The Corner

Politics & Policy

Oprah Winfrey and the Endless Appetite for Celebrity Political Candidates

From the Thursday edition of the Morning Jolt:

Oprah Winfrey, Needs, Wants, and 2020

There was a time when John Podhoretz’s suggestion that the Democratic Party should nominate Oprah Winfrey for president in 2020 could be dismissed as a joke, click-bait, or a silly pipe dream.

But Al Franken is a senator, Donald Trump is president, Republicans are hoping Kid Rock runs for Senate in Michigan and Tennessee Republicans hoped Peyton Manning would run for Senate in their state. (Yesterday Manning denied any interest in being a politician; no word on whether he issued the denial in the sing-song-y tone of the Nationwide-Is-On-Your-Side jingle.)


If you think that Trump can be beaten by a two-term governor of a Midwestern state with really good ideas about health care, or by a senator who really attracts young people, think again. The idea that a relatively conventional elected official will differentiate herself from Trump by dint of her seriousness or that an unconventional elected official can out-populist Trump is crazy.

If you need to set a thief to catch a thief, you need a star — a grand, outsized, fearless star whom Trump can neither intimidate nor outshine — to catch a star. We’re through the looking glass here. America is discarding old approaches in politics. Democrats will have to do the same to match the mood to the moment.

I would argue that outside of Ronald Reagan, who had transitioned to the realm of politics much earlier in his career, the record of celebrity officeholders is a generally depressing one, looking in particular at Governors Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jesse Ventura. (We can only imagine the intense debates about state tax codes that occurred on the set of Predator.)

(Fred Thompson is one of those unusual cases where he began in politics (minority counsel for the Senate Watergate Committee, special counsel to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and Intelligence Committee), then started acing in the late 80s, then was elected to the Senate in 1994. Sonny Bono was a good and kind man, but I don’t know if anyone would consider him a legislative giant.)

The skills of a movie or television star translate well to campaigning, but not necessarily to governing. No doubt Schwarzenegger meant well and wanted to deliver the best possible results for his state, and his efforts were… er, Herculean? But the Democrat-controlled state legislature was intractable, voters rejected his referendums on reform proposals at the ballot box, and he ended his time as governor taking the centrist path of least resistance. By the time he left office in 2011, as the Great Recession was hitting California hard, his approval rating was just 23 percent.

Voters are demonstrating that they want exciting, charismatic faces that they know from non-political contexts. But I’m not sure that’s what they need. Pick your measurement of good governance at the state level: low unemployment, good environment for business, low crime, good schools. Wherever you find the results that please you the most, the odds are low that you’ll find a celebrity-like figure governing that state.

If our measuring stick is whether people feel like they’re governed well, Americans are most pleased with the governors who are anti-celebrities, largely unknown outside of their states. As of July 2017, the most popular governors in America are Charlie Baker of Massachusetts, Larry Hogan of Maryland, Matt Mead of Wyoming, Doug Burgum of North Dakota and Dennis Daugaard of South Dakota. (Also note, the top ten most popular governors in America are all Republicans.) The least popular governor in the country right now is also one of the best-known, and who has popped up in celebrity contexts like late-night talk and comedy shows, New Jersey’s Chris Christie.

This isn’t to say Podhoretz is wrong, and that Democrats wouldn’t maximize their likelihood of victory with a celebrity candidate to challenge a celebrity president. We need a lot of things that we don’t necessarily want: exercise, green vegetables, saving for a rainy day, to watch mindless television less and to read more…

But how often do we choose what we need over what we want?

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