Howard Schultz, the billionaire founder of Starbucks, can afford the best so it’s no wonder he hired Steve Schmidt, one of the most brilliant critics of Donald Trump to stride the cable news world, for his potential 2020 challenge.
For a lot of people rattled by Trump, Schmidt has been a harbor in the storm. I clung to his every word when last year he renounced the Republican Party—his party until this year—as “corrupt” and “immoral” and said it must “burn to the ground.” He urged Republicans to vote for Democrats in November, and when the blue wave materialized, he cheered.
The question, assuming he meant what he said about Trump and how he is denigrating our democracy and a danger to it, is how can Schmidt now throw his considerable intellect and political savvy behind Schultz, another white billionaire with presidential aspirations?
Schultz says his rationale is that centrists aren’t welcome in the Democratic Party’s 2020 lineup, and that both parties are too busy practicing “revenge politics” to address voter concerns. He’s got a point that progressives are getting all the attention now, but by my count there are several centrists poised to enter the race that Schultz could buddy up with, or take aim at, beginning with fellow billionaire Michael Bloomberg.
In a phone conversation Monday evening, however, Schmidt said he was puzzled by the “panic” in response to Schultz’s exploratory run announcement—22 months before the election. Let’s see how things play out, Schmidt says, noting that Democrats could nominate a candidate who is unelectable.
More to the point, what is Schmidt’s rationale? He has spent the last several years apologizing for his role in promoting then-Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as Senator John McCain’s running mate in 2008. Her obvious inability to rise to the presidency should it become necessary hampered McCain’s run and created a lot of bitter feelings.
Woody Harrelson, the actor, made Schmidt a rock star in the HBO movie, Game Change, portraying him as a well-intentioned, sleep-deprived strategist who out of desperation made a bad bet with Palin, or as one reviewer put it, “a man conflicted by his pledge to do everything to win and his desire to maintain some dignity.”
He’s in a tight corner again now. Political operatives are not like lawyers who take the position that everyone deserves representation. Electing someone is not like defending someone, and there is an implied endorsement in accepting employment.
With someone like Schmidt, outspoken about his views, that implied sense of loyalty goes both ways. Schmidt paid the price for cooperating with the authors of the book, Game Change, which the movie was based on. His relationship with McCain was never the same. McCain felt betrayed, and his family made it clear that Schmidt was not welcome at his funeral service last year at the National Cathedral in Washington.
In advising Schultz, Schmidt risks throwing away all the credibility he has accrued over the last two years with his principled and passionate critique of Trump.
“Donald Trump doesn’t have a path at this time to get 50 percent,” Democratic pollster Peter Hart told the Daily Beast. “He needs to have some candidate pick up 5 to 10 points so he can become viable. Efforts by any third party or independent candidate is a way of aiding and assisting Donald Trump.”
It’s not just Trump, says Hart, it’s former Massachusetts Gov. William Weld, who ran on the vice-presidential slot on the Libertarian ticket in 2016, and is musing about making a bid for the top spot in 2020. “Thank you, No, to all of this,” says Hart.
Bloomberg tweeted Monday afternoon as part of a larger statement that “in 2020, the great likelihood is that an independent would just split the anti-Trump vote and end up re-electing the President. That's a risk I refused to run in 2016 and we can't afford to run it now.”
It was no secret that Bloomberg—who is considering a run as a Democrat in 2020—wanted to run in 2016 as an Independent and after looking at the numbers determined that he couldn’t win, might not carry a single state, and would likely act as a “spoiler” who could throw the election to the candidate he least wanted to win.
“The data was very clear and very consistent. Given the strong pull of partisanship and the realities of the electoral college system, there is no way an independent can win. That is truer today than ever before,” he said in his statement.
In our phone conversation, however, Schmidt contended that if Bloomberg had been on the debate state in 2016 he could have won that race.
Schmidt has spent a lot of time becoming the Thomas Paine of Trump-era politics, speaking a common-sense truth that crosses party lines, putting Country First above political loyalties.
There are reasons for the “panic” and almost universally negative feedback Schultz is getting about an independent run, which given the stakes would be like playing Russian roulette with the 2020 election.