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Schultz capable of winning election ... for Trump

Eugene Robinson

Eugene Robinson

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Friday, February 1, 2019

Just what we need, another ego-crazed billionaire with zero experience in government who thinks he is destined to be president. What could go wrong?

Howard Schultz, the man who put a Starbucks on every corner, said in a "60 Minutes" interview aired Sunday that he is mulling a run for the White House as an independent. Schultz admits he's "not the smartest person in the room," but he must be smart enough to know he can't possibly win.

He is quite capable of re-electing President Trump, though.

At present, the specter of a second Trump term looks comfortably remote. The blue wave in the midterm election and Trump's cellar-dwelling approval numbers show what the country thinks of him and his corrupt, chaotic, kooky administration. A recent poll shows him trailing any of his likely Democratic opponents. If the election were held next week, I'm pretty confident that Trump would lose to a ham sandwich.

He does have a chance in 2020, however, if the anti-Trump vote is split between two or more candidates. Imagine Schultz, a lifelong Democrat, siphoning off even 5 percent of the Democratic candidate's vote in, say, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida. The horror of 2016 threatens to become a recurring nightmare.

Schultz can't actually win as an independent. Even Trump was smart enough to figure that out.

Remember how coy Trump was early in the Republican primary campaign, reserving the option of an independent candidacy if the GOP did not treat him fairly? Trump used the threat as leverage to get his way on debate logistics and ballot access. But then he suddenly reversed course, signing a pledge to support the eventual Republican nominee.

A person familiar with Trump's thinking told me why. Trump understood that the most likely outcome, if he ran on his own, would be to guarantee Hillary Clinton's election by taking votes away from the GOP candidate. In his wildest dreams, he might hope to win enough electoral votes to keep either major-party candidate from reaching a majority. But in that case, the election would be thrown to the House of Representatives — which would surely choose the Republican or the Democrat, not Trump.

Leave aside the fact that Trump, a proven cheapskate, would never seriously consider spending the money it would take to run a nationwide independent campaign. His reasoning about the inevitable outcome was sound — and remains so today. Schultz may follow through on his pledge to spend whatever it takes to compete in all 50 states. But he can't win.

I know that we live in tumultuous times. I know that if Donald Trump can become president, the boundaries of the possible have been greatly expanded, if not obliterated. I know that party affiliation has been steadily weakening and that a plurality of voters now consider themselves independents. Despite all of this, the Democratic Party and the GOP remain deeply entrenched and highly adaptable institutions. Either might be susceptible to a hostile takeover, as Trump proved. But only a supreme narcissist would think himself capable of singlehandedly vanquishing both.

Enter Schultz, potentially.

I have to wonder if he, like Trump, might be using the threat of an independent candidacy as leverage. The Democratic Party has moved leftward. Schultz has views that he describes as "centrist" — he's more pro-business than the major Democratic contenders, worries vocally about the mounting national debt, claims that "Democrats are proposing ... free health care for all, which the country cannot afford," and blames "extremes on both sides" for bringing the nation to its parlous state.

The inference is that Schultz might be more likely to run, and persist in running, if it looks as if an ideological progressive such as Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders or Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren is likely to win the Democratic nomination. Schultz may be hoping to get the attention of Democratic donors and influencers, and shift the intraparty debate in a more moderate direction.

Or — and I fear this is more likely — he may just be surfing a great big wave of pure ego.

The anti-Trump majority of Democrats, independents and sensible Republicans must let Schultz know, in no uncertain terms, that this is no time for such foolishness. Instead, perhaps, he should angle for a Cabinet post. Or just have a decaf latte and chill.

Eugene Robinson is a columnist for The Washington Post.

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