The battle for 2020: Possible Democratic presidential nominees
On an unseasonably warm February afternoon, two celebrities huddled together in a subterranean theater off Times Square, asking each other about their presidential ambitions.
“We want every single person to bring their unique genius and talent and gifts to what we do as a country, to what we are trying to achieve together,” said Beto O’Rourke, the ex-congressman whose competitive Texas Senate bid last year rocketed him to Democratic stardom. “So if I can play some role in helping the country to do that, by God I’m going to do it.”
“By God, when are you going to know the answer?” shot back Oprah Winfrey, the television superstar, as she hosted O’Rourke at one of her “SuperSoul conversations,” a live interview-style event also set to air on her podcast and television network.
“The serious answer is, really soon,” O’Rourke told her. “Before the end of this month.”
And then, in a moment that epitomized American presidential politics in 2019, a year when seemingly every prominent Democrat—and more than a few independents—have been discussed as potential White House material, O’Rourke turned the question back on his interviewer.
“Many of the questions that you’ve been asking me, I’m sure many people would like to know the answer from you: Is this something you have considered?” he asked.
The crowd whooped, and Winfrey demurred, remarking that “you’ve got to hear that and feel that for yourself, not what everybody else says.”
For Winfrey, who has at other times indicated she won’t run for president in 2020, there is little risk of her admirers losing patience, as she focuses instead on her media empire.
For O’Rourke, that’s a risk that grows by the day.
His appearance with Winfrey here in New York comes as the 2020 Democratic field rapidly takes shape, while O’Rourke has been a less visible presence on the national stage and in the early-voting states. While he had momentum following his narrow Senate loss to Ted Cruz last fall, since then other Democrats—who like O’Rourke, have demonstrated fundraising prowess, liberal credentials and charisma—have accelerated their own presidential organizations, even snapping up some operatives who had previously explored opportunities with O’Rourke.
The session with Winfrey was greatly anticipated by O’Rourke supporters looking for signs of his intentions.
In an interview ahead of the event, Tyler Jones, the South Carolina state director for a Draft Beto effort, called it “a great opportunity to show Democrats, ‘Hey, this is the type of candidate I would be, this is the type of president I would be,’ and to show us if he’s more in than out.”
And in the nearly hour-long session with Winfrey, he did exactly that.
“I have been thinking about running for president,” a suit-clad O’Rourke told the room, which erupted in sustained applause as some attendees—some of whom brought their “Beto” t-shirts—stood to cheer him on.
“What’s the conclusion?” pressed Winfrey, her sequined vest glittering. “Are you running?”
“That’s a big question for us to think through,” O’Rourke told her, saying that he was considering whether and how he could best help “bring this country together” at an intensely polarized moment.
“I gotta tell you, and you can tell, I’m so excited at the prospect of being able to play that role,” he continued.
O’Rourke was fourth in a five-person line-up Tuesday that featured actors Bradley Cooper and Michael B. Jordan, philanthropist Melinda Gates and and Lisa Borders, the president of Time’s Up, an organization that works to combat sexual harassment. As O’Rourke arrived ahead of the first session, he shook hands with audience members and earned some scattered applause.
By the time Winfrey got to O’Rourke, she had already spent much of the afternoon alternately grilling interviewees and skillfully empathizing with them, part of an effort to get them to open up—and O’Rourke got the same treatment.
“What’s it going to take?” Winfrey demanded, interrupting O’Rourke at one point to laughter and cheers. “What’s it gonna take for you to say, yes, I’m doing it?”
“For me, it will really be family,” he said.
“Where’s Amy?” Winfrey interjected, referencing his wife who was in the audience. Winfrey went on to say, later in the segment, that President Barack Obama had more time with his children in the White House.
“He was at dinner every night for the first time, Amy!” Winfrey cracked. “He was at dinner every night! Just a Rose Garden away.”
Family considerations aside, O’Rourke emphasized his commitment to issues like criminal justice reform and combating climate change, embracing immigrants and engaging in dialogue with people across the political spectrum.
He also offered a few details from his meeting with Obama (over coffee, he got the message that running for the White House is more intense than a Senate campaign), and marveled: “It’s hard to believe I am saying I met with Barack Obama, and I’m saying it to Oprah Winfrey.”
As the O’Rourke segment wrapped, Winfrey told him, “You seem like you’re getting ready to run.”
The Texan responded only with a hug before heading offstage.
The crowd roared.