Is Moore Less?

Late last December, in a particularly dim installment of end-of-year political punditry, the assembled talking heads on the Sunday-morning Chris Matthews Show were debating who deserved the title “biggest noisemaker of 2004.” The choices Matthews offered them were Mel Gibson, Jon Stewart, and Michael Moore. Andrew Sullivan mused a bit about Gibson. Then Cokie Roberts voted definitively for Moore.

“Michael Moore, I think, actually had a very major impact -- a negative impact -- on the Democratic Party,” she said, “… because I think he exemplified all of the things people hate about Democrats.”

“They don't shave?” joked Matthews.

“His physical appearance did not help,” she agreed, “and the fact that [Moore's film] Fahrenheit 9-11 was a ‘Hate America First' movie, and people think that that's what the Democrats stand for. That hurts the Democrats every time.”

In the aftermath of the Democrats' defeat, Roberts' line of reasoning has appealed to many a head-scratching liberal trying to make sense of the election results, and plenty have called for Democrats to surrender Moore to the same gods to which Bill Clinton sacrificed the controversial rapper Sister Souljah in 1992. Back then, at a conference of the Reverend Jesse Jackson's Rainbow Coalition, candidate Clinton caused a small ruckus by repudiating earlier comments from Souljah that some had construed as condoning black-on-white violence. The genius of Clinton's rebuke of Souljah was that it was geared not to the assembled black leaders seated in front of him but to moderate whites, who needed to see that Clinton was not some patsy of narrow left-wing interest groups. It was cold, calculated, and effective.

But should the same concept be applied to Moore?

“You have to recognize that Clinton was the only non-accidental Democratic president elected in 40 years,” one high-ranking Democratic operative told me, suggesting that Jimmy Carter won by virtue of Watergate and Lyndon Johnson by virtue of succeeding a slain president. “With that in mind,” he said, “Democrats have to be prepared to recognize the utility of some of the tactics he employed to get into office, including the ‘Sister Souljah moment.'”

Of course, “Sister Souljah-ing” Michael Moore would only be tactically useful for Democrats if they can plausibly argue that Moore scares away more voters than he attracts. According to University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato, who has been poring over polling data from the election, this remains unclear. “While it is fair to say that he contributed to additional turnout on both sides,” Sabato says, “data specifically analyzing the individual impact of Moore does not yet exist.”

Perhaps the most thoughtful argument in favor of ousting Moore was offered by Peter Beinart, The New Republic's editor. In his provocative post-election essay, “A Fighting Faith,” Beinart argued that voters who prioritized national security emerged as a key voting bloc, and they overwhelmingly broke for George W. Bush over John Kerry. Moore's brand of soft liberalism, Beinart wrote, “casts doubt upon the sincerity of liberals who say they opposed the Iraq war because they wanted to win in Afghanistan first. When Moore says terrorism should be no greater a national concern than car accidents or pneumonia, he makes it harder for liberals to claim that their belief in civil liberties does not imply a diminished vigilance against Al Qaeda.”

The Democratic intelligentsia has widely debated the merits of Beinart's argument, and his meta-point -- that Democrats need to strengthen their bona fides among voters who prioritize national security -- is obviously true. But coming up with a coherent national-security message is a task for the entire Democratic Party apparatus, and it will not go away even if Moore does. “What do you think did more damage to the Kerry campaign,” asked Paul Begala, co-host of CNN's recently canceled Crossfire and former Clinton strategist, “Kerry's inability to explain what he meant by, ‘I voted for the $87 billion, before I voted against it,' or Moore, who just makes controversial movies? … To the extent that voters associated Moore's politics with that of the Democratic Party, it is because Democrats are not effectively articulating what it is they actually stand for.”

By contrast, the Republican “brand” is strongly recognized, and voters can easily distinguish mainstream Republicanism from its extremist impostures. Ronald Reagan made the distinction clear in 1966, when he mused that the endorsement by the McCarthyite John Birch Society of his candidacy for governor of California meant only that “they're buying my philosophy; I'm not buying theirs.” More recently, no one seriously thought that the über-conservative author Ann Coulter represented the views of the Republican Party when she suggested in a column soon after the September 11 attacks that the proper response September 11 was to “invade [Muslim] countries, kill their leaders, and convert them to Christianity.”

The Democrats, meanwhile, make no such distinction. Indeed, some Democratic leaders have appeared publicly with Moore, and when he appears with members of the party, it becomes ever more difficult to deny that he, at least in some way, represents them.

Just ask Virginia Schrader, a progressive Democrat who in 2004 narrowly lost the congressional race for the 8th District of Pennsylvania, located in suburban Philadelphia and the Delaware River Valley. Early in her campaign, Schrader hosted a fund-raiser at which she screened Fahrenheit 9-11. Months later, as the campaign was getting down to the wire, the Republican National Congressional Committee targeted the district with a flier that read “The Hate America Crowd has found their candidate. Ginny Schrader raised money by showing the anti-American movie Fahrenheit 9-11.” The flip side featured a chubby caricature of Moore's face, above which read “Now there's a running mate that will slow you down.” The flier was nasty, but effective. Polling data Schrader relayed to the Prospect after the race indicated that 12 percent of the flier's recipients claimed to have been affected by it one way or the other. And for 8 percent of those 12 percent, the flier helped persuade them to vote against Schrader.

Of course, it would be naive to assume that a single flier mentioning Michael Moore doomed Schrader's campaign. Still, Democrats have been incautious in associating themselves with Moore. (Indeed, if he were truly selfless about his desire to get Democrats elected, the filmmaker would tattoo “handle with care” on his forehead.)

Shortly after Wesley Clark enthusiastically accepted Moore's endorsement in January 2004, the two took the stage together at a New Hampshire campaign stop. During the rally, Moore leveled the charge that President Bush is a deserter based on the curious gaps in his National Guard service record. The press seized on this statement -- after all, desertion is a crime that used to be punishable by death. Clark, perhaps due to his character or his political inexperience (or both), could not bring himself to repudiate Moore. Clark both missed this “Sister Souljah moment” and the opportunity to invoke Reagan's tactical response to the Birchies. By contrast, you'll never see any leading Republican share a podium as Coulter, Sean Hannity, or Rush Limbaugh do their radical-winger routines.

Any negative impact that Moore has had on the Democrats points to one thing for certain: the current Republican political advantage. As Schrader conceded to me, “Michael Moore or no Michael Moore, [the Republicans] were going to do this to me anyway.” Begala, who was the author of Clinton's Sister Souljah speech, echoes that sentiment. “People who blame this election on Moore are using him as a cop-out for the kind of soul searching that Democrats need to do,” he says. “It's like that Gil Scott-Heron song [that goes], ‘If you stand for nothing, you'll fall for anything.'” And that's a predicament not easily solved by simply denouncing the politics of a single filmmaker.

Mark Leon Goldberg is a Prospect writing fellow.

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