The billionaire express lane

When former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz announced that he was considering running for president as an “independent centrist” because “the political system is broken,” the first day’s reaction — and the second’s — was that he risked being a spoiler in 2020, pulling some portion of the anti-Trump vote away from the Democratic nominee and leading to the reelection of Donald Trump.

It’s possible that Schultz, if he runs, could play that role. But before we worry about that, let’s look at the assumptions behind Schultz’s potential candidacy and what they say about the state of American politics at this moment — and what’s actually “broken.”

Schultz argues, correctly, that his “socially liberal, fiscally conservative” policy preferences are unlikely to prevail in either party’s nomination process. He is against tax increases on the very wealthy, and the only issue that seems to have awakened his passions in recent years was reducing the federal deficit. (In 2012, he directed Starbucks baristas to write the phrase, “Come Together” on cups, by which he meant that Democrats and Republicans should find common ground on a deficit-reduction plan.) Deficit reduction is no longer a high priority for Democrats (thankfully!), and never was for Republicans.

I don’t reject the idea that Schultz’s career as a CEO is a qualification. One part of being president involves managing an incredibly large organization. I have no doubt that Barack Obama’s absence of experience in the sociology of very large organizations was a weakness, just as Michael Bloomberg’s corporate background helped him at key points in his 12 years as mayor of New York.

But sure, if Schultz wants to test whether his is a viable message or resume, he should try. Just as former Rep. John Delaney or former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper should give their own policy platforms or experience a test. Or former New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu. Or, on the Republican side, Maryland governor Larry Hogan or basically anyone else.

All those candidates are running in the first round of the presidential election process. They’re competing for a spot in the final round, the general election. Some appear at this moment to be longshots, but there’s precedent for candidates who were little-known longshots in the January before the election year to capture their party’s nomination or the presidency, including Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama and Donald Trump. All of them not only won their party’s nomination, but in different ways showed that the party was open to a policy combination and a coalition that had seemed unlikely to succeed two years earlier.

But what Schultz is proposing is to jump directly to the final round, the general election. And to get there, he would not even work through the competition for the nomination of the Green Party or the Libertarian Party. While he may or may not form a party for legal purposes, what he is suggesting doing is simply collecting signatures to get onto the ballots of as many states as possible. Without a personal following (he has about 5,700 Twitter followers), Schultz is likely to do that by hiring paid signature-gathering firms. In some states, such as Texas and California, the number of signatures needed is high (California requires signatures from 1 percent of registered voters), but in many swing states, it’s only 5,000.

So, if on the debate stage for the general election in November there’s a Democrat, a Republican and Howard Schultz, they will have reached that stage in radically different ways. The Democrat will have ground it out through a grueling round of primaries and caucuses, raising money within legal limits as well as self-imposed limits (most candidates are likely to reject corporate PAC money, some may go further), building coalitions, developing policy proposals, and prevailed in a field that may include six senators, several governors and former governors, a former two-term vice president, and Mr. Delaney. Perhaps a half-dozen candidates who worked just as hard and had their own energized base of support won’t quite make it to that stage. The Republican will either be the incumbent president or will have in some form prevailed over the incumbent, generally considered an impressive achievement. And then there will be Mr. Schultz, who bought some signatures.

You may think that the Democratic and Republican parties are a “duopoly” that needs competition. You may believe that there are widely held viewpoints that don’t really have a place in either party. (The opposite of Schultz’s formula, economically liberal but socially conservative, is probably the most glaring example, although many voters may have thought that’s what they were getting with Donald Trump.) But the path around that duopoly seems to be open to exactly one kind of person, someone like Mr. Schultz. It’s like we’ve built a fast lane into the political system and it’s open only to billionaires.

This is much closer to the way “the political system is broken” than whatever Schultz is referring to, like the possibility that some people in one party propose to raise his own taxes. Together with their influence through SuperPACs and other dark money vehicles, this fast lane to the final round dramatically increases the influence that billionaires can have. Even his media blitz this week couldn’t have happened without the expectation that Schultz could buy himself a spot in the general election.

And Schultz is also a pioneer in another avenue by which the very wealthy influence politics. Remember those “Come Together” cups? They may have been meaningless to a majority of Starbucks customers, but Schultz obviously thought they would have an influence in the political process. As Alexander Hertel-Fernandez showed in his book Politics At Work, more people than you might think are subject to political messages in the workplace. Starbucks under Schultz took it a step further, because they are among the handful of companies whose employees are in direct contact with millions of customers daily. Schultz understood that that was a megaphone.

Party primaries and caucuses are far from the ideal way to run the first rounds of an election, especially in a system with only two major parties. Primary and caucus voters aren’t representative of the general election electorate (or the overall population), the process is expensive and requires careful allocation of funds across states, small tactical mistakes, such as Hillary Clinton ignoring small caucus states in 2008, have an outsized impact. The sequencing of state contests gives some states outsized voice, and then there are all the ordinary problems of first-past-the-post election systems.

The “duopoly” of the two parties is a serious problem, stifling a lot of potential competition and ideas. The right answer to that is not a fast-lane alternative candidacy, with no existing party and no plan to build a new one. It’s redesigning the system so that there are more ways for parties to develop, participate, influence the major parties, and in the most traditional way, organize and mobilize a constituency.

And all that is even before you get to the question of whether Schultz would be a spoiler.