Oprah Run in 2020 Entices Leaderless Democrats

Oprah Run in 2020 Entices Leaderless Democrats
Paul Drinkwater/NBC via AP
Oprah Run in 2020 Entices Leaderless Democrats
Paul Drinkwater/NBC via AP
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Democrats have no shortage of party members interested in running for president in 2020. Indeed, the pilgrimages to Iowa, the self-promoting books (and attendant tours), and speeches on the local party dinner circuit have already begun. Yet, when talk of an Oprah Winfrey White House bid began after the popular former talk show host gave a rousing speech at Sunday's Golden Globes, Democrats from various circles within the party cheered her on.

If Winfrey wants to seek the presidency, they seemed to suggest, there would be plenty of support for it.

"Run, Oprah, run!" wrote California Rep. Jackie Speier, adding that "an army of women would fight for you" in the 2020 election. Alyssa Mastromonaco, former President Obama's deputy chief of staff, tweeted Monday that she couldn't stop thinking about Winfrey's speech — which poignantly addressed the country's reckoning with sexual harassment — and "how lucky we are to have her and how we can't stop #oprahforpresident." Florida Rep. Lois Frankel told Roll Call that she had just texted her girlfriends in Congress to say “I’m for Oprah!”

Dan Pfeiffer, former senior adviser to Obama, allowed: "I slept on it and came to the conclusion that the Oprah thing isn't that crazy." And former Hillary Clinton spokesman Brian Fallon said that while he didn't think Winfrey would actually run, "I think she would clear an otherwise crowded field and be tough for any of the conventional pols to beat."

The billionaire media mogul hasn't weighed in herself, but others have. Her longtime partner, Stedman Graham, stoked speculation by telling the Los Angeles Times that while "it would be up to the people ... she would absolutely do it." CNN reported that two of her close friends said she was "actively thinking about running for president."

Winfrey's intentions aside, the apparent eagerness among Democrats for her to join the fray pointed to the leadership vacuum within the party in the post-Obama era. Never mind that many Democratic senators along with several other current and former officeholders appear poised to take on President Trump in 2020. The potential for an Oprah bid drew more excitement than all the other possible contenders combined. As Democrats plot their way out of the electoral wilderness, discussion Monday centered on whether Oprah Winfrey could be their deliverance.

Not everyone was eager to entertain the idea just yet. "Hey. Let’s focus on winning in 2018. Thanks," wrote Sen. Brian Schatz. The Hawaii lawmaker had a point. The midterms are critical for Democrats in rebuilding their party for the long term, not only in terms of gaining congressional seats but also winning governors’ races and state legislatures, which will be key to redistricting in the 2020s.

Yet some Democrats argued that their candidates could take note of Winfrey's example. "People responded to @Oprah last night because her message is authentic, rooted in values, aspirational & direct. Democrats running in 2018 & 2020 should take note," wrote Guy Cecil, chairman of Priorities USA and a former executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

While the next presidential race is officially still three years off, one aspect of Democrats’ discussion is whether the party would benefit from a candidate with governing experience to contrast with Trump or one with the star power to rival his own.

On Monday, the White House didn’t shy from the possibility of a celebrity bid. "We welcome the challenge whether it be Oprah Winfrey or anyone else," spokesman Hogan Gidley said.

Trump himself has spoken favorably of her credentials in the past. "I love Oprah. Oprah would always be my first choice," he told Larry King in 1999 when asked whom he would chose as a running mate if he were to ever run for president. "If she'd do it, she'd be fantastic," he continued. "I mean, she's popular, she's brilliant, she's a wonderful woman." And in 2015, he entertained the question again. "I’d love to have Oprah. I think we’d win easily, actually," Trump told George Stephanopoulos.

His successful candidacy certainly makes a run by a billionaire businesswoman with no experience in politics not at all unusual. But it may be that Obama, not Trump, set the example for a national candidate in terms of limited conventional qualifications.

Ahead of the 2008 campaign, Winfrey hit the trail to stump for then-freshman Sen. Obama, whom many had criticized as an inexperienced politician playing off his growing celebrity status. Her appearances in the early caucus and primary states helped garner massive crowds, including 30,000 people in Columbia, S.C.

"These are dangerous times, you can feel it. We need a leader who shows us how to hope again in America as a force for peace," Winfrey told a crowd in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in December of 2007.

She added: "I challenge you to see through those people who try to convince you that experience with politics as usual is more valuable than wisdom won from years of serving people outside the walls of Washington, D.C."

It's not difficult to imagine a variation of that 2007 speech delivered by Winfrey on her own behalf in the next couple of years.

"If she were to choose to run, certainly she would be a force to be reckoned with," said Brad Anderson, who served as the Obama campaign's Iowa director in 2012.

It's unclear at this point whether Democrats are "looking for a bold progressive who really is right on all the issues, or whether it is a healer type and someone to bring the country together," Anderson said. "Certainly if it's the later, Oprah would be a good fit."

Winfrey would come to the field with an unmatchable name ID, immense popularity and personal wealth. Like Trump, she could bypass many of the typical campaign rituals and events. But she wouldn't be immune to the realities of a presidential campaign — namely the notion that a candidate's popularity almost instantly decreases once he or she enters the political fray and becomes fair game for opponents and the press.

"In Iowa, it's fair to say that nobody would get a free pass and that would include Oprah," said Anderson. But, he added, "at the state level right now, our county chairs and party chairs are focused on 2018. We will deal with 2020 when the time comes."

Caitlin Huey-Burns is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at chueyburns@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurns.

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