The Corner

Politics & Policy

Steve Schmidt and Howard Schultz Deserve Each Other

Steve Schmidt (YouTube screengrab via MSNBC)

Our old friend Eliana Johnson reports that there’s a lot of buzz that former John McCain presidential campaign manager Steve Schmidt will advise a presidential bid by his longtime corporate client, former Starbucks chief Howard Schultz.

It’s easy to forget Schmidt was once an adviser to Dick Cheney and ran the “war room” under Karl Rove in George W. Bush in the 2004 campaign. But Schmidt’s shift started pretty quickly after the 2008 campaign, as he became increasingly critical of Sarah Palin. Woody Harrelson played him sympathetically in HBO’s movie, with the climax depicting Schmidt dressing down an unhinged narcissistic version of Palin on election night. Schmidt didn’t merely announce he supported gay marriage; he contended the GOP “disenfranchises people from a fundamental right.” He said the Tea Party nominated “wackadoodles.” Last summer, he said Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao was “complicit in” and “enabling” white supremacists. Schmidt is free to make these assessments, but he shouldn’t be surprised when Republicans tune him out. (Of course, year by year in the Obama era, as Schmidt found the Republican party more and more intolerable, they won more and more races nationwide.)

Look, no one would dispute that effective options are limited for those who don’t like the direction the Republican party is taking under Trump. But for years, long before Trump descended his escalator, Schmidt went on MSNBC and cheerfully told the network’s liberal audience that Republicans are every bit as bad as they imagine, which probably the easiest way to ensure that right-of-center folks pay him no credence. Schmidt formally joining a Democratic campaign shouldn’t be all that surprising.

And Howard Schultz must be a consultant’s dream client: super-rich, unfamiliar with the hard-knock world of presidential campaigns, and probably naïve enough to believe that lofty and noble ideals stated clearly are enough to win the presidency.

Schultz has a nice rags-to-riches story, but he’s been a CEO since 1987. (That means for roughly 20 percent of the voters in 2016, Schultz had been a corporate chief executive their entire life. This percentage will be higher in 2020.) His net worth is roughly $2.8 billion. He was Hillary Clinton’s choice to be secretary of labor if she had won. Whether he realizes it or not, whether likes to admit it or not, Schultz is a part of the American corporate establishment, and he has been that for a long time. You think the Bernie Sanders wing of the party is going to eagerly embrace a billionaire businessman who was a friend of Hillary?

Under Schultz, Starbucks certainly tried to embrace “social responsibility” causes, such as announcing efforts to hire refugees worldwide, writing “#RaceTogether” on customers cups, the nationwide shutdown for racial-bias training, and asking customers to not bring guns into stores, no matter what the local laws say. Some Democratic primary voters might find all of that appealing. I suspect that a significant segment of the country at large might find it insufferably preachy — the progressive billionaire using his coffee chain to promote his worldview to a customer base that just wants to get their morning shot of caffeine.

Stranger things have happened. But a Schmidt-Schultz team-up sounds like an updated version of the familiar playbook of the corporate titan jumping into presidential politics and finding it a lot tougher than it looks from the outside — a story we’ve seen with H. Ross Perot, Steve Forbes, Herman Cain, Carly Fiorina, and others.

But at least the campaign would have good breakfast sandwiches.

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