Howard Schultz’s Brief Non-Campaign and What it Might Mean

Howard Shultz

Former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz. | Michael Conroy/AP Photo

On January 27th, 2019, Howard Schultz appeared on the television news program 60 Minutes, announcing his potential candidacy for the presidency. The Seattle based former CEO of Starbucks said he would run as an Independent, professing his centrist leanings. Considering the response from some Democratic politicians and operatives I’d have to say he struck a nerve. The obvious issue was the perception that a Schultz run for office would peel off too many weakly committed Democratic voters, and thus clear the way for a Trump re-election. Words to that specific effect were offered by potential rival candidate Michael Bloomberg, former Obama advisor David Axelrod and a variety of talking heads at NPR.

Long time Clinton associate, Neera Tanden, felt compelled to take things a bit further, stating that “… vanity projects that help destroy democracy are disgusting. If he enters the race I will start a Starbucks boycott because I am not giving a penny that will end up in the election coffers of a guy who will help Trump win.” One would have to think that prolonged exposure to secretary Clinton has allowed Ms. Tanden to fancy herself an expert on disgusting vanity projects. Washington state Democratic party chairwoman, Tina Podlodowski, lamented that “… too much is at stake to make this about the ambitions of any one person.” Always nice to have the home field advantage. Nothing particularly mysterious there, and the commentariat weighed in on it accordingly. To my way of thinking, there were a few other elements to the story that were a bit more compelling.

Of seemingly little interest to the above mentioned talking heads, as well as many others, was the painfully obvious fact that a man with a life long commitment to Democratic candidates, and a plethora of views that would indicate his affinity for the party, opted out of that affiliation when announcing his decision to seek office. Born July 19th, 1953, to Jewish parents in the Canarsie neighborhood of Brooklyn, he grew up in a public housing project and attended public schools until he earned a B.A. in Business at Northern Michigan University. Beginning as a sales associate with Xerox he forged a career that included, amongst other achievements, ownership of the NBA and WNBA Seattle franchises, authoring four books and two terms as CEO of Starbucks. Setting aside for the moment the relative merits of all that (no human being needs access to overpriced coffee every three city blocks), it is still a very impressive resume indicating more than a bit of business acumen. At the same time his stated positions on a variety of social/political issues would not have seemed remotely out of character for a mainstream blue state politician. Vocal support of same sex marriage, gun control, and comprehensive tax reform place Schultz squarely in the center left. Even the elements of his political beliefs that aren’t classically of that stripe (free trade, fiscal discipline) aren’t going to remind any normal human being of Jesse Helms. Schultz endorsed both Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, and Hilary Clinton in 2016, in their respective runs for president. His lack of experience in government aside, he presents as a middle ground in the not especially large gap between Bill Clinton and Paul Tsongas. When the speculation concerning his legislative ambitions first began it was assumed he would be operating as a Democrat. And then he didn’t.

It’s not hard to imagine why. In the last twenty years or so the drift of the party towards a more socialist perspective has ranged from the slow and steady (Barack Obama, Elizabeth Warren), to the People’s Republic of Beto, Bernie and the rest of the Mao wannabe’s that are a growing and unpleasant face of current Democratic politics. If Schultz, as we know him today, had been pursuing the job after Bill Clinton left office I think he’d have had an easy time of moving Al Gore out of the way. For what it’s worth I think he could have won the general election as well. Even if you think the outcome would have been different it’s hard to imagine him not seeking the nomination as a Democrat. Two decades later he figured there wasn’t any place for him. The biggest chunk of the above referenced leftward migration has happened in the four years since the last election. Somewhere in that passing of time Schultz came to see that he no longer had a place in the political party that he’d spent his life identifying with. Perhaps he thought the “moderate” space was already overcrowded with Joe Biden, Kamala Harris and Corey Booker. Perhaps he was focused not so much on the candidates as on the loud, radical left nature of the highly visible group of recent (2018) freshmen members of Congress.

If I were in Schultz’s place and had Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib and the rest of The Squad putting a face on the zeitgeist I would have gone off script myself. Aside from the increasingly strident progressivism they embodied, he couldn’t possibly have been enamored of their fairly blatant anti-Semitism. I know that as a group they’ve been in Bernie Sanders’ corner, but considering his relationship with his ethnicity ranges all the way from indifference to open hostility it’s easy to think that Schultz wouldn’t be able to close his eyes and imagine enjoying the political affections of someone like Linda Sarsour or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. As someone not coming from a place of cultural self-loathing, he couldn’t have afforded them the disgraceful opportunity for the convoluted virtue signaling they enjoyed as a result of cozying up to Sanders. All of that represents an alienation from the Democratic Party perspective that, if not a subject of heavy media coverage, was also not a mystery. It’s easy to see why Schultz wanted to operate on his own, and the threat that his independence posed to Democratic interests on election day doesn’t require Solomonic wisdom to understand. Less obvious, but in its own way more threatening, is the unavoidable perception of integrity that running as an Independent would have given Schultz regarding his criticism of a number of positions of the Democratic candidates.

Warren Sanders

Credit…Maddie McGarvey for The New York Times

At the time he was genuinely considering a run for office, there were multiple Democratic candidates espousing ideas that covered a variety of issues including but not limited to medical care, tax policy, and college tuition. To be kind, it would have to be said that Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and the rest of gang were not overly concerned with the fiscal plausibility of their utopian wishlist. Schultz was less than sanguine about the possibility of realizing their collective daydreams without bankrupting the country. He wasn’t shy about it. I can only guess at how infuriating it must have been to party leaders to be called out on that collective load of horseshit by someone who held similar views on most social issues as they did without having the option of retreating into self-important finger pointing as a tactic to take the moral high ground and invalidate his superior understanding of economics and the business world. Hard to imagine the confusion of a Nancy Pelosi who’d been left without a credible accusation of sexism, homophobia or anything along those lines as she tried to defend the willful obtuseness her fellow Democrats displayed on the cost of their “free everything” promises.

It’s academic now. Schultz has withdrawn, the crazies have dropped out and America is left with a clash of titans involving a bellicose, perpetual adolescent and a former vice president who appears to be living with a senescence whose difference from senility cannot be appreciated without the benefits of electron microscopy. And so it goes. If the job turns hands we’ll probably be governed by Biden’s own V.P. before too long. If Trump is re-elected the backlash may convince the left that they were insufficiently forceful enough in their efforts this time and take the form of the 2024 Democratic candidate campaigning in a Che tee-shirt while reflecting on the folksy good nature of Pol Pot. I think the country has lost something here. It may not be more than possessing an outlook on life that has many similarities to him, but I can’t help but think that a United States with Howard Schultz in the top position would have been our best bet. We won’t know that, at least not now. As much as I wish he’d followed through on his brief flirtation with the notion of doing it alone, I have to acknowledge the very real difficulty of that approach. Sadder to me is that a path that should have been a foregone conclusion turned into a road he looked at and decided could not be taken.

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