Does a third party have to be the third rail?
“Wow, this could be it.”
That was my reaction as I watched the 60 Minutes report on Howard Schultz contemplating a presidential bid.
No, I didn’t experience a Chris Matthews-style thrill running up my leg. But I’ve indulged the recurrent fantasy of a viable third-party candidate since the days of Ross Perot. And even the distant ring of possibility is enough to make me perk up and start salivating.
I wasn’t a big fan of Perot. The truth is, in 1992 I was living abroad and not paying much attention to American politics. But even then, political polarization augured the extinction of common-sense governance and purported that a third way was the only way.
That unfortunate reality has become more indisputable than ever. I voted for Gary Johnson in the last election – not because he was a viable or even a desirous candidate, but because his name wasn’t Donald or Hillary.
And now, here comes Howard Schultz. Not a dream candidate. Not a candidate I agree with on all, or even most issues. But a successful, even-keeled businessman offering a respectable alternative to our imploding two-party system. With public confidence in the status quo collapsing into the cellar, maybe the stars have finally aligned to propel a competent moderate into the Oval Office.
Or maybe not.
HEY THERE, YOU WITH THE STARBUCKS IN YOUR EYES
It should surprise no one that the establishment has closed ranks with torches and pitchforks against Candidate Schultz. What is surprising is that he doesn’t seem to have much support from anywhere else.
The first problem is the label: Centrist.
The name itself implies flakiness. Too many moderates come across as wishy-washy rather than principled, irresolute rather than balanced. This doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with moderation; it means that any self-proclaimed moderate must articulate a strong, coherent message to establish credibility. And Howard Schultz has yet to do that.
Even worse, our culture has grown so militantly partisan that we define our positions as anti rather than pro. Extremism generates passion. The farther away a candidate is from the guy we hate, the more we like him, regardless of character or credentials.
However, the most inconvenient truth facing Mr. Schultz is the creeping suspicion that he may not be who he says he is. If that turns out to be true, his campaign was over before it began.
EVERYONE IS ALWAYS WATCHING YOU
A recent expose in Politico asserts that Howard Schultz is no favorite-son in his hometown of Seattle. When your neighbors don’t like you, there’s a good chance no one else is going to like you, either.
According to the article, Howard Schultz has been described as “vindictive” and “dishonest” by his mentor and former business partner. He’s wrangled with neighbors who accused him of co-opting a public park for personal use. He purportedly mismanaged the Seattle Supersonics before selling out to a new owner who promptly moved the team to Oklahoma. And he appears to have misrepresented his role as creator of an innovative healthcare model.
Now it’s quite possible that the Politico article is nothing more than a partisan hit-piece. But really nice guys can usually rely on a cadre of loyal admirers who rally to defend their honor. So where are all the voices speaking out in support of Howard Schultz?
This is what makes a Schultz presidency increasingly unlikely. Donald Trump never claimed to be a nice guy. His supporters knew exactly what they were getting. Eric Greitens, our recently disgraced governor here in Missouri, managed to conceal his peccadilloes until after he got elected; but once the squeaky-clean persona Greitens had cultivated began to peel away, the governor found himself with no friends and no allies.
Americans love a saint. But they also take perverse pleasure in tearing down inauthentic pretenders to sainthood.
In politics, as in life, if you want to be seen as a paragon, you had better start acting like one early. It’s true that even saints have detractors; accusations should never be believed without solid verification. Moreover, no one is perfect, and the wayward can always repent. But if public repentance too closely precedes a quest for power, would-be supporters will be rightfully skeptical and hesitant to pledge their loyalty.
King Solomon says: Do not curse the king even in thought, nor the rich in your bedchamber; for a bird of the air shall carry your voice, and that which has wings shall retell the matter.
How especially true in an age where virtually everything is recorded and archived. Better to aspire to a life of service and virtue from the start. You’ll never have to worry about someone finding skeletons in your closet if you keep your closet clean.
Photo credit: Christopher Dombres via Flickr