The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Howard Schultz shouldn’t run for president

Starbucks Chairman Howard Schultz. (Jason Redmond/AFP/Getty Images)

It seems soon-to-be-former Starbucks executive chairman Howard Schultz would like to run for president. Announcing Monday that he would step down from his position with Starbucks at the end of June, he told the New York Times, “For some time now, I have been deeply concerned about our country — the growing division at home and our standing in the world,” adding, when asked point-blank about 2020, he was considering “a range of options” including public service.

Did I mention Schultz now has a website, where he’s asking people to sign up with their emails?

Let’s stop this, right now. The last thing the Democratic Party — or the Republican Party, for that matter — needs is a business leader with no elected political experience running for president. It’s such a bad idea that the fact that the only two such presidents we’ve had are Donald Trump and Herbert Hoover are not the most damning details.

A CEO for president is one of those things that on first blush in our turbo-capitalist society seems to make a lot of sense. The often-stated reason is that CEOs are proven — they’ve needed to produce results and react to crisis after crisis. They are independently wealthy, so they’re less beholden to donors. At the same time, they aren’t perceived as part of Washington’s business-as-usual culture.

Follow Helaine Olen's opinionsFollow

As a result, potential CEO presidents have been regularly pitched for the better part of three decades on both sides of the political aisle. In the 1980s, Democratic political consultants attempted to convince then-Chrysler chief Lee A. Iacocca to run for president. As for the Republicans – well, Trump. And now we get Schultz.

Our turbo-capitalist society all but routinely confuses business lives with our personal lives, not to mention our lives as citizens. The cult of the CEO is a self-help genre. Over the years there have been such books as “The Family CEO” and “CEO Dad” and “Be the CEO of YOUR LIFE” and “CEO of YOU” — and that’s just on the first Google page. It’s also a flourishing part of the romance market: “Fifty Shades of Grey’s” Christian Grey is CEO of something called Grey Enterprises Holdings. You didn’t think the hero of an S&M romance was going to be a corporate schlub in middle management, did you?

As the last example shows, though, the CEO president is more than, uh, a shade authoritarian. The appeal is that this one person has top-down control. In their just-published book, “CEO Society: The Corporate Takeover of Everyday Life,” Peter Bloom and Carl Rhodes point out that the idea of a CEO politician is ultimately about private rule, not public responsiveness. CEOs take advice but generally don’t need to actually listen to it. They do not govern by consensus. And satisfying shareholders (the vast majority of whom represent business interests or affluent individuals) or other company investors on a quarterly basis is a far cry from running a government. The common good is a discretionary concept. An unprofitable or unpopular latte line can be unceremoniously jettisoned, and a profitable one can be promoted, no matter how unhealthy.

In fact, over the years Schultz has run Starbucks like something of a benevolent dictator. Starbucks under Schultz has received kudos for offering employees financial assistance to study for a college degree via an online partnership with Arizona State University, and for offering health insurance to part-time workers. But less attention is paid to the coffee giant’s history of union-busting and less-than-stellar working conditions.

Starbucks might trumpet the fact it pays more than the minimum wage, but it is a member of the National Restaurant Association, the trade group that vehemently lobbies against the Fight for $15 and the enhanced overtime pay the Obama administration implemented (only to see it get tied up in the courts). Pro-worker activists refer to the organization as “the other NRA.”

It shouldn’t come as a surprise to discover that Schultz’s politics are not exactly in sync with the Democratic Party of today. Yes, he’s pro-immigrant and pro-free trade, but don’t mistake that for progressive. In a Tuesday CNBC interview, he said that “it concerns me that so many voices in the Democratic Party are going so far to the left,” said the push for single-payer health insurance wasn’t “realistic,” agreed with billionaire Kenneth Langone that American public education is “a national disgrace” and called the national debt “the greatest threat” facing the country.

Schultz might claim, as he did on CNBC, that’s it’s been a long time since anyone in government “really walked in the shoes of the American people.” But if he thinks he’s that kind of candidate, he’s delusional. Forbes estimates Schultz is worth about $2.8 billion, a net worth that comes in no small part from the fact that as CEO, he earned $75 for each dollar the typical barista received in his or her paycheck.

Schultz hardly lacks accomplishments. Under his management, Starbucks introduced gourmet coffee to the masses. As someone who drinks way more caffeinated beverages than I should, I consider that a mostly good thing. But that doesn’t make him qualified to take up residence in the White House. Promoting coffee that inspires is not preparation for electoral office, no matter how many cups are sold.