Lots of People Had a Worse Week Than Howard Schultz

Donald Trump, Kamala Harris, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez ... just to name a few.
February 11, 2019
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U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

The conventional wisdom is that Howard Schultz’s presidential roll out was largely a face plant. “Everybody Hates Howard,” read the headline in The Ringer, which went on to explain “Why Howard Schultz Failed So Fast.”

“The Starbucks billionaire wants to run as a centrist, independent candidate for president of the United States.,” writer Tommy Alter sniffed. “And he may be the only person alive who wants that.”

The Washington Post was hardly kinder, recapping the former Starbuck CEO’s launch with the headline, “Howard Schultz’s terrible, horrible, no good, very bad week.” That seemed fair, given the fact that he made a several gaffes, his tweets were ratioed, his speeches were heckled, his campaign logo mocked, and he didn’t know the price of a box of cereal.

“Well that went well,” said one snarky pundit in the NBC green room. (That would be me.)

But (and this shouldn’t come as a surprise), the conventional wisdom might be wrong. In fact last week was a very, very good week for Howard Schultz – not because of anything he did, but because both Republicans and Democrats went out of their way to demonstrate why a majority of Americans like the idea of a third party, at least in principle.

Trump continues to shrink his base, even as multiple investigations close in around him. Meanwhile, the Democrats continue their erratic lurch to the left on everything from nationalized health care and massive tax increases to partial birth abortion and green energy. To top it all off, the rolling scandals of Virginia Democrats are sure to stoke the dumpster fires of whataboutism for the next two election cycles at least.

California senator Kamala Harris was forced to backtrack on her suggestion that the government should eliminate private health insurance as Democrats began to realize that Medicare for All was perhaps not as popular as they might have imagined. Last week, a new Hill-HarrisX poll found that only 13 percent of Americans want a health insurance system that doesn’t allow for private plans.

Other Democrats found themselves trying to explain the Green New Deal’s sweeping, costly, and draconian agenda that aims for the “transformation of our society.”

The plan, touted by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her allies, is a deeply unserious proposal that treats reality with an almost Trumpian disdain. It envisions moving the country to 100 percent renewable energy, while abolishing nuclear energy, and spending $4.6 trillion (“at minimum”) on infrastructure. The plan calls for lots of “massive” initiatives, including the goal of replacing “every combustion-engine vehicle,” and creating enough high speed rail that “air travel stops becoming necessary.”

All of this is supposed to happen in the next 10 years, which no sentient human being thinks is even remotely possible. But AOC and her allies want to be held to the same standard that MAGA supporters have for Trump’s promised border wall: the details and facts matter less than the aspirations and good intentions. Questions of cost are irrelevant because money can always be borrowed or printed.

“How will you pay for it?” reads a FAQ document that accompanied the bill. “The Federal Reserve can extend credit to power these projects and investments and new public banks can be created to extend credit.”

Then there was the gaslighting. When observers noted that AOC’s plan called for guaranteeing “economic security for all who are unable or unwilling to work” [emphasis added], Cortez and her supporters simply denied they had said that. Ocasio-Cortez tweeted that “There are multiple doctored GND resolutions and FAQs floating around. There was also a draft version that got uploaded + taken down.”

That led Jonah Goldberg to tweet back:

All of this would merely be a sideshow, except that the Green New Deal was quickly embraced by at least six Democratic presidential candidates: Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, Harris, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and Amy Klobuchar.

“We are on an out-of-control roller-coaster going 100 miles per hour, and we have no functioning brake,” one liberal Democratic strategist complained to the National Journal’s Josh Kraushaar last week. “No one is leading, and that void could not be more clear.”

Kraushaar admits to being somewhat puzzled by the Dems’ stagger to the left:

What’s so remarkable about this rapid leftward shift is that it’s working against the party’s best interests—both for the individual candidates and their chances of defeating Trump next year. So many candidates are trying to fill the most progressive lane of the party that they’re splitting that share of the vote evenly. At the same time, there’s plenty of evidence that many rank-and-file Democrats are looking for a pragmatist who can actually win the presidency.

He also notes that the Democrats are mirroring the trajectory of the GOP in recent years.

The Democratic march leftward is reminiscent of the nihilistic tea-party lurch after Barack Obama’s election. The grassroots energy helped Republicans win back the House but hobbled the GOP’s attempts at a united front against Obama in his 2012 reelection. Democrats are now worried they are facing a similarly destructive dynamic—and their leading presidential candidates are all too eagerly following suit.

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Which brings us back to Howard Schultz.

He may not know how much a box of Cheerios costs, (hint: $3-$4 for an 8.9 ounce box) but at the moment, Schultz occupies an almost unique position among presidential candidates: the rational center.

Schultz has said he’s considering an independent White House run because of the leftward tilt of the Democratic Party, and he’s criticized proposals from Democratic presidential hopefuls such as Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren for sharp tax increases for the ultra-wealthy. Schultz is worth $3.7 billion according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. He’s also criticized Republicans for cutting taxes on corporations and the wealthy…

He is also the only candidate who seems remotely interested in the question of deficits and debt.

In his speech, Schultz also touched on the threat posed by the nation’s $22 trillion debt and the need to reduce health care costs. “Neither side has developed—let alone offered—a credible plan to reduce costs by increasing competition,” he said.

Schultz likes to say that “Our two-party system is broken,” and a strong majority of Americans agrees with him. A recent Gallup survey found that only 38 percent of Americans thought the two parties do “an adequate job of representing the people.” Fifty-seven percent said there was need for a third party.

The Democracy Fund’s Voter Study Group found even stronger support:

Two-thirds of Americans want a third party. Sixty-eight percent of Americans say that two parties do not do an adequate job of representing the American people and that a third party is needed.

Caveats are in order. The survey also found that third-party enthusiasts are badly split about what they want. “About one-third want a party of the center,” the poll found, “about one-fifth want a party to the left of the Democrats, and about one-fifth want a party to the right of the Republicans, with the remainder wanting something else.” In other words, it “would take at least five parties to capture the ideological aspirations of Americans.”

But there is clearly an opening for a well-funded centrist independent, and last week underscored Schutz’s opportunity.

If the GOP and the Democrats both abandon the center-right/center-left electorate, it will provide Schultz with: (1) A rationale for his candidacy as the lone centrist voice,  (2) a potential constituency of voters repelled by the drift of the major parties, and (3) a path, if not to victory, at least to plausibility and relevance.

Charles Sykes

Charlie Sykes is a founder and editor-at-large of The Bulwark and the author of How the Right Lost Its Mind. He is also the host of The Bulwark Podcast and an MSNBC contributor.