Opinion: Howard Schultz and the political Frappuccino Syndrome

WASHINGTON — Holy Chestnut Praline Latte! There was Howard Schultz, the former Starbucks CEO, making a case for why Americans would flock to him if he decides to run for president as an independent. “They’re not going to vote for a left-wing Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris candidate,” he explained.

The crashing you heard just then was the sound of thousands of Caramel Macchiatos hurled at televisions broadcasting “Morning Joe,” where the coffee king appeared.

Was I alone in wondering why the man who thinks he will save our nation yoked together two very different female candidates as the collective image of all he sees wrong with the Democratic Party? Was it really just about their views on health care or taxes?

First, let’s put the most sympathetic spin on Schultz’s exertions: He’s hawking books. I’ll even help him here: His memoir is called “From the Ground Up.”

His toying with the presidency might thus be another illustration of the marketing genius that persuaded so many to believe (wrongly, in my view) that Starbucks is better than Dunkin’. We’re all talking about him! Promote, Howard, promote!

But if Schultz is serious about throwing some small share of his billions into a presidential campaign, the backlash against him is appropriate — and the rebukes aren’t just a response to the arrogance of thinking that selling us on drinks like “Cold Foam Cascara Nitro” or on the idea of saying “venti” rather than “large” qualifies him to be president of the United States.

The primal response to Schultz among so many Americans who believe that defeating Donald Trump should now be the country’s main priority reflects a considered and intelligent judgment: Things are way too serious to go soft on a vanity candidate.

The case that Schultz would help Trump by splitting the opposition vote has already been made well by many, including Eugene Robinson in The Washington Post, Michelle Goldberg in The New York Times, and William Galston (who, by the way, leans to the center) in The Wall Street Journal. Schultz should read them all.

But the reaction against Schultz is also a pushback against the deep misunderstandings about our politics that animate his candidacy. What the heck: Let’s call it the Frappuccino Syndrome, after my own favorite Starbucks concoction.

First, this syndrome pretends that because calling yourself “independent” is more popular now than in bygone years, these voters must constitute a large, coherent group looking for a “centrist” alternative to the two parties. Indeed, there was Schultz Wednesday morning touting the “42 percent” who are independents as his potential base.

This is nonsense. I asked Scott Clement, the Post’s polling director, to run the numbers. More than 6,000 interviews in Post/ABC News polls between January 2018 and January 2019 found the country split 36 percent Independent, 32 percent Democratic, and 25 percent Republican.

The independent share seems impressive until you consider the follow-up question, which found that 46 percent of Independents lean toward the Democrats, and 33 percent lean Republican. So: (1) Independents are divided like the rest of us, and (2) The remaining “pure” independents who decline to lean either way account for only 8 percent of adults, and many of them rarely vote.

Second, enabling the syndrome depends on the claim that the two major parties are equally “extreme.” It’s a word Schultz loves. But this, too, is false. Polarization, as my political scientist friends (and, recently, co-authors) Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein have been arguing for years, is “asymmetric.” The Republicans have, objectively, become significantly more extreme than the Democrats.

Exhibit No. 1 for GOP extremism is the man in the White House. And just compare the House intakes from the Republican landslide in 2010 and the Democratic landslide last fall. The 2010 Republicans were swept in by the tea party. The Democrats’ Class of 2018 is chock-full of very moderate progressives elected from very moderate districts. And if the Democrats are equally “extreme,” why are moderate Republican state legislators switching to the Democrats in states as different as California, Kansas, Hawaii and New Jersey?

I get why billionaires don’t like progressive taxes. But high marginal tax rates were the law under Dwight Eisenhower — nobody’s idea of a socialist. Also: notice that Schultz is directing most of his fire against Democrats. That’s strange behavior from someone who claims that beating Trump is a priority.

But, hey, maybe you have to understand the appeal of a Cinnamon Shortbread Latte to grasp Schultz’s political genius. We Dunkin’ folks like our coffee simple.