Republican leaders have been hammering Chris Dodd, probably the most vulnerable Democratic Senate incumbent facing re-election next year, for being too cozy with bankers. Lately, the GOP is getting some support in its attacks on Dodd from an unlikely place—liberal filmmaker Michael Moore.
In Capitalism: A Love Story, Moore’s documentary slamming financial and political elites, Dodd is cast as a banker-friendly pol who nets sweetheart mortgages from the controversial lender Countrywide Financial. Dodd denied wrongdoing, and a Senate Ethics Committee investigation concluded in August that the mortgages did not violate any rules. Moore argues, however, that senators must be held to higher standards—and he questions Dodd’s judgment on the job, too. The silver-haired Connecticut Democrat revealed his pinstriped sympathies, in Moore’s narrative, by backing a bill enabling those government-subsidized bonuses for AIG executives at the peak of the financial crisis.
“The Democratic Party needs to tell [Dodd]—you can’t run for reelection,” Moore told Hardball host Chris Matthews. “We’re going to lose this seat because of what you’ve done.”
Dodd’s troubles started long before Moore’s movie opened nationwide last weekend. His approval ratings fell to an all-time low of 34 percent in April, driving several formidable (and colorful) Republicans to jump in the race to oust him. The list of heavy-hitters includes Rob Simmons, a popular former congressman; Linda McMahon, the founding CEO—and sometime cameo actor—for the professional wrestling juggernaut World Wrestling Entertainment; and Peter Schiff, an iconoclastic financial analyst who found a new audience for his views on YouTube, where remixes of his bearish television appearances prophetically warning of a financial meltdown have drawn millions of views. Dodd’s poll numbers have rebounded recently, but a majority of voters still say they don't trust him (51 percent to 40 percent in a September survey). In the last two weeks, Dodd got some help from friends in high places, calling in both President Obama and Vice President Biden.
In other words, the incumbent already had his hands full—before one of the country’s most influential liberals decided to come out against him.
• Liz Goodwin: Michael Moore’s Muse• The Best Scenes from Capitalism: A Love Story Asked about Moore’s criticisms, Dodd spokeswoman Colleen Flanagan told The Daily Beast that the “Countrywide issue” had already been widely aired in Connecticut. She stressed that “the bipartisan ethics committee” found no wrongdoing “after months of thorough investigation.” For his part, Dodd says he has not seen the film—or heard from its creator. “[Moore] never asked me to comment on this at all, or respond to it in any way, and this is his choice,” he told a Connecticut news Web site. “It’s a movie and so I don’t want to dwell on it.” But others are dwelling.
• Benjamin Sarlin: The Ugliest Health-Care Debate While Moore is a hero to many on the left, some liberals are pushing back in the dispute with Dodd. Howie Klein, a Democratic fundraiser who says he “loves” Moore, is calling on the filmmaker to fulfill his famous, standing pledge to give $10,000 to anyone who catches an error in his movies. Klein, along with several liberal bloggers in Connecticut, argues that it was factually inaccurate for Capitalism to air the mortgage allegations without citing the ethics findings, or stating that Dodd actually received a standard rate. By the looks of the movie’s promotional tour, however, that check is not in the mail.
Moore has redoubled his efforts lately. After reprising the mortgage and bonus issues in recent television interviews, he opened up a new line of attack, suggesting that Dodd is simply too politically damaged to run for reelection. Moore sees Dodd as a Democratic liability—a veritable David Paterson for the Nutmeg State.
“The Democratic Party needs to tell him—you can’t run for reelection,” Moore told Hardball host Chris Matthews. “We’re going to lose this seat because of what you’ve done,” he added. (Moore has not endorsed any other candidate in the race.) In another interview, he went further, calling for a grassroots effort to purge Dodd. "I have only one concern as a supporter of President Obama and his agenda, and that is not losing the 60-vote filibuster-proof majority in the Senate," he said. "If Christopher Dodd presents a threat to that, then I, and all the other good people who support Obama, have to say the seat is more important than one person's reelection."
The comments made headlines in Connecticut. And conservatives are taking notice.
On Tuesday, Moore won praise from Sean Hannity during a studio interview. “You went after Chris Dodd,” Hannity intoned, “in that sense I give you a lot of props.” Moore still spent the bulk of the three-part interview battling the conservative Fox News anchor, but Dodd’s defenders insist that when Moore is pleasing the right wing, something is very wrong.
And while the Republican primary candidates are busy fighting each other in Connecticut, Moore’s complaints could find a second life in campaign commercials targeting Democrats next fall.
“Michael Moore is doing the Republicans’ leg work by repeating debunked smears,” said one of Dodd’s former campaign aides this week, who requested anonymity because an employer wanted to avoid the topic.
Other local Democrats discount the arguments against Dodd, even if it’s Moore making them. Tom Swan, a progressive Connecticut strategist who ran Ned Lamont’s upstart 2006 campaign against Joe Lieberman, said Moore “definitely” has a legitimate role to play in Democratic politics. Yet Swan insists that Dodd’s current legislative priorities will drive turnout. “If Chris does as well on financial reform as he did with the Credit Card Bill and the HELP Bill,” he said, “the people in Connecticut will be very supportive.”
The former campaign operative also disputes the notion that Dodd is still endangered. “Dodd’s poll numbers were in the tank 12 months ago, but his numbers now show he can win this seat; he’s in a statistical tie [in the latest Quinnipiac survey],” argued the operative. “Maybe Moore said something that a lot of people were saying a while ago, and it’s just not true anymore. If he wants to be a political analyst, he should probably read some polls and get in touch with the issues he’s talking about before weighing in on national television.”
Whatever impact it has on the race, the conversation demonstrates Moore still knows how to drive political debate.
While his films still champion the little guy, Moore has grown arguably more pragmatic in his approach to electoral politics. He endorsed Ralph Nader in 2000, the ultimate embodiment of symbolic liberal futility, but abandoned the consumer crusader by 2004 for Gen. Wesley Clark. At the time, Moore stressed that his choice was based on which candidate had the “best chance” to win. It remains to be seen whether that principle—or his current politics—will drive Moore’s next steps, and whether America’s most famous progressive could wind up handing the GOP a new seat in the Senate next fall.
Ari Melber is a correspondent for The Nation.