Howard Schultz needs an issue. The former Starbucks CEO who spent most of his career amping up Americans on burnt coffee wants to now be their president. But why? In a town hall on Fox News last week, he couldn’t quite answer that question. He takes a “pox on both your houses” approach to the Trumpian GOP and the Democrats he says have wandered too far left. But so far, his candidacy seems to be based on little more than being the other choice.
In some ways, Schultz feels like the missing Democrat. He says, “I’m a centrist, I’ve been a lifelong Democrat, but the Democratic Party left me, I didn’t leave them.” He supports funding Immigration and Customs Enforcement, opposes Medicare for all, and dares to utter the phrase “safe, legal, and rare,” regarding abortion. As the Democratic nominee for president, he would be formidable, but he is not choosing to join that race that resembles nothing so much as a bunch of 1950s teenagers cramming into a telephone booth.
Instead, Schultz is chasing the white whale of American politics: trying to win the presidency as a third-party candidate. This never works, and it’s easy to see why. By granting executive authority to a single person, the Constitution compels the left and the right to form binary parties. This is because to fracture your own party hands enormous power to those you oppose. Schultz likely understands that he is almost certainly not going to win the 2020 election. So what is he doing?
The gold standard of third-party candidacies is H. Ross Perot’s stunning run in 1992. Although he did not carry a state, he won almost 20 percent of the popular vote, and likely greased the skids into Bill Clinton’s presidency. In some respects, Schultz and Perot are similar. Both are successful businessmen, both take on the role of the outsider. But there is a key difference. Perot had an issue that defined him.
That issue was trade — the great sucking sound of jobs going to Mexico. It was the one note that he pounded over and over and over again, and it resonated. In fact, even though Perot never became president, a one-time member of his Reform Party did, and Donald Trump’s presidency looks a lot like what Perot promised. So in losing, Perot didn’t really lose, he just primed the pump for someone who could win.
On trade, Perot had one enormous advantage. In 1992 the leadership of both the Republican and Democratic parties were basically free-trade globalists. They saw how much money was to be made, and in the 1990s that money was made, and they didn’t want to get in the way. It was a bipartisan Congress and a Democratic president that signed the North American Free Trade Agreement into law. So Perot really had the economic protectionist lane all to himself.
Schultz needs an issue like that, something where he is opposing both parties. But it’s difficult to see what that might be. The Democrats and Republicans are much farther apart now than they were in 1992, so to find a point of common ground that can be exploited seems almost impossible. It could be something like the national debt, an issue both parties can take blame for, but that’s not a sexy issue. Hearing about the national debt is like hearing your grandmother say she cheated on your grandfather. It’s bad, but mostly you just want her stop talking about it.
So where does this put Schultz? He had a bit of a media barrage last weekend that will extend into this week. But what is he really doing? He does come off as someone who would be a pretty decent and effective president, but that doesn’t matter. Unless he can find an issue that sets him against both parties, that makes him the man we need, he will fizzle into the sub one percentile.
Does the issue he needs exist? Maybe. But I have no idea what it might be. If he actually wants to run for president, Schultz needs to figure out what it is.