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Howard Schultz only has one idea about politics, and it’s bad

Making him president won’t fix the problems of partisanship.

Former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz Speaks At Miami Dade College Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Howard Schultz doesn’t really have any specific ideas about American public policy, despite the Starbucks CEO’s evident aspiration to be president of the United States.

But he does have a big idea about American politics, namely that the poisonous spirit of partisanship is preventing America’s elected officials from governing the country effectively. And while this is a bit of a platitude, it’s not just a platitude. It really is true that there are two faces to political life. One is a zero-sum competition for electoral power, and the other is a policymaking process that is decidedly not zero-sum. Two groups of people, even groups with very different goals and ideas, can often strike bargains that advance both sides’ interests.

Schultz observes, for example, that if all the relevant political actors just totally forgot about their partisan interests, they could almost certainly come up with a solution to the border situation that is superior to the status quo.

But of course the premise of Schultz’s presidential campaign is that electing Howard Schultz president would somehow fix this. But how? He never tries to explain, because it doesn’t make sense.

Why immigration reform failed

After the town hall, Schultz went on Twitter to remind us of the frustrating reality that well-known and broadly popular immigration reform ideas keep dying in Congress. The details of these comprehensive reform packages differ, but the basic framework is always the creation of legal status and a path to citizenship for the majority of long-settled unauthorized immigrants, plus new money for border security, plus forward-looking changes to immigration policy to try to better match America’s visa-granting habits to its economic needs.

But why have lawmakers failed to enact these proposals?

Well, not because there was never a president who wanted Congress to enact them. Both George W. Bush and Barack Obama pushed for immigration reform along these lines, and both times it fell apart due to congressional squabbling. It’s true that Donald Trump does not support such a compromise approach and that replacing him with someone who does would be a good idea. But reform didn’t fail in 2007 or 2013 because we lacked a pro-reform president.

If you want a comprehensive immigration reform bill to pass, you need to take on the locus of actual opposition — congressional Republicans — and either beat them or change their minds.

Putting Schultz in the White House won’t change anything. Of course, putting Bernie Sanders or Kamala Harris in the White House won’t change anything either. But Sanders or Harris or Beto O’Rourke or Joe Biden or Elizabeth Warren or any other Democrat can be expected to work to elect Democrats down ballot, which would address the issue. Schultz is just positing that his ascension would cause a chorus of kumbaya to break out and everyone will agree. The truth, however, is the opposite. Precisely because of the low partisanship that he deplores, nobody is going to want to cooperate with him.

Governing happens by and through parties

Right now, Nancy Pelosi and House Democrats are aiming to pass a variety of bills that they think are both popular and good ideas. Their hope is that by passing these popular progressive bills, they will create a problem for Republicans, who either need to give in to Democrats’ ideas or take unpopular votes that will make them easier to beat.

Mitch McConnell’s predictable countermove, however, is to simply decline to schedule any Senate votes on Democrats’ popular bills, thus getting his members off the hook. This is obviously a bit of a cynical move, but by McConnell standards, it hardly shocks the conscience — it’s just what party leadership looks like.

Schultz’s plan to fix it is to say that ... McConnell shouldn’t do that.

Now, Schultz is obviously right that, in some sense, this is a bad dynamic. Voters would be happier, almost by definition, if moderate Senate Republicans would just agree to support House Democrats’ most popular ideas and then moderate House Democrats would, in turn, agree to support Senate Republicans’ most popular ideas. But party cartel dynamics prevent this from happening, as Schultz himself notes on Twitter.

So how does electing him president solve this problem? Well, it pretty obviously doesn't. It’s as if I showed up to a meeting about how to increase Starbucks sales and then started offering all my complaints about the pacing of season seven of Game of Thrones — totally unhelpful no matter how accurate the complaints may be. But it’s really worse than that. As Schultz keeps saying, governance in the United States is very bound up with partisanship. If you had a nonpartisan president, that wouldn’t change that dynamic. It would simply mean the new president had no allies in Congress and no ability to get things done, the opposite of a cure for gridlock.

Maybe Schultz should do something about it?

The tragedy of the situation is that while the average citizen has little ability to actually influence these underlying pathologies, a rich and somewhat famous business executive like Schultz really could.

He could back third-party challengers to safe-seat House and Senate members, for example. One or two such successful campaigns would alter the incentive structure facing the people who actually dominate the party caucuses and create the gridlock dynamic he deplores. He could also put money behind efforts to curb gerrymandering and block ballot access.

But perhaps even more usefully than backing such efforts personally, he could try to persuade his fellow members of the CEO class that it’s against their long-term interests for the United States to have such a broken and gridlocked political system. In practice, the bulk of corporate America seems broadly satisfied with gridlock because it protects a status quo that benefits the wealthy and powerful.

But instead of trying this or anything else that might possibly work, Schultz’s one idea is that he personally should be president of the United States, even though by his own diagnosis, this won’t do anything to fix the problems he’s identified.

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