The frenzy about an Oprah run for president was as predictable as it is misplaced—not because it concerns the estimable Ms. Winfrey but because it reminds us once again that our collective obsession with the presidency ignores where the really consequential power lies. If we grasp that basic fact about American political life, we can find where Oprah can make a huge difference—this year.
Given President Donald Trump’s capacity to capture 99.8 percent of media attention at any given moment, it makes superficial sense to see Trump’s election as the key to hugely significant political change, and to see a possible Oprah run in 2020 as the next one. But when you look at what has changed in the Year of Trump, it becomes clear that the really significant election was what happened in the United States Senate. Had Democrats managed to capture the chamber in 2016, much, indeed most, of what Trump has accomplished would never have happened at all—which is why Democrats, and maybe even Oprah herself, should focus right now on 2018, not 2020.
It’s true that Trump’s accomplishments amount to quite an impressive list, something on which the president’s friends and foes alike agree. “As the year ends,” the once adamantly anti-Trump National Review said, “President Donald Trump is compiling a solid record of accomplishment.” A Wall Street Journal article reported that “President Donald Trump and the GOP-controlled Congress, who opened their first year in full control of Washington on rocky terms, are closing it with a flush of late legislative achievements: a sweeping tax overhaul, a long-sought repeal of a pillar of the Affordable Care Act and a surprise deal to open up Arctic drilling.” Matt Lewis wrote in the Daily Beast that “if you are a mainstream conservative, you have to be pretty happy today with what you found in your Christmas stocking. … On paper at least, [Trump] has wildly exceeded my expectations.” Even David Axelrod, Barack Obama’s key adviser, acknowledged, “He is doing consequential things.”
But let’s take a closer look at what would have happened to this conservative wish list if Democrats had taken charge of the Senate in 2016.
Start with the radical reshaping of the federal judiciary now underway. Neil Gorsuch took the Supreme Court seat the Senate Republicans denied to Merrick Garland. A dozen federal appeals court judges have been confirmed, and dozens of nominations to the district courts now await Senate action. Oklahoma’s Sen. James Lankford has already threatened a “nuclear” option to stop Democrats from slowing down the process.
Now imagine a Senate with a Democratic majority of 51 or 52 seats; something that would have been highly possible if Democrats had lost half a dozen seats in the 2014 midterms, instead of nine, or had won close 2016 races in Missouri and a few other states. Would Gorsuch have been confirmed? It’s hard to imagine enough renegade Democrats siding with the Republicans to muster a vote to break the filibuster, which would still be in place. No way Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer as majority leader would have wiped that out with Trump in the White House, as McConnell did to confirm Gorsuch.
Nor would Trump’s lower court nominees, culled from the wish lists of the Heritage Foundation and other staunchly right groups, have passed muster with Democrats in charge of the Judiciary Committee. Trump and Senate Republicans would have loudly objected, but given how Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell behaved when Obama faced a GOP Senate, the “sauce for the goose, sauce for the gander” response from Schumer would have been certain.
The federal bench, however, is only the start of how different things would have been. For example, while it’s true that a president’s Cabinet choices are generally accorded deference—unlike judges, they leave when the president leaves—some of Trump’s choices would never have survived a Democratic Senate majority. Jeff Sessions as attorney general? Public school adversary Betsy DeVos as education secretary? Scott Pruitt, dedicated opponent of the Environmental Protection Agency, as its director? Ryan Zinke, industry’s best friend, as interior secretary?
Take those Cabinet officials off the board, and replace them with a few Democrat-approved choices, and a host of Trump’s executive “achievements” become a lot more doubtful. Even if several of Trump’s favorite appointees did get through, the rollback of regulations affecting the environment, education policy, consumer protection, oversight of local police forces, would all be affected by a Senate eager to impose limits on what the executive branch can do, by legislative mandates.
The legislative record itself would look very different, too: The individual mandate would not have been repealed; the tax bill would never have passed the Senate in anything like its current form; and the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy—without a border wall—would have been at the core of any Democratic negotiating points with the White House.
Most unnerving for the president, the investigative power of Senate committees would have been in the hands of a party eager to probe any hint of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russian interests. Had Trump fired FBI Director James Comey, the hearings into potential obstruction of justice would have begun within days.
Of course, a president still has significant power to change the political landscape: withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a foreign policy focused on “America First” and hostility to multinational agreements, a crackdown on immigration, policies to undermine the Affordable Care Act, all would have happened regardless of which party held Senate control (not to mention that big, beautiful nuclear button). And the outsize personality of Trump himself still would have sucked much of the oxygen out of the atmosphere.
But for me, the most urgent political question is whether Democrats can retake the Senate next year. While the capture of the House is more probable, the significantly greater power of the Senate is where much of the change that has taken place under Trump will accelerate or grind to a virtual halt.
And this is where Oprah comes in. She is the one figure in public life whose presence in communities around the country could make a significant difference in voter turnout. With her money, her fame and her drawing power, Winfrey could spend the next 10 months organizing public events to spur voter registration. She could bring celebrities of all sorts to her side in cities all across America, from Ashtabula to Zebulon. And she could make sure—with her own resources and others—that the logistics are in place to keep an aggressive voter registration effort alive long after she leaves.
This could all be done on a nonpartisan, tax-exempt basis; but given the fact of political life that Democratic-inclined voters are less likely to cast midterm votes, an Oprah-centric voter registration campaign such as this would inevitably mean more Democratic votes would be cast. (As a side benefit, this effort would help Ms. Winfrey learn whether she has the stomach for a presidential campaign.)
It’s understandable that the president’s biggest foes are obsessed with removing him from office—if not via impeachment or the 25th Amendment, then by voting him out in 2020. By that time, however, a Republican Senate will have put dozens more judges on the courts and sanctioned more decisions that touch American life, from the quality of our air and water to the nature of our justice system and beyond. And that’s why it makes urgent sense for Oprah to aim her unequaled personal power at the most genuinely consequential source of political power.