F Kennedy's martyrdom and the landslide of 1964, legislated at such a breakneck pace his aides were in awe. Both presidents understood that there are too many choke points – our minority-enabling constitutional system, our national tendency toward individualism and our concentration of vested interests – to make change possible any other way."

Robert Higgs, the libertarian historian, is less enthusiastic. In Crisis and Leviathan, he demonstrated that government growth in the US has not been slow and steady, year in and year out. Rather, its scope and power tend to shoot up during wars and economic crises.

Occasionally, around the world, there have been instances where a crisis led to free-market reforms, such as the economic reforms in Britain and New Zealand in response to deteriorating economic conditions. Generally, though, governments seek to expand their power, and they take advantage of crises to do so. But they rarely spell their intentions out as clearly as Rahm Emanuel did.


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Posted on February 12, 2009  Posted to Barack Obama,Books,Comment,Comment is free,Democrats,Global recession,guardian.co.uk,Obama administration,Republicans,The Guardian,United States,US economic growth and recession,US economy,US politics,World news

David Boaz: Jim Webb’s identity-based economic populism

The potential vice-presidential candidate supports liberal economic policies because of his Scots-Irish heritage

Richard Just at the New Republic magazine is not impressed with Virginia senator Jim Webb as a running mate for Barack Obama. Webb is fundamentally illiberal, he writes, a misogynist and an ethnic nationalist and "something of an apologist for the Confederacy." So why do lots of liberals like Webb, Just asks. "In the years since he left the Republican party, Webb has found his way to certain policy stands that liberals correctly find attractive. He was right about Iraq, and, on economics, he is right to criticise the disparity between rich and poor." Just can't figure out how a fundamentally illiberal Scots-Irish nationalist can arrive at all those good liberal tax-hiking, big-spending, trade-restricting positions that "liberals" like.

But in fact Webb's liberal positions on economic issues stem directly from his self-image as an oppressed working-class white man. When I read his book Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America, I was struck by how it burned with a passionate hatred of the English in both England and America, who in Webb's view had been keeping his people down for hundreds of years. Throughout the book he complains about "the Wasp hierarchy" and the "Cavalier aristocracy" from which the hard-working Scots-Irish have been systematically excluded. Just notes that too: "Perhaps the most unappealing thing about Webb's worldview is that it seems to be built largely on resentment. In his book Born Fighting, you can practically feel the resentment coming off the page."

Webb complains that affirmative action "focused only on the disadvantages that had accrued to blacks," while "the white cultures whose ancestors had gained the least benefit from the elitist social structure" were "grouped together with the veneer that had formed the aristocracy." Webb points out that in a landmark 1974 study from the National Opinion Research Centre, family incomes among different white ethnic groups varied far more than the black-white differential. White Protestants other than Episcopalians were at the bottom of the income rankings. White Baptists had an educational level at the same level as black Americans and far below that of Jews. A later NORC study, he went on to write, showed that as late as 2000 white Baptists and "Irish Protestants" had less educational attainment than the national average.

And the whole tone of Webb's discussion is not "Maybe we should have done less fighting and drinking and more reading." Rather, it's: "The English have kept us down." His complaint about affirmative action is not that blacks (and other racial minorities) get it. It's that his people don't.

In a Wall Street Journal column just after his election to the Senate, Webb applied his identity-based politics to current political issues. He complained about "our society's steady drift toward a class-based system," in which the rich make millions while workers face "stagnant wages and disappearing jobs" in an era of globalisation. In his campaign he called for ensuring that "free trade becomes fair trade."

Jim Webb supports Richard Just's economic policies because he is a burning mass of ethnic resentment. Maybe liberals should worry about that.


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Posted on June 20, 2008  Posted to Comment,Comment is free,guardian.co.uk,Race issues,The Guardian,United States,US economic growth and recession,US elections 2008,US politics

Sex, religion and conservatives

Why do conservatives support laws against discrimination for characteristics that they approve of, but not for characteristics they don't approve of?

In their attempt to oppose laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation (that is, laws supporting gay rights) while supporting other such laws, conservatives have long tied themselves in knots. You shouldn't compare antigay discrimination to racial discrimination, they said, because race is an immutable characteristic, while homosexuality is a chosen behavior. Thus it's appropriate to ban discrimination on the basis of race. And also, they'll allow, all the other characteristics protected in the US by the 1964 Civil Rights Act - race, color, religion, sex and national origin.

But wait a minute, I used to say to conservatives. It's obvious to thinking people that sexual orientation isn't chosen - it may be genetic or environmental, but it certainly isn't chosen. As far as the individual is concerned, it's an innate or immutable characteristic. So if that's your standard, then discrimination against gays is just as unreasonable as discrimination against blacks. (Yes, conservatives could counter that orientation might be immutable, but sexual behavior is still chosen. Sort of like saying that you might be born Jewish, but you could stay in the closet and not practice your faith, and then you wouldn't suffer any discrimination.) And meanwhile, religion is a chosen behavior. Right? In most Christian churches, you must make a conscious decision to join the church, and that decision is normally made after reaching the age of reason.

Thus, it seems, conservatives are doubly wrong: They say that discrimination on the basis of immutable characteristics should be banned, but discrimination on the basis of chosen behavior should not. But they are wrong to say that sexual orientation is chosen, and wrong to imply that religion is immutable like race.

But then there's a twist: In fact, it always seemed to me, religion isn't really chosen. Most people join the church their parents attend. If your parents are Catholic, so are you. If your parents are Baptist, so are you. We see this in ethnic/religious disputes from Iraq to Serbia to Northern Ireland to India, where it's hard to distinguish between ethnic groups and adherents to particular religions. But we also see it among Americans who practice the faith of their fathers and often attend the actual church where their great-grandparents worshiped. So maybe the conservatives can reasonably consider religion to be biological or innate.

But now a massive new study from the Pew Research Center tells us that I was right all along, and the conservatives are indeed doubly wrong. Many people, at least in the United States, do change their religion. Indeed, it appears that 44% of Americans have switched religious affiliations, either to join another religion or to drop any religious affiliation.

So we're back where we started: Conservatives support legal protection against discrimination for chosen characteristics that they approve, but not for characteristics they don't approve of. It's not a matter of logical categories.


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Posted on February 29, 2008  Posted to Comment,Comment is free,Conservatives,Equality,Gay rights,guardian.co.uk,Religion,The Guardian,United States

An unsuitable job

US elections 2008: If John McCain wins the nomination, he shouldn't put a foreign policy novice like Mike Huckabee a heartbeat away from the presidency

With John McCain's narrow wins in New Hampshire and South Carolina making him a shaky Republican frontrunner, people have engaged in some absurdly early speculation as to whom he might choose as a running mate. One early favourite is former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, the darling of the evangelicals. But if McCain is the man he and his supporters say he is, he won't do that to the country.

McCain's official campaign biography says: "As the son and grandson of distinguished Navy admirals, John McCain deeply values duty, honour and service of country." That's the theme of his campaign. His determination to prove his own integrity inspired his decade-long fight to impose strict new regulations on campaign finance. Told that his support for the Iraq war might doom his presidential candidacy, McCain repeatedly says: "I'd rather lose an election than a war." Newspaper endorsements, like this one from the State in South Carolina, echo those sentiments:

John McCain has shown more clearly than anyone on the American political scene today that he loves his country, and would never mislead or dishonour it. He is almost unique in his determination to do what is right, whatever the cost.

McCain will also be 72 years old if he is inaugurated a year from now, however, making him the oldest man ever to enter the White House. He likes to talk about his 95-year-old mother to illustrate his good genes, but the presidency is a very stressful job, there are indeed terrorists out to get the American president, five and a half years in a North Vietnamese prison can't be good for your health and he has had a bout with skin cancer. Furthermore, his mother's age notwithstanding, his father died at 70 and his grandfather at 61. So he has to recognise the possibility at least that he might not serve out his term. At a time of international turmoil, it is essential that a president, especially one so committed to duty, honour and country, leave the country in capable hands in that eventuality.

Could McCain honourably serve his country by putting Mike Huckabee a heartbeat from the presidency? There's some political plausibility. Huckabee is younger. He would reassure religious conservatives who might be sceptical of McCain. He's a charming and effective campaigner.

But from a policy perspective, he's a conservative candidate who is also a big-spending nanny statist. He bills himself as a "Christian leader" and says that his rise in the polls can only be attributed to God's will. As I wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle: "Huckabee doesn't just want a government that will stamp out sin. He wants a government that will worry about your body as much as your soul." He says that "it is government's responsibility to try to create a culture of health", including pressuring employers to "encourage" healthier lifestyles among their employees. He wants a federal ban on smoking in the workplace and other public places. He's even threatened to ban cigarettes altogether. He wants federal regulation of local schools and restaurant menus.

But more importantly for McCain, Huckabee has no experience and apparently no knowledge of foreign policy. When the journal Foreign Affairs inexplicably asked him for an essay, he wrote about the "Bush administration's arrogant bunker mentality" - and then, when his remarks were reported, he ran away from them. He demonstrated his minimal knowledge about Pakistan in his remarks on Benazir Bhutto's assassination. He spouts the usual nonsense about energy independence and veiled protectionist rhetoric like "We can't have free trade if it's not fair trade." When asked about the blockbuster National Intelligence Estimate on Iran's nuclear capability, he said that "nobody's going to be able, if they've been campaigning as hard as we have been, to keep up with every single thing, from what happened to Britney last night to who won Dancing with the Stars."

To be sure, neither Bill Clinton nor George Bush had much foreign policy experience as governor either (and we've seen how well that worked out), but Huckabee seems to have far less background even than they did.

It's hard to imagine that a man who values national security and his own duty as much as McCain does would put a self-styled "Christian leader" who doesn't read foreign policy stories in the newspaper a heartbeat from the Oval Office.

For more blogs on the US elections, click here.


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Posted on January 24, 2008  Posted to Comment,Comment is free,Foreign Policy,guardian.co.uk,John McCain,Mike Huckabee,The Guardian,United States

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