The Self-Made Candidate Maria Shriver asks sharp questions of Starbucks CEO turned presidential hopeful Howard Schultz

By Bliss Bowen

Schultz answered Shriver’s questions thoughtfully, but focused more on big ideas than detailed plans to accomplish them
Photo by GARY LEONARD

Live Talks LA hosted a sold-out event last Thursday in the Moss Theater at New Roads School, presenting former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz in conversation with author and onetime California first lady Maria Shriver. The subject was ostensibly Schultz’s new book “From the Ground Up: A Journey to Reimagine the Promise of America,” but the meat of the evening was the will-he-or-won’t-he question that’s made Schultz controversial: Will he run for president?

Dire warnings have issued from all corners that his independent candidacy would split the Democratic vote and all but giftwrap a second Trump term. More than once he promised the Santa Monica crowd, “I will do nothing to re-elect Donald Trump.”

Shriver’s introduction of Schultz as “a self-made man who made money the old-fashioned way — he earned it” received one of the night’s most enthusiastic bursts of applause from a comfortably dressed, mostly white audience discernibly disapproving of Trump’s policies. Many millennials nodded appreciatively at his calls for accountability, a “Marshall Plan for restructuring policies for the middle class,” and government’s “moral obligation” to fix the linked crises of mental health and homelessness.

When Shriver pointedly asked why instead of running as an independent centrist he doesn’t swing his wisdom, expertise and money behind centrists like Amy Klobuchar (or, perhaps, Joe Biden), Schultz called it “the right question.” But his response seeded more questions than it answered.

“If I run for president, I’m not running against the Democratic Party,” he said. “It’s not personal against any of the people who are running, they’re well intentioned. If I run, it’s because I’ve concluded the two-party system is no longer working. As a result of that, it doesn’t matter to me who the Democratic nominee is because I don’t think in 2020 that the Democratic nominee should get elected. Is there any evidence whatsoever that both parties are going to start working well together on behalf of the American people?”

That’s a valuable question, but Schultz offered no granular detail about how he would translate his admirable ideas into action in tandem with elected members of the two main political parties. To be fair, declared candidates have yet to post their own policy prescriptions; but Schultz’s critiques prompted logical curiosity — left unsatisfied. As non-answers go, his was less offensively arrogant than Trump’s “I alone can fix it,” but however decent or humble, Schultz’s answer was still undergirded by entitlement, a dismissal of the bare-knuckled realities of how governance works day to day.

“You can’t do anything alone, and business is a team sport,” Schultz said. The same is true of American government.

Schultz spoke convincingly of the need for compromise, which is essential for effective government. But that is not the same as viscerally understanding what it means to develop political alliances and work cooperatively within that government.

Therein lie the core problems with Schultz’s potential candidacy, independent or otherwise. He’s offered scant “evidence” (his word) that he understands how to translate his ideas into legislative action within the framework of democratic government, or how to motivate and unify voters. And his tremendous corporate success means that, were he to win, overnight he would — not unlike the Oval’s current businessman occupant — go from being the boss of everyone at his company to everyone in the country being his boss. Schultz’s keen sensitivity to how he’s quoted raises questions about his ability to absorb criticism. Not talking in soundbites makes him more relatable, and his preambles are substantive, but he hamstrings himself with their length.

Issues addressed by Starbucks under his stewardship echo national concerns: inequality, racism, guns, unemployment, veterans, refugees. Reminding the audience that Starbucks hired nearly 20,000 veterans spurred big applause; he also cited the company’s announcement after Trump’s first travel ban that it would hire 10,000 refugees.

Schultz spoke movingly of an “epidemic of loneliness” and the need to “make people feel they belong” by helping them feel respected, valued and understood — and, crucially, replenishing their “need to believe in something true,” which Trump has “undermined.”

He listed other items that need to be “reimagined” (K-12 education, healthcare, immigration policy) and “rekindled” (authenticity, “the pride and idealism of the American Dream”), and voiced deep concern about a prevailing “lack of fairness, a lack of opportunity, and our standing in the world.”

“The responsibility of anyone who has succeeded in this country is to pay it forward,” he declared, adding that companies and individuals who’ve made money “should not be vilified” and corporations should be given tax incentives “to do good.” (“There’s a good deal of linkage between doing right by your people or community and making a profit,” he adds.)

Schultz connected aging and the crushing need for more caregivers to jobs for older people and immigrants, an idea worth further study. Singling out insulin’s ridiculous markup, he said a President Schultz would “mandate that pharmaceutical companies cannot take advantage of American consumers.” Nice. How?

All that established his thoughtfulness and intelligence, but not bona fides for presidential office. Instead, other questions arose: How much more could he achieve setting an example of corporate conscience? Or responsible citizenship? Would his analytical and communication skills be more fruitfully employed in diplomacy?

Shrewdly quoting an observation from Schultz’s book that “authority has to be earned,” Shriver recalled her mother’s mantra “You have to earn your way up by starting small” before asking if Schultz thought of “starting small” by first running for Congress, the Senate, or governor.

His problematic answer, which earned applause, presented a case for him to heed the title of his own book and build a third, centrist party “from the ground up,” but failed to explain his reasoning as to why he should lead from the top down. When he cited Starbucks’ success, claiming, “I know a little bit about leadership,” audience members laughed; the last election went to a businessman with no government experience. Left unmentioned was his contentious Seattle SuperSonics ownership.

“We need a level of leadership that American people can trust and a government that’s working for us,” Schultz said. “I don’t see any evidence of any Democratic candidate that has more executive experience than I do. … In terms of earning it, that’s gonna be up to the American people.” Swiftly pivoting to partisan divides, he added, “Over the last 30-plus years every presidential election has been decided basically by eight to 10 battleground states, because almost every state is predetermined red or blue. Should I decide to run as independent … all 50 states in a three-person race no more are predetermined. This kind of story has not really gotten out yet. Why should the American people only have two choices?”

There was insufficient time to assess nuts and bolts of third parties, gerrymandering or voting rights. Minimal discussion of climate change centered around the Green New Deal: “If you offer a fantasy that has no realistic prospect of being achieved, it’s dishonest and un-American,” Schultz said. Given that climate change is one of the gravest threats to our national security, his lack of engagement with the issue was not a promising sign that a Schultz administration would address it with vigor.

Regarding his potential candidacy, Schultz fully committed only to traveling the country with his wife to determine whether people share his feelings, and to believing he is where he needs to be: “This is where my life has led me. … I’ve never had more conviction about what I’m trying to do.”

Schultz’s avowed aspiration to be a “servant leader” was refreshing: “Success is best when it’s shared, and we are in need of leaders in service of others.” Very true. But the implication was that such sincere, values-grounded desire to give back is sufficient ground on which to build a presidency. History reminds us: It is not.

Spectrum News 1 Los Angeles is broadcasting the Live Talks LA conversation between Schultz and Shriver at 9 p.m. Thursday (Feb. 28). It also streams at livetalksla.org on Saturday (March 2).

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