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Lou Dobbs: Man of the People

By Steven Stark

This past week, CNN's Lou Dobbs posted an online commentary in which he predicted the victory next year of a surprise presidential candidate not yet in the race -- an "independent populist . . . who understands [that] the genius of this country lies in the hearts and minds of its people and not in the prerogatives and power of its elites."

After extensive but completely speculative investigative reporting, the candidate Dobbs may well have in mind can now be revealed:

It's Lou Dobbs.

In fact, Dobbs, the popular host of Lou Dobbs Tonight, is right on the money that 2008 is a perfect year for an independent populist candidacy. And of all the "independent" figures currently the subject of presidential speculation, he -- not Michael Bloomberg or Ron Paul -- has the most potential, by far.

Despite the difficulty of getting on 50 state ballots, it's easier to put together an independent candidacy than it once was. Both parties are likely to have their nominees picked by the end of winter. That will give voters ample time to feel buyer's remorse and political reporters six long months to do nothing but speculate about who might launch an independent candidacy -- thus giving the new entrant a ton of free coverage, just as H. Ross Perot received in 1992.

Then there's this year's field. Though the press seldom points it out, the two Democratic front-runners have less significant political experience than any two front-runners have had since Thomas Dewey and Wendell Willkie squared off for the Republican nomination in 1940. Meanwhile, the Republican candidates all have considerable flaws -- not the least of which is that no incumbent party in modern times has managed to succeed itself following a president as unpopular as this one.

More important, of course, is the public's mood and its disconnect with the current campaign. Confidence in both parties is near record lows. The economy may be tanking. Illegal immigration is the hot topic of the moment. Yet the major candidates are all running on platforms and platitudes geared to a nation satisfied with the two major parties. No one, seemingly, is listening to the average-but-angry voter.

So an independent populist-style candidacy could fill a huge vacuum, much as Perot did in '92 (before he self-destructed). Perot actually fit into a long American tradition: going back to William Jennings Bryan a century ago, populism tends to characterize politics as a struggle between ordinary people and a self-serving, undemocratic elite.

But the usual talked-about suspects can't fill the gap. Ron Paul's problem is that, as an experienced congressman, he's too much of a politician with too long a record to pose as an outraged outsider. Besides, his 1988 national run as a libertarian, when he pulled a whopping 0.5 percent of the vote, wasn't exactly promising.

Then there's New York mayor Mike Bloomberg. His considerable assets are that he's very rich and his office is in Manhattan -- meaning any member of the New York-centric media who wants to do a puff piece doesn't have to do a lot of legwork. (You can meet over lunch!)

But Rudy Giuliani notwithstanding, being mayor of New York is a huge liability -- particularly for a self-styled independent seeking national office. In fact, because of his background and current job, Bloomberg's real appeal is to East Coast elites -- exactly the kind of people a successful independent candidate needs to repel rather than inspire, the better to run against the media and the establishment. Bloomberg, really, is just another John Anderson.

As seen on TV

That's where Dobbs comes in. Like Perot and Pat Buchanan before him, Dobbs pushes the right populist buttons with the right rhetoric. Economic nationalism. Corporate greed. The government's "war on the middle class." Politicians who are "viciously partisan and contemptuous of their constituencies." Though he's often lambasted for his over-the-top rants on immigration, he's struck a considerable chord with his recognition that the average voter's problem with illegal immigration isn't that it's immigration, but that it's illegal. It's a law-and-order issue that both Democrats and Republicans have managed to dismiss, much to their detriment.

Dobbs also has the perfect platform from which to launch a candidacy against the establishment. If Virginia was once the mother of presidents, CNN is now the mother of populist presidential candidacies. Buchanan, of course, went straight from the studio to the campaign trail, even bragging when he announced, "No other American has spent as many hundreds of hours debating the great questions of our day on national television."

Perot, of course, did something similar, as Larry King essentially allowed him to hijack his show in the early '90s to help promote his prospects.

Any Dobbs effort would, of course, be a long shot; everyone knows independents don't win (everyone, that is, but the prognosticating Mr. Dobbs). And, perhaps, a presidential run is the furthest thing from his mind. But if you were positioning yourself to run as an outsider, you'd find yourself a media forum, write books, work the lecture circuit, and bide your time. Just like Lou.

In a year when the political and media establishments are tone deaf, Dobbs, of all people, is in tune with the public mood. Even if he doesn't run, he bears watching.

As Dobbs goes, so goes the nation.

Boston Phoenix

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