When former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz fired up his White House 2020 burners last week, it wasn’t clear to me whether he intended to launch a political-war zeppelin, the Hindenburg or a trial balloon.
The first metaphor suggests, generously, that he knew exactly what he was doing by alienating Democrats with talk of an independent run. The received wisdom is that this would spoil the vote in favor of a second term for President Donald Trump, if Trump does or can seek it. The contrarian thought — again, very generous — is that it would force Democrats to forestall any dart to the left.
The second metaphor maintains that Schultz was trying to appeal, not alienate, by tapping into a quiet centrist majority, but that he botched the liftoff such that his campaign, if he undertakes it, is a nonflier, weighed down with every embittered coffee menu pun you can think of.
The third, perhaps the conclusive one, reveals that he commands attention, if not accord — or policy.
We’ll see. It’s early. But what I found most interesting among the many reactions was the declaration that what Schultz is selling, nobody wants. This was notable to me because what he’s selling is, in at least some measure, what I am, too.
A key criticism against a Schultz candidacy is that he’s a mainstream male billionaire at a time when a good portion of the electorate would be happy with precisely none of those things. I’m roughly two of those things, though that’s not what concerns me. We should be glad to accept talent from wherever it comes. It always should have been that way. But it hasn’t been, and still isn’t; thus the reasonable emphasis on diversifying our leadership.
My point is more about ideology. What the “nobody wants” assertion means, and which there is a chart from the Voters Study Group of collaborative researchers (tinyurl.com/vote-quad) to demonstrate, is that the bulk of the electorate (based on the 2016 election) fills three quadrants: (1) socially and fiscally liberal, (2) socially and fiscally conservative, and (3) socially conservative but fiscally liberal. That third quadrant, brimming with assertiveness, comprises the populists.
The fourth, sparsely populated quadrant — where Schultz is said to reside, is socially liberal and fiscally conservative, which is said to be centrist.
My own self-plotted position on this chart is even lonelier — it isn’t even in a quadrant, but rather halfway down the socially liberal axis and squarely in the middle on fiscal affairs. In other words, though my “social liberal” component is fairly baked in, I’m less interested in adhering to a fiscal ideology than in calibrating policy for the circumstances. It’s an expression of independence more than of centrism.
It would mean, for instance, worrying about the deficit — and undoing the 2018 tax cuts that expanded it. Then undoing them even a bit more, to raise revenue for social stability, both out of concern for improving people’s lives and for the broader consequences of not doing so. Such a philosophy would not be reflexively opposed to the ambitious ideas coming from the left in our current socioeconomic context, but it would demand a discernible advantage in benefits over costs. (An article last week at Vox.com (tinyurl.com/pov-programs) detailed the benefits of five prominent antipoverty plans from Democratic presidential contenders and noted that they all “cost a lot — but they all cost about the same or less than the recent round of Republican tax cuts.”)
But my philosophy also would remain open to bringing back those tax cuts in some future year if there were tangible evidence that American industriousness was being stymied, or to recalibrating the social initiatives if costs began to spiral (some would say “when” costs began to spiral).
A measured approach would also, for instance, mean actually instituting the original vision of the Affordable Care Act, including the parts that were stripped to ensure passage, so that we could see, before trying “Medicare for All,” whether a private market tempered by a public option could be effective. (Among the context of Democratic presidential candidate Kamala Harris’ fleeting embrace of Medicare for All last week was a Kaiser Family Foundation tracking poll showing that Americans are very much for the MFA concept until they’re told they’ll have to pay for it and that it will affect their options. See tinyurl.com/yes-mfa-but-no.)
How many people out there are like me on the political spectrum? If not a silent majority, even a susurrant sliver?
Barely that, if you believe the folks at FiveThirtyEight.com. FiveThirtyEight is the poll-aggregation endeavor begun by Nate Silver at the New York Times and subsequently transferred into an independent operation of numbers and analysis. It’s data-driven, but the FiveThirtyEight folks are happy to speculate, too. And in a podcast (tinyurl.com/538-howard) posted Thursday, they ask “Do Americans Want A Candidate Like Howard Schultz?” — and assay that Americans do not.
Though the podcast explores various ways to interpret the numbers, it reports that the Schultz quadrant on the Voters Study Group chart represents about 4 percent of the electorate. So I’d guess that my even more remote locale is, to borrow a term, a land of truly special snowflakes.
I hope it’s an underestimation. While few Americans may dwell in my ideological vicinity, the FiveThirtyEight podcast points out that many Americans dislike extremism. It seems fair to say that many of them also may reasonably perceive that extremism is where the major parties are breaking, in one case, or have long since broken, in the other. That may make voters more receptive to independent voices than the numbers suggest.
I don’t think, however, that it bodes as well for an independent candidacy, or (however tempting) for visions of a third party. It is inherent among any group of independents that their views range widely and may not easily coalesce. Better for those people to engage the parties when they sense an opportunity than to try to fuse and fail. Or to toss their hands over political consequences. Or, worst, to check out from the process entirely.
I often find, when I’m trying to express an idea, that someone else has said it before me, and said it better. So I conclude with a message from the second president, John Adams, to his youngest son, Thomas, as conveyed in the David McCullough biography of Adams. Please mentally adjust the pronouns as appropriate:
“Public business, my son, must always be done by somebody. It will be done by somebody or other. If wise men decline it, others will not; if honest men refuse it, others will not. A young man should weigh well his plans. Integrity should be preserved in all events, as essential to his happiness, through every stage of his existence. His first maxim then should be to place his honor out of reach of all men. In order to do this he must make it a rule never to become dependent on public employments for subsistence. Let him have a trade, a profession, a farm, a shop, something where he can honestly live, and then he may engage in public affairs, if invited, upon independent principles. My advice to my children is to maintain an independent character.”
David Banks is at David.Banks@startribune.com.