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Opinion: Howard Schultz can keep both parties moderate

Frank Donatelli
In this March 22, 2017 file photo, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz speaks at the Starbucks annual shareholders meeting in Seattle.

Howard Schultz’ announcement on “60 Minutes” that he is considering a presidential run as a “centrist independent” has set off alarm bells all across the Democratic establishment. Key figures from Obama and Clinton campaigns have denounced Schultz’ “arrogance” and have already begun a campaign to drive him from the presidential race.
It’s easy to see why Democrats are worried.  President Trump has never been overwhelmingly popular and his current average approval rating from Real Clear Politics is 41.5 percent. In one recent survey, 57 percent of Americans say they probably or definitely wouldn’t vote for him. The easiest path for the Democratic nominee is to be the only alternative in the general election. According to this calculus, it shouldn’t matter if Democrats nominate a centrist or a far left or even a socialist candidate.   
In this scenario, Democratic candidates can appease their base voters by promising a bigger and bigger federal government – without any electoral consequences. This is the lazy approach to assembling an electoral majority.

If Schultz ran as a centrist, he would have no chance to win the Democratic nomination. Already, Elizabeth Warren has proposed a “wealth” tax on assets of “rich” Americans along with a substantial increase in income tax rates. Kamala Harris has countered with a promise to eliminate private health insurance. Joe Biden and Kirsten Gillibrand have apologized for past transgressions of moderation.  

And it’s only the beginning of February the year before the election.
Many of these policy views are not mainstream. They will be deemphasized if the fall election choices are limited to major party candidates, only to be revived if they win the election.
Thus far, Republicans have been smiling, probably believing that a Schultz independent candidacy helps them. Maybe, but maybe not. History is full of examples where the incumbent party has lost the White House despite the presence of a vigorous independent or third party candidate.
Ross Perot won the highest percentage of the popular vote (19 percent) in 1992 as an independent in nearly a century. Yet Bill Clinton easily defeated Republican incumbent George H.W. Bush. Notably, Clinton ran a left of center campaign and was able to capture a share of independents and disaffected Republicans despite Perot’s presence. Indeed, it is likely that Perot’s candidacy forced Clinton to compete for centrist votes.  He was after all the nominee of a party who had lost the last three presidential elections by large margins.
In 1980, Ronald Reagan swept Jimmy Carter out of office despite the presence of independent John Anderson, a former Republican. In 1968, Richard Nixon ousted the Democrats from the White House despite George Wallace’s third party effort that surely deprived Nixon of the electoral votes of several southern states.   
In his “60 Minutes” interview, Schultz focused on Democratic issues such as climate change, diversity, and a fair and open society. What if he added to that litany a plan to refocus government regulation to enhance and strengthen free markets as the best way to bring prosperity to all Americans?

What if he endorsed strengthening alliances with democracies around the world as a critical part of an American strategy to counter our adversaries abroad?

Could such a platform bring him a unique coalition of voters from across the political spectrum?
Let’s be clear: The odds are strongly against an independent winning the White House. That is typically because major parties are smart enough to co-opt their issues. But what if the parties stubbornly cling to more familiar territory?
The major parties have retreated into comfortable enclaves of left and right. Our politics does not offer a proper reward structure for building successful coalitions that include independent and centrist voters, who are forced to choose from what the major parties are offering.
What if a Schultz candidacy forced the major parties to broaden their appeal? Would we reduce snark and sound bite campaigning? Would the parties address broader issues, not narrow, partisan concerns?
If so, that would be good. If not, maybe Schultz could win. That might be good too.
Frank Donatelli served as assistant for political affairs to President Ronald Reagan and as deputy chairman of the Republican National Committee during the 2008 presidential campaign of John McCain.