Is Starbucks's Howard Schultz the Liberal Donald Trump?
The master of the macchiato denies he’s brewing up a presidential run, but in some ways he’s a natural candidate for the Democratic Party of 2016.
You can imagine why Democrats might be jealous. The big story on their side of the aisle in this presidential election is a candidate widely viewed to be both a prohibitive frontrunner and sort of boring—even by her backers, and even if her candidacy is historic because she is a woman. Meanwhile, the Republicans have Donald Trump!
Really, though, there’s no reason that Democrats can't have their own Trump. What it would take? Well, first, you’d need someone with money—a lot of money. Say, about $3 billion dollars. He or she would need to have spoken out on political issues in the past, but never have actually run for office or been seriously involved in politics. This person would also have donated money to candidates of both parties. Ideally, that political involvement might involve some controversial comments about race, and accusations of political naïveté. The candidate would have to be from one of New York’s outer boroughs, obviously. An inept stint as owner of a professional sports team would be good, too.
Luckily, just such a man exists.
He is Howard Schultz, the CEO of Starbucks. Net worth? $3 billion, per Forbes. Political dabbling? Check. Donations to both parties? He hasn’t done much for Republicans, but he did give to John McCain in 2000, so it counts. Unwise comments about race? Schultz’s “Race Together” campaign wasn’t inflammatory, like so many of Trump’s comments, but it was widely panned. Place of birth? Brooklyn. Failed sports venture? Sure—Schultz used to own an NBA team in Seattle. (Pour one out for the SuperSonics, and make it a venti.)
Even better, his name is already being floated for president. The first major mention came, weirdly enough, in the New York Times column in which Maureen Dowd broke the news that Joe Biden was still considering a presidential run. “Potent friends of America’s lord of latte, Howard Schultz, have been pressing him to join the Democratic primary, thinking the time is right for someone who’s not a political lifer. For the passionate 62-year-old—watching the circus from Seattle—it may be a tempting proposition,” she wrote, but the morsel was somewhat overlooked beside the Biden tidings.
Schultz himself writes in Thursday’s Times that he’s not running. “Despite the encouragement of others, I have no intention of entering the presidential fray. I’m not done serving at Starbucks,” Schultz writes.
But Schultz’s denial is hardly Shermanesque, concluding with a somewhat cryptic anecdote about a rabbi and worthiness. His description of the sort of leader he believes America needs sounds a lot like, well, Howard Schultz. He calls for “servant leadership,” including “putting others first and leading from the heart.” He says leaders need to appeal to civility and humility. Those are just the sorts of initiatives Schultz has trumpeted. Remember Starbucks’s “Come Together” campaign during the the 2013 government shutdown? Or “Race Together,” the well-intentioned but ill-fated post-Ferguson push for a race conversation? As The Seattle Times notes, political engagement has been a surprising hallmark of his second stint as Starbucks CEO, and the Puget Sound Business Journal says it’s heard this kind of rumor before.
Of course, it’s unfair to compare Schultz to Trump for any number of reasons. Schultz is inherently a more serious person, and he’s been more politically consistent over the years. He also probably couldn’t pull off what Trump is doing on the campaign trail right now—who could?
But a Schultz campaign, or even the fantasy of such a thing, mirrors the Trump phenomenon in the GOP. As Republican leaders seek to modernize the party, they’re pushing the party to accept comprehensive immigration reform, reach out to minority voters, and seek accommodation on social issues like gay marriage, which they believe the party needs to put behind it. But many Republican voters still care a lot about these issues and don’t take kindly to having them nudged toward the dustbin. Trump has succeeded by capitalizing on this grievance and on voters’ dislike of GOP mandarins—something he’s uniquely suited to do as an outsider.
The Democratic Party is in flux, too, as the centrist legacy of Bill Clinton seems to give way to a party enthralled by Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. The result is a party that is more confrontational, and more concerned about economic justice and social justice, and more willing to pick fights with corporate America. It’s easy to see why that direction wouldn’t appeal to someone like Schultz, an executive who sees himself bringing people together.
Schultz perfectly represents a portion of the Democratic Party that risks being left behind in this shift: bien-pensant big-city progressives, who are socially liberal, fiscally corporatist, and rhetorically gauzy. In other words, he’s the fantasy candidate of groups like AmericansElect, the failed 2012 attempt to select a Michael Bloomberg-style third-party alternative. The key word there is “failed”: Efforts like this always seem to come up short, in part because what’s on offer is really just an attempt to repackage the Democratic Party platform for people who fancy themselves maverick independents. (After all, what is Barack Obama if not a big-city progressive socially liberal, fiscally corporatist, and fond of gauzy rhetoric about uniting?)
They also tend to fail for the same reason Trump will probably come up short. Politics is harder work than it looks, and newbies are unlikely to quickly master the tricks. Schultz would bring one crucial skill to a campaign. Starbucks has shown he has the ability to build and manage a huge nationwide network, involving physical locations, an ability to get people to turn over perplexing sums of money, and a fan base that seems (or in the case of the coffee, really is) addicted to the product on offer.
Forget about shaky-handed Frappuccino addicts, though. Would Schultz’s own baristas vote for him, the Seattle alt-weekly The Stranger wondered? “I would need to see his platform,” one barista said with a shrug and a smile.
Maybe it takes more than earnest pleas for unity to create a political movement.