Former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz's Delusional Plan to Save America
He's not the first billionaire to think he alone can fix the country, but he might be the most disconnected from reality.
Howard Schultz in 2006. Photo by China Photos/Getty
If you have a million dollars, chances are you want to make a billion dollars. If you have a billion dollars, I guess you want to run a country.
That's the only explanation for why Howard Schultz, the former CEO of Starbucks, all but announced his candidacy for president Sunday night on 60 Minutes. “I am seriously thinking of running for president," he told reporter Scott Pelley. "I will run as a centrist independent, outside the two-party system.”
The fact that Schultz apparently imagines himself winning the White House on a third-party centrist bid is reason enough to ignore whatever he does next. But it's worth unpacking this man's spectacular fantasy because it's such a crystal-clear example of a certain kind of delusional thinking particularly common, for whatever reason, among the very wealthy.
Though he's not on the campaign trail yet, Schultz already has mastered the art of spitting out frothy bits of nonsense when given a question he doesn't want to answer. When Pelley asked Schultz, who describes himself as a "lifelong Democrat," whether he worried that his candidacy would only split the anti-Trump vote, he replied, “I want to see the American people win,” then went on to say, “I don’t care if you’re Democratic, independent, Libertarian, Republican. Bring me your ideas and I will be an independent person who will embrace those ideas because I am not, in any way, in bed with a party.”
When pressed on his own ideas, Schultz doesn't seem to really have any—at least not anything not shared by many, many other well-informed left-of-center people. He told Pelley that he disagreed with Donald Trump's decision to pull out of the Paris climate agreement, he wanted to create a pathway to citizenship for undocumented people in the US, he worried about Americans who live in financial precarity, he favored tax relief for poorer Americans over cuts that benefit businesses, and he thought everyone should have access to healthcare. He qualified that last one with a shot at Medicare for all, the much-debated left-wing proposal that many Democratic presidential candidates support: That plan, he said, is "as false as the wall."
Every last one of those positions is standard-issue among Democrats. Even his criticism of Medicare for all is hardly unique—some Democrats have tended to support a less drastic version of reform called a "public option." The only real issue that distinguished him from a Democrat in the interview was his insistence that the US's $21 trillion in debt was “a reckless failure" of the "constitutional responsibility” of legislators of both parties.
It's unclear what part of the Constitution Schultz is referring to, and it's also unclear how debt reduction squares with the make-poverty-less-awful part of his agenda. Perhaps most importantly, it's unclear what makes Schultz different from Joe Biden, an extremely popular Democrat who leans to the middle and seems likely to make his independence and willingness to work with Republicans a big part of his (hypothetical, as yet) run.
This points to the delusion at the heart of Schultz's embryonic candidacy. It's not that he can't win, although he can't; it's not that his ideas are boring, though they are; it's that he believes that his giant pile of coffee money entitles him to float Lakitu-like above the fray and diagnose what's really wrong with DC.
One telling moment in the interview is when Schultz tells Pelley that 40 percent of Americans identify as independent voters, which he says is proof that Americans are fed up with the status quo. This factoid glosses over the fact that "independent" voters aren't necessarily disaffected and ready to vote for a third party—it's a muddled group of people, many of whom are actually consistent partisans for one side or the other. In the Washington Post, Schultz was endorsed by the leaders of a centrist group called Unite America, and that group's own site shows what a steep challenge "independent" candidates face—nationwide, independents got only 8 million votes on more than 100 million ballots, and the vast majority of independent candidates were crushed by Democrats or Republicans. (It's worth noting that the country's most prominent independent politicians—Bernie Sanders and Maine Senator Angus King—are both Democrats in all but name.)
It's true that some third-party independents have had relative success in the past. John Anderson got 6.6 percent of the vote in 1980, and self-funded billionaire Ross Perot earned nearly 19 percent in 1992—Perot even led in polling for a stretch of that general election campaign. But neither earned a single electoral college vote in the end. In an era when politics seems more urgent than it has in past decades, why would Schultz perform better? His politics make him unappealing to right-wing voters and left-wingers who dislike centrists, so his constituency would presumably be limited to moderate Democrats who aren't taken with people like Biden or Beto O'Rourke, both of whom have venti amounts of charisma compared to Schultz. If he runs on his business expertise, he'll likely remind voters of Trump, or make them recall the bizarre episode when Schultz encouraged Starbucks baristas to talk to customers about race (he told Pelley that he took responsibility for the "flawed" execution of that idea). Voters might also remember the time after that when Starbucks attracted protests because an employee called the cops on two black men who were just hanging out in a store.
Given his already-troubled image, Schultz would have no chance of winning a Democratic primary. That only makes it more baffling that he apparently thinks he'd have a shot at winning the general election as a third-party candidate. But even if it's impossible to truly grasp his reasoning from afar, it seems like the same sort of illogic that afflicted his fellow billionaire Mike Bloomberg, who was mulling a presidential run in 2016 and apparently thought he would beat Bernie Sanders and Trump in the Midwest and parts of the South in a hypothetical matchup.
This kind of fantasy boggles the non-billionaire mind. Schultz and Bloomberg, if they ever won, would govern essentially as moderate Democrats and have to contend with the same partisan climate as any president—Republicans wouldn't stop opposing action on climate change or citizenship for undocumented immigrants just because the guy in the White House didn't have a D next to his name. And imagining their winning campaigns strains credulity even further. If the past few years have shown anything, it's that disillusioned Americans are looking for bold promises, aggressive rhetoric, and vitality, not milquetoast centrists who spend a bunch of time inveighing against the national debt. (Bloomberg, who donated heavily to Democratic candidates in 2018, released a pointed statement on Monday saying it's impossible for an independent presidential candidate to win.)
It's a bad time in US politics. Congress is utterly unable to accomplish anything and some political scientists say there are signs that democracy itself is eroding—all against the backdrop of incredibly daunting global challenges like climate change and inequality. It'd actually be pretty nice if a billionaire could swoop in, unite the country, and usher in a new era. As mogul-presidents go, the country could do worse than Schultz. In fact, it currently is doing worse—we tried the rich savior thing, and it's been a disaster. This man has no constituency, no new ideas, no reason to run other than the fact that his wealth makes it possible for him to do so. His campaign, if it comes into existence, will be a farce but it will also be a tragedy: He doesn't realize that the country is facing problems his money can't actually solve.
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