The Gist

Howard Schultz Reveals What’s Wrong With Centrism

The billionaire businessman’s presidential campaign has flaws, but he’s not the issue.

Howard Schultz.
Howard Schultz.
Rich Fury/Getty Images for GLSEN

The following essay is adapted from an episode of The Gist, a daily podcast about news, culture, and whatever else you’re discussing with your family and friends. Listen to The Gist via Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, Stitcher, or Google Play.

Howard Schultz gets “dark-roasted,” claims a Boston Globe headline. “Don’t do it Howard!” reads a scribbled cup of Starbucks coffee tweeted by Washington’s state Democratic Party. And skeptical Dems “need a little bit less caffeine,” Schultz himself fires back.

We get it. Schultz ran a coffee company. For a while there, we were in a rollicking news cycle where the hilarious coffee references never got cold.

I do think the vitriol from the left around Schultz is kind of ridiculous—which isn’t to say he’s a good candidate, or right for the time, or not a white billionaire businessman. But I do think that his temerity—his selfish insouciance—has been presented as fact by a lot of the mainstream media.

But isn’t Schultz—and the things he’s saying or critiquing—kind of useful? Isn’t he, to some extent, right? Like, wouldn’t Medicare for all come with some costs? No, we just hate Schultz for saying so. I understand these are desperate times and Schultz represents a potential spanner in the works. But if there were an equivalent businessman toying with a run as an independent four years ago, it would have been treated differently. It would have been seen as an interesting, perhaps fun story. Compare the coverage of Schultz (“How could he?! Really?”) to the coverage of Ross Perot in 1992 (“Could he really?”).

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There are certain stories that political reporters all like. One is a viable independent candidate. Another is a brokered convention. But in 2020, aberrations will not be met with delight, but with suspicion because we can only deal with one aberration at a time.

There is a major problem with taking Howard Schultz seriously: He seems to have no ideas, as in he hasn’t actually proposed anything. That is a negative. And though you wouldn’t know it from most of his interviews, he’s not totally uncharismatic. He has that kind of C-suite charisma, which really relies, to some extent, on the participant saying, “Ooh, I’m in a conversation with Howard Schultz.”

But my biggest problem with Schultz is just centrism itself. Not ideas that are presented as centrist, but the label of centrism. It sucks. It outsources the imperative to come up with an idea and defines itself as, “Oh, I’ll be in the middle of these two other ideas.” It’s not an ideology; it’s an averaging. Hey, if you want to walk and I want to ride, let’s ask the centrist. That guy wants to take a Segway. If I want gazpacho and you want tomato bisque, the centrist will recommend a cold tomato consommé that needs to be sent back to the kitchen and heated up. If you want eggs and I want French toast, the centrist will suggest a McGriddle.

And who the hell wants a McGriddle? Howard Schultz, I guess. And Joe Biden, and Mitch Landrieu, and Michael Bloomberg, John Hickenlooper, Terry McAuliffe, and Michael Bennet. These were all the centrists described in Thursday’s New York Times as “monochrome and male.” But why so male, why so monochrome? I have theories.

One is age. The average age of all the gentlemen listed by the New York Times is 65. And it’s not that centrists are necessarily old (although they tend to be older) or that passions cool as the testosterone and estrogen dip. It’s that if you were a Democrat forming opinions in the 1970s and ’80s, and then implementing those policies in the 1990s, you were probably centrist—and if you weren’t, you were probably ineffective. Also, you were probably white and male. Up until some 30 years ago, politics was fairly closed off to women and even more closed off to people of color.

Female politicians over the age of 65 tend to be more centrist too, by the way (see 68-year-old Sens. Debbie Stabenow and Patty Murray, or the no-longer-in-the-Senate Claire McCaskill, who’s 65). Sure, Elizabeth Warren is 69 and not a centrist, but remember, she wasn’t in politics when these other politicians were developing policies and creating popular ideas. Centrism was once the only path to success, especially for Democrats. And the politicians we’re talking about—the ones who were good enough at their job back then to be even plausible candidates now—probably have to have been centrists.

What about the white part? Factually, things have been working out much better for white Americans than Americans of different hues, such that it’s much more likely that a white American would be against radical changes. But there is also plenty of political science showing that the public tends to regard black politicians as more liberal than they actually are. I once interviewed Douglas Wilder about this, and he shared that on his way to becoming the first elected black governor, his opponent would paint him as wildly liberal; he would reply that he wasn’t, but the charge stuck. We tend to code black and Hispanic politicians who are centrist as not centrist.

I’ve thought about the centrist label a great deal. I don’t regard myself as a centrist per se, but I don’t consider myself conservative or very liberal. I want a better label. I also wish there were more of a rainbow coalition within the moderate camp. And I would love to have a leading light or a public face who is slightly more inspiring than John Hickenlooper. And I happen to like John Hickenlooper.

I have one solution for all my centrist wishes. His name is Barack Obama. I’m not a centrist. I’m an Obamacist. I’m an Obamararian. I agreed with almost all of Barack Obama’s policy stances. He thinks things out. He’s not a middle-grounder, but he’s also not radical. He’s a great poster child (in fact, we’ve all seen the poster).

And lastly, while Obama is male, as am I (and I don’t know whom to apologize to for that, but I feel I might have to), he is not a white male. That’s good for diversity, which makes us centrists —sorry, Obamacists—feel better about ourselves. So I am proudly an Obamacist. And I don’t think we Obamacists have much to apologize for. I also don’t think that Howard Schultz is the one to carry the mantle of Obamacism, although even hoping to do so takes some audacity.