If you’re a committed voyeur of liberal media outlets like I am, you’ve undoubtedly seen numerous stories decrying a potential independent presidential run by Starbucks founder Howard Schultz, where progressive pundits alternately beg or lecture him to scrap his electoral ambitions. While I love Chicken Little as much as the next gal, I can’t understand why Democrats are coming undone by Schultz’s candidacy. Even though these doomsayers believe that Schultz’s run would hand Donald Trump another term, all this fearmongering seems hella overblown.
First, look at Schultz’s political positioning. He has come out of the gate as a “centrist independent” who disagrees with the Democratic party’s wealth tax and Medicare-for-all proposals and disagrees with the Republican party’s…? Schultz supports limited government, immigration reform, and social liberalism - views that typically align with center-right East Coast Republicans and overlap significantly with other centrist maybe-candidates like Michael Bloomberg and Larry Hogan. Schultz (or Bloomberg or Hogan) may peel off some anti-Trump Manhattan millionaires who would have otherwise voted for a Democrat, but in reality, such views make him more poised to split the Republican electorate. As a fiscal conservative who will preserve their tax cuts, anti-Trump and moderate Republicans are far more likely to swing for Schultz than disaffected independents. It doesn’t help that Schultz’s most high-profile surrogate is long-time Republican operative Steve Schmidt, the man famous for foisting Sarah Palin onto our national consciousness.
For argument’s sake, however, let’s pretend that Schultz manages to position himself as a true centrist with policy positions drawn from both sides. This still won’t create much momentum for multiple reasons.
Like it or not, the country’s attitude towards billionaires has changed since Trump’s election. In 2016, a segment of independent voters was successfully persuaded that a successful businessman, rather than a career politician, would be the person best equipped to run our country. However, Donald Trump undermines this argument every day with his incompetence and corruption. Additionally, Trump has negated the central conceit of his campaign that only a businessman could bring jobs back to the struggling parts of the US, where he attracted many voters. Even though Schultz has a better business record than Trump, the jobs reality is still too raw. I’m betting that those former Trump voters won’t be so quick to put their faith in another billionaire whose claim to fame was creating thousands of low-wage jobs and supplanting local businesses with corporate chain stores.
More importantly, the Democratic party is in a much stronger position than it was in 2016. While it’s tempting to conceive the Hillary/Bernie dynamic as centrist vs. populist, a more instructive view is the underdog vs. the anointed. Many Bernie voters and independents turned to Trump because they felt that the Democratic party’s process was rigged in favor of Hillary and, more than any policy alignment, they felt that Trump represented the best way to buck the Establishment’s control over politics. This time around, the Democrats have a robust field of candidates for 2020 and no obvious heir to the throne. Even if Uncle Joe or Twitter’s favorite dental patient gets into the race, neither is guaranteed the nomination. Having a legitimate primary contest with candidates who represent all points on the Democratic spectrum will go a long way in restoring trust and stitching the party back together. Moreover, Nancy Pelosi just schooled Democratic voters in an important lesson during the shutdown: sticking together works. Despite the internecine squabbling that will occur during the primaries, I’m confident that the Democratic base will unite behind the eventual 2020 nominee come next summer. Combined with all Democrats’ universal loathing for Trump, this is a powerful shield that the Democratic nominee can use to prevent Schultz from siphoning off many blue votes. A nominee chosen through a fair and democratic process will also be the most likely way to attract moderates and independents back into the Democratic fold and block sunlight from the Schultz campaign.
Lastly, let’s remember that Schultz has the charisma and emotional resonance of a boiled turnip. In recent interviews, he comes across as esoteric and evasive- hardly qualities that will endear him to many voters. Between Trump and any one of the current 2020 Democratic contenders, Schultz’s personality deficit will be glaring. And if Schultz attempts to attack the Democratic nominee by pointing out that they previously asked him for contributions, he will only appear more Trump-like.
At the end of the day, Schultz’s ability to self-finance his campaign makes him a formidable early opponent, but all the money in the world can’t overcome the fact that Schultz doesn’t stand for anything. Don’t forget that in 2016, people voted with their hearts over their heads. While a third-party candidate might initially intrigue some, Schultz’s wooden demeanor and played-out policy positions will garner him little leverage with anti-Trump voters or anyone looking to disrupt the status quo. And if you’re still not convinced that the Cassandras are wrong about Schultz, just remember that Donald Trump thinks they’re right.