After a week spent playing phone tag, we finally caught up to Bill Burton, by chance, in Aisle 6 at Gelson’s, right between the Leibniz cookies and the organic Fusilli.
Like every other shopper jamming the joint on Super Bowl Sunday, Santa Barbara’s most esteemed national Democratic political consultant was stocking up for the game when Cap Letters interrupted his football ruminations with a few questions about a far more controversial news topic.
Burton, a former top communications and campaign aide to Barack Obama, recently stunned many party colleagues by enlisting as a key strategist for Howard Schultz, the billionaire former CEO of Starbucks, who’s announced that he’s eyeing a 2020 campaign for president — as a long-odds independent.
The news drew loud bellows of protest in Democratic circles, where consultants, donors, officeholders, and other hacks said that the only thing an independent could accomplish would be to split the anti-Trump vote and guarantee the reelection of President Cheeto Face.
“It’s been an interesting week,” Burton said, with considerable understatement. “I knew there’d be some blowback.”
GROUNDS FOR A CAMPAIGN: Schultz is the 65-year-old business genius who built Starbucks from a single coffee shop in Seattle into a global caffeine behemoth, with 400,000 employees working at 30,000 locations in 77 countries.
Worth an estimated $3.4 billion, he said during a 60 Minutes interview February 3 that he’s exploring a presidential run as a “centrist independent” who could appeal to conservatives and liberals alike.
Saying that he would be more than a spoiler — which describes every other prominent independent candidacy in American history — Schultz insisted that his only goal is to ensure that Trump does not win a second term.
Although he described himself as a “lifelong Democrat,” the socially liberal billionaire (think abortion rights, gun control, and immigration reform) cast the two parties as both in thrall to ideological extremists, claiming that a huge number of Americans are political moderates.
“Whether a Democrat wins the presidency or Donald Trump is reelected — I hope not — nothing is going to change because our politics and our government is broken,” he said in an NBC interview. “I do not believe what the Democratic Party stands for.”
Out of the gate, the argument was not an overwhelming winner. As one Schultz heckler put it in New York, gently capturing the tone of much of the criticism: “Don’t help elect Trump, you egotistical billionaire asshole.”
BURTON’S DEM DEFENSE: The 41-year-old Burton, a career-long partisan warrior, said he “thought long and hard” before agreeing to go to work for Schultz.
Surveying the current group of Democratic contenders — Senators Kamala Harris, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren, whose proposals on key issues Schultz has already slammed — he expressed concern that an über-liberal Trump challenge could fail.
“I don’t accept the premise that any one of the front-running presidential candidates can beat Donald Trump,” he said.
In defending Schultz, Burton said his worldview was formed by “making his way up from very fraught circumstances” — growing up in public housing in Brooklyn and becoming the first member of his family to attend college.
He pointed to progressive benefits his new boss brought to Starbucks employees — health care even for part-time workers, stock options, and free online college education — as the kind of economic issues on which he would focus as president.
“It’s one of the best companies there is to work for,” he said.
WHAT’S BREWING: Giving a bipartisan cast to Schultz’s operation, conservative strategist Steve Schmidt has joined Burton. He ran John McCain’s failed 2008 campaign against Obama and later, as a cable TV analyst, renounced his Republican registration in revulsion against Trump.
Schultz will test the waters in the next six months or so before announcing a decision on running, Burton said.
“Howard’s qualifications to be in the conversation may be different than those who have taken most traditional political paths,” he said. “But they are unique.”