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Run, Howard, Run!

A failed 2020 bid by the former Starbucks CEO would prove that Americans aren't clamoring for a centrist businessman as president.

Mario Tama/Getty Images

After months of rumors that he was weighing a presidential bid, former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz finally confirmed them on Sunday. “I love our country,” he tweeted, “and I am seriously considering running for president as a centrist independent.” Why not run as a Democrat, as many had speculated he would? That would be “disingenuous,” he told The New York Times. “When I hear people espousing free government-paid college, free government-paid health care and a free government job for everyone—on top of a $21 trillion debt—the question is, how are we paying for all this and not bankrupting the country?”

This news has stirred panic among Democrats. “If he enters the race, I will start a Starbucks boycott because I’m not giving a penny that will end up in the election coffers of a guy who will help Trump win,” tweeted Neera Tanden, the president of the Center for American Progress. Even Michael Bloomberg, himself a centrist CEO who has flirted with an independent bid in the past, warned Schultz against it. “Given the strong pull of partisanship and the realities of the electoral college system, there is no way an independent can win,” he said in a statement. “In 2020, the great likelihood is that an independent would just split the anti-Trump vote and end up re-electing the President. That’s a risk I refused to run in 2016 and we can’t afford to run it now.”

But the fears that Schultz will draw enough support from independents and liberals to result in Trump’s reelection are overblown. He has no constituency. As The Onion put it, with a rare headline that was more factual than satiric: “Howard Schultz Considering Independent Presidential Run After Finding No Initial Support Among Any Voter Groups.” Rather than discourage him from running, Democrats should welcome it—to prove once and for all that few American voters are craving a moderate “chairman emeritus” who fear-mongers over the national debt and blames both parties equally for the country’s hyper-partisanship.

Schultz’s case for running as an independent, if he decides to do so, is that both the Republican and Democratic parties are dominated by extremists and neither cares about the most important issue facing the country: the national debt, which he describes as “greatest threat domestically to the country.”

There is good reason to believe that the “silent majority” Schultz evokes doesn’t agree that the national debt is the “greatest threat” facing the country—and there is ample evidence that it isn’t such a threat. Voters have recoiled when presented with proposals to cut entitlements like Social Security and Medicare. A President Schultz, moreover, could expect a serious political fight if he tried to significantly cut either social or military spending, which drive the public debt. But there is also growing evidence that debt scolds like Schultz are severely overstating the current risks. “It’s becoming increasingly doubtful whether there’s any right time for fiscal austerity,” the Times’ Paul Krugman argued earlier this year. “The obsession with debt is looking foolish even at full employment.” Furthermore, the current situation is hardly dire.

It’s not clear what else Schultz stands for. He has dismissed universal health care as too expensive and unrealistic, but otherwise has punted on the most salient political issues of the day. He has refused to address “hypothetical” questions, like whether he we would raise taxes. For now, then, his potential candidacy revolves around a single issue, and yet there’s no evidence that anti-debt voters exist in numbers that would propel Shultz to the White House, or even remotely close to it.

Democrats, notwithstanding House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s maddening devotion to pay-as-you-go rules, have long been unafraid to increase the debt to fund important social programs such as Obamacare. The Republicans have long used the national debt as a bogeyman to justify cuts to such programs, while simultaneously pushing for massive increases to the military budget and tax cuts for the rich. But their actions under Trump have given lie to their rhetoric, as they passed a $1.5 trillion cut despite being fully aware that doing so would balloon the deficit in a time of plenty. As for the public broadly, the percentage of Americans who say they worry a great deal about the national debt has been declining for years; voters increasingly are motivated by divisive issues like health care, immigration, and foreign policy.

But Schultz wouldn’t make a weak candidate simply because his core issue isn’t compelling enough. The fact is that nothing about him is compelling enough. For years now, sober pundits have made the case that someone like Schultz—a successful businessman who is fiscally conservative and socially liberal—should enter the political arena. To escape from decades of partisan gridlock, the argument goes, America needs an outsider who can cut through the Gordian knot of ideology and deliver real results.

The idea that outsiders make the best political leaders is baked into the American political consciousness. It’s why Lincoln’s supporters cast him as a log-splitting homesteader, and why George W. Bush, a trust fund kid from Connecticut, ran as a swashbuckling cowboy. But over the last three decades, particularly in the aftermath of the Republican Revolution of 1994, the notion that America needs a leader who comes from outside the two parties has been particularly resilient. Groups like No Labels, Third Way, and, most recently, WTF emerged to fill an imagined vacuum: that there exists an American political consciousness that has been obscured by partisanship, waiting to be tapped by the right candidate (which, inevitably, is a rich white man). But these groups’ center-right economic agenda—focused on the solvency of Social Security and Medicaid and lowering the National Debt—has proven enormously unpopular in recent years.

Of course, America sometimes does elect a true outsider, and there’s no better example than the current president. Trump won by deviating from orthodoxy, promising to protect entitlements like Medicare and Social Security while spewing racist paranoia about illegal immigration and urban crime. But this is not the kind of candidacy that Schultz is proposing. Quite the opposite. He will neither kill sacred cows nor pander to voters’ basest instincts, and he doesn’t have quite the same knack for social media:

Schultz contends that the Democrats will be to blame for a Trump victory in 2020 if they nominate a far-left candidate, but that is not borne out by current polling, which shows Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren with comfortable leads over the president. While there’s no polling yet on how Schultz would fare in a matchup against the president, he has pointed out that the number of Americans who identify as independents is higher than the number of those who identify as Democrats or Republicans. But as The Washington Post’s Aaron Blake wrote, “as any political scientist will quickly point out, though, ‘independent’ isn’t always truly independent, and most of these voters clearly favor one party over another.” The real number of voters without a “home base” in one of the parties? Twelve percent. And it’s by no means clear that Schultz would win many of those voters.

This is not to say Schultz lacks any constituency. He has one in America’s boardrooms and on its trading floors. He will be welcomed by some Democrats who feel alienated by the party’s growing embrace of Medicare for All and a Green New Deal. And he’s already being embraced by some of the remaining #NeverTrump Republicans: The Atlantic’s David Frum on Monday echoed Schultz’s inaccurate belief that the two parties are equally extreme, writing that if you seriously believe that the Trump presidency presents a unique threat to American democracy, you want the safer choice, not the risky one.”

The myth that a centrist, independent CEO can bridge America’s political divide has persisted precisely because no one has seriously tried it in a generation. And no one has tried it because—as Ross Perot learned in the ’90s, and even Bloomberg realizes today—the numbers simply don’t work. That’s all the more reason to encourage a milquetoast moderate like Schultz to run. His campaign will end in ignominious failure and finally kill this myth once and for all.