Starbucks's Howard Schultz has a plan for America: reduce the federal deficit, reject expensive new government programs and cut spending on existing ones.
If Schultz hopes that economic platform will pave the way to a presidential run in 2020, 2016 presidential election veterans from both parties think the departing Starbucks executive is in for a rude awakening.
“I don't understand it,” said Brian Fallon, national press secretary for Hillary Clinton's 2016 presidential bid. “Just think of how people belittled Hillary Clinton's proposals as too centrist, and her proposals were fairly ambitious, especially compared to this. Schultz is laying out an appeal to the small 'fix the debt' crowd, and there's no appetite for that.”
Republican strategists were also mystified by Schultz's comments. “Where is the constituency for this?” asked Tim Miller, who served as an aide to former governor Jeb Bush's (R-Fla.) presidential campaign, of Schultz's ideas. “As long as Trump has a stranglehold on Republican voters, which he does, I don't know who the constituency is beyond the few and proud 'Never Trump' [people] like myself for a deficit driven message.”
Schultz announced he will soon step down as executive chair of Starbucks, stoking speculation he may try running for president in 2020. A supporter of Democratic nominee Clinton in 2016, the multibillionaire told the New York Times he may consider a run at the White House after departing the coffee company.
In an interview with CNBC on Tuesday, Schultz echoed some of his earlier political comments, saying he thinks the rising federal deficit is the single greatest threat to America and must be reined in. He also said he supports targeting “entitlement” programs — Social Security and Medicare — and does not support either a federal jobs guarantee program or a universal single-payer health-care system, policies embraced by leading Democratic politicians.
“I think the greatest threat domestically to the country is this $21 trillion debt hanging over the cloud of America and future generations,” Schultz told CNBC. “We are going to pay for this in terms of the next generation, and it's unfair.”
These ideas proved liabilities in the primaries of both major political parties. Sen. Bernie Sanders's (I-Vt.) promises of expanded social programming have grown into Democratic rallying cries. Meanwhile, Trump explicitly promised not to touch entitlements, much to the chagrin of the rest of the field.
As a candidate who demolished the rest of the Republican field, Trump offered few specifics on how he would reduce the national deficit, while also promising not to cut Social Security or Medicare. Meanwhile, the deficit has ballooned to close to $1 trillion annually under Trump's administration, yet his approval ratings among Republican voters remain north of 85 percent.
In his CNBC interview, Schultz said he wanted to remove “ideology” from American politics to find policies that would supercharge economic growth.
“Let's take a centrist approach about getting ideology out,” Schultz said in the CNBC interview. “We can get the 4 percent growth, we can go after entitlements, and we can do the right thing — if we have the right people in place.”
Despite Schultz's appeal to the political center, polling suggests few Americans support cutting spending on Social Security and Medicare.
A 2017 poll found about 5 percent of Democrats support cuts to Medicare, and about 3 percent support cuts to Social Security. Fifteen percent of Republicans want to cut Medicare, and 10 percent want to cut Social Security, the poll found.
Ninety-five percent of Democrats want equal or higher spending on Social Security, as do 86 percent of Republicans, the Pew Research Center found.
Some political scientists said Schultz's idea of a “political center” that wants to cut the deficit is a myth.
“This is pretty typical of what CEOs think the center of American politics is, but it's not reflective of the actual center of policy opinion,” said Matthew Grossmann, director of the institute for Public Policy and Social Research at Michigan State. “Economically conservative and socially liberal with a special focus on the debt is a constituency of very few people.”
Data collected by the Voter Study Group, cited by New York Magazine, found only a tiny sliver of Americans considered themselves right-of-center on economics and left-of-center on “identity” issues — the combination Schultz appears to embody.
Almost half the country is liberal on economics and identity issues, nearly 30 percent is left on economics and conservative on identity issues, and almost 23 percent is conservative on both economic and identity issues. Less than 4 percent is conservative on economics while being liberal on identity issues, the study found.
“There's a corporate executive class that tends to have exactly this set of beliefs,” said David Hopkins, a political scientist at Boston College, “but it doesn't have much of a constituency with the public.”
Then again, few expected Trump's message to catch fire with the Republican electorate, either. Republican operatives were convinced the party needed to soften its image on racial issues and immigration, arguing after 2012 presidential nominee Mitt Romney's defeat that doing so was the only way back to power. Trump appeared to prove that conventional wisdom wrong.
“As things stand today, there's obviously not a groundswell of support for someone who will focus on the deficit and entitlements, to the chagrin of people like me,” said Miller, the former Bush aide. “But the political winds shift quickly, and it doesn't mean a couple years of incompetent government can't change it."