Howard Schultz

Everybody Hates Howard Schultz

Behind the usual partisan contempt for deficit-minded centrism lies an accurate critique that the billionaire outsider has naive, do-something ideas.


Like college basketball players from Virginia, would-be independent presidential candidate Howard Schultz has been on television an awful lot over the past week. Unlike the Cavaliers, though, Schultz sure has a habit of getting dunked on.

This testy exchange Friday with MSNBC anchor Ali Velshi, greeted with the requisite "Ali Velshi WRECKS Howard Schultz" headlines, gives a sense:

Schultz has also made the TV rounds with Fox News Channel's Gillian Turner, CNN's S.E. Cupp, Fox Business Network's Liz Claman, Cheddar's Baker Machado, and most notably in a Fox News town hall last Thursday co-anchored by Bret Baier and Martha McCallum. It was there, while discussing the complex issue of immigration policy, that the get-'er-done pragmatist married the hoariest of bipartisan do-something clichés—"we're not going to leave that room until we solve the problem"—to, uh, Clint Eastwood's infamous (if underrated) empty-chair routine at the 2012 Republican National Convention:

The reviews from across the political spectrum have not been flattering. A sampling: "Howard Schultz only has one idea about politics, and it's bad," "Howard Schultz Needs An Issue To Run On," "Dumb Starbucks Man Has Precisely Two Thoughts," and so on. And while some of the revulsion is either spoiler-based or tethered to Schultz's persistent foregrounding of debt and deficits being an urgent problem—a notion that is no longer welcome even rhetorically in the two major parties—some criticism does hit the mark. Particularly when it comes to Schultz's ideas about the Supreme Court.

To break the cycle of high-intensity partisan polarization around Supreme Court nominees, Schultz vowed last month that he would only pick prospective justices if they can be confirmed by a two-thirds majority in the U.S. Senate. "The courts have become yet another battlefield in the ongoing war between Democratic and Republican leaders," he declared. "These battles have undermined our faith in the rule of law and the impartiality of the entire judicial system. All of this has to change."

Well. That standard, applied retroactively, would remove from the court Brett Kavanaugh (who was confirmed by a 50-48 vote), Neil Gorsuch (54-45), Elena Kagan (63-37), Samuel Alito (58-42), and Clarence Thomas (52-48). Jacking up the approval bar will almost surely embolden, rather than disincentivize, opposition senators to let nominees for high-court vacancies lapse until a more congenial president wins the White House. As GQ's Charles P. Pierce acidly observed, "This idea is so stupid—so brainlessly, soft-headed, unicorn-farting-rainbows idiotic—I'm amazed that the No Labels crowd didn't pitch it years ago."

Undeterred, the prospective appointer in chief shared this deep Supreme Court thought:

There is a positive interpretation of this—of course it's good if appointees are fundamentally committed to the Constitution! But the sentiment also reflects the kind of exasperated ignorance one frequently finds among frustrated outsider (or even insider) centrists the world over. Politicians would surely do the thing I favor if it wasn't for those pesky corruptions!

In our populist and alienated times, there can and will be electorally winning combinations of outsider messenger and unsated issue. It's what Donald Trump did to the GOP with immigration and trade, what Bernie Sanders has been doing with Democrats on economic and regulatory progressivism, what Ron Paul tried to do with ending wars and the Federal Reserve.

As a messenger, Howard Schultz has been generating the highest unfavorability ratings in the presidential field. And in terms of a signature issue, it seems less to do with a specific policy or two, and more to do with a hunch—not unlike what Gary Johnson and Bill Weld campaigned on in 2016, though the latter eventually backed away from the approach—that there should be ample middle ground between the nativism of Trump and the democratic socialism of the Green New Deal.

Which is true enough. But whether that insight, absent a rallying cry, can be converted into effective politics, either by Howard Schultz or someone else, is very much an open question 574 days before Election Day.