Oprah for President

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This sudden interest in Oprah seems to have arisen from her eloquent and well-received comments. Harry Melkonian
Harry Melkonian

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Apparently not to be outdone by the Republicans and Donald Trump, there is now talk among some Democrats about a possible Oprah Winfrey candidacy in 2020. This sudden interest in Oprah seems to have arisen from her eloquent and well-received comments at a recent Golden Globes Ceremony. While this is hardly the same as a policy speech before the Council on Foreign Relations, in the current age of Trump, maybe the Golden Globes counts for more than the Council on Foreign Relations.

Officially, Oprah has said that the Presidency ‘is not something that interests me.’ But, in politician-speak, that could be tantamount to officially announcing her candidacy. Dwight Eisenhower made similar statements before being ‘cajoled’ by Party leaders into his candidacy1. So, for now, Oprah is not officially seeking the office, but her protestations say nothing about the future.

Assuming that she may be persuaded to seek the Presidency, what are her chances? After all, she is extremely well-known and has certainly demonstrated success and integrity. She is articulate and highly intelligent. But, she also seems very middle of the road – a great qualification for attracting a television audience but hardly one to endear her to Democratic Party regulars. Before looking at her chances in the Democratic Party, there is a popular myth that needs to be dispelled.

Recently, some newspaper writers have bemoaned the coming of the Age of Reagan where entertainment celebrities take on public roles for which they are singularly ill-equipped. However, whatever his limitations were, President Ronald Reagan cannot and should not be compared to Donald Trump or Oprah Winfrey. Ronald Reagan, when he was elected, was a proven political leader with a demonstrated ability to work with a legislature controlled by the opposition Party.

Yes, Ronald Reagan was a radio announcer, motion picture star, and a television star. But, he was also a Vice President of General Electric (communications) and was the only President to have been a labor leader – President of SAG, the Screen Actors Guild. When he was SAG President, Reagan had to deal with a fractious membership that included members who took extreme political positions. At the time, Reagan was a liberal Democrat. It was the candidacy of Dwight Eisenhower that moved him toward the Republicans. In 1964, he recorded a lengthy television commercial endorsing Barry Goldwater that I believe was the only intelligent statement by the Republicans in that otherwise bizarre campaign.

In 1966, Ronald Reagan sought the California Governorship. His opponent was the incumbent Pat Brown who was seeking a third term after defeating Richard Nixon in 1962. Brown, the father of the current California Governor, was an affable, competent but lacklustre occupant of the Governor’s mansion. In 1966, California was shaken by unrest within the University of California at the instigation of the Free Speech Movement. The leaders of this movement included Marxists and Socialists – all Communists to Americans. While Brown took a rather passive role, Reagan seized on this and became not only the darling of the conservatives but also a hero to a majority of Californians. He defeated Brown by nearly a million votes.

Easily winning re-election in 1970, Ronald Reagan served as Governor for 8 years and worked effectively with a Democratic legislature. Very likely, his years as a union leader provided invaluable experience in forming a consensus. Reagan unsuccessfully sought the GOP Presidential nomination in 1968 and 1976.

The point is that when Ronald Reagan was elected President in 1980, he was not some entertainer seeking the Presidency. He was the former Governor of California – someone who had proven his political skills in governing the most populous State in the Union. He was no neophyte. In fact, Reagan had more experience than Barack Obama who only served two years in the Senate before his election.

Ronald Reagan is simply not the progenitor of Donald Trump or Oprah Winfrey. Historically, the only ‘celebrity’ President who comes to mind is Dwight Eisenhower who never held any elected office except the Presidency. But, admittedly he was different to say the least. Serving as commander of Allied Forces in WWII was a rather politically sensitive job. Consider the personalities Ike dealt with – Churchill, Montgomery, Roosevelt, Patton and, not to be forgotten, de Gaulle. In retrospect, Eisenhower may have had more practical political experience than any candidate.

Having dispelled Reagan as the model for Trump or Winfrey, what are Oprah’s chances in the Democratic Party? Probably not so good for a number of reasons.

Surprisingly, entertainer politicians tend to be Republicans. This may seem odd since the entertainment community is well-known for being dominated by left-leaning individuals. However, as examined by Steven Ross in his book, Hollywood Left and Right – How Movie Stars Shaped American Politics (Oxford 2011), leftist entertainers actively work within the Democratic Party but rarely subject themselves to public scrutiny as candidates. On the other hand, conservative Republicans like George Murphy (song and dance man) who was elected US Senator and Ronald Reagan who was elected Governor, showed no such reluctance. The wisdom of leftist Democrat entertainers influencing from the sidelines was demonstrated by the disastrous California Governorship of ‘Governator’ Arnold Schwarzenegger.

In this era of extreme public scrutiny of candidates, many, if not most, entertainers simply do not want to be put through the wringer of public opinion. What was gleefully reported in gossip and fan magazines can easily become a major distraction and criticism in the political arena.

But, maybe Trump proves the opposite. His personal background certainly has fuelled a great deal of criticism and comment. But, he was widely endorsed by the Religious Right. Then again, maybe this simply proves that the Religious Right found his adversary to be so loathsome that Trump’s past could be overlooked if not forgiven.

On this score, Oprah has a lot going for her. She appears to be a person of probity and respectability like Ronald Reagan. Unless there are some unpleasant secrets in her past, she seems like an entertainer who could carry the Democrat banner without being pilloried by a puritanical public. Like Reagan, she inspires trust and her persona conveys integrity. But there the comparison to Reagan stops; she was never elected Governor of California and she has no political leadership experience. And, it took Ronald Reagan three attempts before he secured the nomination.

But, perhaps most importantly, the factors that enabled Donald Trump to win or capture or hijack the GOP nomination all work against Oprah Winfrey in the Democratic Party. First, Trump ran against a field of some of the most boring and uninspiring men ever to seek the Presidency – think of Governors Jeb Bush and John Kasich. It is unlikely that the Democrats will field such a uniformly dreary cast. Second, the Republican Party is ideally suited for a populist to shanghai the nomination despite the opposition of Party Officials.

You may recall the claims of Senator Sanders and Donald Trump that the Democratic nomination was rigged in 2016. There is some truth to this claim and this involves a bit of history. In 1968, Hubert Humphrey won the democratic nomination for President without having entered a single primary whereas Robert Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy campaigned very hard State by State. Humphrey went on to lose to Richard Nixon in the general election. In response, the Democratic Party changed its rules so that no one could win the nomination without winning in the primaries – no more candidates chosen in smoke-filled backrooms! After these reforms were put in place, all of the convention delegates would be chosen through primaries. The result was disastrous. In 1972, a far-left candidate, Senator George McGovern (who had chaired the nominating reform commission) won the nomination through a coalition of vocal anti-war and leftist activists. His constituency was a passionate and permanent minority. Incredibly, elected Democrats (Senators and Governors) were excluded from the National Convention. The result was predictable; Richard Nixon was re-elected in a massive landslide.

After the 1972 debacle, the Democrats had a change of heart and decided that too much democracy was not such a good thing. The Party moderated the reforms by introducing so-called ‘Super-Delegates’ to the nominating process. The Super Delegates were a failsafe mechanism to prevent extremist candidates from capturing the nomination. The Super Delegates consist of a large block, though not a majority, of convention delegates consisting of Party professionals and elected officials. This has been a part of the Democratic Party nominating process commencing with the 1976 election won by Governor Carter.

On the other side of the aisle, in 1976, the Republicans also reformed their nomination process and adopted the initial Democratic reforms – nomination through the primaries. But, the GOP never had a fiasco like the 1972 McGovern candidacy and consequently, the GOP never moderated the reforms. So, the Republican nomination was ripe for the picking by a populist like Trump who ran against a sea of boring competency. Had the Trump candidacy suffered a meltdown in the general election, it is likely that the GOP would have given serious consideration to instituting Super Delegates too. But, Trump was victorious and with that result, reform becomes unlikely.

So, the Republican Party was ready-made for the Trump juggernaut, Ms Winfrey faces a very different political situation among the Democrats. Just as Senator Sanders came to recognise that he could not be nominated even if he won a majority of primaries, Oprah Winfrey faces the same rules. The Super Delegates who guaranteed the nomination for Hillary Clinton will be back in 2020. Will they support an outsider like Oprah Winfrey? Of course, guessing on 2020 is pure speculation. But, if well-established Democrats, like Governor Cuomo of New York or perhaps Hillary Clinton seek the nomination, Oprah Winfrey would have to confront the prospect of the Super Delegates lining up behind more traditional candidates.

Now, here is some wild card and maybe wishful speculation. If you listen to Oprah, she is actually rather moderate in her views. She is widely respected and might not be offensive to the Religious Right – she was raised as a Southern Baptist in Mississippi. Looking at the overall political landscape, she just might have a better chance seeking the Republican nomination in 2024 by winning in the primaries. Could she be an Eisenhower in the making? Before you say that this is ridiculous, stranger events have happened in American politics. After all, Ronald Reagan, the prophet of the Right, had been a liberal Democrat who had endorsed Franklin Roosevelt. And, to top it all – Trump won.

Footnotes

  1. Eisenhower, the self-proclaimed non-candidate, sure sounded like a candidate when in response to a question as to how students and faculty should address him when he became President of Columbia University in 1948, the highly decorated General stated that everyone should just call him Ike.

First published . Last updated 20/08/2018. Disclaimer: The views, information, or opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the University of Newcastle and its employees.

About Harry Melkonian

Harry Melkonian is a freelance writer, educator, commentator and lawyer with a focus on US politics. He has conducted short courses on US politics in Sydney on topics ranging from current elections to historical issues including well-known events such as the Kennedy Assassination and Nixon and Watergate to less well-known American history such as When No One Was Elected – the Presidency and Vice Presidency 1974-1976. He has periodically appeared on the ABC and SBS as a commentator for Australian elections. Harry was previously a partner at the law firm White & Case in the US, and is licensed to practice law in the jurisdictions of New York, California, England and New South Wales. He is now an Honorary Associate at Macquarie Law School, specialising in US constitutional issues as well as media and defamation law.