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Is Howard Schultz A True Third-Party Option?

Former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz is interviewed by FOX News Anchor Dana Perino for her "The Daily Briefing" program, in New York, Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2019. Schultz said he's flirting with an independent presidential campaign that would motivate voters turned off by both parties. (Richard Drew/AP)
Former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz is interviewed by FOX News Anchor Dana Perino for her "The Daily Briefing" program, in New York, Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2019. Schultz said he's flirting with an independent presidential campaign that would motivate voters turned off by both parties. (Richard Drew/AP)

Former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz is a very good businessman. He could soon be a rather significant presidential candidate. Schultz roiled the partisan and punditry classes last week when he announced that he’s considering a presidential run as an independent. But who exactly would he sway? Schultz says he can give independents a home on the ballot. But how many voters out there are truly independent? How might he shape the race?

Lee Drutman, senior fellow at at New America, a nonpartisan think tank, David Frum, staff writer at The Atlantic, and Neera Tanden, president and CEO of the Center for American Progress, took on these questions, Thursday, On Point.

Interview Highlights

On the profile of independents in the U.S.

Lee Drutman: "We've got about 40 percent of people who say they're independent, which is a nice thing for people to say that they are because they like thinking that, 'Well, I don't belong to any party. I think for myself.' But most people tend to vote for one party or the other. I mean, if you want to talk about true independence, people who really don't feel like they like either party, that's maybe 5 to 10 percent at most. But most people like to say they're independent because it sounds nice. But they don't really vote like independents. They consistently vote for either Democrats or consistently vote for Republicans.

"The fact that 40 percent of people do register as independents does tell us something. I think people are indeed frustrated with the lack of choices in our party system, but most people think one party is better and one party is worse."

On the socially conservative, fiscally liberal electorate — the opposite of Schultz

Drutman: "We might call this populist. It's probably about, by my estimate, 29 percent of the electorate, which is people who are a little bit right of center on immigration and social issues, some a little bit more right of center, but think government should help people and maybe tax the rich a little more and support Medicare and healthcare and social security. Most people think these things are pretty important things for government to do. And one reason Trump may have probably won in 2016 is because he spoke to these voters and he tried to differentiate himself from other Republican candidates by saying that he was going to protect Medicare and Social Security. It turns out, as president, he has moved considerably to the right from where he was as a candidate, but he spoke to very popular issues and there are a lot of voters out there who want government to help them out, but might be a little bit uncomfortable with too much immigration and might hold some traditional religious values."

"Most people like to say they're independent because it sounds nice. But they don't really vote like independents. They consistently vote for either Democrats or consistently vote for Republicans."

Lee Drutman

On the problem of our winner-take-all political system

Drutman: "Certainly, we have a winner take all electoral system in which if you get a plurality of the votes, you win it all. And I think that is a significant problem because it creates a political system where you have two sides that are both competing to be the majority party, and when they're in government, they will enact policies and then you have an opposition party that is just playing obstructionism. They're trying to knock the party in power out and we have a political system that is designed tor require compromise. It is a fundamentally majoritarian system and we have a majoritarian party electoral system on top of that, and that's a problem."

On why Democrats are fearful of Howard Schultz' bid for the presidency, and what his candidacy might mean for the 'anti-Trump' campaign

David Frum: "The reason that so many Democrats and liberals are upset about the Howard Schultz prospect is they recognize that Schultz will draw from the Democratic coalition. Not enormous numbers of people, but even if Lee's figure is correct, it's 4 percent. Four points is the difference in Hillary Clinton winning and losing. So they recognize that this is coming from them. Why are they vulnerable to this challenge? And the answer is because right now the Democrats are running a 'lefter than thou' competition — should the maximum tax rate be raised to 50 percent, or 70 percent, or 75 percent? How big should the wealth tax be? If you leave the country, should you be allowed to take your wealth with you? Medicare-for-all? — and forgetting that one of the reasons Democrats did so well in 2018, is that a lot of people who normally vote Republican, could not stomach Donald Trump in a lot of places like suburban Houston, suburbs of Philadelphia. They held their noses and voted for the other party in order to put a check on a rogue president. What Howard Schultz is doing is reminding Democrats those people exist, and they're important. They're not a majority at all, and they're not a plurality. But they are necessary to the anti-Trump coalition, or, anyway, it's risky to run an anti-Trump coalition without them. The Democrats are engaged in building an anti-Trump coalition without moderates."

On pushback against the idea that the Democratic Party is the party of the far left

Neera Tanden: "I think that, while I have great respect for David, everything he said seemed utterly wrong to me. The argument for David Frum's position is Michael Bloomberg running in the Democratic primary with a range of moderate views. And the idea that, in fact, David's argument is essentially that Howard Schultz will re-elect Donald Trump by taking away crucial voters from the Democratic Party, voters they need.

"The idea that the Democratic Party is only the Sanders party is, I think, an argument people are using to justify a Howard Schultz candidacy, and I think there's very little actual evidence to show that that's right."

Neera Tanden

"I think Frum is actually making the argument that many Democrats, Americans, moderates feel, which is that Donald Trump is really an existential threat to Democracy and anyone who helps re-elect him is problematic and is not actually being an American patriot, from my perspective. And so I'd say I think the idea that the Democratic Party will not have a robust primary debate that is one that actually engages ideas from both moderates and liberals, and even some on the left, is wrong. There are a number of people who are planning to run in the Democratic Party, perhaps Michael Bloomberg, perhaps Joe Biden, but I think there will be a healthy debate. And just to remind everybody, the reason why House Democrats won the House is because there were healthy debates in primaries throughout the country and in swing districts. Liberal voters voted for moderate candidates who could win those districts. So the idea that the Democratic Party is only the Sanders party is, I think, an argument people are using to justify a Howard Schultz candidacy, and I think there's very little actual evidence to show that that's right."

Alex Schroeder adapted this interview for the web.

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