WASHINGTON — He is a unique force in American politics, a movie mogul who drives a 5-year-old minivan and a propagandist whose movies comfort the afflicted — and afflict the comfortable.
Michael Moore, whose new film blames the nation's problems on corrupt politicians and unbridled greed, is an influential voice on the political left because he has mastered a skill that many liberals lack: the ability to play hardball. Liberals have often been outplayed by their conservative adversaries because the right wing has better wordsmiths (to build opposition to the estate tax, they dubbed it the "death tax") and conservatives are often more willing to throw a punch.
But in his films, Moore punches back with bare knuckles. In Capitalism: A Love Story, he uses a potent mix of humor and factual claims (some of which are exaggerated or wrong, as our fact-checking shows on PolitiFact.com) to build a case that the American political system has been co-opted by big business.
That's a message that sounds like it came straight from the Democratic National Committee. But Democrats don't always know whether Moore is friend or foe. On one hand, he is one of their most influential voices, able to get millions of Americans not only to hear the liberal message, but to pay money to hear it. (Fahrenheit 9/11, his 2004 attack on President George W. Bush, grossed $119 million, while Sicko, his 2007 indictment of the American health care system, grossed $25 million.)
On the other hand, Moore is like a grumpy friend always fussing that you should behave better. Fahrenheit 9/11 came out shortly before the Democratic convention in 2004, attacking the incumbent president with powerful charges, but party leaders treated Moore like he was radioactive. At the time, Sen. John Kerry's pollster referred to him as "a private individual who made a movie."
Moore's news conference in Washington last week showed why. He was there to promote health care reform, but he didn't just target the Republicans. He aimed much of his frustration at President Barack Obama and other Democrats.
He said Obama made a strategic error by offering his compromise position too early.
"You started with a compromise!" Moore said to the cameras, as if he were speaking to Obama. "Anybody who's bought a car, anybody who has bought or sold their house — or negotiated anything — knows you don't start with a compromise."
And he threatened to campaign against Democrats who opposed the reform bills.
"We will come after you and will remove you from office," Moore said, adding that the Democrats need to "find your spine."
Larry Sabato, a political science professor at the University of Virginia, said Moore poses a predicament for Democratic leaders.
They "appreciate his role in stirring and exciting the base — until he stirs and excites them too much. When the left really gets motivated, they can push the party farther from the center than it wants to be," Sabato said.
In Capitalism, which opened nationwide Friday, Moore uses the same techniques he used in Fahrenheit 9/11 and Sicko. He builds sympathy for his victims — people who lost their jobs, got evicted from their homes or were otherwise cheated by corporate America. One scene shows a family peeking through window blinds as a sheriff arrives to evict them. The sheriff smashes through their door.
Moore also celebrates his heroes — FDR, people at employee-run companies, sheriffs who refuse to do evictions, Democratic members of Congress who give passionate speeches, and Sully, the pilot who landed on the Hudson.
And Moore demonizes his villains — investment bankers, senators who take money from investment bankers, senators who take favorable loans from mortgage companies, Presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, big banks, big retail chains and security guards who won't let Moore film inside buildings.
Moore mostly treats Obama as a hero, but chides him for taking campaign contributions from employees of Goldman Sachs. And the film portrays Obama's treasury secretary, Timothy Geithner, as incompetent.
At the news conference last week, a reporter asked Moore why his movies didn't have more of an impact. Moore disagreed and said General Motors delayed layoffs in Flint for two years after Roger & Me, his film attacking GM. He also said that Bush's approval ratings steadily declined after Fahrenheit 9/11 (a claim PolitiFact rated Barely True).
But political analysts say Moore's biggest impact is probably within the Democratic Party.
"He's effective for people who are on the left," said Bill Schneider, a senior fellow at Third Way, a centrist think tank. "He rallies them the way a talk radio host rallies the right."
Moore played a role in the 2004 election by firing up the liberal base, but ultimately Fahrenheit 9/11 didn't have much impact on other voters.
Schneider said liberals need a voice like Moore's.
"He contributes something the left desperately needs — an image of toughness."
Bill Adair can be reached at [email protected] or (202) 463-0575.