For a guy who says he is not running for president, Starbucks executive chairman Howard Schultz sure checked a lot of political boxes over the past week.
Upon announcing his resignation from his company, he published a snappy new website, with a direct-to-camera video and a fashionable black-and-white photo of him smiling on a Seattle street. He revealed plans to write a book, likely to be published early in 2019, about his philosophy on running a socially responsible company. And he sent an open letter to his employees announcing his desire to explore “public service.”
But it took less than 24 hours for Schultz to divulge something else — a willingness to challenge the liberal orthodoxy that courses through the Democratic Party. “We have to go after entitlements,” he said in an interview Tuesday on CNBC, after dismissing as “falsehoods” the proposals for single-payer health care and guaranteed federal jobs that have become all the rage on the left.
So it has gone for months, as Democrats poke around at the possibility of finding a non-politician candidate to challenge President Trump’s reelection campaign in 2020. In theory, there is a real opportunity for an outsider to take over the party and challenge Trump, the first American to be elected president without political or military service, on their own terms. The problem has been finding the right person to do it, particularly in a party whose voter base is more inclined to favor government experience. The potential 2020 field already includes about two dozen traditional politicians, including mayors, governors and senators.
The political outsiders who have explored candidacies include some of the biggest names in the corporate world — Disney chief Bob Iger, mega-mogul Oprah Winfrey, Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg. But each of those people ultimately decided to give up the dream, at least for now, after feeling out Democratic strategists.
As it stands, the only remaining brand-name business leaders besides Schultz known to be actively considering a run are the liberal financier Tom Steyer, who is traveling the country to build a grass-roots effort to impeach Trump, and the celebrity entrepreneur Mark Cuban, who has taken few steps to build inroads in the Democratic Party, after saying last year he would rather run as a Republican or an independent.
Cuban, 59, owner of professional basketball’s Dallas Mavericks and a star of the investment show “Shark Tank,” said in an email exchange that he has been focused on policy development, including a plan to reshape the nation’s health-care system, among other ideas that would “make it interesting.”
“Make a commitment to AI to assure that in the next 20 years, first autonomous, weaponized robots ever put to use are made in America and not in China or Russia,” he wrote.
Steyer, 60, continues to spend heavily on television advertising that casts him as a movement leader, while hosting town halls about impeachment in states including South Carolina and Colorado. He said in a recent interview that he is focused on the midterm elections. “As far as I am concerned, anybody who is thinking about 2020 is taking their eye off the ball,” he said.
Among those who have demurred, the reasons vary. Sandberg found her trajectory complicated by the unexpected death of her husband in 2015 and, more recently, the manipulation of Facebook by the Russian government in the 2016 election. Her commencement speech at MIT on Friday did not directly touch on politics, though she expressed pride in Facebook’s role in promoting movements such as the Women’s March on Washington and Black Lives Matter while lamenting that “we didn’t see all the risks coming, and we didn’t do enough to stop them.”
Iger’s ambition was hijacked by corporate happenstance. The boards of both Disney and 21st Century Fox implored him to sign a contract extension through 2021 as a condition of moving forward with the proposed combination of the two companies. People who spoke with him say he remains convinced that he had a path to win, even as he recognized the challenge that a corporate leader would have winning over the Democratic rank and file.
“He looked at it seriously enough to know that it was a viable option,” said one person with knowledge of the 67-year-old Iger’s exploration who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the run. “He was also very cognizant of the fact that a Democratic primary was extremely difficult.”