Last night I went to the Barnes & Noble bookstore in New York City's Union Square to hear Howard Schultz, the former CEO of Starbucks, talk about his new book, From the Ground Up, and his possible presidential bid. It's an understatement to say that Democratic Party activists, liberals, and progressives have responded negatively to Schultz's talk of running for president (he says he'll make a final decision after roaming around the country in an obligatory book tour cum "listening campaign").
That's a shame for at least two reasons. First, Schultz is foregrounding serious issues, especially the gigantic and endlessly metastasizing national debt, but also ever-proliferating calls for new and massive entitlements—Medicare for All!, Free College for All!, Guaranteed Jobs for All!, etc. Second, Schultz's style of talking and engagement is a welcome respite from the amped-up, over-the-top rhetoric in which both Donald Trump and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez traffic. I don't think Schultz has any real shot at becoming the next president and I don't agree with him on many things, but for god's sake, he is staging exactly the sort of conversation we desperately need to have as a nation.
Within the first couple of minutes, Schultz, a billionaire who grew up in projects in Brooklyn, was heckled by a protester shouting:
Don't help elect Trump, you egotistical billionaire asshole…Go back to getting ratioed on twitter. Go back to Davos with the other billionaire elite, who think they know how to run the world.
The heckler speaks in only slightly more graphic terms than many folks on the Democratic-to-left side of the political spectrum. For instance, New York Times columnist and former Nation scribe Michelle Goldberg pleaded, "Howard Schultz, Please Don't Run for President: A bid by an ex-chief of Starbucks would be reckless idiocy." She calls his potential bid "a narcissistic spoiler campaign." The fear, which is widespread on the broadly defined left, is that Schultz will somehow take votes away from any Democratic challenger and thus hand Donald Trump a second term (this fear is wrong on multiple levels, not least of which is that it's wrong about electoral history). But here's former Obama speechwriter Jon Favreau wheezing out similar anxieties while also slagging Schultz for being rich.
None of the explanations coming from Howard Schultz or his advisors answer a very simple question: if he thinks he has a winning message, why can't he run in the Democratic primary? Why does he get to skip that contest? Just because he's a billionaire?
Would love an answer.
— Jon Favreau (@jonfavs) January 29, 2019
Schultz, adds Favreau, "is afraid that if he tells half the country's voters what he truly believes, they'll reject him. So he's buying his way right to the general."
Actually, no. Last night and in other interviews, Schultz is perfectly clear on why, if he runs, he will do so as a "centrist independent." He openly disagrees with a lot of ideas that dominate Democratic Party discourse and he doesn't want to be forced into accepting those policies. Specifically, he's criticized Sen. Elizabeth Warren's asset tax on "tippy-top" earners, and a whole host of tax-funded giveaways that he says we can't afford. For instance, he spoke about the cost of single-payer health insurance plans, which will almost certainly be part of the DNC's 2020 platform. He noted that California's total state budget is currently around $150 billion but the cost for Gov. Gavin Newsom's version of single-payer runs toward $400 billion. Even as he talked forcefully about growing up poor, with parents from the Greatest Generation who failed to participate in the post-war economic boom, he refused to say government should be all things to all people. In his various interviews over the past week or two, he never misses an opportunity to talk about how a $21 trillion debt is the single biggest problem we need to reckon with. He's right to say it not only ties the hands of government (and the ligatures get tighter as interest rates rise) but also that it inhibits broad-based economic growth, the best way to increase living standards. He also refused to be penitent about being rich last night, at one point saying he helped to create a great company and wasn't going to apologize for his or anyone else's success. He called the class-warfare rhetoric used by so many Democrats "so un-American"! In other words, he doesn't fit very well in today's Democratic Party.
Cue Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who is running for president herself:
What's "ridiculous" is billionaires who think they can buy the presidency to keep the system rigged for themselves while opportunity slips away for everyone else. The top 0.1%, who'd pay my #UltraMillionaireTax, own about the same wealth as 90% of America. It's time for change. https://t.co/D04G5fNvpa
— Elizabeth Warren (@ewarren) January 29, 2019
Well, that's what elections are for, to hammer out definitions of what's ridiculous, right? It's an odd thing, really, to see Democrats and progressives mad as hell that Schultz won't run as a Democrat but than never missing an opportunity to put him down as latter-day robber baron who is so out of touch with the little people that he should go back to sipping lattes on his mega-yacht. Over at the Center for American Progress, a liberal political group, Neera Tanden calls Schultz's possible run as an independent "disgusting" and calls for a boycott of Starbucks if he goes through with it. "Schultz," sniffs the Times' Goldberg, "appears to share the conviction, endemic among American elites, that the country hungers for a candidate who is socially liberal but fiscally conservative."
Ah, now we're getting somewhere, aren't we? It's not really that Schultz is threatening to run as an independent, it's that he's already thinking as an independent. At Barnes & Noble, he hit any number of great notes beyond fiscal responsibility. He stressed the need for economic mobility, made a practical and humanitarian case for immigration, questioned both Trump's and earlier presidents' foreign policy as often reckless and open-ended. Mostly, though, he was raising topics for actual debate, rather than as occasions to bark out increasingly shrill or stupid talking points. He was at times emotional but never shouty or irrational. He also stressed that voters who identify as independent are the single largest group. He's also betting that people are tired of contemporary, increasingly tribal politics. When he ran Starbucks, he was regularly pilloried by conservatives for all sorts of irredeemably liberal things, such as refusing to use the phrase Merry Christmas on their cups to Schultz's endorsement of Hillary Clinton in 2016. In the current context, liberals hate him because he actually believes in free market capitalism.
Which isn't to say he isn't angering folks on the right. As Scott H. Greenfield observes, Schultz's economic realism mixed with liberal social ideas is to progressives what garlic is to vampires. At the same time, Schultz "is the real deal of the businessman-president model, because he's actually a wealthy, successful businessman." That helps to explain why Donald Trump was quick to call Schultz out when he appeared on 60 Minutes:
Howard Schultz doesn't have the "guts" to run for President! Watched him on @60Minutes last night and I agree with him that he is not the "smartest person." Besides, America already has that! I only hope that Starbucks is still paying me their rent in Trump Tower!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 28, 2019
Others on the Republican side of things are more welcoming, and not because they think he will drain votes away from the eventual Democratic nominee. Writing in National Review, John Fund notes:
Regardless of what he ultimately decides, Shultz's decision to run would be welcome if for no other reason than that he might address issues that both Trump and the Democrats are afraid to touch. "I think the greatest threat domestically to the country is this $21 trillion debt hanging over the cloud of America and future generations," Schultz told CNBC.
"If he is anything, Howard Schultz is a straight shooter," says John Carlson, the leading talk-show host in Seattle, where Starbucks is headquartered. "He could force both parties to expand the political debate," he told me.
Based on what I've read so far and what I saw last night, this is exactly right. Schultz is certainly not a doctrinaire libertarian, even if he is "socially liberal" and "fiscally conservative." He almost certainly believes in a government that is bigger and more expensive than I'm comfortable with.
There's almost no way he can actually win, especially if he runs as an independent, but since when should getting elected be the main goal of politics? He's staging an alternative conversation to the increasingly awful one that Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, insist on having while the ship of state bears down on that deadly iceberg on the horizon. Schultz is pointing in a new direction, one we should all be heading towards unless we are committed to self-destruction.