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Everybody Hates Howard: Why Howard Schultz Failed So Fast

The Starbucks billionaire wants to run as a centrist, independent candidate for president of the United States. And he may be the only person alive who wants that.

Howard Schultz Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It’s tough in 2019 to find something that the whole country can agree on.

Sports, music, food—nothing is sacred. But with a rapidly changing ecosystem for how people consume their news, you can usually find a decent portion of the country who will believe almost anything. Chemicals in the water turn frogs gay. The earth is flat. Meghan Markle is a robot. Take almost any issue and there will be people willing to argue vociferously for both sides. Unless you’re on Howard Schultz’s side.

The political “rise” of Schultz has been a remarkable rejection, one of the most definitive ratios in modern American life. Schultz, the billionaire former CEO of Starbucks who has been publicly waltzing with the idea of running for president in 2020, accomplished the unimaginable in a week’s time. He is uniting the country in an inspiring way—all against him.

When Schultz clumsily hinted at running as an independent without committing to actually doing so and farted his way through a weeklong press tour, things were not going well. It took less than five minutes into his first public appearance before the hecklers emerged. “Don’t help elect Trump, you egotistical billionaire asshole,” one protester yelled. “Go back to getting ratioed on Twitter. Go back to Davos with the other billionaire elites who think they know how to run the world. That’s not what democracy is.”

This, of course, was never going to be easy for Schultz. No president since George Washington has been elected as an independent, and Schultz’s one strategic move thus far has been to attack popular Democratic politicians while knowing he needs to reel in Democratic votes to have a prayer. He was off to a bad start.

And then the first poll numbers came out. It was a bloodbath that would make Quentin Tarantino cringe. Change Research conducted a survey of likely voters about Schultz’s candidacy and found that just 4 percent of likely voters who are aware of him view him favorably. By comparison, Donald Trump, one of the most unpopular presidents in American history, had a 42 percent approval rating with this same group. When you break down the poll by party, Schultz’s approval rating sits firmly at 4 percent for Democrats, Republicans, and independents. If Schultz were a 2018 movie, he’d be Gotti.

How did this happen? How did the architect of one of the world’s most popular brands manage to get a huge swath of the country to hate him in less than a week? The political reasons are fairly straightforward. By running as an independent rather than a Democrat, Schultz offered a clear fuck-you to a party that has spent the past 26 months organizing in every possible way to get rid of Trump in 2020. If Schultz had decided to join the caravan of Democratic candidates and found a way to beat them, he would likely be in a strong position to become the 46th president. Instead, he’s pissed off a coalition that’s as politically motivated as it’s been in decades.

Doubling down on his inability to read the room, Schultz picked his first political fight with rock star New York freshman Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. He blamed her for his decision to run as an independent, saying that her proposal to place a 70 percent marginal tax rate on income above $10 million meant that he couldn’t be a Democrat anymore. Ocasio-Cortez’s proposal is incredibly popular; Schultz’s rebuttal was not. Disagreeing with a policy proposal is not grounds for the abandonment of an entire party. But such is Schultz’s convoluted political ideology.

While Schultz’s troubles with the Democrats seem to only be growing, he is dead in the water with Republicans. Schultz seems to have forgotten this, but the current Republican president is also a billionaire businessman who ran on those exact credentials, and no matter how much you may hate him, he was elected on deep-seated feelings of anger and perceived righteousness. And the base of his party has made it clear that no matter what this president does, they will support him. Schultz’s middle-of-the-road ethic is in defiance of our current political moment—and that is not a compliment.

The strangest thing about Schultz’s political strategy so far is his perception of his own voting base. Who are his imaginary supporters? He was criticized last week for not knowing the cost of a box of Cheerios, but that obstructs the larger issue. It’s not a big deal to not know the cost of a box of cereal, but it is a big deal if your policies sound compelling to only extremely wealthy people. Even if they all vote for you (they won’t), there just aren’t enough of them. He proposed cutting Social Security and Medicare benefits and has come out strongly against Elizabeth Warren’s plan to create a 2 percent wealth tax on those with a net worth above $50 million. In a country where the top 1 percent of Americans have greater wealth than the bottom 90 percent, running on a platform that protects the super rich isn’t misguided—it’s irretrievably foolish.

So what possessed Schultz to take this on? Whether or not he actually goes through with the run, he went from a guy who seemed to be fairly well-liked—with the exception of Seattle SuperSonics fans—and respected in the business community to a national punching bag. Is this just a vanity play from a man who’s used to getting everything he wants? Is this the case of a man who doesn’t know much about politics being bamboozled into a dead-end race by political hacks who see dollar signs? Is it a result of not being around normal people for so long that he lost touch with what they care about? The difference between Schultz and Trump on a purely political level is that Trump was a force of television—of sinister celebrity—more than anything else. He is comfortable selling an image of himself to ordinary people. The fact that he was a terrible businessperson meant little politically, because he knew the pressure points that would pique voters’ interests. Likewise, Schultz’s actual business acumen is meaningless if he doesn’t know what voters—literally, any voters—truly want.

One of the ironies of this whole mess is that this disastrous rollout of a campaign seems to be the complete antithesis of Starbucks’ ethos. Whether or not you like its coffee, Starbucks as a brand is known for its hyper-efficiency and consistency. Stores are clean; Wi-Fi is functional; food is consistent; bathrooms exist; etc. Starbucks is consistently rated among the top companies in terms of employee treatment and working conditions. There’s a level of order associated with Starbucks that the Schultz campaign has missed.

So what have we learned from the last week? A few things, all at the same time: If you’re running on your reputation as a successful CEO, maybe develop a coherent strategy before jumping head first into the most toxic political climate in the history of this country. Income inequality is going to be a touchstone issue for both parties heading into 2020. This is just more irrelevant white noise in a sea of it.

For Starbucks’, the country’s, and Howard Schultz’s sakes, it would probably be best if this charade ended sooner rather than later. Still, all signs are pointing to Schultz sticking it out for now. He hired Bill Burton, a respected former Obama adviser, and has doubled down on his “protect billionaires at all costs” strategy this week, becoming noticeably tense when asked whether billionaires have too much power in America and stating unironically that they should be referred to as “people of means.”

As bad as the past week has been for Schultz, all of this is an appetizer compared with the porterhouse of hate he’ll be fed if he makes it to the general election. Regardless of Schultz’s next move, the lessons of the past week have been illuminating and even a bit refreshing: America still has the ability to come together. All it took was an out-of-touch Seattle billionaire to show us the way.