Back from the Dead: Neoprogressivism in the '90s

These days, you can hear Republican members of Congress touting how much they have spent on programs for children, bragging about how pro-environment they are, recounting their efforts to buck the party leadership and pass a higher minimum wage. The party line, which once emphasized fierce loyalty to the impending conservative revolution, now tacitly encourages avoiding any party line. Many members who voted loyally with Newt Gingrich boast about how independent of the speaker they have been all along. To have at least one vote against a Contract with America item was once a sign of disloyalty in Republican circles. Now, it's an electoral asset.

What a difference a year makes. In 1995 when I was finishing a book called They Only Look Dead, the title was an obvious reference to liberals being less moribund than they seemed. My conservative friends scoffed at its prediction of a new Progressive Era. Now, several of them have remarked mournfully that the title might be taken as a reference to them and to their people. The current vogue is to be associated with moderation if not with liberalism. It is to tout compassion more than spending restraint and to speak of making government work rather than dismantling it or shutting it down. When Bob Dole said goodbye to the Senate, he mentioned Hubert Humphrey and George McGovern with some fondness. He didn't mention Newt Gingrich or Dick Armey at all—not, one suspects, just because they aren't senators.

What's striking about the current period is not just that congressional Republicans seem to be in some electoral trouble, or that Bob Dole has run—let's be charitable—a less-than-perfect campaign. It's the extent to which the conventional wisdom has been turned on its head. Consider:

  • Through at least the middle of 1995, it was asserted universally that the most striking characteristics of the Republican Party and the conservative movement were discipline and unity. In the summer of 1996, what is remarked upon most is how divided Republicans are on taxes, abortion, and all manner of other issues, and how chaotic their movement has become.
  • In 1995, the Republicans were widely praised for their "boldness," "honesty," and, at times, "brilliance" in "tackling entitlements" and pushing for a balanced budget. In 1996, just about everybody says they "went too far" or "were too extreme" or "reached beyond their mandate." Even Bill Kristol, the conservative intellectual-strategist-editor, has argued that it was foolish for the Republicans, who made absolutely no effort in the 1994 campaign to lay a basis for Medicare cuts, to find themselves a year later making Medicare the central issue in American politics.
  • In 1995, government—described routinely as "too big" or "too intrusive"—was said to be the primary (sometimes the only) source of public disaffection with politics and politicians. Now (thanks in part, it must be said, to Pat Buchanan's primary campaign), public disgruntlement is far more likely to be explained by economic unease and the reaction to "downsizings."
  • In 1995, the Republicans had near total control of the public debate about environmental and safety regulation. The question discussed routinely was not whether to deregulate, but how far deregulation would and should go. Now, that project is in jeopardy because the new conventional wisdom has discovered that environmental and safety regulations are popular, with support from strong and reactivated constituencies. A Republican explained this better than any Democrat. Referring to the public's desire for aggressive airline safety inspection after the ValuJet crash, Senator Bill Cohen of Maine remarked: "Government is the enemy until you need a friend."

You could conclude from all this that you should never take the conventional political wisdom too seriously—or that you should wait for the result of at least two elections before doing so. Why take the conventional wisdom of the summer of 1996 as any more accurate than its earlier incarnation? For all I know, the conventional wisdom will have changed again by the time you read this.


The alternative view is more compelling: that the conventional wisdom of 1995 was wrong from the start, as some in this magazine suggested at the time. [See Paul Starr, "Who Owns the Future?" TAP, Spring 1995, and Robert Kuttner, "Up from 1994," TAP, Winter 1995.] Disaffection with the Democrats rested at least as much on what they failed to do (for example, pass a health care bill) as on what they did. The voters who turned on the Democrats were not angry about such internecine arguments as whether Clinton had run as a "new" Democrat and governed as an "old" one. They were not ideologues. As Ruy Teixeira has pointed out in his numerous writings on the subject [for example, Ruy Teixeira and Joel Rogers, "Who Deserted the Democrats in 1994?" TAP, Fall 1995], the Democrats lost most heavily among white voters who lacked college degrees. These were the voters who made the smallest economic gains, or no gains at all, in the early stages of the Clinton recovery. There is some evidence from polling by Stanley Greenberg that nonvoters in 1994 were more likely than voters to be disillusioned former Clinton supporters, many of them lower-middle-income people. Passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) may also have been a modest drag on the 1994 Democratic vote, decreasing enthusiasm within the party's union base while gaining Democrats no measurable ground among the upper-middle-class voters sympathetic to free trade.

This is not to reduce the Republicans' victory to economics alone. It's quite clear that the Republicans were helped by the activism of Christian conservatives, by social and "values" issues, and especially by the intense feelings against the assault weapons ban among gun owners. The Republicans were also helped by the deep personal hostility to Clinton in conservative quarters (these voters wanted to vote Republican early and often) that was unmatched by any sort of devotion to him among moderates or liberals.

But this did not make 1994 an ideological verdict. On the contrary, this election was like so many other American elections, especially those characterized by "throw the bums out" sweeps. The Republican sweep was built on "anti" voting, not on the endorsement of a particular agenda, notably the Contract with America whose provisions were mysterious to most voters and barely remarked upon by most candidates. If the contract had any important electoral effect, it was as a critique of Democrats who had failed to keep their promises to reform health care, welfare, the political system, and job training. The Republicans were saying that their promises were real, that they, like Ross Perot, would get under the hood. Paradoxically, then, the implicit message of the explicitly antigovernment contract was that Republicans would preside over an energetic government oriented to action.

The election was also a powerful commentary on the political agony involved in deficit reduction. If there was one promise Clinton did keep—and spent a lot of political treasure in keeping—it was his promise to cut the deficit in half. Clinton did so mostly by restoring a progressive edge to the tax code and by holding down spending increases, even in areas where he had promised bold action. Deficit reduction meant that there were few new programs that Democrats could tout to voters who wondered what the federal government did with all their money. (Welfare reform was one early casualty of the deficit fight: Spending designated for the training and education of welfare recipients was slashed at the last minute before Clinton presented his first budget.) Clinton and the Democrats gained almost nothing politically for their efforts. Deficit hawks were not won over; they repeatedly assailed Clinton for doing too little about the deficit. Voters only noticed that deficits had not been eliminated. For all the pain involved, the Republicans could still use the balanced budget issue for their own purposes—and denounce Democratic tax increases at the same time.

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Thus did Republicans win their great victory. Almost immediately, they made three big mistakes. First, they assumed that they could govern the country from Congress. As a result, they publicly took responsibility for all that went on in Washington. Newt Gingrich supplanted Bill Clinton as the city's most important news maker. President Clinton was now, in the famous word, irrelevant. Second, the Republicans assumed that Clinton would roll over and let them do what they wanted, on the theory that doing so was in Clinton's interest and that he would, in any event, lack the will to fight. Third, the Republicans assumed they had a broad and durable popular mandate for a strongly antigovernment program. In particular, they assumed that government was now so unpopular in the abstract that it would be possible to roll back regulation and to make substantial cuts in the growth even of popular programs such as Medicare. They also assumed that the antigovernment mood would save them from paying a heavy price for shutting the federal government down, if a shutdown was what it took to bend Clinton to their will.

In retrospect, it's easy to see some of the tactical inconsistencies within this approach. For example, with Republicans asserting publicly that they now controlled Washington, it was almost inevitable that they, not Clinton, would be blamed for the shutdown. There was, moreover, a profound inconsistency lurking in the standard Republican arguments about Clinton. The Republicans were asserting that Clinton was unprincipled, uninterested in anything but his own re-election, easily rolled. At the very same time, they were preparing to argue that if the government shut down, the collapse should be blamed on Clinton's intransigence. It may be theoretically possible for someone to be unprincipled and intransigent at the same time. But making the two arguments at once created a certain cognitive dissonance. It proved a hard sell.

The Republicans also underestimated Clinton's ability to work his way toward a successful strategy. A good case can be made that Clinton got to a politically brilliant endgame almost by accident. The administration itself was fiercely divided over how to deal with the Republican Congress. Clinton, by the account of many in his administration, was uncertain. In retrospect, Clinton did the politically clever thing by accepting one half of the strategy offered him by Dick Morris, his friend and a one-time consultant to Republicans, and rejecting the other half.

Morris argued, against liberals and congressional Democrats, that Clinton needed to accept the basic Repub lican premise: The President could not be seen as blocking a balanced budget. But he could profit politically from standing against the Republicans' way of reaching balance, especially if the President made the defense of popular programs—Medicare, Medicaid, environmental protection, and education—the cornerstone of his position.

This turned out to be good strategy because the theoretical principle of a balanced budget was broadly popular with the electorate. Large deficits had become the symbol not of a conscious federal policy (something many editors of this magazine might defend), but rather of a federal establishment gone out of control. Liberals inside the administration also came to realize that by setting the goal of a balanced budget in seven years, Republicans had given the administration ample room to push the most severe cuts out well beyond the life of a second Clinton administration. The Republicans could reasonably attack the administration for proposing a "fake" balanced budget. But their authority to do so was undercut by their own budgets, which also included deep cuts in the "out years."

Still, Morris turned out to be wrong in his other calculation: that the President's political interest lay in reaching agreement with the Republican Congress. Even here, Morris helped the President by sending out signals to his Republican friends that Clinton wanted a deal. This was a disinformation campaign without the disinformation—Morris believed he was accurately representing the President's position, and Clinton seemed to believe this for a time. But as the Republicans suffered under Democratic assaults, especially on Medicare, Clinton concluded that the reaction against an increasingly unpopular Republican congressional leadership would be the primary instrument of his resurrection. This militated against any deal. The Republicans could not be cast as "extremists" if Clinton was willing to make a deal with them. And the country would not hanker for the protection of Clinton's veto pen if the "extremist" label didn't stick.

Here, the Republicans made their fourth big mistake. Clinton's own proposals gave them ample room to strike a budget deal that would have taken large chunks out of federal spending, including Medicare. Republicans would not have paid the Medicare price, yet they could still have claimed an abstract desire to cut more than Clinton would allow. The President's effectiveness in confronting the Republicans meant that the "intransigent" charge no longer seemed so silly. And in reaching agreement with Clinton, the Republicans would have split the Democratic Party. It is hard to imagine a majority of the congressional party, especially Democrats in the House, going along with a deal blessed by Newt Gingrich and Dick Armey.

Maybe it's a tribute to the Republicans' fierce philosophical consistency that they missed this chance. Whatever the reason, they did. They held their ground, their poll ratings collapsed, and Clinton dug in.


But something more was going on than tactical politics. The Republicans' budget proposals forced the country to come to terms with what it really thought about sharp cuts in the deficit. Not deficit reduction in the abstract. Not "waste, fraud, and abuse." Not whether it would be nicer to pay lower taxes. Not whether "the era of big government" was over. If you wanted to end the deficit and also wanted rather substantial tax cuts—the political balancing act between Republican supply-siders and deficit hawks required both—you could not get there without cutting very popular programs, especially the health programs. It is possible to accuse the congressional Democrats of some demagoguery on Medicare (about proportional to Republican demagoguery on the Clinton health care proposal) and still conclude that the country knew exactly what it was doing in moving against the Republicans' budget design. American voters may not like government or particularly trust it, but (and this is the big fact the Republicans missed) neither do they fully like or trust what the market produces when it is unconstrained by government. The anxieties of the elderly and their children over the effects on health care from the withdrawal of fistfuls of future federal dollars were not the invention of any propaganda campaign. The Republicans did not answer these worries effectively because they simply couldn't make the case that the big changes they proposed in Medicare were necessary to "saving" the program. They also wrongly calculated that generic opposition to "spending," "taxes," and "entitlements" would push them over the top. And so they lost the budget fight.

The final lesson about the Republican revolution came during this year's Republican primaries. If the basic problem facing the country was, as the Republicans claimed, too much government, then the Republican congressional program should have been wildly popular this year, especially among Republican voters. But during the primaries, the two candidates who dominated the argument were Pat Buchanan, who lashed out at "corporate butchers" for mass layoffs, and Steve Forbes, who pushed a flat tax to promote higher growth rates. On paper, Buchanan and Forbes were the most improbable presidents in the Republican field. Yet they became Dole's main adversaries—and beat him in several primaries—by campaigning against Washington and Congress almost as if both were still in Democratic hands. For Forbes and Buchanan, the central issue before the voters was not government as such, but the state of the economy. For Buchanan, the election was about the decline of middle-class jobs. For Forbes, the election was about achieving higher growth rates. Dole won the nomination, but Buchanan and Forbes defined the debate.


The lesson of the battles of 1995 and the early primaries of 1996 was essentially the same as the lesson of both 1992 and 1994: that a large and restive segment of the electorate, the Anxious Middle, is indeed unhappy about the state of the country and, yes, about government. But its unease runs deeper and its concerns are more subtle than the standard anti-Washington, antigovernment sloganeering would suggest. Public anger is rooted in distinct but overlapping crises involving the economy, politics, and morality.

The economic crisis needs little comment: It is created by the transition to a new economy, the ferocity of global economic competition, and the impact of this competition on wages, working hours, and health and pension coverage. This, in turn, creates a political crisis. The global economy substantially reduces the autonomy of national governments and makes it harder for politicians to keep their promises on such basic matters as levels of economic growth, taxation, and regulation. In the postwar period, the industrial countries all pursued, under various names, what Walter Russell Mead has called the "social democratic bargain." Economic decisions remained in private hands, but governments used the tools at their disposal to spread prosperity more broadly, to create social benefits, to protect workers' rights, and to take the edge off economic downturns. The current political crisis is the crisis of this social democratic bargain.

Finally, there is the moral crisis, which liberals have been reluctant to address. In the United States especially, conservatives attribute the moral crisis to the counterculture of the 1960s. As Newt Gingrich put it, "We have to say to the counterculture: Nice try, you failed, you're wrong." Voters do see the moral crisis at least in part in the terms set by conservatives: in high crime rates, high levels of family breakdown, the poverty of Hollywood values, a coarsening of the culture. But the moral crisis is also experienced as a problem for those who, as Clinton has noted repeatedly, "work hard and play by the rules." In the new economy, it's not clear what the rules are. It's not obvious that hard work is rewarded or that loyalty to employers is ever requited. Conservatives have profited from talking about the first set of problems without necessarily offering any solutions. Progressives have only begun to grapple unapologetically with the fact that the moral crisis is as real and tangible to voters as paycheck politics—and that their task is to demonstrate the links between the two without denying the importance of either.

It is this end-of-century intimation of a great transition that undergirds the increasingly widespread view that the United States is ripe for a new Progressive Era. "There is," wrote the political scientist Hugh Heclo, "something familiar in the Progressives' deep worry that, despite living in an era of relative peace and prosperity, something had gone seriously wrong in the internal life of the nation."

The word "neoprogressivism" has arisen as a 1990s counterpoint to the "neoconservatism" of the 1970s. If the neoconservatives reacted to the failures—both real and perceived—of 1960s politics, the neoprogressives are the product of failures from 1980 onward. Virtually all neoprogressives share an allergy to an endless reprise of either 1960s cultural politics or 1980s antigovernment politics—or worse, a continuing battle between the two. This leads to two other unifying insights: that the solutions to the current crises will require active government; but that the social and economic disruptions of this era also require a strengthening of civic and community institutions outside of government.

The neoprogressives cover a wide spectrum. Both the Democratic Leadership Council and the pro-labor forces at the new Campaign for America's Future recently issued manifestos pointing to the powerful parallels between this period and the reformist wave that began with Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson (pushed along, it might be added, by Eugene Debs). They agree that the internationalization of the economy demands new approaches to maintaining middle-class living standards, achieving higher growth rates, and preventing large increases in inequality that would undermine the social bargains on which democracy rests. Both documents also speak of the declining loyalty of employer to employee, of the impact of the new economy on families, of the need for a revival of the sorts of international economic institutions that did so much to spur expansion after the Second World War. President Clinton himself now speaks regularly of the early Progressives and of how their task of writing new rules for a radically new period is now our own.


But there is far more agreement on the need for a progressive departure than on the contents of a new progressive program. This uncertainty is reflected in the caution of the congressional Democrats' "Families First" agenda and in the exquisite care taken by the writers of this year's Democratic platform to avoid any controversial commitments or challenging propositions. (The most controversial line in the platform, a repetition of Clinton's declaration that "the era of big government is over," is less a challenge than a rhetorical capitulation to the other side.)

There are, moreover, large differences in how the various factions traveling under a neoprogressive banner describe the challenges of the next decade. The Democratic Leadership Council manifesto devotes much energy to criticizing bureaucracy and other "old" approaches to solving social problems. It is critical of "bureaucratic" solutions and, implicitly, of public employee unions and their resistance to change. The America's Future manifesto concentrates much of its fire on the behavior of corporations. It is implicitly critical of moderate progressives for failing to face up to the ways in which the social problems the moderates describe are exacerbated by the structure of the economy. These broad differences point to large arguments to come.

But will these battles cripple the effort to revive the progressive tradition? They need not, as long as the partisans of various visions admit that they agree on certain propositions—in polemical circumstances, admitting agreement can be the hardest thing of all—and find their way toward a plausible program for the near term. But in the long run, some of the differences need to be resolved, lest the neoprogressive movement deliver nothing more than rhetoric.

For example, neoprogressives of all stripes argue for higher growth rates. This is not a trivial achievement. Some friends of the environment were once given to making arguments against growth, on the grounds that continued economic expansion would threaten ecological balances. Now, many environmentalists argue that saving the environment may actually require decent levels of growth, especially in Third World nations. The move within the environmental community toward the idea of "sustainable growth" is more than a rhetorical shift. It reflects an understanding that growth is a moral necessity and a powerful spur to social justice.

But what spurs growth? The Keynesian calls for a less phobic policy toward inflation from the Federal Reserve or an explicit acceptance of moderate federal deficits (or both) are now controversial. But they could become less so over time. On inflation, the evidence will matter. If the continued downward pressure on wages keeps inflation at bay, the case for lower interest rates to promote more robust growth will be overwhelming.

On the deficit, the federal government could discover that state governments have had it right all along: It's reasonable to go into debt for long-term purposes—the construction of roads, schools, environmental facilities, and the like—while keeping the books in balance for short-term expenditures. Thus the arguments from many quarters (including Progressive Policy Institute Vice President Robert Shapiro) for the division of federal spending into two budgets: a consumption budget, which should stay in balance except in times of deep recession, and an investment budget, which can reasonably be financed by long-term debt.

Neoprogressives agree on the need to invest more heavily in job training programs, more aggressive school-to-work programs (to create closer links between high schools and the job market), and other efforts to move workers to better-paying parts of the economy. On many of these ideas, neoprogressives will find strong allies in a business community that is often strapped for educated and skilled workers. This is one area where voucher approaches are promising. In all likelihood, voucher programs would have the beneficial effect of strengthening the country's system of community colleges, since evidence from the past suggests that they are likely to produce the best training and job transition programs.

But designing job training programs that work is easier said than done. And with the global labor market creating fierce competition even among the most skilled members of the workforce, can job training ever be enough? Training and education are popular because they make intuitive sense, but also because they raise no large questions about the structure of the economy. Far more controversial will be the debate over the role and future of the labor movement, and the debate over how to represent the interests of employees in new economic circumstances. It is easy to agree that old models of representation need to be reinvented. Working at Microsoft is different in important ways from working at U.S. Steel or General Motors. The service economy is different from the industrial economy. When only one private-sector worker in ten belongs to a traditional union, it is time to explore alternative means of worker representation. But it's also true that the labor movement has begun to adapt itself and is still one of the most powerful instruments available to employees seeking a voice at work. Thus a modest suggestion: that labor's centrist critics pause long enough to realize that their main goal, a more equitable distribution of opportunity, requires a revitalized labor movement; and that labor's supporters accept, in turn, that there is more than one way to represent workers and their interests.

Similarly, neoprogressives share an understanding that the global market creates a need for strengthening international agreements on labor rights and the environment, and for new compacts to promote economic growth. In the aftermath of World War II, the democratic countries created a remarkable trade and currency regime that led to a period of rapid and sustained economic growth accompanied by an expansion of social justice. There will be much dispute over how (and even whether) this can happen again. There will be arguments about how global regulation can be achieved, how broad it should be, and how it can be enforced. But even to begin this argument—to suggest that it is not, in principle, impossible to accomplish what the postwar leadership did—is to suggest that we need not accept slow growth and expanding inequality as inevitable.

There will, necessarily, be great dispute over the organization of world trade. McKinley-era protectionism is not an option, but trade is not now and never will be entirely "free." Different countries, at different stages of development, will pursue their own economic policies for their own reasons. Those pushing to expand world trade will necessarily argue over the best ways to do so. Should the United States pursue more trade agreements with Latin America? Or should it turn instead toward Europe, where the political climate is more hospitable to America's progressive regulatory and social welfare tradition? What is clear is that without some strengthening of international standards and enforcement mechanisms, the race to the bottom in labor and environmental conditions will continue, dragging down with it what is left of the social democratic bargain.

The debate over domestic social policy will also be fierce. In principle, all neoprogressives are open to experimentation and to the reform and reconstruction of the public sector. All accept the need for strong systems of social insurance and for expanding rather than contracting programs for the poor. In practice, there will be great fights over how to change the big social programs, especially Medicare, to accommodate the baby boom; over the role of public employee unions; and over how social programs are best delivered. Is the primary goal of the Progressive tradition to build more responsive public institutions, or to achieve greater equality of access though voucher-style programs? This debate will be especially difficult on public education (an area where I, for one, would dissent from many liberals and argue that voucher experiments for low-income children should be welcomed).

Still, in most other areas, the vouchers versus institution-building argument is not a fight over principles. It is simply a debate over means. As Robert Kuttner has argued, vouchers are usually a "second order question." The first issue is to decide whether or not to use public resources to solve a particular problem. If public resources are needed, what is the best way to deploy them?

President Clinton's decision to sign a deeply flawed welfare bill may be the most disturbing cautionary tale of all. In principle, Democrats and a large group of moderate Republicans agreed on what constituted genuine welfare reform: A new system would embody a commitment to work and family stability. In exchange, the government would expand, not contract, help for the poor in the form of education, job training, child care, and guarantees of health coverage. As David Ellwood wrote recently in these pages ["Welfare Reform As I Knew It," TAP, May-June 1996], there was a large opening for such an approach during the first two Clinton years. The opportunity was squandered, not only by the administration but also by many liberals who recognized neither the popular pressure for reform nor the urgency of fixing a system that was failing the poor. This, in turn, opened the way for the deep cuts enacted under a false flag of reform.

If any good can come out of this terrible bill, it is that the death of the once noble but now stigmatized word "welfare" may make it easier for advocates for the poor to overcome the old demagoguery. But the problems this bill creates are huge; merely restoring the spending it cuts will be difficult. To make any progress, supporters of practical generosity will need to accept Ellwood's insight about the importance of work and family stability.

There may be even less consensus on health care. Even among those who continue to favor national action to guarantee universal coverage, there remain disagreements over the merits of building on the existing system of private insurance, of constructing a government-sponsored single-payer system—or of trying to create, as the Clintons did, a mixed system to harness certain market efficiencies to a set of government guarantees. The 1996 Democratic platform and the Families First agenda endorsed only the most minimal of health care reforms in an effort to evade such questions. But giving up on universal coverage makes neither moral nor policy sense. And there is nothing wrong with bowing to political and practical necessity by pursuing this goal in steps (for example, by pushing first for universal coverage for children). The achievement of each step would constitute a substantial success, and would reduce the difficulty of finishing the job.

Merely to list these disputes over fundamentals is to suggest that while American voters are eager for a new turn in American politics, there is nothing automatic about the success of a particular brand of progressivism. Potential allies in a new progressive project could quickly become adversaries—or, alternatively, could find agreement on only the narrowest and least-inspiring set of reforms.

Nonetheless, what is clear from the turbulence of the last four years is that American voters would be powerfully attracted to a political movement devoted to using government to ease their economic insecurities and to expand their capacity to take advantage of the new era. They would welcome a debate focused less on "big" or "small" government and more on "better" or "more appropriate" government. Inaction did not work for the Democrats. An antigovernment program did not work for the Republicans. You might argue that progressive government is the one alternative that hasn't been tried.

America's Progressive tradition has many flaws. At its worst, it could be excessively bureaucratic, too beholden to experts, too wary of mass political participation, indifferent or hostile to racial justice, uneasy about the ethnic mosaic created by immigration. But at its best, the Progressive tradition was powerfully democratic. It saw free government as the ally rather than the enemy of liberty, and as an instrument for solving problems that would go unsolved absent political action. That tradition is not only alive and well; it now has its largest opening in three decades. Neoprogressives should have their arguments. But they should not squander their opportunity.

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