The Audacity of Howard Schultz

February 14, 2019, 12:30 PM UTC

Former longtime Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz has nailed countless product rollouts over the years. He is, after all, the man who introduced America to pumpkin spice lattes, made the frappuccino a household name, and persuaded us to order our drink sizes in Italian even when we’re in Des Moines.

But when Schultz announced that he was considering running for President as a “centrist independent”—essentially making himself the product he needed to sell—the launch blew up in a fiery ball of Internet fury.

“New Coke had a better rollout than Howard Schultz 2020,” tweeted Brian Fallon, a former Hillary Clinton press secretary. “Why doesn’t Howard Schultz just try to go to space like a regular billionaire,” wrote Washington Post columnist Alexandra Petri on Twitter.

Given the ex-CEO’s credentials, some—including Schultz—were surprised by the extent of the outcry. In addition to building a legitimately successful business, Schultz was one of the early leaders of the CEO activist movement. He was lauded for offering progressive worker benefits. He took on gun control and gay marriage before either was a topic most executives would even touch. He once led a group of CEOs in vowing to end political contributions until Washington got its act together. And in the wake of Trump’s travel ban from Muslim-majority countries, he pledged to hire 10,000 refugees.

Former Starbucks CEO Howard ­Schultz talks about the ill-fated Race Together program at a 2015 shareholders meeting.Stephen Brashear—Getty Images
Stephen Brashear—Getty Images

But there’s a big difference between the desire for a CEO to take a run at a political issue and the desire for a CEO to run for political office. Schultz, it seems, conflated the two.

Much of the wrath has come from the left, which fears Schultz will play the spoiler in the 2020 election. Until recently, Schultz, whose camp declined to comment, had been a lifelong Democrat. But he’s now made clear that he’s moved away from the party over differences with some of the policies being floated by a flank of the left—including Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s proposed wealth tax, which Schultz called “ridiculous.”

Schultz took big, bold stands as CEO of Starbucks and was rewarded for it. But as a would-be candidate, he’s been light on specifics, focusing instead on rejecting the proposals put forth by others. Schultz told CNN’s Poppy Harlow that he knows a lot about health care, an issue he describes as “deeply in my heart.” But when asked for his plan, he said, “I don’t have a plan today. I’m not yet running for President.” Voters want what George H.W. Bush memorably called “the vision thing”—something Schultz had as a CEO but so far lacks as a possible candidate. “His candidacy is not compelling,” says Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. “There’s nothing there.”

Ultimately, the issue may be that it’s simply the perfectly wrong moment for someone like Schultz to run for President. He’s dipping his toe into political waters at a time when some people are “literally questioning whether we should have billionaires,” says Anand Giridharadas, author of Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World. That’s a conceit Schultz has called “un-American,” but it’s nevertheless the type of once-radical idea that’s now gaining traction in some parts of the country. Meanwhile, on the right, President Trump has shown he is more than willing to castigate corporate America. As both parties move away from the center, Duke University professor Aaron Chatterji says this could be the first election in a very long time when neither party is vying to be the party of business.

Traditionally, the appeal of the CEO candidate was to inject the efficiency and discipline of the business world into the perceived unruliness of Washington. Giridharadas calls this the “metaphoring” of business and government—hey, I can balance the budget just like I balance my company’s books. The current administration has dismantled that narrative, argues Lee Drutman, a senior fellow at the left-leaning think tank New America. “If it hadn’t been for the Trump presidency, we would still be playing up that myth,” he says. In reality, the public and private sectors are vastly different.

“There’s an appreciation for what Schultz built at Starbucks,” says Mike Greenfield, cofounder and CEO of polling firm Change Research, “but that doesn’t translate into people saying, I need a person like this as President.”

Schultz has been accused of overreaching before. In 2015 he launched a campaign to encourage conversation about race in Starbucks stores by having baristas write Race Together on coffee cups—a disastrous move that came off as out of touch with reality. (Schultz has said, “The execution was flawed.”) Comedian John Oliver joked that the initiative showed Schultz hadn’t been told no in 25 years. Customers seemed to feel that a guy who sold coffee had no place instigating a conversation about a fraught and complex topic in such a superficial way. It was a lesson Schultz seems not to have learned: that there are some things that the public would prefer a CEO not wade into.

A version of this article appears in the March 2019 issue of Fortune with the headline “The Audacity of Schultz.”

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