the national interest

Political Moderation Needs to Be Saved From the Madness of Howard Schultz

Howard Schultz. Photo: Johannes Eisele/AFP/Getty Images

Let’s assume that Howard Schultz is not just an aggrieved billionaire who’s threatening to punish Democrats because he’s angry they want to raise his taxes. (I don’t think he is.) Let’s also assume, more generously, that he’s not a political sugar daddy being pumped full of delusions by manipulative consultants so they can milk him dry. (Even though I think he probably is.)

Let’s assume, instead, that he is running for a decent purpose: He believes that the two-party system endangers political moderation. This is a cause for which I have at least some sympathy. It’s nonetheless true that Schultz’s proto-campaign has both misidentified the cause of the problem and is proposing to worsen it in every way.

Moderation is not the solution to every problem, but it does contain a lot of wisdom. Moderates recognize that political problems are often complex and require trade-offs, and that the devil is in the details. What’s more, the two-party system doesn’t always reward moderation. A polarized system can generate so much loathing that ideological extremists can capture a party by exploiting affective hatred for the other, knowing that the perception of the opposing side as abhorrent will prevent centrists in their own coalition from defecting.

I am personally pretty comfortable with the Democratic party’s ideological makeup right now. But there are some members of the party who have ideas I find oversimplistic or half-baked. If backers of Bernie Sanders managed to seize control of the presidential nomination and lurch the party suddenly to the far left (the way conservatives pulled the Republican party sharply rightward in 1964), I’d be a little dismayed by the reality that I’d have to support him anyway because the only alternative is an extremist GOP. Even if most of the movement away from the center has been accomplished by the Republicans in recent decades, the disappearance of the center can create a symbiotic relationship between the extremes of both parties, turning their moderates into helpless captives.

Unfortunately, Schultz misidentifies both the size and the ideological orientation of the political center. It is much smaller than he believes, and is comprised of essentially the opposite of his preferred combination of fiscal conservatives and social liberalism. He also fails to evince any grasp of what enables parties to move toward the extremes. Winner-take-all plurality voting systems tend to compress the electorate into two parties. The American voting system can be changed — Maine has instituted a ranked-choice voting system that opens up a role for third-party candidates and increases the pressure on parties to appeal to a majority of the electorate. Schultz could be spending his fortune building a movement to implement reforms like this. Instead he appears intrigued by a quixotic campaign to make himself president.

Schultz’s fascination with the transformative power of an independent campaign is ironically devoid of any moderation whatsoever. When asked what the purpose of his campaign was, Schultz replied, “To unite the country, for us to come together, to do everything we can to realize that the promise of America is for everyone.” When it was pointed out that every politician promises this, Schultz explained he could accomplish it because he does not belong to a party: “Can you imagine what a powerful signal it would send to the Congress and the country if, for the first time since George Washington, an independent person could be elected president.” His campaign rationale is a logical circle with two nodes: he is running as an independent to unite the country, and he will unite the country by running as an independent.

Schultz believes the awesome power of independence obviates the need for any compromise or details. All the bad things stem from a system defined by two antagonistic parties, and he will bring in all the good things. He opposes Democratic plans to raise taxes on rich people like himself, but also promises to reduce income inequality. “The inequality is real and must be addressed, but not in a punitive way,” he says. “What is required is leadership.”

The cast of Morning Joe gently prodded Schultz into saying something about public policy. He managed to explain his intention to fix health care by “bring[ing] in people smarter than myself into the room … Get Pharma in the room, get private enterprise into the room, and realize we all need to have skin in the game.” As if nobody has thought to solve health care by consulting smart people or bargaining with the private sector! On taxes, he said his position was, “Let’s not send out a tweet or a press release that makes news, let’s get serious people around the table.” Previous negotiations on tax reform have also involved serious people and tables, but Schultz imagines his independent status will transform everything, somehow.

Asked to name the best Democratic and Republican presidents of the last 50 years, Schultz named Franklin Roosevelt — who died 74 years ago — for a Democrat. For a Republican, he cited Ronald Reagan, and the thing that most captivated him about the Reagan presidency was his refusal to remove his sport coat in the Oval Office.

“The thing I took away from Ronald Reagan? […] Ronald Reagan never took his jacket off in the Oval Office. Why? Because of the respect of the dignity of the Oval Office.”

Incidentally, this is not true:

But more importantly, even if it were true, wearing a sport jacket is not an especially impressive or significant achievement. Schultz’s fascination with this gift-shop-souvenir-kitsch pseudo-fact encapsulates the level of thought at which Schultz is able to conceptualize the presidency. He sees the president as a force of personality who can compel those around him to bend to his will through displays of executive command. He thinks of the president the way a child does, or — more to the point — the way Donald Trump did, expecting that his election would result in all the partisan disputes melting away before his charismatic presence. The deeper reasons the two parties would, in reality, continue to disagree even if he brought them together in a room — with a table, even! — legitimately escape him. Schultz is not above ideology. He is below it.

Another quality Schultz may share with the current businessman-president is that the seriousness of his intentions have been underestimated. Michael Scherer reports that Schultz has spent months planning for his rollout, commissioning six national polls and setting up a dial test with 1,000 voters during his 60 Minutes appearance. It would be easy to assume, based on his comical lack of knowledge about politics and policy, that Schultz, like Trump, just wants some free publicity. History can turn on smaller things than one rich man’s ego.

Moderation Needs to Be Saved From Howard Schultz’s Madness