When Lou Dobbs announced in november that he was quitting CNN after nearly 30 years, his decision was surprising. More so were reports that the outspoken Dobbs was considering running for Senate or even for President as an independent. Is he leader material? Could he become America's most beloved cranky old xenophobe since Jack Albertson's character on Chico and the Man?
Dobbs could be a credible spoiler. One poll showed him attracting Perot-like presidential support, in the low teens. And the temptation is understandable, because the barrier between politics and media stardom has been getting more porous. Al Franken went from SNL star to radio host to Senator. Mike Huckabee has a show on Fox News. Sarah Palin left Alaska's governorship to be an author and a media gadfly. Glenn Beck recently announced a political-activist movement involving a "100-year plan" for America.
Knowing how to work the media, of course, has long been essential for a serious politician. But in 2010, a media career is itself a viable basis for political power--and even a political career.
Most of the recent pundit-politician activity has taken place to the right of center. Since Obama took office, the GOP seems to have divided into two parties: the party in office, holding down the minority in Congress, and the media party, holding forth on Fox and on the radio. And the media party--unencumbered by the responsibilities of office--has been having much more fun.
For instance, unlike elected, Wall Street--tied conservatives, media conservatives could full-throatedly embrace, and be embraced by, the conservative-libertarian tea-party phenomenon, which Fox News has practically owned. This should worry the officeholding GOP: a December Rasmussen poll found that if the Tea Party were an actual party, it would win more votes for Congress than Republicans would. Fox News and the tea parties may now be hotter political brands than the GOP.
It used to be that media skills were necessary but secondary to political seasoning. Ronald Reagan's TV-spokesman work on General Electric Theater marked him as a rising conservative star, but his political career unfolded over decades. In 1936, radio demagogue Father Charles Coughlin--the Glenn Beck of his time--founded a third party, with little success.
But the tea-party era seems like a more propitious moment for media stars as politicians precisely because they are outside government. We live in an era when--after the best and brightest got the housing bubble, the banking crisis and Saddam's WMD capability wrong--official, expert authority has been discredited.
If anything, experience may be a liability. Huckabee was considered a front runner for the GOP nomination in 2012, until an ex-con he pardoned while governor of Arkansas murdered four police officers in Washington State. Polls since then show Huckabee still runs strong, but if he has a political future, it may be in spite of his governing record, not because of it.