Ahead of 2020 cam­paign, Democrats pon­der the stars

The Washington Post - - POLITICS & THE NATION - BY ASH­LEY PARKER AND ROBERT COSTA ash­ley.parker@wash­post.com robert.costa@wash­post.com

On Sun­day, Tay­lor Swift en­dorsed two Ten­nessee Demo­cratic can­di­dates for Congress — one for the Se­nate, the other for the House — and urged her mil­lions of fol­low­ers to reg­is­ter to vote. On Thurs­day, Kanye West joined Pres­i­dent Trump for a lunch visit at the White House, capped by a choice ex­ple­tive in the Oval Of­fice. And this week­end, Alec Baldwin, known for spoof­ing Trump on NBC’s “Satur­day Night Live,” is headed to New Hamp­shire to speak at a fundrais­ing din­ner for Democrats.

Live from the cam­paign trail, it’s the Cele­bri­fi­ca­tion of Pol­i­tics, 2020 Edi­tion.

The elec­tion of Trump — a re­al­ity TV star turned novice politi­cian turned pres­i­dent — rep­re­sented the lat­est and most po­tent fu­sion of pol­i­tics with the na­tion’s celebrity fas­ci­na­tion. Now, as the 2020 pres­i­den­tial cam­paign ramps up, a new cast of celebrities and fa­mous-for-pol­i­tics per­son­al­i­ties are tak­ing the stage as some Democrats pon­der — with a mix of en­thu­si­asm and hor­ror — whether they need to put up their own celebrity nom­i­nee against Trump.

Within the ex­pand­ing but un­of­fi­cial Demo­cratic field, the def­i­ni­tion of who con­sti­tutes a celebrity re­mains amor­phous — and who will ac­tu­ally run largely a sub­ject of spec­u­la­tion. But Trump’s pres­i­dency has cre­ated both an ur­gency and ap­petite among Democrats ea­ger to de­feat him in 2020, with some be­liev­ing that a pro­gres­sive can­di­date in Trump’s mold might hold the party’s best chance.

Lawyer Michael Ave­natti, a po­ten­tial 2020 can­di­date who rep­re­sents adult-film star Stormy Daniels in her law­suit against the pres­i­dent, said Democrats should not nec­es­sar­ily nom­i­nate the can­di­date most qual­i­fied to be pres­i­dent, but the one best equipped to take on Trump.

“They’re not go­ing to want some­one as reck­less or as ex­treme as Don­ald Trump, but they are go­ing to want some­one that is charis­matic and can hold the stage, that is suc­cess­ful in nav­i­gat­ing the me­dia land­scape and that has an en­ter­tain­ment fac­tor to them,” Ave­natti said. “No pol­icy wonk is go­ing to beat Don­ald Trump. And we’ve seen what he has done with your tra­di­tional politi­cians.”

Po­ten­tial hope­fuls such as Ave­natti are a direct re­sponse to Trump and the cur­rent po­lit­i­cal cli­mate. Oth­ers, like Baldwin, Dal­las Mav­er­icks owner Mark Cuban and JPMor­gan Chase ex­ec­u­tive Jamie Di­mon — who re­cently said and then re­tracted re­marks that he could beat Trump be­cause he is “smarter” — seem to fall into the Why Not Me camp.

Still oth­ers are fa­mous for be­ing po­lit­i­cal out­siders, such as Face­book CEO Mark Zucker­berg and former Star­bucks CEO Howard Schultz, dis­missed by one Trump ally as “what’s-his-name the Star­bucks guy.” And then there are the peren­nial dab­blers in pres­i­den­tial pol­i­tics such as former New York mayor Michael R. Bloomberg.

Few, in other words, are ac­tu­ally A-lis­ters in their own right like Oprah Win­frey, who is a reg­u­lar fo­cus of Demo­cratic in­ter­est de­spite her re­peated de­mur­rals.

Democrats, how­ever, re­main torn about what sort of nom­i­nee could suc­ceed. Among the many de­bates roil­ing the party is whether the best choice is a can­di­date — celebrity or oth­er­wise — who em­bod­ies Trump’s com­bat­ive tac­tics — like Ave­natti or Sen. El­iz­a­beth War­ren (D-Mass.) — or a more tem­per­ate messenger, like Win­frey or Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Tex.), who is chal­leng­ing Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and drew more than 50,000 peo­ple for a Septem­ber rally fea­tur­ing Wil­lie Nel­son in Austin.

“Do I think Alec Baldwin is likely to be the nom­i­nee? No. But will he run? He may. Will Ave­natti run? He prob­a­bly will,” said Robert Shrum, a veteran Demo­cratic cam­paign strate­gist. “Some of these con­tenders could have a big sea­son, but it’ll come down to the ques­tion that vot­ers are ask­ing. Is it: Who’s the purest pro­gres­sive? Who’s the mean­est against Trump? Or who’s able to beat Trump?”

Ron Brown­stein, au­thor of “The Power and the Glit­ter: The Hol­ly­wood-Wash­ing­ton Con­nec­tion,” said Democrats might be tak­ing the wrong les­son if they think Trump’s celebrity alone pow­ered him to the pres­i­dency, call­ing that “an un­der­stand­able but shal­low in­ter­pre­ta­tion” of the pres­i­dent’s ap­peal.

“The key to Trump is much less his celebrity than his racial na­tion­al­ism,” said Brown­stein, se­nior edi­tor of the At­lantic and se­nior po­lit­i­cal an­a­lyst at CNN. “He has more in com­mon with Pat Buchanan than he does with Alec Baldwin.”

For Democrats try­ing to win back white work­ing-class vot­ers, he said, “You can’t imag­ine any­thing worse than a celebrity be­cause Repub­li­cans have spent 40 years por­tray­ing celebrities as these kind of Hol­ly­wood lib­er­als who look down from their man­sions on Mulholland Drive with scorn on these work­ing-class peo­ple who have dirt un­der their fin­ger­nails.”

Trump, for his part, un­der­stands how to ma­nip­u­late the levers of fame and has of­ten spo­ken with aides about how he be­lieves both par­ties have mis­un­der­stood celebrity in pol­i­tics. Dur­ing the 2008 cam­paign, for in­stance, when Repub­li­can nom­i­nee John McCain at­tacked his then-ri­val, Barack Obama, in an ad for be­ing too much of a celebrity, Trump crit­i­cized McCain’s ap­proach.

“He’d say to us: ‘ That makes no sense. Who doesn’t want to be a celebrity?’ ” said former Trump ad­viser Sam Nun­berg. “He’d talk about how Obama used Oprah to beat Hil­lary and how he helped to get Rom­ney across the fin­ish line,” Nun­berg added, re­fer­ring to Hil­lary Clin­ton, whom Obama de­feated in the 2008 Demo­cratic pri­mary, and Mitt Rom­ney, the 2012 Repub­li­can pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nee.

Pri­vately, those close to Trump say the Demo­crat who most wor­ries the pres­i­dent and his team is former vice pres­i­dent Joe Bi­den, who they fear could cut into his work­ing-class white sup­port in such states as Michi­gan, Ohio, Penn­syl­va­nia and Wisconsin.

“The only can­di­date that’d worry me is a can­di­date who could also ap­peal to the bluecol­lar Demo­crat and Repub­li­can,” said Ru­dolph W. Gi­u­liani, the pres­i­dent’s lead lawyer on the Rus­sia in­ves­ti­ga­tion. “But celebrities these days are usu­ally seen as wacky, left-wing cra­zies who treat Trump vot­ers as de­plorables.”

None­the­less, the pres­i­dent is attuned to the machi­na­tions of his po­ten­tial ri­vals, es­pe­cially those who ex­hibit the power of celebrity. Former White House chief strate­gist Stephen K. Ban­non said Trump is well aware that both he and his pos­si­ble chal­lengers are oper­at­ing within what Ban­non calls the “mod­ern McLuhan-es­que pres­i­dency,” a ref­er­ence to the late me­dia the­o­rist Marshall McLuhan, who fore­cast a po­lit­i­cal fu­ture in which im­ages and mass com­mu­ni­ca­tions would be crit­i­cal — and in which “the medium is the mes­sage.”

“McLuhan was all about the over­whelm­ing power of the me­dia and mass com­mu­ni­ca­tions, and both Obama and Trump un­der­stood that,” Ban­non said. “It’s about im­pres­sions and brand and mass com­mu­ni­ca­tions. And as I’ve said from Day One, Oprah, Ave­natti, Cuban — peo­ple like that who speak to a broader, as­pi­ra­tional life­style is where pol­i­tics is go­ing.”

Those close to the pres­i­dent say the only long-shot celebrity chal­lenger who has raised any con­cern within Trump’s or­bit is Win­frey. In Jan­uary, Win­frey en­tered the 2020 sweep­stakes with her rous­ing re­marks at the Golden Globes cer­e­mony rem­i­nisc­ing about her im­pov­er­ished girl­hood and end­ing in a call to ac­tion in the #MeToo era.

“Oprah is the only per­son who would make me sit up and take no­tice,” said David Bossie, a Trump ad­viser and former deputy cam­paign man­ager.

Richard Sher, a Win­frey friend and former broad­cast­ing part­ner in Bal­ti­more, said that based on his con­ver­sa­tions with her, Win­frey was “blown away by the re­ac­tion to the Golden Globes” but has lit­tle in­ter­est in run­ning for pres­i­dent.

“I just don’t think it’s some­thing she wants to do,” Sher said. “She loves her life — and she has the best life pos­si­ble.”

Later, Sher called back and said he had spo­ken by phone with Win­frey on Wed­nes­day and told her about The Wash­ing­ton Post’s in­quiry. Win­frey told him: “‘No, I’m not run­ning for pres­i­dent. That’s not how I can best serve,’ ” Sher re­counted. “That was it, ver­ba­tim.”

So, which chal­lengers might match up well against Trump?

“I’d cer­tainly put my­self near the top of the list at this unique point in our his­tory,” Ave­natti said with a chuckle.

An­other wild card is megas­tar Dwayne John­son — also known as the Rock — who has non­par­ti­san ap­peal to a di­verse swath of de­mo­graphic and eco­nomic groups. John­son said in July that “due to my sched­ule,” he doesn’t plan to run in 2020, but Gi­u­liani said John­son could be for­mi­da­ble if he were to change his mind.

And what about West, who set so­cial me­dia aflame Thurs­day with a long, some­what pro­fane so­lil­o­quy prais­ing Trump? Is he a fu­ture pres­i­den­tial can­di­date?

“Could very well be,” Trump said in re­sponse to the ques­tion from a re­porter in the Oval Of­fice.

“Only af­ter 2024,” West chimed in, adding: “Let’s stop wor­ry­ing about the fu­ture. All we have is to­day.”


ABOVE: Kanye West shows Pres­i­dent Trump a photo dur­ing their Oval Of­fice meet­ing Thurs­day. BE­LOW: Oprah Win­frey is seen last month. She has said she is not run­ning for pres­i­dent in 2020 de­spite giv­ing a rous­ing speech at the Golden Globes in Jan­uary.


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