AUSTIN, Texas — Howard Schultz, the former Starbucks CEO who’s mulling an independent run for president, is pleasant, enthusiastic, and eager. He has a calm voice and a soothing manner. He seems like a great boss, business mentor, and buddy.
The 65-year-old lifelong Democrat is not so much an anti-Trump as a bizzaro-world Trump—an affable, tolerant billionaire who wears jeans and stylish blazers and doesn’t want to talk about divisive social issues. He wants to talk about technology, innovation, and how to help the middle class with smart, technocratic government. He’s like a white Obama, an older Beto, a less dour-faced Michael Bloomberg.
In other words it’s not clear why anyone, in 2020, would want Schultz to be president.
Last week, he toured Texas, ostensibly to promote his new book, “From the Ground Up,” but really to hype his still-unannounced run for president as a centrist independent. At an event in Dallas, Schultz said Democrats are being pulled too far to the left with a “socialistic agenda,” and that disaffection with Trump in the GOP is growing—hence his rationale for running down the middle as a political outsider:
“There are millions of lifelong Republicans—based on the president’s character and leadership qualities, or lack thereof—who would not go into the voting booth and vote for a Democrat resembling a socialist but might, just might, have an interest in a person who is independent and who is not beholden to either party.”
That’s a bold gamble to make about a voting public that seems increasingly tribal and partisan, but it does follow a certain logic. Schultz is after all doing what Democrats should have done. When Trump won the White House, the path back to power for Democrats was fairly obvious, given Trump’s obvious weaknesses. They needed to be the sober, capable party. They needed to emphasize good governance and transparency. They needed to be the adults in the room.
They couldn’t do it. Upon winning the House in 2018, Democrats have fallen headlong into a spiral of anti-capitalist fantasies, infanticide, and Weimar-era prejudices. Instead of exercising deft control over her caucus, Speaker Nancy Pelosi can’t even get House Democrats to pass a resolution condemning anti-Semitism in the wake of freshman Rep. Ilhan Omar’s most recent deployment of vile anti-Semitic tropes.
Schultz Doesn’t Want to Accept Divisions
Schultz is certainly correct that most Americans aren’t interested in a Democratic presidential candidate who’ll be forced into supporting the Green New Deal and late-term abortion while acquiescing to the anti-Jewish ravings of the party’s far-left base.
The party certainly looks like it could end up with such a candidate. On Friday, the same day Schultz was in Austin meeting with veterans and women entrepreneurs ahead of an appearance at SXSW, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, arguably an early frontrunner for her party’s nomination, announced a regulatory plan that would break up tech giants like Amazon, Google, and Facebook. Whatever the merits of Warren’s plan, she at least knows her constituency.
At the roundtable in Austin, Schultz was curious and attentive. He asked pointed questions and generously gave advice to the assembled entrepreneurs. But nothing about his demeanor and tone suggested he has a compelling message for American voters. Seeing him up close, above all one wonders who is Schultz’s core constituency? The dwindling number of moderate Democrats turned off by their party’s excesses? Never-Trumpers? Other billionaires? Schultz’s big problem is that he has no identifiable base heading into an election cycle that will be defined by extremes.
On his Texas tour, Schultz said he thinks all 50 states could be in play next year, including the Lone Star State, a big reason he was there last week. Beto O’Rourke’s narrow loss to Sen. Ted Cruz in November not only buoyed Democrats’ hopes of turning Texas blue, it also convinced Schultz that he has a chance in Texas, too.
But he’ll have to do more than present himself as a reasonable Democrat from a bygone era if he even wants to be the next Ross Perot, whom Schultz invoked during his remarks in Dallas. More than anything, Schultz’s pre-presidential campaign has so far shown how out of touch he is with the American mood, especially the mood among liberals who hate Trump and see Schultz as nothing but a white billionaire spoiler who’ll siphon votes away from the Democratic nominee.
At a “book event” in Seattle last month, Schultz said he thinks we can “agree to disagree without having such a toxic, angry conversation.” One wonders why, surveying the landscape of American public life in 2019, he thinks this. Asked by the moderator, “What if this puzzle of belonging is just a lot harder than someone running for president as an independent?… What if we’re too polarized, too divided?”
Schultz replied, “I agree with your assessment that there is a level of division. But sitting here today, I don’t want to accept that.”