Billionaire coffee magnate Howard Schultz has two problems: Ross Perot and Ralph Nader.
Schultz, a lifelong Democrat, says he’s seriously considering running for president as a centrist independent in 2020. So am I, for that matter. With about, oh, 400 Democrats lining up to run, what’s one more?
But Schultz, unlike most of us, has billions of dollars — entire galaxies of dollars because: coffee. He also has hired two big guns of previous presidential campaigns — Bill Burton and Steve Schmidt, of Barack Obama and John McCain fame, respectively.
While the media (including this columnist) display a Pavlovian response to the scent of fresh meat, Democrats have shrieked like cartoon girls when a rat scampers past. Recently, when Schultz talked at a Manhattan Barnes & Noble to promote his book, a man in the audience shouted, “Don’t help elect Trump, you egotistical billionaire!” Whereupon the thought did briefly flicker: Could Schultz and Trump be in cahoots? No.
The man did have a point, however — one shared by countless Democrats. Their fear that a third-party or independent candidate would merely siphon votes from their nominee is not without precedent. In 1992, when Perot ran as an independent, he may have helped Bill Clinton defeat incumbent George H.W. Bush.
Even though exit polling indicated that Perot voters were evenly split on their second choice, it’s still conceivable that enough would have stuck with the familiar rather than gamble on an Arkansas governor whose slightly curled lip and hip-dipping swagger suggested he hadn’t yet fully shed his inner-Elvis (or his ain’t-nuthin’-but-a-hound-dog ways).
Who knows? But isn’t it lovely to ponder what might not have been: Monica Lewinsky.
Later, when Ralph Nader ran as a Green Party candidate in 2000, he may well have ensured the presidency of George W. Bush. In Florida, where the election was decided, Nader earned nearly 100,000 votes, a sufficient portion of which would have otherwise gone to Al Gore. Bush won by 537 votes.
To the extent that newly elected presidents tend to represent the antithesis of the incumbent, the younger Bush was Clinton’s opposite. And, needless to say, Barack Obama was Bush’s. Then came Donald Trump, who emerged as the opposite not only of Obama but of all things decent, fair and true.
Who, pray, will be the non-Trump?
By all rights, it should be a woman of color to counter Trump’s grab-’em-by-the- misogyny and his dog-whistling to Jim Crow. Sen. Kamala Harris would be the obvious choice given those criteria. But as telegenic, experienced and charismatic as she is, Harris’ pro-debt-free-college and Medicare-for-all positions would be hard sells in a general election.
Enter Schultz. He’s richer than Trump; as white as Trump; a man. You see the problem. But he does have antidotal qualities. He’s polite, smart, self-made, articulate, calm, rational — and a centrist like millions of voters. Given that the two major political parties have been rendered ridiculous by their bases, why not a third way? Besides, there’s no guarantee he’d attract only Democratic votes.
Schultz hasn’t declared his candidacy yet, but it would be a mistake to drive him away on the precedents of Perot and Nader, who never had a chance and, thus, indeed, were spoilers. Schultz is also no Michael Bloomberg, the other billionaire independent who has flirted with the presidency. Consider: As New York City mayor, Bloomberg wanted to control soda consumption; Schultz, though no longer CEO of Starbucks, wanted to feed the world high-calorie scones and venti salted caramel mocha lattes — with two pumps of vanilla.
It wouldn’t be the worst thing.
Kathleen Parker is a columnist with The Washington Post.