Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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January 31, 2008

OBAMA'S THE #1 LIB?....Be prepared to hear about this, over and over again, for quite a while. If Barack Obama wins the Democratic nomination, it will be the staple of every Republican stump speech between now and Election Day.

Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., was the most liberal senator in 2007, according to National Journal's 27th annual vote ratings. The insurgent presidential candidate shifted further to the left last year in the run-up to the primaries, after ranking as the 16th- and 10th-most-liberal during his first two years in the Senate.

If all of this sounds a little familiar, it's because in 2004, National Journal named John Kerry the most liberal senator of 2004 (John Edwards was fourth), which became one of the principal talking points of the Bush-Cheney campaign, repeated at literally every campaign rally for months.

Already, this is getting plenty of play, and for all I know, this might even help Obama in the primaries, because there are plenty of liberal Democrats out there who want some reassurance that Obama really does stand with them.

But before anyone takes the National Journal rankings at face value, it's worth noting how very flawed the methodology is. Indeed, it was misleading in 2004, and it's equally misleading now.

Taking a closer look at this year's results, Obama and Joe Biden were both considered more liberal than Russ Feingold and Bernie Sanders. This, alone, should make one wonder about the reliability of the rankings.

Better yet, National Journal's press release on the rankings noted the criteria was based on 99 key roll-call votes last year: "Obama voted the liberal position on 65 of the 66 votes in which he participated, while Clinton voted the liberal position on 77 of 82 votes." So, Clinton voted for the liberal position 77 times, Obama voted for it 65 times, which makes Obama the chamber's single most liberal member. Got it.

What's more, Obama was the 16th most liberal senator in 2005, and the 10th most liberal in 2006, before racing to the front of the pack in 2007. National Journal suggests this has something to do with Obama moving to the left to curry favor with Democratic primary voters.

But there's a more logical explanation: Obama missed a whole lot of votes in 2007 -- he's been on the campaign trail -- but was on the floor for many of the biggest, most consequential votes. In nearly every instance, he voted with the party. And with that, voila! The most liberal senator in America.

Except that's not much of a standard. The rankings use an amorphous meaning of the word "liberal," and the percentage doesn't take missed votes into account at all (which also helps explain why Kerry nabbed the top spot four years ago)

But none of that is going to matter for the rest of the campaign. The Republican National Committee has already issued a statement and, one assumes, every far-right outlet in the country will soon do the same.

That, of course, doesn't make it legit. As Brian Beutler noted, [T]his is philistinism masquerading as social science -- it's the U.S. News College Guide of Washington politics. Journalists ought to understand that. And those of conscience ought to ignore it, or lay it bare, but certainly not feed into it."

I think that's right, but there's just one catch: the Obama campaign needs to be cautious in how it responds. If the senator pushes too hard to distance himself from liberalism, it will backfire and hurt his campaign. Maybe something like this would work: "If finishing #1 means I stood against the Bush agenda more than anyone else, then I'll consider this an honor."

Steve Benen 4:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (56)

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Comments

I think Obama will handle this just fine. With an endorsement from Ted Kennedy he's going to be tagged as "liberal" anyway by the wingnuts, but it doesn't carry the weight it used to.

Posted by: tomeck on January 31, 2008 at 4:19 PM | PERMALINK

I wish Sen. Obama was the most liberal senator.

Posted by: Brojo on January 31, 2008 at 4:23 PM | PERMALINK

Gee, what an amazing coincidence that whoever gets the Democratic nomination is always the "most liberal" senator! Why, if I didn't know any better, I'd think the National Journal deliberately rigs their criteria so the Democratic candidates always end up near the top of the list. Actually, I don't know that they don't do that.

But a better way of defending against the "most liberal" label would be to characterize it as being the "most opposed to Bush" and the disastrous Republican policies of the last 8 years.

Posted by: Augustus on January 31, 2008 at 4:25 PM | PERMALINK

But I thought he was "Republican-lite"? (to quote many around here.)

Posted by: Quinn on January 31, 2008 at 4:25 PM | PERMALINK

So we will be ruled by the NRO darling Franco if Obama wins?

(h/t Jonah Lucianne)

Posted by: gregor on January 31, 2008 at 4:25 PM | PERMALINK

Paul Wellstone responded to this kind of attack with a question, "On what issue am I too liberal?"

Posted by: Carl Nyberg on January 31, 2008 at 4:27 PM | PERMALINK

If the Republicans (aka conservatives) have actually wrecked the government and the country, could it be that it's finally morning in America again, when identification as a Democrat (aka liberal) becomes a strong argument for your election?

Go ahead, Obama, if you say it with pride and assurance, is it so hard to imagine a majority of awakening voters joining with you to say, "Sure we're liberals, and we mean to stop the destruction that is ruining us."

Posted by: Boolaboola on January 31, 2008 at 4:32 PM | PERMALINK

It's a different country than it was in 2004. Every day the passes the demographics of this country favor liberals a little bit more.

My advice for Obama if he's the nominee is not to act like other weak-kneed Dems.

He should proclaim loudly what it means to be a liberal, and that he's proud of being one. You can't run from that tag and doing so makes you look weak; but you can OWN it. Take it back and make it a source of pride.

Posted by: matthewcc on January 31, 2008 at 4:33 PM | PERMALINK

Besides Steve's point about not taking the ratings at face value, how have our most liberal nominess faired in the general election, historically?

I thought it was conventional wisdom that you play to your base in the primaries and you emphasize your moderate points in the general. Granted, things are a little different now, and the nation is ready to swing left, but I don't see why that should man anything more now than that the country is ready to elect a Democrat.

Posted by: Swan on January 31, 2008 at 4:36 PM | PERMALINK

To rehash a tired old point about labels, "conservative" used to carry the same odor about it that "liberal" has for the past thirty some years. Then Goldwater and his ghostwriters from the National Review stopped running away from the label. Presumably someone in the Obama campaign has already thought about applying that lesson to this year's race.

Posted by: Henry on January 31, 2008 at 4:37 PM | PERMALINK

And yet he was praising Reagan, at least according to Hillary! See what he does, not what he says; or more importantly see what he actually says, and not what Hillary says he said.

I can't see how this is going to hurt him in the primaries.

Posted by: Manfred on January 31, 2008 at 4:38 PM | PERMALINK

Just for example, Kerry was called the most liberal Senator by these ratings, but Bill Clinton held himself out in his election campaign as pretty moderate, and a coalition-builder.

Posted by: Swan on January 31, 2008 at 4:39 PM | PERMALINK

Or just as good--as anyone who brings it up "Which of these votes do you have a problem with?" and defend it on specifics.

Posted by: Jim M on January 31, 2008 at 4:40 PM | PERMALINK

Wellstone would also reframe the label. He'd say something like "If being liberal means caring for children then I'm a liberal. If liberal means having a balanced budget then I'm a liberal. I'm not ashamed of any of that."

Posted by: Tripp on January 31, 2008 at 4:40 PM | PERMALINK

I think Bush, Cheney, and their ilk have done so much damage to the label "conservative" that these attacks -- labeling Obama a liberal -- won't resonate. They're not resonating against McCain.

I can see a series of Obama ads that are take-offs on the "If you ..., then you might be a redneck" jokes. Some examples: If you think poor children should have health insurance, you just might be a liberal. If you think we shouldn't fight dumb wars that cost thousands of American lives and trillions of dollars, you just might be a liberal. If you think we shouldn't pollute the earth and poison our grandchildren, you just might be a liberal. If you think immigrants shouldn't be shipped back to Mexico in boxcars, you just might be a liberal.

You get the idea.

Posted by: Econobuzz on January 31, 2008 at 4:44 PM | PERMALINK

The "insurgent" Presidential candidate?

Posted by: Mike Lamb on January 31, 2008 at 4:48 PM | PERMALINK

I wish Sen. Obama was the most opposed to Bush.

Posted by: Brojo on January 31, 2008 at 4:56 PM | PERMALINK

Econobuzz:

I like that. We (the US) could also use similar PSA spots about feminism, environmentalism, all sorts of things.

Posted by: Disputo on January 31, 2008 at 4:58 PM | PERMALINK

Wow, Jake Tapper has become the orifice of choice for this filth.

Way to go, Mouseketool. That's two in one day.
.

Posted by: Grand Moff Texan on January 31, 2008 at 4:59 PM | PERMALINK

As usual, liberals have allowed conservatives to frame the liberal/conservative debate and to promote their own definitions of these terms. As a result, a large segment of the electorate associates the word "liberal" not with social security, health care, tax policy, etc., but with wedge issues like gays in the military and "pornography on TV".

Some liberals, like Hillary, are trying to deal with this by abandoning the term and using others, like "progressive". But it's only a matter of time before any such word will be demonized by the right wing media machine. Much better to put up a fight and defend liberalism, talking about its true meaning, its history, and what it means, in practical terms, for one's life. And to explain that, when it comes to fiscal responsibility, today's liberals are the true conservatives -- whereas the Republicans are borrowing and spending with complete abandon. A comparison with the subprime crisis would also a good idea.

Posted by: JS on January 31, 2008 at 5:02 PM | PERMALINK

Obama's main talking point (at least my interpretation) is that he will be able to rally republicans and democrats alike to move the nation forward.

If his votes show that he has voted liberal party line 65 out of 66 times, how does that buttress his arguement that he will be able to rally republicans? Doesn't show a lot of flexibility to me. Seems rather hardline.

I would prefer a candidate who votes on how they see the merits of a bill. Both parties are capable of coming up with good ideas (and of course bad too) and so it is not unreasonable to consider that someone who has crossed the aisle on more than one occasion has done so based on the merits of the bill and the positive impact that bill will have on their constituents and the rest of the country.


Posted by: optical weenie on January 31, 2008 at 5:03 PM | PERMALINK

on NJ's own "Q and A" page (http://nj.nationaljournal.com/voteratings/qanda.htm), they offer the following example of how exactly one becomes "most liberal":

Q: Can you give an example of votes that show ideological distinctions?

Green: The Senate voted last year on whether to repeal the federal minimum wage. The outcome of the vote was never in doubt -- only 28 senators voted for the repeal; 69 voted against it. But the vote seemed to us to be worth including in the ratings because it showed the ideological differences between senators who thought that setting a minimum wage is an appropriate function of the federal government (what we termed the liberal position) and those who thought that such matters should be left to the states (what we termed the conservative position).

So there you have it: voting against a cockamamie repeal of the minimum wage makes you a "liberal". There's your crrrrrazy liberal Obama, always voting not to repeal the minimum wage.

Posted by: jim on January 31, 2008 at 5:05 PM | PERMALINK
Obama's main talking point (at least my interpretation) is that he will be able to rally republicans and democrats alike to move the nation forward.

If his votes show that he has voted liberal party line 65 out of 66 times, how does that buttress his arguement that he will be able to rally republicans?

No, being able to sway Republicans doesn't mean voting like a Republican, it means being able to effectively sell ideas.

And voting on the "liberal side" of issues cherry-picked by a right-wing outlet doesn't say anything about that, one way or the other.(And there is no such thing as "liberal party line".)

Posted by: cmdicely on January 31, 2008 at 5:12 PM | PERMALINK

If his votes show that he has voted liberal party line 65 out of 66 times ...

What, according to some rag with a circulation of a mere 12,371, one that hires assholes who can't count? drunkenstepfather.com gets more hits than that.

Why is this even a subject for discussion? The assholes are being assholes. Film at fucking eleven.
.

Posted by: Grand Moff Texan on January 31, 2008 at 5:19 PM | PERMALINK

These voting/rating guides are virtually always BS. They don't take into account long-term strategic interests, relative importance, etc.

For example, I don't really give a fat rat's ass if a candidate only voted "liberal" in 3 out of 100 votes, if those 97 "conservative" votes bought them to the liberty to vote the right way on FISA, Bankruptcy Bill, & AUMF.

Posted by: Brautigan on January 31, 2008 at 5:25 PM | PERMALINK

It's easy. Just take the hundreds of votes, use one of a number of computer algorithms to choose those that most distinguish Democrats from Republicans, then chose every one from the Dem side that Obama (or whomever) voted for. These votes then become the list that you use to define "most liberal" -- with Obama conveniently at the top.

I'll bet this technique would work for at least 50% of Democrats.

Posted by: idlemind on January 31, 2008 at 5:27 PM | PERMALINK

..."What do our opponents mean when they apply to us the label "Liberal?" If by "Liberal" they mean, as they want people to believe, someone who is soft in his policies abroad, who is against local government, and who is unconcerned with the taxpayer's dollar, then the record of this party and its members demonstrate that we are not that kind of "Liberal." But if by a "Liberal" they mean someone who looks ahead and not behind, someone who welcomes new ideas without rigid reactions, someone who cares about the welfare of the people -- their health, their housing, their schools, their jobs, their civil rights, and their civil liberties -- someone who believes we can break through the stalemate and suspicions that grip us in our policies abroad, if that is what they mean by a "Liberal," then I'm proud to say I'm a "Liberal."
JFK 9/14/60

Any chance that what was said 48 years ago resonates today?

Is their not a person who actually understands what JFK meant by liberal?

Yup. It just so happens to be the same one who was endorsed by JFK's daughter last weekend (1/27/08-NYT)

The problem with conservatives is they think liberals are: commies/pinkies/homosexuals/socialists/etc.

Far from it. Liberals care about humans. Conservatives care about profits and always tend to think liberalism is a disease.

It's definitely time for a change!

Posted by: Tom Nicholson on January 31, 2008 at 5:35 PM | PERMALINK

The problem with conservatives is they think liberals are: commies/pinkies/homosexuals/socialists/etc.

Which is why they want to be paid in your tax dollars to suck my dick.

Must be one of them "family values" things, I dunno.
.

Posted by: Grand Moff Texan on January 31, 2008 at 5:37 PM | PERMALINK

Bill Clinton held himself out in his election campaign as pretty moderate, and a coalition-builder

W. Clinton built a coalition to destroy welfare, to deregulate financial and communications markets, to continue spending trillions on defense, and to continue military aid to Israel. He was pretty damned moderate, and I suspect Sen. Obama is, too.

W. Clinton did not move the nation forward with his moderate coalition building. The former welfare recipients were too busy working ten hour days in sweat shops to vote for Gore. The defense industry supported W. Bush. The communications industry did everything it could to lie about Gore. The Israelis kept killing Palestinians, to the cheers of the DLC and The New Republic. The near defeat of VP Gore in 2000 indicates president W. Clinton did not move the country forward.

Posted by: Brojo on January 31, 2008 at 5:41 PM | PERMALINK

The near defeat of VP Gore in 2000

Quite right. He was nearly defeated. Thank God that moron Bush didn't end up in office by some mistake...

Posted by: thersites on January 31, 2008 at 5:44 PM | PERMALINK

Yeah, that terrible "liberal" word.

Let's see:

- Albert Einstein
- Martin Luther King
- Gandhi
- Jesus

All "liberals".

- Adolf Hitler
- Benito Mussolini
- Joseph McCarthy
- Timothy McVeigh

If you are known by the company you keep, I'm not too ashamed to be called a liberal, are you?

Posted by: The Conservative Deflator on January 31, 2008 at 5:46 PM | PERMALINK

Thersites wins this thread!

Posted by: optical weenie on January 31, 2008 at 5:49 PM | PERMALINK

tomeck: "With an endorsement from Ted Kennedy he's going to be tagged as 'liberal' anyway by the wingnuts ..."

Well, Ted, Caroline and Patrick Kennedy are merely fighting to ensure that the Democratic Party isn't held sway by a family dynasty that's not their own.

Posted by: Donald from Hawaii on January 31, 2008 at 5:50 PM | PERMALINK

" would prefer a candidate who votes on how they see the merits of a bill."

Which is, presumably, precisely what Obama did. Which votes of his, in particular, do you have a problem with?

Posted by: PaulB on January 31, 2008 at 5:54 PM | PERMALINK

PaulB: "Which is, presumably, precisely what Obama did."

"Presumably, precisely"?

Posted by: Donald from Hawaii on January 31, 2008 at 6:07 PM | PERMALINK

The near defeat of VP Gore in 2000 indicates president W. Clinton did not move the country forward.

Posted by: Brojo on January 31, 2008 at 5:41 PM | PERMALINK

It also indicates a lot of very tiresome people ensured the election of George Bush by voting for Ralph Nader instead of Al Gore. I don't remember the rationalle they gave exactly ... something about there being no difference between the candidates. or something. I know, I know. That's too ridiculous to have been it. Do you remember what the reason was?

Posted by: Patty on January 31, 2008 at 6:12 PM | PERMALINK

Well, Ted, Caroline and Patrick Kennedy are merely fighting to ensure that the Democratic Party isn't held sway by a family dynasty that's not their own.

Posted by: Donald from Hawaii

Quite right, and if you check out the latest in Politico, they are pushing that Michell O. is going to be the next Jackie O.

I thought we got over the Camelot myth quite a while ago.

Actually I can just see it - at a debate between the candidate spouses - where Bill says....Mrs Obama, I knew Jackie O., and you're no Jackie O.

I know I am going to get a lot of flak over that from the Obamaniac's but what the hey it's been a slow day, what with not being able to razz Kevin over Inkblot's perceived public image.

Posted by: Optical Weenie on January 31, 2008 at 6:28 PM | PERMALINK

It's easy. Just take the hundreds of votes, use one of a number of computer algorithms to choose those that most distinguish Democrats from Republicans, then chose every one from the Dem side that Obama (or whomever) voted for. These votes then become the list that you use to define "most liberal" -- with Obama conveniently at the top.

Kinda reminds me of how during the Reformation, Martin Luther and the Pope's names both conveniently added up to 666 ... if you did the math just right.

Posted by: Mnemosyne on January 31, 2008 at 6:28 PM | PERMALINK

Well maybe he could try to trick the Republicans into thinking he's one of them.

Like voting with the Republicans on Schiavo. Voting with them on energy/environment. Cosponsoring the Iran Counter-Proliferation Act of 2007. He could drag up McClurkin again. Republicans love that stuff. Social Security, he's your man republicans. Health Care - no mandates for him and his proposals will be watered down from there just like he watered down health proposals in Illinois at the behest of the industry.

If all that fails they can always dress him up in one of those hunting hats with the ear flaps, some duck boots and pose him with a gun.

Posted by: Chrissy on January 31, 2008 at 6:34 PM | PERMALINK

voting for Ralph Nader instead of Al Gore

President W. Clinton's moderate bipartisanship, and all it accomplished for Republican issues, drove many liberals to a third party solution.

Posted by: Punji on January 31, 2008 at 6:40 PM | PERMALINK

Chrissy,
I don't quite see the strategy behind dressing up as Elmer Fudd.

Shouldn't he just go out and shoot another lawyer?

Posted by: optical weenie on January 31, 2008 at 6:43 PM | PERMALINK

Do you remember what the reason was?

I do: Let's sacrifice the good for the perfect.

Posted by: Sharon on January 31, 2008 at 6:52 PM | PERMALINK

According to the Keith Poole rankings, which have the advantage of being based on a relatively objective mathematical model, Obama is only the 11th most liberal senator, and Clinton is the 20th most liberal.

Posted by: C.L. on January 31, 2008 at 6:53 PM | PERMALINK

f all that fails they can always dress him up in one of those hunting hats with the ear flaps, some duck boots and pose him with a gun.

Must resist Cheney joke.
Must resist Cheney joke.
Must resist Cheney joke.

Posted by: thersites on January 31, 2008 at 7:09 PM | PERMALINK

Thersites,
You are much better than me. I couldn't resist. But it felt soooooo goooooooooood, I
recommend it.
Besides holding stuff in will just make you constipated.

Posted by: optical weenie on January 31, 2008 at 7:11 PM | PERMALINK

http://www.sciam.com/article.cfm?id=getting-duped

The Centrist Corporate Media Is Trying To The American People Again...

Posted by: Ya Know... on January 31, 2008 at 7:13 PM | PERMALINK

National Journal's selection of roll call votes is highly questionable. For example, why did they ignore this roll call vote:

http://www.senate.gov/legislative/LIS/roll_call_lists/roll_call_vote_cfm.cfm?congress=110&session=1&vote=00070

...where Obama was one of only three Democrats to vote with the Republicans, on a provision that would have sunseted a Democratic bill?

Posted by: tn on January 31, 2008 at 7:29 PM | PERMALINK

the GOP is going to say this no matter who the nominee is. we could run the corpse of george wallace and they'd still say it. I'm more interested in which candidate better appeals to swing voters: moderates and the low-information, narcissistic voters who call themselves independents.

the trick is neutralizing the dreaded liberal issue w/o abandoning liberal politics. I think obama can do it and clinton can't.

clinton's less likely to change independents' and moderates' opinions of her. she's too well-known a quantity. obama, as the newcomer, can make that appeal.

I think high broderism is bullshit, but I don't think that's what obama's peddling. he's explicitly talked about sticking to core principles while engaging with reasonable opponents. And those opponents are the swing voters.

face it: the left needs a popular mandate to enact a progressive agenda. and a popular mandate requires a party leader who's seen as unencumbered by the last 40 years of democratic myth. putting a new face and former organizer in the white house---someone who understands movement building---is the smart choice. and maybe we get to wipe the dung off the word "liberal" in the process.

the nation article says it better:
http://www.thenation.com/doc/20080218/hayes

Posted by: mencken on January 31, 2008 at 8:29 PM | PERMALINK

Optical Weenie: "Quite right, and if you check out the latest in Politico, they are pushing that Michell O. is going to be the next Jackie O."

I think Michelle O. is really nice, and certainly an asset to her husband's campaign. But The Politico's will only work if she runs off with a billionaire shipping magnate.

Posted by: Donald from Hawaii on January 31, 2008 at 9:41 PM | PERMALINK

Well, Ted, Caroline and Patrick Kennedy are merely fighting to ensure that the Democratic Party isn't held sway by a family dynasty that's not their own.

See, the Kennedys believe in family values after all.

Posted by: tomeck on January 31, 2008 at 9:47 PM | PERMALINK

"insurgent presidential candidate" It takes a pretty damn asinine and immature group to print that foolish idiocy.

Judes the republican candidates are bashing each other as to who's more liberal. LOL!

"Liberal" is not even close to being as scary and messed as "conservative" these days.

Posted by: Silver Owl on February 1, 2008 at 12:56 AM | PERMALINK

Yep, those third party solutions. I see them winning polls every day. Greens, Constitutionalists, Libertarians, Reform... Yeah. They're always winning at the polls and in small-donations.

Yep. Any day now.

Most number of volunteers.

Yep.

Some day.

Oh, shut up, Punji, unless you have a candidate and a real solution.

Posted by: Crissa on February 1, 2008 at 1:30 AM | PERMALINK

How about we as a nation, stop concentrating on who is too liberal, and all that jazz, and concentrate instead on who is going to do the best at fixing the problems the current administration is leaving behind?

I am not voting based on who is liberal enough for me, I am voting for the person who I believe most likely to fix the country. I think we all should do the same. Political mud-slinging aside, who do you think has the American People's best interest at heart? It has nothing to do with where they are ranked, and what the other candidates throw at them and everything to do with the policies they want to create, and the solutions they want to implement.

Posted by: Maribeth on February 1, 2008 at 10:15 AM | PERMALINK

I know this is somewhat repetitive but it really has to be said again. If Obama is the most liberal senator so fucking what. Supposed conservative republicans have been running the congress since 1994 and the executive office for am little over seven years. Whats that done? The list is to long to put down here. This country is on the verge of becoming a banana republic and business as usual just isn't going to get it done. Anyone who votes for conservatives or reublicans or whatever they want label themselves is voting for destruction of the USA.

Posted by: Gandalf on February 1, 2008 at 10:49 AM | PERMALINK

I see them winning polls every day.

Winning does not mean anything when a moderate Republican masquerading as a Democrat wins.

Had Sen. Kerry won the presidential election in 2004, the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan would appear just as they do today. The economy would be just as fucked and Israel would be killing just as many Palestinians. Winning elections without making changes to the oligarchy's policies is not winning.

Come up with a better solution than telling real liberals they should vote for moderate Republicans like Clinton or Obama. Winning elections with moderate Republicans registered as Democrats will change nothing except your expectations.

Posted by: Punji on February 1, 2008 at 11:28 AM | PERMALINK

Why do we let "liberal" remain a dirty word? Why does'nt someone say.."Well if you mean do I support civil rights, women's sufferage, child labor laws, The GI Bill, rural electrification, pure food and drugs, medicare, social security, freedom of religion, freedom of the press, and so much more that has made the USA great, then "yes", I am a liberal. George McGovern said "Virtually every step forward in our history has been a liberal intitative taken over conservative opposition." We let them define and defile the word.

Posted by: John on February 1, 2008 at 12:28 PM | PERMALINK




 

 

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