Howard Schultz, the former CEO of Starbucks, has been criticized from almost every direction since he tweeted that he was “seriously considering” running for president as a “centrist independent.”
In one sense, the idea isn’t totally insane. Schultz has a great story to tell. He personifies the American Dream. Unlike Trump, he made his own fortune. He built Starbucks from concept to global corporation, never went bankrupt, nor admitted on tape to sexual assaults. His company prides itself on its treatment of its low-wage employees, providing health care, stock options, and tuition assistance. (Starbucks does not, however, have employee unions nor does it offer regular hours.) What could be more attractive: a competent, compassionate capitalist, a problem solver, offering himself to the nation?
Schultz, however, has grounded his potential campaign on a lie: that the two parties are both “too extreme.” As a “lifelong Democrat,” Schultz has complained there is no place for centrists in the Democratic Party. “In order to run as a Democrat today,” he told the hosts of The View, “you have to fall in line with free Medicare for everybody, free college for everybody, a free job for everybody.”
In reality, neither the last Democratic president nor the last Democratic nominee for president embraced Medicare for All nor a job guarantee. And a boatload of current and potential candidates are fairly described as centrists, and won’t embrace the aforementioned policies—including former vice president Joe Biden, fellow billionaire Mike Bloomberg, Senators Amy Klobuchar, and a gaggle of governors.
Democrats will have a fierce debate about their reform agenda, and bold reformers may well carry the day. But Schultz’s plutocratic ego wants none of that. He can pay for his own party, so he’d rather not expose himself to the competition. Here, his arrogance exceeds even that of Donald Trump, who at least deigned to compete in the Republican primaries.
And for all his lofty rhetoric, Schultz has taken plenty of cheap potshots. He said Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s ideas are “un-American” for suggesting that billionaires are a threat to democracy, and also slammed Senator Kamala Harris’s support for Medicare for All as “not American.”
Schultz has fundamentally misread the threats facing America. To him, it’s not catastrophic climate change, not Gilded Age inequality, not our failed global economic strategy, not a dangerous and decrepit infrastructure, not the failure to nurture the next generation, not the growing Cold War with China and Russia: No, Schultz believes that America’s central challenge is its national debt.
Schultz is an ardent supporter of groups like Fix the Debt that lobby for a “grand bargain,” which would combine cuts to Social Security and Medicare with tax reforms to erase the deficit. Instead of demanding action on real crises, Schultz prioritizes action on a phony one.
Given his success, Schultz could offer a bold reform vision for the country. As a capitalist, he could make the case for financing the Green New Deal, arguing that the investment would have both social and economic returns. As an executive who offered health care to his workers, he could champion Medicare for All, detailing how it would be far less expensive and more effective. As an employer of low wage workers, he could push for raising the minimum wage and empowering workers to organize. As a billionaire, he could make the case for a wealth tax, tightening the estate tax to fend off the threat of oligarchic dynasties, or returning to progressive tax rates like those under Eisenhower.
Instead, Schultz has offered only country-club platitudes: public-private partnerships, more training, and corporate responsibility. He wraps his pabulum in what Frank Rich calls a “cloak of high-minded ideals and furrowed-brow civic concern.” Like Trump, he focuses on the failure of government and of the corrupted “political class,” ignoring the inescapable responsibility of big money and corporate lobbyists for rigging the rules against most Americans.
Schultz will be traveling the country over the next months selling his new campaign autobiography, looking to see if he “can ignite a national conversation and a national movement.” Hopefully, the presidential gambit will turn out simply to be a way to gain attention and sell some books.
If not, there is the dangerous possibility that Schultz will peel enough independent voters away from Democrats to ensure Trump gets a second term. Schultz has dismissed such concerns by advancing the fantasy that he can win, arguing that “the two parties’ inability to come together to serve the people has created the opportunity for a centrist independent to be successful.” He pledges that he won’t be a “spoiler,” and that if it looks like his candidacy will help Trump, he will “back off.”
Since he’s avoiding all primaries, however, he’s unlikely to take stock until late in the race, when he’ll be reluctant to abandon the media attention, the audiences, or the sunk time and money. On hearing of his potential candidacy, Trump saw the advantage, immediately tweeted that Schultz “didn’t have the guts” to run for president, a jibe surely designed to goad him into the race.
It’s possible that not enough people would vote for Schultz for him to make any difference either way. But he could still do damage by serving as a convenient foil for centrist candidates who will warn against nominating a populist progressive because more conservative Democratic voters may defect to Schultz.
Schultz is a great salesman with nothing to say. The only positive thing about Schultz’s potential run is that it shows that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is right: billionaires are a threat to democracy.