All it took was one “60 Minutes” interview for Howard Schultz to become public enemy number one for Democrats. The former Starbucks CEO has been a Democrat all his life but by indicating his interest in an independent run for president in 2020, he gave his party a severe shock and provoked a storm of bitter criticism.
After President Donald Trump’s surrender on the government shutdown, Democratic optimism about their prospects for taking back the White House is greater than ever. Their victories in the 2018 midterms combined with Trump’s first real personal policy defeat has infused more energy into the party and enlivened the first days of the 2020 race as more of the expected two dozen potential presidential candidates unveil their campaigns.
But Schultz’s plan for a third-party run throws a potential monkey wrench into the rosy scenarios for a Democratic sweep next year. No one outside his personal circle of advisors and sycophants may actually believe he has a ghost of a chance of being elected president.
But the billionaire has the money to run a national campaign on the same scale as Ross Perot, the last serious third-party candidate. If his efforts get started soon, he might be able to get on the ballot in most of the 50 states. If so, then all the happy talk about Trump’s certain doom goes right out the window.
Spoiler or Dark Horse Candidate?
Many Democrats still blame Green Party candidate Jill Stein for stealing enough votes in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania from Hillary Clinton to hand Trump an Electoral College victory. Schultz has the potential to do far worse damage to Democrats, especially if they nominate one of the many extremely liberal candidates competing for their nomination.
That is exactly the conceit of the scenario Schultz and his team think gives him a fighting chance for the presidency. But, to be fair to Schultz, his grandiose ambitions are built on more than the idea of stealing Democrats’ thunder.
Fellow billionaire Michael Bloomberg eschewed an independent run for the presidency — which he could afford as easily as Schultz — because he rightly understands that the system is set up for two parties and to crush independent hopes. But Schultz thinks anger about a bifurcated political culture is changing that equation. His plan is to try and exploit the disgust many Americans feel for both of their major parties.
His goal is to attract moderate Republicans who are disgusted with Trump’s unpresidential behavior and pick off moderate Democrats who may feel unable to get behind the Democrats if Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, or any of the other liberals vying for attention wind up becoming the nominee and steering the party to the left.
But Democrats aren’t wrong when they suspect that despite his talk of recreating the political center, Schultz can do more damage to them than to Trump.
The president may currently be at the nadir of his popularity since he took office two years ago. A man whose political calling card is “winning” faces a genuine challenge to his electoral viability when his opponents hang a loss on him, especially when the opponent who gets the best of him — House Speaker Nancy Pelosi — is even less popular than he is.
Yet even at this low point, Trump can still count on the support of nearly 80 percent of Republicans, a figure that is likely to go back to the 90 percent range once GOP voters face a clear choice of the president or his more liberal opponents. Most Republicans, even those who were sympathetic to the #NeverTrump camp, have long since made their peace with the president even if they can’t stand the way he talks or tweets.
That’s because, contrary to the assertions of the liberal mainstream press, it was Trump who converted to the GOP’s conservative principles, not the other way around. The flawed individual in the White House has delivered both conservative appointments (including two Supreme Court justices) and policy victories on taxes and regulatory reform that rolled back the excesses of the Obama era.
They also know that while any of the other GOP candidates whom he defeated in 2016 would have done the same on those issues, only Trump would have also had the chutzpah and contempt for establishment opinion to do things like abandoning the Iran nuclear deal and moving the U.S. embassy to Israel to Jerusalem.
Moreover, the ranks of the few remaining #NeverTrump Republicans have been further thinned by the confirmation fight for Justice Brett Kavanaugh and recent viral attack on the students of Covington Catholic High School. Both illustrated the left’s intent to destroy all dissent from the right.
Both of those battles seemed to indicate to Republicans that Democrats are willing to destroy anyone who isn’t on their side, leaving many who personally disliked the symbolism of the red MAGA hats to believe that the mainstream media thinks they are as “deplorable” as the Trump fans wearing them.
The Radical Left Is Democrats’ Achilles Heel
Democrats have been counting on all Americans picking a side in these culture war fights to solidify their base and cause many independents who despise Trump to stick with them. But Schultz threatens them more than he does Trump’s ability to hold onto wavering Republicans.
That’s because the arguments for Schultz’s campaign rests more on a critique of Democrats’ leftward tilt than it does on an anodyne appraisal of Trump’s faults. As much as the wind is in their sails these days, Democrats know that their one real weakness is the growing strength of their radical left-wing faction.
That is not so much a function of the national credibility a socialist like Sanders gained with his strong challenge to Hillary Clinton in the 2016 Democratic primaries. As much as the media overreacts to everything that comes out of the mouth of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the Democrats’ new socialist rock star, her crackpot ideas about a vast expansion of entitlements and an imposition of confiscatory tax rates on wealthy Americans are now mainstream thinking in party circles. Even candidates like Harris who are aiming to win the votes of more centrist Democrats are adopting those stands.
The true danger of a well-funded Schultz independent candidacy isn’t the obvious one in which he would peel off enough centrist Democratic voters to give Trump another unlikely Electoral College victory. Rather, it’s his ability to deliver stinging criticisms of Democrats’ platform of free stuff for all (including federal entitlements for pre-K, college, and health care) that can’t possibly be paid for by schemes that will soak the rich. While potential Democratic voters won’t listen to anything Trump says, they might be vulnerable to rational arguments about the fallacies of the Democrats’ leftward tilt and big government plans coming from someone else.
Schultz has a long way to go before he can be considered a serious third-party threat. Although he claims he’s cut his ties with Democrats, it’s possible the opprobrium from the media will soften his resolve to persevere with his plans. But Democrats aren’t wrong to be scared by his candidacy. At a time when they had begun to think that Trump was on the run, a Schultz candidacy has the potential to tilt the political balance of power back in the president’s direction.