Howard Schultz’s clumsy and damaging entry into the 2020 presidential race this week offers a lesson for billionaires who would like to replace Donald Trump: They should consider running against Donald Trump. And the place to do that is the wide-open Republican primary.
Donald Trump is, obviously, the defining feature of America in 2019. He’s the burning house at the center of a national crisis. The reason Schultz’s talk of an independent campaign next year has produced such rancor and amusement is, above all, how flaky it is. He’s presenting himself as a firefighter; and he’s standing in front of a burning building, giving speeches in which he promises to fight not this fire, but definitely the next one.
You can see why Schultz is tempted by an independent run. His politics don’t particularly fit either party: He favors LGBT rights and social rights, but he also wants to cut entitlements, keep taxes low, and considers deficits the “greatest threat” to America.
That’s mainstream Republicanism, circa 2010. And guess what! This is the traditional kickoff of the Republican primary season. There are a couple of Trump challengers circling, but none with Schultz’s resources and access to the media. If he joined the primary, he could at least spend the next several months engaged with the central story of America, not looking like a rich guy on an ego trip. He could make a few Republicans like him, earn the respect of Americans who dislike Donald Trump, and — who knows — wind up on a Democratic ticket or make a more plausible case for an independent run.
“I see a real preference for an outsider candidate in the Republican primary,” said Tim Miller, a former John McCain and Mitt Romney aide and a vocal Never Trump voice. “There you can make an anti-Trump argument based on competence and drive home a message of how extreme the Democratic Party is trending without risk of being a spoiler or carrying ‘Never Trump’ baggage.”
This is not to say Schultz could win the Republican primary. Howard Wolfson — whose boss, Michael Bloomberg, left the party years ago — says “there is no constituency for a pro-choice, pro–gun control Republican.” Polls show Republicans love Trump.
But it’s not like Schultz has any clear path to the White House. If Schultz really wants to play the high stakes, and — in Bloomberg’s cold calculations — irrational game of a third-party candidacy, there is some argument for going back to selling coffee for a year and popping back up next January. If he wants to run for president now, he should probably run against the president.
(I emailed his beleaguered new adviser Bill Burton to float this theory. His response: “Quite a take.”)
There is one member of the billionaires club, by the way, who does seem to be considering the Republican primary path: Mark Cuban floated the notion of primarying Trump in 2017, and has since fallen silent.
But while the New York Times recently omitted Cuban from the list of who might challenge Trump, Republicans who have spoken to him about the issue in the last year told me that Cuban considers himself a Republican, and won’t rule out the notion of a primary candidacy.
He didn’t rule it out in his characteristically quick response to my email the other day.
“Nothing to add,” Cuban emailed in response to an inquiry about the possibility of primarying Trump.
In an earlier exchange, he told BuzzFeed News to check back on his plans in early March.
But Cuban is well-suited for America politics and culture in 2019.
“Whatever becomes of Trump in the end, he’s changed politics permanently. Whether it’s Oprah Winfrey or Mark Cuban, there’s going to be room for celeb candidates in ways we didn’t imagine,” Fergus Cullen, a New Hampshire Republican and Trump foe, told my colleague Alexis Levinson.
“There’s definitely room for someone. There’s almost room for someone, anyone,” Cullen said. “That person’s guaranteed 20% of the vote for showing up.”