Campaigns/Elections

Shoeless Joe Biden and the Snowbilly Hockey Mom

A cringe-inducing night of veep populism

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So the media narrative has shifted. Last night's debate wasn't the colossal disaster for Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin that many pundits had predicted and many Republicans feared. As the McCain campaign privately acknowledged, her confused, cringe-inducing performance with Katie Couric opened a deep wound, but after a 90-minute blitzkrieg of aw-shucks folksiness, the well-scripted cauterization began. It is, however, a stretch to conclude that she recovered in any appreciable way—she advanced the line slightly, but this was no Battle of the Bulge breakout.

Like most pundits, Roger Simon, chief political columnist for The Politico, set a low bar for success, offering Palin back-handed praise: "She smiled. She faced the camera. She was warm. She was human. Gosh and golly, she even dropped a bunch of g's." And, like a chipper Waffle House waitress, she winked at us (repeatedly), called us "hon," refilled our coffee, and straight-talked about issues she didn't entirely understand.

You know, I want to like Palin, if just to irritate those who feign apoplexy at the very mention of her name. But it seems clear that, like most hockey moms, she has proven an extremely weak extemporaneous debater, frequently consulting her index cards and resorting to platitudes when substance proved elusive. In the American political milieu, this isn't necessarily a handicap, provided you have been sufficiently media-trained or spent five days in debate boot camp with Randy Scheunemann. But who doubts that in a Prime Minister's Questions-type format—an import that Sen. McCain has long advocated—Palin would be cut to ribbons?

With media attention directed at Palin's pronunciation of "nu-cu-ler" and her failure to address a number of moderator Gwen Ifill's questions head-on, it's easy to see how this debate could work heavily in favor of Sen. Joe Biden's (D-Del.). But it wasn't his "more substantive" answers that tipped the balance—his responses were frequently vapid, evasive, and confused. It's the fact that, post-Couric, hardly anyone was concerned with the substance of such arguments. What mattered was the style with which they were presented. Biden was Biden. It was Palin the underdog rookie we should all be interested in.

The Atlantic's Clive Crook makes the rather straightforward argument that Biden was on a short leash, tempering his responses, refusing to go for the jugular, and was instead studiously self-effacing, chuckling at some of Palin's more pointed digs. As Crook argues, this was probably a winning strategy. But this line of argument, along with the obsessive focus on "freeing" Palin from constraints imposed by the campaign, also has the added benefit of turning the focus away from many of Biden's clunky answers.

For instance, attempting to stanch the surge-as-success narrative, Biden argued that "our commanding general in Afghanistan said the surge principle in Iraq will not work in Afghanistan," despite Obama's previous calls for a surge of troops into that country to fight al Qaeda. (Unsurprisingly, Biden did pirouettes around his vote authorizing the president to wage the Iraq War.) The pie-in-the-sky Biden plan, he said, would include building schools on the Pakistan border and "establishing" a stable government in Islamabad.

Palin, it was noted repeatedly today, mistook the Civil War general who lead the Army of the Potomac, George McClellan, for the general in charge of NATO forces in Afghanistan, David McKiernan. But it will only be specialists that pay attention to Biden's bizarre—and more damaging—claim that the United States and France "kicked Hezbollah out of Lebanon," only to see the group return and join the government. Even if he meant Syria, which is the most charitable reading of his argument, this would be at odds with reality, as most any Lebanese citizen who suffered at the hands of Hezbollah could attest.

There is, after all, an easy solution to the situation in Lebanon, said Biden: "I said and Barack said, 'Move NATO forces in there. Fill the vacuum, because if you don't know—if you don't, Hezbollah will control it.'" It is unclear if either Biden or Obama ever actually suggested such a mad scheme—let's hope they didn't—but for those voters seeing the Obama campaign as an alternative to the muscular foreign policy of the past eight years, one wonders if they're alarmed at the thought of potentially employing NATO (!) forces to occupy a powder keg like Lebanon.

And while it is easy (and entertaining) to poke fun at Palin's "I've only been at this, like, five weeks," working-mom routine, let's not forget that Biden too employs a particularly noxious form of populism. It's worth reminding debate viewers that Scranton is not in Delaware, and that the senator is more likely to be found at Morton's than at "Katie's restaurant," a greasy spoon referenced during last night's debate—and which, according to his hometown paper, closed in the 1980s. In one of his many pro-regulation, pro-big government paeans, Biden blustered that "they" don't call it "wealth redistribution in my neighborhood." Of course, in his hardscrabble yet hyper-bourgeois neighborhood of Greenville, Delaware, he owns a $2.5 million waterfront estate, according to the News-Journal.

As a journalist comrade commented during the debate, Biden's working-class shtick seemed lifted from a Billy Joel lyric sheet—Allentown as Scranton-town—or a particularly unconvincing Bruce Springsteen B-side. So let's all agree that Palin's "maverick hockey mom" routine is growing as unappealing as Gump Worsley's scarred face, that her attacks on "greedy capitalists" and her demand that teachers require even higher salaries are absurd, and that her grasp of economics is tenuous at best.

But as the Palin pile-on continues (something the McCain campaign could have prevented by making her more accessible) let's not forget to pay attention to "Shoeless Joe Biden," the scrappy millionaire from Scranton, who will send troops to Lebanon and build Montessori schools in Waziristan.

Michael C. Moynihan is an associate editor of reason.

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  1. But let’s not forget that Joe Biden also employs a particularly noxious form of populism.

    Well, anyone could have seen that when he pointed out that Atilla the Hun did some good things, such as inventing the bread slicer and T5 light bulbs.

  2. I’m tired of the candidates always trying to appeal to the hockey moms. How about us cocaine dads? We’re people too.

  3. no one should have expected anything better than the laughable debate we got last night.

  4. To me it seemed totally contrived and insincere and just left the impression she knew nothing outside the talking points. But the fundy nutjobs are eating it up. If you want to know where the fundies are on a particular issue just look at WorldNutDaily’s polls. Here’s the one on the debate:

    http://forums.wnd.com/index.php?pageId=184&pollShowResults=1

    I guess “winning” means she didn’t implode on the stand.

  5. You guys should have watched the Canadian leaders’ debate. Elizabeth May, the Green leader, kicked butt, named names, had the numbers and knew where the bodies were buried. Made the other four look like politicians!

  6. Sarah Palin is an embarrassment to everyone who has ever studied for an exam or accomplished anything based upon merit. Among other things, her coquettish winks at the camera and inability to correctly pronounce the word “nuclear” only show how dumbed-down the American public have become after eight years of George W. Bush. Biden may have mistaken recent history in Lebanon, but at least he displayed a breadth of knowledge beyond the few talking points that Palin’s handlers crammed into her brain during the last five weeks and which she parroted back on cue. Case in point: Palin’s response about the role of the Vice President. Palin’s gaffes during an otherwise innocuous question-and-answer session with Katie Couric shows how dangerously unqualified she is to assume the role of the second most powerful person in the United States. The fact that so many have opted deliberately to blind themselves to her failings out of loyalty to so-called “conservatism” show how low our standards have become.

  7. Palin is the purest example yet of Republicans’ abandoning all of their intellectual bearings in favor of identity politics. Sarah Palin is no different than Marion Berry or Slobodon Milosovic and those who love her are doing it for the same reasons sunni support sunni and shia support shia.

    Years ago some conservatives had some decent ideas: limited government, free market. Those conservatives made a deal with the devil: Combine their beliefs with certain social values and call it a movement. Many of the intellectual ideas were either accepted as main stream or rejected. The social values then took over the “movement.”

    Eventually, the social values stopped carrying as much weight. Then the Republicans decided to simply rely upon looking like their constituents.

    That’s Sarah Palin. A hockey mom. One of you.

  8. What is with this looking down on pronouncing the word “nu-cu-ler?” My Quantum 2 teacher pronounced it that way. Obviously he wasn’t as bright as people with a northeastern accent, but somehow he was able to teach methods of solving the Schrodinger equation.

    I think we had a Democratic Party president who said he was a nu-cu-ler engineer (his degree was in Physics).

  9. I don’t mind a little cornpone in a national politician. Bill Clinton and Abraham Lincoln were masters of the aw-shucks approach. Even George H.W. Bush pretended to like chicharones.

    But I prefer my elites to be actually elite under their facade of cowboy-hood or yokel-dom. In other words, hypocrisy is a virtue!

  10. Badger,

    What separates Palin from obama and biden is the fact that she has actually accomplished something beyond producing soaring rhetoric.

    Anyone with “intellectual bearings” would be able to see that.

    Hell, democrats like you should support her, she did what neither pelosi, or reid has managed to do, defeat the republican establishment.

    POLITICS: The Integrity Gap, Part I of III: Gov. Sarah Palin

    [W]hen Ruedrich settled state ethics charges June 22 by paying a record $12,000 civil fine and admitting wrongdoing, Palin said she finally felt some measure of vindication for bucking Ruedrich and members of her party.

  11. News Flash:
    To win the presidency people actually have to vote for you – you have to be “popular”. Libertarians still have not figured this out. The Socialists have.

  12. Palin has accomplished the same thing Obama and Biden have–expanding the nanny state and sucking the teat of the federal government.

  13. It was obvious that Biden was pitching his “urban working class guy” routine. I give him credit though for saying at one point “look, I’m not working class now, I own a big home and have a great life.” Why more populist pandering pols can’t say that I don’t know.

  14. Sea of Liberty has it right, and no one knows how to do it better than women. Act stupid and most people will like you. Women have learned this very well because they know the people who will like them for being stupid are in fact stupid as well.

  15. What is with this looking down on pronouncing the word “nu-cu-ler?”

    Because it’s phoney as hell. I’ll bet a million dollars that GWB and SP are perfectly capable of pronouncing it correctly.

  16. I bet people around these here Reason parts know the correct definition of “nonplussed” as well, but it doesn’t mean they’ll use it. Those damn phonies.

  17. Because it’s phoney as hell. I’ll bet a million dollars that GWB and SP are perfectly capable of pronouncing it correctly.

    Nobody could possibly think different from me, so they must be DOUBLE DOG PHONY!

  18. I bet people around these here Reason parts know the correct definition of “nonplussed” as well, but it doesn’t mean they’ll use it. Those damn phonies.

    I would imagine that most people around these here parts aren’t deliberately misusing it in order to pander to people who actually don’t know the difference and are proud of the fact.

    That’s where the turpitude comes in: not from the action, but from the intentions obviously and cynically motivating them.

    If a guy wants to intentionally misuse a word for comedic effect, or was simply occasionally clumsy with his diction, that’s one thing. To misuse a tool like language for the purposes of deception and self-aggrandizement, that’s another thing entirely.

  19. Much as I hate to admit it, a little dumbed-down populism is necessary in American politics. This is not a recent development. It goes all the way back to Andrew Jackson. While I would love it if candidates could win by appealing to people’s reason, populist emotional appeals are far more effective. Which is why democracy sux.

  20. What worries me is that after 30-something years in the Senate, Biden doesn’t know the constitutional role of the Vice President.

    Palin’s explanation of that role was clumsy (to be kind) but basically correct. Biden actually rewrote the constitution on stage.

  21. NATO. The UN. The CIA. All products of the cold war that have been failures after the fall of the Soviet Union. All these hacks are just tools of an exhausted system that is far too sclerotic and ingrown to even recognize, much less react to anything. Palin’s see-and spell performance isn’t far different from Obama or Biden and provides a mild counterpoint to McCain’s doddering. Like a ’70s Saturday morning cartoon, you watch it because there’s nothing else on.

  22. To win the presidency people actually have to vote for you – you have to be “popular”. Libertarians still have not figured this out. The Socialists have.

    You also have to be able to lie almost continuously, socialist are exceptional in this regard. “Yes, I understand economics.”

  23. “To me it seemed totally contrived and insincere and just left the impression she knew nothing outside the talking points.”

    As opposed to Biden merely parroting the Obama/DNC talking points – such as claiming that the financial crisis and the economic downturn are due to “deregulation”, “failed Bush economic policies” and “free market ideology” – something that he’s not the least bit capable of proving so much as a single word of to be true.

  24. You also have to be able to lie almost continuously, socialists are exceptional in this regard. “Yes, I understand economics.”

    Notwithstanding the people who have a doctorate in Economics, and are self-identified Marxists.

    Of which there are not a few.

    But I’m sure you meant the *others* who have read some critique of market economics and so now are incapable of understanding anything.

  25. Sarah Palin is an embarrassment to everyone who has ever studied for an exam or accomplished anything based upon merit.

    Sarah Palin looks like she’s made her career on being cute, more than anything else. She sure as hell didn’t make it on intellect.

    It’s not what she doesn’t know that scares me about her. It’s the fact that she doesn’t look like the type who’s going to suddenly start cracking the books and getting her shit together.

    Unless you think she can run the country by flashing a smile, a wink, and maybe a little leg. Nobody would let her get away with that, especially Americans with their towering, Spock-like intellectual demeanors.

    Oh wait —

  26. I thought she did pretty damn good considering. Everyone knows it takes about a year to get up to speed on a new job. I imagine she was just about up to speed as Governer when a desperated John McCain tapped her to be the VP choice. So in the last five weeks she’s had to cram national politics. So yes it came out sounding exactly like she has been cramming because that is what she’s been doing. Pretty damn good if you ask me. I’d wage everything I have that not one poster here could do as well as she did even if they had 6 months to prepare. You people want your freedoms back. Try doing something more than talk. I’m sick of libertarians just talking. Where the @#%@^$ are the libertarians….stuck bickering amongst themselves probably. Congress has an 8% approval rating and you numbskulls can’t even pull together to seize the opportunities that are laid out in front of you.

  27. She did pretty damn good considering? Considering what, that she’s woefully unqualified and incapable to assume the monumental task at hand? Ok, I’ll grant you that. And her ignorance goes beyond not knowing the intricacies of foreign policy, it’s the apparent inability to formulate coherent responses to scenarios. I don’t expect most people to be able to assume the presidency or vice-presidency with ‘just add water’ readiness. What I do expect is a level of intellect that will enable them to reconcile massive amounts of information into consistent and forward looking policies. Maybe people posting on here wouldn’t have done as well in that debate, but neither do we have the monumental hubris to run for vice-president!

  28. “What separates Palin from obama and biden is the fact that she has actually accomplished something beyond producing soaring rhetoric.
    Anyone with “intellectual bearings” would be able to see that. Hell, democrats like you should support her, she did what neither pelosi, or reid has managed to do, defeat the republican establishment.”

    Wow, how Sarah has you Kool-Aid drinkers snowed. Just like the mythology of John McCain ‘challenging’ the GOP status quo you believe that Palin has done the same. What has Sarah accomplished? Alaskan politics are as irrelevant to mainstream American politics as are the Canadian Prime Ministerial elections so you certainly can’t use that as your litmus test. If anything, Palin’s Bible-thumping anti-intellectualism is in lock-step with the entire GOP mantra. As long as she thumps the Bible, waives the Flag, spouts jingoist nonsense about terrorist and “losing the War” and adopts the Joe Sixpack persona by mispronouncing words and babbling colloquialisms you believe that she is adhering to “conservative” values. To begin with, haven’t we discerned that the phrases “Religious Right” and “Social Conservative” are oxymorons? The last thing I want is a bunch of theocrats compromising my civil liberties. I digress.

    John said it right: it takes a monumental amount of arrogance for someone as obviously unqualified as Sarah Palin to thrust herself into the political limelight.

    As an aside, the Palin selection wasn’t a desperation move by John McCain. He wanted to pick Joe Lieberman as his running mate. The GOP basically told him that he had to pick a “social conservative” or risk an implosion in his campaign. In addition to having his campaign run by Bush insiders, John the so-called “Maverick” McCain who puts America before Party bowed to the GOP and picked Sarah. Talk about hypocrisy … .

  29. I’d wage everything I have that not one poster here could do as well as she did even if they had 6 months to prepare. You people want your freedoms back. Try doing something more than talk. I’m sick of libertarians just talking. Where the @#%@^$ are the libertarians….stuck bickering amongst themselves probably. Congress has an 8% approval rating and you numbskulls can’t even pull together to seize the opportunities that are laid out in front of you.>>

    Where are libertarians? We’re nominating Bob Barr, that’s what we’re doing. Hmm, not a very good answer.

    We have a Republican president with approval ratings in the 20’s and a Democrat controlled Congress hovering around 8. If we can’t make a move with what is going to be a heavy handed Obama presidency, I’m afraid the *party* will be guilty of every lack of effectiveness charge we get pounded with.

  30. Wastin’ away again in Margaritaville…

  31. When they said she was the Wasilla beauty queen I shrugged but when they said she killed that moose, I got all kissy-face with the TV.
    Palin! PALIN! Why have you foresaken me?
    Especially for that ass, McCain.
    Im gonna go smoke some weed… and see if the Palin-Biden debate makes any sense that way.

  32. @ Scotth797:

    I respect your position. The GOP abandoned “conservatism” when Nixon made his deal with the Devil in ’68 to get the votes of southern Christian Democrats who were pissed at Johnson for Civil Rights legislation. The only hope the Libertarians have is to become the voice of true conservatism: free markets, respect for individual liberties, property rights, separation of church and state, etc.

    That said, how could an Obama Presidency be any more “heavy-handed” than the last eight years of Cheney-Bush? Six years of misguided and mishandled war, the Patriot Act, an economy that’s gone from surplus to record deficits, gas prices that have doubled, devaluation of the Dollar, devaluation of American prestige. The list goes on.

    I’m willing to risk paying more taxes if the America my children inherit is strong and founded upon the principles set forth by this country’s Founding Fathers. I’m willing to risk government regulation if that promotes an economic playing field that encourages competition and promotes enterprise. At the rate we’re currently going, we’ll see one Mega-Corporation controlling each industry, all under the guise of “capitalism.”

  33. At the end of the day, none of this will matter.

  34. I’m willing to risk paying more taxes if the America my children inherit is strong and founded upon the principles set forth by this country’s Founding Fathers.

    Yeah, that’s exactly what the country was founded on. Pay more than 14% in income tax — not counting state, local, and excise — to the British government in order to avoid war!

    OH, WAIT…

  35. “It was obvious that Biden was pitching his “urban working class guy” routine.”

    Biden is not nor has he ever been working class. Archemere Academy is as posh as school as they get in Delaware. http://www.archmereacademy.com/default.aspx?tabid=102

  36. Anyone who defends Sarah Palin is simply contributing to the further dumbing down of this country. I would find her recent comments about Barack Obama and Bill Ayers to be funny if they weren’t so startingly sad. I am willing to bet that if pressed, Sarah Palin would describe the Weather Underground as a group of rogue meteorologists.

  37. No kidding, EJ. I bet if she had tried to recount the events Biden did, like France kicking Hezbollah out of Lebanon, she would have made no sense at all!

  38. @E.J. Smith

    What does E.J. stand for? Enema Jim?

  39. When someone makes a good point, and it’s one that you don’t have a counter argument for,This is how to deal with it.

  40. Biden is not nor has he ever been working class. Archemere Academy is as posh as school as they get in Delaware.

    Way to repeat “teh talking points”. Archemere is a Catholic preparatory school, not a full-bore private academy (the way, say, Milton Academy is). You have also apparently never heard of “scholarships” which often help those who couldn’t otherwise afford to attend a particular school the opportunity to attend.

    His father was a used car salesman. Real wealth in that business, I hear.

    I hate the guy as much as the next fellow, mainly because of *what he has done* and *the things for which he has advocated*. Taking (unsubstantiated) shots at the circumstances of his youth and education is pretty disgustingly low, IMO.

  41. “@E.J. Smith

    What does E.J. stand for? Enema Jim?”

    You betcha. (Wink.)

  42. Populist he may be, but at least Biden is acquainted with facts and shows a little respect for the debate format. Palin was obnoxious and dismissive in the way only a conceited idiot can be. I was waiting for her to come right out and say, “facts are for nerds and you’re a fag” after one of her numerous eye-rolls following pointed rants by Biden.

    She reminded me of nothing so much as a small-town beauty queen responding to questions in a pageant, cow-eyed, incurious, plowing through with brute-force feminine charisma where her grasp of facts, or even common-sense reality, failed her. Her performance in the debate wasn’t just no better than her performance in previous interviews, it was immeasurably worse because she had so much time to prepare and still failed miserably.

    She’s the kind of person I used to love to hate in high school; hell, I haven’t been reminded of high school in the past ten years as much as in the past few weeks, suffering through that woman’s (thankfully rare) public appearances. I can’t help but regret that, even though she’s unlikely to get elected at this point, she still managed to breed.

  43. She’s the kind of person I used to love to hate in high school

    Yes, yes. We know that Leftists are emos who don’t know how to let their inner populists shine. Is there any criticism you can come up with that doesn’t sound like it came from an article in Vogue?

  44. Dear Joe Biden:

    name one working class job you ever had in your life…one.

  45. We know that Leftists are emos who don’t know how to let their inner populists shine.

    Ooh, ooh! Let me do one!

    Let’s see:

    We know that Rightists are robots who can be easily reprogrammed with commands from dear leader.

    Is there any criticism you can come up with that doesn’t sound like it came from an article in Vogue?

    And another! Yay!

    Is there any criticism that anyone could come up with that you would find acceptable, ever, of your beloved dear leader?

  46. When you don’t actually have to provide content, insults are easy AND fun.

  47. ^- Not a leftist
    I tend to vote conservative, where conservative means “small government, free market, property & privacy rights”. I don’t like the new redefinition of conservative, “police state, corporate welfare, nationalism, big brother” and I don’t like the NeoCons, led by the likes of McCain and Cheney, who’ve perverted that definition using brain-dead sock puppets like Bush and Palin for front-(wo)men and the republican party as some sort of pathogenic vector to get a solid, trusting voter base who won’t dare to question their actions as long as they keep speaking the right words.
    Making the choice between police state and nanny state is alarmingly easy when the proponents of the former manage to be utterly contemptible even if one entertains the cynical and destructive policies of the NeoCon faction. That is a sad, sad place to be in.

  48. As far as I can see, neither Palin nor McCain have said word one to answer the one most destructive thing that the Demos are saying: that the banking crisis was caused by Bush “deregulation.” What worries me is the possibility that they don’t answer it because they either don’t know or don’t care how absurd it is. They are both non-ideological “moderates” and thus are not really capable of making the right sort of reply.

  49. “… consulting her index cards…”
    I’ve always been irritated by debates where we don’t know the rules. Does anyone know whether index cards were allowed? Usually not.
    In the past, moderators promised “fair time” allotments, but that never meant equal time … it was always a percentage comparable to the latest polls (but they never said that).

  50. Wait… in this article, did you really suggest that teachers should NOT be paid more?

    You are, to put it politely, fucking insane.

  51. Last I checked, Sarah Palin wasn’t the one confusing Hezbollah for the Syrian army and advising the opening of a third war in the middle east.
    She didn’t say anything that was incredibly stupid or false, unlike Biden. Give her a little credit for that.

  52. @Pantera

    No. She gets no credit. You don’t get to win a Vice Presidential debate because you weren’t as much of a fucking idiot as everyone was expecting you to be.

    That debate was an exercise in “debate strategy”, where Biden’s was: “Talk fast and fill it with fact-like phrases because you know Palin’s got nothing … and toss in a bunch of Obama references, too” and Palin’s was: “Ignore whatever is being asked and talk about what you claim to have done, in Alaska … and toss in a bunch of McCain references, too.” Biden was actually pretty generous, but Palin was in her own little world.

    Neither one gave us anything to take away.

    About the “nu-cu-lar” issue: During her interview with Charles Gibson, she said “nu-cu-lar” and he followed, speaking slowly and staring straight at her, with “nu-cle-ar” and then she managed to use “nu-cle-ar” for the rest of the interview. You could actually see it in her eyes when she picked up on it, thanks to the amazingly tight shot.

    Speaking of which, has anyone noticed that Palin’s been the victim of lots of amazingly tight shots? Far more than any other candidate in memory.

    And she’s really not that hot, dudes. Not like Pamela Lee or Gisele Bundchen or one of the truly hot chicks. Methinks the bar has been set too low for you … I mean, Cheney’s really pretty ugly, so Palin definitely gets to be “hot” when taken in context.

  53. I’m sorry, but she complained after the debate that she didn’t have enough time to convey her views.

    But she did have enough time to give a “shout out” to a third grade class.

    Pathetic.

    Embarrasing.

    A slap in the face to America.

    and in my opinion, when McCain tapped her as VP pick he disqualified himself from the Presidency.

    Which is sad, because I don’t like Obama either — he slapped us in the face with the telco immunity bill AND the bailout bill. For someone so vocally enamored with change and support of the American people, he sure doesn’t vote like it.

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