Democrats ask if the Oprah effect can beat Trump

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With the party’s 2020 race wide open, business and celebrity names are being floated
A political outsider won the US presidential election in 2016, using his television fame and business reputation to power the Republican party to control of both houses of Congress. As they reel from Donald Trump’s victory, will Democrats look beyond the usual roster of elected officials for a candidate in 2020?
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, Starbucks chief executive Howard Schultz and tech billionaire turned-reality TV star Mark Cuban have all been mooted as potential candidates in recent months. Two new names were added to this business-celebrity mix this week when Oprah Winfrey gave an interview in which she hinted at White House interest and a news report claimed that Bob Iger, chief executive of Walt Disney, had sounded out friends about a potential run.
The election of Mr Trump has changed the game for outsider candidates, says Matt Bennett, co-founder of the Democratic think-tank Third Way and alumnus of Bill Clinton’s White House. “Trump’s election made clear that marching up the ladder of elective office to the White House is no longer necessary,” he says.
For the first time since 1992, the Democratic party has “no heir apparent”, he adds. “It’s no surprise that the prospective field is large and varied. And it will get much bigger before it gets smaller.” Ms Winfrey suggested in a Bloomberg Television interview that she had questioned her previous assumptions about the White House after Mr Trump’s election win. Before his win “I thought, ‘Oh, gee, I don’t have the experience. I don’t know enough’,” she said. “And now I’m thinking . . . oh!” A story in The Hollywood Reporter, meanwhile, claimed that Mr Iger had told friends he was considering a presidential run. A person close to Mr Iger, who has overseen a decade of growth at the owner of Pixar, Marvel and ESPN, played down the report but said he had been approached by a number of prominent individuals on the east and west coasts who had urged him to run. In previous years Mr Iger has also been mentioned as a potential candidate for statewide office in California but he has not publicly expressed any interest. His contract at Disney is up in June 2018 although he has said he is open to extending it. Should Mr Iger and other outside contenders decide to run, they will face a Democratic field that is wide but thin, providing ample opportunity for outsiders. While liberal firebrands such as Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders are seen as two of the party’s new standard bearers following Hillary Clinton’s loss, most Democratic leaders believe they are too far to the left to win a general election race. Also, Mr Sanders’ age is likely to be a factor: he will be 79 by the time of the next election.

Prominent younger Democrats such as Julian Castro, the former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, and Tom Perez, the newly elected head of the Democratic National Committee, are believed to lack the star power and experience to win a national election. And newer faces, such as Kamala Harris, the former attorney-general of California and first-term California senator, are seen as untested. “Oftentimes the opposition party will look for qualities and attributes in its candidate that are different from the other side,” said Bill Carrick, a Democratic party consultant whose clients have included Dianne Feinstein and Mr Clinton. After four years of Mr Trump “the Democratic party and its activists may say: what we really need now is someone not like Trump but someone who knows how to work within the political process”. The potential outsider candidates who have been mooted recently are “intriguing”, Mr Carrick adds. “Bob Iger is strategic and he’s a planner . . . he has all the qualities that would make him a good presidential candidate.” Meanwhile, Mr Cuban, the billionaire owner of the Dallas Mavericks basketball franchise — and an outspoken critic of the new president during last year’s campaign — “could match Trump tweet for tweet”.

Many in the party say it is hard to imagine a billionaire executive such as Mr Cuban or Mr Zuckerberg connecting with the Democratic base — with perhaps Ms Winfrey being the one exception. While Mr Trump may have been able to use his business success to his advantage, Republican voters were able to relate to his Queens roots, political incorrectness and brash rhetoric. It is unclear whether Mr Iger, Mr Zuckerberg or Mr Schultz could connect with working class voters in the same way. It is also doubtful that an outsider would be able to fix the Democratic party’s underlying problems — mainly, reconnecting with white working class voters and finding a new supply of talent. “We’ve got to do a better job of generating talent at the state and local level. We failed clearly at that,” says Jim Manley, a Democratic strategist and former aide to senators Harry Reid and Ted Kennedy. As for the new celebrity candidates, he adds: “If this is the best we’ve got, we’re in a world of hurt right now.”

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