AUSTIN, Texas—Howard Schultz, the independent presidential candidate who can’t manage to tweet without getting ratio’d, made his pitch to South by Southwest on Saturday morning.
There are lines for everything at SXSW and Schultz’s “featured session” was no exception. When NBC News’ Dylan Byers opened by suggesting that the general reception to his 2020 campaign launch has been “unfavorable,” the former Starbucks CEO asked, “You think it’s been unfavorable?” to polite chuckles in the room. He then essentially dodged that question to make his generic stump speech about a “lack of leadership” in America and “dysfunctional” two-party system.
Byers followed up by noting that the lines for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Elizabeth Warren, both of whom would be speaking at SXSW later in the day, would be a lot longer than his. Schultz called those two women “well-intentioned,” but then started to explain why he believes the Green New Deal is an unrealistic goal.
“You can’t try to solve one extreme with another,” he said, referring to both Trump and the Democratic Party. He previously called Ocasio-Cortez “un-American,” but now seemed to back off that view when he said, “They love the country. They have their core beliefs. But you have to ask them, is any of this possible?”
“The vast majority of Americans are not going to embrace socialism,” Schultz said, neglecting to note that just one of the many people running for president on the Democratic side identifies as a Democratic Socialist. He predicted that Trump will be re-elected if the Democrats nominate someone too radical for his taste, but expressed no concerns about how his presence as a third-party candidate could do the exact same thing. When he finished speaking after several minutes, there was what can only be called a smattering of applause.
“I will do nothing to re-elect Donald Trump,” Schultz insisted later, telling Byers that “if the math doesn’t work” then he would “not proceed,” but did not offer any specifics on what that would mean. “I want to play this out,” he added. “It’s too early to answer these types of questions.”
Repeatedly throughout the event, Schultz rose from his chair to attempt to inject some energy into the lackluster event, but it barely helped.
The most compelling questions ultimately came from online viewers, who asked, among other things, whether Schultz was pro-life or pro-choice. “I have been an advocate of being pro-choice for all of my life,” Schultz said, awkwardly, explaining that he doesn’t think abortion will be an issue in 2020. He then quickly pivoted to his Jewish identity and Israeli-Palestinian relations.
The first real groans of the morning came when Schultz answered the question, “Can you define socialism?” by pointing to Venezuela. “You don’t like that?” he asked.
At the end of the hour, Byers asked Schultz about how he could be so successful with the Starbucks brand, but seemingly so bad to date at building his own brand. Noting that Barack Obama ran on “Yes we can,” he said, “‘That’s never going to happen’ is not a great campaign slogan.”
Schultz then pointed out that he has not yet officially announced that he’s running for president, offering, “Give me some time to feel my way through.” With Democrats using the donkey and Republicans using the elephant as their symbols, Byers asked Schultz what his “spirit animal” is. He made the mistake of asking the audience for suggestions and someone shouted out, “The unicorn!” It wasn’t meant as a compliment.
“Do you have people in your life who tell you: Howard, don’t do this, you’re embarrassing yourself?” Byers asked to laughs from the crowd.
“When you do something that is against the grain, certainly you will have a group of people who say this is not the thing to do,” Schultz answered.
Besides being known for its lines, SXSW is also famous for its raucous crowds. It doesn’t take all that much to excite the people who show up to events like this one, but Schultz—a real-life entrepreneur!—didn’t have it. He may think Ocasio-Cortez is too “extreme,” but she will no doubt get a far better reception when she takes the stage in the same room Saturday afternoon.
UPDATE: After publication, The Daily Beast received the note below from Schultz’s spokesperson Erin McPike:
Color me shocked by your opinion piece of Howard Schultz’s event today.
We must not have been attending the same thing.
I see you came to it to drive an agenda. Did you not notice those at the end who gave Howard a standing ovation?
Did you not notice the multiple times he was interrupted by applause?
Did you not notice the people who cheered when he asked all the entrepreneurs in the room if they had been told they couldn’t achieve their dreams, and then he said keep going?
You seemed to have completely misinterpreted the response from the crowd about socialism. It wasn’t that they didn’t agree with him. They were groaning about the idea of socialism. If you had any read of the crowd whatsoever, you would have noticed that. And, by the way, he has been defining capitalism at events over the last 24 hours. It is not as if he doesn’t have an answer.
I’m not sure you have an understanding of the people who would come to see Howard at SXSW. It troubles me that you might not be doing your homework if you couldn’t actually talk to people in the crowd.
The unicorn thing was a joke. And he took it as such. The dialogue was fun, the rapport good, the interaction with the crowd strong.
When I was a reporter, I never confused fiction with reality. But it seems you came with a piece in mind. Bombs? Come on.