The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Run, Howard, run!

Howard Schultz in Seattle. (Jason Redmond/AFP/Getty Images)

Nick Troiano is executive director of Unite America and a former independent congressional candidate from Denver. Charles Wheelan is founder and co-chair of Unite America and a senior lecturer in public policy at Dartmouth College.

In reportedly exploring an independent campaign for president, former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz has set off endless catastrophizing about him supposedly spoiling the 2020 election and getting President Trump reelected. At least one Democratic leader is already calling for him to get out before he even gets in.

These early attempts to suppress a candidate because of his political independence are at best anti-democratic and at worst a new kind of political bigotry. Schultz deserves a chance to make his case, and our country would be better for it. Furthermore, he could win.

Schultz is at least as qualified as any other declared, or likely, 2020 presidential candidate. Who better to champion economic opportunity for all than an entrepreneur raised in public housing who not only created hundreds of thousands of jobs worldwide but also gave employees, including part-timers, health coverage and a plan for stock ownership?

Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz said he believes “the country needs to become more compassionate” in an interview on Sept. 20, 2017. (Video: The Washington Post)

Having worked in independent politics for more than a decade, we’ve seen how both parties have rigged the rules to their own advantage. We know how our electoral system can sometimes produce results contrary to most voters’ preferences in multi-candidate elections. But we are confident that Schultz, whose significant resources could buy both name recognition and spots on all 50 state ballots, can win the presidency, under a few conditions:

First, he must make it clear from the outset that he is running to win. He could, for example, commit to exiting the race if he does not have a clear path to victory following the third presidential debate in October 2020. This would give a broad swath of the electorate permission to support him without fearing a result they did not intend.

Second, both of the traditional parties must nominate candidates that a sufficient number of voters view as unacceptable. A Trump vs. Elizabeth Warren race opens a much wider lane in the middle for Schultz than would a Vice President Pence vs. Joe Biden race.

Third, rather than assume independent voters can be corralled into a cohesive political base (they cannot), Schultz must create a new political identity and a following of his own. It must transcend both parties to galvanize the two-thirds of Americans in the “exhausted majority," as the Hidden Tribes of America project named the group of voters desire to move past what Schultz describes as “revenge politics” and instead find common ground.

By choosing a Republican running mate to forge what they might call a unity ticket, and assembling a bipartisan Cabinet, Schultz could unite center-left and center-right Americans who would vote as a coalition without having to leave their current parties, similar to what independent Emmanuel Macron did to win France’s presidency.

Having been let down by both parties for decades — on issues from the rising cost of living to stagnant wages — the American people were looking for outsiders to disrupt a broken system in 2016 and will likely do so again in 2020. Surely the man who created an entire industry and built one of the world’s best-known brands can offer a new product to millions of unhappy customers.

Michael Bloomberg concluded that an independent pathway was not viable in the last presidential election, but he did not try. The last third-party presidential candidate who tried and won was Abraham Lincoln. The most recent credible independent presidential candidate was Ross Perot, who led polls in June 1992. Anything can happen. Right, President Trump?

And our country would be better for the attempt. Neither Democrats nor Republicans have a right to lay exclusive claim over a system of government that was not originally designed to accommodate political parties — especially at a time when political independents (42 percent as of 2017) have rejected and outnumber them both.

Moreover, we have reached a point where polarization means neither party can advance its own agenda. An independent president who is free to choose the best ideas and build coalitions across the aisle would have a much greater opportunity to solve our nation’s challenges, from climate change to entitlement reform.

If Schultz commits to running only to win, then the worst-case scenario is him spending the next 21 months elevating our political discourse, talking honestly about the issues we face and bringing our country together. In a competitive three-way contest, no longer can each candidate simply wage zero-sum warfare against the other; they must stand for something and earn each American’s vote.

Schultz’s candidacy could also catalyze a new movement focused on fixing our broken political system — including advancing reforms, such as ranked-choice voting, that would permanently level the playing field for new competition.

With about a year to go until primary voting begins, now is the time for every voice to be heard; the only voices that should be feared are those trying to silence others.