Howard Schultz’s Great Crusade
Posted by Warren Peterson on September 4, 2011
Starbucks’ CEO Howard Schultz has stirred the political pot by asking his fellow CEOs to join him in a pledge to withhold campaign contributions until “Congress can strike a long-term debt deal.” He challenges “elected leaders to face the nation’s long-term fiscal challenges with civility, honesty, and a willingness to sacrifice their own re-election. This means not kicking the can anymore. It means reaching a deal on debt, revenue, and spending long before the deadline arrives this fall. It means considering all options, from entitlement programs to taxes.” Schultz is following up with a nationwide telephone forum encouraging citizens to demand politicians end “hyper-partisanship” and “put citizenship ahead of partisanship.”
Unfortunately, Mr. Schultz misses the basic operation of our intentionally messy American political system. Two parties representing two divergent political philosophies constantly contesting for the support of the middle while holding on to their base all operating in a system of checks and balances among the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government. Partisanship is merely the manifestation of the conflict resulting from deeply held opposing viewpoints. Elections are the opportunity for citizens to hold the course or change it by rewarding or punishing elected officials and political parties.
Mr. Schultz looks at the debt problem from the perspective of a CEO, someone hired to run a company by a board of directors, usually composed of other CEOs, who sets policy and directs subordinates to carry it out. If they don’t, he replaces them. Ostensibly, the CEO reports to the stockholders but in reality, if he keeps his board happy, he keeps his job. In Congress, however, there are 535 CEOs each with his or her own idea of acceptable policy. Generally they coalesce around two sets of principles, one on the left and one on the right. They battle for supremacy of their ideas sometimes wining a majority, sometimes fighting a holding action. Elected officials are hired and fired by the voters (stockholders). With no board of fellow politicians to protect them, they must keep careful track of their constituency if they are to hold their jobs. They are besieged by special interests, assaulted by the media, sometimes entrapped by ideology and yet expected to do what is against human nature, have a “willingness to sacrifice their own re-election.” Interestingly, some of those newly elected Tea Party types are willing to risk re-election for principle but are demonized by the left; just depends on whose ox is being gored.
There is no need to have sympathy for elected officials; after all they chose to seek office. But threatening them with a withhold of campaign contributions, while it may feel good and hurt some candidates, it won’t affect those who can call up an army of special interest volunteers, party money or their own funds. What Schultz will find in his forum is that people are willing and able to trash Congress on the debt issue but have not yet decided themselves on even a broad outline of an acceptable deal. Some national education and leadership is required. Maybe Howard and his fellow CEOs could provide that.