Celebrity Heft Match: Do Democrats Really Need Their Own Trump?

The situation isn’t that hopeless, is it?

I’m not exactly sure what to make of the idea that the Democratic Party has to find its own non-politician celebrity or private-sector figure to take on Donald Trump in 2020. Of course, Democrats are a bit short on options at this point:

In theory, there is a real opportunity for an outsider to take over the party and challenge Trump, the first American to be elected president without political or military service, on their own terms. The problem has been finding the right person to do it, particularly in a party whose voter base is more inclined to favor government experience. The potential 2020 field already includes about two dozen traditional politicians, including mayors, governors and senators.

The political outsiders who have explored candidacies include some of the biggest names in the corporate world — Disney chief Bob Iger, mega-mogul Oprah Winfrey, Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg. But each of those people ultimately decided to give up the dream, at least for now, after feeling out Democratic strategists.

As it stands, the only remaining brand-name business leaders besides [conservative Democrat and outgoing Starbucks executive chairman Howard] Schultz known to be actively considering a run are the liberal financier Tom Steyer, who is traveling the country to build a grass-roots effort to impeach Trump, and the celebrity entrepreneur Mark Cuban, who has taken few steps to build inroads in the Democratic Party, after saying last year he would rather run as a Republican or an independent.

The problem with this whole concept is that the Democratic Party, as an institution, generally doesn’t support the idea that the presidency should be an entry-level position. It’s hard to imagine the Democratic base being seduced by celebrity the same way the Republican base has been for years (remember those polls in 2011 showing Republicans salivating to have Trump challenge Obama in 2012?) A policy-based party will naturally prefer substance to stardom—and that will likely remain true in the Presidential realm, even if it proves not to be the case in the gubernatorial realm this year:

One challenge for all non-politicians trying to feel out a campaign is navigating the clear differences in how Democrats and Republicans think of outsiders in politics. A test case is playing out in New York, where the actress and activist Cynthia Nixon has launched a campaign to topple Democratic Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo in the primary.

A Quinnipiac University poll in late April found a clear partisan split among voters in the state over whether they preferred to elect a governor who has experience in politics or one who is new to politics.

Republicans preferred someone new to politics by a margin of 47 percent to 38 percent. Democrats, by contrast, said they preferred experience by a margin of 75 percent to 17 percent, even though 28 percent said they supported Nixon’s campaign in the same poll.

“Democratic primary voters in general have been looking for candidates who have government experience,” said Jefrey Pollock, a Democratic pollster who counts Cuomo, a potential 2020 contender, among his clients. “They are afraid of electing people who don’t have the experience because it reminds them of the disaster that is happening in Washington.”

Are we really supposed to believe that the Democratic Party is so bereft of talent that it needs to look to a political novice to be the party’s champion in 2020? Even if a celebrity or private-sector icon runs for and obtains the Democratic nomination, does anyone believe that individual will necessarily be able to beat Trump at his own media-exploitation game? It’s hard to envision an effort to out-Trump Trump resulting in anything other than a disaster for the Democrats.

The 2016 election was a fluke, a freak accident, a once-in-a-lifetime event. Democrats don’t need to embrace political abnormality in the name of defeating political abnormality.

D.R. Tucker

D. R. Tucker is a Massachusetts-based journalist who has served as the weekend contributor for the Washington Monthly since May 2014. He has also written for the Huffington Post, the Washington Spectator, the Metrowest Daily News, investigative journalist Brad Friedman's Brad Blog and environmental journalist Peter Sinclair's Climate Crocks.