President Trump’s rude reaction to Howard Schultz’s possible entry into the 2020 presidential campaign was a bit surprising.
“Howard Schultz doesn’t have the ‘guts’ to run for president,” Trump tweeted after the billionaire former Starbucks CEO said he’s seriously considering an independent bid for the White House. “Watched him on @60Minutes last night and I agree with him that he is not the ‘smartest person.’ Besides, America already has that! I only hope that Starbucks is still paying me their rent in Trump Tower!”
You’d think Trump would welcome Schultz, or any other serious third-party or no-party contender, into the race. Such a quixotic candidacy would be the best thing that could happen to the president’s own re-election prospects — maybe even his only hope of winning a second term.
Or maybe Trump is just conning us. That certainly wouldn’t be a first.
Schultz should pull Democrats to the center
Schultz, who just happens to be on a book tour, says he won’t decide about running for a while. He says he won’t run unless he believes he can win, but billionaires can convince themselves that unbelievable things are believable.
Read Howard Schultz on a possible 2020 run: A third-party centrist candidate like me could win the presidency in 2020
We’ve got a guy like that in the White House now, for instance.
But Schultz also says he can’t run in either party, and wants to offer anti-Trump voters an alternative to a Democratic field he sees drifting too far left of the mainstream.
Specifically, he thinks Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s idea of taxing the uber-rich is “ridiculous,” and Sen. Kamala Harris’ promise of “Medicare for all” is unaffordable. Unless the Democrats keep the House and retake the Senate in 2020, he’s probably right about that. Even if a Democratic president has his party controlling Congress in the next term, those ideas would be a hard sell.
But it’s not any specific issue that has the party’s activists in a stew about Schultz. A bit more than a year before the Iowa caucuses, the Democrats are in the most aggressive race to the left since the McGovern campaign of 1972, and anyone who suggests they might want to stop and think gets shouted down.
But George McGovern had the Vietnam war as an issue and he was challenging a popular incumbent the Democrats knew they couldn’t beat. So they could indulge their crazies for a while in ’72.
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This time, there’s no compelling issue like Vietnam, but a series of very strong reasons to oppose the current Republican president. And, unlike Nixon, polls indicate Trump is very vulnerable, no matter how confident his tweets may seem.
However centrist and reasonable his positions on issues may be, history indicates Schultz, as a third party candidate, can’t win the presidency. But if he runs, and if he’s willing to spend enough of his own money to be a real force in the election, his candidacy could be Trump’s best hope of a second term.
Third-party candidates make good spoilers
In 1968, for instance, Alabama Gov. George Wallace’s American Independent Party had no chance of beating Vice President Hubert Humphrey or Republican Richard Nixon. But he won five states with 45 electoral votes and — if a few “what ifs” or “mighta beens” had fallen in place with a few other states, Wallace could have thrown the election into the House of Representatives.
Illinois Rep. John Anderson’s challenge in 1980 didn’t really hurt Jimmy Carter — the Reagan landslide would have happened anyway — but it probably diminished Carter’s losing total a bit.
Supporters of the late President George H.W. Bush blame Ross Perot for siphoning off enough votes to make Bill Clinton president in 1992. That’s debatable, but it certainly didn’t help the GOP — that year, or in 1996.
And Ralph Nader? If he hadn’t run in 2000, it’s likely that some of those 97,488 votes he got in Florida would have gone for Al Gore. It certainly would have been more than the 537-vote margin by which Gore lost the state to George W. Bush. But who knows how many of those Nader voters would have voted at all, if he wasn’t on the ballot?
If Joe Biden or some other grown-up runs, he might pull the Democrats back to the center. If the Democrats nominate their most liberal ticket since McGovern, they could still beat Trump if he remains as unpopular as he is now.
If Schultz runs — combining the new-guy appeal Trump had two years ago with a sensible centrist — he could hurt the Democratic nominee just enough, in enough states, to re-elect the president.
Which is why the Democrats are so mad at him now.
Bill Cotterell is a columnist for the Tallahassee Democrat. This column originally appeared in The News-Press.
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This article originally appeared on Fort Myers News-Press: Donald Trump should welcome Howard Schultz — and his anti-Trump voters — into 2020 race