Author Archives: Matthew Dickinson

Notes from the Campaign Trail: Why Won’t These Candidates Quit?

Two nights ago the Vermont and New Hampshire Republican Party county committees held a joint fundraiser in Lebanon, N.H. featuring many of the Republican presidential candidates or their representatives and, as part of my ongoing series chronicling the presidential campaign, your intrepid blogger shelled out $35 to attend the candidate forum. Since the event was titled the “2015 Connecticut River Run,” I initially thought the candidates might be running a road race, and the prospect of seeing a red-faced Chris Christie in spandex, barreling down the finish line while knocking aside Lindsey Graham, Rand Paul and the other candidates like so many ten pins, seemed well worth the price of admission. Alas, this turned out to be a much more staid event held indoors at the local Elks Club. A big elk head stood hanging behind the speaker’s podium, unblinking, evidently hanging on every word, which provided a nice backdrop as the candidates made their pitch. (My biggest twitter reaction all night was in response to my tweet calling the elk a moose head.)

 

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Only about 50-70 people attended (including Vermont Lieutenant Governor Phil Scott), most of them middle-aged or older, so we were able to get good seats (sitting alongside Vermont gubernatorial candidate Scott Milne who is as low-key and unpretentious in person as he seems on television) at a table near the front of the hall, where I chowed down on lobster rolls and finger food while live tweeting the event.  Here are my notes from the event.

As I have noted in previous posts, several Republican candidates have staked their hopes on doing well in New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation’s primary. For many of them, the recent terrorist attack in San Bernardino has given them an opportunity to highlight their more hawkish foreign policy views in the hope that national security issues will become increasingly relevant in the campaign. With only two months left before the primary, however, their opportunities to make an impression with New Hampshire voters are dwindling, and so even smaller events like this draw candidates – particularly those in the second tier who are struggling to gain traction. Not surprisingly, then, the candidates who made personal appearances included Lindsey Graham, John Kasich and George Pataki – all of whom are polling in single digits (or lower!) in the Granite State. The rest of the Republican hopefuls had surrogates making pitches on their behalf. Here is the latest aggregate polling averages for the New Hampshire Republican primary:

The format was simple: each candidate (or their surrogate) had up to 15 minutes to make their case before yielding the podium to the next in line. You might think that with only 15 minutes to talk, one wouldn’t learn much about the candidates, but instead the need to boil their candidacy down to its essential features proved quite useful. With no time to spare, each candidate was forced to focus on what they thought was their strongest selling point.

South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, introduced by his sister Darlene, led off the proceedings. After complimenting Vermont Republicans who attended for their “political courage” living in a heavily blue state, and then taking a brief shot at the way the media used national polling to influence their coverage of the race (Graham has been excluded from the top debate stage due to low national polling numbers) he proceeded to launch into his signature issue – the need to put 5,000 U.S. ground troops into Iraq to defeat ISIL. Graham has moderated his hawkish foreign policy tendencies a bit – he now emphasizes that most of the fighting will be done by a much larger Arab ground force (90% of the coalitional forces) led by Americans, and that U.S. troops will not remain once ISIL is defeated. Still, he is clearly hoping the recent terrorist attack will refocus the campaign on foreign policy issues – particular the fight against ISIL. After briefly reminding the audience that his mother could not have raised their family without government assistance, Graham concluded by referencing his humble roots, asking rhetorically, “Can a person who grew up behind a bar become President of the United States? I don’t know!” I’ve said it before – Graham is an underappreciated candidate, one who deserves a more prominent platform than the media has given him to date, but at this point one wonders whether he is really angling for an appointment in the next Republican administration as Secretary of Defense.

If you want to know why Jeb! Bush’s candidacy is struggling, last night’s presentation by his surrogate, former U.S. Attorney General Mike Mukasey, provided some clues. Mukasey was introduced as someone who New York Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer thought would make a good Supreme Court justice.  That prompted Mukasey to spend the first part of his speech explaining why Schumer would push Mukasey’s name for the highest court in the land. That vignette might have been interesting if Mukasey was running for President, but he’s not – at least I don’t think he is. When he finally got around to discussing Jeb!, he did so in such a low-key tone that you might have thought he was describing what he had for breakfast. It was a decidedly unimpressive presentation, made more so when Ohio Governor John Kasich, not even bothering to stop and remove his jacket, dashed in, grabbed the microphone and proceed to give a much more animated and folksy presentation. Kasich, adopting the role of Pastor-in-Chief, eschewed discussing policy to speak instead on the importance of having meaning in life and how the lack of such meaning is fueling both the growing drug addiction among the young and the ability of ISIL to recruit disaffected Muslims. “I know it’s not a good political speech,” Kasich acknowledged, but he attributed his spiritual focus to the Christmas season. (Each table was festooned with a poinsettia centerpiece, which the organizers then forced us to buy in order to exit the premises; my wife charitably forked over the $5 extortion fee to set us free.)

Former New York Governor George Pataki, dressed as always in jacket and tie, gave probably the most energized speech of the night, one that drew a rare round of applause from a crowd that for the most part seemed content to sit on its hands. More than anyone else on the dais, Pataki used the San Bernardino attack as a talking point to buttress his belief that the country needs to declare war on ISIL, and he repeatedly linked the recent terrorist attack to 9-11 which occurred while he was Governor of New York. “We must attack them there,” he thundered, “or they will attack us here.” His talk was sprinkled with references to radical Islam and at one point he dared Attorney General Lynch to prosecute him for using those words – a line that drew cheers from the audience. Pataki advocated shutting down internet sites that actively encourage terrorism and doing the same to community settings, including mosques, that preach violence. He mentioned that he has two sons serving in the military, and thus appreciates what it means to send soldiers to war. Pataki was the only candidate who took questions. When asked about how to deal with arrogant bureaucrats in Washington DC, he said he would get rid of them, citing as precedent his actions shrinking state government as New York’s Governor. In response to a second question regarding how to deal with Russia’s presence in the Syria, he said he would work with Turkey to set up a no-fly zone.

Former Governor Jim Gilmore was scheduled to speak after Pataki and I was curious to see how he would be received. Alas, in what can only be seen as a fitting metaphor for his presidential campaign, Gilmore never showed up, and no one could say where he was. After the Gilmore no show, there came a succession of surrogates representing candidates Rubio, Fiorina, Cruz, Christie, Carson, Trump and Paul. They were an interesting mix. Rubio was represented by Randy Johnson, a former Florida Representative who claimed he knew there was something special about Rubio the moment he met him. Cruz’s representative – former New Hampshire House Speaker Bill O’Brien – made it clear that Cruz would not compromise his conservative values if elected. Rather than extol her virtues, Fiorina’s spokesman Gene Chandler (another former NH House Speaker) directed listeners to her website which lists the six objectives of her campaign. Trump’s surrogate, Fred Ducette (I hope I have his name correctly spelled) apologized for not being a politician and also for feeling too ill to speak at length. After fumbling to make the microphone work, he then proceeded to list Trump’s virtues – “He’s beholden to no one!” – promised that Trump would make America great, and exited. Rand Paul’s representative took the libertarian approach, declining to speak at the podium (he may have been reluctant to touch the microphone after Ducette coughed all over it) and instead offering to meet interested parties in the back of the room. Carson’s surrogate began by noting that the Good Doctor had led a surgical group in a lengthy and ultimately successful effort to separate conjoined twins, so he knew the virtue of teamwork. Only Santorum and Huckabee didn’t bother sending representatives which I expect reflects their realization that their brand of social conservatism is not going to play well in New Hampshire.

Never too shy to express an opinion, Donald Trump has for some weeks now been calling for candidates who are languishing in the polls to drop out of the race, arguing that this will give the real candidates more time on stage to make their case. I understand The Donald’s point. But there is something to admire in candidates like Graham and Pataki, both of whom are drawing less than 1% in aggregate polling in New Hampshire, and yet who nonetheless continue to push on, moving from Elks Lodge to Legion Hall to public library, crisscrossing the state to passionately make the case for why they should be elected President. It may be that at this point they are running for something else – a cabinet post, or a television talk show – rather than the presidency. Whatever their motivation, and however unrealistic their chances at winning, there is still some virtue in having them out there, making their case and discussing the issues in person to the voters. New Hampshire offers a unique opportunity for voters to meet so many of these candidates before they are winnowed. Graham captured this sentiment, I think, when he told the audience why keeping New Hampshire’s primary first in the nation is so important: “It’s the last best chance for democracy to work at the local level.” That may be somewhat melodramatic (and politically self-serving too!) But where else can you shake hands with a potential president of the United States, and bring home a slice of Presidential Political Americana in the process?

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Tales From the Campaign Trail: Can Christie Come Back In New Hampshire?

It is hard to remember, but four years ago many Republicans (and pundits), concerned about what they viewed as Mitt Romney’s lackluster candidacy and a generally weak Republican field, were imploring New Jersey Governor Chris Christie to enter their party’s presidential race.  Christie demurred, claiming that he was not yet ready for a presidential run.  As late as November, 2013, however, polls still showed him leading the field of prospective 2016 Republican candidates. Now that Christie has thrown his hat in the ring, however, it’s not clear that voters are ready for him. Despite what many observers saw as a strong performance in the last Republican debate, Christie continues to lag in national polls, and last week Fox News announced that he had been relegated to the kiddie debate table, along with Rick Santorum, Bobby Jindal and Mike Huckabee, for the next Republican debate night.

Like many struggling candidates, including John Kasich, Lindsey Graham and Jeb!, Christie appears to have staked his candidacy on a strong showing in New Hampshire, a state he has visited 31 times, more than any other candidate to date.  There is some evidence that his persistence is paying off – although he continues to draw single-digit support in Granite State polling, the most recent poll there shows Christie climbing into 5th place, with 8% support, the highest he has been there for some time.


Is this the sign of a Christie comeback? As part of our continuing campaign coverage, your intrepid blogger attended Christie’s campaign event held yesterday at the Salt Hill Pub in Hanover, New Hampshire, part of Christie’s #TellingItLikeItIs campaign tour. It was a standing room only audience, which I estimated at about 200 people, many of them college students, who crammed into the pub. The cramped quarters lent an air of intimacy to the event that stood in stark contrast to the more rock star feel that characterized the Sanders’ event I attended last week in nearby Lebanon. Fortunately, by luck of the draw, I was positioned about 10 feet from the candidate throughout the event. (Unfortunately, the student next to me appeared to be suffering from monstrous nasal congestion and a deep-rooted lung condition. But this is what I endure to bring you the story.)
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Christie arrived wearing a dark jacket with matching tie over his white dress shirt, but he shed the jacket during the Q&A session which took up most of the nearly hour-and-a-half long event. Before answering questions, however, he opened with a brief but heartfelt vignette about a former drug addict who went through rehab, rather than being jailed for drug possession, and who as a result recovered to reclaim his life. “Everybody makes bad choices,” he noted. “My mother was addicted to cigarettes…but when she was diagnosed with lung cancer, no one came and said ‘Don’t treat her, she got what she deserved!’” Christie’s point is that more resources should be expended targeting treatment and recovery of addicts rather than putting them in jail.

The issue of drug addiction has become a familiar talking point for Christie on the campaign trail, and this video based on Christie’s approach regarding how to treat drug addiction have received more than a million seven million online views.  It is evident he cares deeply about the issue, but it’s not entirely clear to me why he has opted to make it the centerpiece of his New Hampshire campaign. It is true that New Hampshire, like my home state of Vermont, is suffering from a rise in opiate addiction, fueled by an influx of cheap heroin. But polls suggest New Hampshire voters view national security and the economy as more important issues.  Nonetheless it may be that Christie sees an opening to position himself as the party’s “compassionate conservative”, in contrast to the more conservative social views espoused by some of his party rivals.

After this brief opening statement, Christie took about a dozen questions from what appeared to be a generally friendly crowd, albeit one that showed less dyed-in-the-wool partisanship than, say, a Sanders crowd. The topics ranged from how to deal with the Chinese island-building effort in the South China sea – “I’d fly Air Force One over the islands” – to Obamacare – (Repeal it and turn health care over to the states) – to Dodd-Frank (repeal it for small community banks and allow states to regulate them). On the environment, in contrast to many of his Republican rivals, Christie believes that global climate change is driven in part by human activity, and he supports efforts to reduce global carbon emissions using alternative energy sources – but not through cap-and-trade policies. In this vein, he touted New Jersey’s heavy reliance on nuclear power (“Fifty-three percent of our electricity is produced by nuclear power”) and solar energy (“New Jersey is in the top three solar states, behind California and Arizona”) while trying to phase out coal-powered plants. Christie says each state must adopt the mix of energy sources that works best for them in combating climate change (“Iowa should emphasize wind turbines.”) But he acknowledged that reducing carbon emissions is a global problem and emphasized the need to work with the Chinese on this issue, although he was notably short on specifics regarding how he might do so. When asked about increasing funding for space exploration, Christie used the question as an opportunity to cite the need for reforming entitlement programs which he said consumes more than 70% of the federal budget. “I’m sorry, but until we tackle this issue, I’m not going to be increasing money on the space program.” On campaign finance, Christie says he would allow unlimited direct contributions to candidates, but make sure they were posted for full transparency online within 24 hours.

When it came to foreign policy, Christie generally took a much more hardline approach than on domestic affairs. When asked how he would deal with the Syrian war, he recommended imposing a no-fly zone. “Someone asked me what I would do if the Russians violated it. I would shoot them down.” They would have been warned, he noted. Later, when asked about how to deal with the Syrian refugee problem he argued that it was caused in part by Obama’s failure to keep his word. “He drew a red line against the use of chemical weapons, then did nothing when Assad crossed it.” Christie called for greater international support, including from the U.S., to help settle refugees, but at the same time he opposed allowing them into the U.S. due to security concerns. When pressed by a college student why we would expect U.S. military involvement in Syria to turn out any better than when the U.S. intervened in Iraq, some of the famous Christie bluster appeared. “What would you do?” he shot back. “Would you let Assad stay in power to murder a quarter million of his people?” The U.S.’s responsibility, he insisted, was to empower the Syrian people to prevent genocide as well as the imposition of an Islamic state. In a line that received perhaps the greatest applause of the event, Christie noted somewhat acidly that, “We can talk about American imperialism which is a nice college word…but reality is more nuanced.”

At only one point during the event did Christie’s reputation for bullying critics appear to come close to being validated. A woman asked him to reconcile his views on abortion – Christie is pro-life, but with exceptions for rape, incest and the health of the mother – with his support of capital punishment. In an interesting response, he answered that he views capital punishment as a means of defending the state which is the same justification for his pro-life stance which is designed to defend the unborn child. When the woman pressed him by asking what a woman who was impregnated through rape was supposed to do during the many months it might require getting a rape conviction, Christie bristled. “Let’s not get cute here,” he chided the questioner, arguing that forensic evidence would immediately establish evidence for rape and discounting the likelihood that women will falsely claim rape to justify an abortion. “What I’m basically saying here is that we need to take the woman’s word.” To be clear, Christie softened his tone near the end of the exchange, and the woman thanked him for his response.

When asked about dealing with Congress as president, Christie again used the question to take several shots at Obama. While characterizing Congress as a “den of vipers”, Christie pointed out that dealing with the New Jersey legislature wasn’t “an Easter egg hunt.” He cited three keys to working with an opposition legislature. First, he stressed the need to speak clearly in emphasizing priorities. “You can’t be everything to everyone.” Second, he cited the importance of developing a good personal working relationship with legislative leaders. Here he chided Obama for waiting almost seven years to invite House Republican leader and later Speaker John Boehner on Air Force One: “If I was president and Nancy Pelosi was Speaker, I’d have her on the plane whenever she wanted.” Finally, he noted the importance of acting decisively when tackling problems, again contrasting his position with Obama’s actions: “I wouldn’t have taken seven years to make a decision on the Keystone Pipeline.”

Near the end of the session he had a chance to show his softer side when he was asked by an 11-year old girl how he would improve education. He stressed the need for parental involvement and a greater incorporation of technology: “Every student should have an IPad.” He would eliminate tenure for public school teachers in grade K-12 – “No one ever got fired for their views on algebra!” – and work to get rid of underperforming teachers. Here he blamed teachers unions for blocking educational reform. He finished by telling the girl how important it was for her to do her best, even on days when she might not feel like doing her homework, noting that “I have those days too!”

It is clear that Christie is trying to stake out a position as a social moderate in an attempt to differentiate himself from many of his more conservative Republican rivals. But he is not averse to taking a hardline policy stance on many issues, particularly in foreign policy. It remains to be seen how this will play out in New Hampshire. In this vein his biggest rivals may be Jeb! and Kasich, two other big-state governors who have relatively moderate positions among Republicans on social issues, but who are also adopting a “get tough” foreign policy. But in contrast to both of their more laid back demeanors, Christie exudes a brashness and edge that many in yesterday’s audience seemed to appreciate, although one person did question whether that temperament was most conducive to dealing with foreign leaders. Christie’s response was classic: “I have a lot of clubs in my bag. When the media covers me they usually focus on when I use my driver. But when I get close to a policy objective, I can use the pitching wedge.”

At this point, about 100 days before the New Hampshire primary, the race for the Republican nomination is still on the front nine. New Hampshire voters are notoriously slow in making up their minds, and there is some evidence that the process is even more glacial this electoral cycle due to the large number of candidates camped out in the Granite State. It remains to be seen whether Christie can pull off the political equivalent of a hole-in-one. But I, for one, hope he stays in the race for the duration, if for no other reason than to watch him take that uniquely Christie golf swing. Cue the driver!

Is New Hampshire #FeelingTheBern? Notes from the Campaign Trail

Bernie Sanders’ biggest obstacle to securing the 2016 Democratic nomination is no secret. As I noted last July in an interview with WCAX’s Alex Apple, Sanders started his campaign with a built-in progressive constituency comprising roughly 30% of likely Democratic voters. To expand that coalition, however, Sanders needed to accomplish two related objectives. First, he had to demonstrate why his single-minded focus on addressing economic inequality should appeal to minority voters who make up a significant portion of the Democratic electorate. Second, he needed to attract more moderate Democrats who were initially inclined to back Hillary Clinton, the Democratic front-runner heading into the presidential campaign. Toward that end, Sanders has worked assiduously to broaden his appeal to minority voters, in part by addressing concerns raised by the Black Lives Matter movement. He has also worked hard to show how his economic policies will help the middle class.

It has always been clear what Sanders’ electoral strategy will be: he hopes that a strong showing in the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary will both give his campaign credibility with the Democratic party establishment while casting doubt on the perception of electoral inevitability that Clinton, the purported front-runner, has tried to create. Toward this end, New Hampshire is perhaps the linchpin to Sanders’ electoral fortunes. After several months in which Sanders gradually pulled ahead of Clinton in Granite State polling, more recent state surveys suggest that Clinton has begun to regain some support among New Hampshire Democrats.

Three of the last six NH polls have Clinton ahead of Sanders by margins ranging from 2% to 8%, although the one poll among this group that does not include Vice President Joe Biden’s name has Sanders leading Clinton by 15%, 54%-39%. Nonetheless, in an indication of how important New Hampshire is to Sanders, media reports indicate that he is about to run his first television ad there and in Iowa. Among other issues, the ad will highlight Sanders’ civil rights record and his vote against the Iraq War. Clinton, in contrast, has been running television ads in New Hampshire for several months now.

Given New Hampshire’s strategic importance, your intrepid blogger decided to attend Bernie’s rally yesterday in Lebanon, New Hampshire, a small middle-class, largely white suburb (population about 13,500) just across the Connecticut River from Vermont. My goal was to see if Bernie’s message was catching on, and if so, with whom. We arrived at Lebanon High School forty minutes before the scheduled start of the event, only to see a substantial line of people stretching 100 yards waiting to get into the high school gym. Our timing was fortuitous, as we were among the last allowed inside the gym – those behind us, numbering about 300, were shunted to an overflow location where they watched Bernie on a televised feed. Event organizers indicated that some 2,400 people made it inside the gym – a far cry from some of Bernie’s larger outdoor audiences, but still bigger than the crowds attending the Kasich and O’Malley New Hampshire events I blogged about earlier.

It soon became apparent that in contrast to the Kasich and O’Malley events, in which audience members seemed eager to learn about the respective candidates, the Sanders’ crowd was already #Feeling the Bern. Rather than the traditional Yankee flinty skepticism for which New Hampshire voters are renowned, this turned out to be a giant pep rally, in which almost everything Bernie said drew sustained applause. Not surprisingly, given the demographics of Bernie’s core supporters, most of the audience seemed composed of college-age or younger students, although there was a healthy mix of age groups. The event began with a couple of speeches from local high school students talking about why they support Bernie, followed by a rousing set piece from a Sanders campaign aide designed to stoke the fires. And then Bernie entered, to a standing, sustained ovation.

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After beginning with a joke – “I’m really Larry David!” – Bernie launched into his familiar jeremiad against economic inequality and the billionaire class. Across the span of an hour he covered the usual topics: the vast scale of economic inequality (“the worst since the 1920’s”), Republican hypocrisy on “family values”, particularly their opposition to abortion, LGBT rights, and medical and paid family leave. Sanders pushed for increased federal spending on infrastructure, a federal jobs program, a higher minimum wage, more money to hire teachers and an end to trade agreements that cost domestic jobs. He railed against Citizens United and campaign finance laws that favored the wealthy, forcefully advocated for policies to address climate change, and pushed for expanded health care coverage. Near the end of his speech, in a line that drew perhaps the loudest applause of the rally, he called for an end to institutionalized racism, noting that this should not be a country where “I get dragged out of my car, thrown to the ground” and end up dying in jail in three days because of one’s skin color.

Several aspects of Sanders’ speech stood out, beginning with the concluding emphasis on ending institutionalized racism – a calculated effort to reach out to the BLM movement. Bernie, and his followers, understand that attracting minority support is critically important if he is to do well in the states immediately following New Hampshire, particularly South Carolina and Nevada. Second, he said absolutely nothing about foreign policy – nor did anyone ask him about it during the question and answer period (more on that below.) Third, Sanders’ delivered his hour-long talk with passion and energy, moving smoothly from topic to topic, understanding when to pause for applause, and modulating his tone as appropriate – all in all it was a well-delivered, polished stump speech. Noticeably, although this was at least his second town hall event of the day, he showed absolutely no sign of fatigue – impressive for a 73-year old man! Finally, Sanders never once mentioned Hillary Clinton by name, although she was clearly on his mind when he acknowledged early on that he lacked endorsements from the party establishment and had no Super Pac funding. “I’d rather have the people than the politicians,” Bernie railed, to thunderous applause. He also sought to push back against the perception that his campaign was “utopian”, several times noting that “it is not utopian to…..” followed by a list of goals, from providing health care to all to making corporations pay their “fair share” to expanding economic security. He ended by asking his audience to join in the “political revolution”, and most seemed quite willing to do so.

Bernie fielded eight questions after his talk, ranging on topics from transgender rights to how to break up banks to addressing sexual assault on campus. The most critical question came from a small-business owners who askied how small businesses were supposed to pay for an expanded family leave program. Sanders noted that it would require higher payroll taxes. A second questioner lauded Bernie for almost all his positions save one: “You are weak on gun control.” Bernie, however, pushed back, saying he was unfairly targeted on this issue, noting that he voted for expanded background checks and ending the so-called “gun show loophole.” But he also pleaded for compromise, arguing for the need to bring the 60%-70% of people who agree “on common sense gun control” together to pursue solutions, rather than demonizing gun owners.

It is hard not to be impressed with the enthusiasm of Bernie’s supporters. They are committed to the man, and his cause, and I have no doubt they will turn out to vote for him. They could even make the difference in low-turnout caucus states like Iowa where the intensity of support can matter more than its breadth. At the same time, it is not clear to me how many new converts Bernie is winning over with his message. At one point, a show of hands indicated that nearly half those in attendance at the Lebanon event were Vermont residents! On the one hand, this is not surprising given the location of the talk less than a mile from the Vermont border. On the other, it is a reminder that even in New Hampshire, a state bordering his own and one in which demographics would seem most favorable to him, Bernie is still in a dogfight with Hillary Clinton – a point reinforced by recent polling.

Are New Hampshire voters #FeelingtheBern? Some clearly are – but at this point it may not be enough to bring victory next February. As we contemplate what may happen, I leave you with the song that ushered Bernie supporters out at yesterday’s event, sung by a man who, ironically, isn’t much younger than Bernie! Rock on, America!