Politics & Policy

Battle of the Billionaires?

Former Starbucks chairman and CEO Howard Schultz in 2016 (Andrew Kelly/Reuters)
2020 could see Trump, Bloomberg, and Howard Schultz of Starbucks all running.

Democrats are bullish on their chances of beating President Trump in 2020. If his approval ratings remain below the 46 percent of the vote that carried him to victory in 2016, they think they can win.

Some have also been counting on an anti-Trump candidate from the right running a third-party effort. They note that libertarian Gary Johnson and independent Evan McMullin won a total of 3.8 percent of the vote in 2016, much of it from voters who might otherwise have voted for a Republican.

But suddenly Democrats are facing their own possible third-party headache. Lifetime Democratic billionaire Howard Schultz, the founder of the ubiquitous coffee chain Starbucks, has told CBS’s 60 Minutes that he’s close to launching a self-funded presidential run in 2020 — and that he will run as an independent.

“We’re living at a most fragile time,” the 65-year-old Schultz told CBS. “Not only the fact that this president is not qualified to be the president, but the fact that both parties are consistently not doing what’s necessary on behalf of the American people and are engaged, every single day, in revenge politics.”

Schultz is apparently quite serious and has already hired Steve Schmidt, the 2008 campaign manager for the late John McCain, whose insurgent campaign captured the Republican nomination in 2008.

Democrats reacted to the Schultz news the way Dracula would recoil from a cross. “If he did run . . . it would provide Trump with his best hope for getting reelected,” former Obama cabinet officer and 2020 presidential candidate Julián Castro told CNN. Neera Tanden, a former top adviser to Hillary Clinton, tweeted an acidic message: “Vanity projects that help destroy democracy are disgusting.” Dan Pfeiffer, a former communications adviser for Obama, wrote: “If Howard Schultz goes through with this half-baked idea, he will pose an existential threat to a Democrat in what will likely be 2020 race decided by a few votes in a handful of states.”

But what should concern Democrats the most is Schultz’s motivation for running as an independent: The modern Democratic party has moved so far to the left that even a progressive businessman such as Schultz, who checks all the boxes on liberal social issues, doesn’t think he has a home in the Democratic party. “I will say that it concerns me that so many voices within the Democratic party are going so far to the left, and I ask myself ‘How are we going to pay for all these things?’ in terms of things like single-payer or people espousing the fact that the government is going to give everyone a job,” he told CNBC last June.

That kind of analysis infuriates left-wingers in the Democratic party and among the party’s special-interest allies. While Starbucks has a retirement-savings plan and offers college-tuition assistance for its employees, unions have long been critical of both Schultz and Starbucks. “It does have an anti-union history,” claimed New York Magazine in a piece about Starbucks that chided the chain for paying “less than a living wage.”

Daniel Gross, a founding member of the Starbucks Workers Union, accuses the firm of “scorched earth tactics.” “I can say without any hesitation or exaggeration, Starbucks’ anti-union campaign absolutely can go pound to pound with Wal-Mart,” Gross told Salon in 2014.

If Schultz decides to run as an independent, it will be a bold break from the decision made by Michael Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York and a fellow billionaire. Bloomberg gave serious thought to an independent bid in both 2008 and 2016 before ultimately deciding against it. (If Bloomberg runs in 2020, it will be as a Democrat.)

Bloomberg had his aides exhaustively study the option of an independent race. He decided that even if a third-party candidate managed to win 35 percent of the popular vote nationwide, it would be hard to carry a majority of the Electoral College.

If no candidate wins the Electoral College majority — something that hasn’t happened since 1824 — the next president would be selected by an insiders’ election in the House, with each state’s delegations casting one vote, and a majority needed to prevail. Given that every House member is a Democrat or Republican, an independent’s chances of victory would be slim.

At the height of independent candidate Ross Perot’s popularity in 1992, the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call surveyed 301 House members on how they would vote for president in the absence of an Electoral College majority. Two-thirds said they were uncommitted; the vast majority of the remainder indicated they would either vote the same way as their congressional district or would vote for their party’s nominee. “The clear upshot was that Perot was going to have a tough time winning in a two-party-dominated House,” recalls Jim Glassman, publisher of Roll Call at the time. The same would probably be true of Schultz should he run.

So the conventional wisdom is that while the rules and obstacles that stack presidential politics against independent or third-party candidacies aren’t fair, they are nonetheless real.

But friends of Schultz say that politics has become increasingly fluid, and they note that support for the two major parties is cratering. System shocks such as the election of Donald Trump show how wrong the conventional wisdom can be.

Schultz allies say the political climate now favors an independent who would address an alienated electorate that wants to end government gridlock. In the latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, only 28 percent of voters said the country was on the right track, with both Trump and Democrats unpopular.

Regardless of what he ultimately decides, Shultz’s decision to run would be welcome if for no other reason than that he might address issues that both Trump and the Democrats are afraid to touch. “I think the greatest threat domestically to the country is this $21 trillion debt hanging over the cloud of America and future generations,” Schultz told CNBC.

“If he is anything, Howard Schultz is a straight shooter,” says John Carlson, the leading talk-show host in Seattle, where Starbucks is headquartered. “He could force both parties to expand the political debate,” he told me.


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