In an era of identity politics, I should identify with Howard Schultz and his possible race for the presidency. We are both Brooklyn born, Jewish, the first males in our families to graduate from college, and we both like a good cup of coffee in the morning. But Schultz, if you will forgive my metaphor, is not my cup of tea. He would effectively wind up as President Trump’s running mate.
Schultz, the man who divined that the United States needed a Starbucks every 10 paces or so, dismisses that concern with meaningless bromides. To those in the Democratic Party who scream that an independent candidacy by Schultz could throw the election to Trump, he retorts that he wants to “see the American people win.” Great. But what does that even mean?
Schultz is one of what seems like several hundred people either running for president or threatening to. Yet, he is different in two ways. The others are mostly Democrats and, with one possible exception — former New York mayor Michael R. Bloomberg — are not worth in excess of $3 billion. That amount of wealth changes everything. Bloomberg, with an estimated net worth of $48 billion, has mentioned spending $100 million on a candidacy but could go far higher. Schultz might not be able to match that, but he could still have an impact.
On who? On voters who fear Trump only less than they do flesh-eating bacteria but do not find the current crop of left-leaning Democrats to their liking. Schultz is an old-fashioned liberal who ran Starbucks in an exemplary fashion with good benefits. At the same time, he is fiscally prudent. Like the late financier Peter Peterson, Schultz insists that someone has to pay for all the programs that Democrats are proposing, such as free college and free health care. Lamentably, he’s right.
Normally, independent presidential candidates go from feature stories to asterisks overnight. The one who did best, Ross Perot, yet another billionaire with a presidential bee in his bonnet, got 19 percent of the vote in 1992 but wound up with exactly zero votes in the electoral college. 2020 could be different. Trump beat Hillary Clinton in 2016 by winning about 78,000 votes in just three states: Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan. He won the electoral college but lost the popular vote by nearly 3 million votes .
Politics has become a variety of chaos theory. Just as the flapping of a butterfly’s wings off Hong Kong could theoretically set off a hurricane in Hawaii, so could the introduction of a candidacy such as Schultz’s produce an outcome that causes more damage than any mere tropical cyclone: a second term of Trump. All it takes is a county or two — butterflies that could change everything.
Schultz knows the stakes and he knows, too, that he is anathema to Democrats. (Neera Tanden, an influential Democratic activist, tweeted that she was so mad , she was willing to forgo the occasional macchiato: “If he enters the race, I will start a Starbucks boycott because I’m not giving a penny that will end up in the election coffers of a guy who will help Trump win.”) Such naysaying is not likely to matter to Schultz because the difference between the average person and the self-made billionaire is that, at a critical moment, he ignored the braying of the herd and listened to his gut. Schultz did that when he took a risk and left Starbucks to form his own coffeehouse operation after his employers had turned down an idea. Two years later, he bought Starbucks and turned it into a behemoth.
There’s a thin line between rock-solid self-confidence and megalomania. Trump crossed that line years ago, misconstruing a fortunate birth with business acumen. Possibly, Schultz has done the same, though he is certainly a more benign figure than Trump and just plainly a nicer guy. Awkwardly, he has never held elective office, kissed the requisite number of babies or felt the vertigo of not knowing who he’s just talked to. Still, he has entrepreneurial and CEO chops.
But in making the major decisions of his life, Schultz acted for himself. If he failed, then he alone failed. Sure, he had investors and a family, but the fate of the nation did not hinge on what he did. It does now. Après Trump, all predictions are foolhardy. Still, it seems to me that Schultz could not be elected. He could, however, manage to reelect Trump. If that happens, I’ll make a further prediction. He’d better stay the hell out of Brooklyn.
Read more from Richard Cohen’s archive.