What the Oprah Boomlet Means for Democrats

Pleas for the entertainer to run for president point to a split over whether to treat Donald Trump as a dangerous anomaly or a particularly extreme Republican.

Jordan Strauss / Invision / AP

The revolution will perhaps be televised after all, with specials on OWN, and maybe a splashy spread in O, The Oprah Magazine, too.

The idea that Oprah might someday wish to become President Winfrey is not new, and her name has circulated at various times in the past, enough that by summer 2017, the impresario told The Hollywood Reporter, “I will never run for public office. That’s a pretty definitive thing.”

But how definitive? Sunday night, Oprah gave a moving speech while accepting a Golden Globe Award for lifetime achievement, speaking about women and especially women of color. The remarks won instant praise and pleas for a presidential run. “She would absolutely do it,” her partner Steadman Graham said. By Monday morning, Brian Stelter reported that Winfrey is “actively thinking” about running for president, and that confidants were encouraging her to run.

Just as predictable as the Oprah boomlet is the pushback to the Oprah boomlet, and while it’s far too early to draw any conclusions about whether this is a flight of whimsy or a true trial balloon, or about how Winfrey might fare as a candidate, or about what she positions she may take, the frenzy is useful for assessing where the Democratic Party is and how it might be thinking about Donald Trump as 2018 starts.

The cases for and against Oprah as the Democratic nominee are substantially similar: She’s a charismatic billionaire who has never run for office but has an enormous national profile and seems (though who knows) generally amenable to the party platform. Of course, it’s helpful that she’s a black woman in a party that depends heavily on African American and female voters, meaning she could be at once the Democratic Trump and also an anti-Trump.

The excitement, however fleeting, about an Oprah candidacy is a sign of the despair within some elements of the party. In 2016, Democrats nominated a deeply experienced person with a granular hold on policy. Everyone knows how that turned out. With a packed-but-shallow bench ahead of the 2020 election, it’s easy to see why some Democrats might be tempted by the siren song of a Democratic Trump. Though one cannot imagine Donald “What the Hell Do You Have to Lose?” Trump giving a speech about Recy Taylor, he and Winfrey have substantial similarities. Both floated around the edges of politics for years and were asked repeatedly about running, and neither has any experience in public office. Winfrey has her own corporate turnaround to brag about, just like Trump. Both have been known to brag ostentatiously about owning their own planes. (“It is really fantastic to have your own jet, and anybody who says it isn't is lying to you. That jet thing is really good,” Winfrey said at my college commencement. I am not making this up.)

The anti-Oprah faction is, if anything, even more despairing. A Democratic Trump? How can anyone hope for that, given today’s gridlock on domestic affairs, chaos on the international stage, and spectacle of the president’s own staffers ridiculing him to the press and treating him like a child? These all spring from Trump’s manifest unpreparedness and lack of interest in what it takes to govern. Any time John Podhoretz and Bill Kristol agree on something, progressives are likely best advised to head in the opposite direction. It seems preposterous for Democrats to respond to this by nominating an inexperienced mogul of their own.

Strangely enough, 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. (The only Marx Winfrey gets anywhere near is Harpo.)

The cleavage here is partly a familiar divide between whether it’s more important to win elections or to govern once they’re over, but it’s also about what attack Democrats should use on Trump in 2020. Is the president an unhinged wild man, an utter anomaly? Or is he actually the worst possible Republican—a particularly extreme example of all the impulses Democrats have attributed to the GOP for decades? This debate plays out when some Democratic members of Congress talk about impeachment or 25th Amendment remedies, while others focus instead on how the benefits of the Republican tax plan flow to the wealthy and big corporations. Although Democrats as a whole will likely try some combination of the two attacks, these options are largely mutually exclusive: Either the president is different in type or he is different in degree.

If Democrats wish to argue that Trump’s essential flaw is that he has no idea what he’s doing and should never have been allowed near the Oval Office, then it’s effectively impossible to justify nominating someone with no experience in politics. The risks of replicating Trump’s lack of knowledge and political skill are too great. The different-in-type argument is especially compelling now, in the midst of publicity around Michael Wolff’s book, which reports that even many of the president’s top aides find him unfit for office.

The problem with different-in-type is that it’s precisely what Hillary Clinton argued, with little effect. Why try that again? One justification is that when Clinton was arguing this, it was all hypothetical; now voters have had a chance to see Trump in action, so they might be more receptive. Then again, Trump’s tendencies pre- and post-election are basically the same. But treating Trump as an anomaly allows congressional Republicans to dissociate themselves from the president. Besides, if it’s as simple as pointing out Trump’s flaws, why risk a Hail Mary candidate like Oprah? Picking a candidate like Winfrey would hasten the de-professionalization of government while at the same time moving the United States closer to a state where everything is an extension of partisan politics.

If Trump is different in degree, that changes the calculus. If Trump is just an extreme version of a Republican president, then the problem lies less with him personally but with his party. It would matter much less to Democrats whether their candidate can govern than whether their candidate can win. If the Democratic bench is as weak—or more to the point, green—as it seems, there might be a more compelling case for picking a charismatic candidate who happens to be a beloved entertainer. The paradox is that party leaders are the ones putting the most emphasis on Trump as different only in degree, and these party leaders are least likely to embrace a newcomer like Winfrey.

In a recent Politico/Morning Consult poll, voters favored a generic Democrat over Trump by 10 points. Once pollsters start asking about specific Democrats like Elizabeth Warren, however, the lead starts to disappear. Yet it only takes a brief look at the most generic Democrats kicking around the 2020 sweepstakes—Tom Steyer? Andrew Cuomo?—to see why one powerful Golden Globes speech would be enough to stir up more excitement among Democrats.