Run, Howard, run

Matt Bai
National Political Columnist
Yahoo News photo illustration; photos: AP, Getty Images

I was a little taken aback this week by the level of outrage and vitriol spewed at Howard Schultz, the 65-year-old billionaire who built Starbucks into a global brand, after he said he was considering a self-funded, independent campaign for president. The way the left reacted, you’d have thought he was getting rid of almond-milk lattes.

“There is zero appetite for this, and there is an urgent need for the Democratic candidate to win in 2020,” said Brian Schatz, the professional tweeter who is also a senator from Hawaii, echoing the common sentiment that Schultz would only serve to split the Democratic vote and reelect Trump.

“Vanity projects that help destroy democracy are disgusting,” tweeted Neera Tanden, a key adviser to the last Democratic nominee, who believed that no one else should be able to run for the Democratic nomination but her and then delivered the country into the hands of a covert Russian agent.

Dan Pfeiffer, a senior adviser in the Obama administration, accused Schultz of creating headlines so he could sell his new book, because I guess what Schultz needs is more money. (At Schultz’s first book event in Manhattan, a heckler screamed: “Don’t help elect Trump, you egotistical billionaire a**hole!”)

Liberal media got into the act, too, arguing that Schultz was looking to a bygone time when Americans were tired of partisan politics and still thought government could solve problems in a peaceable way, whereas we know they’re now totally radicalized and happy as hell to scream at each other on Twitter all day long. (Or maybe we journalists are confusing American voters with ourselves.)

I guess the lesson here is that liberals are all about breaking up big monopolies and rigged systems, unless it happens to be the two-party chokehold on Washington.

Look, I’ve never met Howard Schultz, and I have no idea if he has what it takes to run the country. I know he never managed to invent a cup lid that didn’t spurt searing coffee onto your hands when you tried to walk down the street with it, and naturally this fills me with skepticism.

But here’s what else I know about Schultz: He is one of very few people on the planet who actually had the vision to transform the way we live. Believe it or not, millennials, before Starbucks came along, meeting over afternoon coffee wasn’t a thing in America. And then it was.

Schultz saw where the culture was headed — that we would be more mobile, less bound to offices, but also less connected to one another — and figured out a way to get ahead of it. No one in politics is doing that.

Now Schultz thinks Americans might want the same kind of choice in their politics — or a modicum of it, anyway — that they have in their coffee. His views, judging from his early and somewhat shaky interviews, are sort of a medium blend.

He thinks undocumented immigrants should have a path to citizenship. That health care and college should be affordable, but not free for everyone. That tax cuts are OK as long as they’re not only for businesses and the rich. That climate change is urgent and global alliances matter.

All of this seems well within the mainstream of American attitudes right now, if not within the mainstream of a Democratic primary electorate that’s already being wooed with talk of FDR-era tax rates and the elimination of all private health insurance.

So would Schultz’s candidacy really ensure Trump’s reelection? I don’t know that, and I promise you, neither does anyone else.

Michael Bloomberg, who considered an independent run last time around, says he bowed out because the data showed he would only serve to split the Democratic vote and elect a Republican. “That’s a risk I refused to run in 2016, and we can’t afford to run it now,” he said in response to Schultz’s possible bid.

Except that, as you might have heard, Trump managed to win the election anyway. And, you know, Bloomberg apparently thinks a pro-Wall Street billionaire who once championed stop-and-frisk policing policies as mayor has a shot at winning the Democratic primaries, so maybe that’s not the tree you go barking at for political advice.

The fact is that Schultz’s viability as a candidate would depend largely on factors we don’t yet know, like whom the Democrats nominate, and how firmly Republican voters stand by Trump, and whether Trump draws an internal challenge or even ends up running at all.

And if anyone thinks data from some other election cycle can predict this one, then they haven’t been paying very close attention to our politics. There wasn’t any data to suggest that Trump could win a Republican primary, either, let alone the White House. The old models are dead.

Schultz, as you might expect, has been doing his own pretty extensive research. His advisers tell me that a candidate fitting Schultz’s description — and, granted, that’s a highly hypothetical way to survey, absent an actual person or actual opponents — would start out within the margin of error of leading a three-candidate race, or close to that margin, in 24 states, totaling 285 electoral votes.

If that’s anywhere near true, then there’s no reason to automatically assume Schultz becomes a spoiler, rather than a viable candidate in his own right.

But what’s really shocking isn’t that all these Democrats in Washington worry about Schultz costing them the election. It’s that anyone would actually still listen to them.

I mean, aren’t these the same people who told us Hillary Clinton was the only Democratic candidate who could win in 2016, when it turned out she was actually the only candidate who could have managed to lose?

The same people who told Joe Biden he had to stand down, and who told contributors they shouldn’t give money to anyone else, and who rigged the debate schedule in order to keep the path as clear as possible?

The very same people who, once Clinton got the nomination, ran a soulless, risk-averse campaign, telling anyone who would listen: Don’t worry, we’ve got this, we know what we’re doing?

If you’re looking for a read on which candidate can resonate or how an election will turn out, you might as well ask a Magic 8-Ball. At least it has the humility to say: “Cannot predict now.”

Maybe Schultz wouldn’t be much of a candidate. He certainly doesn’t project a ton of warmth or rhetorical skill.

Maybe he goes ahead with this venture and finds out that campaigning for anything is a lot harder than it looks, and that the answers to complex policy problems are generally some version of telling everybody something they can’t bear to hear.

But if he does decide to run, he’ll have shown us something already, which is that he’s got the steel to shrug off a social media storm of nasty, sanctimonious bullying and manage to do what he thinks is right.

That in itself might set him apart from the field.

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