What's Driving The Schultz Campaign
Democrats used to love Steve Schmidt: he was a Republican operative who had seen the light. Schmidt helped choose Sarah Palin as John McCain’s running mate in 2008 and then, after sustained exposure to the former Alaska governor, set about publicly torching Palin as “manifestly unprepared” and “filled with anger.” Recently, Schmidt has been a frequent MSNBC presence, podcasting star, and a passionate and eloquent anti-Trumpist. He has renounced his membership in the “corrupt” and “immoral” G.O.P. and called President Donald Trump a “useful idiot” for Russia.
Suddenly, Schmidt is back to being a villain. He is now the chief strategist for the possible independent presidential bid by Howard Schultz, the billionaire former Starbucks C.E.O.—a campaign that could help deliver the very thing Schmidt claims to abhor, a second term for Trump. Schultz, if he runs, could spend tens of millions of dollars attacking the developing Democratic presidential agenda. In addition to Schmidt, he has hired Bill Burton, a former aide to President Barack Obama, as a communications adviser. “It’s a massive headache for Democrats,” says Jen Psaki, another top veteran of the Obama White House. “There is a valid concern out there that Schultz would take away not just independents, but Republicans who are disgusted by Donald Trump—hence re-electing Donald Trump. This has been inaccurately portrayed as a ‘Washington is angry about Howard Schultz’ story, but actually the outrage is coming from Democrats in many states, people who have been grassroots organizers, people who have been door-knocking and raising money and who helped turn the tide of the House in November. And it’s a reflection of the fear of re-electing Donald Trump.”
Reducing the anxiety somewhat is the fact that Schultz’s rollout has thus far been pretty awful, inspiring only to Trump-friendly outlets like the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page, the small cadre of both-sides-do-it journalists, and Simpson-Bowles nostalgists. The prospective candidate has looked wooden and oddly bitter, defensive about his billionaire status. In fact, Schmidt, and his anti-Trump bona fides, has so far been the best thing about Schultz’s exploratory tour. The consultant seems to have a more fully developed policy vision than his prospective candidate. It’s possible that he has a more realistic political game in mind, too, in addition to a generous paycheck: if the pre-Trump Republican Party can’t be resurrected, maybe the threat of Schultz can push the Democrats to nominate a more middle-of-the-road candidate. An adviser to one top Democrat, who believes Schmidt’s involvement is driven mostly by self-promotion, foresees exactly the opposite effect in the primary: “Schultz actually makes things more polarizing—he’s a Mr. Burns foil. Elizabeth Warren couldn’t have dreamed him up any better.”
Mark Salter, a longtime close aide to McCain, touches on what his former colleague Schmidt may be up to. “Given my own contempt for Trump, I understand the negative reaction [to Schultz],” Salter says. “That said, and not that I have a say in the matter as a disaffected Republican, I would prefer a Democratic nominee who appeals to centrists like me and not to the fringes of his or her party.” Schmidt comes close to confirming that gambit—and to confirming Democratic worries about Schultz splitting the general election vote to Trump’s benefit. “[Roughly] 35 percent of Republicans want another choice,” he says. “The natural harbor for those people is not Elizabeth Warren or Kamala Harris, should they be the nominee. The idea that Howard doesn’t draw from the Republican Party is just wrong on its face.”
Schmidt shrugs off Schultz’s early stumbles and defends him as a benevolent boss. He views all the attention and criticism as vindicating his belief that the electorate is open to a centrist outsider, and that the entrenched parties are scared of Schultz breaking their hold on the system. “If you imagine a period in time in 2020 where Howard Schultz is ahead in a three-way race, with multiple paths to 270 electoral votes, and all the commentariat saying, ‘How did you know that would happen?,’ well, the indication was probably at the beginning with the hysterical, overwrought, panicked reaction by vested interests within the political duopoly and in the media class,” Schmidt says. “There’s an enormous constituency in this country that’s just completely unrepresented. There has never been a larger population of moderate voters who generally agree on some of the country’s biggest problems.”
It’s certainly a good thing for the Democratic contenders to be challenged on the cost and effectiveness of proposals that are rapidly becoming orthodoxy, like universal health care and free college. But Schultz, to this point, hardly seems the guy to inspire the elusive, possibly chimerical moderate majority. He’s billing himself as a centrist independent, but Schultz’s policy ideas sound more like warmed-over corporate Republicanism. He’s talked up “comprehensive tax reform,” cutting spending on entitlements, and reducing the national debt, while dodging questions about whether his plan would include raising rates on the wealthy. And he has—risibly—apportioned equal political blame on Republicans and Democrats for the failure to pass rational immigration laws.
Schmidt says the coffee mogul will spend the next several months traveling and polling and will then make a decision. “What Howard Schultz has said definitively—and what I will say definitively—is that President Trump is a menace,” Schmidt says. “It’s a lawless presidency that has debased and degraded the institutions of this country and divided the country. And he has to be removed from office. Howard Schultz will not entertain a campaign as a spoiler. He’s not going to get into the race unless there’s a real popular demand.”
Which is easy to say, but harder to calibrate and control, especially when sizable egos are involved. “Steve left the Republican Party. That did not mean that he also became a liberal,” says John Weaver, a former top McCain strategist. “He’s with a guy who may break down a duopoly. Partisans on both sides are having a real difficult time with that. But we are far from the end of the day. We’re at the beginning. So everybody needs to calm the fuck down and go run your campaign.”
That group could soon include Weaver, who is working with John Kasich, the former Republican governor of Ohio. Weaver says that Kasich is “clearly leaning into it but isn’t close to a final decision.” And given what has been going on in Washington lately, Weaver and Kasich are in no rush. “There’s a rule in politics: if somebody is in the middle of hurting themselves, don’t get in his way,” Weaver says. “Trump is like a coyote on crack running through a minefield. We need to just sit back and watch a little bit of this. But you get encouraged when you see national polls like the one today where already a third of Republicans would vote for someone else in a primary. I’m pretty confident that we could beat Trump in New Hampshire. The question is, then what?”
Schmidt doesn’t claim to know what’s next for Schultz. He does claim that the two of them are patriotically “disrupting” a process that deserves an overhaul. “The brokenness of the political system is something that should be debated,” he says, “because the brokenness of the system is what produced Donald Trump.” The irony would be if a new, Schultz-induced fracture ends up duplicating 2016’s result.
“Count me in the small group of potential 2020 contenders who could not care less as to whether Howard Schultz runs,” says Eric Swalwell, a California Democratic congressman who spoke as he was traveling to New Hampshire Thursday morning. “I’m not scared one bit by one independent billionaire. We’re going to win based on our candidates and our ideas. And we’re going to have a Democratic president in 2021.”
Date Posted: Friday, February 1st, 2019 , Total Page Views: 561