Howard Schultz’s Seinfeldesque Campaign About Nothing
Based on his appearance on CNN last night, Howard Schultz appears to be running a campaign about nothing.
At the start of the town hall CNN gave Howard Schultz on Tuesday night, anchor Poppy Harlow promised, “We’re going to talk about all the issues, because that’s what this is about.”
Unfortunately, Schultz spent the next hour studiously avoiding taking a position on much of anything.
The former Starbucks CEO and potential independent presidential candidate’s performance was almost a caricature of an independent candidate trying to say nothing except that the two major parties were doing it wrong. Harlow, to her great credit, repeatedly noted that he was skirting the questions and not talking about his own proposals.
But Schultz would not be deterred from his anodyne generalities and platitudes. The guy who recently told CNBC that he didn’t “want to talk in the hypothetical about what I would do if I was president” very much stuck to that line.
When he was asked what he would do about climate change, he almost immediately shifted to attacking Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s (D-N.Y.) “Green New Deal” as pie in the sky. “Let’s be sensible about what we’re suggesting,” he said. “Let’s not just throw stuff against a wall because it’s a good slogan or we get a press release.”
He declined, however, to offer up any of his own proposals.
On taxes, he said he was in favor of higher taxes on wealthy people like him. But how much higher? He wasn’t sure. “I don’t know what the number is,” he said twice as Harlow sought even just a “ballpark” figure. He attacked Ocasio-Cortez’s idea to tax income beyond $10 million at 70 percent as a “punitive number.” Eventually Harlow asked him “is it higher than 2 percent more, for example?” Schultz finally committed, sort of: “I think it is.”
Asked whether China was an ally or an enemy, he chose neither but attacked Trump’s trade war. Asked what his illegal immigration plan was, Schultz attacked Democrats for wanting to abolish ICE and Republicans for separating families at the border, but he committed only to a path to citizenship.
On health care, Schultz attacked Republicans for going after Obamacare and Democrats for wanting Medicare-for-all, but all he would propose is more competition, easy access to care and cheaper prescription drugs. Those are all things that people like. In fact, they’re all goals President Trump has advocated. But they’re goals, not proposals.
It’s no secret that politicians strive to avoid the questions they are asked. Taking a firm stance means potentially alienating supporters. So when you can speak in generalities about your goals and avoid proposals that might come back to bite you, you do it.
But there’s a difference between skirting really tough and divisive issues and basically having no guiding principle or message. Perhaps we shouldn’t expect Schultz to have all this stuff nailed down, given that, as he noted, he only dipped his toe in the water a few weeks ago. But you’d think he would have some sense of what he’d like to do. What we saw Tuesday night were almost purely buzzwords along with policies that he opposes.
To sign up for an hour-long CNN town hall about the issues and then not really talk about how you would address them is a pretty bad omen for a potential campaign to come.
Given the fact that Schultz is allegedly being advised by long-time campaign professionals such as Steve Schmidt, who ran John McCain’s 2008 campaign, it’s somewhat surprising that he would agree to go on something like a CNN Town Hall that would potentially have millions of viewers both during its live run and in subsequent replays without having at least some basic answers to the policy issues facing the nation. After all, it isn’t as if the issues raised during the town hall should have come as a surprise to Schultz or his advisers. These are matters that are the subject of current and contentious debate in a number of venues. The fact that Schultz was unable to answer with anything other than vague generalities seems to demonstrate a lack of seriousness on his part and a lack of preparedness, neither of which look good in a candidate for President.
Nobody is expecting Schultz or any other Presidential candidate to be able to present detailed policy analysis in the course of a television program, of course, but answering with something other than vague generalities is an indication of an unserious campaign. Of course, this isn’t the first time we’ve seen this. When Donald Trump was a candidate for President, he seldom did more than offer vague generalities to the same types of questions that Schultz was asked last night. The fact that he was unable to provide coherent responses to what amount to basic questions about policy is a strong indication that, at least at this point, his hypothetical candidacy is really rather Seinfieldesque in that it is a campaign about nothing.