Former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz’s early interest in an independent presidential campaign has quickly morphed into a full-scale attack on the Democratic Party, adding an unexpected dimension to the first weeks of the campaign to oust President Trump.
In a four-day blitz of interviews across major broadcast networks, Schultz has been outspoken in his criticism of liberal Democratic leaders, saying their policies for expanding Medicare or taxing the wealthy are “not American,” “misinformed” and “ridiculous.”
A billionaire who supports abortion rights and more gun regulation, Schultz has long called himself a “lifelong Democrat.” But he now describes the party as an unnavigable institution, beholden to its liberal fringe and inconsequential to improvement of the country.
“Whether a Democrat wins the presidency or Donald Trump is reelected — I hope not — nothing is going to change because our politics and our government is broken,” Schultz, 65, said Wednesday on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.” “I do not believe in what the Democratic Party stands for.”
Schultz’s personal Twitter account seemed to delve even further Wednesday into hard-nosed politics, with a tweet praising the “thoughtful analysis” of a conservative opinion column praising his run. The column called Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) a “shrill . . . quasi-socialist” and referred to Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) as “Fauxcahontas,” a jibe at her family’s claim of Native American ancestry.
The tweet was later deleted after a Washington Post reporter inquired, and an adviser to Schultz said the former executive was not personally responsible for sending the message.
Schultz’s aggressive approach reflects a core strategy his advisers have developed in recent months through extensive polling and research. Schultz hopes to turn the 2020 campaign into a referendum not only on Trump, as is traditional when a president seeks reelection, but on the nation’s two-party political system, which could open up space for partisans to reconsider an independent campaign.
To win a majority of electoral college votes, which Schultz says would be his goal, he would have to ultimately replace the Democratic nominee as the favored choice of voters who do not want Trump to win a second term.
In practice, this has led Schultz to focus far more of his initial fire on Democrats than Trump, whom he has called “unqualified” and “despicable.” He has particularly focused on attacking the Democratic Party’s more-liberal wing, including Harris and Warren — who are seeking the presidential nomination — and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.).
His polling has shown that a liberal nominee would make his own prospects more viable, and he has mentioned the prospect repeatedly in describing his interest in a bid. He says he will make a decision on mounting a formal campaign in the coming months, though his advisers have prepared options for an advertising effort before then to introduce him to the country.
Democratic officials remain split on how seriously to take Schultz’s attacks, and what sort of pushback is required, since there has not yet been any independent polling on his appeal. To date, most of the Democratic denunciations of him have focused on the risk that he would play the spoiler, unable to win the White House himself but successful in peeling off enough Democratic votes in the general election to reelect Trump.
“At this hour, he couldn’t even get to three electoral votes in Washington, D.C.,” said Donna Brazile, a former Democratic Party chair. “I don’t see him as a current threat to anything besides himself.”
Priorities USA, a Democratic-leaning super PAC that spent $126 million to defeat Trump in 2016, has decided that it is willing to allocate some of its early spending this year against Schultz if he decides to formally announce his candidacy.
“If he becomes an independent candidate, we would view him as a target,” said Josh Schwerin, a spokesman for the group.
Former New York mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, a billionaire who is considering a Democratic campaign for president, has been the most outspoken opponent.
“You have no chance of winning as an independent because of the electoral college’s requirement that you have to have a majority, rather than a plurality,” Bloomberg said Tuesday on a visit to New Hampshire.
Other Democrats are preparing for the possibility that Schultz could spend a significant share of his personal $3.4 billion fortune over the next 18 months in an effort to brand the Democratic Party as immoderate and ill-equipped to claim the anti-Trump mantle. That could change the dynamics in both the general election and within the party’s own nominating process if more-moderate Democrats make the case that they are more suited than liberals to hold off a Schultz bid in a three-way race.
President Barack Obama’s 2012 campaign manager, Jim Messina, said there was little evidence that an independent could succeed in the race, something that will force Schultz to make a difficult choice in the fall of 2020 if he decides to run.
“Here is what is going to happen: He is going to spend hundreds of millions of dollars, and he is going to get into September or October of 2020, and he is going to realize he can’t win,” Messina said. “He is going to endorse the Democrat or he will accidentally elect Donald Trump.”
Others have expressed more confidence that Schultz will ultimately be forced to abandon a bid, given his promise Monday at a book event not to do “anything to put Donald Trump back in the Oval Office.” Many Democrats still hold Green Party candidate Jill Stein responsible for the defeat of Hillary Clinton, because Stein received more votes in Wisconsin and Michigan than Trump’s winning margin.
“I would ignore him,” said pollster Joel Benenson, who served as a senior adviser to the past three Democratic nominees for president. “I don’t care how many of his billions of dollars he spends. Let him spend them all. Democratic voters will know that third-party votes dragged us down.”
For now, the Democratic pushback has focused on his billionaire bona fides, lack of specific policy proposals and the concern that he will end up playing the spoiler and getting Trump reelected.
“What’s ‘ridiculous’ is billionaires who think they can buy the presidency to keep the system rigged for themselves while opportunity slips away for everyone else,” Warren tweeted Tuesday in response to Schultz’s criticism of her wealth-tax plan. “It’s time for change.”
Despite his preparations for his rollout, Schultz has not offered many specifics on his policy proposals should he enter the race. He is supportive of the Paris climate accord, of strengthening border security without a wall and of providing a path to citizenship for the millions of undocumented immigrants now living in the country.
Citing a growing national debt, he says he opposes liberal proposals to provide people free health care, college education or guaranteed public jobs.
“We have to go after entitlements,” he said last year, though he has not described what that would mean for programs like Social Security and Medicare, which Democrats have vowed to protect.
He has opposed the Republican tax cut of 2017, which particularly benefited corporations and the wealthy, saying his plan for tax reform would have distributed the benefits of the cut more broadly to individuals.
He has also been critical of proposals by Warren and Ocasio-Cortez to increase taxes on wealthy people like him. And he attacked Harris for suggesting in a recent CNN town hall that she would welcome an elimination of the private health insurance industry as part of a plan to expand Medicare to all Americans.
Nonetheless, Democrats fear that a few core issues would prevent Republican voters from crossing over to support him in a general election. “After all, he is on a lot of issues — on climate change and choice — a pretty typical Democrat,” former Obama strategist David Axelrod said. “It is very, very likely that he would take more votes from the Democratic nominee than Trump, who has an implacable base.”
One Schultz adviser, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that his critique of Democrats in the past few days has been in response to attacks on his prospective independent bid. The plan, this person said, is to broaden his argument against Republicans in the coming months, as he did in an appearance on Fox News on Wednesday afternoon.
In that interview, Schultz said the Democratic reaction to his potential campaign was overblown and premature.
“I think the Democrats need a little bit less caffeine right now,” Schultz said. “If I run for president, I am not running against the Democratic Party. I am running against the system of political infighting and self-interest.”