­­­­­­­Howard Schultz: The Failed Anti-Donald Trump Candidate

JOSEPH MURGIDA: Sometimes, coffee can be quite hot and bitter. Even though certain coffee lovers may only accept this beverage when it has an excoriating temperature and acidic taste, these cups of joe are unpalatable to most. Typically, drinkers simply add milk—a liquid opposite from coffee in both temperature and taste—to sweeten their beloved beverage while being able to maintain the strong, foundational caffeinated flavor that makes coffee so globally desired.

No other individual would better understand the idea that adding polar opposite elements together can improve overall experience than Howard Schultz, former CEO of Starbucks. While Schultz has yet to draw this exact parallel to himself, I’d like to argue that his strategy heading into the 2020 Presidential Election reflects a similar approach. Schultz refuses to embrace his identity as a white, wealthy businessman in the likeness of President Trump. Rather, he has taken methodical steps to run from this characterization by using rhetoric and making promises reminiscent of someone distant from the stereotypical identity which President Trump personified so clearly on the campaign trail in 2016.

Regardless of its strategic practicality, Schultz is trying to separate himself from President Trump by presenting himself as the anti-Donald Trump. I cannot currently judge whether even the best application of this strategy could be successful for someone with a similar identity to Schultz during the 2020 Presidential Election. It is clear, however, that Schultz’s approach to this strategy is neither the best nor effective.

Consider the style of rhetoric Schultz used during the CNN town hall he participated in on February 12, 2019. The phrases he used were very specific, and he repeated certain lines as talking points, sticking to them during follow-up questions even when they did not completely answer the questions directed at him. This occurred so much that his speech came across as rigorously rehearsed, the exact opposite of Trump’s impulsive way of addressing voters in the 2016 campaign.

A prime example of this during the town hall was when the topic of taxes was brought up. When asked about his initial tax plan, Schultz declared, twice, “I should be paying more in taxes,” and even went as far to say, “that should be the headline here.” Like most politicians, Schultz clearly went into this town hall with a set of key messages he wanted to convey throughout the event. He did not go off on unrelated tangents, or say controversial, specific figures off the cuff when asked for details. Rather, whenever he was pressed, he returned to carefully scripted, broad, uncontroversial messages that would not alienate any of his potential voter base.

President Trump usually never gave these kinds of focused answers nor implied that his personal wealth should decrease for the greater good. Trump’s answers on the subject of taxes varied from personal brags that he paid as little as possible in taxes, to off-topic taunts about how he would be the “best jobs president ever.” Schultz’s answers, meanwhile, contained a semblance of humility in responding that he should be taxed more to lessen the burden on the middle class, something Trump would always avoid in favor of egotistically-laced comments that implied his benefit necessarily led to the greater good. In giving these specific responses on February 12th, Schultz sought to avoid the label that Trump embraced—that he was a greedy businessman who wanted to take from the poor to enrich himself.

Schultz’s forced efforts at accomplishing this goal, however, were unearthed when CNN moderator Poppy Harlow asked him for specifics on his tax plan, and if he meant he should be paying “2%, 10%, or 20% more.” Schultz wanting to pay more taxes means little if he only thinks he should be paying 2% more but is noteworthy if he means 20% more. The question, thus, was not intended to get a specific response but to ballpark his thinking in order to gain a better picture of how progressive of a candidate he intends to be.

His answer immediately went back to his desire for “comprehensive tax reform,” a sentiment that he expressed about two or three times in his initial answer. Schultz stayed on message and did not answer the question with any specifics that he was clearly unprepared for in this moment. Yet, Harlow wisely caught on to Schultz’s avoidance tactics and immediately followed up, requesting for him to name “a ballpark” percentage. His answer again was a deflection of specifics, saying that the proposal of 70% is “a punitive number,” but declined to say what would be fair. As a candidate seeking to frame his identity as a moderate, attacking an extreme figure allowed Schultz to stay in line with his messaging without entering controversy.

However, Harlow pressed him again, and this time Schultz finally admitted his lack of specifics but said for a third time that he wanted to pay higher taxes—a statement now rendered completely meaningless without necessary specifics. Due to his lack of background in politics, Schultz likely does not have a deep knowledge of specific policy plans and must learn on-the-go. This knowledge gap handicaps Schultz from providing substantive meaning and interest in his claims. This is why Schultz cannot beat Trump while utilizing this strategy.

While predicting another person’s reactions is usually an unfair analytical practice, the boldness of Trump leads me to comfortably infer that he would have improvised and said an extreme figure in line with his impulsive thinking (consider the multiple figures that he gave when discussing the cost of a border wall ranging from $4-12 billion, depending on the rally). Despite his blatant ignorance as to their accuracy, Trump is willing to give specifics solely to give his statements meaning, which garners him support and confidence from his base. Schultz’s unfamiliarity with politics prevents him from knowing the necessary details of tax plans, and his aversion to seeming “Trumpian” makes him wary at giving specifics that he cannot back up with facts, leading him to make statements he cannot support.

This avoidance pattern was repeated throughout the entire town hall debate. When asked about climate change, he offered no concrete solution but opted instead to attack Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal and call it unreasonable. Likewise, when pressed for his thoughts on illegal immigration, he gave no specific policy plan and instead declared President Trump and the far-right’s policies on the issue inhumane.

Similarly, Trump would also attack the proposed solutions of his opponents on the campaign trail all the time. What Trump did that was unique to his brand of politics, however, was offer outlandish solutions and making ad hominem attacks against rivals in order to establish and reinforce his loyal base. Schultz, though, refrained from doing either and instead expressed his respect for legislators who created policy he disagreed with, while at the same time offering no alternative solutions.

Every question that Schultz answered was done with a desire to stay on message in order to establish his identity as a relatable, humble Independent—and thus opposite from Trump in every way. However, the core of Schultz’s identity as a businessman and political outsider prevents him from offering the necessary fact-based solutions that would give his candidacy any momentum or support in the early goings of this race.

Max Magid