Before there was Jill Stein, there was Ralph Nader. Before there was Nader, there was Ross Perot.
None won. All argued that the Republican Party and the Democratic Party were basically the same, and the only way to make real change was to ditch them both. Each was blamed for siphoning off enough votes to throw the presidential elections.
These days, the difference between the parties is starker than it’s ever been in modern times. Yet here comes Howard Schultz, a billionaire who feels that he might be the answer to American politics, and that he’d run for president as an independent.
Schultz, the former Starbucks CEO, says in a 60 Minutes interview already recorded but airing on Sunday that he is thinking very seriously about a presidential run—but he stops short of a full announcement.
He makes clear, however, that if he moves forward, he will do so as an independent.
Already top Democratic operatives working for presidential candidates and beyond say they’re worried that the only thing he’ll accomplish is making sure Donald Trump gets reelected. It’s more than just sniping at a prospective opponent; word that he might invest in an independent run has many of them clearly worried about how he’d split votes in a general election.
Schultz has seemed to be moving toward a run for months, with interviews and speeches around the country about the inclusive policies that he says he pioneered while in charge of the company in two stints, totaling 24 years. He also talks about his vision of America, much of it informed by a trip he took to Auschwitz, which he discusses in an emotional story.
In a conversation with Scott Pelley, Schultz called this “a most fragile time.”
“Not only the fact that this president is not qualified to be the president, but the fact that both parties are consistently not doing what’s necessary on behalf of the American people and are engaged, every single day, in revenge politics,” he says, according to CBS promotional material, which did not include the part of the interview in which Pelley asks Schultz about running himself. Other people familiar with the interview relayed his answers about those questions.
Aides to Schultz did not respond to requests for comment.
“Trump’s strategy has always been divide and conquer, and this plays directly into his hands,” said one Democratic strategist, who was wary of taking on Schultz openly ahead of any announcement. “He’s Ralph Nader without any of Nader’s redeeming qualities. What’s his value proposition for America? Make America like a corporate chain?”
Democrats aren’t the only ones who see Schultz as potentially helping Trump win a second term. Bill Kristol, the Never Trump Republican who is most active both in media appearances and private conversations representing the GOP resistance to the president, said he wouldn’t support an independent run either.
“One reason my colleagues and I are focused on a Republican primary challenge to Trump—apart from the fact that we’re Republicans—is that it doesn’t present any of the problems of inadvertently helping him by being a spoiler,” Kristol wrote in an email.
Schultz, a lifelong Democrat, would run under the theory that the answer to the political division in the country right now is moving away from party politics. There’s little evidence to support that, as people report being more polarized and partisan, devoted to their own party and demonizing the other. For all the prominent Republicans who say they don’t like Trump, the president’s overall approval numbers among voters within his party remain sky high, according to polls. Schultz would have to persuade millions of them to abandon the party to vote for him, while drawing enough Democratic votes away from a party that is energized and excited about taking out the president.
And at 65, he’d have to do that as an older white man who’s never run for office before and has zero national name recognition. There is, however, Schultz’s fortune, estimated at $3.3 billion.
A crew was recently spotted filming at the Starbucks location in Pike Place Market in Seattle, a tourist spot known as the chain’s first location, according to The Seattle Times.
“There’s a lot of things I can do as a private citizen other than a run for the presidency of the United States,” he said last June in an interview on CNBC announcing he was stepping down from Starbucks. He added: “I don’t know what that means right now.”
But he spoke in that interview about fighting for dignity, a topic he was particularly vocal about after the neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville, Virginia, that Donald Trump equivocated on. He said he’d delayed his own exit from Starbucks to deal with the fallout from the incident last year when two black men in Philadelphia were asked to leave one of the chain’s stores.
For the past year, Schultz has been investing in burnishing his image and strategizing by hiring a number of experienced consultants, most prominently Steve Schmidt, the 2008 campaign manager for John McCain. Schmidt has spent the past 10 years on a mea culpa tour for his hand in Sarah Palin’s selection as McCain’s running mate, which took him first to being an MSNBC contributor, then to leaving the Republican Party, and now to guiding this effort.
Schultz wrote a book, For Love of Country, co-written with Rajiv Chandrasekaran, a former Washington Post reporter who’s been on staff with him for years and continues to be in his inner circle planning the run. Another book, From the Ground Up: A Journey to Reimagine the Promise of America, is out January 28.
Tina Podlodowski, the Washington State Democratic chair, blasted the idea of Schultz running as an independent in the press last week. She underscored her point on Friday in a fundraising email sent to donors, with the subject line “Howard Schultz could secure Trump’s re-election.”
“This worst-case scenario keeps me up at night. I want to spend our resources fighting for Democrats up and down the ballot, not fending off Howard Schultz’s independent bid,” she wrote.
Several top Washington State Democrats complained that Schultz was never an active ally on progressive causes. Podlodowski has said publicly she’d like to meet with him to discuss the presidential campaign, but so far has not heard from him or his aides, according to a state-party spokesperson.
Kristol wrote that he sees a silver lining to a run that doesn’t seem to be the billionaire’s intention: “For 2019 at least, the fact that serious people like Howard Schultz are considering an independent race might help bring home to more voters, including independents and some Republicans, how important it is to replace Trump. So in that respect it’s a good thing.”