Howard Schultz was exactly 30 seconds into reiterating that yes, he was “seriously considering running for president as a centrist independent” when a protester gave voice to the tweets that had been coming at the former Starbucks CEO since he first made that announcement on TV 24 hours earlier.
“You’ll help elect Trump, you billionaire, egotistical asshole,” the man yelled. “Go back to getting ratioed on Twitter. Go back to Davos with the other billionaire elite.”
The crowd, which had packed half of the fourth floor of a Barnes & Noble, ostensibly for the release of Schultz’s new book, booed the interruption. Minutes later, moderator Andrew Ross Sorkin reiterated the point with fewer obscenities, reading a statement from former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, in which he stated that an independent presidential candidate could only play spoiler.
The crowd applauded.
In July 2015, Schultz sent an email — later hacked and then published by WikiLeaks — to Cheryl Mills, a Hillary Clinton adviser, expressing concern that the early stages of the campaign were not going well, and urging them to “Reboot the look of it all and the overriding message before its to [sic] late.”
“She desperately needs the people on her side,” Schultz wrote. “And, although it’s early, the imprinting process has begun... And, I don’t like how it feels.”
It’s early in the 2020 cycle, but Schultz’s announcement Sunday that he was making serious preparations to run for president as an independent was met with a mix of guffaws and alarm from the political class, with Democrats fearful that he could pull enough votes from the Democratic nominee to assure Donald Trump a second term in the White House. Schultz had been, by his own admission, a lifelong Democrat, so he should run as one, many said. Alternatively, many suggested, he should not run at all.
But Schultz, who has repeatedly insisted he is “not trying to win the Twitter primary,” was adamant that there had to be a middle ground between the poles of the two parties, which he seemed to define by Trump and New York Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
“I no longer feel affiliated [with the Democratic Party] because I don’t think their views represent the majority of Americans. I don’t think we want a 70% income tax in our country,” Schultz said, pointing to a proposal floated by Ocasio-Cortez.
On immigration — “a serious problem, but it is a problem that can be easily solved” — he opposed the idea of a wall, but also took issue with the fact that “Democrats, in a sense, want to get rid of ICE,” he said, pointing to another policy favored by Ocasio-Cortez, but one that has not quite become part of the main Democratic bloodstream.
And asked to respond directly to one of Ocasio-Cortez’s advisers saying that the mere existence of billionaires is a failure of policy, Schultz replied: “It’s so un-American to think that way.”
“First of all, I’m self-made, as you said. I came from the projects and took advantage of the promise of the country. I’m living proof of the American dream and the aspiration, the magnitude of the opportunity that was presented to me,” he went on. “I think there is a problem that she has identified. But I think the way she’s going about it, unfortunately, she is a bit misinformed.”
To run as a Democrat, he said, “I would have to say things that I know in my heart I do not believe, and I would have to be disingenuous.” He pointed to “government-paid health care for everyone,” “government job free for everyone” and “government-paid college for everyone.” He flatly shot down the idea of trying to run as a Democrat to move the party back to the center.
He did not reserve all of his criticism for Democrats.
“I think President Trump is a very insecure man, and that insecurity is really manifested with all those attacks,” Schultz said, of how he would run against a president who is temperamentally much more aggressive than he is.
“We’re not gonna get in the mud with him,” he added.
Trump’s decision to withdraw troops from Syria, he said, “will go down in history as one of the biggest mistakes that a president has made in regard to foreign policy.” Trump turned “a blind eye” to the state-sponsored murder of Jamal Khashoggi, imposing no penalties on Saudi Arabia, whereas Schultz said he “would have placed serious, significant, acute sanctions” on the country’s leaders.
As for Trump’s Monday morning tweet that Schultz “doesn’t have the ‘guts’ to run for president,” Schultz replied: “I think he’s been on the wrong side of almost every issue. And he’s clearly on the wrong side of this.”
Some of Schultz’s proposals, like his potential presidential bid, are efforts to defy the existence of political gravity. He expressed confusion that lawmakers had struggled to come up with an agreement to end the shutdown, which lasted 35 days and is now only temporarily resolved. “I think this is the most simple problem to solve,” he said. “Maybe I’m just stupid.” DREAMers would get a pathway to citizenship, under his solution, and the estimated 11 million people in the country illegally would get that opportunity on a case-by-case basis. A plan for border security, something Schultz said he supports, would be crafted by putting “the most advanced sophisticated tech companies” in the country “in a room, and you say, ‘I want you to solve the problem of border security, leveraging every aspect of technology.’” Trump would get his border security, but it would not require a wall.
But he has pulled together a serious team to staff his potential bid. Steve Schmidt, who managed John McCain’s 2008 campaign, is advising Schultz. Bill Burton, a deputy press secretary in the Obama White House, is also working for him and was in attendance Monday night. Erin McPike, a longtime political reporter turned consultant, was also in attendance as a staffer for Schultz.
Schultz’s pitch for an independent candidacy is that it would prevent the presidency from being decided in the “less than 10 states” that have been the battlegrounds each election cycle in recent history.
“So just pause on that for a moment and realize that 7 to 10 states are deciding the presidential election and the future of this country,” he said. “I would submit that perhaps that’s not the way we should proceed.”
“What if an independent candidate could create a 50-state race?” he posed. Over the next month, Schultz, in the grand tradition of politicians on both sides of the aisle, will use his book tour to take him across the country so he can sound out the idea. He is scheduled to appear in Tempe, Arizona; Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, Atlanta, Cleveland, Boston, and Philadelphia — with nary a stop in Iowa, New Hampshire, or South Carolina, the early primary states where Democratic hopefuls have concentrated their efforts.
A decision on whether or not to actually run will come later this year — he has time to spare, as he indicated on 60 Minutes on Sunday that he would spend some of his vast wealth to fund his campaign, sparing him from jumping through the fundraising hoops of some of his potential competitors.
“The American people will decide if I should run, whether or not I’m the right person or not,” Schultz said Monday.
It’s early, still.