Why Do Billionaires Like Howard Schultz Want to Run for President? Because They Can

Former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz is considering an independent presidential run, but there seems to be little to no need or desire for him to run, not to mention his lack of political experience. (Photo Credit: Flickr/Department of Defense/U.S. Army Sgt. James K. McCann/CC BY 2.0)

Reportedly, former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz is “seriously considering” a presidential run—as an independent no less.

Why not run as a Democrat and join an ever-deepening 2020 field? As Schultz has suggested in interviews, he opposes running as a Democrat because of what he views as “extremism on both sides.” He also believes that if a progressive won the Democratic Party nomination, it would be a surefire way to get Donald Trump re-elected.

There’s a bit to unpack here even with so little quoted, so let’s get down to it. On the notion that there are extremists or bad actors “on both sides,” while this may be true, it would seem a bit of a false equivalency. On the progressive left, you have people arguing for a $15 minimum wage, universal health care, higher taxes on the wealthiest Americans, etc. On the far right, you have Nazis and other white supremacists. For someone who professes to loathe Trump, Schultz’s discourse sounds a lot like his. Even if he’s talking primarily about the national debt, to speak in general terms about the left and right is as reckless as the deficit spending about which he speaks.

As for the idea that having a progressive as the Democratic Party nominee in 2020 means handing over the presidency to Trump, this is a line that’s been parroted over and over since the 2016 election and even before that. But it underestimates the enthusiasm that exists across ideologies for progressive ideals and policy initiatives, and fails to account for the struggles more moderate candidates have encountered in recent elections. Hillary Clinton, for all of her education and experience, and despite sexism and shenanigans prior to Election Day, had serious flaws as a candidate right down to how she ran her campaign. If centrism is the virtue we’ve made it out to be, shouldn’t Clinton have finished 20 points ahead, as she (in)famously quipped? The results don’t appear to bear this out.

This is all before we even get to the obvious assertion: that running as an independent would steal votes from the Democratic nominee. Such a prediction may or may not be true; it’s hard to assess what independents and other unaffiliated voters may be thinking as they step into voting booths absent exit polls, and then, of course, it’s too late. There’s also the matter that voters should be free to choose whomever they want in an election. It’s their vote and their right. That said, I don’t know that I’m encouraging independent presidential runs—especially not from billionaire businessmen given we have one in the White House.

Initial responses to Schultz’s visions of 2020 candidacy, er, haven’t been great. At a recent stop on his book tour—it’s called From the Ground Up and you can be sure it speaks to his credentials as a job creator and someone interested in civic engagement!—Schultz was interrupted during his interview with CNBC’s Andrew Ross Sorkin by a heckler who told him, “Don’t help elect Trump, you egotistical billionaire asshole” and later added, “Go back to getting ratioed on Twitter.” As the kids would say, shots fired.

Schultz brushed off the criticism—”I’m not running a primary race on Twitter”—but it is interesting witnessing a lukewarm (at best) reception for Schultz’s hint at a presidential bid. Sure, the bulk of it may relate to the contention that Donald Trump is no ordinary president, a racist fraud and pathological liar intent on taking the country backwards who needs as an undivided an opposition as possible to get removed from office and get us back on track.

A component of this animus might additionally stem from Starbucks’s uneven track record of late in avoiding controversy, notably concerning race relations. While still executive chairman of Starbucks, there was the whole to-do at the Philadelphia store that saw two black men arrested for trespassing while waiting for a friend. Let’s also not forget the Race Together campaign, an initiative devoted to racial equality and one promoting a dialog on race which was panned as misguided and tone-deaf. Turns out people don’t like when white billionaires lead a discussion on race relations. Go figure.

What’s also perhaps striking about Schultz’s non-announcement announcement is, despite the poor reception it has received from hecklers and trolls, how much press it has received in such a short time. Sure, a book tour helps, though there seems to be no shortage of books on the market from political figures or those with similar aspirations.

As noted, however, interviewers and other members of the media have been lining up to greet the former Starbucks chief executive and absorb his supposed political insights. He and his wife Sheri got some face time on 60 Minutes this past weekend. CBS This Morning. The New York Times. NPR. Laudatory opinion pieces by David Frum. You may not necessarily hold these sources in high esteem, but they certainly do expose Schultz and his views to a fairly wide audience.

To be fair, not all of this has been positive or even neutral press. In a series of tweets about Schultz, Paul Krugman painted him as a conservative and anti-Democrat masquerading as a centrist. Other detractors have raised objections similar to the ones outlined above. We don’t need another egotistical billionaire in the White House. No one asked or wants you to run. I asked for a caramel macchiato, not a caramel latte. OK, that last one is a joke, but suffice it to say there is plenty of negativity to go around.

Still, Schultz must figure he has an audience, right? And, as the saying goes, there’s no such thing as negative press? If Donald Trump can build a following despite the attempts of the mainstream media to laugh off his presidential campaign, it’s conceivable that the networks and pundits who prop him up might be enough to make an eventual candidacy seem meritorious. If Schultz is as self-centered as he’s made out to be, he might be swayed by Trump’s attempts to egg him on, too. Left or right, there’s no shortage of individuals who would undoubtedly relish the chance to try to take the president down a peg. It’s a trap, but in an era of performative outrage, any blowback could have its purpose. Hey, at least I stood up to the man! At least I stood for fiscal responsibility!

This very column devoted to Schultz’s testing the waters could be seen as unnecessary attention. In other words, if we ignore him, he’ll go away. Especially after Trump’s electoral success, though, it may be a few cycles before the billionaire executive candidate goes out of fashion. Either way, there’s a larger conversation about how money and privilege afford power. Long before the Trump era, Ross Perot had a reasonably successful run as an independent. As long as someone’s personal finances can get him or her a ticket to “the show” and as long as he or she has a path to voters’ attention, focusing on candidates like Howard Schultz as a subset of the discussion of the role of money in politics remains relevant.


The devil’s advocate argument, if you will, for Schultz’s possible candidacy would seem to exist with respect to the notion that he built his company, as the title of his book alludes to, “from the ground up.” If he earned his money through his hard work and his vision, why not spend it how he wants? There would also be historical precedent if Schultz wins. Schultz would be the first Jewish president of the United States, though like Bernie Sanders, he tends to downplay his faith. As he said in his 60 Minutes interview, “I am not running as a Jew if I decide to run for president. I’m running as an American who happens to be Jewish.” Let that be the only comparison between Schultz and Sanders, at least in this space.

Even if Howard Schultz can run for president, however, should he? In spite of recent controversies involving the Starbucks brand, the man hasn’t engendered much antipathy from the American people. Should he decide to run for office, particularly as an independent, that could dissipate fast. Why risk the damage to one’s reputation as well as a possible Starbucks boycott? Any way you slice it, that’s bad for business.

Schultz, a lifelong Democrat, claims to appeal to the voter who is sick and tired of bickering and ineffectiveness between the two major parties. He wants “to see the American people win.” But a number of his positions seem out of step with what Americans want, and certainly with what progressives would like to see. His deliberation on the national debt evokes the “pay-go” debate as it applies to the Democratic Party agenda, a shift that Nancy Pelosi and others have embraced along the lines of economic “pragmatism” but one that could stunt progressive initiatives.

His insistence that universal health care is as illusory as Donald Trump’s visions of a border wall, meanwhile, belies the idea that it is practiced around the world, suggesting that if we really wanted to, we could follow the lead of Australia, Canada, China, Europe, most of South America, Russia, and scores of other areas/countries. That Schultz so readily and straightforwardly dismisses something which is fast becoming part of the mainstream political conversation makes one tend to wonder whether he fails to understand this much or understands all too well and chooses to ignore it. To this effect, I’m not sure which is worse.

So, yes, Howard Schultz can run for president. It’s a free country. It just seems, though, like there’s not a huge need or desire for him to throw his proverbial hat into the ring, and having people dip into their personal finances and vie for public office when campaign finance is already so enmeshed with the designs of corporate and wealthy donors seems problematic.

Money should not suffice or be a prerequisite for political participation. Let’s not encourage another out-of-touch billionaire who lacks experience to go beyond hocking his autobiography.

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