Howard Schultz has almost everything someone in his position needs to run for president. He’s got a rags-to-riches narrative that puts notable postman’s child John Kasich to shame. He’s got a concrete, distinct vision for why he’s running: He’s a protest candidate against two-party “revenge politics,” pledging to tackle systemic issues like the debt that Republicans and Democrats alike have ignored while promising a national simmering-down of our inflamed political discourse. And he’s got the deep pockets to keep his shoestring operation banging along for as long as he likes.
Now if he could just find a supporter or two, he’d be all set.
The quixotic nature of Schultz’s campaign was on full display Wednesday in a speech at Miami-Dade College in Florida. The Starbucks billionaire is on a pre-campaign speaking circuit, feeling out his stump pitch while ostensibly promoting his new book, From the Ground Up: A Journey to Reimagine the Promise of America. The audience was warm—laughing appreciatively at Schultz’s jokes about coffee and snow—and consisted of the kind of young voters Schultz is trying to reach: “Raise your hand if you believe the government is working well for you, your family, and the American people,” he told them. “We deserve better than this … This dysfunction cannot stand.” But the applause was infrequent and unenthusiastic: Calls to “break the cycle of swinging from one extreme to another, of revenge politics” and quotations from the Gettysburg Address earned only polite smatterings of applause. At the end, one person whooped once.
Schultz himself didn’t seem to mind much. Natural politicians feed off energy in the room and take their cues from the crowd. In this respect, you could perhaps call Schultz an anti-politician; he gets up, says his piece affably and unflappably, and gets on with his day.
The problems with a Schultz campaign have been well-documented in the media. The biggest is that he represents a type of centrist triangulation—“fiscally conservative, but socially liberal”—that is pervasive in our political and media institutions but practically nonexistent in America at large. If Schultz were adynamic visionary, maybe his campaign could move that needle itself. But he’s not. In his speech, his impassioned defense of the capitalist bones of our society was 90 percent snoozy boilerplate and 10 percent cringe: Schultz’s stories about selling his own blood to pay his way through college would feel more at home in a Bernie Sanders speech than here, coming from a guy whose central pitch is that our economic fundamentals are sound.
In an ordinary time, that would be the end of the matter. What Schultz seems to be banking on is the fact that this is far from an ordinary time, with the 2020 election looking dangerously likely to be an even worse binary choice than 2016 was. The inexorable logic of the two-party system, the argument goes, might hold voters in a tight grip. But in a contest between, say, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders—a “free choice” between an incompetent authoritarian and a cranky wannabe socialist—well, surely some people would jump for an alternative?
What impact (if any) an independent Schultz campaign would have on that binary choice still remains to be seen. There’s a reason, of course, why many on the left reacted with fury when Schultz announced in January that he was contemplating a run: He’s unlikely to peel many voters away from Trump, but he might be able to attract some centrist Democrats like himself who are uneasy with the party’s Sandersization. (“Don’t help elect Trump, you egotistical billionaire asshole,” a protester shouted at Schultz during another event days after his quasi-announcement. “Go back to Davos with the other billionaire elite, who think they know how to run the world.”)
Schultz is a headache for Democrats, and not only because he’s a centripetal voice at a time when their biggest names are trying to flee the center. He’s also a perpetual reminder that not all Democratic voters are happy with that move. Right now, Democratic leaders like Nancy Pelosi are doing their best to keep a fractious bloc marching together by offering repeated olive branches to the rabble-rousers on their left flank while keeping everyone focused on the common enemy of Trump. The last thing they need is for centrist-leaning Democrats to start raising a public stink, too.
But there’s a silver lining to this for Democrats: having an irritating thorn in their side gives the party an opportunity to address the vulnerability Schultz exposes before it comes back to bite them in the general. If Schultz presents a real danger, Democratic voters can head that danger off with a prudent choice in the primaries: a Schultz candidacy isn’t likely to steal a single Democratic vote away from, say, nominee Joe Biden. If Democrats decide to go the route of socialist aspiration anyway—well, can they blame Howard Schultz if that alienates a few people?
For his part, Schultz took pains Wednesday to distance himself from this whole narrative. He’s no bomb-thrower, but he reserved his most baleful rhetoric for the president: “The damage this presidential administration has already inflicted on our democratic institutions and ideals is severe. It has assaulted the rule of law and undermined our justice system. It has demonized our free press. It has flagrantly used a national emergency for pet projects, circumventing an entire branch of government,” and so on.
It’s not the kind of thing that’s going to win over the Sandernistas, but maybe Schultz doesn’t need to. If a few disaffected suburbanites turn out to buy the book, well, that’s as good a place as any to start.