Opinion writer

Amid all the denunciations of Howard Schultz’s possible third-party presidential candidacy, it’s often conceded that Schultz is “well-meaning.” After all, the billionaire appears genuinely committed to tackle what he sees as urgent problems: the need for a fair, humane immigration overhaul; the imperative of making health care available to all; the existential threat posed by climate change.

But, in practice, if Schultz is to have any hope of prevailing, he must, of necessity, place our hopes of accomplishing those things at far greater risk. And he knows it.

The Post has some extraordinary new reporting that sheds fresh light on Schultz’s deliberations. The upshot: It is now empirically, provably the case that Schultz is fully cognizant of the enormity of the risk his candidacy poses. Indeed, Schultz’s own advisers have now revealed it for all to see. It is now beyond any question that his candidacy is driven by an appalling level of cynicism and recklessness.

The key revelation from The Post is that there is a deliberate method behind Schultz’s devotion of so much of his free-media tour to attacking Democrats. As The Post reports, this represents “a core strategy his advisers have developed in recent months through extensive polling”:

To win a majority of electoral college votes, which Schultz says would be his goal, he would have to ultimately replace the Democratic nominee as the favored choice of voters who do not want Trump to win a second term.

In practice, this has led Schultz to focus far more of his initial fire on Democrats than Trump … He has particularly focused on attacking the Democratic Party’s more-liberal wing.

Any viable route for Schultz requires, first and foremost, an aggressive effort to split the majority of Americans who have already concluded Trump’s presidency is a failure, or worse, a rolling disaster.

The fact that this strategic imperative requires Schultz to make lopsided attacks on Democrats reveals the deep cynicism at the core of his whole argument.

Schultz’s argument

His argument has three components. He says “nobody wants to remove” the “unqualified” Trump “more than me.” Thus, he agrees with the majority that has concluded Trump is unfit or dangerous. He claims he’s running against the two-party system’s paralysis because of rigid partisanship, or equivalent “revenge politics” on either side.

And he insists he is motivated only by a fear that a too-liberal Democratic nominee could reelect Trump. “It would kill me to see President Trump be reelected,” Schultz frets, while admiring his glinting halo in the mirror.

But now that we know that Schultz is attacking Democrats far more often for self-interested strategic reasons, this whole argument has now been blown to smithereens from the inside.

Schultz’s plutocrat-friendly agenda

Schultz has widely blasted Democratic proposals, such as tuition-free college, Medicare-for-all, and tax hikes on extremely high marginal income and massively concentrated wealth, as pie-in-the-sky fantasies, as “extreme” and “un-American.”

Schultz worries about the deficit and claims to view Trump’s massive corporate tax cut as regressive — but hedges on whether the wealthy should pay more. Thus, he champions cuts to entitlements, which — along with his reluctance to tap the huge upward transfer of income and wealth — badly undercuts his professed vow to combat poverty and soaring inequality.

As Brian Beutler notes, Schultz’s agenda reassures the plutocrats, by saying: Yes, a majority has rejected Trump’s racism and embrace of GOP plutocracy, but I wouldn’t convert this sentiment or this unique moment into a genuine reimagining of the social contract that would seriously disturb current distributions.

The majority that rejected Trump in the 2018 election did so after college-educated and suburban white voters voted Democratic in much higher numbers than before. They voted to preserve protections for people with preexisting conditions and subsidized health insurance for millions. They voted against Trump’s regressive tax cut, his horrifying cruelty toward immigrants and asylum seekers, and his proposed monument to hatred and exclusion on the southern border.

Schultz claims to embody that basic consensus. He wants legalization for undocumented immigrants and humane treatment of newcomers. He wants health care for all and vaguely says Trump’s tax cut was indefensibly regressive. He’s merely “warning” that Medicare-for-all and Democratic proposals for progressive tax reform go too far.

Yet we now know that Schultz is not offering this argument in good faith.

By Schultz’s own lights, the Democratic agenda is far less extreme than the GOP one is. If he really wants universal health care, he’s far closer to the loose Democratic consensus than to the GOP’s unshakable ideological opposition to it. If he really thinks climate change has put us on a “collision course with time,” then he must agree that Trump/GOP climate denial poses an extraordinarily extreme threat.

A big open question about 2020

It is an open question whether the coalition that elected the Democratic House majority will deliver in 2020. The possibility that affluent whites could find themselves at odds with working-class minorities and young people about the party’s economic agenda is real.

There is a majority consensus among them about Trump. But right now, Schultz’s rhetoric is directed like a laser at disrupting that majority consensus.

Splitting off those affluent whites is Schultz’s strategic imperative. So he must focus most of his effort on casting the Democratic Party’s economic agenda as extreme. His pieties about running against extremism on both sides provide cover for that mission.

The cynicism of elite centrism

This is the cynicism of a certain elite centrism at work: Yes, the GOP agenda poses an extreme threat to our future, but the party that agrees with me to a far greater degree about how to secure that future is just as dangerous and extreme.

Thus, Schultz must cast greater taxation on extremely high income and wealth to fund truly universal health care and higher education as a threat equivalent to — or more worthy of attention than — that posed by four more years of Trump/GOP climate denial and xenophobic nationalism, and Trump’s staggering incompetence.

Perhaps Schultz sees the former as so unbearable that he’s willing to risk the latter. But what we now know is that his strategy, by depending on splitting the anti-Trump vote, requires him to elevate that latter risk to a much higher level.

Read more:

Dana Milbank: Howard Schultz brings a whole latte trouble

Alexandra Petri: Go to space, Howard Schultz

E.J. Dionne Jr.: Howard Schultz is suffering from the Frappuccino Syndrome

Kathleen Parker: Howard Schultz has two problems

Helaine Olen: Howard Schultz and his hesitant faithful