Oprah Winfrey’s widely praised speech at the Golden Globe Awards immediately propelled her into the presidential discussion, sparking a national conversation about whether Democrats want to follow Republicans in nominating a television star with no political experience to be their standard-bearer in 2020.
But the reason Winfrey has so much potential if she runs for president isn’t her celebrity, wealth, or name identification. It’s because she’s the rare type of candidate who would appeal to all elements of the Democratic Party, and not simply cater to a demographic niche. She’s beloved in the African-American community, her hit show specifically catered to suburban women, and progressives view her unifying uplift as the antidote to President Trump’s divisive invective. She’s even garnering fulsome praise from several anti-Trump conservatives, like Bill Kristol.
The reason that the emerging 2020 field of possible Democratic candidates looks underwhelming is that so many of them are catering to narrow slices of the increasingly liberal party instead of offering a unifying message designed to win a general election. Bernie Sanders is a true-blue socialist, and isn’t interested in broadening his message to win new converts. Kirsten Gillibrand is trying to become a feminist stalwart, but it’s hard to see her having much appeal beyond progressive white women. Cory Booker is focusing on deepening support with African-American voters. Sherrod Brown or Seth Moulton would be making a play for the dwindling white-guy vote in the Democratic Party.
Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are the two candidates with broader appeal, and both have clear vulnerabilities of their own. Biden will be 77 in 2020 and has a poor track record in his previous campaigns. Harris, in her first year in the Senate, has proven to be an awfully conventional politician, not distinguishing herself on any particular issue. Compared to Winfrey’s rags-to-riches story and widespread appeal, Harris looks downright underwhelming.
By contrast, Winfrey offers the same formula that propelled Barack Obama from the backbench of the Senate into presidential superstardom: Mix a unifying message, an ability to win both white and black voters, and an outsider’s approach to the messy world of elective politics.
“She brings a level of empowerment to the conversation and is a real voice for a lot of people. She is not all fluff as an entertainer. People look at her seriously. I say, ‘Why not?’” said Democratic pollster John Anzalone, who has worked for both Obama’s and Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaigns.
A Winfrey candidacy would mute the ideological divisions in the party in the post-Obama era. Her personal credibility with liberal-minded voters would give her more wiggle room to run as a moderate without pandering to the progressive box-checkers driving the process. She won’t have as much pressure to embrace a single-payer health care system or higher taxes. Nearly all of the Democratic litmus tests these days are on cultural issues such as civil rights and immigration, topics she’s uniquely capable of speaking on without alienating half the country.
For all the tut-tutting about Winfrey’s profile, the reality is that our politics has already evolved into a gossipy reality show—and that shift preceded Trump’s campaign. Obama, after all, was slammed for being a lightweight candidate with limited credentials for the presidency. John McCain aired a controversial ad at the beginning of the 2008 election campaign comparing Obama to reality-show star Paris Hilton. “He’s the biggest celebrity in the world, but is he ready to lead?” the ad began. The excitement surrounding Obama’s campaign was an undeniable asset in drawing new voters to the polls, and voters didn’t care at all about his inexperience.
The sobering reality is that what it takes to be successful in today’s political arena is often at odds with what it takes to be successful at governing—and the disconnect is only growing in our hyper-connected, attention-starved society. Citing Neil Postman’s seminal 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death, journalist Will Bunch ominously writes that “the desire for instant gratification and the intravenous drug of entertainment on a big screen,” as Postman warned, “would ultimately strangle modern democracy.”
That conclusion is a bit too dire, but it speaks to the fundamental reality of modern politics. Candidates need to be performers, look authentic, and tolerate the never-ending intrusion of the press into their lives. Stiff politicians like Mitt Romney and Hillary Clinton were uniquely ill-suited for the role.
Whether the 2020 Democratic presidential nominee comes from the world of politics or is a total outsider, he or she will have to embrace the spotlight. If she runs, Winfrey would excel at the performance side of the political game and has undeniable appeal to the critical constituencies driving the Democratic Party. That’s a lot more than the rest of the field can claim.