Schultz is not running against Trump — he’s running against Bloomberg

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Former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz is not running against Donald Trump; he is running against Michael Bloomberg. He needs to tell voters why they should prefer him over Bloomberg.  

Although it is still about 12 months to the Iowa primaries, the race for the Democratic nomination seems to be in full swing. Schultz’s talk of running as an independent has created a firestorm among Democrats. They fear that Howard Schultz will become a Ralph Nader-esque spoiler. In the 2000 elections, Bush won Florida by 537 votes. Nader polled 97,488 votes and exit polls suggested that in a hypothetical two-person race between Bush and Gore about 47 percent of Nader voters would have voted for Gore. Absent Nader, Gore would have won Florida and hence the presidency.

{mosads}One might wonder whether the Nader analogy is the correct one. Are Democrats overestimating his appeal? After all, Schultz could fare as poorly as the recent Green party nominees, namely, David Cobb (2004), Cynthia McKinney (2008) and Jill Stein (2012, 2016). 

But even if a third-party candidate is able to force a three-way race, Schultz could become another Ross Perot. In 1992, Perot polled 19 percent of votes, the highest for a third-party candidate in almost a century, when Teddy Roosevelt ran on the Bull Moose ticket in 1912 and came second. He and William Howard Taft, the Republican nominee, outpolled Democrat Woodrow Wilson, who won the race. But exit polls revealed that Ross Perot was not a spoiler for George H.W. Bush who sought a second term. That is, Bill Clinton would have won even if Perot did not run. 

Schultz’s presidential flirtations raise two issues. First, why don’t Democrats simply ignore Schultz? Their strong reaction suggests that they fear Schultz’s agenda will appeal to a sizeable number of centrist Democrats. If Democrats race to the left, the disaffected centrist Democrats might protest by voting for Schultz. This defection of centrists will be an electoral problem if it outweighs the higher level of grassroots mobilization of Democratic voters brought about by a platform emphasizing policies such as Medicare for All and free college education.

Ironically then, Democrats should thank Schultz for reminding them of this potential problem: Moving left will mobilize the grassroots but potentially lose the center. Instead of labeling Schultz’s flirtation as a vanity run, they should view it as symbolizing the contradiction within the Democratic Party. One cannot condemn centrism and yet demand that centrists support the left turn in Democratic politics. The reality is that anti-Trumpism may not be a strong enough glue to hold the left-center coalition together.    

There is a second issue that Schultz’s flirtation raises. Assuming centrists offer a different vision for the Democratic Party, why should Schultz be assumed to be the spokesperson of this constituency? Why not Bloomberg, another centrist anti-Trump? Both Schultz and Bloomberg are self-made billionaires who embrace a socially liberal agenda. Both are fiscal conservatives and have criticized proposals such as Medicare for All and free college.

Americans have great respect for successful entrepreneurs and business leaders. But running the federal government requires a skill set different from that required in managing a corporation. Electing a billionaire to the oval office in 2016 has probably revealed this grave truth in stark terms.

Herein lies Bloomberg’s advantage. He has served in public office as a three-term mayor of New York. He, therefore, has ample experience of navigating a complicated megacity. Schultz has zero experience in managing any elected public body, leave aside a complex place such as Washington D.C. How, then, can Schultz persuade voters that he would be better than Blomberg at translating a centrist agenda into concrete policy?

{mossecondads}Here’s a suggestion. Instead of flirting with a presidential run, Schultz could seek the office of the mayor of Seattle. He will realize that even his beloved Seattle is not “Starbucksville.” Although not as large as New York, Seattle is still a pretty complicated city. It could, therefore, serve as an excellent place to get hands-on experience in running a public body before he aspires to the big league. 

The bottom line is that politics and coffee are different businesses. And Bloomberg has already finished his apprenticeship in politics. So why would the customer want her centrist politics to be brewed by an untrained barista?

Nives Dolsak is a professor and the associate director of the School of Marine and Environmental Affairs at University of Washington, Seattle 

Aseem Prakash is the director of the Center for Environmental Politics, and the Walker Family professor for the College of Arts and Sciences at University of Washington, Seattle.

This piece has been updated.

Tags 2020 election Aseem Prakash Bill Clinton Donald Trump Nives Dolšak third-party candidate

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