On Beyond Howard: Let’s Think About Bigger Things than a Schultz Candidacy

AP Photo/Ted S. Warren

Former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz shakes hands after speaking in Seattle. 

It’s been fun, the Howard Schultz blowback. Sources close to Schultz say he was seriously unprepared for the experience of being called an egotistical billionaire asshole by just about everyone he had not hired to help his presidential candidacy boot up. Perhaps the response will lead the Starbucks founder to decide he is not our great national savior after all. I join with many others in wishing him a speedy journey to that conclusion.

That said, I suspect there is a warning here not just for Schultz but for us, his critics. To begin with, we should watch out for the danger of thinking small—of approaching the 2020 election from a place of fear.

Behind the anti-Schultz mobilization lies the nightmare of another close contest in which victory is undone by the combination of third- and/or fourth-party candidates and a less than ideal Democratic nominee. Memories of 2000 and 2016 make that scenario vivid. Anticipation of a second Donald Trump term makes it horrifying.But a close contest is hardly foreordained. Given the way things have been going lately (the government shutdown, the indictment of Roger Stone, the latest plunge in the President’s approval ratings), an easy win for the Democratic standard-bearer seems just as likely.

By crunch time next year, Trump could be doomed, assuming he’s on the ballot and remains President.An independent candidate could be the least of our concerns, even if one or more are in the mix, as they may well be regardless of what anybody does to discourage them. The suspense by then could be about the magnitude and meaning of the victory. Comfortable or landslide? Normal pendulum swing from one party to the other, a la 2008 and 1992? Or a wave election more like 1932? At the outer end of possibility, we could end up not just with a Democratic President, House and Senate, but with a strikingly progressive and united team of national leaders confident of wide popular support.

That is certainly an outcome to hope for and, I would argue, to work for.

Consider the other scenario for a moment. If the presidential race is close, so too will be the divide in Congress, and we know how that plays out from long stretches of the Bill Clinton and Barack Obama years. When the task of getting anything done depends on even a small amount of Republican cooperation—or on the backing of every last Democrat—that puts a severe crimp on what even the best people in Washington feel motivated to stand for and ask for.

Donald Trump could be gone, Congress could be narrowly in Democratic hands, and we could still have a government incapable of dealing with climate change, chronic racial injustice, gender inequality, workplace exploitation and indignity, insane barriers to decent health care, and growing monopolistic power, to mention a few big problems. On such matters we will get nowhere or fall way short until we have a critical mass of elected officials who feel roused and empowered to resist the influence of the dirty-energy, pharmaceutical, junk-food, telecom, and military hardware industries—more broadly, to resist the influence of Wall Street and corporate America writ large.

A sweeping victory is the outcome the times demand. It is also an outcome the times make possible—more possible than at any point in our recent past, anyway. For that fact, we have Donald Trump to thank. Alongside the horrendous damage they have done, Trump & Co. have opened America's eyes wider than ever to the perils of a crooked economy and a sham democracy.

That awakening is well underway. According to one recent poll, roughly seven in ten Americans don’t just view our economic system as skewed toward the wealthy; they want the government to do something about it. In months to come, this country will be called on to pay yet more attention to the crimes of Donald Trump and his extended family, and thus to political criminality, money corruption and the runaway economic and political power of giant corporations and the ultra-wealthy. By election time, those issues could be top-of-mind for most of the electorate. Progressives certainly should be doing all they can to help make it so.

So yes, by all means, let’s continue to tell egotistical billionaires where to get off. But I am not sure we need to devote quite so many public protests, Tweets, websites and hashtags to the task. (My overnight inbox mentions #HowardSchultzDontRun, boycott-starbucks.com, and #nohowardno just for starters.)

Some of this negative energy could be advantageously redirected toward the standard-issue Wall Street and corporate Democrats in the running; Kirsten, Cory, and their ilk need to know we’re looking for something better this time around. Progressives and resisters might, in a broader sense, do well to avoid becoming too fixated too soon on the presidential contest and the fortunes of this or that contender.

For now, I say, let’s ration the time and thought we spend opposing or, for that matter, advancing any candidacy. Schultz, like Trump, is clickbait. We need to learn not to let any loudmouth with money control our agenda.

So long as Donald Trump is in the White House, he will be an opportunity as well as a crisis. Let us be rid of him. But let us also make the most of him. The 2020 results may be a letdown, of course, but there is no reason to think the election and the post-election world will turn out less well if we aim high. And having modest expectations is no guarantee against disappointment in any case. That is right up there with complacency as one of the powerful lessons of 2016 and many a recent election year.

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