TCS Daily

The New Ralph Nader

By Collin Levey - January 13, 2005 12:00 AM

After winning the People's Choice Awards for best movie of the year on Sunday night, Fahrenheit 9-11 director Michael Moore was jubilant. "I'll take this as an invitation to make more Fahrenheit 9/11s," he said.

And indeed, Mr. Moore's next project -- taking on American healthcare in a film called "Sicko" -- could send some executives at drug companies reaching for the Valium. Pfizer has been warning its employees to look out for the "scruffy guy in a baseball cap" while Wyeth, AstraZeneca and GlaxoSmithKline also sent out Moore-alerts to their staff.

But why worry? For a healthcare industry already facing the political microwave, a Michael Moore project could be just what the doctor ordered. The film maker may be a big hero to Hollywood, but the legacy of his films has been to discredit the causes he champions. Just ask John Kerry.

Fahrenheit 9/11 was timed to coincide with the 2004 presidential election for the sake of maximum interest and box office -- but its publicity and controversy was a distraction to the Democrats at the moment they were trying to get their message out. Taking a stance against the Iraq war became more difficult, not less, after the movie was released, forcing Democrats to distinguish their criticisms from those of the silver screen conspiracy theorists.

Who can forget how Gen. Wesley Clark's Democratic primary campaign had to spend several days extricating their candidate from the bear hug of the radical filmmaker? In the general election, John Kerry was likewise forced to walk the Fahrenheit tightrope -- distancing himself from Moore without alienating the party's liberal anti-war base that was turning out in droves and filling movie theatres with applause.

For the drug companies and HMOs set to be targeted in "Sicko," now might seem like the worst time for bad publicity. Last month's revelations about the potential cardiac dangers of blockbuster drugs Celebrex and Vioxx turned a klieg light on the screening policies of the Food and Drug Administration and challenged the motives of the drug companies.

And that's surely why Mr. Moore chose the subject. His gonzo style of ambush interviews goes something like this: Pick an industry already marked as injured political prey, wait until a moment when it is in the corner licking its wounds, then tickle its nose with a feather and "observe" how it behaves.

That was the tactic he employed in his other "documentaries" taking on the betes noires of the American left. Anti-Reagan animus drove the success of 1989 "Roger and Me"'s rant against outsourcing and layoffs at General Motors, while "Bowling for Columbine" capitalized on the anti-gun zeitgeist at a time when lawsuits against firearms manufacturers were sweeping the nation's cities.

But in both instances, as in Fahrenheit 9/11 Mr. Moore's efforts did no favors to the causes. Outsourcing continued and increased through the 90s as more businesses learned to use the advantages of the global economy to manufacture their products more efficiently. Municipal gun lawsuits uniformly failed to go much of anywhere despite the great bluster surrounding them.

Mr. Moore has waved off suggestions that he contributed to the Democrats' loss in November, but not everyone else agrees. Al From, head of the Democratic Leadership Council dismissed Moore as the sort of fringe element that didn't represent the future of the Democratic Party. Now, Congressional Democrats interested in enacting a socialized system of national healthcare in this country may be putting him on their black list too.

Consider, for example, that "Sicko" is targeted for release around the lead-up to the midterm Congressional elections. Just as Democratic candidates are trying to present their vision for American healthcare, "Sicko" viewers will be treated to Mr. Moore's suggestion that our healthcare is "inferior to that of much poorer nations" and that a better idea would be to emulate say, Canada, Cuba or Spain. That'll be a fun one to sell the voters.

Many Americans have been vocally impatient with rising healthcare and drug costs, but most also know the quality of care in this country sets the standard for the world. Back in 1994, Hillary Clinton's proposal to bring America a European-socialized style health care system took the Democratic Party down in flames. Since then, healthcare reformers have focused on marginal moves -- focusing on the uninsured and expanding coverage for prescription drugs.

More likely the only group that will profit from a new Moore movie on pharmaceutical companies pushing drugs to doctors and HMOs is the trial lawyers. Vioxx and Celebrex will surely attract mammoth class-actions in the same mold as those levied against other withdrawn medications like the diet drug fen-Phen. Breast implants, HMOs and birth control device Norplant have all proved rich targets before sympathetic juries.

In other words, Michael Moore is at risk of becoming a figure most similar to Ralph Nader -- the man whose candidacy last election he opposed as that of an ego-driven spoiler. Sound familiar? Messrs Moore and Nader both make good news copy and have a knack for articulating issues in a way that speaks to the left base of the Democratic Party. But their talent for self-promotion undercuts the political viability of the issues they claim to promote.

So, here's wishing Mr. Moore all the luck with his big-screen crusade against the companies that discover and produce the world's medicine. He says he'll show how "being screwed by your (health-care provider) and ill-served by pharmaceutical companies is the shared American experience." In fact, he may be the healthcare industry's best chance to expose the lunacy of its critics.



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