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Howard Schultz’s Big Mistake

Michael Conroy/AP Photo

2020

Americans say we want a nonpartisan leader. But in times like this, we love to fight even more.

Jeff Greenfield is a five-time Emmy-winning network television analyst and author.

The best response to Howard Schultz’s suspension of his moribund presidential campaign came well before it even began. Back in 1933, when told that former President Calvin “Silent Cal” Coolidge had died, Dorothy Parker replied, “How could they tell?”

Yet while a bad back may have relegated the coffee czar to the sidelines, the cause for which Schultz was prepared to fight is very much with us: Centrism, the Middle Ground, the Third Way, the Common Good. After all, former Vice President Joe Biden told a group at a fund-raiser Monday night that if he is elected president, bipartisanship will return to the capital.

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“These folks know better,” Biden said of Congressional Republicans. “They know this isn’t what they’re supposed to be doing.” His campaign points to a Gallup poll last November showing that 54 percent of Democrats want their party to be more moderate, while only 41 percent want it to be more liberal. For those looking beyond two parties, groups like “No Labels” note that Americans seem to yearn for an alternative. Gallup reported last October that 57 percent of Americans would welcome a third party. That’s roughly the same level of support as it was almost two decades ago, at the start of the century.

The dream Schultz thought he could hitch his ambitions to—the idea that Americans want an “independent” alternative to partisan nonsense, either from a new, third party or an apolitical outsider—seems every once in a while like it could become solid. The attraction of successful, commanding figure from outside the tawdry business of politics has been with us at least since Henry Ford was touted as a potential chief executive in 1916. Schultz even seemed like the kind of guy who could project a similar appeal, a proud billionaire capitalist whose stores are regarded as places of inclusion and tolerance. But as his colossally inept candidacy demonstrated, America’s interest in a nonpartisan leader is paper-thin—and the more divided we are, the less likely we are to seek out the proverbial dead armadillo in the middle of the road. Historically, Schultz-like figures do best when the parties are much closer than they are right now.

Consider the most successful third-party run for the presidency in living memory: Ross Perot’s capture of 19 percent of the popular vote in 1992. Was this a time when bitter polarization was dividing the nation? On the contrary, it came after a nearly 20-year period that in retrospect seems like a centrist’s dream. When Gerald Ford entered the White House in 1974, he said: “I do not want a honeymoon with you. I want a good marriage.” In the close presidential election that followed, voters crossed ideological lines with abandon. Twenty-six percent of liberals voted for Ford; 30 percent of conservatives voted for Jimmy Carter. While Carter’s successor was known as an ardent conservative, President Ronald Reagan and a Democratic House worked together on a historic Social Security reform and tax reform. The first President Bush, after his death last year, was hailed as a symbol of accommodation.

Perot’s appeal, then, was not driven by rejection of a poisonous political atmosphere. Rather, it was the very fact that the nation was not so divided that made an alternative plausible (even when the alternative was a candidate whose seat-back and tray table was not in the full upright and locked position). The central theme of Perot’s campaign was to end the budget deficit; Bill Clinton and the Republican Congress worked together to achieve that goal by the end of his second term.

Now consider what an appeal to “centrism” confronts today. First, while a majority of Democrats say they want moderation, the party has become decidedly more liberal. Half of Democrats call themselves “liberal,” twice the percentage that did so during Bill Clinton’s presidency. Indeed, the whole premise of Bill Clinton’s campaign—the “third way” led by “a different kind of Democrat”—was nowhere in sight by the time his wife accepted the nomination 24 years later. We are now at a time when a gathering of progressive Democrats boo a sitting governor for declaring that “socialism is not the answer.” The idea of a “big tent” on divisive issues like abortion—which the Democrats once embraced as “legal, safe, and rare” no longer applies.

Moreover, in their frustration with the loss of political power in the age of Trump, some on the left have offered radical notions, such as the expansion of the Supreme Court or constitutionally dubious notions about limiting the power of the Senate. Once upon a not-very-long-ago time, Democrats just went out and won seats in Indiana, Nebraska, Missouri and the Dakotas.

Even so, the shift to the left by Democrats pales in comparison to the lunge to the right taken by Republicans in recent decades. Nearly three in four Republicans call themselves conservatives, but that number conceals more than it reveals. It is the nature of that conservatism that demonstrates the distance it has traveled from a centrist or bipartisan impulse.

A novelist with a conspiratorial bent might concoct a plot where powerful Republicans and conservatives gather on the night of a Democratic president’s inauguration to pledge unyielding opposition to any measure of cooperation with the new leader. But that’s not a plot line in a political thriller; it’s history. On the night of Barack Obama’s inaugural, some 15 Republican House and Senate members, along with former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and GOP operative Frank Luntz, met to agree on a strategy.

“If you act like you’re the minority, you’re going to stay in the minority,” future House Minority leader Kevin McCarthy was quoted as saying in Robert Draper’s book, Do Not Ask What Good We Do: Inside the U.S. House of Representatives. “We’ve gotta challenge them on every single bill and challenge them on every single campaign.”

They delivered on that commitment through the eight years of Obama’s presidency. The health care plan the president offered drew heavily from concepts developed by the conservative Heritage Foundation, and from Republican Gov. Mitt Romney’s plan for Massachusetts. That didn’t matter, any more than the Supreme Court nomination of a clear moderate like Merrick Garland persuaded a Republican Senate majority to even hold the pretense of hearings, or to bother rejecting him with a vote.

And all of this preceded the election of President Donald Trump, who—depending on what he has had for breakfast that morning—proclaims his political opponents traitors who hate America and want to see the country flooded with criminals to bolster their power.

In this context, “centrism” is less a coherent political argument than it is a wistful hope, more aspirational than concrete. Americans say they want something and someone to cut through the political morass in the same way that Americans say they want more in-depth news and documentaries on TV, and more green, leafy vegetables on their plates. It is an admirable sentiment to hope for that kinder-gentler nation of which the first President Bush spoke. As Francis Bacon reminded us a few centuries back, “Hope makes a good breakfast, but a bad supper.” If you’re hoping for nonpartisan centrism as a potent political force, you’re likely to find yourself very hungry by sundown.

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