The Morning Jolt

Politics & Policy

Our Future: Twin Cults of Personality, Battling on Twitter Forever

The notion of Oprah Winfrey running for president is the sort of thing that dramatically shakes up the American political world and stirs a reaction in just about everybody.

She seems very nice, and many Americans look up to her in an almost quasi-religious reverence. If she runs, I’ll be able to re-use all of my “Munificent Sun-King” and “he stepped down into the presidency” jokes from the Obama years. The gif of her joyously screaming, “You get a car! And you get a car! And you get a car!” will be ubiquitous.

Spare a moment to pity the likes of, say, Colorado governor John Hickenlooper. I’d never vote for the guy, but as far as Democrats go, he’s not that bad. His state’s voters seem to like him. He’s got a job approval of 54 percent and disapproval of 30 percent. During his two terms, the state legalized marijuana and same-sex marriage, approving in-state tuition for students who are illegal immigrants and limits on the size of ammunition magazines. He’s pushing for bills on green spaces and apprenticeships.

In short, he’s done all of the things that a Democrat with presidential ambitions is supposed to do and won two terms in a purple state. And he wouldn’t amount to a speedbump against Oprah. If he wanted to be president someday, he should have tried to host a talk show.

We may have an electorate that now punishes accomplishment. If you get elected to office and work hard to pass legislation, that legislation will inevitably upset someone, and that legislative change will be cited as evidence of your stupidity and malice. But the television star never did anything like that. The television star never let you down, voted for a bill you didn’t like and never accepted a compromise that you find disappointing. They’re a blank slate that you can project your ideal upon.

If Oprah ran, she would have a very good chance of winning. If she wanted this sort of deafening political buzz to stop, she could stop it with a single issued statement — something Shermanesque like, “”If drafted, I will not run; if nominated, I will not accept; if elected, I will not serve.” But she hasn’t issued that statement.

More or less the opposite, really:

Oprah Winfrey is not actively considering a run for president in 2020 but has been “intrigued” by the buzz sparked by her impassioned speech at the Golden Globes on Sunday, her friend Gayle King said Tuesday on CBS’s “This Morning” program.

“I don’t think she’s actively considering it at this time,” King, a host on the CBS show, said. “I do think she’s intrigued by the idea, I do think that. I also know that after years of watching the Oprah show you also always have the right to change your mind.”

For what it’s worth, on the same program in October 2017, Oprah herself declared, “there will be no running for office of any kind for me.”

Everybody and their brother has a response to the thought of an Oprah presidential bid.

Michael Brendan Dougherty offers the grim theory that the interest in celebrity presidents reflects the fact that the modern presidency is no longer a position about making decisions about governing.

But I blame the wonks. It was the wonks who, unawares, made the celebrity president not just desirable but logically necessary . . . Where this model of government is most advanced — in Europe — policy questions are routinely taken away from the passions of democratic peoples, and quarantined for expert management. o there is little use for the traditional politician, a person of judgment and charisma who represents the community from which he or she emerges, using his own wisdom in reconciling the diverse interests and needs of his nation and constituency. Having eliminated the need for real probity in politicians, why shouldn’t the parties turn to celebrities as their political leaders?

Ben Shapiro concurs in part, contending that the modern presidency is becoming more like an elected royal family than we would like to admit:

Then there’s what Americans really think the president does. They think he talks. They think he speaks. They think he acts as a figurehead on the prow of state, thrusting a certain picture of American character into the world. In this world, what the president says matters far more than what he does. After all, legislative priorities change and executive policy morphs, but character is forever. Unfortunately, when it comes to electoral politics, it’s the second picture of the presidency that prevails. That’s why Trump’s Twitter antics damage him, and it’s why Oprah’s delivery of an overblown speech in front of her cronies in Los Angeles could launch her. The image of America is bound, in Americans’ mind, with the image of the presidency.

Kevin Williamson, sharp and funny as always, noting the transactional nature of the Hollywood and political worlds:

Democrats don’t really need a celebrity. They have a great talent for making celebrities out of ordinary politicians, converting a clan of low-rent grifters and halfwits such as the Kennedys into an ersatz royal family and making the lightly accomplished Barack Obama into a kind of rock-star messiah for the Davos set. The Democrats have a more fruitful relationship with celebrity because, unlike most Republicans, they understand the transactional nature of the celebrity-politician relationship. Movie stars get into political activism for the same reason they sometimes take six months off to do serious theater: They want to feel smart, maybe even a little profound, and, more important, they want to be perceived as that, as intellectually serious.

Democratic politicians connect with celebrities because they want to be seen as cool. Smart and cool is a very powerful combination for public-relations purposes, and it’s not what you get when you pair up Mike Pence with the Duck Dynasty guys.

Philip DeVoe reminds us of the many strange guests that Oprah flattered and nodded along to over the years.

If Oprah endorses it, odds are it’s pseudoscience.

Hers is a strange, unethical, and bizarre system, but it’s a commercially beneficial one. From Oprah, the champions of a yet-to-be-proven, seems-too-good-to-be-true practice receive validity. From her guests, Oprah receives trend points. The only victims are . . . well, everybody else, including people such as Kirby Brown, for whom a high-profile endorsement doubles as a reassurance.

A particularly alarming example of the “Oprah effect” is the widespread skepticism about vaccines. On a 2007 episode, Oprah left unchallenged Playboy model Jenny McCarthy’s theory that the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine was responsible for her child’s autism. No scientific experts appeared on the show, and the only pushback Oprah offered was a brief statement she read from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), which explained that no scientific connection between the two has yet been observed. McCarthy concluded the segment with this response: “My science is named Evan, and he’s at home. That’s my science.”

But the boss reminds us that an Oprah presidential bid would probably not be entirely smooth sailing, and she might have good reasons to hesitate.

Half the country would, by definition, begin to dislike her. She would have to fight with that part of the Democratic base committed to Bernie Sanders and suspicious of her as a Hollywood billionaire. She’d experience something that she’s never truly had to encounter: negative press.

For the first time, she wouldn’t be completely in control of her own image. She’d have to answer for her promotion of kooky products and theories over the years, and open up more about a private life that has been almost entirely shielded from public view.

Meanwhile, in actual government . . . 

FERC: Sorry, Secretary Perry, We Don’t Think Coal and Nuclear Plants Need That Aid

Remember the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission? That was the little-known branch of the Department of Energy that has responsibility for reviewing and approving energy infrastructure projects, including natural gas pipelines. In the closing months of the Obama administration and the opening weeks of the Trump administration, several commissioners retired, leaving the commission without the quorum needed to make an official decision. This absence stalled $50 billion big, privately funded infrastructure projects — mostly new pipelines, pressure-management stations and liquid-natural-gas terminals — that will create thousands of construction and operating jobs, both union and non-union, in places like Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. These are exactly the sort of good-paying blue-collar construction and heavy-industry jobs that President Trump promised he would bring back to these places, that cost U.S. taxpayers nothing, and all of them were left collecting dust for a few months because the White House couldn’t get its act together and nominate new commissioners. Thankfully, FERC regained a quorum by August.

Over the past year, Trump appointed four of the five commissioners, and they surprised the administration by rejecting a proposal from Secretary of Energy Rick Perry to help out coal and nuclear plants.

The Proposed Rule on Grid Reliability and Resilience Pricing, was immediately controversial when the Department of Energy first revealed it in September. It would require the regional markets that set electricity prices to compensate power plants that keep 90 days of fuel supplies on site Coal and nuclear power plants typically fit that description.

But FERC just wasn’t convinced that the change was needed. “While some commenters allege grid resilience or reliability issues due to potential retirements of particular resources, we find that these assertions do not demonstrate the unjustness or unreasonableness of the existing RTO/ISO tariffs,” FERC said, referring to regional transmission organizations and independent system operators. “In addition, the extensive comments submitted by the RTOs/ISOs do not point to any past or planned generator retirements that may be a threat to grid resilience.”

FERC’s been busy working through the backlog. At the end of 2017, they approved $3.2 billion in expansions to TransCanada’s Mountaineer XPress pipeline expansion, which will build 170 miles of new pipeline and three new compression stations, and Gulf Xpress, which includes the construction of seven new compressor stations, and upgrades to one existing compressor station.

ADDENDA: David Brooks, with an admission against interest: “In every war, nations come to resemble their enemies, so I suppose it’s normal that the anti-Trump movement would come to resemble the pro-Trump movement. But it’s not good. I’ve noticed a lot of young people look at the monotonous daily hysteria of we anti-Trumpers and they find it silly. This isn’t just a struggle over a president. It’s a struggle over what rules we’re going to play by after Trump. Are we all going to descend permanently into the Trump standard of acceptable behavior?”

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