Wake Up And Smell The Politics

Can a coffee kingpin give American politics the jolt it needs to snap out of its Tea Party hangover?

Don’t hold your breath. But Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz has made a valiant attempt, by way of an appeal he sent out by blast email and published in full-page ads in both The New York Times and USA Today.

“I love our country. I am a beneficiary of the promise of America,” wrote the Brooklyn-born, self-made industry leader. “I am frustrated by our political leaders’ steadfast refusal to recognize that, for every day they perpetuate partisan conflict and put ideology over country, America and Americans suffer from the combined effects of paralysis and uncertainty.”

He continued, listing the concerns that are troubling many average Americans these days: They’re unemployed or underemployed — or afraid of becoming so. Consumers are not spending money. Small businesses can’t get credit. And Congress and the White House don’t seem to get it.

Schultz also called on other American business leaders to join him in withholding political contributions until Congress and the president get their act together, play nice and enact a “transparent, comprehensive, bipartisan debt-and-deficit package … that honestly, and fairly, sets America on a path to long-term financial health and security.”

Oh, I know, President Obama tried to sound demanding in his nationally televised speech on jobs Thursday. He raised his voice authoritatively while delivering lines that Howard Schultz would cheer. He said that Americans can’t wait while Republicans trounce every jobs proposal. House Speaker John Boehner barely lifted a sleepy eyelid.

I don’t want to be too hard on Schultz. He seems like a mensch. When it comes to messaging around social conscience, few companies do it as well as Starbucks. It has been adept at letting its customers know that the part-time barista serving up your skinny macchiato of fair-trade coffee beans is covered by a generous health care plan. But he’s out of his league. It’s hard to see what holding back his money and a bit of that of a few rich friends will accomplish.

Washington is a business; its clientele are actually people like Schultz, who have multinational corporations to look after. He may be aware that the U.S. Supreme Court granted CEOs even more political power with its landmark Citizens United decision in 2010. Political action committees, lobbyists and the new “527” advocacy groups, which are able to draw unlimited contributions, are what props up our political class. Congressional committee chairmanships are given to the most proficient fundraisers. If he’s withholding his money from that business, good for him. But he’s not going to reform it anytime soon, not the way he’s going about it.

You don’t fix a broken political system by refusing to engage with it — especially right now, when the critical flaw is a certain asymmetry between the parties. In 2008, the electorate chose an eloquent candidate for president who conjured a future of hope and change and bipartisan cooperation. The reality, once he took office, turned out to be different. Trying to remain aloof from the partisan fray doesn’t produce the best results in the actual game of politics.

Barack Obama’s presidency has not been a total failure. But he has bitterly disappointed many his erstwhile admirers for the simple reason that he seems unwilling or unable to stand up for some basic Democratic principles. During the debt-limit debate, it was left to Warren Buffett, one of the wealthiest men in the country, to take to the op-ed page of the New York Times to beg Congress to raise taxes on rich people like himself. Obama has surrendered the bully pulpit to the better organized, better disciplined — and better at politics — Republican Party.

And it’s going to take more than sharing an artfully prepared latte to change things.

(Mary Sanchez is an opinion-page columnist for The Kansas City Star. Readers may write to her at: Kansas City Star, 1729 Grand Blvd., Kansas City, Mo. 64108-1413, or via e-mail at msanchez@kcstar.com.)

(c) 2011, The Kansas City Star. Distributed by Tribune Media Services

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