Michael Moore's new health care documentary, SiCKO, has not yet opened, and it is already roiling Washington. Most of the chattering class has not actually seen the film -- the Beltway premiere drew only six members of Congress, and while hundreds of lobbyists were invited to a special "K Street screening," fewer than 10 showed.
But sight unseen, many insiders already think the movie will magically spur national health care reform or affect the Democrats' chances in 2008. If you hear these arguments, you're talking to someone who either didn't see the movie or didn't get it.
Writing in The Politico this week, for example, conservative blogger Dean Barnett attacks Moore as a pessimistic "prominent public face of the Democratic Party," ginning up partisan footage "just in time for another election cycle."
Where to begin? With a calendar: The next election is 17 months away. The mid-terms were seven months ago. With two summers between now and November 2008, this movie will not be on Americans' minds when it's time to vote.
The documentary is not great news for Democratic candidates anyway. President Bush is ridiculed a bit, but Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) gets much harsher treatment. In Moore's narrative, she sold out her principles for insurance industry donations. Clinton aides strongly protest that storyline, and Harvey Weinstein, the powerful Clinton supporter and SiCKO producer, even fought to cut the section out of the film altogether. When asked about the depiction of Clinton, Moore recently explained "the Democrats in some ways are as guilty as the Republicans on this issue." It's not exactly a winning campaign slogan.
Since SiCKO sidesteps the election calendar and slams both parties, you can't judge its political impact by conventional analysis. Unlike Fahrenheit 9/11, the gripping yet flawed election year agit-prop that targeted one chunk of our polarized populace, this film speaks in somber tones to the entire nation.
The recent personal attacks on Moore -- and other health care reformers, such as former Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) -- are in line with the vacuous scare tactics that have stifled health care policy long before the Clinton administration attempted reform. The detractors typically don't offer solutions or engage reformers' ideas. They don't join the vital debate over how our public policy should value every human life. They just defend the status quo and launch personal attacks.
For example, Mr. Barnett's Politico column offers a conservative's supposed concern that the intricate politics of SiCKO will backfire on Democrats (why would he care?). Then it recycles the canard that Edwards should not help the poor because he is wealthy. (By that logic, Americans with good health care shouldn't help anyone else, and cities with solid homeland security shouldn't collaborate to defend more vulnerable areas.) But after 800 words, Mr. Barnett fails to say anything about health care policy, or whether the Sept. 11 rescue workers deserve assistance or whether the U.S. should even try to improve our world health rankings. The column, like so many attacks on health care reformers, ignores the issues and gloomily accepts America's dismal health care condition -- and then labels Moore as the pessimist. "Smart politicians would avoid him like the plague," concludes Mr. Barnett.
Here it's painfully obvious that Mr. Barnett didn't see the movie or didn't get it.
The issue is not how "smart politicians" position themselves -- the public could not care less. The issue is what our nation can do about a health care crisis that leads to the needless suffering and death of our fellow citizens. They are the ones who have to avoid a real "plague," since they can't count on decent treatment when they get sick.
This post is based on a longer rebuttal I wrote to Mr. Barnett's column for The Politico, which you can read here.