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Trump, Clinton and the crisis of the Democratic Party

REUTERS/Charles Mostoller
Clinton was in the end a weak candidate.

To the surprise of many, Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton to become the next president of the United States. The reasons for Clinton’s loss are many, but the real issue is what’s next for America and the world under a Trump presidency?

schultz portrait
David Schultz

There are many reasons Hillary Clinton lost; some are self-inflicted, others a consequence of bad timing and luck. Clinton was in the end a weak candidate. She was a poor public speaker, she lacked a clear rationale for why she wanted to be president, and she had a strategy that simply did not resonate with many voters, especially the white working class who voted for Trump. She never had a good explanation about her emails and the use of a private server, or about her Wall Street speeches. She was someone many voters did not feel passionate about, resulting in her holding less of her Democratic Party base to vote for her than Trump did with his Republican Party base.

Clinton also was unable to capture the swing or undecided voters in large percentages, and it was these voters who broke decisively in the last few days and went for Trump.

But Clinton was also a victim of circumstances. Her greatest asset was her experience as a senator and secretary of state, yet in a year where being a Washington insider was a liability it hurt her. She ran as the status quo candidate who would continue Obama’s policies, but the mood of the country was for change. She was also a victim of sexism, facing unique problems as a woman that no previous major party presidential candidate faced in American history. There was the unfortunate luck of the cost increases under the Affordable Care Act or Obamacare, and she also became the fifth victim in American presidential history to be the winner of the popular vote but lose the electoral vote.

The crisis of the Democratic Party

In addition, for those who wondered why the polls failed, the answer is that they did not. In the end the last polls said she was ahead by a percentage point or so and the final election totals confirmed that. Clinton did win the popular vote but remember, it is the Electoral College that decides the winner and not the national popular vote. Clinton lost narrowly, it coming down to swing states. In these states last-minute voters broke against her, similar to what happened in 1980 when undecided voters at the last second voted against Jimmy Carter and for Ronald Reagan.

Additionally, the voter turnout in 2016 was the lowest in 20 years – Trump and Clinton were candidates who turned off many voters, especially those who were occasional voters. In 2008 and 2012 they went for Obama, but Clinton could not persuade them to vote for her. Many of the 2008 Obama voters wanted change, Obama did not provide it, and Clinton as the status quo president who would continue the Obama agenda also did not represent it.

In the end, as Tip O’Neill once said, no one owns a voter or vote and you have to ask for it and earn it. Clinton and the Democrats failed to ask for the votes of many people and they did not earn it. In fact, the real story of 2016 is the collapse of not the Republican but Democratic Party. Obama and Clinton leave the Democratic Party far weaker today than they did in 2008. It is a party unable to speak to working-class whites, rural, and suburban America. A party that actually does take for granted people of color and liberals who they assume will vote for them because they have no other choices. It is also a party that blew off young people – the millennials – with repercussions down the line. No, contrary to what so many Clinton supporters are whining about, the Bernie Sanders and Trump people are not idiots, and voting for Gary Johnson and Jill Stein did not cost Clinton the election. Clinton and the Democrats lost it themselves; the voters were often rational in voting not their fears but their hopes.

The Trump presidency

Trump is now president and the question is what will he do? He made lots of noise about building a wall along the U.S.-Mexican border, wanting to renegotiate trade deals, and of perhaps rethinking NATO and the U.S. relationship with Russia and Putin. How much of this will or can he actually do?

Domestically, Trump has called for many changes, but it is unclear what he can do on his own. Historian Richard Neustadt once said that the power of the presidency is the power to persuade. Presidents are not generals, business leaders, or monarchs and they cannot just order people around. They need to persuade others, including Congress, the bureaucracy, the states, the media, and the public if they as presidents want to succeed. Trump’s close victory in a divided America means he will be limited in terms of whom he can persuade. His own Republican Party is divided, and it is not certain that he will get an easy path to success in Congress. Because Trump ran a campaign largely devoid of policy he has no clear policy-agenda path.

In addition, presidents are constrained by a power bureaucracy, federalism, checks and balances, and separation of powers. At the end of the day there will be no wall along the Mexican border, and mass deportations will not occur. Trump will make America a less kinder and gentler place, but the extremism that some worry about will not occur. U.S. political institutions are not that fragile, I hope.

Foreign policy

In the area of foreign policy, often the best predictor of what a new president will do is to look at the previous president. There is far more continuity across presidential foreign policy than there is divergence. Obama made marginal changes from Bush. The foreign-policy establishment is power, and it transcends political parties. Trump may find he is captured more by this bureaucracy than he realizes.

Trump may try to force changes in trade deals but face retaliation from China and the European Union, which will not passively sit by. The same is true of the World Trade Organization. Trump may think he knows Vladimir Putin, but after he gets burned by him a couple of times he may turn on him. Trump wants to tear up the Iranian nuclear deal, but it is not clear what he has to replace it with — and it is doubtful the rest of the world will go along. Unilateral action in Syria and against ISIS or Dash is possible, but Trump seems not to have real alternatives. And even his talk about NATO and its alternatives may be more talk than reality. It just does not seem feasible that the U.S. foreign and military policy establishment will let that happen. Yes, perhaps a new global order needs to emerge, but the U.S. in 2017 is not in the same position to force this change as it was in 1946, or even at the end of the Cold War.

In short, Trump may simply misunderstand or not appreciate how little power he actually has. He is potentially clumsy, undiplomatic, unskilled, and clueless about world politics, but it is doubtful he will have the ability to affect the scope of changes that he blustered about during his campaign.

David Schultz is a Hamline University professor of political science and the author of “Election Law and Democratic Theory” (Ashgate, 2014) and “American Politics in the Age of Ignorance” (Macmillan, 2013). He blogs at Schultz’s Take, where a version of this piece first appeared.   

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Comments (24)

  1. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 11/15/2016 - 09:08 am.

    Still too generous

    The claim that Clinton’s biggest strength was her experience doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. Not to pile on but her war vote was simply a disqualifying act that completely undermined any claim she could make regarding experience and judgment. You can’t make a mistake THAT big and expect people to ignore it. You can admit it was a mistake but that doesn’t diminish the magnitude of the mistake. It’s like a surgeon who accidentally stabbed a patient in the eye saying: “Yeah, that was mistake but trust me, I’m going to fix your brain now.”

    Her history of support for moderate republican policies also undermined her claims of liberal or progressive credentials. You can only brag about your work with the Children’s Defense Fund for a few decades, 40 years later people want to know what you’ve done lately.

    I”m one of those who wasn’t surprised by her defeat. I knew Clinton was in real trouble when her campaign and supporters kept pointing to her SOS experience, but then simply could no answer simple questions. For instance NONE of the Clinton supporters I ever asked were able to give me a single example of something they thought was a big foreign policy accomplishment. The only thing that kept coming up was her “performance” in front of the Benghazi hearing, but that clearly wasn’t an accomplishment and it pointed to a foreign policy disaster although maybe not one of Clinton’s making. Even on her own website she struggled to list big accomplishments. For a while she listed one of the Israeli-Palestinian cease fires as a SOS accomplishment, but anyone who pays attention knows that the Israeli’s and Palestinians never really cease fire and that ceasefire fell apart completely after two or three months in any event. If you’re sitting there trying to come up with something I’m sorry but if THIS is her biggest asset you shouldn’t have to work that hard.

    Worse, the inability to point to any really big accomplishments or even attempts at big accomplishments undermined her credibility which was always shaky, it became just one more reason to distrust her. I had assumed when she got the nomination that her “A” game would roll out, surely someone who’s spent almost a lifetime preparing for this would have something lined up, but instead all we saw were attacks on Trump.

    My point here isn’t to slam Clinton. My point is that this was so completely predictable. None of Clinton’s faults and weakness’s were hidden or unknown and they were many, and they all potentially fatal. Yet she got the nod anyways at a time when keeping in the White House “blue” was critical. In many ways democrats bear as much if not more responsibility for putting Trump in the White House than anyone else. This isn’t the first blunder delivered to us via DNC “wisdom” but it may the most egregious. Everyone one of the super delegates who announced their vote for Clinton, and most of the DNC leadership in total should be resigning and or renouncing their status.

  2. Submitted by Steve Titterud on 11/15/2016 - 09:32 am.

    The Democrats are forced to eat humble pie

    …for now, but underneath all this is an oppressive arrogance which won’t change like a new outfit or new set of words.

    Here’s my explanation for Clinton’s loss: she and her supporters vilified anyone who didn’t line up with Clinton World, objectifying and dehumanizing them with ridicule and contempt.

    I heard it from Clinton supporters aplenty – in person, online, from tv commentators, in print. They were encouraged in this by Clinton herself with her “deplorables” remark – a slip of the tongue which showed her true feelings, and gave the green light.

    If they had found it within themselves to give even a LITTLE love, understanding, and compassion to those folks, they could have talked to them. Even a LITTLE!! But they couldn’t resist treating them badly, they had no compassion in their hearts.

    Clinton’s supporters and Clinton herself drove away the very people who could have swung the election the other way. Their arrogance cost them the election. So after publicly floating all their excuses to cover their failure, Clinton’s supporters might take a peek in the mirror, when nobody’s watching.

  3. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 11/15/2016 - 09:33 am.

    …He watches lots and lots of cable television. He uses cable to keep up on every jot and tittle of the presidential race — both on the Republican side and the Democratic side. He gets information and talking points from TV. He keeps track of what his opponents are saying and doing via TV. Put simply: Cable TV is the one indispensable item of a Trump’s candidacy. It sits at the center of his days — and all he does in them….

    https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2016/07/26/no-one-watches-more-cable-tv-than-donald-trump/

    This will be the key to Trump’s administration and his decisions. That’s why his cabinet nominees read like a current cable show guest list. The cable show experts are his experts. Views outside of those experts are going to have a hard road with getting Trump’s ear.

    The problem for America will come with all of the non-headline, non-cable news changes that lie within the numerous Republican bills that have not been advanced in the face of Presidential opposition over the last two terms. It is clear that Trump does not have the attention-span to work his way through the meaning and purposes buried within the hundreds or thousands of paragraphs of a bill. Indeed, who would have that job within the Trump administration to vet the bills and game out the effects of all of the provisions? Why should they look for reasons to oppose any of the numerous bills that are aimed at “removing the restraints on capitalism” ?

    The next two years will be an open road to remake America into the Republican vision of America, and it will happen fast.

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 11/15/2016 - 09:54 am.

      Just Last Evening

      I was thinking that, had trump lost, how many of these possible cabinet/administration members would now be getting cable TV gigs? Christie, Gulianni, Dr. Ben, et al.

    • Submitted by Jim Million on 11/15/2016 - 10:09 am.

      Two Thoughts:

      Because the majority of Americans do get their information from cable TV, one might academically suggest Trump is more in touch with the electorate than those who regularly read WAPO, NYT et al. Might explain much about last week’s results. That’s simply a reality of contemporary marketing and information flow.

      The moribund MSNBC will survive, perhaps finally thrive, thanks to a Trump Administration and its detractors. Chris Matthews and others must be breathing more easily this week because of that prospect.

      • Submitted by Neal Rovick on 11/15/2016 - 11:28 am.

        Perhaps more correctly, Americans get their framing of the issues from cable news. It’s all about how the initial framing of an issue is set.

        For Trump, the cable news outlets are mirror (on self) and lens (on others). Somehow, it reminds me of a narrow room with mirrors on both walls. What can you see outside of that ?

        But we all know there are a lot of issues and subtlety not seen in the hall of mirrors.

  4. Submitted by Jim Million on 11/15/2016 - 09:53 am.

    MinnPost Photos

    I frequently compliment MinnPost on excellent photos that grab the reader’s attention while providing visual lead to the story. Whoever does the matching does very well. Another perfect example here today.

  5. Submitted by joe smith on 11/15/2016 - 12:05 pm.

    Well to quote a soon to be former president

    I have a phone and a pen….I am totally against rule by executive fiat but Obama used it for major legislation so if Trump wants to use it, the precedent has been set. I hope he doesn’t but he may. If he uses the power of all 3 branches to create jobs, fix broken healthcare system and secures the border he will do fine. If he overreaches like Obama and pushes some personal ideology he will be a failure.

  6. Submitted by Joel Stegner on 11/15/2016 - 12:25 pm.

    Two comments

    First, to be technical, Hillary lost because we use the Electoral College rather than the popular vote, which she won by two million votes and because of Republican efforts to deny legitimate voters their voting rights, with the collusion of a Republican appointed Supreme Court majority,

    One does not have to have a PhD and be a political scientist to describe that reality. In fact this analysis is what is called a false positive. Drawing evidence where one is not justified. Of course, these conclusions are followed by a don’t worry, be happy speech from a white man who has nothing to personally fear, not being a target himself.

    I attended another St. Paul college. One of my professors immigrated to the US from Nazi Germany in the 1930s. In her political geography class she talked about how propagandists of both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Uniom used distorted maps to spread their totalitarian ideas. She was in a position to do so because she fled Germany to not suffer the fate of many who resisted that murderous regime.

    I find Dr. Johnson’s real life experience a much better lesson than those who struggle to make sense out of Trump’s ascendency. Perhaps this political scientist should leave his ivory tower and share his thoughts in what Americans can to be avoid to reduce the harm from this national error in judgment.

    Passively standing by and observing very bad things be done to innocent people by a very vindictive man is not the best use of the tools of the political scientist.

  7. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 11/15/2016 - 01:32 pm.

    No one can say anymore that the United States will not fall into chaos or fascism because we have checks and balances built into our Constitutional system. Well, no we don’t, not anymore.

    The Presidency is Republican now. Congress is controlled by Republicans now, both houses. Soon the Supreme Court will have a healthy Republican-ideological majority, and we’ll get more guttings of safeguard legislation and court rulings in the same strain as Citizens United (do Trump voters understand how that case affected Big Money In Our Politics?) and the savaging of the Voting Rights Act, not to mention overturning Roe v. Wade that Trump has promised.

    Obama met with fierce Republican resistance to deal with him in any way at all, which caused outrageous gridlock in Washington that was then blamed on Obama. He was forced into executive actions that Trump will immediately undo, particularly in regulating the stunning abuses of consumers and workers that our capitalists always turn to (Trump voters don’t understand that, either) and all environmental provisions to counter global warming.

    Two-thirds of the states are controlled now by Republicans, in governorships and state legislatures. Much of that happened through legislative district gerrymandering after the 2000 and 2010 censuses. Cities in the U.S. are islands of progressivism and demographic diversity, as well as economic vitality, while the suburban and rural areas of the country have both fewer people and extreme economic insecurity. They lack broadband access and the education to want to read solid national magazines and newspapers that prize factual news, so their sexism and racism get no counters.

    Trump is ignorant of what this new job entails, and he wants long weekends off, so he can retreat to Mar-a-Lago or the Trump Tower suite! Others will govern for him while Trump will stay up late at night and Tweet his little vitriolic spits of words, without restraint or anyone to “check” him or check his avatars.

    We realize that people voted against some evil Clinton image they’d been sold. But that meant they voted for someone that the smartest minds in this country have examined very closely and concluded: He’s not qualified to be President.

    • Submitted by joe smith on 11/15/2016 - 01:52 pm.

      Didn’t Obama have all three branches his 1st 2 years then

      2 of 3 branches his next 4 years and then only the White House his last 2?? Those evil Republicans had no control over Obama when he passed the ACA and that 800 billion dollar stimulus package that 6% went to shovel ready jobs…. Watch the video of Obama and cronies laughing about “shovel ready” jobs. That was our tax money, not funny! Obama had a chance to help the very folks who voted out Clinton (regular working folks of all colors) but choose to go with Obamacare and union payback with stimulus money when he had all the power his 1st 2 years…

      Blame your party for HCR getting beat by Trump, not some Clinton image made up by the press…

      • Submitted by Neal Rovick on 11/15/2016 - 04:46 pm.

        No, Joe–2 years is wrong–there was only 72 days of a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate.

        (quote)

        The claim that Obama ruled like a monarch over Congress for two years — endlessly intoned as a talking point by Republicans — is more than just a misremembering of recent history or excited overstatement. It’s a lie.

        It’s meant to represent that Obama’s had his chance to try out his ideas, and to obscure and deny the relentless GOP obstructionism and Democratic factionalism he’s encountered since Day One.

        They seem to figure if they repeat this often enough, you’ll believe it.

        Seventy-two days. That’s it. That’s the entirety of absolute Democratic control of the United States Senate in 2009 and 2010….

        http://sandiegofreepress.org/2012/09/the-myth-of-the-filibuster-proof-democratic-senate/

        (end quote)

        Go to the link, and read the details of the ins and outs of the recounts, deaths and infirmities that resulted in the very temporary control.

        • Submitted by joe smith on 11/15/2016 - 09:51 pm.

          Did they have a special election in May of 2009

          That I missed ?? I counted 72 days from the Dem January 2009 take over with all 3 branches and missed the election before the 2010 mid terms. I will go back and investigate it more but I am fairly certain I missed the May 2009 election where those GOP’ers took over the House 72 days after the inauguration of Obama in January 2009.

          • Submitted by Joel Fischer on 11/17/2016 - 09:02 am.

            July 7, 2009

            Al Franken was sworn in on July 7, 2009, giving the Democrats 58 votes (2 Independents also caucused with the Dems). Ted Kennedy died on August 25, 2009.

  8. Submitted by Jim Million on 11/15/2016 - 02:40 pm.

    “Get Out and Get Under”

    A very popular song from early auto touring days, when those things frequently broke down on the road. Some came with tool boxes of reality to facilitate repairs.

    We the People have two clear active choices, plus a likely passive one:

    Get Out and Get Under
    Get Out and Get Over It
    Sit in Our Seat and Wait for a Tow Truck… that may or may not appear

    This is the most coherent David Schultz piece I’ve read in these pages…focused, disciplined, accurate.

  9. Submitted by Steve Rose on 11/16/2016 - 06:47 am.

    The Talk of a Wall

    There is a wall, though permeable at places. The idea of controlling the border, of being a sovereign nation, resonates positively with many. The Democrats attempted in vain to use the idea of improving border security against Trump.

    This Is What the U.S.-Mexico Border Wall Actually Looks Like; the photo at the top of this National Geographic article is on the California border and it was built during Bill Clinton’s presidency.

    http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2016/03/160304-us-mexico-border-fence

    Excerpt:

    “Donald Trump has famously and repeatedly promised to seal the border with a wall if he’s elected. He and others have promised to send people who illegally crossed the border—a number that appears to have leveled off—back to Mexico. For these people, the border wall isn’t an abstraction. Many parts of the border are already covered in fences. In other spots, the wall is not made of bricks, but out of scanners, drones, and guards.”

    The photo at the top of National Geographic article is on the California border and it was built during Bill Clinton’s presidency.

    At one of the post-election protests in Minneapolis, a TV reporter asked a young woman why she and her daughter were there. She responded that her 5-year old daughter was afraid of “the wall”, and this is something that they could do about it.

  10. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 11/16/2016 - 08:19 am.

    People keep pointing to the popular vote… problem is…

    People keep pointing to the fact that Clinton won the popular vote, which she did, but in reality that just highlights the weakness of her campaign and her strategy. I’ve never seen so much amnesia befall so many people so quickly.

    Clinton’s entire campaign strategy was based on winning the electoral college regardless of the popular vote. The reason her “odds” of winning were considered so much higher than Trumps before the election was that the EC was her “firewall”. She focused on the battleground states and high EC states, didn’t even run an ad in MN until the night before the election. Then she lost ALL the battleground states and the election along with them. THAT was her strategy. Clinton and the democrats own that strategy and those results it yielded.

    Look, this is how Gore lost in 2000, this is no surprise. If you wanted to change it where have you been for the last 16 years? Whatever. Strong candidates win both the EC and PV, remember a guy by the name of “Obama”? Weak candidates always run the risk of falling to EC math.

    • Submitted by Steve Rose on 11/16/2016 - 11:16 am.

      Good points regarding the EC.

      Whenever the discussion of popular vote versus the EC, it is a losers argument. It will likely go dormant soon and remain so for another 16 years.

      Our nation has a constitutional democracy, not a pure (majority rules) democracy. That is how our founding fathers set it up, and it is part of the balance of powers. In a majority rules democracy, California and Wyoming would not both have two Senators. To be “fair”, California would get 18 Senators and Wyoming and both Dakotas, would get one each. The candidates campaign to capture the electoral college votes. That is why Hillary did not campaign in Minnesota; she assumed our 10 votes, and she was right. She could have gotten more votes here, but what would be the point? She understands how it works; she understands that she lost by a margin of 302-232.

  11. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 11/16/2016 - 08:24 am.

    And another thing, 70 some days?

    So the democrats only ran the table for 70 some days? Fine. What did they get done in those 70 some days? After three decades they should have had 5 or 6 policies sitting on the shelf ready to go, bam bam bam done. Note: that didn’t happen. Why?

    They “needed” 60 votes? No, the first thing they should have done is change the senate rules so they could pass legislation with simple majorities and require honest to god filibusters rather than super majorities to block up and down votes. Could they have done that in 70 some days? Sure.

  12. Submitted by joe smith on 11/16/2016 - 09:12 am.

    Paul, you don’t change the filibuster rule,

    You introduce policies with the input from the other side and agree to getting 80% of what you want because you have all 3 branches….. Obama, House and Senate said screw you to GOP and famously said “elections have consequences” … If Trump will talk to the Dems and agree to get 80% of what they want, congress will work. As the best President of my many decades of political involvement Ronald Reagan famously said 3/4 a loaf of bread is better than nothing…. Geeeez common sense, how did the 80’s ever work so well???

    • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 11/16/2016 - 09:46 am.

      Joe, of course you change the filibuster rule.

      You used to have to actually stand there and hold the podium in order to block a vote, there are many famous examples and if republicans and or blue dog democrats were required to do that during Obama’s first two years democrats could have passed three times a much legislation.

  13. Submitted by joe smith on 11/16/2016 - 10:29 am.

    Passing legislation that works for

    everyone requires both sides to do what used to happen, compromise… I am positive that 3 times more legislation in Obama’s 1st 2 years would not have helped… Just like three times more of Trump will not help.. Pick a few issues that Americans can agree on like jobs, legal immigration, fixing the inner city issues and keeping the USA safe from radical Islam, work together and come up with solutions not talking points…

    • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 11/18/2016 - 08:17 am.

      Legislation isn’t talking points.

      Had the economic recovery been focused on saving homes instead of the banks, millions of American’s would have prospered and come out on the other side of the recession with assets instead of bad debt on the their records.

      Had the economic stimulus been twice as large and targeted towards energy and transportation infrastructure it would have created millions of stable and good paying jobs and stimulated more business investment.

      There have been several plans to establish a more streamlined immigration process that involve a pathway to citizenship going all the way back to Bush, all left on the table.

      A more robust recovery with a broader reach would have strengthened the entire country as well as the inner cities.

      We don’t need to keep America safe from “Radical Islam”, in fact our Constitution strictly prohibits state oppression of any religion. We do need to protect ourselves from terrorism and again, a more robust economy with adequate government revenue would make that more likely… unlike the sequester.

      Finally, it was always known that the primary flaw with Obamacare was it really had no mechanism for controlling cost or driving cost down, it kicked that can down the road. Had democrats simply included a nation wide public option, like Medicare enrollment, that would have driven cost down and kept premiums low or lower. That single component in and of itself would prevent this entire blow up over premiums hikes not mention, provided 100% coverage for all Americans at affordable rates.

      While they were at it they could have resolved the so-called “entitlement” crises by raising the social security tax cap to $150k.

      They did NONE of these things, didn’t even try. Instead they got into power and said: “OK, time to reach across the isle and see what the republicans want to do”. The rest is history, and now with Trump in the White House we republicans will really get their chance to do what they want to do.

      All of these initiatives were left on the table by “moderate” democrats who were afraid of “over-reaching” in the Obama’s first two years. They claim they didn’t have the votes but that’s because they left senate rules in place that let one guy, Lieberman, essentially block any of that legislation, AND they took their advice from neo-liberal economists and political advisers instead of progressive liberal economists and advisers. In the end they simply didn’t have the guts to liberal.

  14. Submitted by Jim Million on 11/16/2016 - 10:52 am.

    A different shade of purple?

    A spouse in the fashion business often increased my slight color confusion by telling me a certain outfit was “teal.” Apparently there are very many shades of teal…and of purple, too.

    What odd internal Congressional alliances now form to maintain external control of status quo?

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