Some of the most influential forces in Democratic politics revolted Monday against former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz’s prospective presidential bid, insisting that an independent run would unintentionally help President Donald Trump win another four years in office.
The critics included the Democratic chairman of Schultz’s home state, another billionaire businessman who long flirted with an independent run of his own, former President Barack Obama’s chief strategist, and the most powerful super PAC in Democratic politics. “If Schultz entered the race as an independent, we would consider him a target… We would do everything we can to ensure that his candidacy is unsuccessful,” said Patrick McHugh, executive director of Priorities USA, which spent nearly $200 million in the 2016 presidential contest.
Specifically, he seized on Schultz’s apparent willingness to cut entitlement programs such as Medicare and Social Security to narrow the federal deficit. “The bottom line,” McHugh said, “is that I don’t think Americans are looking for another selfish billionaire to enter the race.”
The pushback in the early days of the 2020 campaign reflects the intensity Democrats are bringing to the race. The party is singularly focused on retaking the White House and anxious about any hurdle that would prevent them from seizing on Trump’s unpopularity. While no independent has won the presidency since George Washington, Democrats fear that Schultz would almost certainly split their vote and give Trump an easier path to re-election. Yet Democrats concede that they had few tools to dissuade Schultz from launching an independent campaign — as he told CBS’ “60 Minutes” on Sunday he was considering — though many were skeptical that he would actually follow through. Shultz plans to spend the next month traveling around the country — in part promoting a new book — to test whether there’s interest in an independent presidential candidate, according to a person familiar with his planning. However, the former Starbucks CEO may not make a final decision on running until the fall, when the direction of the Democratic primary may be somewhat clearer.
Schultz’s team has polled on the viability of a third party run and believes there is an opening, though they have not shared the specifics of their internal surveys. His advisers dispute the notion that an independent candidate would automatically bolster Trump’s prospects in 2020, arguing that there are enough Democrats and Republicans disgruntled with their parties to propel a third-party bid. Schultz is being advised by a team with experience in both parties, including Steve Schmidt, who worked on Republican John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign, and Bill Burton, a Democrat who worked for President Barack Obama. Schultz’s team also includes Republican pollster Greg Strimple, GOP strategist Brooks Kochvar, and Rajiv Chandrasekaran, a former journalist who has worked closely with Schultz since 2015. Schultz has discussed with his team how much of his own money he’s willing to plunge into a campaign, though the person familiar with his planning would not disclose the amount. That person insisted on anonymity in order to discuss Schultz’s private conversations. Schultz addressed his prospects in a video posted on social media Monday.
“At this time in America when there’s so much evidence that our political system is broken — that both parties at the extreme are not representing the silent majority of the American people — isn’t there a better way?” Schultz said, noting that he’d be traveling the country in the coming weeks and months meeting with voters. “And what better expression of our democracy than to give the American people a choice that they deserve.”
Yet history — and the reality of a political system designed to favor major party candidates — suggests that Schultz may do little more than play spoiler should he decide to run. Bloomberg, who studied the possibility of an independent run of his own in the past, offered Schultz a direct message based on his own experience. “The data was very clear and very consistent. Given the strong pull of partisanship and the realities of the electoral college system, there is no way an independent can win. That is truer today than ever before,” Bloomberg, who is considering a Democratic 2020 bid, said in a statement. He continued: “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.”
The angry voices were far and wide, and they included Obama’s former chief strategist, David Axelrod, along with Democrats from Schultz’s home state.
“If Schultz decides to run as an independent,” Axelrod tweeted, Trump “should give Starbucks their Trump Tower space rent free! It would be a gift.”
Tina Podlodowski, the Democratic chairwoman in Washington state, where Schultz has lived for decades, discouraged him from running as an independent. “A billionaire buying his way out of the entire primary process does not strengthen democracy,” she said. “It only makes it more likely that our democracy will be further strained under another four years of President Donald Trump.”
Perhaps trying to elevate Schultz, who is not well known among Democratic primary voters, Trump himself weighed in on Monday, tweeting that Schultz “doesn’t have the ‘guts’ to run for President!”
The 65-year-old Seattle billionaire launched a tour Monday to promote his latest book, “From the Ground Up: A Journey to Reimagine the Promise of America.” He has stops this week in New York; Tempe, Arizona; Seattle; and San Francisco — but no dates listed for the early voting states of Iowa or New Hampshire. He’s been mentioned as a potential candidate many times before, and he’s done little to quell speculation about his presidential ambitions since saying when he retired from Starbucks last June that his future could include “public service.”
On paper, Schultz offers a number of qualities that might appeal to voters. He grew up in public housing in New York City’s Brooklyn borough and became the first person in his family to graduate from college.
He’s also been a longtime Democratic donor, contributing to the campaigns of Obama, Hillary Clinton, New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, and Washington Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, among others. He has also criticized Trump, telling employees that the president was creating “chaos” and hurting business; calling Trump’s tax cuts for corporations unnecessary and reckless; and vowing to hire 10,000 refugees after Trump issued an executive order banning travel from seven mostly Muslim nations. But some of his views might clash with a Democratic Party gearing up to unseat Trump. Schultz has criticized proposals for single-payer health care and free tuition at public colleges as unrealistic and instead emphasized expanding the economy and curbing entitlements to get the national debt under control.
The Democratic National Committee declined to address Schultz directly. Spokeswoman Xochitl Hinojosa offered only this response: “We are focused on defeating Donald Trump, and anyone who shares that goal should vote for the Democrat nominee in 2020.”q