Magazine article The American Prospect

Is Moore Less? Republicans Say Filmmaker Michael Moore Is the Gift That Keeps on Giving. Should the Democrats Give Him the Sister Souljah Treatment?

Magazine article The American Prospect

Is Moore Less? Republicans Say Filmmaker Michael Moore Is the Gift That Keeps on Giving. Should the Democrats Give Him the Sister Souljah Treatment?

Article excerpt

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 tides 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? …

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