You’ve probably heard this story before, but I’m going to tell it again because its eternal hilarity has, remarkably, been elevated by a newfound topicality.
In late 2012, a confluence of expiring tax cuts and a planned drop in government spending threatened to kick the still-recovering American economy back into recession. Everyone was worried about what would happen, at least to the extent that they paid attention to the federal budget. It was a time in which America needed a hero who could unite left and right to avoid potential catastrophe.
Instead, America got Starbucks chief executive Howard Schultz.
The day after Christmas, Schultz wrote an article on his company’s website. In it, he announced a new policy: Starbucks baristas would immediately begin writing “come together” on customers’ cups when they bought coffee in the Washington area.
“It’s a small gesture, but the power of small gestures is what Starbucks is about!” he wrote. “Imagine the power of our partners and hundreds of thousands of customers each sharing such a simple message, one cup at a time.”
You can, in fact, probably imagine the power that was likely to have, and you'd be right. It immediately boosted the nation's all-important joke economy, but that was about it.
The move seemed almost unbelievably naive. The head of one of America’s largest companies believed that forcing minimum-wage-earning coffee-store workers to write an old Beatles lyric on a cup was going to somehow break the ice on sincerely held political views about the economy? Was Schultz really that divorced from the reality of American politics?
Reader, I think we now have an answer to that question.
On Wednesday, Schultz tried to reinject some energy into his poorly received (and not yet formal) independent bid for the presidency by unveiling more details about how he would govern. As one might expect given his 2012 plot and the first few weeks of his pseudo-candidacy, there was a heavy focus on getting Congress to work in a bipartisan fashion. And while he did not suggest that his main focus would be to write “come together” on every piece of legislation that was presented to him, several proposals weren’t far from that.
For example, as The Washington Post’s Michael Scherer reported, Schultz said he wouldn’t sign any bill that didn’t have bipartisan support. None! So if the Republicans held a 98-to-2 advantage in the Senate, unless one of those two Democrats agreed to a bill, Schultz wouldn’t sign it into law. Because, you see, it’s not the actual law that’s important. It’s the Spirit of Comity.
At one point, Schultz made the claim that the United States was “not born a divided nation” and so, therefore, we should not be now. I mean, well, sort of? We were born a nation that, within about 70 years, wasted hundreds of thousands of lives in internal conflict? We’re a nation that experienced an armed insurrection led by Daniel Shays even before the Constitution was ratified? The idea that the day after Britain agreed to give up its stake in the colonies Americans collectively sang the 18th-century equivalent of kumbaya is pretty distant from reality. The point of the American experiment was to develop a way for resolving the inherent tensions in a system in which every citizen could offer an opinion.
That aforementioned 98-to-2 Republican advantage in the Senate, though, would make one thing easier: Schultz’s proposal that any Supreme Court nominee get two-thirds of the Senate’s support. The effect of this, it’s very safe to assume, would be a lack of new Supreme Court justices during the administration of President Howard Schultz.
There are substantive divides between the parties on issues that might come before the court — abortion, guns, campaign finance, voting rights — meaning that a nominee’s position on one or all of those things might be anathema to one party or the other. In the past, shifting the balance of the court has meant getting people elected president whose nominees could then be confirmed to the bench. But Schultz instead wants Congress to simply set aside its partisan beliefs to confirm justices whose opinions it might find repugnant.
It’s important to note that partisanship correlates strongly to people’s views on political values. That’s not really surprising, but the importance of party to values — and vice versa — has widened dramatically over the past two decades, according to Pew Research Center data. Democrats and Republicans don’t mostly agree on stuff but pick fights just for show. There are significant and widening differences that defy simple resolutions. It’s not two kids fighting over a toy who will respond to a kindergarten teacher making them shake hands. It’s core issues of belief and patriotism and priority that are not going to be simply abandoned — especially when it comes to giving a lifetime position to one of the most important judges in the land.
What we learn most immediately from Schultz’s proposals is how hollow his idea of unity actually is. He’s a very wealthy man, thanks to the coffee business, and his sense of centrism has consistently been shown to be what Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) would probably call “being a Republican.” The Trump era has pushed a lot of Romney-style Republicans (including Romney himself) to the side, prompting some to decide that they must be at the political center — a place where “the vast majority of Americans stand,” according to Schultz.
This, too, is wrong: Most Americans are either members of a political party or vote heavily with one party or the other. Only about a third of the country identifies as moderate. And, besides, just because the Republican Party changed doesn’t mean that you’re now something different, much less that your new environment happens to be the most popular place in American politics.
Think of what it means to suggest that your contribution to a tense, partisan political debate in Washington is forcing your employees to offer obviously useless pablum about working together. Think, then, about what it means for a possible presidential candidate to prioritize the same sort of motivational-poster mentality to resolving real fights over real policies.
It reveals that those policy decisions have probably never been terribly important for Schultz. He has, however, come out in opposition to higher taxes on the rich.