For many years, former Starbucks chairman and CEO Howard Schultz was a mainstream Democrat in good standing. He and his wife have donated $193,000 to Democratic candidates and committees since the 1990s. Hillary Clinton was thinking of nominating him to be secretary of labor. He was sufficiently “woke.” His company had a record of treating employees quite well — 401(k) matching, discounted stock-purchase options, health insurance for employees who worked as little as 20 hours a week, and an online degree program with Arizona State University. Wages varied by location but were considered pretty good by food-retail standards.
In the Obama years, it was not difficult for a powerful corporate executive to be a good Democrat. Throw some solar panels on your corporate headquarters, ensure your board had a few minorities, and donate to the party, and the Democrats were generally happy to see you. Sure, they would periodically denounce “greedy corporate executives,” but you could rest assured they didn’t mean you. And you always had a sympathetic ear in Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner.
Those fancy Clinton Global Initiative conferences were not full of insurance salesmen from Des Moines.
For members of the 1 percent who wanted to feel like they were the morally acceptable kind of rich people, the Obama vision and four to eight more years of the same under Hillary Clinton sounded great. At that level of wealth, you’re not that worried about taxation. Big-government spending meant lucrative contracting opportunities. Regulatory costs were a mild headache for your giant company but a mortal threat to your smaller competitors. To be a wealthy Democrat meant enjoying your place in the ranks of a celebrated aristocracy — atop a meritocratic society, of course.
When Schultz first murmured about running for president last year, most Democrats expected he would be another Mark Warner or Jon Corzine or J. B. Pritzker — a super-wealthy liberal who decides to “make a difference” by effectively buying an elected office. Of course, having been in charge of everyone around him for many years, the only way an ex-CEO can conceive of “serving his country” is by running part of it — though the Democratic party has never shown interest in handing one a presidential nomination.
But last month Schultz threw a curveball — thank me for avoiding the coffee pun of “brewed up a surprise” — by indicating he wanted to run for president as an independent, not a Democrat. Fascinatingly, he considered his options and found it more likely that he would win the presidency as an independent — spectacularly improbable, based on all of American history — than that today’s Democratic party would nominate him.
Schultz has a nice rags-to-riches life story, but he’s been a CEO since 1987. It’s hard to picture the Bernie Sanders wing of the party eagerly embracing a billionaire businessman who was a friend of Hillary.
Schultz’s new book, From the Ground Up, brims with “hey, he’s a good guy” stories, if not quite “hey, this man should be the next commander in chief” stories.
In 2013, Starbucks launched a plan to hire 10,000 veterans and active-duty spouses. It met that goal within four years and now aims to hire 15,000 more by 2025. Schultz offers a surprisingly detailed and empathetic portrait of the difficulties veterans face adjusting to a new life in the private sector. In 2015, Schultz and his wife helped organize the “100,000 Opportunities Initiative” — massive job fairs aimed at young people in Chicago, Phoenix, Los Angeles, and other cities — which has led to more than 200,000 new hires at various companies over three years. Schultz spends a whole chapter on the economic problems and opioid crisis in Appalachia. He and Starbucks helped support the nonprofit Coalfield Development, which hires the impoverished for 33 hours of paid labor, six hours of higher-education class time usually in community colleges, and three hours of life-skills training and mentorship per week, which can include anything from physical exercise to working on time management or personal finances.
Meanwhile, Starbucks enjoyed steady profits and remarkable growth. Schultz insists most of the company’s feel-good projects are just extensions of its mission. When announcing the plan to hire more veterans, he said, “This is not charity. This is not philanthropy. In fact this is good business.”
Schultz offers some blunt self-criticism about the company’s widely derided “RaceTogether” project in 2015, which aimed to start discussions about American race relations in Starbucks stores, with conversations led by baristas. “The truth is that I threw Starbucks onto the third rail of society in a way that put an unfair burden on baristas and store managers. These discussions needed to be had, but not in the way we had them.” He also apologizes for his role in selling the Seattle SuperSonics basketball team (he’d been the face of the SuperSonics’ ownership group) to Oklahoma City investors, who after a year moved it to their hometown and renamed it the Thunder — a turn of events that made Schultz one of the most hated figures in Seattle for a few years.
The overall package of a Schultz candidacy appeals to a pretty niche market. Rare for a man so recently a Democrat, Schultz actually worries about the national debt. He says having the government pay for everyone’s health care is as unrealistic as promising to make Mexico pay for a border wall, a criticism that leaves many Democrats raging with indignation.
Schultz is unlikely ever to call himself a conservative, but he can sound like one, especially when he describes the importance of jobs for young people:
What [my first] jobs taught me was that the value of early work experiences can exceed the amount of the paycheck. Work done well — building a house, helping a customer find the perfect new shoes, earning a promotion by serving cups of coffee — imbues us with a sense of self-worth as well as a sense of purpose. With dignity. And if you’re a lost young person with little proof of your potential, work can provide a window into yourself.
Or when he criticizes academia: “Most universities were set up to recruit and enroll but not to help students succeed once they arrived — a model with devastating consequences.”
Schultz isn’t quite as tough when he talks about China. Starbucks has expanded massively there over the past two decades, and when Schultz describes the company’s eagerness to do business in an unfree country whose government regularly contradicts the company’s oft-professed values, it can sound like a cop-out:
In countries outside the United States where Starbucks does business, I do not believe the company is in a position to proactively effect social and political change to the degree we might in the United States, where being an American company gives us the theoretical license to try. We do not have such expansive license in other countries. We can, however, exercise our values by how we conduct business, and share those values with leaders in other lands to show you can be profitable and morally centered at the same time.
Starbucks has opened 3,000 stores in China since 1999; it’s hard to see evidence that China has gotten any more “morally centered” in that time.
Schultz cannot abide Donald Trump — his strict limits on accepting refugees, his “both sides” comments after the violence in Charlottesville in 2017, his bullying tweets and “shockingly cruel rhetoric.” Schultz believes that “racism exists among people unknowingly and unintentionally.” He has “learned too much about the inevitability of unconscious bias in human nature to claim we [are] immune to it.” Some voters will no doubt find him sensitive and reflective, but others will hear a billionaire lecturing them condescendingly about their inherent racial bias.
Schultz concedes, “America cannot, of course, have open borders. We need a clear, sustainable immigration policy, one that better manages the flow of people who do not pose a threat and can contribute to our economy and culture.”
But to the extent that Schultz has laid out his preferred policies — which, as of this writing, isn’t far — he is socially liberal and somewhat economically conservative. This might be the least appealing combination of stances in heavily white, blue-collar states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin. A whirling dervish of raw political charisma could perhaps sell it, but Schultz ain’t that. Ironically for a man who made a fortune from coffee, he seems like the least caffeinated person to run for president since Michael Dukakis.
It’s unclear which party has more reason to fear Schultz, assuming he amounts to a factor at all. Trump reportedly thinks Schultz’s entering the race would help him, and Democrats are apoplectic. But Schultz might have the opposite effect. He duplicates a lot of Obama-elite policies: cheers for diversity, the environment, gay rights, and gun control. He would also give an alternative to Trump-skeptical suburban Republicans who might otherwise vote for four more years of Trump over a Bernie Sanders– or Kamala Harris–led socialist revolution.
Schultz’s flirtation with an independent bid shows, in spectacularly vivid fashion, how quickly the Democratic-media-entertainment complex will turn on a person who up until a moment ago had been one of its celebrated heroes. The Daily Beast suddenly discovered that the music selection at Starbucks featured too many white artists. ThinkProgress editor Ian Millhiser called for a boycott of Starbucks even though Schultz has left the company. Late-night host Stephen Colbert joked, “Who hasn’t been in a Starbucks bathroom and thought, ‘The guy in charge of this should be in charge of everything’?” Mika Brzezinski demanded of Schultz in his Morning Joe interview, “How much does an 18-ounce box of Cheerios cost?” (He didn’t know.)
A week ago, none of these people had any gripe with Schultz or Starbucks. He hasn’t officially announced a bid yet, and no polling has hinted at his level of support. But overnight, the well-regarded liberal former CEO became progressives’ enemy No. 1. Dozens of left-leaning public voices took to print, social media, and the airwaves to destroy him, like a shoal of piranhas.
With just a few soft-spoken, mundane bromides in interviews, Schultz showcased the vindictive hive-mind of today’s progressives. If his mild-mannered bid makes more Americans recoil from the odious demonization that drives today’s Left, raise a venti cappuccino to that.