Former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz has launched a book publicity tour-slash-quasi-presidential campaign around the premise that the Democratic Party has been captured by “far-left” policy ideas like raising the top marginal tax rate and instituting single-payer health care. Rather than articulate what policies he would pursue instead, though, Schultz has returned repeatedly to the idea of a hypothetical room where problems are solved by expert businesspeople. When the hosts of MSNBC’s Morning Joe asked Schultz how he’d help Americans who don’t have health insurance, for instance, he responded like so: “We bring in—what I have done my entire career— people smarter than myself, with skills and experience beyond Mitch McConnell and Nancy Pelosi, in the room, get private enterprise in the room.”
His Morning Joe answer about where to set tax rates was similar: “Get serious people around the table and solve this problem once and for all.” At a book promotion event, he said he’d address border security by getting “the most advanced, sophisticated tech companies … in a room.” If Schultz’s pitch can be summed up in one word, that word is definitely room. (FWIW, he told 60 Minutes that “the room” is a place for “creative debate,” but cautioned Time magazine that “ideology” must be left “outside the room.”)
Schultz’s pragmatic-businessman, we’ll-figure-it-out-around-the-conference-table pitch, especially when put in perspective with the more aggressive solutions to inequality-related issues proposed by candidates like Sen. Elizabeth Warren, is reminiscent of the dynamic involved in another fairly important presidential race—the one in 1932 between Herbert Hoover, who was a successful engineer and mining entrepreneur before entering politics, and Franklin D. Roosevelt. I spoke to Eric Rauchway, a professor at the University of California–Davis and the author of several books—including the recent Winter’s War: Hoover, Roosevelt, and the First Clash Over the New Deal—about how Schultz’s rhetoric recalls that of Hoover and other capitalist politicians in U.S. history. Our conversation below has been lightly edited for grammar and clarity.
Ben Mathis-Lilley: I was trying to think of the last president who had a real prominent background being successful in business. And if you don’t count Trump, whose actual record as a businessman is pretty spotty, you might have to go back to Hoover.
Eric Rauchway: I think that’s a natural point of comparison. Hoover was a immensely successful businessman, possibly one of the richest men in the world around the turn of the century. And then he became sort of a self-appointed do-gooder, and he was hired by the [Woodrow] Wilson administration to administer rationing during the Great War—so you could say here’s somebody who, although he was a Republican, was willing to work across party lines [as Schultz says he would like to], setting aside ideology.
Did Hoover have the same impulse to solve problems by consulting his peers in industry?
He was a big fan of getting people together, but it turned out to be an ineffective way of combating the Depression. He famously, or infamously, held a business conference where he got all the nation’s prominent CEOs together in the wake of the [October 1929] crash, and in an effort to avoid a deflationary spiral, said, “I want you to pledge not to cut wages.” Which they did. But that really didn’t do the trick. They pledged to not cut wages, but not to not lay people off. So while this was symbolically quite a nice thing, and wasn’t wholly misguided, it still was ineffective. And Hoover’s general message in the Depression was, “This is a crisis in confidence that we can best meet by cooperation.” So he was very big on that idea, but it was not effective.
And then there was the more aggressive approach by FDR, who is maybe comparable in this situation to Warren.
There’s a case to be made that Warren is actually a lot of like FDR, especially given her past, which is that she’s trying to make capitalism and democracy compatible when it looks like they are pulling against each other. And at the time Roosevelt came into office, it looked like capitalism had failed democracy, or maybe democracy was failing altogether, depending on who you asked. So his job was to try to put that system back together, not really to change it into anything else. And he was fending off both fascists and communists. And I think Warren has a history of acting like a technocrat: somebody who essentially wants to fix the system so that it works, right?
That sounds right to me.
She’s not Huey Long, let’s put it that way.
Going back to Hoover, how did he present himself to the public when he was first getting into politics?
In ’28 he presented himself as the great administrator, basically. He had been secretary of commerce under [Warren] Harding and [Calvin] Coolidge. And in ’27, he had been in charge of the flood relief effort during the record Mississippi River flood in that year, which covered multiple states. It required this massive effort to relocate people, get them out of the way, and then to build remediation, sandbag levies and stuff like that. A huge thing, and Hoover coordinated it. Or at least appears to have coordinated it—and he promoted himself, and managed to get massive, massive credit. There is a film you can find online called something like Herbert Hoover: Great Administrator or Herbert Hoover: Hero of the Flood [Ed. note: It’s Herbert Hoover: Master of Emergencies] that shows him going to all of the sites of the flood. So that’s how he pitched himself. I am the engineer as humanitarian was the basic idea. I can show you how administration can help to solve our problems.
The other way his campaign pitched him in 1928 was “he’s not Irish-Catholic like Al Smith,” which was a big selling point in the South. So you can’t discount that.
Probably not a theme that Schultz will repeat.
Yeah, you know, probably not.
And what about Hoover’s re-election campaign against Roosevelt?
It often goes unmentioned, but Hoover ran as a proto–Goldwater-ite in the ’32 campaign. He talked about how he could smell, on the scent of the New Deal, the fumes that had recently boiled over in Moscow. This was red-baiting to the extreme, that we had to stick with Hoover because the alternative was full communism. Given how relatively mild, in terms of damaging capitalism, the New Deal turned out to be, that’s kind of telling in the same way that Schultz seems to have overreacted to “we might tax you a teeny bit more.”
What other figures does Schultz resemble in American political history?
I’m sure he sees himself, in a way, like Henry Ford and [industrialist and Ohio Sen.] Mark Hanna, who was William McKinley’s big backer. A kind of reasonable, benevolent capitalist. He’s going to meet the workers halfway and provide them benefits, and therefore they don’t need unions or social welfare policies or all of those other things. Because I, the enlightened executive, will provide a suitable standard of living.
Why is it we have to go back so far in history to find another businessman-politician? Why the big gap?
[Historians] Kevin Kruse and Julian Zelizer had a piece in the Washington Post about guys like Trump and Schultz as products of the 1970s. And that makes sense. In the middle of the 20th century, [the ambitions of business leaders] were kept at bay by the New Deal and then the Great Society. And then in the ’70s, the ideology behind that begins to erode, and that’s when you see this sort of “business can fix it” message come back. Schultz is very much actually somebody who benefited from the social structures that were put in place by the New Deal and the Great Society, but doesn’t appear to actually like them now.
Hoover, for whatever his failings, really did come from a dirt-poor background, and really did come up in a time when there wasn’t a lot of social safety net to bail you out. He was a creature of the Gilded Age and a success in that environment. So Hoover might have a purer case, I think, than Howard Schultz.
Support our journalism
Help us continue covering the news and issues important to you—and get ad-free podcasts and bonus segments, members-only content, and other great benefits.Join Slate Plus