STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
We had a talk yesterday with Howard Schultz. The billionaire former CEO of Starbucks says he is considering an independent run for president. In our talk, the man who popularized upscale coffee answered critics who warned he could split the vote against President Trump.
HOWARD SCHULTZ: If there is a choice between President Trump and a progressive, liberal-minded person on a Democratic side, it would kill me to see President Trump be re-elected. And I believe that's what would take place.
INSKEEP: You think the Democrats are going to be too far left to win?
SCHULTZ: That's what I believe.
INSKEEP: What would Howard Schultz stand for, we asked, in a long conversation in New York? It was fitting that we met there because Schultz grew up there, and the most concrete thing he is selling is his life story. In a book called "From The Ground Up," Schultz describes a childhood in red brick public housing projects.
SCHULTZ: My father, in many ways, was a classic blue collar, uneducated laborer, a World War II veteran. I also think in many ways he felt as if he was a victim of the system, not respected for his work, and over time felt beaten down and bitter and, unfortunately, never kind of found himself in a job or profession that had much purpose. He would come home fatigued. He would come home depressed. And at times, there was abuse.
INSKEEP: Of you?
SCHULTZ: Yes. There was.
INSKEEP: What sort of abuse?
SCHULTZ: There was physical violence. There was rage. As I look back on it today, I think that rage was not directly towards me. It was just a release for him of how angry and disappointed he was at his own station in life and the world.
INSKEEP: Howard Schultz insists he held onto that background as he built Starbucks into a national brand and then a global one. His parents never had health insurance. He made sure his employees did, even part-timers. Though the company staggered in the Great Recession, its overall success is his clearest credential in running for office.
This was a portion of President Trump's sales pitch. Do you think Americans are ready to elect another businessman with no political experience?
SCHULTZ: Well, I don't accept the premise, with all due respect.
INSKEEP: Well, it's one of the things that he said...
SCHULTZ: Yeah. Well, yeah.
INSKEEP: ...I'm a businessman; I'm independent; I can make my own decisions.
SCHULTZ: Well, I just think we should ask ourselves, is that what we got? I mean, we have two years of immorality, and we have two years of broken promises. People should not be interested or support me because of my experience at Starbucks. It's what I've learned along the way.
INSKEEP: What he says he's learned is better corporate citizenship. He says he resisted calls to cut benefits. He created initiatives to find jobs for veterans. He came to question the idea that a CEO's sole responsibility is creating value for the stockholders.
SCHULTZ: I certainly believe that a hundred percent - but not in the absolute. Shareholder value had to be balanced and equaled with creating value for our customers and, most importantly, for our people.
INSKEEP: Would you be changing, as president, laws or pushing to change SEC regulations, anything else, to change the business environment in which shareholder value has become utterly paramount for companies across this country?
SCHULTZ: I don't think I would be changing laws, but what I would try and do is influence public CEOs to understand that we have a moral obligation and responsibility, not only to make a profit and create shareholder value, but also to do everything we can to do more for our employees and the communities we serve.
INSKEEP: Can you preach your way to that change on a large scale in a system where a CEO who doesn't maximize shareholder value can get sued or lose the company?
SCHULTZ: Financial performance, in a way, is the price of admission. We have to - a company has to perform. But you don't have to perform at the expense of your people.
INSKEEP: What Schultz has not made clear - at this early stage, at least - is how, if at all, he would change the economic or political systems under which he grew rich. It is not clear how he would reduce the national debt, although he says it is far too high. He says Republicans fail to take it seriously, and he accuses Democrats of making promises that could enlarge it.
SCHULTZ: Free Medicare for all, government-paid, free college for all - first of all, there's no free. I mean nothing is free.
INSKEEP: President Obama's theory was that you reduce the deficit in small measure by raising taxes on the wealthiest Americans. President Trump's theory was that you reduce the deficit by cutting taxes on the wealthiest Americans. You're smiling. Which, if either of those, is true?
SCHULTZ: Can I say it in my own words?
SCHULTZ: So we are in dire need of comprehensive tax reform, which would include a significant level of infrastructure developments.
INSKEEP: Is it safe to say that the wealthiest would have to pay more? Whatever the rates become, however the reform is structured?
SCHULTZ: What I would say is that we need comprehensive tax reform.
INSKEEP: Why do you stick with that particular phrase?
SCHULTZ: Because I think there are a number of areas here that need to be addressed. And I'm not trying to dodge any question. I just feel like, you know, what we have today is an unfair system. However, when I see Elizabeth Warren come out with, you know, a ridiculous plan of taxing wealthy people a surtax of 2 percent because it makes a good headline - or sends out a tweet when she knows for a fact that's it's not something that's ever going to be passed, this is what's wrong. I mean, you can't just attack these things in a punitive way by punishing people.
INSKEEP: But I'm just thinking, you've got trillion-dollar annual deficits now in good times. Getting that down calls for some specific, painful-sounding things - drastic cut in military spending, at a time when the United States is confronting China and Russia and who knows who else, changes to Medicare and Social Security, tax increases on somebody. Are you going to do that?
SCHULTZ: Well, you haven't talked about growth. So...
INSKEEP: You think you can grow your way out of a trillion-dollar deficit?
SCHULTZ: I don't think you can - no. No. I don't think you can grow your way out of a trillion dollars. But I - remember, I've been an entrepreneur for the last 40 years. I view things a little bit differently than, certainly, a traditional politician. And I have a 30-year-plus record of being able to solve complex problems in unique ways.
INSKEEP: Though he is vague about what he would do if elected, Howard Schultz is insistent that he can be an alternative in the presidential campaign.
SCHULTZ: I can't think of anything that is a more quintessential expression of our democracy than providing the American people with a choice that doesn't have to be binary between a Republican and Democrat.
INSKEEP: He says the next president must be the right person, and he will decide within months if he thinks that person should be him.