To defeat Trump, Democrats will have to appeal not to his fiercest enemies, but to his softest supporters.
The Starbucks founder Howard Schultz is the Twitter villain of the hour. If hot takes actually generated heat, Schultz would already have been vaporized under the onrush of magma. His offense: contemplating a run for president as a self-funded independent centrist.
Many people could raise a legitimate complaint against this expensive plan, starting with Schultz’s heirs. But the Twitter complaints arise from concern not that Schultz is about to waste his money, but that he might spend it effectively. He might weaken the Democratic candidate in 2020, and thereby help reelect President Donald Trump.
Actually, this complaint reveals why Schultz’s exploration is just the help America needs. Schultz seems to intend to run as a compassionate businessman concerned that the Democratic Party is veering too far to the left. In an interview on CBS’s 60 Minutes, he complained of promises of free health care and free college tuition.
These complaints have been mocked as the selfish preoccupations of the superrich. If that were true, however, Democratic activists would have no reason to fear Schultz’s candidacy. America’s new progressive majority could roll right over Schultz’s plutocratic message.
The trouble is that, while there is clearly a strong anti-Trump majority in America, that majority is not so progressive. The crucial final piece of the anti-Trump coalition—the difference between 2016 and 2018—is that Trump has alienated a lot of people, especially women, who normally vote Republican.
College-educated, comparatively affluent, fiscally concerned: These are the voters who delivered George H. W. Bush’s former congressional seat in Houston to a business-minded Democratic candidate, Lizzie Fletcher. These are also the voters who balked the hopes of Andrew Gillum in Florida and Stacey Abrams in Georgia. They are not a majority either, nothing like it, but they are indispensable to defeating Trump. And whether or not they would ever actually vote for Howard Schultz, they are nodding along to his words.
The early Democratic presidential contest has been an exercise of lefter-than-thou politics, culminating in the earnest consideration of 70 percent tax rates and wealth confiscation for émigrés.
You can understand the temptation: Trump seems weak, perhaps already doomed. Why compromise with the faint of heart? Give the American people a choice, not an echo!
This is the logic of factional politics. You want the smallest possible majority, most easily dominated by its most mobilized minority. That’s how the Tea Party thought during the Obama years, that’s how the Trump campaign evolved in 2016. Sometimes it can work, at least if you catch a lucky bounce.
But if you seriously believe that the Trump presidency presents a unique threat to American democracy, you want the safer choice, not the risky one. You want the candidate with the broadest possible appeal, not the most sectarian. Trump will be beaten not by his fiercest enemies, but by his softest supporters. You want to appeal to them, detach them—not chatter on social media about how you’d like to punch their kids in the face.
I have no idea whether Schultz can accomplish that mission. Probably not. But if Schultz at least delivers a timely reminder that somebody must accomplish that mission—and that Democratic self-indulgence will be Trump’s most indispensable resource in 2020—then he will have served his country well.