Jeremi Suri holds the Mack Brown Distinguished Chair for Leadership in Global Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, where he is a professor of history and public affairs. He is the author and editor of nine books, most recently “The Impossible Presidency: The Rise and Fall of America’s Highest Office.” The views expressed…
Jeremi Suri holds the Mack Brown Distinguished Chair for Leadership in Global Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, where he is a professor of history and public affairs. He is the author and editor of nine books, most recently “The Impossible Presidency: The Rise and Fall of America’s Highest Office.” The views expressed here are his. View moreopinionon CNN. Watch CNN’s town hall with Howard Schultz Tuesday night at 10 PM ET.
(CNN)In the fall of 2016 Hillary Clintoncalled onAmericans to unite behind her and defeat Donald Trump. It did not work. Similarly, in 1972 George McGovernaskedAmericans to come together and defeat Richard Nixon. That did not work either.
Democrats have a terrible record of winning the presidency when they define their mission as defeating a hated adversary and expect voters to fall in line.
Thetidal wave of criticismthat followed Howard Schultz’s recent flirtation with an independent run for the presidency repeats this terrible mistake. Many Democrats fear he will split the strong anti-Trump vote that wasevident in the 2018 midterm elections, allowing Trump to get elected again as a minority president in 2020.
The conventional wisdom among many historians is thatthis is the effectof third-party candidates: They can divide the more popular party and empower the candidate from the less popular side. The elections in1912(Woodrow Wilson),1968(Richard Nixon),1992(Bill Clinton),2000(George W. Bush), and 2016 (Donald Trump) illustrate this dynamic. In each case, a third-party candidate took enough votes from one presidential aspirant to elect the other.
But this historical accounting misses the point. Third-party figures did not play spoiler to particular candidates; they were reflections of the weaknesses of the main-party candidates from the start. In each of these elections the presumptive favorite benefited from incumbency as a sitting president (William Howard Taft and George H.W. Bush), vice president (Hubert Humphrey and Al Gore), or first lady, senator, and secretary of state (Hillary Clinton).
Concerns about the candidate with the obvious advantage and dissatisfaction with the predictable partisan alternative was a significant part of what motivated independent challengers (Theodore Roosevelt, George Wallace, Ross Perot, Ralph Nader and Jill Stein.)
It is far too early in the election season to worry if a particular candidate will help or hurt Donald Trump. That is a dangerous diversion. The key test for the American public is whether the country can have a serious discussion of difficult policy issues with diverse candidates of substance. Before voters can unite behind a person, they must come together around common issues and widen the circle of participants.
In this moment, President Trump isdeeply unpopular, butso arethe declared Democratic alternatives. Both parties aredisliked and distrustedby most Americans. Elected leaders are out of touch with moderate mainstream views aboutclimate change,gun control,health care,immigration, andtaxation. Neither party is likely to produce a candidate in 2020 who will magically rally a majority of citizens to unite behind him or her.
The most important reason to challenge the conventional wisdom about Schultz is because his potential outside run could encourage the major parties to address important issues in more inclusive ways, whether he runs as an independent or makes a surprise move into the Democratic or Republican fields.
When Americans have confronted similar divisions in the past, consensus has come from outside the traditional parties. Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln and Dwight Eisenhower — three of themost popular presidentsin American history — were not products of the traditional party institutions but outsiders who rallied diverse voters. Each was popular for achievements in war or business. Each had condemned the conventional leaders, institutions, beliefs and candidates of his time.
Andrew Jackson, “Old Hickory,” rose to prominence in the early 19th century for commanding American forces at the Battle of New Orleans and then leading white settlers who forced the violent removal of Indians from contested territories. Jacksonpromisedto help poor immigrants, urban workers and frontier families. He offered a vision of a more inclusive country (still excluding Indians and slaves), and he was an authentic advocate untainted by partisan compromises. Jackson won election to the presidency twice as a Democrat, but he did not succumb to the party as much as re-made it in his image. (Although Donald Trump sometimes claims to have done the same for the Republican Party, he hasradically narrowed, not widened, his party’s appeal.)
Abraham Lincoln rejected the expansion of slavery; he was also an uneducated outsider from Illinois who promoted a vision of union around free labor, which became the founding ideology for a new party, the Republican Party. Lincoln self-consciously created an enduring alternative to the conventional boundaries of political debate in his time when he extolled economic opportunity for all citizens. That was what hefamously meantby “government of the people, by the people, for the people.”
Dwight Eisenhower, a hero of the Second World War,did something similar. He was not a registered Republican or Democrat. He disdained partisan politics, which deeply divided the country in the shadow of the early Cold War and the rise of McCarthyism. Eisenhower barely campaigned for a party nomination and only agreed to run as a Republicanin January 1952, promoting a vision of unity that embraced much of the New Deal that other leading Republicans still rejected. Eisenhower wished to transcend party politics to prioritize containing Soviet expansion and promoting the welfare of American citizens. He largely succeeded, as evidenced by the general American peace and prosperity of his years in office.
Howard Schultz is not a Jackson, a Lincoln, or an Eisenhower, but he offers the potential for the same kind of sober, authentic, and consensus-building aspirations to our moment of profoundly divided politics. Herejects many of the partisan polaritieson crucial issues, from climate change and health care to taxation and foreign policy.
He has afactual and verifiable recordof working with people from diverse backgrounds to build enduring institutions. And he wants to address problems with new ideas and new people. When both parties are weak and unpopular, American voters need his independence more than ever.
An independent candidate like Schultz will deepen our debate as he shakes many people (including moderate Republicans and Democrats) out of their usual partisan routines. Our country needs a unifying figure, and our history shows that he or she rarely emerges from standard partisan institutions or by vilifying the other guy.