Terry H. Schwadron

Jan. 11, 2018

There has been more than enough hoo-hah around about Oprah Winfrey’s Golden Globes speech and what it could portend for presidential politics more than two years out.

Wow. Some news outlets stomped right into the moment and launched polling among “expected voters” to report that today, without declaring a candidacy, without knowing anything more about her positions than her public persona provides, Oprah would whip Donald by at least 10 points.

But can we set Oprah’s non-candidacy to the side for a moment.

Consider this: The wildly positive reaction to an Obama to face down Donald Trump is a cry of desperation. It is a direct sign of how much we want a president who does not embarrass us, who has oodles of empathy, and who — I think — shows real and laudable interest and intelligence in bringing smart people into her professional and personal circles.

As such, the instant reaction to the frankness in an Oprah may have less to do with Oprah herself — however likeable her celebrity has made her — and a lot more about how dark those of us left of say, civil war re-enactors, see a need for a leader who can base decisions and policy-making on reason, science, and principles like fairness. Hey, I’m even allowing the middle-of-the-roaders into this consideration, just for argument.

You wonder for a moment why Hillary Clinton thought a lifetime of service and experience would prove more important than personal appeal, and how she might view an Oprah as achieving the presidency.

We want badly to be uplifted, I think. We want to be challenged to do our best, even while helping those who are lagging. We want people treated with respect, not insults. So words do matter, and so do actions.

That said, the people who probably should most be hanging their heads these days may be those Democratic would-be candidates who are being relatively timid, even as President Trump finds the mildest criticism abhorrent.

While Republican leaders are relatively silent about Trump’s outrageous behavior, remarks, insults even as they use the shield of Donald Trump to enact a traditional Republican agenda, they are showing their dissatisfaction by looking at the realities of the coming 2018 elections, and withdrawing. Each day now is bringing more announcements of retirement or withdrawal of candidacy.

The turn of the House or Senate majorities from Republican to Democratic is now beginning to emerge as an actual feasible outcome, however difficult; to date, 19 House Republicans have said they will not run, including seven in districts that Clinton won or was close, and 12 others have announced for other races. Democrats need to turn 24 seats in the House, three in the Senate. The reactions to Trump, the unevenness of the tax bill and threats to health care and programs like Medicare are prompting wider appeal for a change.

So far, the Democratic response seems to be a daily denouncement of whatever Donald Trump has had to say that morning — and to send me 20 emails a day asking for donations, because the other side is raising money. In conversations with friends, what keeps coming up is not only about efforts to raise more voter participation, but some chagrin that we are not hearing an outright alternative list of program goals from Democrats. The short form of all this is that Democrats need to be for something as well as being against the presidency of Trump.

It is into this breathless chasm that Oprah happened to speak.

Interestingly, Oprah’s subject matter was #MeToo, a citizen-based social uprising relatively unaffected by government policy. Much like anti-smoking efforts, the kind of common-sense populism we can see among the leaders of #MeToo is at once affirming, supportive and challenging. The issue for #MeToo is to move beyond women successfully the takedown of abusive workplace bosses and to broaden the campaign into positive programs that the government can help promote.

But we are so hungry that we are eager to see “the day on the horizon” as not only representing any specific goals of #MeToo to a whole host of issues that recognize a national goal of widening civil rights, for humane and respectful of women and men, and for fairness in income, consumer power, a recognition that America’s role in the world is not just to insult and provoke foreign dictators, especially those armed with nuclear weapons.

I wish Republicans would honestly humble this president, that level-headed business, labor, cultural leaders would insist on treatment that is respectful, that Democrats would press harder to engage and make the effects of policies more than an invitation to corporations to roll over employees and customers. Instead, politicians see what they want, and use the tools at hand for the policies they favor, apparently with re-election as a top concern.

I’d welcome Oprah as a candidate, I suppose, though I warn her that she had better be ready to welcome the press and partisan inquiry, an unfriendly Congress and seriously lowered expectations, as well as an ability to walk away from her business interests.

More properly, though, I’m less worried about Oprah than I am for the rest of us, who are willing to look to the nearest friendly-faced celebrity as an antidote to a government that they find not of or by the people.