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Saturday, November 29, 2008

Google Earth weaponized in Mumbai

My younger son, an Americorps volunteer, has been stationed in Biloxi, Mississippi for the past few three weeks. On Thanksgiving, as he described his camp and its surroundings, his brother went onto Google maps, panned over downtown Biloxi, and zoomed in on the camp buildings in less than a minute.

That's probably why this sentence in a Guardian report of the interrogation of the surviving Mumbai terrorist caught my eye:
Kasab told police that they had learnt about Mumbai's geography using Google Earth.
There are various reports as to how the terrorists got their information. According to the Telegraph, the ten terrorists were trained in small teams in separate camps, then brought together for a digitally assisted briefing when the training was complete:
It was in Rawalpindi that the 10-man team were briefed in detail with digitised images of their prospective targets – the Taj Mahal and Oberoi Hotels, the Jewish Centre and the Victoria Terminus railway station. Each member of the team memorised street names and routes to each location. Kamal [sic - called Kasab in other sources] told his interrogators that most of the targeting information came from a reconnaissance team which had selected the targets earlier in the year.
Other reports suggest that the terrorists had detailed knowledge of the hotel interiors, which I assume could not have come from Google (perhaps from the reconnaissance team?). The Times of India reports that some members of the terror team had stayed under false identiites at Nariman House, the Jewish Center attacked by the terrorists, and that Kasab provided interrogators with the names of locals who provided material aid.

Whatever the various sources, the battleground briefing was highly effective:
Major General RK Hooda, the senior Indian commander, acknowledged the group, the Deccan Mujadeen, were better equipped and had a better knowledge of the battleground than India's soldiers.
Since no missiles were targeted, one might question whether Google Earth was much more than a visual aid, and whether good street maps could not have served the same purpose. In any case, it's unlikely that the public satellite image cat can be stuffed back in its bag -- if Google took down Google Earth, there would doubtless be substitutes. Whether the benefits outweight the risks has abeen much debated; U.S. intelligence agencies, combat troops, and fire and hurricane response agencies themselves use the service. But it's chilling to see one of our ubiquitous technological toys weaponized.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Beware that fisher king thing...

I've always been struck by strange juxtapositions in our publications-- a tale of horrific suffering in some faraway place juxtaposed with an ad for a luxury item. A somewhat less accidental pairing on a Time Magazine web page almost feels like an Obama honeymoon jinx.

It's here: Joe Klein, in his latest column, gives George W. Bush a hard boot out the door. And a Time online page designer slams the door behind him:
That we have slightly more than one President for the moment is mostly a consequence of the extraordinary economic times. Even if George Washington were the incumbent, the markets would want to know what John Adams was planning to do after his Inauguration. And yet this final humiliation seems particularly appropriate for George W. Bush. At the end of a presidency of stupefying ineptitude, he has become the lamest of all possible ducks. (See TIME's best pictures of Barack Obama.)
See Time's best pictures of Barack Obama? And get your Barack Action Pack here?

I personally have tremendous hopes for Obama's presidency and feel a great grief over what Bush has wrought, and that he ever had the chance to take the reins. Yet I'm a little wary of the collective Wasteland mythologizing: out with the sterile old king, in with the new avatar of the fertility god, waving his stimulus wand and bringing his golden family into the palace.

I'm there, cheering at the gates. But I'm also fearing of the fates. Wondering, what dream is this. And warding off nemesis.

A Chicago prophet for a Chicago pol

My prior post notes that a Nexis search for people who stated unequivocally that Obama would win or was likely to win the presidency before November 2007 were almost universally college age. Update: I missed one remarkable exception.

Chicago Tribune metro columnist Eric Zorn goes back a ways with Obama. On January 18, 2003, he wrote: "The list of prospective [Democratic U.S. Senate] candidates is packed with big names ... with higher profiles than Obama's. But he's the class of the field."

On January 20, 2005, Zorn began "'08 Reasons Why Obama will Run for President"with a statement from the new senator:
"I am not running for president. I am not running for president in four years. I am not running for president in 2008." --Barack Obama , Nov. 3, 2004

Oh, but he will. And here, for your Inauguration Day reading pleasure, are the top 8 reasons why the new junior senator from Illinois will change his mind about '08.

He can't be sure when the bloom will fade.

In subsequent columns, Zorn batted back the claims that Obama wasn't experienced enough or that he was too liberal. By December 19, 2006, he (in sync with 13,000 self-selected Chicago cognizatti) pretty much had the nomination fight figured out:
And yet. Call me nuts again, but here are the eight reasons why 65 percent of more than 13,000 click voters at chicagotribune.com this week were right when they said that Obama will win the Democratic nomination:

1. His message will appeal to the better nature of voters.

Sure, Obama's call for "a different kind of politics" that seeks common ground, advances shared values and disdains the bitter polarities of partisanship makes Pollyanna look like a cynic. But it reflects a passionate American fantasy--that we are better than all this querulous wrangling and are ready to move beyond it.

2. He was an early foe of the war.

The charge that Obama lacks the experience to lead a nation will be belied by what a colossal mess experienced leaders made of Iraq and how their war on terror has turned the world into a more dangerous place. As the unpopular "troop surge" only gets us deeper into the bloody muck of intractable sectarian strife in the year ahead, Democrats, in particular, will look for a candidate who exhibited geopolitical foresight.

3. His race will be a plus.

Black voters will turn out in huge numbers for Obama, no doubt. But, as others have noted, many white Americans are eager to demonstrate to themselves and to the world that we are evolved enough to elect a president of African-American heritage. Their number will dwarf the number of wild-eyed racist Democrats who'll vote only for whites.

4. He's likable.

I know, I know. We're electing a president, not a neighbor or a dining companion. But Obama, a charismatic policy wonk, will strike undecided voters as a thoughtful, engaged and self-deprecating guy who'd be a good leader.

5. His team is tough.

The snarks in the water have tried to stick Obama with the schoolyard nickname "Obambi" to suggest that he's weak and naive. But he has assembled a seasoned campaign crew that will not shy from political street fights.

6. He'll have no trouble raising money.

Obama's biggest fundraising problem is going to be keeping it seemly.

7. Zealots will drive voters into his camp.

The naked bigotry of critics who are now shrieking Obama's middle name to suggest both that he's Muslim (he's not, he's Christian) and that Muslims are inherently untrustworthy (they're not) is so repellent that fair-minded people will feel inclined to support him if only to repudiate such tactics and prove that Americans are above that sort of nonsense. Those who like to remind us that "Obama rhymes with Osama" will also be useful idiots.

8. His youth and star status will attract many young and non-traditional voters.

The celebrity hype has already nauseated world-weary political junkies. Obama, 45, can let them barf. The enthusiastic entertainers and tastemakers already behind his candidacy will sell him to new voters as a fresh voice for the next generation.

There you go. Clip and save. Meet me back here next summer and we'll settle
up the bet.
I couldn't find a clean Zorn prediction on the general election until this Oct. 30, by which point you hardly needed to be a prophet to foresee an Obama victory. But that nomination read holds water for the general, too.

Bet's settled, Zorn, and you win.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Early prophets of Obama victory

Andrew Sullivan is having fun unearthing predictions that Barack Obama could never win the Presidency. As a kinder, gentler blogger, I'm having fun locating those who expressed faith early that yes, he could.

Where are the words of the prophets written? Lo, in college newspapers, and local writeups of college rallies. Just about everyone I found on LexisNexis who said unequivocally before November 2007, "Obama can win" or "Obama will win" was under the age of 23. All of them spoke of hope, vision, change.

Starting with the most recent and moving backwards: an Oct. 2, 2007, Cornell Daily Sun account of an Obama rally. Among the speakers were Eronmonsele Elens-Eigbokhan '09, president of Cornell Students for Barack Obama, and co-founder Tim Krueger. First, Elens-Eigbokhan:
"In Barack Obama we've got hope. We've become bound in partisan politics ... but we know Barack Obama brings people together," he said.
Krueger began his speech by alerting the crowd that he did not intend to talk about why Obama should win, but rather why he would win. He then laid out the reasons why he thought this was the case.
"First Barack Obama will win ... for his capacity to articulate a vision to an extent that other candidates cannot," he said.
Lastly, Elens-Eigbokhan himself stood up and delivered a passionate speech about how important it is to still believe in the power of the people and our ability to elicit change.
"[Barack Obama] told us that at every juncture in American history, American people who love America have changed it," he said. "It's very easy for us to say that nothing's going to change ... but if that's what people had said throughout history, then we wouldn't be where we are today."
Seven months earlier the Modesto Bee caught up on Feb. 27, 2007 with a certain Josh Franco, who had recently been appointed statewide coordinator in CA of Students for Barack Obama. Here's Franco to the Bee:
"I think students play a vital role in providing the energy and enthusiasm behind campaigns," Franco said.

Franco said he's convinced that Obama can win in 2008.

"Because he speaks of hope, that's why I gravitate towards him," Franco said.
And on Feb. 15, 2007, writing in the Massachusetts Daily Collegian, Matt Giancola caught the zeitgeist:
There is only one candidate who is capturing the minds of the public, who has the vision to lead the United States away from the failed policies that President Bush led us into, and can win both the primary and general election.

That candidate is Barack Obama.

Hillary Clinton, the current frontrunner for the Democratic nomination, is vulnerable on a number of fronts. Her support for the Iraq War has hurt among party activists. She still will not apologize for her vote to authorize the President to take us into this bloody and unnecessary war. Though Obama was not in the Senate when the votes for the war were cast, he has been against the war from the beginning...

It is not simply his foreign policy that makes him an attractive candidate to Democrats. His message of hope and overcoming obstacles that keep our nation down is a message that we have been in dire need of. Yes, he is the first African-American to have a real chance at winning the election, but his attractiveness is in his words, not his skin color.

He speaks to the best in people, to bringing the country together. In his electrifying 2004 Democratic Keynote Address, he stated, "Hope in the face of difficulty, hope in the face of uncertainty, the audacity of hope: in the end, that is God's greatest gift to us, the bedrock of this nation, a belief in things not seen, a belief that there are better days ahead." ...

We need to move away from bungling Republican rule; Senator Obama represents
the hope that resides in us all - that better days are ahead.
Perhaps it's not remarkable that the youngest voters would tune in. What's truly astounding is that they pulled the rest of us along.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Declining the "new declinism"

Gideon Rachman wonders, Is America's new declinism for real? An xpostfactoid response:

Bulletin: the United States just elected Barack Obama. That’s a pretty strong sign of a still-vibrant democracy. And functioning democracy is the best defense against true, non-cyclical decline.

All societies make dreadful mistakes. Democracies retain the capacity for self-correction. At times in the last eight years I’ve wondered whether democracy in America would self-destruct — that is, whether we’d lose the capacity for true choice of leaders by yielding up our civil liberties, devising ever more potent forms of disinformation in our campaigns, gerrymandering comeptitiveness out of existence, and creating such symbiosis between the Republican party and lobbyists that Democrats could never truly compete again. But the system’s antibodies proved strong, and Obama supercharged them.

Relative economic decline is inevitable and to be desired. Would we wish 2/3 of the world’s people to remain poor? If we want a world of wealthy, sustainable democracies, we can’t wish for eternal U.S. hegemony. The question is whether the U.S. can restore its own economic growth, reverse growing income inequality, and renew its capacity to lead by example.

And in another key:

"Decay, decay, decay,
Decline, decline, decline..."

"Yada yada yada,
we're fine, we're fine, we're fine."


Monday, November 24, 2008

Three circles of economic hell after a Big Three bankruptcy

As auto industry Armegeddon approaches, many are crying "let 'em eat coke." Let the Big Three go through bankruptcy hell and rise from the ashes, cleansed of their legacy labor costs, like the steel industry. Or keep on truckin' through bankruptcy, like the airlines.

Today, three separate sources brought home to me, in very different ways, the likely cataclysmic effects of auto industry failure.

1. On the Times op-ed page, former energy secretary Spencer Abraham argues that the airline and steel industry analogies are flawed. Bankrutpcy for an automaker will mean liquidation because
To purchase a car is to make a multiyear commitment: the buyer must have confidence that the manufacturer will survive to provide parts and service under warranty. With a declaration of bankruptcy, that confidence evaporates. Eighty percent of consumers would not even consider buying a car or truck from a bankrupt manufacturer, one recent survey indicates. So once a bankruptcy proceeding got started, the company’s revenue would plummet, leading it to hemorrhage cash to cover its high fixed costs.
No revenue means no DIP financing and no rebirth. Abraham ticks off the knock-on effects: a "cascade" of bankruptcies among parts makers, a squeeze on surviving automakers as suppliers fear to extend credit, liquidation of the Big 3, three million jobs gone in the first year, new burdens on government healthcare and pension guarantee services, enormous credit strains on banks holding auto loans.

2. Also into today's Times, Zachery Kouwe and Louise Story lay out the multiple levels of the financial sector's exposure to auto industry debt: $100 billion that the automakers owe directly to banks and bondholders; another $47 billion in loans to Big 3 affiliates backed by auto leases and loans; billions loaned to Cerberus in its leveraged buyout of Chrysler; untold billions more to parts suppliers, dealerships, and of course increasingly distressed consumers.

3. Finally, in today's FT, Wolfgang Munchau reminds us that in the wake of a big 3 bankruptcy credit default swaps would once again prove themselves, in Warren Buffet's phrase, financial weapons of mass destruction:
Naturally, [a carmaker bankruptcy] would be bad for the US car industry itself. But it might be even worse for the banks, especially those that got involved with credit default swaps – probably the most dangerous financial products ever invented. CDSs are unregulated shadow insurance products that investors buy to protect themselves against default of corporate and sovereign bonds. Protection against a default by General Motors was among the most sought-after contracts.
Some have called for a "managed bankruptcy." Looks to me like a managed bailout, with all stakeholders giving up something in advance, would be a lot less risky.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Son of Bush Sr.? Obama prepares for state-croft

Some weeks ago, Obama let it be known that he admired the way foreign policy was conducted during the administration of George Bush, Sr. Today, the Wall Street Journal notes that "many of the Republicans emerging as potential members of the Obama administration have professional and ideological ties to Brent Scowcroft" -- Bush Sr.'s national security adviser. And it's widely reported that Obama will keep on Robert Gates as defense secretary. Gates was deputy national security adviser under Scowcroft.

The Journal article stresses policy affinities between Scowcroft and Obama -- most notably that both opposed going to war in Iraq. But "no drama Obama" is probably equally drawn to Scowcroft's management style. Here's how his eternally loyal deputy, Gates, described Scowcroft's modus operandi in his memoir, From the Shadows:
A dogged defender of the Presidency, Scowcroft's lack of egotism and his gentle manner made possible the closest working relationships with other senior members of the national security team. Further, the strong individuals who ran State, Defense, CIA, and the other key institutions of national security trusted Scowcroft as no other National Security Adviser has been trusted--to represent them and their views to the President fairly, to report to him on meetings accurately, to facilitate rather than block their access to the President. Scowcroft ran the NSC and its process as it should be run (457-58).
Gates himself ran the deputies committee, which oversaw the interagency NSC process. Of that group he claims:
The friendships--and-trust--that developed among the core members of the Deputies Committee in 1989-1991 not only made the NSC process work, but cut down dramatically on the personal backstabbing and departmental jockying that had been so familiar (459).
It's often been reported that Obama welcomes -- and in fact demands -- open debate from his advisers. Gates describes Bush Sr. in similar terms:
He was an eager learner and interested in reaching out beyond government experts for insights and information...his decision process was encompassed in small, frequent meetings of trusted advisers and an open dialogue with former senior officials and others, from whom Bush encouraged different views and debate (454).
Gates is not a disinterested observer: he is immensely proud of the role he played in Bush Sr.'s Administration. But he's not indiscriminate in praise, either: he describes Bush's foreign policy team as the most cohesive and effective among those of five presidents for whom he worked (Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush). It's plain that Obama's bent is to forge teams with the cohesion (as well as the intellectual firepower) that Gates claims for George H. W. Bush's foreign policy shop.

Related posts:
Obama and Gates in Sync on Pakistan
On the Same Page: Gates, Mullen, Powell, Obama
Back from the Shadows: Can Gates Steer the Surge?

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Promises to keep: The ACLU puts the heat on Obama

Kudos to the ACLU for working from Day 1 to hold Obama to his always rather briefly expressed promises to end torture, close Guantanamo, and revisit FISA. Since November 5, when they took out full-page ads quoting those promises (the first two, anyway), they've been in congratulations-we're-waiting-for-action mode. Yesterday they sent an email to supporters linking to a segment of Obama's recent 60 Minutes interview in which he reiterates those promises (again, without elaboration), again filling the details void in their own terms:
During a 60 Minutes interview last week, President-elect Obama affirmed his intentions to reject torture and close the Guantánamo prison camp and the military commission system.

"It is incredibly gratifying that President-elect Obama plans to put an end to the Guantánamo prison camp and its sham military commission system which have been a stain on America's name at home and abroad,” said Anthony D. Romero, Executive Director of the ACLU. “We strongly urge him to take such action on Day One with the stroke of a pen, by executive order. The Bush military commissions that violate core constitutional principles and rely on hearsay, secret evidence and evidence obtained through torture have no place in our democracy. Federal civilian or military courts are perfectly capable of handling terrorism prosecutions and accommodating sensitive national security concerns, as has been demonstrated time and time again."
Needless to say, Obama did not say that he would close Guantanamo on Day 1 or that he would "end" the "military commission system." But this is the kind of "lobbying" that strengthens democracy. Obama has a large constituency that will "put their hands to the arc of history and bend" him to do more, sooner, to roll back the Bush assault on civil liberties than he might otherwise be inclined to do.

As a card carrying member, I feel an enormous debt of gratitude to the ACLU. Against the Bush Administration's "unitary executive" virus of absolute executive power, the group has proved one of this country's strongest antibodies, successfully challenging the whole extralegal military commissions apparatus in court, mobilizing members to pressure Democrats to resist the Military Commissions Act and the 2008 FISA bill, documenting and publicizing abuses in the secret prison system. Thanks largely to their efforts, the Supreme Court repudiated the Administration's worst excesses, preserving core principles of habeas and rules of evidence. (They did so mainly by bare 5-4 margins -- and now we've been spared the specter of a Court tipped with one or more new appointees inclined to grant the President any right of action he claims.)

The ACLU is primed to keep up a necessary pressure on Obama, fully aware that no president will be eager either to yield up powers claimed and exercised by his predecessor or to prohibit actions --i.e., forms of torture -- that powerful forces within the country's security apparatus will claim are essential to security.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Friedman gets "got your back" backwards

As is his wont, Thomas Friedman today takes a useful concept and beats it to death, oversimplifying in the process.

The concept is that the single most important factor in a secretary of state's effectiveness is whether the secretary has the president's full backing:

what made [Secretary of State James A. Baker III] an effective diplomat was not only his own skills as a negotiator — a prerequisite for the job — but the fact that his boss, President George H.W. Bush, always had Baker’s back. When foreign leaders spoke with Baker, they knew that they were speaking to President Bush, and they knew that President Bush would defend Baker from domestic rivals and the machinations of foreign governments.

That backing is the most important requirement for a secretary of state to be effective. Frankly, Obama could appoint his dear mother-in-law as secretary of state, and if he let the world know she was his envoy, she would be more effective than any ex-ambassador who had no relationship with the president.

Fair enough. But most people viewing this appointment would be more worried about whether Clinton will have Obama's back than vice versa. A president can't be effective if the secretary of state --or any other top-ranking member of the foreign policy team--freelances, has her own agenda, goes rogue obviously or covertly, creates facts on the ground.

To be fair, Friedman does tack around to this point eventually. But he views it through the wrong end of the telescope:
My question is whether a President Obama and a Secretary of State Clinton, given all that has gone down between them and their staffs, can have that kind of relationship, particularly with Mrs. Clinton always thinking four to eight years ahead, and the possibility that she may run again for the presidency. I just don’t know.

Every word that is said between them in public, and every leak, will be scrutinized for what it means politically and whether there is daylight. That is not a reason not to appoint Mrs. Clinton. But it is a reason for everyone around the president-elect to take a deep breath and ask whether they are prepared to have the kind of air-tight relationship with Mrs. Clinton that is required for effective diplomacy.
Finally, to hammer his point home, Friedman gets the history underlying the political cliche of the season exactly backwards:
When it comes to appointing a secretary of state, you do not want a team of rivals.
"Team of Rivals" is of course the title of Doris Kearns Goodwin's group biography of Lincoln's chief rivals for the Republican nomination in 1860, all of whom ended up in his cabinet. Lincoln's Secretary of State, William H. Seward, was indeed in a situation closely analogous to Hillary's. The odds-on favorite for the nomination, he bitterly resented having it snatched by the less experienced but more politically nimble Lincoln. At first, he assumed -- and openly proposed to Lincoln -- that he, Seward, would effectively lead Administration policy. Lincoln swiftly disabused him of that notion -- and almost as swiftly earned his trust and admiration. Seward eventually wrote to his wife, "the president is the best of us." The bond between them became the stuff of legend.

On the other hand, another member of Lincoln's "Team," Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase, worked tirelessly to undercut Lincoln, and indeed plotted to replace him as Republican nominee in 1864. At the same time, for all the knives he tossed at Lincoln's back, he effectively financed a war of unprecedented expense.

In short, Friedman's use of the team of rivals trope tells us exactly nothing. Would Clinton be a Seward or a Chase in Obama's Cabinet? Probably neither.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

On loan from the Clinton museum?

At first blush it seems odd that Obama's alleged offer of the Secretary of State position to Hillary Clinton -- allegedly contingent on a smooth vetting process -- would play itself out so publicly. Why would Obama allow the idea to take hold if there were a risk that Bill Clinton would balk at opening the kimono -- or at closing the spigot to his Foundation (and himself) for the duration?

This report from Marc Ambinder brings a memory flash:

The vetting of Hillary Clinton is ongoing, delicate, sensitive and private -- but not, according to people with direct knowledge of the work, acrimonious.

Despite press reports about former President Bill Clinton's resistance to turn over information about his income sources, international business dealings and foundation donors, he has instructed Cheryl Mills, the long-time Clinton lawyer overseeing the liaison with Obama's team, to collect and turn over everything requested by Obama's vetters.

Bill Clinton has also indicated, according to sources, that he would be willing to step down as the functional leader of his foundation for the duration of his wife's tenure in the Obama administration. He would readily agree, these sources say, to disclose any new sources of income and submit his speaking schedule -- and his speeches -- to State Department officials in advance.

Remember that meeting between Obama and Bill back in mid-September? Could there have been a mite of transition planning? True, it was just about Obama's darkest polling hour, but Bill took the occasion to call the election pretty precisely: "I predict that Senator Obama will win and will win pretty handily"...

Idle speculation, sure. But it seems reasonable to assume that before the rumors flew, the Obama team was reasonably certain that the Clintons would cooperate with the vetting and rulemaking for Bill's activities going forward. On paper, anyway.

On the other hand, never assume that those in control are in control.

Monday, November 17, 2008

A honeymoon in a big balloon for Obama?

Update, 12/2: numbers are even better after national security team appointments.
__________

This data point from the latest CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll made my eyes pop:

77 percent of respondents said they were very confident or somewhat confident that Obama would make the right decisions in selecting his cabinet.

To say that the man is projecting confidence and disciplined deliberation would be an understatement. Anyone who watched Obama on 60 Minutes last night would understand this public perception (though the appearance could not have affected poll results). Take this exchange about the transition so far:
Kroft: Has this been easier than the campaign trail?

Mr. Obama: Well, it's different. I think that during the campaign it is just a constant frenetic, forward momentum. Here, I'm stationary. But the issues come to you. And we've got a lot of work to do. We've got a lot of problems, a lot of big challenges.

Kroft: Have there been moments when you've said, 'What did I get myself into?'

Mr. Obama: Surprisingly enough, I feel right now that I'm doing what I should be doing. That gives me a certain sense of calm. I will say that the challenges that we're confronting are enormous. And they're multiple. And so there are times during the course of a given a day where you think, 'Where do I start?'

Kroft: What have you been concentrating on this week?

Mr. Obama: Couple of things. Number one, I think it's important to get a national security team in place because transition periods are potentially times of vulnerability to a terrorist attack. We wanna make sure that there is as seamless a transition on national security as possible. Obviously the economy. Talking to top economic advisors about how we're gonna create jobs, how we get the economy back on track and what do we do in terms of some long-term issues like energy and healthcare. And how do we sequence those things in a way that we can actually get things through Congress?
Of course, I remember all the glowing stories about Bush's MBA management skills and the unparalleled discipline of the Bush team. Tis just a honeymoon. If Bill Clinton's murky finances scotch a SecState offer to Hillary, it may end fast. But better a fair start than the opposite.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Damn the deficit, part II: Obama gives himself two years to spend

In his first weekly address, as noted in the post below, Obama framed the financial crisis as an "opportunity" to pass his proposed long-term investments in infrastructure, energy, healthcare and education.

Tonight, on 60 minutes, he gave himself a two-year pass to disregard the size of the Federal deficit:
Kroft: Where is all the money going to come from to do all of these things? And is there a point where just going to the Treasury Department and printing more of it ceases to be an option?

Mr. Obama: Well, look, I think what's interesting about the time that we're in right now is that you actually have a consensus among conservative Republican-leaning economists and liberal left-leaning economists. And the consensus is this: that we have to do whatever it takes to get this economy moving again, that we're gonna have to spend money now to stimulate the economy.

And that we shouldn't worry about the deficit next year or even the year after. That short term, the most important thing is that we avoid a deepening recession.
Claiming a Keynsian consensus, Obama is plainly planning to take the heat as spending goes through the roof and the Democrats under his leadership push for New Deal II.

Obama: damn the debt, full speed ahead

In the third Obama-McCain debate, Bob Schieffer posed what came to be regarded as a baseline "responsible journalist" response to the financial system collapse:
Some experts say [the deficit] could go to $1 trillion next year....Aren't you both ignoring reality? Won't some of the programs you are proposing have to be trimmed, postponed, even eliminated?
But even as the chorus for Clintonian budget responsibility has swelled, a Keynsian counterpoint, led by Larry Summers and Paul Krugman, is drowning it out. The upshot: Clinton came in as a recovery was gathering steam, so deficit reduction was appropriate. But a mega-recession is no time to cut spending Krugman has argued that Roosevelt unwittingly spiked recovery in 1937 --after four years of massive stimulus -- by getting deficit religion too early.

Further, in Krugman's words, "the response to the economic crisis is, in itself, a chance to advance the progressive agenda." Major initiatives like alternative energy investment and health care reform should in fact be rolled into economic stimulus.

Obama has held steady with the "full steam ahead" school. During the campaign, he was regarded as evasive for refusing to name a major element of his agenda that would have to be scaled back in response to massive bailout outlays (though he did repeatedly rank priorities, beginning with alternative energy and ending with education).

In his first weekly address as President elect, Obama once again answered Schieffer -- and in fact, echoed Krugman, signaling in no uncertain terms that he's going for all-fronts-full-steam-federal-investment:
Even as we dig ourselves out of this recession, we must also recognize that out of this economic crisis comes an opportunity to create new jobs, strengthen our middle class, and keep our economy competitive in the 21st century.

That starts with the kinds of long-term investments that we've neglected for too long. That means putting two million Americans to work rebuilding our crumbling roads, bridges, and schools. It means investing $150 billion to build an American green energy economy that will create five million new jobs, while freeing our nation from the tyranny of foreign oil, and saving our planet for our children. It means making health care affordable for anyone who has it, accessible for anyone who wants it, and reducing costs for small businesses. And it also means giving every child the world-class education they need to compete with any worker, anywhere in the world.

Doing all this will require not just new policies, but a new spirit of service and sacrifice, where each of us resolves to pitch in and work harder and look after not only ourselves, but each other. If this financial crisis has taught us anything, it's that we cannot have a thriving Wall Street while Main Street suffers -- in this country, we rise or fall as one nation; as one people. And that is how we will meet the challenges of our time -- together. Thank you.

Who's afraid trillion dollar deficits? Not Obama...

Friday, November 14, 2008

Phillip Stephens to Obama: Next Year in Jerusalem

Today, a second Wolf-Munch-Rock Award goes to the Financial Times's Phillip Stephens for a superb specimen of the kind of fact-based, non-ideological, think-your-way-to-a-conclusion commentary that sets the FT apart.

Stephens would have the new President believe that brokering an Israeli-Palestinian accord should be his first foreign policy priority. Since that's counter-intuitive on its face, he takes a contrarian route, setting up multiple hurdles to jump his argument over.

First, there's the insane competition for the President's attention:

The challenge for a US president rests in separating the urgent from the important..When he is not taking telephone calls from foreign leaders, we can assume president-elect Barack Obama is already being deluged with both the important and the urgent. Thick intelligence briefings will warn him of this emerging threat here, that rising peril there. His foreign policy advisers will be jostling to fix his focus on every part of the globe.

Next, the apparently more urgent and obviously interlocking other problems in the "multi-dimensional jigsaw of the Islamic world:
Mr Obama is committed to a speedy drawdown of US troops in Iraq; likewise to bolstering the fight against the Taliban in Afghanistan and to rooting out al-Qaeda from the tribal areas of Pakistan. Iran promises to test both the new president’s strategic diplomacy and America’s relations with its allies; likewise Afghanistan.

All these problems, of course, are connected. Progress in Afghanistan is contingent on the co-operation of its neighbours – Iran as well as Pakistan. It may be too late to stop Tehran from acquiring the capability to build a nuclear bomb, but a serious effort to persuade it not to start a nuclear arms race will demand recognition of its security interests. On the other hand, the stability of a Shia-led and Iranian-backed government in Iraq will depend on the comfort levels of its Sunni Arab neighbours.

Finally, there's the extreme difficulty of the task itself:

The polls suggest that the Israeli elections are unlikely to deliver a coalition with the authority to strike a land-for-peace bargain with the Palestinians. Benjamin Netanyahu, the hawkish Likud leader, may emerge as prime minister. During his last spell in office Mr Netanyahu sought to derail the Oslo accords. I have heard it said that the one meeting that went badly during Mr Obama’s tour of the Middle East and Europe this year was his encounter with Mr Netanyahu.

For their part, the Palestinians remain divided in spite of the best efforts of Egyptian mediation. Hamas has so far refused to offer the recognition of Israel demanded by the international community. In the absence of a committed interlocutor on the Israeli side, it is hard to see what would prompt Fatah and Hamas to settle their differences.

But here's the alleged payoff:
The largest, and most important, piece in this multi-dimensional jigsaw is the Israel-Palestinian conflict. It is the issue that more than any other shapes attitudes in the region towards the US. On almost everything else, probably the best the incoming president can hope for is to damp the fires. A deal between Israel and the Palestinians would change the game.
Paradoxically, the very factors mitigating against settlement provide the stongest impetus to get it done:
The early years of his presidency will be his best, and quite possibly the last, chance to broker a two-state solution. Facts on the ground – demography, the West Bank barrier, Israeli settlements across swaths of the West Bank, Palestinian radicalism in Gaza – are steadily undermining the bargain that would give Israel security and the Palestinians a state.
Finally, Stephens invokes the enormous worldwide political capital Obama has won to close his own jigsaw puzzle: Obama has the capital; the opportunity in Israel/Palestine is fast waning; it's where he can have the largest impact; and success would change the chemistry of Western/Middle Eastern relations.
For all the formidable obstacles to an agreement, Mr Obama’s heritage and the nature of his victory has bestowed as much authority among Israelis, Palestinians and in the wider Arab world as any US president can ever expect. This precious political capital will diminish over time.

A serious and even-handed effort to promote peace between Israel and the Palestinians would disarm the most serious charge against US policy in the region: that everything it does is rooted in double standards.

A deal would not settle all the problems and conflicts. Nor, of itself, would it repair the relationship between the west and much of the Islamic world. Al-Qaeda and its affiliates would find plenty of other reasons to attack America. Yet the creation of a Palestinian state would change profoundly the dynamics of the Middle East. It would make possible much that now seems beyond all reasonable reach.

As coup de grace, Stephens casts this Herculean task as the best conduit for success in Obama's own terms:
Brokering such an accord would be tough and thankless. Mr Obama might well fail in the attempt. But there lies the existential choice for Mr Bush’s successor. Does he want to patch things up? Or does he want to redraw the strategic map of the Middle East and thereby set a new direction for America’s role in the world? That, in the final analysis, is what will mark out the difference between a competent and a transformational presidency.
Much as I admire this argument's construction, I confess I'm not convinced. As Stephens highlights at the outset, to govern is to triage. So why start here? Why would Obama be less likely to effect a transformational victory in, say, our relations with Iran or in effective aid to Pakistan? It's not possible in 1000 words to take the measure of the relative difficulty of those tasks, and I'm not sure I buy the "change the chemistry" argument. Clinton was an honest broker between Israel and the Palestinians, and that fact did not tamp down Islamist rage. On the other hand, Clinton was not a successful broker. And to end on a crushingly obvious note, success is the sine qua non of (good) transformation.

But where in Stephen's jigsaw is success likeliest?

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Is Obama's enormous task an evil one?

I was going to let it go when I heard Obama say it, but now Donna Brazile is citing what some might consider the President-elect's first malapropism in a fresh DSCC pitch for funds:
However, President-elect Obama has warned us about "the enormity of the task that lies ahead."
Most dictionaries define "enormity" as a moral outrage -- wickedness or an act of wickedness. It's true that some acknowledge, with varying degrees of disapproval, that it's often used as a noun form of "enormous"; Collins Essential English Dictionary even goes so far as to note that "in modern English, it is common to talk about the enormity of something such as a task or a problem." And in fact Obama may have wanted to stress the monstrous nature of the aggregated challenges he referred to -- fruit as they are, in his past characterizations, of unilateralism and deregulation run amok.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Minority retort

Republican Senator Mel Martinez of Florida, former RNC co-chair, warns the party:
The fact of the matter is that Hispanics are going to be a more and more vibrant part of the electorate, and the Republican Party had better figure out how to talk to them. We had a very dramatic shift between what President Bush was able to do with Hispanic voters, where he won 44 percent of them, and what happened to Senator McCain. Senator McCain did not deserve what he got. He was one of those that valiantly fought, fought for immigration reform, but there were voices within our party, frankly, which if they continue with that kind of rhetoric, anti-Hispanic rhetoric, that so much of it was heard, we're going to be relegated to minority status.
The Republican Party, relegated to minority status by minority voters. Now that was a slow train coming. Since one-party rule is good for no one, here's hoping the dead-enders' day ends relatively soon, and the Republicans begin the slow work of reaching out to new voters with new ideas. Time they "dou that..."

Sunday, November 09, 2008

A cross-immunized crossover?

This observation by Nicholas Kristoff made me wonder whether two potential electoral negatives for Obama may have cancelled each other out -- or multiplied to an advantage:
Barack Obama’s election is a milestone in more than his pigmentation. The second most remarkable thing about his election is that American voters have just picked a president who is an open, out-of-the-closet, practicing intellectual.
Not to overstate the case, but maybe many Americans found it easier to accept an intellectual because he's black (inherently cool, presumed tough) and a black candidate because he's an intellectual (not wedded to an imagined "black agenda," a phrase I heard repeatedly while phoning undecided Pennsyvlania voters). Two of Obama's most obvious traits may have cross-immunized him.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Our enemies relentlessly seek our prosperity

Arab reaction to Obama's victory is a complex stew. Here's one response worth contemplating:

“It would be no exaggeration to say that we Arabs and Muslims were the main unseen voters who decided the outcome of these elections,” wrote Abdelbari Atwan in Wednesday’s issue of the London-based pan-Arab daily newspaper Al Quds Al Arabi. He wrote, “The transformation that will begin in the U.S. starting today in various political, economic, military, and social domains may well have been delayed for decades, had the new American century been crowned with victory, and had the situation in Iraq and Afghanistan taken the directions sought by the neo-cons — in other words, had there been political stability and economic prosperity, and had the citizens of the two countries targeted by the U.S.’s designs been totally subjugated by it.”

So if the neocons had had their way, Afghanistan and Iraq would be suffering from political stability, economic prosperity, and "total subjugation" to the U.S. Reminds me a bit of George W. Bush's first inaugural, as reported in The Onion. "Our long national nightmare of peace and prosperity is over..."

Funny thing is, take out the word 'total,' and these incompatible goals may not be too far from what the neocons were aiming for. Democracy, prosperity, bases, oil, pliancy. In fact, depending on your definition of subjugation, it's not a bad precis of consensus American foreign policy goals. Is Japan "subject" to the U.S.? Is Western Europe?

Friday, November 07, 2008

McCain on Georgia: lying or deluded?

Newly released accounts by the independent observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OCSE) of this summer's Georgian war, reported in today's Times, emphasize three conclusions:

1. Georgia's shelling of the South Ossetian capital Tskhinvali was not preceded by large-scale South Ossetian shelling of Georgian villages, as claimed by Georgia. "According to the monitors...no shelling of Georgian villages could be heard in the hours before the Georgian bombardment. At least two of the four villages that Georgia has since said were under fire were near the observers’ office in Tskhinvali, and the monitors there likely would have heard artillery fire nearby."

2. The shelling was indiscriminate - " Georgian artillery rounds and rockets were falling throughout the city at intervals of 15 to 20 seconds between explosions, and within the first hour of the bombardment at least 48 rounds landed in a civilian area."
3. While hitting civilian areas throughout the city, the attack also targeted Russian outposts. "Col. Gen. Anatoly Nogovitsyn, a spokesman for the Russian Defense Ministry, said that by morning on Aug. 8 two Russian soldiers had been killed and five wounded. Two senior Western military officers stationed in Georgia, speaking on condition of anonymity because they work with Georgia’s military, said that whatever Russia’s behavior in or intentions for the enclave, once Georgia’s artillery or rockets struck Russian positions, conflict with Russia was all but inevitable. This clear risk, they said, made Georgia’s attack dangerous and unwise."

None of this proves that the Russians did not draw the Georgians into this suicidally foolish assault, or that Ossetians did not shell Georgian villages at some point prior to the attacks. But it does highlight the dangerous absurdity of John McCain's Manichean pronouncements and saber rattling in the wake of the Russian attack. (McCain has a long history as Saakashvili's enabler-in-chief. ) Here's Christian warrior McCain at Saddleback:
I'm very saddened here to be with you and talk about a Russian re-emergence in the centuries-old ambition of the Russian empire to dominate that part of the world -- killings, murder. Villages are being burned. People are being wantonly ejected from their homes. The latest figures from a human rights organization is 118,000 people in that small country. It was one of the earliest Christian nations. The king of then-Georgia in the third century converted to Christianity. You go to Georgia and you see these old churches that go back to the 4th and 5th century.

My friends, the president, the president, Saakashvili, is a man who was educated in the United States of America on a scholarship. He went back to Georgia, and with other young people who had also received an education, they achieved a revolution. They had democracy, prosperity and a great little nation.

And now the Russians are coming in there in an act of aggression. And we have to not only bring about cease-fire, but we have to have honored one of the most fundamental rights of any nation, and that is territorial integrity. We must respect the entire territory of Russia -- excuse me -- the Russians must respect the entire territorial integrity of Georgia. And there's only 4 million people in Georgia, my friends. I've been there. It's a beautiful little country. They're wonderful people. They're suffering terribly now.

And parrot Palin, distilling McCain's take to its essence:
"For Russia to have exerted such pressure in terms of invading a smaller democratic country, unprovoked, is unacceptable and we have to keep...

GIBSON: You believe unprovoked.

PALIN: I do believe unprovoked and we have got to keep our eyes on Russia, under the leadership there.
Palin, following McCain's logic to its apparent conclusion, pledged faith even unto World War III:
GIBSON: And under the NATO treaty [if George were admitted], wouldn't we then have to go to war if Russia went into Georgia?

PALIN: Perhaps so. I mean, that is the agreement when you are a NATO ally, is if another country is attacked, you're going to be expected to be called upon and help.

The airing of the OSCE observers' inconvenient truths should drive home what we've been spared by rejecting a McCain presidency -- policy driven by wishful thinking, reflexive posturing, Manichean polarization--not to mention cozy lobbyist relationships. McCain may well have made Cheney look like Gandhi, as Pat Buchanan forecast.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

What Will.i.am had to work with

Obama's speeches are often called"poetic." In what sense is this so? He doesn't often wax metaphorical. He does employ a kind of stylized, compressed storytelling, taking listeners on quick marches through history (or an envisioned future) in which each era or event or action is evoked in a kind of metonymy, a naming of a thing by one of its attributes, or synechdoche, a substitution of a part for the whole. Take, for example, that 106 year-old woman whose story Obama told in his acceptance speech last night. She was herself a kind of synechdoche, an embodiment of America's last century. Each event she witnessed was evoked by its icon:
She was there for the buses in Montgomery, the hoses in Birmingham, a bridge in Selma, and a preacher from Atlanta who told a people that "We Shall Overcome." Yes we can.

A man touched down on the moon, a wall came down in Berlin, a world was connected by our own science and imagination.
But Obama's speech is also "poetic" in a more primal sense, in its rhythms and pacing. Mostly it's a matter of strong repetition. The sentences are often long, with clause piled on clause. But those clauses are bound together by parallel structure -- most often by anaphora, the repetition of beginning words. There's really nothing fancy about it: anaphora is almost his only grammatical figure. There are few backflips or pirouettes such as Maureen Dowd loves, in which one phrase rings a slight variation on its predecessor and inverts its meaning -- as in "fail to plan, plan to fail." A long Obama sentence is like a row of Doric columns. The mind follows without fatigue, buttressed by the graceful repetitive structure.

Leave aside for the moment the content of Obama's acceptance speech last night. Here, in selected sentence fragments, is the cadence that so many have keyed into:
If there is anyone out there who still doubts
who still wonders
who still questions
tonight is your answer

It's the answer told by lines that stretched
It's the answer spoken by young and old
It's the answer that led those who have been told for so long by so many to
be cynical

It was built by working men and women
It grew strength from the young people
from the millions of Americans who volunteered

But I will always be honest with you
I will listen to you
I will ask you join in the work

So let us summon a new spirit of patriotism
Let us remember that if this financial crisis taught us anything
Let us resist the temptation to fall back on the same partisanship

And to all those watching tonight from beyond our shores
To those who would tear this world down - we will defeat you.
To those who seek peace and security - we support you.
And to all those who have wondered if America's beacon still burns as bright -

At a time when women's voices were silenced
When there was despair in the dust bowl
When the bombs fell on our harbor

A man touched down on the moon,
a wall came down in Berlin,
a world was connected by our own science and imagination.

This is our chance to answer that call.
This is our moment.
This is our time...
time -
This signature repetition underpins, I think, the power of Will.i.am's "Yes We Can" song. "Yes we can," by itself, has a kind of brainless insistence. But the speech that the song lip-syncs winds down to each "yes we can" by evoking historical moments united by grammatical parallelism as they are by theme: that each defining act of American history is an embodiment of this can-do "creed":
It [yes we can] was a creed written into the founding documents...It was sung by immigrants...It was the call of workers who organized, women who reached for the ballots, a president who chose the moon...a King who took us to the mountaintop..."
Almost every Obama speech tells the same story: of a country struggling in chapter after chapter to fulfill the promise of its founding documents. He borrows the concept from Lincoln: we strive in each generation to form a "more perfect" -- never perfected -- union. His sentence structure and rhythm express this aspiration -- giving us the momentum of an idealized past to make us feel we can roll back the oceans.

Related posts
A nation's education: Obama's conversation
We've been here before: how Obama frames our history
Audacity of Respect: What Obama Owes to Reagan II
Obama gets down to tax brass
Obama brings it back to earth in Virginia
Feb. 5: Hillary's Speech was Better than Obama's
Obama Praises Clinton, and Buries Him

Lewis Carroll to beamish Obama

Jabberwocky captures the mood of millions:
"And, has thou slain the Jabberwock?
Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!'
He chortled in his joy.

Obama: "Republican values we all share..."

In imagining Obama's acceptance speech, I thought vaguely that he might quote Thomas Jefferson, speaking in his first inaugural address at the victorious end of a bitter factional battle: "we are all Republicans, we are all Federalists." But Obama's personal model is Lincoln, so in his appeal for healing and unity, he chose one of Lincoln's great appeals to unity, the unheeded plea in his first inaugural:
We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection.
And with supreme grace, enacting what he spoke, Obama credited that sentiment as an expression of "Republican values...we all share." We are all Republicans, indeed. I guess he did quote Jefferson as well.

More on this magnificent speeech tomorrow.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Two elections and three prophets

On August 29, 2004, British-born historian Niall Ferguson, drawing an analogy between a possible Bush victory in '04 and John Major's catastrophic victory (to borrow a Bushism) in '92, may well have called today's election:
The lesson of British history is that a second Bush term could be more damaging to the Republican Party and more beneficial to the Democrats than a Bush defeat. If he secures re-election, Bush will press on with a foreign policy based on pre-emptive military force, ignore the impending fiscal crisis (on the Cheney principle that "deficits don't matter") and pursue socially conservative objectives such as the constitutional ban on gay marriage. Anyone who thinks this combination will maintain Republican Party unity is dreaming; it will do the opposite. The Democrats will have another four years to figure out what the Labour Party figured out: it's the candidate, stupid. And when the 2008 Republican candidate goes head-to-head with the American Blair, he will be wiped out. (Independent, UK -- sorry, no link.)
At what cost the Democratic victory, though? On the bitter morning after Kerry's defeat, my father said to me, "We'll survive, but we'll pay a price" for re-electing Bush.

Right on both counts. As Gideon Rachman writes today:
The economy has been Mr Obama’s friend during this campaign. It would become his enemy the moment he stepped into the Oval Office.
Democracy's saving grace is self-correction. The next president will have to reverse several courses at once, and square more than one circle.

Monday, November 03, 2008

You must become as little children...

Vaclav Havel, addressing the newly self-liberated Czechoslovaks at his inaugural on Jan. 1, 1990, was speaking to a nation in circumstances very different from those of the U.S. today. But his wonderment that a nation steeped for decades in a "contaminated moral environment" could renew itself comes to mind again and again as election day approaches:
Where did the young people who never knew another system get their desire for truth, their love of free thought, their political ideas, their civic courage and civic prudence? How did it happen that their parents -- the very generation that had been considered lost -- joined them?
By way of more prosaic explanation, an early prophet of this election cycle (who from the wilderness has willed himself to support McCain), David Frum, wrote in the Financial Times on February 6, 2008:
If they eat right, exercise and wear seatbelts, today's 20-somethings will be voting against George W. Bush deep into the 2060s.
Democracy, thy name is self-correction. Repentence. Atonement. Throw the bums out.

Digging deeper, into American history for an explanation, The New Yorker dared this comparison and its dangerously great expectations:
Obama has returned eloquence to its essential place in American politics. The choice between experience and eloquence is a false one––something that Lincoln, out of office after a single term in Congress, proved in his own campaign of political and national renewal. Obama’s “mere” speeches on everything from the economy and foreign affairs to race have been at the center of his campaign and its success; if he wins, his eloquence will be central to his ability to govern.
Last word to Obama (Jan. 5, ABC debate), daring us to hope:
And, you know, so the truth is actually words do inspire. Words do help people get involved. Words do help members of Congress get into power so that they can be part of a coalition to deliver health care reform, to deliver a bold energy policy. Don't discount that power, because when the American people are determined that something is going to happen, then it happens. And if they are disaffected and cynical and fearful and told that it can't be done, then it doesn't. I'm running for president because I want to tell them, yes, we can. And that's why I think they're responding in such large numbers.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

White flag of surrender on SNL?

Fallows thinks that McCain threw in the towel on Saturday Night Live last night:
For a candidate who thinks he's ahead, and might actually become president, inevitably there's a tone of new seriousness right at the end: What we've been working for years is within our grasp, let's not screw this up, and let's be sobered by how different the world is going to look in a few days.

So if McCain really thought he had a chance of catching up, he wouldn't have wasted time on an audience that might repair his reputation among liberals and journalists but does him no good with the crucial swing votes. And if he thought he were secretly ahead, he wouldn't comport himself this way. He would be more like the stiff character we saw in the debates.
Outside of the political skits, I think SNL is pretty wretched. But if Obama does win, Tina Fey & co. will have helped decide this election. In Newsweek's recent poll, 34 percent of independents said that the Palin pick makes them less likely to support McCain. In the Washington Post-ABC News poll, 58% of Americans said that Palin was unqualified to be President. Palin made that impression; Tina Fey baked it in.

Of phantom snowstorms and Bosnian snipers

This perfectly innocent memory correction by James Fallows inevitably recalls a more famous lapse:
I mentioned that the only time I missed voting in a presidential election was eight years ago, when "an early blizzard and ice storm" kept the small airplane I was flying grounded for four days in Duluth, Minnesota.

Someone who was actually in Duluth that day reminded me that there was no blizzard on November 7. Fair point! The historical weather records for election day show frigid rain. But even without the (imagined in retrospect) snow on the ground, the clouds were low and full of the perfect ingredients for a small-airplane crash: sub-freezing temperatures and "supercooled droplets," which together make for "airframe icing" and bring airplanes to the ground.
If freezing rain could harden into a blizzard in Fallows' memory banks, I guess an evasive maneuver or two in that plane carrying Hillary Clinton to Bosnia in 1996 could mind-morph into ducking sniper fire when she landed. Of course, Clinton did keep repeating the tale long after it had first been questioned. Could the false memory have become that real to her?