Oprah Would Be An Unstoppable Presidential Candidate
The Democratic Party is helpless to stop the media mogul if she decides to run.
Since her Golden Globes speech on Sunday, the idea of Oprah Winfrey running for president has captured much of the news media’s attention. “Talk of Oprah running for president captivates Democrats,” the Washington Post headline blared. The possibility was featured on shows on CNN and MSNBC, as well as in prominent news websites and newspapers like the New York Times, The Huffington Post, and even the Drudge Report. In addition to reporting the speech and rumors that Oprah was “actively considering” running, pundits took sides on the merits of a possible Oprah presidency. David Graham of the Atlantic articulated liberal arguments against Oprah’s possible presidential ambitions. He wrote, “an Oprah candidacy might be the one thing that could heal the still-festering divide over the 2016 Democratic primary, uniting Hillary Clinton supporters appalled by Winfrey’s lack of expertise and dues-paying, and Bernie Sanders backers appalled by Winfrey’s neoliberalism.”
Graham and others assert that even if she did decide to run, Oprah would lose the Democratic primary. But how confident should liberals be when they assert that Oprah would not become president? What exactly are Oprah’s political liabilities? And could any of her missteps hamper a possible political run? The answer to those questions is important, because it may provide the template for a profound shift in the nature of American politics.
The idea that Oprah Winfrey’s wealth, snobbish affect, and obscure medical beliefs would disqualify her from a presidential run is ludicrous. Wealth in itself does not disqualify anybody from the presidency, especially someone who, like Winfrey, has worked her way out of family poverty. In fact, Winfrey’s wealth illustrates an American success story in a way that the current president’s inherited fortune cannot. Winfrey’s attitude about lavish spending and her private jet may not be the most appealing aspect of her political profile, but, unlike Mitt Romney, she did not earn her money raiding companies and laying off workers.
As for Oprah’s support of the scientifically dubious Dr. Oz and Dr. Phil, criticisms belie the minuscule role that these men played in her career. Out of thousands of TV shows, numerous movies, and a long-running cable network, Oprah’s medical and spiritual beliefs have made up only small part of the content that she has brought to the American public. Oprah is known and viewed favorably by most Americans not as a fad healer or believer in positive thinking but because of her kindness, empathy, and success.
If Oprah runs, she will benefit from having one of the greatest public profiles in the country. As Donald Trump’s victory showed, name recognition and notoriety alone go a long way in a crowded field. Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and other Republican candidates had to spend millions of dollars to gain a fraction of the name recognition that Trump already had from his decades in television, movies, and the gossip columns. This profile allowed Trump to win primary after primary, while his competitors split the rest of the vote. 2020 Democratic contenders would be in the same negative position. Winfrey would not be as prone to headline-grabbing attacks and gaffes as Trump would, but her fame would still ensure that her every word would be tracked and followed. Winfrey would only need the basic outline of a political program, perhaps derived from her Golden Globes speech, and she would be an instant favorite against lesser-known political hopefuls.
Oprah’s victory would reshape the political landscape for years, if not decades. Two consecutive victories of two celebrity entertainers from both major parties would turn celebrity entertainers into a political gold standard. Qualified but obscure governors and senators would be replaced by television billionaires who could self-finance their campaigns and garner mass media attention with a wave of their hands, in the meantime bringing millions to the polls who would bolster down-ballot candidates.
The effects would be akin to the landscape of presidential politics after the election of Andrew Jackson in 1828. Jackson’s victory, and the new dominance of his Democratic Party, showed the electoral viability of a hardscrabble general with no civil political experience. The Whigs, in response, ran three generals for president over the next 20 years, including Zachary Taylor, whose bumbling half-term contributed to the sectional divides that eventually resulted in the Civil War. But politically inexperienced or incompetent generals won more elections for the Whigs than careful, well-qualified statesmen like Henry Clay or Daniel Webster ever did.
The Democratic Party must be careful in its strategy against Oprah. (And it should be a strategy against, not for her, if the party wants to retain the viability of its experienced politicians.) The tendency to nominate the popular billionaire among the party’s base will be strong, even though her presidency, like Zachary Taylor’s, would further a negative trend towards political inexperience in the White House. But given the state of the DNC right now, I am not confident it will be able to do much to stop a Winfrey candidacy. Only Oprah herself can do that, either by deciding not to run or by choosing not to campaign seriously if she does run.