Chattanooga Times Free Press - - OPINION - THE NEW YORK TIMES

Howard Schultz of Star­bucks fame re­cently told “60 Min­utes” that he was “se­ri­ously think­ing” about an in­de­pen­dent bid for the pres­i­dency, and boy oh boy are lib­er­als and pro­gres­sives un­happy with the idea. The life­long Demo­crat has sud­denly mor­phed, in the eyes of his new de­trac­tors, into a vain­glo­ri­ous up­start, en­ti­tled rich guy, and po­ten­tial spoiler who could hand the elec­tion to Don­ald Trump.

Could be. But the neu­ral­gic re­ac­tion to his bid says some­thing about the ide­o­log­i­cal drift of the Demo­cratic Party — and of its vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties against a his­tor­i­cally weak pres­i­dent.

So what has Schultz done to de­serve his Two Min­utes Hate? His po­lit­i­cal views bear about as much re­sem­blance to those of a typ­i­cal con­ser­va­tive as an olive does to a grape. He sup­ports Oba­macare, de­nounced the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s de­ci­sion to leave the Paris Cli­mate Ac­cord, and promised to hire 10,000 refugees glob­ally in re­sponse to the 2017 travel ban. He was raised in a Brook­lyn hous­ing project and was the first per­son in his fam­ily to go to col­lege. His bil­lions were fairly earned of­fer­ing prod­ucts and ser­vices people want.

Tens of mil­lions of Amer­i­cans were de­fined as the “Ex­hausted Ma­jor­ity” by last year’s path­break­ing “Hid­den Tribes” re­port from the More In Com­mon re­search group. It found that two-thirds of Amer­i­cans are nei­ther con­ser­va­tives nor pro­gres­sives. They are mod­er­ates, lib­er­als and the dis­en­gaged, de­fined by their ide­o­log­i­cal flex­i­bil­ity, sup­port for com­pro­mise, fa­tigue with the po­lit­i­cal de­bate — and the sense that they’re be­ing ig­nored and for­got­ten.

Can an in­de­pen­dent can­di­dacy like Schultz’s suc­ceed? If the ar­gu­ment is that a New York plu­to­crat can’t win in a pop­ulist era — well, hello? And if the ar­gu­ment is that you can’t win with­out the sup­port of a ma­jor party, re­call also that the party sys­tem has never been weaker than it is to­day. We live in a po­lit­i­cally en­tre­pre­neur­ial age. Schultz is an en­tre­pre­neur.

But even if Schultz’s chances as an in­de­pen­dent are slim, what’s cer­tain is that they are be­com­ing much slim­mer as a Demo­crat. This is what makes the in­sis­tence of some lib­er­als that he run as a Demo­crat so disin­gen­u­ous: Com­pete on our turf where the field will be tilted against you, or don’t com­pete at all.

It’s hard to blame him for walk­ing away from Democrats al­to­gether. Lib­er­al­ism used to be about mak­ing the cap­i­tal­ist sys­tem fairer, gen­tler and more in­clu­sive. It has be­come an ide­ol­ogy for ma­lign­ing it as a “rigged sys­tem” (El­iz­a­beth War­ren), or elim­i­nat­ing an en­tire in­dus­try within it (Ka­mala Har­ris), or de­mo­niz­ing and pun­ish­ing those who do ex­cep­tion­ally well at it (Alexan­dria Oca­sio-Cortez), or wag­ing class war­fare (all of the above).

That means that if Schultz doesn’t run and a can­di­date like War­ren wins the Demo­cratic nom­i­na­tion, the same re­luc­tant GOP vot­ers who handed the pres­i­dency to Trump in 2016 be­cause they found Hil­lary Clin­ton even more un­palat­able will vote for him again. How to avoid that wretched out­come?

Democrats could re­sist the type of ide­o­log­i­cal fury that tilted Repub­li­cans sharply right in 2016 by re­ject­ing a sharp move to the left next year. But that’s more eas­ily said than done when pro­gres­sive paragons pro­claim that old-fash­ioned Demo­cratic cen­trism is the new fa­nati­cism.

Those paragons could also cor­rect some of the mag­i­cal think­ing when it comes to free col­lege tu­ition, a 70 per­cent tax rate on the wealth­i­est, or a San­ders-style health care sys­tem. With­out some re­al­ity checks, Demo­cratic pri­mary vot­ers might be gulled by the left-wing ver­sion of the fairy dust Trump vot­ers in­haled when they bought into prom­ises about Mex­ico pay­ing for the wall.

In the mean­time, a po­ten­tial Schultz can­di­dacy can serve the use­ful func­tion of re­mind­ing Democrats that he re­ally could throw the elec­tion to Trump if they con­tinue mov­ing far­ther to the left. The best way to di­min­ish that pos­si­bil­ity isn’t to scream at him. It’s to lis­ten to the for­got­ten vot­ers he po­ten­tially rep­re­sents. If Democrats don’t want to lose the 2020 elec­tion, they would do bet­ter to re­claim the cen­ter than to pre­tend they can re­de­fine it.

Bret Stevens

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