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Why the Democrats Won’t Nominate Oprah for President

For starters, she has neither policy expertise nor political experience.


Oprah Winfrey’s electrifying speech at the Golden Globes on Sunday night, on the occasion of receiving the Cecil B. DeMille Award for lifetime achievement, has reignited the idea that she’s the presidential hopeful the Democratic Party needs to defeat Donald Trump. Although Winfrey’s speech didn’t mention him by name, she spoke to the #MeToo moment which was fueled in no small part by anger that a boastful sexual harasser resides in the White House.

In the most moving moment of her speech, Winfrey told to the story of Recy Taylor, who in 1944 “was abducted by six armed white men, raped and left blindfolded by the side of the road, coming home from church.” Winfrey didn’t hesitate to draw contemporary lessons from the tale:  “Recy Taylor died 10 days ago, just shy of her ninety-eighth birthday. She lived, as we all have lived, too many years in a culture broken by brutally powerful men. And for too long, women have not been heard or believed if they dared to speak their truth to the power of those men. But their time is up. Their time is up. Their time is up.” 

Is there any doubt that one of “those men” whose “time is up” is the president who boasted that his celebrity allowed him to “do anything” to women, even “grab them by the pussy”?

Winfrey’s longtime partner, Stedman Graham told the Los Angeles Times that “it’s up to the people,” but Winfrey “would absolutely do it.” And CNN reported that two close friends of Winfrey have confirmed that she is “actively thinking” about running for president. 

The case for Winfrey running is clear-cut. Trump’s electoral victory proved that celebrity is an enormous asset in politics. In a media-saturated age, a candidate needs to be telegenic and charismatic. Winfrey has the fame and personality cult to match Trump’s, but with significantly fewer personal liabilities. Born the daughter of a housemaid in Mississippi, she’s a self-made billionaire who built a media empire. She’s also a philanthropist who not only had given away tens of millions of dollars, but founded a charity organization that helped establish 60 schools in 13 countries.

As a black woman, Winfrey would mobilize the most energetic, loyal part of the Democratic base and be a living rebuke to Trump, who won the presidency by mobilizing racism and misogyny. Winfrey would be an inspiring candidate whose demonstrated appeal to Americans of all stripes could help heal the divisiveness of the Trump era. Jon Favreau, the former speechwriter for President Barack Obama, made the case for taking Winfrey seriously by comparing her to his former boss:

Yet the Obama comparison highlights Winfrey’s major weakness. While Obama was less politically experienced than Hillary Clinton or John McCain, he was no novice to politics. He lost a congressional race, then served as state senator in Illinois before becoming a U.S. senator. Aside from his public service, Obama’s work as a community organizer and constitutional lawyer immersed him in the details of policy, both in practice and in theory. It was hardly an accident that Obama was able to hold his own in debates against Clinton despite her decades of political experience.

The Democratic Party believes in the government as a force for good—one that should reform and, as necessary, expand to meet the needs of all of its citizens, especially the most disadvantaged. Thus, Democrats like experienced, professional politicians who are comfortable with policy. This is why the party’s nominees, from Jimmy Carter to Hillary Clinton, have tended toward wonkiness.

The Republicans Party, meanwhile, is skeptical of the government’s ability to solve problem and of policy expertise itself (especially when it comes to government bureaucrats). Thus, Republicans have preferred politicians who believe common sense and one’s instincts are more valuable than detailed knowledge. 

Recent Republican presidents like Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, and Trump have eschewed policy expertise in favor of instinct. As Trump told The Washington Post, he makes decisions “with very little knowledge other than the knowledge I [already] had, plus the words ‘common sense,’ because I have a lot of common sense and I have a lot of business ability.” Bush liked to say, “I’m a gut player.” (His father, George H. W. Bush, is the exception to this rule.)

The Republicans have been much more inclined to run celebrity politicians than Democrats, and not only to the White House: Arnold Schwarzenegger was the governor of California, Sonny Bono a U.S. congressman, and Fred Thompson a U.S. senator. To nominate a celebrity is to say: You don’t need to be a pointy-heady intellectual to govern; all you need is a good gut.

That’s not a message that Democrats are traditionally comfortable with. (Al Franken, the recently resigned Democratic senator, who went out of his way to demonstrate his policy chops on his radio show before he ran for office.) The more typical Democratic message was expressed by Jonathan Bernstein on BloombergView: “The presidency is a real job, and a damn hard one. The easily visible parts—the speeches and the interviews, even the moral leadership—are a relatively small part of the responsibilities of the office. There’s simply no substitute for a good grasp of public policy and government affairs.” 

The problem is not only that Winfrey lacks political expertise. Like Trump, she also has a history of encouraging charlatans who traffic in quack ideas, as she has given a platform to dubious figures like Dr. Oz, a purveyor of pseudoscience, and vaccine denier Jenny McCarthy. This raises questions about her judgment and her acceptance of establishment truths. And that, ultimately, is why she shouldn’t—and won’t—be the Democratic nominee for president.