Politics & Government

Former Starbucks CEO weighing presidential run pitches his politics to Kansas voters

Is America ready for a centrist independent president? Howard Schultz thinks so

To help kick off his ``Heart of America'' tour, former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, held a town hall meeting Tuesday afternoon at Johnson County Community College. Schultz has yet to declare his intentions about running for president.
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To help kick off his ``Heart of America'' tour, former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, held a town hall meeting Tuesday afternoon at Johnson County Community College. Schultz has yet to declare his intentions about running for president.

Former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz has gained a fair share of attention — and blistering criticism — since floating the idea of an independent presidential candidacy earlier this year.

Many Democrats saw the Brooklyn-born billionaire as an entitled executive who could play spoiler in the 2020 election, potentially returning the White House to President Donald Trump.

But Schultz, 65, who started his bus tour of middle America in Johnson County on Tuesday, said he remains unfazed.

“We expected what was going to come,” he said, sipping a Doubleshot Espresso as his private bus, tricked out with leather seats and plasma screens, headed west on Interstate 70 toward Lawrence and the University of Kansas.

“I also think it’s a false narrative, what they’re saying about I’m going to be a spoiler. Not true. Lifelong Republicans are going to be very interested in what I have to say on one issue alone — and that is character. Lifelong republicans will not vote for a Democrat, especially one that represents socialist values.”

Schultz’s trip through Kansas ended Wednesday evening in Wichita, where a crowd of about 50 people listened to his pitch for an independent president. He hasn’t formally announced his candidacy, telling Wichitans he plans to see how he performs in polls over the next several weeks.

“I’m still asking my wife for permission,” Schultz said.

Schultz began his trip at Johnson County Community College, where a group of about 80 came out for a town hall.

“The extreme ideology of the Republicans and the extreme ideology of the Democrats do not represent the vast majority of Americans who are at the center of this country,” he said. “And we have to unleash them.”

If Schultz wants to see how the voters of Kansas are changing, Johnson County may be the best place to look. Once solidly Republican, the state’s wealthiest county just recently elected a Democratic woman to Congress and helped put another in the governor’s seat.

Schultz was a lifelong Democrat until recently, when he started exploring an independent presidential bid. On Tuesday, he attacked the “socialist” policies of the far-left and the lack of decorum brought to the Republican Party by President Donald Trump.

One of the major hurdles for Schultz will be name recognition. People know him as leader of one of the world’s most recognizable brands, but he lacks a political or policy record. As evidence that he’ll do right by the American people, Schultz touts his time at Starbucks and his programs to help send employees to college, give them access to health care and provide them with company stock.

What are Howard Schultz’s political views?

In Wichita, Schultz went into greater detail on campaign issues and told potential voters more about his political beliefs.

He wants higher taxes for the wealthy and corporations, views health insurance as a right and sees climate change as an issue that needs addressed. But he also wants border control, distrusts government involvement in the health-care industry and disagrees with the Green New Deal.

His Kansas trip gave the businessman, who spent much of his career in the coffee industry in Seattle, a chance to talk with Midwestern agriculturalists. They told him of economic damage caused by the trade war and high suicide rates among farmers and ranchers.

But less than half of those farmers believe the science behind climate change is correct, Schultz said. He said he does.

He referred to many Democratic environmental initiatives as “fantasy.” He said the Green New Deal is a step in the right direction, but he doesn’t support it in its current form.

Schultz said he wants to see the United States rejoin the Paris climate accord, and he suggested a carbon tax rebate program where the money would go to non-wealthy households.

He advocated for raising taxes on the rich and corporations, means testing of entitlement programs and said he views the national debt as a problem. A president should have little control over monetary policy and the Federal Reserve, he said.

On immigration, he said Republicans are right that there needs to be strict control over the border and that Immigrations and Customs Enforcement needs adequate funding. But unlike many Republicans, he believes that the so-called “dreamers” who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children should not be deported.

Schultz said he supports a pathway to citizenship that involves paying back taxes and sending undocumented immigrants to the back of the line. Legal immigration is good for the economy, he said.

On health care, he supports finding a way to lower pharmaceutical drug prices. He said he has always been supportive of the Affordable Care Act, but that Obamacare has proven to be imperfect, citing higher insurance premiums and a significant number of people still without health insurance.

But Schultz does not advocate for a government-run health-care system, implying that the Department of Veterans Affairs is an example of a failed government bureaucracy.

A “Medicare for all” system would be “un-American” for the health-insurance industry, he said, because “I don’t believe the government has the right to completely eradicate an entire industry.”

But he said he believes Americans should have a right to affordable health care. And he advocated for universal catastrophic health insurance.

Do voters want a third choice?

The best way to find bipartisan solutions, Schultz said, is with an independent president. Politicians use issues as “political weapons” instead of looking for solutions because they don’t want to give the other side a political victory, he said.

“There are really good people who are Republican and Democratic but they are unable on almost 100 percent of the issues to vote their conscience and their heart because of the ideology that is steeped in that party and the threat that has come to every one of them,” he said.

Schultz may be overstating voter interest in an independent alternative.

A CNN exit poll of 18,000 voters in 2018 found that while 76 percent said the country is becoming more divided, only 10 percent said they were dissatisfied with both parties.

Patrick Miller, a professor of political science at the University of Kansas and an expert on elections, said even if large numbers of Americans were dissatisfied with the two-party system, the reality is that few independents ever make it into elected office.

The most common place for an independent to succeed is in state legislatures, Miller said, and even then, those lawmakers tend to be concentrated in New England, the Upper Midwest and Alaska. Kansas has one independent lawmaker, state Sen. John Doll, who left the Republican Party last year to be running mate to independent gubernatorial candidate Greg Orman.

In Kansas, only 17 percent of voters in the 2018 midterms said they don’t care for the two-party system, according to Miller. Of those voters, the majority went for Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly.

“It’s going to be very hard for him to break through in Kansas and elsewhere because the presidency is traditionally very polarized, and right now we’re also in an era where voters are very polarized,” Miller said. “Ticket splitting is at an all-time low, and independents aren’t doing well anywhere.”

Schultz said that if he decides to run for president, he will do so as an independent. He said there’s an opportunity for an independent to win over Republicans who don’t like Donald Trump.

“If you’re a Democrat in this state, your vote doesn’t matter,” Schultz said, adding that Kansas hasn’t voted for a Democrat since Lyndon Johnson.