Op-ed: Yes, take Oprah seriously

  • By Rich Lowry
  • Friday, January 12, 2018 9:09am
  • Opinion

If Hillary Clinton could deliver a political speech half as effectively as Oprah Winfrey, she might be president today.

The actress, media mogul and erstwhile queen of daytime TV gave what, if she ever becomes president, will be known to history as the Golden Globes Address. The first de facto convention speech ever delivered at an awards show, it brought down the house and predictably stoked talk of Oprah 2020, with people close to her fueling the speculation.

In the era Before Trump, this would have been risible. Once upon a time, military service, political experience, a policy portfolio and national-security chops were mandatory to plausibly run for president. That time feels like a long time ago. Now, when Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, who has mused about running himself, stood and applauded Oprah’s speech, you could see the early pecking order of a potential Democratic nomination battle establishing itself (“The Rock” would be a second-tier candidate).

What Donald Trump proved is that a celebrity with charisma, performative ability and gobs of free media can, in the right circumstances, stomp conventional politicians who lack all three. People who were merely governors and senators, who had never really performed on a big stage or truly mastered the media (they were just politicians, after all), stood at a distinct disadvantage.

It’s very easy to see Oprah Winfrey doing to the likes of New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand what Donald Trump did to the likes of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.

A common cold-water argument against Oprah running is that Democrats will want the opposite of Trump in 2020, an experienced, boring politico who’s well-versed in the issues and a reliably competent executive. This line works on paper. Republicans said the same thing about Barack Obama, who prior to 2008 had come as close to genuine celebrityhood as a working politician can get. Yet Donald Trump succeeded where the worthy, earnest, managerial Mitt Romney failed.

On the current trajectory, what Democrats will most need in 2020 is someone with a big enough personality that Trump can’t diminish and negatively brand him or her. This is what he did with the rest of the Republican field and Hillary Clinton in 2016, and he easily could do the same against “Pocahontas,” aka Elizabeth Warren, and “Crazy Bernie” Sanders.

Oprah, used to commanding a massive microphone and managing a matchless brand, might be relatively immune to this treatment. She could try Obama’s tack of running to the left substantively and to the center stylistically. She’d be the empathetic healer, the advocate of abused women, running to make history in the shadow of the civil-rights movement.

If, that is, she’s truly interested. Even the best campaigns have down cycles and bring humiliations of the sort celebrities usually avoid. Why would Oprah, who at the moment never has to encounter anyone who isn’t in awe of her, want to sign up for that?

Half the country would, by definition, begin to dislike her. She would have to fight with that part of the Democratic base committed to Bernie Sanders and suspicious of her as a Hollywood billionaire. She’d experience something that she’s never truly had to encounter: negative press.

For the first time, she wouldn’t be completely in control of her own image. She’d have to answer for her promotion of kooky products and theories over the years, and open up more about a private life that has been almost entirely shielded from public view.

If you believe Michael Wolff, Trump conceived of a presidential run as a way, if all else failed, to enhance his brand. Oprah’s brand needs no such enhancing. If she ran and lost, she’d become a failed presidential candidate and could presumably never quite return to being Oprah Winfrey again.

In short, there are compelling reasons for her not to make the plunge. The inherent absurdity of the idea is not one of them.

Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail: comments.lowry@nationalreview.com.

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