Howard Schultz Is a Presidential Candidate Only Late Capitalism Could Produce
I was born in 1981, and some of my earliest political memories are of the 1992 presidential campaign—in particular of the diminutive, eccentric rich man with the goofy drawl who stood on the debate stage between a clipped, patrician incumbent and an upstart governor with a more opportunistic drawl, lamenting the evils of international labor cost arbitrage. At the time, I did not know what labor arbitrage was, but I did get the gist of the “giant sucking sound” coming out of Mexico. The basic social and economic principles underlying this candidacy were easy enough for even a 10-year-old to understand.
Ross Perot’s quixotic campaign was the ne plus ultra of independent and third-party presidential campaigns. Others had tried, and a couple had even won a few Electoral College votes, but none, before or since, has ever approached his nearly 20 percent of the popular vote—a number that might have been even higher had his campaign not suffered from the inevitable difficulties of working for a billionaire madman who demanded loyalty oaths (sound familiar?) and refused to listen to the advice of his counselors.
Part of Perot’s success was good luck and timing. It was the first post-Cold War presidential race; the U.S. was in the middle of a severe recession; the incumbent was uniquely weak; and the Clinton campaign was dogged by moral scandal.
But in retrospect, we can’t deny the animating force of Perot’s obsessive focus on trade and de-industrialization. From the vantage point of the Donald Trump era, we can see how these ideas, when combined with the timeless allure of nativism and xenophobia, can win. Perot often appeared monomaniacal, but there was no doubt that he ran for a reason.
Since then, we have seen a steady trickle of stupidly wealthy businessmen drifting into electoral politics—not merely as financial backers of parties and candidates, as was their traditional role, but as candidates themselves. They have, in a few cases, become governors, and Michael Bloomberg famously served three terms as mayor of New York City. Bloomberg has flirted with his own independent run for president but concluded that he could not possibly win. The electoral math is against him, and, while he will probably not admit it out loud, he seems self-aware enough to recognize the more fundamental issue: There is no natural constituency for a technocratic centrism that at its most daring can only ape tired corporate communications rhetoric about opportunity, innovation and access.
Yet onto this rickety dais tiptoes one of Seattle’s greatest gifts to the monied class: Howard Schultz, erstwhile chairman and CEO of Starbucks. Schultz has not precisely announced his candidacy. Instead, he has announced his intention to consider possibly running for president, after much thought and prayer and many “family meetings.”
Schultz’s pseudo-announcement, timed with the release of his pseudo-campaign book, “From the Ground Up: A Journey to Reimagine the Promise of America,” has so far been met with howls of outrage and derision from Democratic partisans and leftist activists who view him as a potential spoiler, siphoning enough professional-class and suburban votes in the 2020 contest to re-elect Trump. The national media love a billionaire, and Schultz can afford good publicists, so he was quickly booked for interviews and op-eds, in which he mostly evinced the self-satisfaction and complete lack of content or specifics that a corporate leader can get away with at a board meeting everyone has been paid to attend. As he recently told CNBC, “I don’t want to talk in the hypothetical about what I would do if I was president.”
Since then, he’s managed—possibly accidentally—to put a slightly finer point on his run. He’s mad that newly elected Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and others have floated the idea of a 70 percent top marginal tax rate on income over $10 million per year, and he (or his adviser, McCain-Palin veteran Steve Schmidt) views his potential run as a backstop to any Democratic nomination of a left-leaning candidate.
As has been suggested, this is a sort of blackmail: Nominate a “moderate,” or I’ll jump in and spoil the race. Why, after all, should he care if Trump wins another term? Trump has been a boon for the Howard Schultzes of the world.
I suspect this shakedown theory gives him too much credit for cunning, just as it gives Schmidt too little credit for recognizing an easy mark and a huge paycheck for very little actual work. The imperturbable confidence of a man with so much money is a force of nature: entirely dumb, but not to be diverted. You’ve gotta ride it out.
And we can already see the sky lightening over the ocean as Hurricane Howard lashes the shore. Bill Burton, “a former aide to President Barack Obama who recently joined Schultz’s political team,” is already giving interviews in which he teases a months-long will-he-or-won’t-he, with Schultz planning to “travel the country and pitch himself as a moderate alternative to two extremes.”
He will, in other words, dissipate his energy doing a series of increasingly sparse media appearances and getting ratioed on Twitter. Then he will decide, for the good of his family, the country, his God, and the judgment of history that now—whenever now is—is not the time. (Schultz has already postponed any final decision until at least the summer.) He will probably go on to try to establish some kind of movement or institute that has a word like “solution” or “together” or “reimagine” in the title, and, buoyed by his millions, it will putter along at the margins, producing two USA Today op-eds and a CNN panelist every year until the rising seas swallow us all.
In the meantime, if the Democrats are smart, they will recognize in Schultz a potent and useful foil for their economic message, more so than the bewildered, dissipated Trump. Yes, there are members of the professional and small-business class who see Schultz as an aspirational figure. Imagining that you will become a billionaire mogul is, after all, the “winning the lottery” of the upper-middle class; buying Schultz’s book on Amazon is the gated-community version of spending a dollar a day on the scratch-off.
But for most people—not just the working class, but plenty of folks in the professional class as well—Schultz is a figure far closer to home: the clueless, insipid, absolutely self-absorbed boss who wanders through workaday life trailing idiotic assignments, do-nothing initiatives and go-get-’em exhortations in his stupid wake. He is that perfect product of our economic age: the manager as a psychopathic guidance counselor. If the Democrats are smart, they’ll bring him up every chance they get.