Howard Schultz, the former CEO of Starbucks, is making actual, formal moves to position himself for a third-party presidential run even as he got his first taste of the animus such a run would engender on Monday evening.
Fresh off an interview on 60 Minutes, in which he said he was seriously considering a White House bid motivated by his perception of both parties' failures, Schultz made a stop at Barnes & Noble in New York City to hawk his new book.
The reception was cordial but not always so. Clientele milled about with signed copies of From the Ground Up, and took their seats in rows of foldable chairs. Copies of the book included a limited time only free Grande handcrafted beverage. Sitting on a podium with CNBC’s Andrew Ross Sorkin in front of dark-hued blue curtains, was Schultz. As he began to speak, a man erupted in protest, saying, “Don’t help elect Trump! You egotistical billionaire asshole,” The protester was escorted out by security, but not before telling Schultz to “go back to to getting ratioed on Twitter,” a reference to the online mockery the billionaire endured the day before.
Jill Schlesinger, a lifelong New Yorker who came to the bookstore to see Schultz, told The Daily Beast that she was concerned about how the rest of the country would view some of the Democratic candidates in a field. “Unfortunately,” she said, voters needed a “white centrist male” to go up against Trump—and “the richer the better” to counter the president’s outsized claims of outsized wealth. She was even a self-described fan of Starbucks coffee and said she had voted for Mayors Rudy Giuliani and Bloomberg.
But, Schlesinger added, “I am very worried about the third-party thing. I deathly don’t want Donald Trump.”
Among Democratic operatives, Schultz’s presidential flirtation has been treated as either a tragicomedy or a nightmare. Virtually everyone believes that he would risk siphoning voters from the Democratic nominee and throwing the election to Trump. But not everyone thinks Schultz will actually go through with it, noting that the entire enterprise appears conspicuously timed to juice book sales. One operative pointed out that the homepage of Schultz’s website had nothing about a presidential campaign at all.
But Schultz’s advisers insisted on Monday that his consideration of a White House run was real.
Bill Burton, a former top Obama communications aide, told The Daily Beast that he had joined Schultz’s team along with a “couple dozen” other staffers, including a few fellow Obama alums and Steve Schmidt, who ran former Sen. John McCain’s (R-AZ) 2008 campaign. Burton said that Schultz had lined up a pollster, though he wouldn’t name the firm, and said that advisers were already working ballot access in all 50 states, with confidence that they would clear those hurdles.
“He is taking this seriously,” Burton stressed. “I get the conventional wisdom is going to line up aggressively against him. My view is we can't allow the same conventional thinkers who said Barack Obama was impossible and Donald Trump was impossible to decide this thing before it's even begun.”
Throughout his hour-long interview on Monday, Schultz did nothing to placate progressives wary of his potential candidacy. He dismissed the notion of running in a Democratic primary, called Medicare for All an unrealistic goal, said that there was value in becoming a billionaire through the “American dream,” and agreed with Republicans on the necessity of border security while dismissing President Trump’s long sought-after wall. He suggested as well that tech companies could devise a solution.
Schultz was pressed about the potential of dropping out of the race if it appeared that he would only help the president. “Nobody wants to see Donald Trump removed from office more than me,” he replied, without directly answering the question. “If I decide to run for president as an independent, I will believe—and have the courage and conviction to believe—that I can win.” Schultz went on to say that he was not “going to do anything to put Donald Trump back into the Oval Office.”
Schultz has said he won’t make a final decision on a presidential run for a couple more months. But his book tour event had the feel of a candidate being staffed by experienced (and pricey) consultants. A glossy campaign-type biographical video played before the interview, in which the former CEO described a political environment in which “some for whatever reason want to do everything they can to divide us.” On each chair, attendees were given cards with the phrase: “Not every business decision is an economic one.” On the back was a request to text a number to stay connected, a means by which a possible campaign could collect phone numbers.
The former CEO also seemed prepped to spin off the news of the day, including criticisms that had been lobbed his way by former New York City mayor Mike Bloomberg, who’d issued a statement saying that a successful independent run was effectively impossible.
“Mike Bloomberg has built a great business but I don’t agree with his conclusion,” Schultz said. “I also believe that there are lifelong Democrats and lifelong Republicans who would likely want to find a new home.”
Trump himself tweeted a few insults at Schultz Monday morning.
Monday evening, he reportedly told fundraisers he’d done that to goad Schultz into running.
One thing was certain for Schultz as he set off for the remainder of his book tour and a practice run for a presidential campaign: he viewed the attention from both the president and unhappy Democrats online as a distraction and not a sign. So too did his top aides.
“I am a lifelong Democrat and will continue to be,” said Burton. “But I don’t presume that every front-running candidate in the Democratic field can beat Donald Trump and if the presumption is there is nothing more important than beating Donald Trump, but the system might be more broken then it ever has been before in our lifetimes, then I think we need to risk a little imagination to see what's in the realm of the possible.”