Howard Schultz is holding the Democratic Party hostage

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In the middle of reading Howard Schultz’s recent tweet praising Beto O’Rourke’s centrist bromides about “extravagant government spending,” a lightbulb went off in my head. From the moment Schultz, the former Starbucks CEO, began pondering a presidential bid as an “independent centrist,” I couldn’t fathom that he and top adviser Steve Schmidt would really think that he’d have a shot at becoming president by running as an Independent.

It was frustrating to watch, especially since I once worked with Schmidt and know him to be brilliant. There’s no way they couldn’t see what’s so obvious to literally everyone else — that an independent run by Schultz would do nothing more than detract votes from the eventual Democratic nominee and help President Trump glide to reelection. They couldn’t possibly be that blind.

{mosads}But reading Schultz’s praise of Beto’s centrism, I suddenly understood. The fact that a Schultz run likely would help re-elect Trump is actually the point. Schultz isn’t pondering a run for president; he’s holding the Democratic Party hostage. Schultz is essentially saying to Dems: “Nominate a candidate that I like and I’ll go away.” His potential candidacy is a credible threat of electoral disaster from a billionaire who has been quite happy with the Clintonian, corporate-friendly Democratic Party.

Viewed through this frame, the whole gambit makes sense. Everything from the aggressive trial balloon, complete with book release, to the unusually large amount of time spent identifying precisely which Democratic ideas he finds unacceptable. (Medicare for All, Green New Deal, and free college are all no-gos.)

Schultz wants everyone to know he is absolutely serious about following through, and has made abundantly clear the type of candidate he would find acceptable enough for him to stand down. Squishy, corporate-friendly “No Labels” Beto passes muster; Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) most definitely does not. Here’s Schultz in his own words: “The stakes are too high to cross our fingers and hope the Democratic Party nominates a moderate who can win over enough independents and disaffected Republicans, and even fellow Democrats, to defeat Trump next year.”

Schultz would lose in a Democratic primary (although he’d have better odds there than in a general election as a third-party candidate). So, he has decided the only way to get his way is to list his demands to agree to go away.  

There are obvious reasons why Schultz, a lifelong Democrat, wants to keep the party right where it has been. He has benefited tremendously from a bipartisan embrace of big business with tax breaks, absolute political access for plutocrats, and the kind of timid policy proposals that are enough to assuage your guilt but not enough to require actual sacrifices. It’s the policy equivalent of eliminating plastic straws at Starbucks.

The Clintonian Democratic Party would never propose a wealth tax, or a universal basic income, or a jobs guarantee. In fact, Bill Clinton was helping to realign the Democratic Party away from the working class toward the rising creative class as Starbucks was exploding in growth and becoming the de facto meeting place for said creative class. That’s symbiotic.

The logic for having Schmidt advise his campaign also is intuitive. With Trump’s takeover of the Republican Party nearly complete, the #NeverTrump GOP strategist Schmidt finds himself a man without a party. With Schultz, he has a shot at transforming the Democratic Party into the old Republican Party.

Needless to say, I am not at all OK with having a billionaire, or anyone else, dictate the acceptable range of nominees for the Democratic Party. One of the great dynamics of the early primary race has been the sheer velocity of new, big ideas emerging from a party that has been stuck on incrementalism for decades.

Actually, come to think of it, if this new Democratic Party is sending wealthy Americans such as Schultz into an existential panic, we must be on the right track.

Krystal Ball is the liberal co-host of “Rising,” Hill.TV’s bipartisan morning news show. She is president of The People’s House Project, which recruits Democratic candidates in Republican-held congressional districts of the Midwest and Appalachia, and a former candidate for Congress in Virginia. Follow her on Twitter @krystalball.

Tags 2020 presidential campaign Bernie Sanders Beto O'Rourke Bill Clinton Democratic Party Donald Trump Howard Schultz Krystal Ball

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