Ever since Howard Schultz announced on Sunday that he was considering an independent bid for president, a kind of mass hysteria has gripped the left broadly. The overwhelming reaction was one of fear: that the former Starbucks CEO would split the Democratic vote, guaranteeing a second term for President Trump. Others responded with dismissal, arguing that there is “zero appetite” among voters for a Schultz presidency. Rather than engage with Schultz—who, it is true, has offered little of substance other than attempting to incite undue panic about the national debt—Democrats have thrown an entitled tantrum.
This behavior bears an unflattering resemblance to the lane-clearing that party officials employed ahead of the 2016 election, coronating Hillary Clinton as the presumptive Democratic nominee well before the Iowa caucuses. And we all know how that turned out. If the Democrats want to ensure that Schultz doesn’t do irreparable damage to their 2020 chances, they had better take him seriously—even if it’s more than his feeble agenda deserves.
For all of the media attention that Schultz has received on his exploratory publicity tour, though, this is not yet the crisis that many imagine. Schultz may be a temporary distraction from the nascent primary season, but he’s also an easy target: an out-of-touch billionaire with unpopular ideas straight out of the Democratic Party of the 1990s. He presents a stark opportunity for Democrats to show where they stand—by rejecting Clintonism once and for all.
Schultz’s path to the White House is improbable, but Democrats have reason to worry. He has been singularly focused on ridiculing their policy proposals, particularly universal health care and tax hikes on the wealthy, and argues that they have become just as extreme as Trump’s Republican Party. While Schultz has yet to develop a robust platform, his statements betray a clear political strategy: He knows that Trump’s Republican support is largely immovable, so his only chance of success is to steal substantial votes from the Democrats. “To win a majority of electoral college votes, which Schultz says would be his goal,” The Washington Post’s Michael Scherer reported on Thursday, “he would have to ultimately replace the Democratic nominee as the favored choice of voters who do not want Trump to win a second term. In practice, this has led Schultz to focus far more of his initial fire on Democrats than Trump.”
Schultz has other advantages. Much of the mainstream media, and especially the Beltway press, is uncomfortable with political polarization—and very comfortable with moderates and rich people. Thus, Schultz “got a super-cushy red carpet for his possible 2020 presidential run ... despite his lack of political experience,” argued The Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan. “Why do journalists and news organizations insist on doing this? I think the answer is pretty clear. It’s because they want to appear fair without taking any chances.” At Daily Kos, Eric Boehlert wrote that “Schultz is clearly benefiting from our Davos-style political culture, where billionaires are automatically held up as symbols of what is right and just. And if a billionaire raises his hand and says he wants become president without facing any primary-season opponents, the media parts like the Red Sea and prepares a seat for him in front of an eager television host.”
So Schultz does pose an electoral threat for Democrats, even if his bid ultimately fails. Over the past two years, Democrats from all ideological persuasions have begun to unite around a leftist agenda on universal health care, gun control, economic redistribution, and climate change. While there are serious disagreements about how these policies would be enacted, the party has largely turned its back on the triangulation and incrementalism of the Clinton years and promoted bold progressivism as an antidote to Trumpism. A Schultz candidacy would erase that neat binary in a general election.
Schultz has center-right instincts. He believes that the two parties have made it difficult for Americans to talk about—and therefore fix—divisive social issues like racism, and sees private industry as both an engine of change and a safety net for workers. He is, as HuffPost’s Zach Carter wrote earlier this week, exactly the kind of elite figure that would have been feted by Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich alike during the heady days of the 1990s: “Since the government was too clunky and inefficient to spend money wisely, according to this orthodoxy, it was best to get deficits down through spending cuts, rather than tax increases, although a slight hike for the richest households could be stomached for the sake of appearances.”
Schultz won’t compete in the Democratic primary because, he says, he doesn’t believe in universal health care or free college, but it’s also because he knows can’t win the party’s nomination. The question is whether his positions—few though they may be at this stage—are broadly popular. The evidence is that they’re not. Polling shows majority support for universal health care and taxing the rich, while almost no one thinks the national debt, Schultz’s hobbyhorse, is the most important problem in America. And that’s about all we know about Schultz’s platform. Despite having formed a political team months ago, he has no policy proposals whatsoever—including about how to pay down the national debt.
Rather than treating him as a potential spoiler, Democrats should portray Schultz as emblematic of everything wrong with Trump’s America. His opposition to taxing the wealth, support for cutting entitlements, and belief that plutocrats can solve the country’s pressing problems make him the perfect villain. This is smart politics, as New York magazine’s Eric Levitz argued on Thursday, “There’s little to no evidence that railing against ‘the billionaire class’ hurts Democrats electorally by making them sound too ‘far left.’... Meanwhile, there is significant evidence that the deployment of populist, ‘us versus them’ rhetoric increases the salience of class resentments in U.S. elections—and thus, increases the Democratic Party’s share of the vote.”
Democrats can use Schultz’s political flirtation as a dry-run for the policy arguments they will make over the next two years. At the same time, they can fully bury the specter of the Clintons and move on as a new kind of party. If they don’t, they’ll leave themselves vulnerable to a regression; now is the time to inoculate the party against a resurgence of outdated liberalism, one that’s friendly to corporations and squeamish on social issues. Because as Democrats advance more ambitious policies, like a 70 percent tax on the wealthy, more Schultzes will emerge with political aspirations, accusing the party of irresponsible spending, “un-American” taxes, and class warfare. Some of these plutocrats will be more politically experienced than Schultz. Some may even be Democrats.