Ever since the late days of the 2016 presidential race, there’s been a meme floating around the Internet known as Jeb Wins. It features a picture of Jeb Bush, eyes closed and arms outstretched in triumph, superimposed in front of an electoral college map awash in gold, because he has just cruised to victory as an independent against Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.
Most people do not take this image too seriously. It’s mainly funny because Jeb was a mild-mannered dweeb who had to beg audiences for their applause before eventually getting crushed in the Republican primary by Trump, who mocked him as a “low energy” guy. It is touchingly absurd to imagine him rising from the dead as an electrifying political conqueror.
Once in a while, however, you’ll see a never-Trump Republican serve up this meme with a half-jigger of sincerity. Sure, Jeb may have spent the primary getting rhetorically wedgied, but he totally could have taken Trump and Clinton in the general. America was practically begging for a boring, fiscal conservative in an Oxford.
If Howard Schultz runs for president, he will essentially be campaigning on the Jeb! Wins theory of the presidency. The former Starbucks CEO has announced that he is considering a third-party bid for the White House focused on fixing the national debt. “I look at both parties. I see extremes on both sides, But we are sitting today with approximately $21.5 trillion of debt,” he said in a Sunday 60 Minutes segment. “Which is a reckless example, not only of Republicans but of Democrats as well, as a reckless failure of their constitutional responsibility.”
Schultz is not a perfect analog to Jeb, to be fair. He was, after all, a Democrat. His political beliefs are a mix of socially liberal, fiscally conservative platitudes common among wealthy executives. He worries a lot about racism—remember the hashtags?—cares about climate change, and believes Trump went overboard with his corporate tax cut, which instead should have been revenue neutral tax reform. Jeb, on the other hand, is an establishment Republican to the bone, who wanted to cut spending, taxes, and regulations, while appointing reliably conservative judges.
Nonetheless, Schultz is looking to fill a lane of American politics that has been mostly vacant since Trump staged his takeover of the Republican Party, did away with its old (largely empty) promises about entitlement reform, and reduced Jeb’s political life to a meme. Consider Schultz’s views on how to address the debt, which he shared with CNBC in June:
I think the greatest threat domestically to the country is the $21 trillion debt hanging over the cloud of America and future generations. And the fact interest rates are going up, we’re going to be paying close to over $400 billion in interest expense, which I think is the number one or number two issue in terms of federal expense to the country. The only way we’re going to get out of that is we’ve got to grow the economy 4 percent or greater, and then we have to go after entitlements. And again, this is where political ideology and the political class is not facing the truth and not facing reality.
This is all cribbed directly from Jeb’s platform, which called for pushing the economy’s growth rate to 4 percent (Trump eventually coopted that bit) while slashing spending on entitlements, including Social Security and Medicare (Trump left that part on the cutting room floor, assuring voters instead that he’d protect them). It is Jebism 2.0. The plan was not especially realistic, of course; most economists will tell you that it is virtually impossible for a wealthy nation with an aging population, like ours, to consistently grow its economy that fast. But it lives on with Schultz, who like Jeb also embraces the pro-immigrant, pro-free trade positions that Never-Trumpers yearn to see return to the GOP. The main difference is that Jeb recognized his positions on debt and the economy were fundamentally conservative. Schultz is operating under the presumption that prioritizing spending cuts and the debt over the welfare state is somehow ideologically-neutral, which mostly reflects a longstanding and wildly off base conventional wisdom that’s long gripped much of Washington’s pundit class and America’s business leaders. The reality is that there is little evidence that the U.S. debt is a burden on the economy, and it is unclear when, if ever, it will be. Insisting that it’s in fact an existential threat that must be addressed, even if it means cutting back on health benefits for retirees, is at least as ideological as advocating single payer or insisting corporate tax cuts will turbo-charge the economy.
Some might say that Schultz is simply trying to take Mike Bloomberg’s place in national politics. After all, New York’s mayor was the billionaire technocrat with presidential ambitious moderate-leaning consultants used to dream about mounting an independent bid so he could just fix Washington. But that is unfair to Bloomberg, who is, ultimately, pretty politically astute—he did win three terms as mayor in New York, and was grounded enough to realize that a third-party bid would be doomed in 2016 and in 2020. He’s considering competing as Democrat, and is already warning Schultz that his potential independent run would likely just help re-elect Trump.
What Schultz stands for, rather, is the blind faith among the wealthy that Americans are secretly crying out for a polite leader who will cut their Social Security benefits. There has never been much evidence this was the case. Even in 2011, at the height of the Tea Party-era debt panic, only 42 percent of Americans said they would favor major changes to entitlements in order to reduce the debt. Currently, just 2 percent of Americans think the debt is the most important problem facing the country. Schultz has suggested that America’s growing number of Independents, who now outnumber Democrats or Republicans, are evidence that there’s a market for a politician like him. But in reality, most independents lean heavily towards one party or the other, and have become increasingly ideologically consistent; they just don’t like labels. He doesn’t have a natural base, except maybe for people who took Jeb Wins way too close to heart.