Oprah is not the answer
I have been hearing little rumblings for the better part of the year about the topic of Oprah Winfrey and the presidency. Sometimes I hear that she should run for president, other times that she is thinking of running for president. Occasionally someone would just note that she probably could win the next election if she were to consider running. I did not pay much attention to these idle speculations, filing them away with similar contentions I had heard about Kid Rock, Mark Cuban, the Rock and a few others.
But the sound of these vague rumors reached a crescendo after Winfrey's speech at the Golden Globes last night. CNN, among several outlets, reported that two of Winfrey's friends have stated that she is "actively thinking" about a run, and that her confidants have been urging her to throw her hat in the ring. Longtime boyfriend Stedman Graham claims that "she would absolutely do it" if enough supporters wanted her to run. President Trump's administration was encouraging of the idea as well. "We welcome the challenge," stated the White House Deputy Press Secretary, "whether it be Oprah Winfrey or anybody else." Several months ago a Kansas man started a "Draft Oprah 2020" PAC, and today ABC News analyst Maryalice Parks argued that "it is not hard to imagine how a ‘Winfrey for President’ campaign could be successful." On top of all that, my social network feeds suggest that a large number of my liberal friends feel like a Winfrey candidacy is exactly what the Democratic Party needs in 2020.
Allow me to disagree. Oprah Winfrey might indeed make a very strong presidential candidate. No one denies her talent, drive or charisma. Her name recognition is off the charts. She would presumably energize African-Americans and women, two key constituencies. I am not arguing that Ms. Winfrey should not run, if that is what she wants to do. What I do contend is that there is not a shred of evidence to suggest that a Winfrey presidential run would be good for the country, or even the party. In short, Oprah has nothing to recommend her as a candidate, other than the fact that she would be reasonably likely to win the election.
These are some of the things that concern me about a potential Winfrey candidacy.
- She has no political experience. This is something that celebrities have generally tried to address before they consider running for president. Ronald Reagan, a reasonably well-known actor, served as governor of California before launching a presidential bid. Hillary Clinton had the decency to run for Senate before initiating a presidential campaign. Some never run for president at all: Jesse Ventura and Arnold Schwarzenegger both set their sights on the governor's mansion. (Schwarzenegger is, of course, Constitutionally barred from becoming president.) Al Franken spent time on Air America and learned a great deal from Paul Wellstone before running for the Senate. The biggest exception to that trend is, of course, Donald Trump, and his presidency is not going all that well. This is not to suggest that Oprah is as vain, thin-skinned, immature or incurious as President Trump. But she is every bit as inexperienced.
- Given the above, beginning her career in politics with running for president rather than some lower office smacks of hubris.
- What executive experience Winfrey does have consists of running her extensive media empire. This is no doubt very impressive. But it is about as relevant to being president of the United States as, say, running an extensive real estate empire. There are those who say that the best chief executive would be one who runs the government like a business. I have never been one of those people. (Don't even think about it, Mark Zuckerberg.)
- Other than the fact that she is a Democrat and has been known to be close to the Obamas, it is not really clear what she thinks about anything in particular. I am not aware of Oprah expressing any specific political thoughts, taking any political positions that differ from Democratic boilerplate, or advancing any innovative programs.
- In her speech yesterday, Oprah singled out "the one quality" shared by the people she has highlighted throughout her career who have "withstood some of the ugliest things life can throw at you." That central attribute "is an ability to maintain hope for a brighter morning, even during [the] darkest nights." In what she no doubt sees as a celebration of the human spirit, Oprah seems to espouse something very much like social Darwinism, in which the individual bears the responsibility for the fact of his/her own suffering. I find this stance politically unattractive and have a hard time imagining casting a vote for anyone who has made a career out of espousing it. She would have to work very hard to get my support, which would most likely never come. I think that this would be true of many in the Warren/Sanders wing of the party.
- Perhaps most important, a successful Oprah Winfrey candidacy would represent the Democrats countering Republicans' celebrity candidate by finding one of their own. A far better response would be to demonstrate the value of experience, proven judgment and progressive principles and policies. An Oprah coronation would essentially represent a rejection of that strategy. If Oprah were the Democratic presidential candidate in 2020, win or lose, no one would have any credibility left.
Some of these problems would be solved with time, as Winfrey rolled out her positions, made campaign promises, campaigned at the state fairs, hired staff and the like. But the more she does these things, the less she will be the transcendent Oprah that her fans hope to install in the Oval Office. Do they really want to see her presenting a six-point plan for increasing health care coverage? What would an Oprah/Trump debate look like? If she is forced to reverse a position, the way that Hillary did on TPP, will she maintain her aura of moral authority? When a reporter digs up an embarrassing or ugly incident from her youth, or complicates an uplifting story from one of her books, will she have as much to offer those who support her? (This is not a rhetorical question. Trump faced these sorts of obstacles and found a way to make them work to his advantage, at least with his core supporters.) What is interesting about this wild enthusiasm for Oprah's 2020 campaign is not the existence or effectiveness of her potential candidacy. It is the way in which it reveals so many wanting to get more out of politics than politics is likely to give.