Bill Burton, a lifelong Democrat and former press secretary for Barack Obama's first presidential campaign, was pressed hard Tuesday about his new gig as a strategist for former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, who is currently mulling an independent bid for president.
Burton appeared on MSNBC's "Meet the Press Daily" for his first television interview since it was announced that he had left his job at the public affairs firm, SKDKnickerbocker, to join Schultz's team as a communications strategist. Host Chuck Todd pressed him on several issues that are concerning Democratic leaders about a third-party candidate helping President Donald Trump win a second term in the White House.
"Let me start with what probably every one of your former colleagues is asking, number one, are you still a Democrat and number two, why are you doing this?" Todd asked.
Burton said that he is a lifelong Democrat and that he will continue to be a Democrat before pivoting to talk about Schultz, praising him as a "great guy" and saying that he loves his country and family.
Burton is married to the daughter of former Rep. Lois Capps (D., Calif.), who served in Congress from 1998 to 2017. He also worked as a communications director for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and on John Kerry's failed presidential campaign in 2004. Burton called Kerry "one of the great climate leaders of his generation" when he was secretary of state and previously called former Vice President Joe Biden "so awesome," but he apparently is not waiting to hear whether they will run for president.
Todd then pressed him on his 2016 Sacramento Bee op-ed that was posted Monday on Twitter by angry Democrats, who called him a hypocrite for joining Schultz's team since Democratic operatives believe that he could be a spoiler.
Since Schultz's appearance on "60 Minutes" on Sunday night, liberals have slammed the former Starbucks CEO for thinking about running as an independent instead of joining the crowded Democratic primary. Neera Tanden, the president of the Center of American Progress, even threatened to organize a "boycott" against Starbucks if Schultz officially runs as an independent, calling it a "vanity project."
"If Stein or Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson eat into Clinton’s support even a little, that could matter in a close election," Burton wrote. "And in the same way I would bet that Ralph Nader – or at least many of his supporters – wishes that he didn’t help to make George W. Bush our 43rd commander in chief, I suppose Stein supporters would not want to be in the position of explaining to their kids how they helped make Trump president."
Burton pushed back against the 2016 comparison, saying that Schultz is not Jill Stein and that she was in the 2016 race as the Green Party candidate because she thought the two major candidates were too close together. He said that Schultz believes that the Republican and Democratic parties are polar opposites and that the American people are closer together.
"What has he done to try to fix politics in his own way? Has he done ballot initiatives to try to change gerrymandering laws? Has he tried to do ballot initiatives on campaign money? Is there a platform he has been working on on this reform front or no?" Todd asked.
"Look, the way he conducted as CEO of Starbucks was very forward-thinking in a lot of different ways. It wasn't just getting healthcare to all the workers, including part-time workers which nobody else had done, or giving them a chance to invest in stock or giving them access to a college education that they may not have otherwise had," Burton said. "It was trying to start conversations on bringing folks together about race, about a whole set of different issues which he used during his time as CEO to do."
Later in the interview, Todd pushed Burton on Schultz spending his time castigating Democrats more than Republicans, asking whether he was more comfortable in the "left lane" than the "right lane," prompting Burton to say he disagreed. He noted that Schultz thought about running because he believes Trump is unfit to run for office and that he wants to make sure he doesn't get a second term.
Todd concluded the interview by questioning whether Schultz is getting "honest assessments" from his advisers about his chances of winning the election as an independent, saying his chances historically are less than one percent.
"When Donald Trump ran for president of the United States and had one opponent, he won and I think the stakes are too high for us to look at this race and assume that we are going to get a different outcome just because we need to stay in some old construct of the way things that have been done," Burton said. "I think what we ought to do is not let conventional wisdom and the pundits who said Donald Trump couldn't win decide this election before it's even begun."