Howard Schultz, the executive chairman of the coffee empire Starbucks, hinted upon announcing his coming resignation that a run for public office was in his future. And in a subsequent interview with CNBC, he outlined the type of ideological portfolio that would animate such a run.
"It concerns me that so many voices within the Democratic Party are going so far to the left,” the outgoing Starbucks chairman said. “I say to myself, ‘How are we going to pay for these things,’ in terms of things like single payer [and] people espousing the fact that the government is going to give everyone a job. I don't think that's realistic."
He went on to say that the “greatest threat” to the nation domestically is the ballooning debt and that “entitlements” should be looked at in order to curb the growing hole.
A Democrat running as a deficit-scold, warning about the looming crisis facing Social Security and Medicare, is not the typical foundation for a modern presidential campaign. And in the aftermath of his interview, even self-described Democratic fiscal hawks stressed that it was a bad look for a hypothetical 2020 primary.
“No one is going to win the election based on fiscal responsibility,” said Matt Bennett, Senior Vice President for Public Affairs and a co-founder of the center-left think tank, Third Way. “It is important but it is not a thing to win elections on. The question is, what is he going to say to people to make their lives better. And does he understand that this moment in history, this digital age, require big things…. If he becomes obsessed with deficits and is a Ross Perot character, this is the wrong moment for that. People are too anxious about the future. This isn’t 1992 or 1996. People are just too nervous and they’re right to be. It is too scary a moment for that type of thinking.”
There is little beyond his statement and interview to suggest that Schultz is actively considering a presidential bid. Numerous Democratic operatives told The Daily Beast that they’d heard of no inquiries or entreaties from people around him, though speculation of such a move has been rampant since Schultz became more politically recognizable during the Obama years.
But the possibility of him testing the waters has, once again, put a spotlight on a slow-simmering debate within the Democratic Party about what type of institution it should be in the era of Donald Trump and who, precisely, should lead it.
Within certain circles, there’s a theory that Trump’s election, if nothing else, demonstrated the power of bombast and outsider-businessman credentials when applied to electoral politics. In that vein, a Marc Cuban, Oprah Winfrey, or even a Howard Schultz could make sense. Money and personality can go a long way in a crowded field.
“I do think there is a lane for [Schultz],” said former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell. “If it was Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders and Howard Schultz, he would have no chance. But with 15 to 17 people in the field, he just might steal it. Let’s say 15 people get to the starting line and Howard Schultz drops $7 million in New Hampshire and he runs like John McCain— ‘I’m gonna tell you the truth and if you don’t like that, who cares’— if he does that and snatches 19 percent that positions him pretty well.”
But the ability to spend one’s own wealth is not an electoral determinant. And, should he choose to actually explore a bid, there are obvious points of friction that will confront a candidate like Schultz, one being that wealth itself.
“A big part of why the rich are getting richer while everyone else gets poorer is that super rich CEOs like Schultz would rather ask working people to make sacrifices than pay their fair share in taxes, which would provide the revenue we need to pay for things like Medicare for all, free college and universal pre-K,” said Adam Jentleson, former deputy chief of staff for Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV) told The Daily Beast. “Those things could be paid for if people like Schultz paid around 45 percent in taxes on their income over $1 million or so and corporations like Starbucks paid their fair share, too.”
Among corporate CEOs, Schultz has presented himself as unambiguously progressive minded. Starbucks raised the minimum wage of 150,000 workers this past fall, Schultz publicly apologized and spoke about race in America after two African-American men were arrested while waiting in a Philadelphia store and mandated training on racial bias as a result. Under his leadership, the company also defended same-sex marriage, instituted a plan to hire thousands of refugees in response to President Trump’s travel ban and created a green cup to promote a message of unity for its seasonal holiday drinks. That, of course, led Trump to suggest the company be boycotted. Yet, Schultz also ruffled feathers by requesting public funding for Seattle Supersonics arena, and once encouraged workers to write “come together” on customers’ cups in Washington D.C. to encourage lawmakers to return to fiscal cliff negotiations in 2012.
That dichotomy in his resume seems inherently out of step with a party in which Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, Kamala Harris are luminaries and Medicare for All, a jobs guarantee program and decriminalizing marijuana are animating issues. Schultz may stand out by not toeing those lines. But few, if anyone, sees him or his positions as a reflection of the modern Democratic id.
“I just don’t think a candidate can bet on riding radical centrism all the way to the White House,” Karthik Ganapathy, spokesperson for the progressive advocacy group MoveOn told The Daily Beast. “Voters across the country care about a lot less about Simpson Bowles deficit reduction than they do about fixing a broken health care system.”
“The Democratic primary base is not excited about deficit reduction.”