Former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz teased his potential 2020 presidential run with a “pox on both your houses” approach to Democrats and Republicans, hoping to seize on general antipathy toward the nation’s two-party system.
But in his first week in the 2020 gauntlet, punctuated by repeated media appearances, liberal angst and a less than smooth public book tour, Schultz saved his most biting attacks for the left, previewing how his potential independent bid could be contentious for the Democratic Party, which is hellbent on ousting President Donald Trump.
Schultz’s attacks on core Democratic policies framed not only the debate inside the party but previewed how Republicans will cast the eventual Democratic nominee in 2020. Over the course of only a few days, the billionaire labeled Medicare-for-All “un-American,” said Trump will get re-elected if the Democratic nominee supports significant tax hikes on the wealthy and argued the country can’t afford “free college.”
“It concerns me that so many voices within the Democratic Party are going so far to the left,” Schultz said this week. “I think we got to get away from these falsehoods and start talking about the truth and not false promises.”
He added: “If I ran as a Democrat, I would have to say things that I know in my heart I do not believe, and I would have to be disingenuous.”
Schultz’s criticisms could amplify the Republican message toward the Democrats in 2020. Some Republicans even cheered his critiques of the party, a sign of what could come should Schultz fully get into the race.
Democrats remain unsure of how seriously to take a Schultz bid. Some speculate that this is all just an elaborate ruse to sell books, others believe it is a vanity project meant to burnish Schultz’s ability to garner a following. But some are taking his foray into presidential politics seriously, gearing up for the possibility that he will need to be treated like any other candidate threatening a Democratic nominee.
His moves have been monitored by aides on Democratic 2020 campaigns, in part because he has enough money to ensure that he is more than just a flash in the pan.
And some Democratic organizations have begun building a research book on the former CEO, preparing to sully his candidacy, should he run.
Priorities USA, a Democratic super PAC, used the week to send out “FOIA requests to national and state offices that either Schultz or his corporate entities may have interacted with” as a CEO, said a spokesman for the group. And American Bridge, a Democratic opposition research organization, pledged on Tuesday – in the midst of Schultz’s media blitz – to “oppose him at every turn” should he run and “stand in the way of defeating Trump” in 2020.
Schultz’s roll out came after months of research and testing about whether a general election electorate would be receptive to an independent bid, including a series of one-on-one interviews with voters across the country by pollsters working for Schultz, according to multiple Schultz advisers.
To date, Schultz has commissioned at least six national polls on his viability and place in the 2020 field, the advisers said. The polling has been led by Greg Strimple, a Republican pollster who worked on John McCain’s 2008 presidential bid, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s 2009 and 2013 gubernatorial bids and most recently worked with the National Republican Congressional Committee and the Congressional Leadership Fund.
The results, said one adviser, showed an opening for an independent candidate who focuses intently on dysfunction in the two-party system.
“We are going to have a different conversation with the American people than a Kamala Harris or a Donald Trump is going to have,” said the adviser. “We are going to say do you think the two-party system is advancing the needs of the American people. Do you think it is advancing the American dream? It is going to be that kind of conversation.”
Schultz’s team also focused intensely on his interview with 60 Minutes on Sunday.
To gauge the response, the advisers said, the team commissioned a 1,000-voter dial test during the interview to see how different comments affected public sentiment for the former Starbucks CEO. One adviser said his attacks on the party system, his personal story and his record at Starbucks tested the best.
Even still, there has been an overriding sense among Democrats that his first week in the spotlight also showed clear weaknesses in Schultz’s effort, like his inability to answer policy questions and the fact that his first book tour event was remembered for a guy who stood up and called him an “a**hole.”
The biggest black eye: Taking to Twitter to promote a column from a conservative outlet that included denigrating references to two Democratic senators, Sens. Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren.
Schultz later deleted the tweet and his team blamed a staffer, reminiscent of an argument Trump made after degrading Iowans on Twitter.
“I have heard from literally zero Democratic operatives or aides freaking out about Schultz’s candidacy,” said a top Democratic aide on a 2020 campaign. “He’s fallen on his face - saying universal health care was un-American, promoting sexist and racist tropes about female presidential candidates, and getting screamed at for being an “a**hole” at his launch event.”
The aide added: “Democrats are trying to win a long primary. Schultz will have to survive even longer.”
Schultz’s team argue Democrats – which have publicly worried about his impact on the race - are viewing a general election matchup between Trump, Schultz and a Democrat incorrectly by comparing him to 2016 third party candidates like Jill Stein and Gary Johnson.
“They are thinking about a Jill Stein or a Ralph Nader or that type of person as a proxy for a campaign that Schultz would run if he runs a campaign and I will tell you, they are very different,” said one Schultz adviser. “We will have real money, we will be on the ballot in all 50 states and we will go out and run a campaign that prosecutes the problems of the two party system.”
Schultz and his team worked with Kellen Arno and Kahlil Byrd, two strategists who - through Americans Elect - worked to get ballot access for their presidential ticket in 2012. While the effort wasn’t successful, Americans Elect did get ballot access in 29 states.
But even those close to Schultz acknowledge that he hasn’t had a perfect week, the biggest blunder being the deleted tweet.
“It was sloppy and dumb and shouldn’t have happened,” said a source with knowledge of the Schultz operation. “It’s a bit of a whirlwind and the approval process broke down. It was embarrassing but unintentional.”
But that is far from the only misstep.
A protester disrupted his first book tour event by calling him an “egotistical billionaire a**hole,” an incident that overshadowed anything else Schultz said at the event.
“Go back to getting ratioed on Twitter,” yelled the man. “Go back to Davos with the other billionaire elite who think they know how to run the world!”
And on policy, Schultz had to soften his criticism of Medicare for all as “un-American.” Though he defended calling universal healthcare “un-American, which he first expressed on CBS This Morning on Tuesday, he later sought to clean it up on CNN.
“It’s not that it’s not American,” Schultz said. “It’s unaffordable.”
Schultz’s team have taken the critiques in stride, a nod to the fact that they aren’t going anywhere.
“If both parties attack, even better,” said the adviser. “It will burnish his outsider image.”
CNN’s Maeve Reston and Cristina Alesci contributed to this report.