Members Only | January 29, 2019 | Reading Time: 3 minutes
Schultz Has Already Lost
There's no demand for milquetoast centrism.
Howard Schultz, the former Starbucks CEO, is on the defensive fewer than 24 hours after saying he was thinking about running for president as an independent candidate. Michael Bloomberg, another would-be “centrist” contender, said Monday there’s no way he can win. The only thing he can do is help the incumbent prevail. Schultz fired back in a USA Today op-ed, saying such claims are wrongheaded and un-American.
No, they are not wrongheaded. No, they are not un-American. Anyone who knows anything about electoral politics knows third parties very rarely win presidencies, and disliking spoilers has nothing to do with Americanness. Bloomberg is right. The only thing a third-party candidate can do is impact one or the other major party candidate. That’s just math. A billionaire businessman like Schultz ought to know that.
He probably does, but doesn’t care. Our history is littered with the remains of wealthy savior-complected men who thought they could cure what ails us if only we voted for them. There’s the rub. As far as I can tell, Schultz has no discernible constituency. There aren’t enough people demanding what he’s selling, which, and I’m guessing, is a kind of Republican-lite. I’m sure some would like a return to conservative orthodoxy, but that time has past. The GOP is Donald Trump and Donald Trump is the GOP.
There’s no market for Schultz but there is desire to blast him for tempting fate. He’s been savaged in various forums since “60 Minutes” featured him Sunday. As one heckler put it: “Don’t help elect Trump, you egotistical billionaire asshole. Go back to getting ratio’d on Twitter. Go back to Davos and the other billionaire elite who think they know how to run the world. That’s not what democracy needs.”
That sums it up for me.
Schultz appears to have accepted as true what is a news media construction, which is that partisanship is no good very bad. It divides us. It stymies progress. It heightens differences while occluding the search for common ground. It’s an old trope. Barack Obama perfected it. But serious candidates don’t deploy it outside the party system. Schultz doesn’t get that you rail against partisanship while being utterly partisan.
Schultz doesn’t get something else.
While the Republicans veer right and the Democrats veer left, that doesn’t mean there’s a concrete third way for a centrist candidate. That’s another media construction. The Republicans enacted a giant tax cut. It was really unpopular. The Democrats are debating a giant tax hike on incomes over $10 million. It’s really popular. Howard Schultz, meanwhile, is a deficit hawk. He’s called the national debt our biggest threat. Do voters care? Nope. Should they? Maybe. Doesn’t matter. Debt-reduction isn’t popular. Not popular enough, in any case, to launch him to victory.
I get why Schultz wants to run. Donald Trump is the weakest incumbent since 1992. That’s when Pat Buchanan challenged George HW Bush from the inside; Ross Perot, that year’s independent candidate, from the outside. (Democrat Bill Clinton won, of course.) Anyone with half a brain can see there’s an opportunity this time around to knock off a sitting president. But the answer to Trump’s fascism isn’t milquetoast centrism. It’s another kind of partisanship, a potent and virile kind that voters want. That Schultz is running as an independent suggests that he fears he’s already lost.
Would Schultz help re-elect Trump? Bill Scher and others I respect say he’ll split the anti-Trump vote. I’m not as sure. It’s hard to imagine Democratic voters choosing him over someone like Elizabeth Warren or Kamala Harris. Indeed, Warren or Harris would split women voters who’d normally support a Republican but can’t stand Trump. It’s also hard to imagine anti-Trump voters wasting their vote on an independent. If you want to beat Trump, you’re going to vote for the candidate who can win.
That Schultz is on his heels fewer than 24 hours after saying he’s thinking about running for president should tell us something. Perhaps it’s that we’re a polarized nation. I think it’s more than that. Schultz feels like he’d have been hot stuff in Washington a decade ago. Not now. Not in the wake of the great panic of 2007-2008, and not after the rise of the fascist right. No, milquetoast centrism won’t cut it.
I don’t know what will, but it’s not going to be that.
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John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition open and available to all. Find him @johnastoehr.