Originally published on January 28th, 2019
So Howard Schultz is considering running for president as an independent. How nice. I’ll let the Trump 2020 campaign know so they can stop collecting donations now and prepare for another stroll down Pennsylvania Avenue. Seriously, if this is true and Schultz actually runs as an independent, you can kiss goodbye any hope the civilized world has of evicting the Dark Lord of the Sith from the White House.
The simple truth is that in the entire history of the Republic there has never been a successful third party candidate who has won the presidency. In fact, you have to go all the way back to George Wallace in 1968 to find a third party candidate who actually managed to pick up a few states. Teddy Roosevelt came the closest when he challenged Republican Howard Taft in 1912, coming in second place, yet still losing.
For those not familiar, Roosevelt was furious at Taft for abandoning the progressives values he had championed as the former Republican president. However, far from winning, all Roosevelt accomplished was delivering the White House for the Democrat, Woodrow Wilson. That’s because he split the Republican vote.
Third party candidates historically cost the party they are more aligned with the election. The lone exception appears to be the ’68 election, in which Wallace, who ran as a segregationist, actually hurt the Democrat, Hubert Humphrey more than the Republican, Richard Nixon, even though Nixon deployed what some have referred to as the Southern strategy, designed to provoke anxious white voters into voting Republican. I should point out that there are historians who think it was the other way around. That what really happened was Wallace took away votes from Nixon and made what other wise would’ve been a rout into it a relatively competitive election for Humphrey. They could be right. It is doubtful that a liberal like Humphrey would’ve won any of the five southern states Wallace captured.
The two most recent examples of third party candidates who inadvertently tipped the election are Ross Perot in 1992 and Ralph Nader in 2000. Perot was the business tycoon who siphoned off votes from Republican George H.W. Bush and allowed Bill Clinton to win the presidency with less than 50 percent of the vote; and Nader was the consumer advocate who kept Democrat Al Gore from winning Florida, thus saddling the nation with the likes of George W. Bush. Neither candidate had a realistic chance of winning, yet both effectively became spoilers in their respective races; their legacies forever enshrined in the annals of history. Schultz’ legacy, if he chooses to run, will be no different.
Schultz’s rationale for running is based on his claim, often repeated by pollsters, that 40 percent of the electorate identifies as independent and is therefore winnable. Additionally, he says, neither party seems all that concerned about solving the problems that beset the country and are more interested in what he described as “revenge politics.”
While I will stipulate that the hyper-partisanship that grips Washington often does culminate in something akin to revenge politics, one party is clearly far more responsible for the polarization that has so turned off the electorate. And that party is now completely under the control of Trump. Removing him should be goal number one for any candidate who cares about the country.
But when it comes to independents, Schultz makes the same mistake Bernie Sanders made all throughout the 2016 campaign. Sanders kept insisting that the throngs of supporters who were showing up at his rallies were independents. In fact, the people who were showing up were disaffected Democrats who felt the party wasn’t progressive enough.
The fact is the term independent has undergone something of a metamorphosis over the last couple of decades. Back in the day, an independent was someone who was moderate in their political views. They tended to be either center right or center left. This is where we got the terms Reagan Democrat and Clinton Republican from. Basically, they were one in the same. Nowadays, independents fall primarily into two groups: far left and far right. They are far more extreme in their thinking and tend to reject any candidate they feel isn’t pure enough to earn their vote. It is doubtful, given the current political landscape, that there’s more than 15 percent of the electorate that would describe itself as moderate. Even if Schultz were to run the table with that group, at best he’d be nothing more than the next Ross Perot: another billionaire with his thumb on the political scale who couldn’t close the deal.
If Howard Schultz really wants to beat Trump, his best bet would be to run as a Democrat. If he’s concerned that the party is drifting too far to the left, the way to pull it closer to the center is for him and other moderates like Michael Bloomberg to jump in the ring. Indeed, Democrats would be strengthened by having an open and honest debate about which vision would be more effective in a general election.
Prior to 2016, the GOP was a pro-free trade party whose stars were Paul Ryan and Ted Cruz. Then Donald Trump came along and turned things completely upside down. Today, Republicans sing the praises of protectionism and tariffs and Trump’s hold on the party is complete. What that proves is that political parties can be transformed with the right candidate.
Over the last six decades the Democratic Party has come full circle from the Great Society days of Lyndon Johnson to the more centrist days of Bill Clinton back to a more liberal ideology today. There are more than just a few pundits who feel such an ideology in a general election is a weak hand. Even if Schultz doesn’t win the nomination, his presence on a stage with other Democrats could influence the party platform. Just as Bernie pushed Hillary to the left, Schultz could push the eventual nominee to the right.
That’s the challenge for Shultz: to be a team player instead of a lone wolf. Many of his positions are reasonable and would be attractive to voters in 2020. But the only way those positions will ever see the light of day is if they are part of a comprehensive and inclusive platform of a national party that has a reasonable chance of winning an election.
Progressive but pragmatic. Lover of music, die-hard Giants’ fan and reluctant Mets’ fan. My favorite motto? I’d rather be ruled by a smart Turk than a dumb Christian.