Politics & Policy

Howard Schultz Did Not Leave His Party

Howard Schultz at a Starbucks shareholder’s meeting in Seattle, Wash., in 2015 (David Ryder/Reuters)
His party left him.

My view of American life is one of short-term pessimism and long-term optimism. And here is a bit of optimism that I’ll share even though it risks my coming to regret it: I think this may be the last time I am obliged to write about the Clintons. The Clinton era is over.

Ask Howard Schultz.

The Nineties were a hoot of a decade, a decade that was, if it is possible for a decade to be such a thing, nouveau riche: flush and full of appetite, and not yet decrepit enough to be ashamed of it. It was a decade epitomized in these United States by Nirvana, the Clinton presidency, and Starbucks — each of which in its way exhibited the characteristic style of the Nineties, in which the countercultural ambitions of the Sixties were wedded to the frank cheerful materialism of the Eighties.

Seattle was the center of the Nineties aesthetic. Grunge is long gone, along with all those flannel shirts, but Starbucks is still here. It is the McDonald’s of its age, the thermonuclear-proof cockroach of the corporate food-service scene. You could have bought a share of its stock for the price of a venti latte in 2008; it’s now a little over $67 as chairman emeritus Howard Schultz contemplates a Ross Perot–style run for the presidency.

Schultz was a Clinton Democrat back when that meant Bill Clinton, though as a reliable donor he stuck with Herself, and he dutifully wrote checks to Barack Obama, John Edwards, the DNC, and others. But in 2019, he says he cannot in good conscience run as a Democrat. He is considering an independent run. “What the Democrats are proposing is something that is as false as the wall,” he says, indicating “free” health care, “free” college, and the entire litany of “free” things “which the country cannot afford.” He worries — oh, bless his pointy little head! — about the national debt, unfunded liabilities, and other examples of fiscal recklessness. He thinks that the Democrats’ current “liquidate the kulaks as a class” approach to taxes may prove counterproductive to the long-term interests of the United States as a whole. He worries that “extremists” have taken over both parties.

As you might have imagined, he is not exactly setting on fire the hearts of his former Democratic co-partisans. They believe that an independent candidacy from the center-left might be just the thing to give Donald Trump a second term. (Assuming he wants one.) That risk would be a high price to pay for Schultz’s political moderation even if Democrats wanted such moderation — which they don’t.

The Democrats are in a funny position. They all assume that 2020 is the year to run as a Democrat, believing Trump to be doomed. Their triumphalism may be premature, but they are not without reason for hope. The Democrats believe that 2020 is theirs because they believe that the Republican party has gone mad, an opportunity that Democrats have decided to make the most of by . . . going just as bonkers themselves. Self-proclaimed socialists are the Democratic headliners of 2019, along with Senator Elizabeth Warren, who boasted that she “created much of the intellectual foundation” for Occupy Wall Street. Reasonably sane figures with respectable executive résumés are, for the moment, spat at. The soul of the Democratic party in 2019 is in Brooklyn, but few Democrats seem eager to line up behind the former mayor of New York City. Michael Bloomberg may be an up-and-down-the-line progressive on most of the sensitive cultural issues — abortion rights, gun control, etc. — but he is an old white guy in a party that regards old white guys as a cancer, a billionaire in a party whose leading light insists that it is “immoral for billionaires to exist,” and something less than a Trotskyite on economic questions. Bloomberg is a bloodless creature of cash-flow statements and balance sheets.

All of the above also applies to Howard Schultz, who is only a little behind Bloomberg in the years and the billions (eleven years and . . . oh, $44 billion or so). Schultz, like Bloomberg, is on cultural issues where the Democrats are, but he is not culturally where they are, which at the moment is somewhere in the leafy suburbs of Pyongyang. All that balanced-budget stuff, efficiency, sobriety, good government — so Nineties. It’s as though he got his policy agenda at the Gap.

If Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is the Democrats’ answer to Trump, then Howard Schultz is their John Kasich.

The Republican party has not, endless klaxons of alarum notwithstanding, embraced radicalism in terms of its actual policy agenda. What the GOP has embraced, very likely to its long-term detriment, is the Republican version of radical chic, that obstreperous, mulish mode of talk-radio/cable-news politics that is now the Republican mother tongue. That this is likely to cost the Republicans a great deal of support in the parts of the country where the people and the money are — places they insist are alien to “the Real America” — seems obvious enough. All the Democrats really need to do in the short term is provide a sober, sensible, and neighborly alternative to that — a politics of genuine republican collaboration rather than a politics of Kulturkampf. Lucky for Republicans, they do not seem much interested in that.

Which leaves Howard Schultz out in the cold, with only his billions to comfort him. Building a third-party campaign of any consequence is an extraordinarily difficult thing in the American system — the real political genius of Donald Trump was to forgo that and basically run the Ross Perot campaign inside the Republican party, intuiting that exploiting the fissure between Fox Nation and the Republican-party leadership within the GOP apparatus would be more effective than trying to pry disaffected Republicans away from their party entirely. But that option is not available to Schultz, because the Democratic party wants more radicalism in style and substance both. He may have been a big deal back in 1996. In 2019, he’s just another white man in a suit.

Ronald Reagan, who considered himself a New Deal Democrat, famously said, “I didn’t leave my party. My party left me.” Howard Schultz has left his party, but that is only pro forma. It left him some time ago, and it isn’t — probably — coming back.

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