Listening to Lou Dobbs -- the CNN business anchor who has built his show around a straight-talking populism -- there is inevitably a moment when you nod your head and think, "Yeah, right on."
The other day when he was speaking at a luncheon event in Manhattan, my nodding moment came when he complained that the Iraq War has been going poorly, yet "not a single general has been fired for his failure." That seemed bracing common sense, but with Dobbs, the longer you listen, the more self-discrediting he becomes.
His trick is to spout cliches drawn from the right and the left -- any one of which has a 50/50 chance that the average person will agree with it -- and give them a patina of freshness by wrapping them in angry and dire rhetoric. That rhetoric is their essential glue, making Dobbs the country's foremost practitioner of apocalyptic centrism.
There are various ways to tap into public disgust with partisan politics as usual. One is with a tonal centrism. That is what is offered by Barack Obama, a liberal who presents himself with a tone of sweet reason. Then there is a technocratic centrism: the bland, policy-oriented politics of the sort former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner would have offered Democrats had he run for president. Finally, there's an apocalyptic centrism, spiced up with paranoia and economic ignorance, and warning of the end of America as we know it. Think Ross Perot.
Dobbs is in the Perot tradition. He has taken Dennis Kucinich, Pat Buchanan and a dash of John Bolton, thrown them into a blender and come up with a worldview that is nationalist and populist, while giving both of those things a bad name.
Dobbs once made a living at CNN hosting a show that flacked for corporate America. After leaving to try to cash in on the dot-com bubble just as it burst, he has returned to make a living at CNN hosting a show that trashes corporate America. (Full disclosure: I am a commentator for the rival Fox News Channel.)
Dobbs is no ordinary corporate basher, since he also rails against political correctness, illegal immigration, "Communist China" and radical jihadists. His economic populism is always sold in terms of the middle class and the national interest. Unless we address the foreign economic threat, he warns, "this century will be named for another nation." Indeed, he says, "we're facing a real crisis that will materialize in a couple of years, and we'd better hope that it takes that long."
Evidence of this imminent crisis is thin. Dobbs basically has to ignore the record stock market, an unemployment rate of 4.5 percent and the 20 years of growth since the early 1980s, interrupted by only two brief recessions. Dobbs is worried because the U.S. imports more than it exports and China sends a lot of its capital here, making us "a debtor nation." But his alarmist case really relies on the tired stupidities of old-fashioned protectionism.
At the luncheon, he thundered: "Ninety-six percent of our clothing is imported. This nation cannot even clothe itself." But if we literally couldn't clothe ourselves, we'd be naked. Dobbs' line is like saying we can't feed ourselves because we buy groceries from supermarkets. Textiles inherently are not an advanced, high-paid industry, and it is no wonder that an economic superpower doesn't do a lot of textile production. Would Dobbs prefer that more of us were hunched over sewing machines rather than employed in industries like software development, financial services, law, accounting, biotech and pharmaceuticals?
But never mind. Dobbs demands action now! We need to "do far more, and do it with a vengeance." For him, what other way is there to do something except vengefully? Someone in the 2008 primary sweepstakes from one of the parties will probably embrace some of the Dobbs shtick. Meanwhile, he pledges "to continue to raise a lot of hell" -- naturally enough, since anger and outrage are mostly what apocalyptic centrism is about.