Yeah, Oprah could win: For progressives, that's really not a good thing

Winfrey would be an instantly credible 2020 candidate. But the closer Democrats look, the less they'll like her

Published January 10, 2018 4:58AM (EST)

Oprah Winfrey (Getty/Rich Polk)
Oprah Winfrey (Getty/Rich Polk)

If Oprah Winfrey actually wants to be president, it’s certainly within the realm of possibility that she could pull off a victory. After all, Donald Trump proved that political inexperience and general ignorance is not an insuperable obstacle when it comes to winning the presidency.

Winfrey’s high name recognition and her billionaire bank account would make her an instantly credible opponent, especially since -- unlike Trump when he declared his candidacy in 2015 -- she is generally well-regarded among Democrats.

“Let me be clear, if #Oprah throws her hat in the ring, she’s the front runner for the Democratic nomination,” Democratic pollster Cornell Belcher tweeted on Monday. “If she pulls together the considerable resources to build a top notch organization in the early states — after the South Carolina primary no one will catch her.”

That’s probably not too far from the truth, at least as of this moment, before investigative reporters and opposition research detectives get to their task of digging into Winfrey’s past. But Trump has also proven that accusations of malfeasance won’t necessarily end a candidate’s chances of winning, to the great frustration of the 19 women who have accused the president of various forms of sexual misconduct.

Aside from incessant chatter from political commentators who are understandably eager for something to talk about besides whatever Trump has been tweeting, there’s little indication that regular Democratic voters want Winfrey to run. Certainly not many of them were tuned in on Sunday night to watch her Golden Globes speech, which heartily endorsed the #MeToo movement against sexual harassment and discussed overcoming racism. According to ratings data, just 11 million people watched the ceremony.

There’s no indication that Winfrey herself wants to run for president either. As one of a number of celebrity Democrats, she’s been asked the question several times over the years as part of what my Salon colleague Andrew O’Hehir calls the “liberal-progressive unicorn hunt.”

Unlike Trump, who repeatedly talked about running since the 1980s (including during an appearance on Winfrey’s syndicated daytime talk show), she has always denied that she was interested. As recently as October, she said so again.

“There will be no running for office of any kind for me,” Winfrey said during an interview with CBS with her best friend, “This Morning” co-host Gayle King. On Tuesday, King informed viewers that “I absolutely don’t think that her position has changed” even though she said that Winfrey “would like to be of service in some way.”

It’s easy to see why some Democrats might see Winfrey as an easy pathway toward getting the presidency back. But her long record of heavily promoting pseudoscience like “The Secret,” or conspiracy theories about vaccines, and of boosting the career of junk science profiteer Mehmet Oz and psychologist Phil McGraw, a notorious exploiter of the mentally ill, would certainly give her opponents a lot of ammunition.

An examination of Oz’s career in particular shows that his medical advice is about as legitimate and useful as a degree from “Trump University.” His gross exaggerations about the health benefits of almonds, green coffee bean extract, yogurt, olives, zinc and raspberries (I can go on) have attracted negative attention from the Federal Trade Commission and Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., who cornered him in a 2014 hearing about his false claims about weight-loss products.

“I don’t get why you need to say this stuff because you know it’s not true,” McCaskill said, referring to Oz’s unscientific praise for various herbal products as “magic” and “miracles.”

Oz, whose show is owned in part by Winfrey’s production company, replied that he felt his program wasn’t about promoting good medical advice. Instead, it was about making his viewers feel good about watching.

“I recognize that oftentimes they don’t have the scientific muster to present as fact,” he replied. “In an attempt to engage viewers, I use flowery language. ... My job, I feel, on the show, is to be a cheerleader for the audience. When they don’t think they have hope, when they don’t think they can make it happen, I want to look … for any evidence that might be supportive to them.”

That response is not much different from something Trump published in his famous book "The Art of the Deal":

“I play to people’s fantasies,” Trump’s co-author Tony Schwartz wrote for him, in a passage Schwartz has since disavowed. “People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular. I call it truthful hyperbole. It’s an innocent form of exaggeration — and it’s a very effective form of promotion.”

Even if Winfrey weren't carrying the baggage of her dubious doctor friends, the idea that her candidacy would be considered at all credible says a lot about the people who are trying to make it happen. “Have we learned nothing?” the Los Angeles Times editorial board asked on Monday in a piece noting that Winfrey's agreeable temperament was not an argument for electing another political neophyte with no real knowledge about domestic and foreign policy.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi noted this reality in her own reaction to the possibility of a Winfrey candidacy.

“I think one of the arguments for Oprah ... is 45. I think one of the arguments against Oprah is 45,” Pelosi said on Monday, referring to Trump as the 45th president.

Progressives also might not be overly happy with a Winfrey presidency, even if she were somehow to avoid being hit by the learning curve. From a policy standpoint, as several supporters of Bernie Sanders have noted, the billionaire Winfrey appears much closer to the Democratic center, as her enthusiastic support for Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton demonstrated.

“In 2016, Establishment Dems said that a candidate's ‘qualifications’ were paramount. Now they’ve taken a page out of the GOP handbook: experience doesn't matter, a likable celebrity will do!” labor activist RoseAnn DeMoro noted on Twitter.

Simple logic might suggest that the only way to beat a celebrity Republican president is with a celebrity Democrat, but that doesn't make it true. Trump’s record-low poll ratings, Clinton's strategic failures in 2016 (such as her neglect of key swing states that Trump ultimately won), and the fact that she received many more votes than he did anyway indicate that flash and pizazz aren’t what Democrats need . They need a nominee who is willing to bring the party together around the unifying economic message that brought people of all races and sexes to the polls for the likes of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson.

At a moment when record-breaking economic inequality is the issue on which Trump based his campaign, and the issue that powered Sanders' unexpected insurgency, there's a real question as to whether a Democrat who supported the 2003 invasion of Iraq, wants to eliminate the inheritance tax and is a member of the 0.0001 percent can do that, no matter how well she delivers a speech.

By Matthew Sheffield

Matthew Sheffield is a national correspondent for The Young Turks. He is also the host of the podcast "Theory of Change." You can follow him on Twitter.

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