Three hours after Sarah Palin's interview on Oprah finished, Lou Dobbs was interviewed on Fox News. While both are called "populists," their appearances could not have been more different.
Palin spoke about the usual: complained about mistreatment by McCain staffers and the media, engaged in a spat with her almost-son-in-law, and defended herself all the way. She was retrospective, backbiting, and virtually silent about the trouble millions face during the worst economy in a lifetime. Dobbs could have come off the same way during his chat with Bill O'Reilly: slam his ex-boss, blame the media, say he did no wrong, and rip the president as a mortal threat to freedom in America as Palin has done everywhere but Oprah.
Instead, he was the anti-Palin. Dobbs did not complain about the way he was treated by CNN, saying it didn't force him out and its executives treated him well. He barely griped about his usual targets: immigration groups and The New York Times. Dobbs even said he was partially to blame for CNN's low ratings; Palin said she wasn't why McCain lost the election. Finally, Dobbs said Barack Obama is "not the devil," but a man whose policy choices are difficult to understand.
Palin and Dobbs said they want to be on the national scene going forward, and that probably means politics, either as commentators or as candidates. From the looks of an admittedly short interview, Dobbs could make for a potent candidate. The message he sent could be encapsulated as, "This is not about me, don't worry about me. This is about you who are ignored by the the media, the parties, and the government--all of whom sold the middle class down the river." Palin's message has been constant self-defense, few policy prescriptions, and little focus on the problems of Joe the Plumbers. With more than 15 million Americans out of work, the bailout regime mostly intact, and few new jobs to show for billions spent to stimulate the economy, which message has greater resonance?
Populism is the attempt to turn the political debate into "us versus them" and appeal to "us" with ad hoc ideas. Populism is also the prerogative to represent "us."* Palin is representing herself right now, not trying to give voice to those Americans who feel like they've been left in the lurch. Dobbs tries to represent those who are middle class, politically independent, and upset. That sort of populism has room to grow in a shrunken economy. Maybe the talk show host should trade jobs with the politician.
* After publication I corrected "us" to "them" and changed the tense of "appeal" in the same paragraph.