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The Outbreak of Autoshadowphobia

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FYI - Senate votes are expected soon (aka. today or later this week) on various proposals related to the Iraq War. Head on over to Working Assets for an update later today. - D

John Kerry had a bad case of it in 2004. The consultants, operatives and self-described strategists in the Democratic Party's Washington Establishment spreads it as a profession. Now, Colorado Sen. Ken Salazar (D) looks like he just contracted a virulent strain of it, and some of his other colleagues may soon be susceptible to it. No, I'm not talking about a venereal disease, I'm talking about something far more politically toxic: A disease known as Autoshadowphobia, or fear of one's own shadow.

Here in America, we like our politicians to emulate descriptions used in tire ads or SUV commercials: "Tough" and "strong" (and maybe even with some "torque") as any number of the aspiring, cliche-peddling pundits who crowd the nation's capital will happily tell you, as if its some incredibly keen insight. That's why Autoshadowphobia is so dangerous: Because regardless of the issues where its symptoms most clearly present themselves, the disease lets the public know about a deeper sense of insecurity, fear, spinelessness and unprincipled calculation that governs a politician's decision making. It projects the opposite of a Michelin ad or Dodge Ram spot. For voters, Autoshadowphobia elicits at best what a Kleenex ad portrays (softness), and more likely recalls the impulses associated with watching a commercial for Raid (a desire to spray the scurrying varmints down with a blast of industrial strength repellent).

Out of all the professional politicians in the Senate club, Salazar seems to have the worst case of Autoshadowphobia, and the disease is plaguing him on the most high-profile issue - Iraq - an issue that his own Democratic colleagues in the Colorado legislature bravely took a strong stand on in just the last few months. With USA Today's new poll showing "opposition to the Iraq war has reached a record high" and thus with most Senate Democrats and a faction of Republicans poised to support legislation taking concrete steps to end the war, Salazar has crafted a proposal that devotes an impressive deal of rhetoric praising the Wise Old Men of Washington who comprised the now-idolized Iraq Study Group, but deliberately "does not include specific terms for a withdrawal of U.S. forces" from Iraq. This is a bill that only Brigadier General Karl Rove could love - a bill that lets Autoshadowphobia-plagued Washington politicians like Salazar pretend they are doing something to end the war, when in fact they are doing nothing other than legislatively ratifying a deliberately toothless, self-congratulatory press release as American casualties mount.

This is a particularly destructive proposal considering the political tectonics. Thanks to Salazar coming down with such a nasty case of Autoshadowphobia, wavering Republicans who otherwise would be under enormous pressure to support a real bill to truly end the war will now have the Salazar-delivered political cover to help perpetuate the war indefinitely. Meanwhile, the Democrats who are actually working sincerely to end the war and who come either from Colorado or from far tougher political states - these folks will be humiliated, as Salazar and the other faction of Autoshadowphobia-plagued Democrats continue running to the media to self-servingly trumpeting their behavior as some sort of Patton-esque act of Bravery and Patriotism (which will undoubtedly be the way it is reported by Beltway stenographers like David Broder, who recently attacked Congress for considering legislation that does what the majority of America says it wants).

But you don't have to believe me when I say Republican war supporters are ecstatic about Salazar's legislation - you can believe them, because they are out there saying it. In a Hill Newspaper story today about how the Bush White House has embraced the toothless Iraq Study Group report as a way to create political cover for its plans to prepetuate the war, we get this:

"Republicans view [Salazar's] bill as an opening to overshadow the Democrats' Iraq pullout push, conscious that the combination of non-binding withdrawal goals and diplomatic conditions could win more GOP supporters than any plan created by the new majority. 'I think [Salazar's bill is] the biggest fear Democrats have," one senior Republican aide said. 'It would be really embarrassing for Reid, because the guy who's pushing for all these things to make his base happy would [have to back] something the president has pushed for.'"

But just in case you think Autoshadowphobia is limited only to Iraq, make sure to check out the Washington Post's story today on health care. With polls long showing that Americans strongly support a government-sponsored universal health care system, we find out that Democratic presidential candidates are taking political advice from one courageous MIT economist who is telling them that they shouldn't push any serious health care reforms because he has deemed them politically unrealistic. Yes, you read that correctly. As cloistered MIT economist is now being listened to by Autoshadowphobic presidential candidates as not one academic expert - but as a supposed expert campaign strategist and political guru. In medical terms, what he really is, of course, is a classic enabler - a person who tells these politicians that fear of their own shadow is perfectly fine (truth be told, he'd fit right in in many Democratic consulting firms).

The human toll of Autoshadowphobia is obvious. More American troops will die or be maimed in Iraq because people like Salazar are pushing legislative vehicles specifically designed to create the necessary political cover to continue the war indefinitely. Similarly, 18,000 Americans will continue dying each year because presidential candidates dress up cloistered academics as political experts in order to reassure themselves they don't need to expend real political capital to fix America's health care crisis.

What's less obvious but politically significant is what this outbreak of Autoshadowphobia says about the political terrain Democrats and the larger progressive movement faces.

The national Democratic Party clearly faces "I voted for it before I voted against it" peril on both the Iraq and health care fronts. In 2006 they campaigned against the war, and are now watching a weak-kneed faction of their own party bow down to a president with the lowest approval ratings in contemporary history and work to continue the war - even in the face of overwhelming public opposition to the war. In 2008, they are promising real health care reform, while largely refusing to have the guts to go up against the health insurance and pharmaceutical industry, instead pushing proposals that perpetuate a broken system - primarily because an MIT economist says that while he admits truly fixing the system is of urgent importance, politicians shouldn't try because he believes he is a political expert and he has deemed that goal politically unrealistic. Forget, for a moment, about where you stand on any of these issues or on any of these specific proposals, and just ask yourself: Could the Democratic Party project weakness and equivocation any more clearly? And from just a purely partisan, political perspective, shouldn't folks be worried that such brazen equivocation on the biggest issues of the day weakens the Democrats chances in upcoming elections?

For the progressive movement, this (unsurprising) plague of Autoshadowphobia once again reiterates the requirement to pressure both parties if we are to be an effective movement - and particularly on Iraq, this specific outbreak of Autoshadowphobia exposes the clear shortcomings of trying to fuse movement and party (otherwise known as Partisan War Syndrome).

It's fun for those of us working to end the war to congratulate ourselves for behaving like an arm of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, targeting canned ads almost exclusively at Republicans up for reelection, and landing breathless stories in D.C. newsletters like Roll Call and The Politico, which almost no one outside of the Beltway actually reads (or has even heard of). But as the unfolding Iraq debate shows, the failure - whether deliberate or merely unintended - to spend similar resources on pressuring Democrats has further emboldened individuals like Salazar diseased with Autoshadowphobia (and a fairly solid dose of conceit) to play a decisive role in undermining the progressive movement's objectives. Certainly, it's not too late for that bipartisan pressure to help deliver the only cure for Autoshadowphobia: Insertion of a backbone. But whether that pressure comes, and whether it is as well-financed as the attacks exclusively on the GOP remains to be seen.

Originally posted at Working Assets