The inevitability of Oprah 2020
How America's presidential elections became Battle of the Network Stars
Will 2020 bring us a revival of Battle of the Network Stars? If the national media gets its way, voters will have to choose between "You're fired!" and "You get a car!" in the next presidential election.
Even prior to the Golden Globes on Sunday night, there had been discussion and debate over Oprah Winfrey's potential for a presidential run. In September, John Podhoretz wrote that Winfrey might be the only viable presidential candidate on the Democratic Party's bench. The "radical transformation" of America's political culture that allowed President Trump to win in 2016 made Winfrey "uniquely positioned ... to seek the Democratic nomination for president," he wrote.
Winfrey herself hinted that it might be a possibility nearly seven months earlier. She told David Rubenstein that she never considered it until Trump won the Republican nomination. "I thought, 'Oh gee, I don't have the experience, I don't know enough.' Now," Winfrey said to laughter and cheers from the audience, "I'm thinking 'oh'!" Former Obama adviser Van Jones followed that up by challenging Winfrey to take up the mantle of leadership. A March 2017 poll from PPP showed Winfrey ahead of Trump in a speculative head-to-head 47 percent to 40 percent.
Winfrey's impassioned speech at the awards show has set that speculation alight all over again. After receiving the Hollywood Foreign Press Association's Cecil B. DeMille lifetime achievement award — the first African-American woman so honored — Winfrey offered her support for a media industry "under siege." The target of that barb was clearly the current administration and the president at the top of it.
The rest of the speech, however, sounded as though it had been structured for a campaign. Winfrey talked about those who came before her, giving credit to their dedication and the way they opened doors for her, and pledged herself to open doors for others, especially for young women who have "endured years of abuse and assault," mainly "women whose names we'll never know." Like any good candidate, Winfrey highlighted a personal story of remarkable courage to frame her point — the story of Recy Taylor, a black woman raped by six white men in 1944 who never gave up her quest for justice, and who passed away less than two weeks ago. And finally, Winfrey concluded with an easily remembered slogan, "A new day is on the horizon!", promising that the time would soon come "when nobody ever has to say 'me too' again."
Few candidates ever get a better springboard than a glitzy Hollywood event broadcast live on national television. And few candidates have hit the mark as precisely as Winfrey did on Sunday.
Inevitably, this will lead to a debate over whether Winfrey is qualified to run for the presidency, a question which Winfrey herself put off with Rubenstein. Strictly speaking, there aren't many formal qualifications for the position. A candidate has to be at least 35 years old, a natural born citizen of the United States, and free from felony convictions. Constitutionally speaking, tens of millions of Americans meet the basic qualifications, Winfrey included.
Of course, that's not what people intend when discussing "qualifications." Many voters would prefer to have a candidate with significant experience in both the public and private sector, usually holding some significant political office in order to see a track record on policy and temperament. The president runs foreign policy and acts as commander in chief over the armed forces, and voters usually want to see some extant competence in one or both areas. Usually voters prefer governors, who have at least some track record on executive competence, although we have seen senators occasionally win the office.
All of that was BT — Before Trump. Trump had plenty of executive experience in the private sector, but no demonstrable experience in any of the usual categories otherwise. Trump beat a large Republican field with all sorts of traditional qualifications for the nomination, and then defeated the very traditionally qualified Hillary Clinton for the presidency.
But the diminishing importance of qualifications isn't just all about Trump. Remember, too, that Barack Obama had not yet completed one term as a senator when he ran for the top job, and had no formal military or foreign policy experience at all. He also beat Clinton, largely on the basis of his personality and organizing skills. Unlike Trump or Winfrey, Obama had no private-sector experience, and no executive track record at all to reassure voters that he would be up to handling the toughest executive job in the world.
Still, Republicans can't attack Winfrey on the basis of qualifications after nominating and electing Trump. And Democrats who might want the nomination for themselves won't have a lot more ground for such objections either after defending Obama's thin résumé in 2008.
The vetting paradigm has clearly changed with American voters. The traditional "qualifications" required long political careers with the presidency as a pinnacle. As trust in American institutions has eroded, so seemingly has the value of experience within them. Voters in 2008 and in 2016 were determined to find people outside "the establishment" with whom they found an emotional connection rather than approach elections as a hiring decision based on the strength of résumés.
That, of course, would suggest that Winfrey might be the most qualified of all potential candidates in 2020. She spent decades building emotional connections with Americans through her daytime talk show. Winfrey leveraged that success to build a bona-fide media empire, one that includes a cable channel, production company, and philanthropic organizations. Forbes ranked her as the 264th wealthiest American in 2017, with an estimated net worth of $3 billion, only 16 slots behind Trump ($3.1 billion). In terms of celebrity cachet, Winfrey comes second to none — and right now, celebrity cachet and emotional attachment are what matter most.
What about policy? Voters seem largely disengaged on policy, and so does Winfrey, at least on specific proposals and ideology. The expectation would be that Winfrey would embrace the progressive left to a significant extent, which means that jokes about a "You get a car! You get a car!" platform might not be far off the mark.
Winfrey faces one conundrum, however, which is that Trump will largely define the value of a full-celebrity president. If he succeeds, then he'll win re-election. If his presidency turns out to be a disaster, voters might suddenly recall the need for a substantial track record and turn away from celebrities in favor of candidates with proven competence.
Or perhaps it's simply too late for that kind of paradigm shift. Voters appear addicted to celebrity and the need to be entertained in politics. Trump and Winfrey may wind up as the standard for American heads of state, the idols of a new age to cheer and boo simply for being themselves. A new day is on the horizon, indeed.