The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Howard Schultz is this year’s Ben Carson

The coffee mogul thinks private-sector brilliance translates to political success.

As former Starbucks chief executive Howard Schultz floats a “centrist independent” White House run, he has said that the Democratic Party started losing him “when the party started shifting so far left to progressive policies” that were as implausible as President Trump’s notion that “Mexicans were gonna pay for the wall.”

Quickly, though, his effort has started looking like another outsider’s run — the one by neurosurgeon Ben Carson in 2016: Each rightly touts his rise from modest beginnings to the heights of his chosen profession as an example of the American Dream. Carson, now serving as Trump’s housing and urban development secretary, grew up in working-class Detroit and became the first physician to successfully separate twins conjoined at the head. Schultz grew up in working-class Brooklyn and earned billions heading up the chain that turned coffee from a beverage into an event. Neither previously held political office. They’re both fond of gauzy phrases like “imagining a better America.” Carson was and Schultz is, so far, fuzzy on policy specifics. Carson was sure that private-sector brilliance would mean political success. Schultz appears confident that he has answers no one else has. We’ve seen this before.

When I interviewed Carson four years ago about his impending presidential campaign, he never veered from his view that it was “a lot harder for somebody who’s a governor or a senator to learn how to take out a brain tumor than it’s gonna be for me to learn how to do what a governor or a senator does.” He never seemed to consider that the jobs might require different skills.

That conceit, reinforced by their past successes and favorable notices — the Wall Street Journal’s 2013 “Ben Carson for President” editorial; Sunday’s “60 Minutes” sit-down with Schultz — fueled Carson’s failed run and now Schultz’s putative run: America needs a nonpolitician to ride to the rescue.

Schultz is obviously no Trump, but we just elected a first-time officeholder — a (theoretically) successful real estate tycoon — as president, and his record so far isn’t great: racist rhetoric; family separation at the border; the longest-ever government shutdown; a tax cut without corresponding budget cuts; an ugly Supreme Court nomination fight; sundry charges of corruption; and a Cabinet that includes the now-irrelevant Carson, who once coasted on the conservative speaking circuit, then wilted in the last GOP primary when candidate Trump did the “I hate political correctness” shtick 10 times better than Carson ever did.

Obama was better for black Americans than Trump

And right before that, we had a centrist president. Yes, Barack Obama was a Democrat, but for eight years he kept it between the 40-yard lines: He signed an extension of the George W. Bush-era marginal income tax rate cut in exchange for repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell”; Obamacare was a repurposed Republican health-care coverage proposal; he drew down in Iraq and ramped up in Afghanistan — just as he said during his second debate with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). When Obama ran in 2008, he was called inexperienced, but he had a very conventional political résumé: Harvard Law School, Illinois state senate, then a lost House race on the way to the U.S. Senate.

“Career politician” has become an epithet, but politics really is a career. The skill set required for building consensus in the body politic, knowing when to accept legislative compromises and when to reject others, responding to school shootings and natural disasters, and making decisions about war and peace are frequently learned on the job — in town halls, discussions with constituents, state capitals and on the backbenches in Congress.

None of this means our two-party system is perfect. Schultz’s views mirror those of many Americans who would like a third or fourth option. But he could test his ideas in the Democratic primary or with a Republican primary challenge to Trump, positioning himself as a moderate alternative in either party, detailing how his plans for health care and taxation diverge from the old status quo or what we have now. Parachuting in, a la Ross Perot, declaring a pox on both houses, suggests that Schultz is offering solutions neither party has ever thought to debate, which isn’t the case.

None of this means that there’s no place in politics for those who made their names in the private sector. Michael Bloomberg, who matches up ideologically with Schultz on some key issues, might run, and he’s a billionaire many times over. But this week Bloomberg cautioned that anyone contemplating the type of independent run that Schultz is “would just split the anti-Trump vote and end up reelecting the President,” adding, “That’s a risk I refused to run in 2016 and we can’t afford to run it now.” Crucially, he also served three terms as the mayor of New York City. He already knows what Carson found out:

Selling coffee, performing brain surgery and running for office are all worthy enterprises. They aren’t the same.

Correction: The author interviewed Carson four years ago, not three years ago.