Well, it was bound to happen sooner rather than later: With this week’s bizarre semi-trial balloon of Oprah Winfrey for president, we’ve officially entered the silly season of the 2020 presidential election. It came out of a stirring speech at a traditional launching venue for political candidates of all stripes — the Golden Globe Awards.
OK, maybe not so much. While it’s hardly unheard of for celebrities to be floated as potential presidential candidates, Donald Trump has been the only one to actually pull off a successful campaign. In the immediate aftermath of his victory, it wasn’t uncommon to hear speculation surrounding political futures for folks like Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, and former pro wrestler Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. In that sense, Winfrey is just the latest celebrity bandied about for Democrats to float as their answer to Donald Trump.
After what Democrats almost universally agree has been a rocky first year for Trump, though, they’d be wise to avoid these kind of figures. For one, no matter how beloved they might be, Democratic voters are likely to be skeptical of, rather than embracing, celebrity candidates. After a few years of the Trump administration, they’ll probably take a long, hard look at such a candidate and think to themselves, “Really? Do we really want to go through all of this again, but with a Democrat?” That will be doubly true if Democrats do well in the midterms, since Trump will undoubtedly be blamed by many for such a result.
If Democrats did end up embracing such a celebrity in 2020, they’d be giving up a powerful argument they could use against Trump in the general: a return to normalcy. Sure, a Democratic celebrity might be more well-liked and less divisive than Trump — but then again, they might not be, especially after a rough campaign. Without nominating an experienced candidate, there’d be no way for Democrats to seriously argue that their nominee was a counter to the chaotic Trump administration.
When Barack Obama first ran for president as a first-term U.S. senator, Republicans rightly criticized him as inexperienced and unprepared for the office. They frequently poked fun at him as a celebrity candidate, and didn’t like him doing things like appearing on late-night talk shows, arguing that it was demeaning to the office. Then, when they had a plethora of qualified choices running to replace him, they instead nominated a reality TV star and pretty much forfeited the experience argument for the foreseeable future. If Democrats emulated the GOP and nominated a celebrity, they’d be doing the same.
It may seem early — especially in the middle of silly season — but there are a number of serious Democratic candidates laying the groundwork for 2020. They’re visiting early states like Iowa and New Hampshire, raising money, and campaigning for other Democrats. As they try to build up their profile and gain national attention, they’ll have a wide variety of factors to consider, but they probably won’t have to worry about debating Oprah.
They will have to consider who amongst them can best carry the mantle of Bernie Sanders and attract his legion of devoted supporters. While it’s not totally inconceivable that Sanders could run again, it seems more likely that a fresh face will try to reassemble his coalition. In order to do so, they’ll have to be reliably liberal while appealing to younger voters, but might not want to be quite as totally divorced from the Democratic Party as Sanders was.
One of the questions for Democrats will be whether the “insider-outsider” dynamic outweighs the traditional split along ideological lines, as it did for the GOP in 2016. Though Democrats will probably avoid going too far in the outsider direction and nominate another version of Donald Trump, they should also avoid nominating another Hillary Clinton. Right now, that will probably be the dividing line, as there don’t appear to be many eager to claim the moderate mantle.
It may seem that any Democrat can defeat Donald Trump, but that would be a foolish assumption. In 2016, many pundits assumed that Donald Trump was Clinton’s ideal opponent, as she would easily dispatch her fellow New Yorker. Democrats will need to find an electable candidate who can relate to voters, rather than finding their own TV star to run or imposing ideological litmus tests on candidates. If they manage that, they may actually be able to defeat Trump instead of playing into his hands.
Jim Fossel, a conservative activist from Gardiner, worked for Sen. Susan Collins. He can be contacted at: [email protected]