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2020

An Open Letter to Howard Schultz

Dear Howard Schultz,

I like Starbucks. Among the smart set, this is class betrayal. I’m supposed to visit Starbucks begrudgingly because it’s square and corporate and the opposite of local. But I don’t feel that way. I have Starbucks most mornings. When I travel, I seek it out because I know exactly what I’ll get—the precise dose of caffeine (roughly the amount to bring a horse back from the dead) that my body needs soon after sunrise. Also, let me admit: over the years my usual order has gotten more and more baroque. I’m going to share it even though it is objectively embarrassing, to demonstrate that, despite the fact that this is an open letter, which is inherently impersonal, I’m trying to be honest.

Ready? It’s three shots of espresso with extra ice in a venti cup, plus three pumps sugar-free vanilla and a splash of half and half. Holy shit.

You came from nothing and built an empire. You’ve tried to align the practices of your company with more civic mindedness than most. You’ve made it the firm’s mission to hire veterans and refugees. You offered sick leave and college assistance and health plans when so many other American giants exploited economic dislocation and cultural decay to grind their people into the ground. If you want to run for president, you have every right, and you have a case to make. But there is only one place to make that case, and it’s in the Democratic primaries. The alternative would destroy your legacy as an accomplished executive, divide the country, tilt the presidential election toward Trump, and turn your name into a permanent joke, or worse.

Let’s dive in. A year before the first votes are cast in Iowa, you are assuming that the outcome of that process will be unacceptable. You must believe that a) there are tens of millions of people in America who are clamoring for your politics but b) you couldn’t persuade them to vote for you in a Democratic primary. It’s a real pickle.

So what are your politics? In your 60 Minutes interview, Scott Pelley peppered you with policy questions, and on one after another you described a mainstream Democratic position. On immigration, on climate change, on tax policy, you stake out completely ordinary liberal critiques of Trump. Nothing special, nothing new. So what is this great divergence that suggests that you, a lifelong Democrat, have no choice but to run as an independent? That you need to take your ball and go home?

It’s that even though everyone deserves health care, Democratic proposals are too expensive—Medicare for All is a partisan fantasy, our version of Trump’s wall. It fits with what you’ve said previously—that neither party cares enough about fiscal responsibility. Earlier this year you told CNBC that “the greatest threat domestically to the country is this $21 trillion debt hanging over… future generations.” This is the substance of your centrism, the appeal you believe will draw the independents you view as your natural constituency—the socially liberal, fiscally conservative political homeless American voter.

But I have bad news: while there are many voters like this who nod their heads in Aspen and Davos, and who form the base of the Democratic donor class and the consultants who share their politics—cosmopolitan, tolerant, capitalist, constitutionally moderate and rarely touched by poverty and grinding inequality—those nodding heads do not represent a coalition. In fact, it’s the opposite. What we have learned in recent years—and why you see a move toward more left policies in Democratic circles —is that the politically homeless voter is opposite to what you describe: fiscally liberal and socially moderate.

There’s more to say, including about the shallowness of the identifier “independent” and the 40 percent of voters who use it, the actual source of partisan rancor in Washington, the fact that even on the substance of fiscal responsibility, it’s Democrats who have actually carried that mantle for a generation. And, by the way, on health care, we’re about to have a huge debate about universal coverage and how to pay for it. The debate will take place in the primary you’re planning to skip.

Look, I know I’m a partisan Democrat, the kind of person whose views you’re training yourself to ignore. But in my experience, there’s no one a billionaire trusts more than a fellow billionaire. Listen to Mike Bloomberg who said, “In 2020, the great likelihood is that an independent would just split the anti-Trump vote and end up re-electing the President.” He faced the same choice as you. The only difference is he had people around him who cared more about telling him the truth than taking his money.

The effort to remove Donald Trump from office—by impeachment, resignation, or electoral defeat—is among the most important political fights in American history. The stakes are total. If he is on the ballot in 2020 he will be defeated by Democratic voters, with the help of independents, first-time voters, and some Republicans—or he will be re-elected. A huge percentage of those voters are about to engage in a great contest, state by state, to choose the person we want to face off against Trump. Millions of your fellow citizens will take it seriously, they will knock on doors and persuade their friends, they will argue and think and worry about who they should support. For you to evade that process, for you to introduce so profound an uncertainty into this election, for you to leapfrog the primaries, avoid any debate, insert yourself into that decision, simply because you have the money to do it and the foolishness to believe the consultants you’ve paid to get to yes, is reprehensible.

You want to help your country? Help us defeat the propaganda machine that enables Trump and the worst elements of the Republican Party. Help us push back against corporate interests arrayed against action on climate change. Fund local journalism. Fund scholarships. Fund voter registration and protection. And, if you believe in the case you’d make as an independent candidate, join the Democratic primary and make that case before the voters you’d need to win. Put some skin in the game. Put some time on the trail. Because unlike money, time and skin are as limited for you as they are for the rest of us.

I believe you love this country. I believe you believe in a noble conception of your motivations. So my hope is that the criticisms reach you, that you talk to smart people you do not pay, that you do not show the same kind of hubris and selfishness and ego that led Trump to believe he alone could fix it. In other words, I hope you show some patriotism and get your head out of your ass. That’s it from me, Howard. If you want to talk more, just send a note to the baristas at Sunset and Gower.

Warmest regards,

Jon