The Campaign Spectator

Lou Dobbs’ America

The hatching of a kinder, gentler immigration hawk.

By From the February 2010 issue

When Lou Dobbs stepped away from his desk at CNN, where he was a founding anchor, for the last time, the headlines buzzed with speculation about what might be next for the controversial commentator. National Public Radio, for instance, reported that Lou Dobbs Tonight was ended so that its erstwhile host could “seek new ways to advocate his often inflammatory views.”

Nobody suspected that the next chapter might entail a bigger departure than leaving CNN—a possible break with the immigration hawks who had fueled the latest stage of Dobbs’s career. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States, Dobbs took a more populist turn on issues involving trade, globalization, the middle class, and above all illegal immigration. Dobbs’s immigration commentary made him more popular than ever before. As TAS contributor Jeffrey Lord, Dobbs’s final on-air guest, reported at length, it also made the talking head a frequent target of liberal, multicultural, and Hispanic groups, culminating in a Drop Dobbs campaign calling on “advertisers to stop advertising on the Lou Dobbs program because of his misstatements about immigrants.”

Even ACORN and mainline Protestant churches eventually got into the act. “Because if they can silence Lou Dobbs,” Lord wrote, “they will eventually try to silence you.” The immigration-related controversies inflamed tensions between Dobbs and CNN executives, who claimed to be trying to push the network away from commentary to stake out an objective niche distinct from Fox News on the right and MSNBC on the left. Although CNN president Jonathan Klein praised Dobbs and publicly described the parting as amicable, he also said pointedly, “We are a very profitable company because of our commitment to journalism. So we don’t want to do anything that is off-mission—and we’re not going to be.”

For his part, Dobbs—who had a previous stint away from CNN to start a short-lived Internet venture a decade ago—said he was going to seize an even bigger platform to advance his favored causes. “Some leaders in media, politics, and business have been urging me to go beyond the role here at CNN,” he told viewers, “and to engage in constructive problem-solving, as well as to contribute positively to a better understanding of the great issues of our day.” But shortly thereafter, Dobbs began to tone down what NPR described as his “often inflammatory views” on his signature issue.

First came this statement on Dobbs’s website: “Ethnocentric special interest groups often mischaracterize Lou’s position on illegal immigration. The left routinely ignores the context of everything Lou has said about illegal immigrants.” A compilation of less-than-inflammatory quotations followed. “I’m absolutely one of the most passionate opponents of illegal immigration,” Dobbs said during one of his broadcasts, “but I’ve also made it very clear I’m also one of those who respects most the illegal aliens, I’ve described them on numerous occasions as the only rational actor in this crisis.”

“You’ve heard me say time and time again that the only rational actor in this is the illegal alien trying to improve his or her life,” reads another Dobbs blurb. “You’ve heard me say time and time again that the illegal employer of the illegal alien deserves the greatest sanctions in this mess.” Dobbs continued, “I have great respect for the people who make up the preponderance of the illegal alien population in our country, that is Mexican migrant workers.”

Dobbs went so far as to say in one immigration discussion, “I think I’m the only one on this panel who’s actually worked with migrant workers in the fields, with beans, potatoes, hay in my youth. I know them to be good and decent people.” Then the Wall Street Journal—a well-known home for pro-immigration conservatives whose editorial page once annually called for a constitutional amendment decreeing, “There shall be open borders”—quoted Dobbs as saying “we need the ability to legalize illegal immigrants under certain conditions.” The WSJ found this statement in a Dobbs interview with the Spanish-language network Telemundo, where the former CNN commentator told host Maria Celeste “I am one of your greatest friends” and even apologized for his inability to address the audience in Spanish.

The reaction in restrictionist circles was swift. The Americans for Legal Immigration PAC (ALIPAC) withdrew its call for Dobbs to run for president on an anti-illegal immigration platform. “While Mr. Dobbs claims his positions have not changed, however, that is not the perception of many of our mutual supporters,” said William Gheen of ALIPAC in a statement. “His recent comments on Telemundo and his national radio show supporting some kind of path to citizenship for illegal immigrants are inconsistent with positions of ALIPAC and the views of most American citizens.”

“I really don’t know what to make of all this, but that utterly ridiculous statement about the illegal alien being the only rational actor proves, to me, that Lou has gone rogue,” Isabel Lyman, a conservative activist who is herself Hispanic, told TAS. “Try telling that to the grieving families of Kris Eggle, Dustin Inman, Lila Meizel, Robert Rosas, and Leonard Dykstra—Americans who were needlessly killed by criminal illegal aliens who shouldn’t have been here in the first place.”

Immigrant-friendly sentiments, however, are actually not that uncommon among moderate restrictionists. Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies has called for a “low-immigration, pro-immigrant” approach to the issue. “It’s not the immigrants—it’s us,” he argued in his book The New Case Against Immigration. “What’s different about immigration today as opposed to a century ago is not the characteristics of the newcomers.”

Nor is a nuanced approach necessarily limited to highbrow immigration reformers. No less a populist than Minuteman leader Jim Gilchrist once told me he was personally sympathetic to the plight of illegal immigrants, even as he found illegal immigration contrary to the American national interest. Gilchrist had no reason to soft-pedal to ingratiate himself to me—I was interviewing him for Pat Buchanan’s American Conservative magazine, where I then worked and was (rather hostilely) covering proposals to give amnesty to illegal immigrants.

Let’s not get carried away, wrote Joe Guzzardi, a columnist for Peter Brimelow’s restrictionist webzine VDare. Calling the idea that Dobbs now supported amnesty “the most extreme conclusion any viewer could come to,” Guzzardi argued, “My interpretation: Dobbs means that if the border were successfully secured, he might support amnesty, depending on how the legislation was written.”

Yet Guzzardi’s fellow VDare scribe Brenda Walker detected Dobbs going wobbly more than a year before his post-CNN apology tour. Dobbs told liberal writer David Sirota he’d be open to tripling legal immigration if “we make a judgment that we’re going to raise immigration levels.” “There’s nothing in me that is a restrictionist whatsoever, and I realize that separates me from others who are against illegal immigration on the basis that there is too much immigration,” Sirota quotes Dobbs as saying in his book The Uprising. “I don’t believe that.” It is merely Washington’s lack of control over immigration that “leaves [Dobbs] in despair.”

BUT DOBBS MAY WANT TO DO MORE than clarify his position. It's not just obscure activist groups that are contemplating a Dobbs presidential bid -- the Wall Street Journal reported that Dobbs may be considering a run for the White House or the U.S. Senate himself. The late columnist Robert Novak wrote about this possibility as early as 2008. The Journal noted Dobbs “is working to repair his reputation for antipathy toward Latino immigrants” which his associates consider “a glaring flaw” in his ability to seek public office.

Skeptics remember that before briefly leaving CNN the first time in 1999, Dobbs was a supporter of free trade and free markets—the kind of conventional pro-business Republican one might expect the network’s chief economics anchor to be. One doubter in the Washington business press opined that Dobbs’s immigration conversion “always smelled fishy to me.” When Dobbs returned to the network and was trying to regain audience share, my correspondent recalled, “He thrashed around for a while until he started hitting the anti-immigration drum and his ratings perked up.” Might his current makeover be similarly motivated?

Either way, Ross Perot was able to tap into popular concerns about immigration without eliciting many accusations of racism (his “you people” address to the NAACP notwithstanding). But will the kinder, gentler Lou Dobbs sell? “Lou, Lou, Lou,” says Lyman, a longtime fan. “The man has been causing my head to spin.”

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About the Author

W. James Antle III is politics editor of the Washington Examiner and the author of Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped? Follow him on Twitter @jimantle.