After this week’s CNN town hall, it’s more and more clear that any money Howard Schultz might spend on an independent presidential bid would function as an in-kind campaign contribution to Donald Trump.
Schultz offered few policy specifics during the hour-long session Tuesday night and repeatedly retreated to platitudes when pressed to clarify his position on core issues, including taxes and health care. But to the extent that Schultz did explain his views, they stamped him as a moderate Democrat, tilting toward the party’s center on economics while firmly identifying with its solidifying liberal lean on social and racial issues.
It’s hard to imagine that the mix of perspectives Schultz presented—from opposition to a border wall to support for new limits on gun ownership—will ultimately attract many voters drawn to Trump’s hard-edged racial nationalism. That means that if Schultz runs and his views become better known, he’s likely to draw mostly from the pool of voters discontented with Trump, not the president’s previous supporters.
Though Schultz repeated again Tuesday that he doesn’t intend to do anything to help Trump get reelected, almost everything else he said underscored the likelihood that he would do exactly that. “The fact that he’s doing this is potentially catastrophic,” says Matt Bennett, the executive vice president for public affairs at the centrist Democratic group Third Way. “Republicans are very unlikely to vote for him in this tribal moment. The only votes he would get would come at the expense of our nominee. And if he peels away some Democrats and independents, he could reelect Trump.”
Schultz, who described himself as a “lifelong Democrat” before exploring this independent candidacy, has quickly endorsed an array of positions that distance him from the vast majority of Republican-leaning voters, especially those enthusiastic about Trump.
On Tuesday, Schultz embraced legal status not only for Dreamers, the young people brought to the country illegally by their parents, but for all the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. And he dismissed Trump’s signature call for a border wall.
On guns, Schultz clearly affirmed his support for banning assault-style weapons. “I have a hard time understanding why people need to carry an AR-15 around in the streets of where they live,” he said. In a speech at Purdue University last week, he’d previously endorsed “universal and enhanced background checks with no loopholes.”
On climate change, his concern is “at the highest level” and dealing with it “would be a top priority” for him as president, Schultz told a questioner Tuesday. And while he steadfastly resisted specifics, Schultz did clearly say that he would seek to raise taxes on the wealthy and roll back at least part of the GOP’s huge tax cut for corporations. He denounced the Republican efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, and took a “Mend it, don’t end it” approach to next steps: “Now we got to go back in and fix the Affordable Care Act.”
And he clearly signaled sympathy for those arguing that the nation must do more to expunge systemic racism and discrimination, saying Americans must recognize “unconscious bias” and expose themselves to “uncomfortable conversations.”
That isn’t exactly a catalog of positions designed to drive wedges in Trump’s coalition. Take the border wall: Just 5 percent of voters who approve of Trump’s job performance said they disapproved of the wall in the latest CNN survey. That compares with 90 percent opposition to the wall among voters who disapprove of Trump.
Polling by the nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute has found a larger share of Republicans supporting ideas such as a pathway to citizenship for Dreamers. But nonetheless, only a minority of Republicans accept those ideas; they attract much broader backing from Democratic-leaning voters. In recent Quinnipiac University polling, only about one-fourth of voters who approve of Trump said the U.S. is not doing enough to combat climate change, compared with more than nine in 10 of those who disapprove. Likewise, in Quinnipiac polling, three-fourths of Trump approvers oppose stricter gun laws, while more than four-fifths of those who disapprove want more stringent regulation.
Schultz’s embrace of a tolerant, diverse America also collides directly with the anxiety about cultural and demographic change that remains the most powerful cement for the Trump coalition. How many blue-collar, white, rural Trump supporters share Schultz’s desire for more conversation about unconscious bias or his belief that immigration is the nation’s “foundation”?
Schultz has signaled only a handful of views that place him closer to Republican preferences. On Tuesday, he suggested that he might support interstate sale of health insurance, a perennial Republican idea (though one that most experts believe would fatally undermine the ACA that he says he wants to preserve). And he’s indicated that he’s open to cutting entitlement programs, another long-standing GOP goal (though one that faces substantial resistance among the blue-collar and older whites most connected to Trump).
To obscure his tilt toward the Democrats on almost all issues, Schultz has quickly settled on a strategy of loudly criticizing ideas popular on the party’s far-left flank. On Tuesday alone, he condemned single-payer health care, the Green New Deal, a top marginal tax rate of 70 percent, and the calls for eliminating Immigration and Customs Enforcement. But while those ideas have indisputably acquired some momentum on the party’s left, they remain far from consensus positions among congressional Democrats as a whole: The Green New Deal has around 60 co-sponsors between both chambers, and previous single-payer proposals have never come close to 218 supporters in the House. The growing ranks of Democrats from comfortable white-collar suburban seats seem unlikely to tell their voters they can no longer keep their private health insurance.
If the Democratic-controlled House this year legislates in these policy areas, it is much more likely to pass bills closer to the positions Schultz has endorsed: improving the ACA rather than lurching toward a single-payer system; encouraging more renewable-energy production rather than seeking to eliminate the use of fossil fuels; legalizing Dreamers rather than abolishing ICE. The key gun-control proposal that might pass the House is exactly the universal background check Schultz has endorsed. If Democrats do anything about taxes, it’s much more likely to involve rolling back the corporate tax cut, which Schultz supports, than restoring a much higher top marginal rate on personal incomes.
In both policy and political positioning, Schultz so far has resembled nothing so much as the Democrats who, from the mid-1980s through Bill Clinton’s presidency in the 1990s, were members of the centrist group the Democratic Leadership Council. Schultz has expressed views common among DLC Democrats during those years, supporting fiscal responsibility, free trade, and limits on government’s role in the economy. If anything, Schultz has taken positions on cultural issues like immigration and guns that are to the left of the DLC-era Democrats, reflecting the party’s overall evolution since that period.
Schultz also shares with the DLC Democrats the strategy of positioning himself as a centrist by denouncing the extremes of “the far left and the far right.” In that, he distinctly echoed Clinton, who famously ran in 1992 against the “brain-dead politics of both parties.”
But the similarity ends there. Clinton and his allies in the DLC actually fought for years inside the Democratic Party to shift its ideological balance toward the center. Like those views or not, the contemporary backlash against some of Clinton’s policies—on crime, welfare reform, deficit reduction, and trade—is a measure of how much they succeeded in that effort. Clinton’s policy program was centered on his determination to rebuild a political majority that would allow Democrats to regain control of the national agenda from the increasingly militant conservatism within the GOP.
Schultz is taking a very different approach toward a very different possible outcome. Exaggerating the power of the left in the Democratic coalition, he’s portraying the party as beyond redemption for anyone holding centrist views. To make that case, Schultz is echoing claims from Trump and other Republicans that Democrats have become radical. At times, Schultz has even called some of the Democratic ideas he opposes “un-American” or “not American,” not to mention “punitive” and “ridiculous.”
By validating the Republican efforts to portray Democrats as outside the mainstream, Schultz is helping Trump already. He would help him even more if he runs as an independent behind a platform that aligns much more closely with the views of Democratic voters than with those of Republican voters. An independent candidacy that splinters the vote would reduce the share of the vote required to win, inexorably benefiting a president who has never sustained support from more than about 45 percent of the public. Unlike Clinton, who sought to remake the Democratic Party from within, Schultz could debilitate Democrats.
With minorities and Millennials replacing working-class whites in the Democratic coalition, the party is more liberal than during Clinton’s era. But enough voters inside the coalition still share the views Schultz has expressed for him to exert influence within the party if he chooses to. Instead, he’s pursuing a course that may only help Republicans. At several points during his town hall Tuesday, on issues like the number of states an independent candidate might reasonably contest, Schultz displayed a surprising degree of naïveté and misunderstanding about how the political system and government works. But Schultz should have no misunderstanding that his candidacy could undermine the causes he claims to support and reelect a president he says he deplores.