The hero Democrats deserve, but not the one they need right now.
Democrats aren’t going to find a stronger presidential candidate than Oprah Winfrey. They should nominate someone else in 2020, anyway.
In the 40 hours since Oprah gave her instantly iconic “Everybody gets an end to patriarchy!” speech at the Golden Globes, pundits have produced a small library of takes on Winfrey’s hypothetical 2020 bid — while Democratic operatives secreted rivers of saliva at the thought of her nomination. “We need someone genuine, honest and authentic who really cares about people … And, that person might be Oprah Winfrey,” Democratic strategist Jesse Ferguson told Politico, while former Obama campaign adviser David Axelrod declared, “There isn’t anybody who’s a greater antithesis to Donald Trump” than the television star.
It’s easy to mock these liberal strategists — many of whom spent the past two years deriding Trump’s lack of conventional qualifications for high office — for jumping at the chance to elect their billionaire media personality. But it’s also hard to blame them.
Oprah isn’t a mere celebrity, after all; she’s one of the most charismatic and gifted communicators to ever walk the face of the Earth. There aren’t many human beings who could be born to a single, teenage mother; suffer through a childhood of poverty and sexual abuse; run away from home at 13; lose a child at 14; and then claw their way up the ranks of the entertainment industry until they become one of America’s most universally beloved television personalities — as a black woman, in the 1980s — before turning themselves into a multibillion-dollar brand, and one of most influential figures in American (if not global) popular culture.
To be more precise, there is only one human being who could ever do that.
Oprah is a world-historic genius at her chosen field. And the skills required to succeed at that field overlap heavily with those necessary for winning elections. Beyond her political talents, Oprah would bring universal name recognition, an unparalleled connection to the heart of the Democratic base (black women), a unique appeal to a significant sub-segment of the GOP base (white women), the most impressive rags-to-riches story of any candidate in American history, and a vast personal fortune to the 2020 race.
Confidence in our nation’s political institutions is near historic lows. Americans take a dim view of both major parties, and politicians in general. But they trust their favorite celebrities. What’s more, voters have proven highly receptive to billionaire candidates who claim their immense wealth insulates them from corporate influence. Add a populist, “I can’t be bought” promise to Oprah’s singular personal appeal, and there’s little question that Winfrey would be a superlative standard-bearer.
But Democrats won’t need an exceptional candidate in 2020. No president has ever been this unpopular this early in his tenure as Donald Trump is now. The Republican Party currently trails the generic congressional ballot by double digits. Of course, a lot can change in the next three years. But the GOP has lost the popular vote in six of the last seven presidential elections. And the demographic changes that produced the Democrats’ structural advantage at the national level are only accelerating — millennials will constitute a larger share of the voting-eligible population in 2020 than baby-boomers, for instance, and hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans have resettled in Florida since Hurricane Maria.
It took a confluence of unfortunate events in 2016 — the Comey letter, Russian hacking, a last-minute hike in Obamacare premiums, and the presence of two (relatively well-funded) third-party candidates — to land Trump his 80,000-vote advantage in the Electoral College. The president currently has a negative approval rating in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Michigan — while 60 percent of Iowans disapproved of him in a recent Des Moines Register poll. Federal investigators appear poised to bring charges against Trump’s associates, if not against the president himself. Should Democrats take Congress in 2018 — a development that appears more likely than not — damaging investigations into the Trump family’s shameless attempts to profit off the presidency will surely follow.
Oh, and according to myriad accounts, the president is suffering from rapid cognitive decline.
In 2020, any halfway competent Democrat should be able to knock this guy off without much trouble. Should Trump decline to seek reelection, the GOP would suffer most of the aforementioned disadvantages (Trump’s unpopularity would rub off on his replacement), while also forfeiting the benefits of incumbency.
For Democrats, this simply isn’t the cycle to pick a nominee on her strengths as a candidate, rather than her skills as a policy maker. They don’t need star power to win in 2020; but they will need political and legislative expertise to effectively address climate change, economic inequality, health care, the opioid epidemic, and our nation’s myriad other crises in 2021. As Slate’s Osita Nwanevu writes:
If we continue on our current path, we, and our children, and our children’s children, will face a world of not only immiserating and constantly spreading heat and sea-level rise but also intense storms that will devastate major cities, crop failures that will disrupt access to food, violent conflicts over environmental resources, communicable diseases given the conditions to spread far more widely and severely than they otherwise would, and a perpetual refugee crisis dwarfing many times over the Syrian exodus that has been exploited by a resurgent far-right in Europe—one rough guess suggests 1.4 billion people may be displaced by 2060. Many, many people will die.
Averting the worst of all this will not only demand the global leadership of the United States but also sweeping, disruptive, and permanent changes to the American energy economy—changes that will require government action and intervention to a degree not seen since the New Deal.
Now. Close your eyes and picture an ideal president. Someone capable of seriously engaging with not only the above but all of the challenges the 21st century will require us to face … Is it Oprah Winfrey? Is it really?
None of this is to say that Democrats shouldn’t encourage Oprah to run for political office — they absolutely should. Team Blue might not need her formidable assets in 2020, but they could sorely use them at the state level this fall.
Republicans hold 33 of America’s governor’s mansions. In November, the GOP will be defending 26 of those — but as of this writing, Democrats are only favored to flip a single one (New Mexico). In Wisconsin, Scott Walker is poised to continue drug-testing food stamp recipients — and giving billions of dollars in subsidies to foreign corporations — for another four years. In deep blue Maryland, Larry Hogan is favored to coast to reelection; in Michigan, Republicans have an even shot of retaining the governor’s house despite the fact that under incumbent Rick Snyder thousands of children were poisoned by tainted drinking water.
The stakes of these 2018 gubernatorial races are profound. In two years, states will be redrawing their congressional districts (in the wake of the 2020 Census). Whether Democrats have a say in that process in any given state could determine the boundaries of political possibility for the ensuing decade. And Oprah could flip just about any of the Democrats’ targeted races in a heartbeat.
Hogan would be history. With her talents, money, and Milwaukee roots, Winfrey could make easy work of Walker. To be sure, Oprah’s dearth of political experience would be a liability at the gubernatorial level, too. But it doesn’t take experience to prevent Republican state legislators from gerrymandering House districts, or cutting aid to the vulnerable, or paying out billions in corporate subsidies. In a GOP-dominated state like Wisconsin, Winfrey’s primary role would be a defensive one that any Democrat could execute — but, perhaps, only a candidate like Oprah could secure. Meanwhile, in a deep-blue state like Maryland, Winfrey could lean on the expertise of the state party’s existing leadership.
And then, in 2024, if president Bernie Sanders is looking deathly — or President Kirsten Gillibrand’s favorability numbers take a turn for the worse — Democrats could throw the most popular governor in America onto the ticket as a running mate or standard-bearer. An utterly unqualified Oprah would probably be unbeatable in 2020; one with political experience could secure Team Blue’s grip on the Oval Office in even the most unfavorable of cycles.
The problem with this plan is, of course, that becoming governor of Wisconsin would put a real dent in Oprah’s quality of life. But so would becoming president. And if Winfrey actually wants to dedicate the next chapter of her life to making positive change in American politics, it’s in Wisconsin (or Maryland, or Michigan, or Ohio, etc. …) where she could make the biggest difference.