Howard Schultz on "The Daily Briefing" in New York on Wednesday. (Richard Drew/AP)
Columnist

That terrible roar you hear, rumbling from coast to coast, is the collective anguish of the Democratic Party. Democrats are wailing, gnashing teeth and rending garments as Howard Schultz, the former Starbucks chief executive, contemplates a presidential run.

Schultz is a liberal guy — too fiscally restrained for the progressives, perhaps, but definitely more left than right. Historically, that means he would be likely to draw votes away from the Democratic Party; in the moment, that means another four years of President Trump. Left-wing commentators have been making that point volubly and at great length.

But there’s a case to be made that Schultz — or Michael Bloomberg or some other pragmatic centrist with enough money and time on their hands — might actually be the best hope for avoiding Trump, Part II. Ordinarily, I wouldn’t make that case; the U.S. political system is strongly stacked in favor of a major-party candidate. But these are not ordinary times.

The case for an independent run starts with Trump, a wildly polarizing figure who has exiled many moderate Republicans from their own party. But it proceeds to the evident belief among many Democrats that Trump’s excesses give them room to move much further to the left in 2020 than they would dare do against a more normal Republican.

Collectively, those Democrats seem to be homing in on a campaign platform of effectively open borders, combined with a Scandinavian-style welfare state and much higher taxes on the ultra-rich. Even if you think those policies are correct, and necessary, you can still see how they would worry ordinary middle-class voters who already have U.S. citizenship, decent health insurance and a modicum of financial security.

What the progressive base wants — a European-style welfare state that would cost roughly 50 percent of gross domestic product — cannot be paid for by taxing “the 1 percent,” who collectively take home between a fifth and a quarter of national income. Can those people pay more? Sure. Can they pay the whole bill by themselves? Not even close.

The fantasy math that progressive politicians employ to obscure this fact may fool a devoted base that wants to believe in The Vision. It will not deceive an anxious middle class whose eyes are fixed firmly on the household bottom line.

A sharp Democratic leftward lurch might hand Trump an opportunity to run toward his base, in turn prompting progressive Democrats to run even further left. If the resulting race to the peripheries goes far enough, space might open up in the center for a third-party candidate to slip through.

The idea that America is locked into a two-party system assumes that at least one of those parties will try to capture the center. If both parties focus on a narrow base of primary voters, that thesis becomes at least debatable. But only — and this is important — if the third-party candidate pursues genuinely common ground rather than catering to a different but still fairly narrow base.

“Very culturally liberal, but business friendly and fiscally prudent” sounds like political heaven to a certain portion of the electorate. A small portion. Schultz would need to pick up other folks to forge a winning coalition.

Religious voters might well be happier with a candidate less shamelessly concupiscent than Trump, but only if that candidate shows enough tolerance for social conservatives to make credible promises. On the left, the sheer number of groups in the Democratic coalition offers many potential centrist-coalition partners who might be picked off by wedge issues. But again, only if our putative centrist dream candidate can make a compelling case that he will be looking out for their interests.

Even better, the candidate might try to take a little from Column A and a little from Column B. Consider how Utah handled the gay marriage question: While everyone else was screaming at one another, Utah quietly forged a compromise that protected LGBTQ rights in employment and housing while carving out generous exemptions for religious beliefs. It didn’t satisfy the hard-liners in either community, but it was something most people could live with.

Much of the country apparently prefers total culture war. But only apparently. I’d wager that lots of people would rather pursue a negotiated peace, one that lets both sides of the culture war feel protected instead of waging a bitter fight for total vindication. Those people don’t have a candidate right now.

Could Schultz be the candidate who actually finds the country some common ground? Well, he did unite America around his delicious coffee milkshakes. And even if becoming that candidate wasn’t enough to make him president, it sure would make for a nice change.

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