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Howard Schultz and the Death of the Third-Party Candidate

Once upon a time, insurgent campaigns could push candidates in both parties to revise their policies and alter the face of American politics. But the former Starbucks CEO’s race toward the middle has revealed how third-party platforms have all but died in the political imagination.

Howard Schultz surrounded by previous third-party presidential candidates Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Right now, there seems to be 4,000 people running for president against Donald Trump. Howard Schultz, the billionaire former Starbucks chairman and CEO mounting an independent bid, has quickly distinguished himself as the least welcome candidate of all.

Schultz has recruited a few prominent strategists as he considers whether to launch an independent 2020 presidential campaign. His entirely hypothetical candidacy is so far defined by his grousing about taxes and socialism in the press; Schultz seems to be more decisively opposed to U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez than he is opposed to Trump. His being a billionaire is the sum of his political significance and, so far, his credibility. Schultz offers an old-school fiscal conservatism coupled with an easy-going progressive outlook on social issues. He’s Nelson Rockefeller, essentially: a mild-mannered patrician whose time in the national Republican leadership has come and, rather unceremoniously, gone. So naturally, Schultz presents himself as an independent candidate for president in 2020—opposed to Trumpism, but also opposed to the voguish left-wing mode in modern Democratic politics. Schultz has adopted the postpartisan “No Labels” posturing popularized a mere decade ago by centrist figureheads such as former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, yet another maverick billionaire, who has switched his party registration three times in less than two decades. But even Bloomberg has discouraged Schultz. “Given the strong pull of partisanship and the realities of the electoral college system,” Bloomberg warned, “there is no way an independent can win. That is truer today than ever before.”

For two weeks now, Schultz has defied Bloomberg’s insight. He and his senior strategists, Steve Schmidt and Bill Burton—a former Bush adviser and a former Obama adviser, respectively—say Schultz is as entitled as anyone else to run for president, regardless of all the popular fears about spoiler candidates splintering the opposition to Trump. Schultz sees a way forward. It follows logically, if not quite plausibly: Trump has pulled the Republican Party to the right, Bernie Sanders has pulled the Democratic Party to the left, and so there should be some undervalued real estate in the otherwise barren political center. In Schultz’s estimation, the polarization and the relatively low voter turnout rates mean some great number of disaffected Americans are holding out for a bland, ambidextrous hero. Howard Schultz is probably wrong. Howard Schultz is going to spend a personal fortune to find out.

These off-brand candidacies used to suggest some generational shifts in the overall partisan dynamic—even when the candidate lost. George Wallace didn’t win the Democratic presidential nomination as a Dixiecrat, but he did announce the decisive shift in the Democratic Party’s support for racial integration and civil rights reforms. Ross Perot was a goofball, but he also represented real, broad concerns about globalization, concerns that Trump now routinely underscores in his dealings with Mexico, Canada, China, and Japan. Ralph Nader hates the Democrats, but he also presaged the current left-wing rebellion against the center-left establishmentarians who have dominated the Democratic Party for the past half-century. They lost. They mattered. They mattered because their ideas mattered, if only marginally.

But the 1990s are when the two major parties and the political media began to render all third-party candidates as vanity candidates. In posterity, Perot is largely defined by his personal quirks; his drawl, his candor, his charts, his graphs, and his wealth. His political significance is reduced to his supposedly breaking the 1992 presidential election in Bill Clinton’s favor. In the darkest accounts of the Florida recount, Nader somehow bears more responsibility than any of the relevant Supreme Court justices for turning the 2000 presidential election in George W. Bush’s direction. Nader was a renowned consumer-rights activist, and now his legacy is reduced to a couple of curse words: spoiler candidate. The 1990s rebranded independent presidential bids, starring self-centered losers and novelty figurines who scramble the popular will as processed in the Electoral College. In the previous presidential campaign season, the leading third-party candidates were the Libertarian nominee, Gary Johnson, the know-nothing candidate for stoners; and the Green Party nominee, Jill Stein, the conspiracy-theorist candidate for disaffected liberals who barely managed to vote at all. Meanwhile, Sanders, an independent socialist, defied marginalization by running in the Democratic primary. Sanders resented the Democratic Party, so he challenged its ideas and thus changed a major party’s outlook.

Schultz’s rebellion against the two-party system seems far more vapid, disorganized, and self-centered than the average protest candidate. Who will Schultz ideally represent, exactly? His ambition is clear enough. His constituencies are hopelessly vague. So, too, is his conception of what politics even is. For two weeks, the nascent Schultz campaign has angrily struggled to explain why, exactly, Howard Schultz is running for president. Last week, Schmidt stormed out of an interview on his own podcast to avoid addressing Schultz’s wealth and its political significance. It’s all Schultz has at the onset, and he can’t even talk about it. So we are all left to assess Schultz’s personal brand—his identity, his so-called centrism—as the candidate’s sole quality. The Republican Party flatters billionaires, but it also flatters aspiring billionaires, free-market fundamentalists, abortion-rights opponents, anti-LGBTQ evangelicals, white nationalists—a broad coalition of voters. The only formative constituency for Schultz is the billionaires, plus a few cable news producers. He isn’t as quirky as Johnson or Stein, nor is he as eccentric as Perot, and that’s exactly his problem. And unlike Oprah Winfrey or, say, Donald J. Trump, he’s too whimsical to take seriously and too dull to matter.