Howard Schultz stood in the kitchenette of a coach bus one afternoon in April, stirring coffee grounds in a French press. “This is Guatemalan,” he said. “Sun-dried. It’s so good. It has almost a blueberry flavor, but it’s very natural. Very floral.”
We were road-tripping to the Mexican border through Arizona’s Sonoran Desert, while the former Starbucks CEO considered a run for president as a “centrist independent.” I was writing a piece about centrism, and whether it was dead, and wanted to talk to its latest avatar. The very next day, Schultz would slip a disk in his back, leading to three surgeries in two months. His campaign would go dark for the summer; in mid-June, Schultz would email his supporters, promising that he’d be “back in touch after Labor Day.” It now appears that Schultz is waiting to see how far left the Democrats move before figuring out whether his bid makes any practical sense — and whether American democracy still needs a centrist savior.
But that would all come later. On this blistering Monday, Schultz was optimistically pressing ahead, traveling in a spacious and well-appointed coach bus, which, according to the driver, was previously commandeered by Kesha. Along for the ride were several members of his then-20-person entourage, among them one high-profile political consultant, two press aides, one trip director, videographers, SUV drivers, informal advisers (i.e., friends), security personnel and scurrying “advance people.” There were eight televisions on the bus, including one in the bathroom, all tuned to CNN footage of the cathedral of Notre Dame on fire.
Schultz, 65, is lean and athletic. He lopes around — or at least he did before his injury — with a lanky, adolescent gait. He tends to wear a look of steady, if vacant, resolve. He’s not a barrel of laughs, but he can do pretty good sports banter. (He used to own the NBA’s SuperSonics, then sold the team to a group of Oklahoma investors, devastating Seattle forever.) He relies on polished anecdotes — his genre is parables of business success — that he’s obviously told countless times. But he’ll occasionally surprise me with a salty aside, like when he looked up at CNN and asked, offhand, “What happened to Beto?”
On the bus, we were discussing his proposal to disallow the confirmation of any Supreme Court nominees not supported by two-thirds of the Senate — an idea that led the pundit class to condemn him as a blustering naif with scant understanding of contemporary politics. “People thought this was not realistic,” he said. “But it should be realistic.” The criticism baffled him. “The whole core purpose and reason why I’m here is to try and serve the American people better, to give them what they deserve: a better political class,” he said. He ticked off the qualities a political class should have: “Honest, fair, sincere, truthful, authentic. That is what we’ve lost.”
This sparked a thought: “Over the weekend I read what George Washington said — reread it — when he warned the country about factions,” Schultz recounted. “He was warning about exactly where we are right now. And then last week, when we were in Kansas, we’re reading what Eisenhower wrote in 1969, in his own hand, a story in Reader’s Digest, about the power and importance of the middle. He said: The extremes on both sides are in the gutters. You should read it. He was talking about what it means to be a centrist!”
In 2018, professing alarm at the direction of the country, Schultz stepped down from his longtime perch atop Starbucks. In late January, he announced during a “60 Minutes” interview that he was seriously considering a presidential run. What followed was a period of staggering negative publicity. A bipartisan consensus formed: Schultz was an egomaniac whose third-party vanity campaign would do nothing but reelect the president he professed to loathe. Donald Trump piled on, tweeting that Schultz “doesn’t have the guts” to run — an attempt, reportedly, to goad him into the race. The positive coverage that did materialize wasn’t always convincing. Schultz is “one of very few people on the planet who actually had the vision to transform the way we live,” wrote Yahoo News columnist Matt Bai, in a rare pro-Schultz op-ed. “Believe it or not, millennials, before Starbucks came along, meeting over afternoon coffee wasn’t a thing in America.” In February, I went to a Schultz Q&A at the Free Library of Philadelphia, moderated by former Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol. After the event concluded, a woman worked her way through a mass of bodies to introduce herself to Schultz. “Hi, how are you?” she said as they shook hands. “I just have to say, it’ll kill me if you reelect Donald Trump. You are really dangerous. You will kill us.” (He promised her he wouldn’t.)
Undeterred, Schultz rented the bus in April and began traveling the country. The tour would be a marked contrast to the TV spots — a Fox News town hall, a CNN town hall, “Morning Joe” — where he’d previously argued his case, as well as the big-city book talks in which he’d promoted his new memoir, “From the Ground Up” (his third memoir overall, and second, after 1997’s “Pour Your Heart Into It,” to employ a coffee-themed title). Instead, the road trip was designed to feel folksy: The billionaire would put on a pair of jeans and stage an informal listening tour with voters.
Before I joined the tour in Arizona, Schultz’s press liaison requested that Schultz and I first meet in New York City to feel each other out. The meeting took place in the Midtown office of a boutique investment bank run by a close friend of Schultz’s. For someone routinely tarred as an out-of-touch billionaire, this struck me as a bad look, but it was at least an honest reflection of his brand. On the stump, Schultz favors broad, bland proclamations; in person, he can be sharper. He spent our half-hour bemoaning the leftward tilt of the Democratic Party he’d recently abandoned: Medicare-for-all was insane. Bernie Sanders was a “nut job.” And so forth.
I met him a week later in Scottsdale, Ariz., at the hacienda-like property that houses the local Chamber of Commerce. He gave off a papal vibe as he slowly made his way through the building’s courtyard, flanked by his entourage, waving to onlookers. For all his apparent toxicity, Schultz managed to attract some intriguing bipartisan talent to his team, chief among them Steve Schmidt, the bald-domed operative notable for steering the McCain-Palin presidential campaign and, more recently, abandoning the GOP in protest over Trump. (Among the others was Bill Burton, a deputy press secretary under Barack Obama.) Hiring people like Schmidt lent credence to the idea, popular among campaign reporters, that Schultz’s operation is essentially a jobs program for the politically homeless and opportunistic. But the professionalism of the operation gave his motorcade the scaffolding of presidential seriousness — which may have been all he wanted to convey, at this stage, to a skeptical public.
In Scottsdale, addressing local businesspeople, Schultz framed the current field as an impossible choice between two hellish extremes. On the right are Trump and the Republicans. Among other sins, like threatening to close the border, the president has disgraced his party by abandoning its claim to fiscal responsibility, Schultz said: “We’re not going to have the money to invest in the children and the grandchildren.” Meanwhile, the Democrats are freaking him out with the socialism. From there, he pivoted to grander themes, remarking that he couldn’t recall the last instance of political “statesmanship” since Tip O’Neill and Ronald Reagan put aside their differences in the 1980s. Once we were back on the bus, heading south toward Tucson, Schultz read me one quote from JFK, referred to two speeches by RFK, then showed me a somber iPhone video he took at a military cemetery in Normandy, France, with taps playing in the background. “The American people are longing for character,” he told me, later on. “They’re longing for someone to trust. They’re longing for truth.”
Howard Schultz campaigns in sepia. Colorful he is not. In other words, he’s the living stereotype of a centrist.
It’s hard to think of a less compelling thing to be right now than a centrist. Precisely because of the permanent crisis that afflicts Trump’s Washington, Schultz’s pox-on-both-houses sanctimony can feel not just inadequate but slightly nauseating. (Sometimes, when I’d ask how he’d address this or that problem in Washington, he’d just look at me and say, “Leadership.”) In 2016, Schultz supported Hillary Clinton, occasionally sending her advice via email. “The campaign feels ‘yesterday,’ ” he wrote in a missive published by WikiLeaks. “It’s too packaged and prescribed.” Now he is toying with an even more sterile, Establishment version of her campaign. Armed with boundless self-assurance, he’s achieved the neat trick of seeming at once both tepid and hubristic.
But there was another, arguably more serious, problem with Schultz’s version of centrism: It does the opposite of what it claims to do. A politics intended to appeal to a wide middle of the country has, in the hands of someone like Schultz, come to mean an incredibly narrow thing: fiscally conservative, socially liberal, open borders on trade and immigration, restrictive on gun rights, hawkish on foreign policy, and not crazy about raising taxes. “Centrism,” in other words, has become a byword for the politics of the business elite. Defined left to right, on an x-axis, it may approximate the center of the political spectrum. But on a y-axis that represents socioeconomic status, it sits at the very top.
In “From the Ground Up,” Schultz wrote that his political awakening occurred not after the election of Donald Trump — or even thanks to the specter of democratic socialism — but in the summer of 2011, during the now-quaint standoff over raising the debt ceiling, when he was horrified to see the nation’s credit rating fall from AAA to AA+. This is a big theme of his. In Tucson, after Schultz addressed a lecture hall at the University of Arizona’s business school, an audience member asked how, as president, he might promote his values. He brought up the national debt. The next day, in the border town of Nogales, speaking to a roomful of Mexican American high school students, he stressed the issue of the national debt. Whenever he can, he talks about the national debt. When it comes to how he might address the $22 trillion debt, he resists talking about raising taxes or cutting military spending — two broadly popular ideas that might offend members of his social cohort — and instead focuses on cutting entitlements, a broadly unpopular idea.
It goes on. Asked how he’d tackle income inequality, he says he’s skeptical of a $15 minimum wage but does believe in “tax reform.” He supports raising taxes on the rich but refuses to say how much. For that matter, he takes offense at being called a billionaire at all, preferring the more graceful sobriquet “person of means.”
Schultz doesn’t think of himself as a plutocrat. He grew up in public housing in Canarsie, Brooklyn; he certainly has a claim on only-in-America meritocracy. At the same time, because his dreams materialized, he can’t seem to fathom why disaffected voters — say, Trump or Sanders supporters — might be nonplussed by a third-party candidacy that, for all its reformist impulses, screams status quo.
“How blessed we’ve been to be born in America,” Schultz told me at one point. When I suggested many don’t see it that way, he replied, “We have to show them.” When I asked for his theory on how politics got so polarized in the first place, he genuinely didn’t seem to have one, settling eventually on: “The question isn’t how we got here. The question is how are we going to solve it.”
No third-party candidate in modern American history has come close to winning a presidential election. (Ross Perot had the most recent success, winning 19 percent of the popular vote and zero electoral college votes in 1992.) If Schultz does run, he would be trying to do it on the rich-guy platform. His team has three general theories of how to achieve this. One: Hope that the other two people in the race are even less popular than he is. “Let’s say socialist versus sociopath is the race in the election,” Steve Schmidt posited at one point, as we were sitting in the back of the bus, watching the news. “Sociopath wins.” Sensible Schultz can save the nation from this choice. But what if the Democratic nominee is Joe Biden, a center-left candidate despised by the Bernie wing of the party? “I think Bernie’s going to be the nominee,” Schmidt replied.
The second strategy involves hoping the roughly 40 percent of Americans who identify as independents — most of whom don’t actually vote independent — would stray from the Democratic and Republican parties. “When you go into a campaign, you have to be either charismatic or compelling — or both,” Schmidt said. “Political leaders who are both charismatic and compelling is like a once-in-a-generation deal. FDR. JFK. Reagan. Clinton. Obama.” What’s Kamala Harris? “Compelling.” What’s Beto O’Rourke? “Charismatic.” What’s Schultz? “Compelling. He’s going to put his spin on entitlement reform. He can be brutally honest.”
The third strategy is to pray he could make some magic on the general election debate stage. When I ask for internal polling data, his pollster Greg Strimple sends me a survey he commissioned in January, showing that in hypothetical matchups against Harris and Trump, and Elizabeth Warren and Trump, Schultz would garner 16.8 and 16.9 percent support, respectively. These are not impressive numbers, but I assume they are meant to support the idea that Schultz has enough appeal to qualify for presidential debates, which requires a 15 percent polling threshold.
After chatting with Schmidt, I headed back to the front of the bus, grabbed a bottled Frappuccino out of a mini-fridge and rode with Schultz till Tucson, where he met with another Chamber of Commerce, then addressed the Arizona MBA students. There, he had the opportunity to retrace the story in which a son of a diaper delivery man rose, from the ground up, out of Brooklyn, to lead one of the world’s most beloved and recognizable brands, with 30,000 stores in 78 international markets. He talked about how he put people over profits, giving even his part-time employees health-care benefits. He projected vulnerability about the “scars, insecurity and shame” that have haunted him since boyhood. The crowd received him warmly.
But before that, we stopped at a Starbucks on the edge of town, where we loaded up on beverages and Schultz dipped behind the counter to schmooze with some green-aproned employees. His bus remained outside, its engine running, spewing exhaust and creating an incredible racket. The noise caused a guy with dirty-blond hair in a tattered University of Arizona T-shirt to hustle out of his small home, just behind the Starbucks parking lot, and maniacally ask for someone, anyone, to please turn off the ignition. I asked a staffer if this might be possible, but he was occupied FaceTiming his daughter.
The guy eventually gave up. As he stalked back to his house, I told him whose bus it was. He registered the information without breaking stride. “I hate living behind a Starbucks,” he said.
Amid the rancor of the late George W. Bush years, a quixotic new passion for centrism started burbling up from the political bog. There was Unity08, which unsuccessfully tried to draft a bipartisan “unity ticket” for president. That evolved into Americans Elect, a $35 million bid backed by hedge-fund money to do the same thing. That failed too. Next came the Centrist Project, which sought to elect centrist independents to the U.S. Senate. That didn’t work either, and the organization changed its name and mission. “The word ‘centrist’ is loaded. It’s perceived as status quo, or split the difference,” says Nick Troiano, the executive director of what is now Unite America, which has shifted to supporting moderate Republicans and Democrats in primary races. “The brand is quite toxic.”
It’s true. There’s a reason former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire centrist par excellence, consistently refuses to run for president. Factor in the rise of outside pressure groups, gerrymandered congressional districts and hatred of the other team — and there’s a lot of incentive for candidates to avoid the soft middle. That said, the 2018 midterms were determined not by Sanders-backed progressives but by middle-of-the-road liberals, who flipped dozens of seats. Centrists may be extinct in the current Republican Party, but there are still plenty among Democrats. The presidential field is stacked with people routinely tarred as moderates by their left-wing opponents, including Cory Booker, Pete Buttigieg, Beto O’Rourke, Amy Klobuchar, Kirsten Gillibrand, John Hickenlooper and Joe Biden, the Democratic front-runner. If one sees American politics as a death match between Donald Trump and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, then yes, there is no center. But that view is clearly wrong.
The problem, perhaps, isn’t the center as such. It’s what “centrism” has come to represent. The most prominent of the big centrist interest groups, No Labels, was founded in 2010 to “advocate and educate for greater bipartisan cooperation through all levels of government.” While the group supports some progressive proposals, like subsidized family leave, its orientation toward corporate-friendly politics is unmistakable. A huge part of what it does is bankroll pro-business candidates of both parties. Last cycle, six No Labels-affiliated super PACs raised $11 million from just 53 donors. According to documents leaked to the Daily Beast last year, its funders include Bain Capital CEO Josh Bekenstein, Walmart heiress Christy Ruth Walton and other very rich people. (When I asked No Labels founder Nancy Jacobson whether the group was beholden to its wealthy donors, she said, “I have never heard any one of these people ever ask for anything personal for themselves.” No Labels, she added, is “pure, it’s for this country, and that’s the only thing that’s driving anybody.”)
This species of centrist, also known as a “corporate Democrat,” is probably best embodied by former senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut (who serves on the No Labels board). “It’s fiscal responsibility, it’s pro-growth, it’s a kind of principled internationalism,” Lieberman told me when I asked him to lay out his vision of centrism. Lieberman recently registered as a lobbyist for the Chinese telecom giant ZTE, which he once called a national security threat; he’s also a lawyer at the firm run by former Trump attorney Marc Kasowitz. (Lieberman told Politico he’s merely “listening and asking questions” on behalf of ZTE.)
Lieberman, Schultz, No Labels and others who share their views have managed to monopolize the “centrist” and “independent” tags. But take any modestly successful third-party presidential candidate of the past century: They look nothing like Schultz. Eugene Debs was a socialist. Theodore Roosevelt was a trustbuster. Robert La Follette was a progressive. Ross Perot was a trade hawk. All were populists. As was Bernie Sanders. And as was Donald Trump. Rather than adopt the politics of the financial or political elite, all portrayed themselves, in one way or another, as outsiders, fighting on the side of the little guy — which is where the actual center resides.
In 2017, New America Foundation fellow Lee Drutman published a fascinating and widely read study of the 2016 election. He divided the electorate into four groups: liberals, conservatives, libertarians and, crucially, populists. These were voters who leaned liberal in economics, but conservative on identity issues. He found that Clinton, relying almost entirely on liberals, couldn’t carry the election. Trump voters, by contrast, were split between conservatives and populists. Though he technically ran as a Republican, Trump used an unorthodox mash-up of left-wing (anti-free-trade) and right-wing (anti-immigrant) stances to attract voters dissatisfied with the political establishment. In his own extreme way, he ran as a moderate. Which helps explain why 12 percent of Bernie Sanders primary voters then voted for Trump, and why 9 percent of Trump voters had previously voted for Obama.
American swing voters tend not to share the politics of Fortune 500 CEOs. The nation’s credit rating does not keep them up at night. “Schultz has completely misread the moment. He’s misreading the center of the electorate,” says Jonathan Cowan, the president of Third Way, a Democratic think tank that itself has been derided as bland and middle-of-the-road. “There is zero chance of him winning the election as an independent. Literally not possible.” For Howard Schultz to pick off enough fed-up, nonpartisan voters to run a competitive race, he’d probably have to campaign as the opposite of himself.
Can I put these beers off the record?” It was 10:40 a.m. in the Staten Island Ferry terminal, and 32-year-old Democratic U.S. Rep. Max Rose was reaching for two tall-boy Brooklyn IPAs out of an ice bucket at a pizza kiosk. I told him no, and he grabbed them anyway. We had about 20 minutes until he had to tour the grounds of a new shopping center. We cracked the beers and drank.
What would a viable version of Howard Schultz look like? Not a “corporate Democrat” but a “populist centrist.” To find one, I looked for Democrats who had flipped Republican-held, Trump-voting congressional districts in the 2018 midterms. Out of 435 races, 21 fit this description. Within these, I looked for upsets: Democratic victories in reliable Republican districts that didn’t flip thanks to predictable anti-Trump reaction. There were only a handful — perhaps none more surprising than New York City’s 11th, encompassing all of Staten Island and a sliver of south Brooklyn, a district that Trump himself had carried by 10 points two years earlier. Rose, a political neophyte, is its congressman — and perhaps our perfect populist centrist.
I first noticed Rose in the summer of 2018, when his TV ads started to pop up on NY1, New York’s all-day news channel. Short, bald and barrel-chested. A human terrier. The ads emphasized his approachability and connection to ordinary Americans (his military service, his penchant for singing “Pitch Perfect” songs) and were almost comically nonideological. No mention of his political party. Rose just hammered the idea that Staten Islanders had been left behind by elites uninterested in their problems, from traffic to opioid addiction. “Mayor de Blasio acts like Staten Island doesn’t even exist. And we need to get rid of all the leadership in D.C.,” he narrated. “What’s the establishment doing for you?”
I didn’t know what to expect from Rose. His biography is unorthodox. He earned a Purple Heart in Afghanistan. He refused to take corporate PAC money in his election. He’s got a lunch-pail vibe that makes him a natural fit with Staten Island’s well-documented population of police officers, firefighters and city workers. He also grew up in Park Slope, went to Wesleyan and once interned for Cory Booker. What he lost in corporate cash he made up for in out-of-district donations.
I met up with Rose one weekday morning outside a subway station in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, as he handed out fliers and kibitzed with commuters. He was insanely good at this. There was no way to tell from his interactions if he’d known someone since childhood or never seen them before. Lots of bro-hugs were proffered. But the first substantive interaction I saw was a slightly contentious one, and a good window into his politics.
A few minutes after I got there, a little before 8 a.m., a 30-ish woman with a “Pod Save America” sticker on her thermos (or backpack, or bike helmet, I can’t remember) started to grill him about whether he supports Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal. Emphatically, he does not. “I think the economic principles in there are absolutely ridiculous, absolutely ridiculous,” he told her. “I’m the most pro-union guy around. I think it’s really a difference in understanding of how we want to get there more than anything else. Jobs guarantee? Makes no sense whatsoever. Zero sense.” Eventually, she ducked into the subway, and Rose, who had already ribbed me for showing up 45 minutes later than he did — I’d fail out of the military, was the implication — turned my way. “That’s why you f—ed up. I was all kissing babies before you got here, and now I get into an intellectual debate. She jumped all over me.”
Rose may not share the exact politics of his delegation member and fellow freshman Ocasio-Cortez, but he also doesn’t identify with the neoliberalism of the past generation of the Democratic Party. “Now, what we cannot do is say the counterbalance to [socialism] is Mitt Romney, Clintonesque triangulation, moderation, you know, bulls—,” he said, after an obligatory diner stop. “Where you think everything can be solved with a public-private partnership.” In fact, he and Ocasio-Cortez probably aren’t far apart on most issues: Rose supports a public health-care option, wants to lower the age of Medicare eligibility to 55, and vocally supports the unionization of Staten Island’s Amazon fulfillment center. (Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
A week earlier, at a town hall event in a church in a Latino neighborhood of Staten Island, I saw him make another interesting pivot. After a woman asked him if he supported the Dream Act (yes), a guy in a red flannel shirt and a snowy white beard asked him whether he supports Trump’s border wall (no). The man went on to say that he’s worked in construction for 40 years and that it’s impossible not to see the effect of illegal immigration on the building trades. “Wages dropped. Squeezed out native-born men, white, black and brown. This community has lost jobs because of that.” Rose thanked him for drawing “attention to the economic plight of the working class” before making a case — designed to appeal to his interlocutor — for a pathway to citizenship. “Guess what’s going to happen with that documentation,” he said. “I want a union card attached to it.”
Rose’s district is fascinating. Not only was Staten Island the only county in New York City to go for Trump in the general, but it voted for Trump in the Republican primary at a higher rate (82 percent) than any other county in the state. At the same time, Rose’s district is one of the more demographically representative in America: 13 percent Latino, 12 percent Asian, 7 percent black, 67 percent white. Democrats outnumber Republicans 5 to 3, but before Rose it was represented in Congress by the blah Republican Dan Donovan, and before that, the not-at-all blah Republican Michael Grimm, who did a stint in federal prison for tax evasion. It’s a district dominated by Reagan Democrats who vote Republican, not because they’re hardcore conservatives, but because most Democrats seem unrelatable, liberal and squishy. (Bill de Blasio is despised on Staten Island.)
Rose’s personality plays well in the district. In the half-day we spent together, he (A) claimed he could win a race in Ocasio-Cortez’s district, which covers parts of the Bronx and Queens; (B) accused me of being “relatively arrogant” after I called him a “relative newcomer” to Staten Island; and (C) bought us morning beers. But his worldview also reflects the Democratic playbook of the 2018 midterms — dominated by moderates who weren’t necessarily anodyne and business friendly.
Like Rose, a number of other Democratic freshmen are veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which may be another way they appealed to right-wing voters without alienating left-wing voters. Rose’s district is the only one in the country that went for McCain in 2008 and Obama in 2012. “You don’t get more patriotic than John McCain,” Rose said, explaining the anomaly. “The father of campaign finance reform. The maverick.”
Rose ran to the left of incumbent Donovan on every single issue. Climate change, abortion, sanctuary cities, you name it. But this didn’t pose a problem to flipping his district. He represents New York, not rural Maine or Pennsylvania steel country. Instead, he simply tacked mainstream on third-rail topics — no Abolish ICE, no socialism — then out-Trumped Trump on pocketbook issues. “Put immigration aside. You know, Donald Trump co-opted a Democratic economic populist agenda in some ways,” Rose said. “He talked about the carried-interest loophole. He talked about how pitiful our roads and bridges were, and how we’re gonna make them great again. Right? He spoke about protecting Social Security and Medicare, and building upon them even. But the problem is we haven’t seen them done. He talked about ways in which free trade — we all pray to this God, ‘all boats rising.’ It’s an economic fallacy. He told us the truth. We’re getting ripped off.”
I’m not sure what Rose’s political future holds — and he’s already got several Republican challengers lined up to take him on in 2020. But whether Rose ever finds himself a major national platform, his brand of politics is worth taking seriously. For all its evident lameness, there is a purpose to centrism. Without some kind of consensus between opposing factions, democracy ceases to work. America obviously needs a middle. It just might not be the one Howard Schultz wants.
Simon van Zuylen-Wood is a writer in New York.