[Joe Nocera] Howard Schultz’s presidential campaign is naive

By Bloomberg
  • Published : Jan 30, 2019 - 17:11
  • Updated : Jan 30, 2019 - 17:11

Ten years ago, I wrote a column about Howard Schultz that was, well, not very nice. Schultz had earlier stepped aside as the chief executive of Starbucks Corp., but with the company in a deep slump, he decided to retake control, and reinstalled himself as CEO. My column, written as a snarky open letter, suggested that his comeback would fail.

Schultz responded in an unusual way: The next time he was in New York, he invited me to breakfast. He made no effort to tell me why my column was wrong. Instead, with a sincerity that was almost unnerving, he told me his story -- the same one he laid out for Scott Pelley of “60 Minutes” on Sunday. How he grew up in a housing project in Brooklyn. How he built Starbucks from a single store in Seattle. How he was the embodiment of the American dream.

He also told me how important it is to him that Starbucks employees have access to health care, and that they participate in the success of the company via stock options. What Starbucks had been missing was leadership, he said, and that’s what he would supply.

When Schultz is talking to you one-on-one, he makes you feel as though you’re the only person in the world he cares about. It’s seductive.

In my case, it caused me to regret the snarky tone of my column and to conclude that I should give him the benefit of the doubt.

It also helped that he believed a number of things that I did. He believed, for instance, that maximizing shareholder value was a fool’s errand, and that a company -- and the country -- would be rewarded in the market for treating its employees well. In 2014, he added a subsidized college education to Starbucks’s list of generous employee perquisites. A few years earlier, when the unemployment rate was high, he devised a plan to turn customer donations into small-business loans. He pushed the company to hire veterans whenever possible. The executives who were drawn to him saw themselves as being on a mission that far transcended selling $5 lattes. When Schultz talked about society’s have-nots he sounded not like the centrist he claims to be, but like a bleeding heart. I guess I am too.

In the realm of politics, however, most of his ideas, even the most laudable ones, were naive. He cares passionately about racial equality, but his effort to do something about it, the infamous #RaceTogether in 2015 -- in which Starbucks baristas were encouraged to interact with customers on the subject of race -- was a debacle. And few things have bothered him more than the toxic partisanship that permeates Washington. The solution he came up with in 2011 -- calling on Americans to stop making campaign contributions -- was just dumb.

As he openly contemplates running for president in 2020 as a “centrist independent,” Schultz has been accused, primarily, of hubris. Who does he think he is? As one heckler put it on Monday morning, when Schultz was being interviewed by CNBC’s Andrew Ross Sorkin, “Don’t help elect Trump, you egotistical billionaire (expletive).”

It must pain him to hear people express their dislike of what he is planning to do so vehemently. He views himself as one of the good guys, trying to do the right thing. He is not an arrogant man; instead, he oozes empathy.

What I see instead of hubris is the same naivete that has characterized him whenever he’s delved into the social or political arena. He thinks people will find his call for controlling the national debt appealing. He thinks people will see -- and admire -- the leadership qualities his staff so admires. He thinks independents will be as horrified at the progressive idea of free health care and free college education as he is. So horrified, in fact, that they will turn to him instead of President Donald Trump’s Democratic challenger, whoever that turns out to be. Most of all, he thinks that if he can look the country in the eye, if he can tell his story the way he did with me a decade ago, we’ll all be willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.

It won’t happen, not in 2020, not with the threat of another four years of Trump hanging over our heads, not with the memory of Ralph Nader’s third-party bid helping George W. Bush and Jill Stein’s helping Trump. Schultz’s previous political forays eventually faded into nothingness and were quickly forgotten. During the interview with Sorkin, Schultz said that no one opposed Trump’s presidency more than he did, and that “I certainly won’t do anything to put Donald Trump back in the Oval Office.”

Maybe it’s me, giving Howard Schultz the benefit of the doubt one more time, but I think that once he realizes his support is wafer-thin, that he is boxed out of the debates, and that his only role will be as a spoiler, he’ll drop out. There are other ways to help the country than running for president. The sooner Schultz realizes that, the better off he -- and we -- will be.

Joe Nocera
Joe Nocera is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering business. -- Ed.