The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why billionaires with big egos now dream of being president

The trends that brought us Howard Schultz (and Donald Trump) started in the 1970s.

Former Starbucks chief executive and chairman Howard Schultz smiles during the kickoff of his book promotion tour on Monday. He says he's thinking of running for president as an independent. (Johannes Eisele/AFP/Getty Images)
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Former Starbucks chief executive Howard Schultz is the latest big-ego billionaire to toy around with the possibility of running for president. On “60 Minutes” on Sunday night, Schultz expressed his frustration with the state of the two major parties and explained he is considering running as an independent next year. The reaction to Schultz’s entry, meanwhile, has been decidedly lukewarm, if not hostile. At his first campaign event on Monday evening, a heckler shouted, “Don’t help elect Trump, you egotistical billionaire,” adding an expletive for emphasis.

While the debate over Schultz ’s possible impact on the 2020 election will continue to rage in coming weeks, more important right now — with a man who has a big ego and a big wallet already in the White House — is to explain what accounts for the growing number of American chief executives who say they can make what seems to them to be a lateral move to chief executive of the U.S. government.

The phenomenon has become very real in the past few years. While Ross Perot was considered a curiosity when he ran as an independent in 1992 and 1996, brand-name business figures no longer seem unusual in presidential politics. In this election cycle alone, Schultz, Michael Bloomberg, Oprah Winfrey, Tom Steyer, Mark Zuckerberg and Mark Cuban have all been floated as potential challengers to Trump. Name recognition, an apparent record of success in business and personal resources were enough for Trump, these candidates seem to say, so why wouldn’t it be enough for them? Trump spent $66.1 million of his own money on his 2016 campaign. For billionaires with a bigger bottom line and a larger sense of themselves, such a price seems a bargain too good to ignore.

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But while we only now have a plague of big-ego billionaires in politics, the conditions that gave rise to the trend date back to the 1970s. In the aftermath of Vietnam and Watergate, many voters soured on “experienced” politicians who had betrayed their trust. Liberal Democrats felt President Lyndon B. Johnson had done them wrong when he channeled his political capital away from domestic reform and into a disastrous war in Vietnam. Republicans were likewise devastated when they learned about the ugly underbelly of presidential power as a result of Watergate.

During the next four decades, the “outsider” became the most sought-after identity for presidential candidates. Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter led the way in 1976 when he made his weak ties to Washington a claim to fame. As his opponents in the Democratic primary boasted of their decades of experience in Washington, and President Gerald Ford campaigned from the Rose Garden, Carter boasted to voters that he was one of them. With Carter’s victory, the message was clear: Being an outsider was in.

Originally, the outsider label was used to burnish the candidacies of leaders who, like Carter, had led governments at the state level: California’s Ronald Reagan, Arkansas’ Bill Clinton, Texas’s George W. Bush. But in recent decades, when even state-level leaders seem tainted by politics as usual, the outsider status has been embraced by those who are truly outside politics, like former pro wrestler Jesse Ventura or film star Arnold Schwarzenegger, who both won races for governor. In a conservative era that celebrates the virtues of free markets and private enterprise, who could be a better outsider than the business executive turned candidate?

The rising tide of wealthy candidates is also a direct result of an important Supreme Court decision. Two years after Congress reformed the campaign finance system in response to the revelations of Watergate, the Supreme Court undid some of the changes in the 1976 ruling in Buckley v. Valeo. The Court maintained some of the new limits on campaign spending, primarily for those who accepted public funds, but it also ruled that candidates had the right to spend unlimited amounts of their own money on their own campaigns.

The decision gave wealthy candidates a tremendous advantage: They could spend as much of their own fortunes, as they wanted as long as they didn’t accept any public funds. Self-funded campaigns had the ironic consequence of letting wealthy elites present themselves as populist champions. In 1988, for instance, Democratic businessman Herbert Kohl ran for a Senate seat in Wisconsin with a motto that promised he would be beholden only to the voters: “Nobody’s Senator but yours.” Numerous governors such as David Walters in Oklahoma and Kirk Fordice in Mississippi likewise came to office directly from the boardroom. In 2019, when the cost of campaigns has reached astronomical levels, extremely rich business leaders — who have thrived in the era of growing inequality — want to be part of the political action.

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The phenomenon has also been fueled by the new media ecosystem that started to take form in the 1970s. Cable television transformed the news business in significant ways, first with the launch of the original Cable News Network (CNN) in 1980 and the dawn of 24-hour-a-day news cycles and, later, with the rise of staunchly partisan news networks like Fox News, which began in 1996. At the same time, the Internet produced an endless number of sites devoted to coverage of Washington as well as new forms of social media like Facebook (2004) and Twitter (2006) that offered an incessant feed of political news. In short order, a political-media news complex took form that churned out election-related news 24 hours a day and 365 days a year.

The result has been an ongoing search for content. Producers, reporters, editors and bloggers all need breaking news to keep the attention of their audiences. This creates a ready-made platform for high-profile business executives who merely say about entering a presidential election. Rich celebrities and whether they might run for office make for good cable segments: Will they run? How would they do? What factors might go into their decision? (Never mind whether they’re actually even serious about pursuing it.) Ross Perot was one of the first to discover the opportunities the new media landscape created. He announced his candidacy during an interview on CNN’s “Larry King Live,” then promoted his policies with half-hour paid advertisements on television. The cost of such ads — estimated at the time as between $150,000 to $700,000 each — made them prohibitive for most candidates, but Perot’s fortune allowed him to use them to reach as many as 16.5 million viewers at a time.

We have created these opportunities at the expense of a value once considered essential in elections: political experience. We have thrown out the idea that having worked in government and demonstrated one’s qualifications in a lower-level elected office is one of the best measures to see how a person will handle the awesome responsibilities that come with the Oval Office. We have confused wealth and fame in the private sector with the qualifications that are needed for those who hold public office.

Perhaps the experience the nation is now having with the first wealthy business outsider to win the presidency will cause voters — and would-be candidates — to rethink the idea that anyone who has the means to run for office should do so.

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