WASHINGTON — Democrats are furious at former Starbucks chief executive Howard Schultz for announcing that he may launch an independent campaign for president. They fear he will split the anti-Trump opposition and help re-elect the president. But what angers them even more is that Schultz is calling Democrats out for how radical their party has become.
When Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts, recently floated her new wealth tax, Schultz called it "ridiculous." When Sen. Kamala Harris, D-California, said we should "eliminate" private health insurance, Schultz said, "That's not American." When Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-New York, proposed a 70 percent marginal tax rate, Schultz dismissed it, saying "I don't think we want a 70 percent income tax in America." Indeed, Schultz has ripped the entire Democratic socialist agenda, declaring "Free Medicare-for-all, government-paid free college for all — first of all, there's no free. I mean nothing is free."
No wonder Democrats are fuming. Instead of debating Republicans, they may spend the next two years fighting a liberal independent who is slamming their far-left policies.
Indeed, the neosocialist turn national Democrats have taken is precisely why Schultz decided to run as an independent. He calculated that he could not win the Democratic nomination running as a conventional, centrist Democrat. "I no longer feel affiliated [with the Democrats] because I don't know their views represent the majority of Americans," he says.
Schultz is right. In fact, a recent Pew Research poll found that 53 percent of Democrats want the party to move in a more moderate direction, not embrace the radical policies of Ocasio-Cortez. That is precisely what the party needs to do if it wants to beat President Trump. Democrats should be trying to win back the millions of once-reliable Democratic voters who twice cast their ballots for Barack Obama but switched to Trump in 2016.
But instead of tacking to the center to win back voters, Democrats are embracing leftist policies such as government-run health care, government-funded college for all, a government-funded job guarantee and a "Green New Deal." Together, these programs would cost $42.5 trillion — about twice the national debt. And they are claiming they can pay for it all by taxing the very rich. That's impossible, and Americans know it. But it is what the most rabid elements of their party are demanding.
This is the problem with our politics today. Both sides have decided that the way to win is no longer to persuade those in the middle, but rather to throw red meat to their hard-core supporters and get them more worked up than those on the other side. Lost in the shuffle are millions of reasonable, persuadable citizens who are left to choose between two unpalatable alternatives.
These are the new "forgotten Americans," and Schultz is betting they are looking for a leader. He calculates that there is an underserved population of voters who hate today's radical, polarized politics and want competent centrist leadership.
His candidacy would pose an existential threat to Democrats in 2020, so they will attack him as an out-of-touch billionaire who does not care about working people. It won't work. As a chief executive, he took groundbreaking steps to make sure his employees shared in Starbucks's success, giving his baristas stock compensation, offering full tuition at Arizona State University for an online bachelor's degree and providing even part-time workers with health plans. Schultz is betting this record and a platform of moderately liberal yet fiscally responsible policies can win the presidency.
Is he right? Probably not. There is a reason no independent has ever won the presidency. But Schultz is a visionary entrepreneur who saw a latent demand for a $3 cup of coffee before anyone else. Maybe he is also a visionary political entrepreneur who sees the latent demand for centrist leadership that everyone else is ignoring.
We will soon find out. Until then, he is doing the Democrats a favor by calling them back from the brink of fiscal and political insanity. After Schultz slammed Harris's call to eliminate private insurance, Harris's campaign backtracked, saying she has also supported more moderate options. Ocasio-Cortez and the neosocialists are pulling the Democratic Party to the left. Perhaps by threatening their prospects in 2020, Schultz can pull them back in the other direction. For that reason alone, he would do the American people a great service by running.
The Washington Post Writers Group