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Are We at the Point Where Only a Celebrity Can Become President?

  • Oprah Winfrey backstage at the 75th Annual Golden Globes at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills, Calif., on Sunday, Jan. 7, 2018. (Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times/TNS)



The Washington Post
Friday, January 12, 2018

A slice of America woke up Monday with a crazy idea in its addled brain: Oprah Winfrey could be the next president of the United States.

The notion has tugged at the imagination for as long as Winfrey has been famous, but her barnstorming speech at the Golden Globes on Sunday electrified much of the 56 percent of the populace that disapproves of her fellow television personality, President Donald Trump. The viability of a Winfrey campaign, on Monday at least, seemed capable of uniting both ends of the political spectrum.

“I want her to run for president,” Meryl Streep told The Washington Post just after the Globes ceremony. “I don’t think she had any intention (of declaring). But now she doesn’t have a choice.”

“Oprah. #ImWithHer,” tweeted Bill Kristol, scion of neoconservatism and the original promoter of Sarah Palin, whose tongue-in-cheek declaration gave way to an objective case for her candidacy: “Understands Middle America better than Elizabeth Warren,” he tweeted. “Less touchy-feely than Joe Biden, more pleasant than Andrew Cuomo, more charismatic than John Hickenlooper.”

The question lingering under this surprising groundswell: Are we now at a point where we believe celebrity is a prerequisite for winning (let alone governing)? Jokes about Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson being so widely likable that he, too, could run for president have recently morphed into something like actual candidate buzz; the wrestler-turned-actor recently said he’s “seriously considering” a run.

“Arguably Donald Trump is the most famous man in the world,” said GOP strategist Rick Wilson, a never-Trump Republican. Under the new rules of political engagement, “maybe you can only beat a celebrity with another celebrity.”

Her chances of winning? “One hundred percent,” said another Republican strategist who has worked on presidential campaigns and who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speculate brazenly. “If she runs for the Democratic nomination, I think it’s over.”

Have we lost our minds? Or are we coming to our senses? All Winfrey did was give an acceptance speech for a lifetime-achievement award. A good speech, yes — “For too long, women have not been heard or believed, if they dare speak the truth to the power of those men” — but just a speech. Still, America seems starved for her brand of optimism after a year of Trump’s dark moods and barbed insults.

“As I have always said, any women who is able to serve should think about how they want to do so, whether it’s women like Elizabeth Warren, Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, or, yes, Oprah,” said Stephanie Schriock, president of Emily’s List, the organization dedicated to supporting pro-choice female candidates.

GOP consultant Ana Navarro was more direct. “Are we really asking ourselves whether a political neophyte, billionaire, media-savvy TV star can become president? America answered that already,” she said. “I don’t know how much she knows about foreign policy or some domestic policy issues. But hell, it’s not like she’d be running against Churchill. She’d be running against Trump.”

Excitement about the idea rocketed ahead of prudence and circumspection. Two of Winfrey’s friends said she’s “actively thinking” about 2020, CNN reported Monday morning, but asked backstage at the Golden Globes, Winfrey said she had no plans to run. Democratic Party officials in Iowa are “actively putting out feelers” for Winfrey, reported the National Journal’s Hanna Trudo.

Tweeted Democratic Rep. Jackie Speier, Calif.: “Run, Oprah, run! An army of women would fight for you.”

Republican strategist Fred Davis didn’t see Winfrey’s speech live, but his inbox and text messages started going haywire soon after: You have to see Oprah, you have to see Oprah. You think Obama was a good speaker? See Oprah.

“If she truly wanted to run for president, she’d have a major head start,” said Arnold Schwarzenegger, who leveraged film stardom to win the California governorship as a Republican, noting Winfrey’s inspirational qualities, name recognition and “unbelievable communication skills.”

“This Oprah boomlet is a pretty good window into how bereft of leadership the Democratic party is at this point,” tweeted Josh Holmes, former chief of staff to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. “They’re just dying for someone who doesn’t sound like a leftist schmuck.”

Since everyone’s frothing over her undeclared candidacy, let’s game it out. Winfrey emerges from her Montecito, Calif., mansion, declares she’s in the game — and what happens then?

“Running for president is a whole different thing,” said Cornell Belcher, a Democratic strategist and former Obama pollster. “It’s not Hollywood. It’s an ugly, nasty, grueling slog through all of these multiple states. It’s going to unglamorous places and showing up at fish fries. To successfully run, you need several things: money, infrastructure and a niche. That said, I think in this current environment — and I cannot believe I am saying this — but if Oprah would throw her hat in the ring, she would be the front-runner.”

Eight years ago, John McCain’s most effective attack ad against Barack Obama was called “Celebrity,” which equated the then-senator with Paris Hilton: super-famous, but insubstantial, and unqualified for the nation’s highest office.

But after Donald Trump’s candidacy squashed any notion of procedure, credentials or decorum? Sure. Sure, why not elect the woman who introduced the world to Suze Orman and Rachael Ray, who spoke confessionally about yo-yo dieting and the shape of her poop, who always operated from a place of positivity and empowerment?

Check under your chairs, America. The Democratic nominee for president is giving everyone a car!

Celebrity used to be a detriment. Celebrity is now a way to do an end run around a deficient primary season.

The typical state’s primary turnout is incredibly low, said Joe Trippi, who was chairman of former Vermont governor Howard Dean’s 2004 campaign. “Something like 7 percent of the voting population made Barack Obama the nominee. When you only have 5, 6, 7 percent of the population voting — we’re not even talking 10 percent — that’s all you need.”

It’s difficult for, say, three governors and a senator to scrap for those percentage points. It’s less difficult, in the social-media age, for someone with established name recognition.

Belcher, the Obama pollster, theorizes that Oprah would probably be a top contender for the first Democratic contests in Iowa and New Hampshire. She would “definitely” win South Carolina. Which would lead to a sweep of Georgia, Mississippi and a string of Southern states.

Which would lead to —

What are we even talking about?

Does America really want this? Are we comfortable with the woman who told us to “live your best life” ordering drone strikes that accidentally slaughter wedding parties? Do we want to hear about Oprah’s tax plan? Do we think Oprah has a tax plan? (How little taxes has she been paying?)

The presidency, in many ways, degrades its holder in the eyes of the public. Having Oprah as a presidential candidate would mean losing her as the beatific personification of the American Dream.

“Not everyone’s a good candidate,” Belcher said. “I’m not saying she’s bad; I don’t think we even know that. But she’s never had to take a punch. She’s never been in that space where people who earn a living by finding dirt on you are now finding dirt on her.”

Would conservatives and the Trump White House seize on the more suspicious chapters of her career, like her promotion of controversial TV Doctors Phil and Oz, or her endorsement of the 2006 self-help book The Secret, which convinced millions of people that they could be rich by just wishing hard enough for it? As soon as she finished her speech, Twitter lit up with photos of Winfrey cozying up to disgraced movie producer Harvey Weinstein, who allegedly abused women for decades.

Winfrey would be risking her stable and lucrative brand, burnished worldwide over the course of 35 years in entertainment, journalism and philanthropy.

“If you look at what happened to Trump’s brand, it’s been diminished,” said Rick Tyler, former spokesman for Ted Cruz and Newt Gingrich. “His hotels, his golf courses are the highest quality, and his name used to be associated with that kind of quality, but I don’t think most Americans think of him that way anymore. I don’t know if she wants to diminish her brand that way. I don’t know why she would want to.”

America just wants a good show, as Trump’s ascendance proved, and perhaps there would be no greater bout — not Ali vs. Frazier, not the 1980 Olympic hockey team vs. the Soviets — than Oprah vs. Trump in 2020. But could the media handle it? Could the fractious American public survive it?

“I’m not sure the country needs, or is ready for, the battle of these cults,” said John Weaver, who was chief strategist to John Kasich, the Republican governor of Ohio, during the 2016 campaign. “The rules are out the window, God knows, but historically what we’ve seen is the next president is always far different than the president who precedes that person. Obviously Oprah is different temperamentally, thank God, than Trump, but she’d certainly come from the celebrity space. The first group of people who would try to knock her down would be her Democratic competitors.”

Then again, workaday Democrats and never-Trump Republicans would probably enjoy watching the meltdown that her candidacy would bring to the current inhabitant of the Oval Office. If she declared, Trump would immediately incur a psychological wound, if not a political one, said Steve Schmidt, senior adviser to McCain in 2008.

“Oprah is, in fact, a self-made billionaire; Trump pretends to be one,” Schmidt said. “Oprah is an enormous TV star, by orders of magnitude bigger than anything Trump accomplished in that space. And lastly she’s a powerful, smart, beloved African American woman, and Trump seems to have a reflective response towards African Americans and women who he views as threats or are critical of him.”

Winfrey has already demonstrated her power to move people to action. In 1999, Trump himself mentioned Winfrey as a potential running mate, and the Minnesota Reform Party created a website to draft Winfrey.

Trump “would like someone like her, if not her, on the ticket,” Roger Stone said then of Winfrey.

Her endorsement of Obama delivered an instrumental 1 million votes during the 2008 Democratic primaries, helping him outpace Hillary Clinton, according to a study from Northwestern University on celebrity endorsements in politics. And Obama’s presidency would be, in some ways, a spiritual ancestor to any Oprah candidacy.

“Obama was the first to break the mold in 2008,” Trippi said, noting how that long-shot candidate managed to skirt attack ads and party expectations in order to win the nomination.

“Trump in 2016 was just following that and overrunning his party,” Trippi added. “And guess what? Now you’re in 2020. It’s Oprah Winfrey. It’s Oprah Winfrey, or it’s Kanye West.”

The Washington Post’s Steve Zeitchik in Los Angeles, Ben Terris and Karen Tumulty contributed to this report.