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Howard Schultz tells SXSW to 'disrupt the system with a centrist approach'

Speaking with NBC News' Dylan Byers, the potential presidential candidate pitched himself as “a centrist independent outside of the two-party system.”
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AUSTIN, Texas — Former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz received a relatively warm reception at the South by Southwest festival Saturday while floating his potential 2020 presidential candidacy as “a centrist independent outside of the two-party system.”

Speaking with NBC News’ Dylan Byers in a packed room at one of the tech-heavy event’s largest venues, Schultz said his candidacy would ”disrupt the system with a centrist approach.”

“I think the American people agree with me. They want to see another choice,” Schultz said.

But Schultz, who has been actively exploring an independent 2020 presidential bid since January, struggled to explain exactly what that choice would look like.

For instance, Schultz said taxes should be raised on the wealthy but when pressed by Byers, said he couldn't say how high. He said economic inequality needs to be tackled but didn’t explain how. Still, he criticized progressive plans to do so as “socialism.” And asked how he would brand his campaign, he replied, "give me some time to kind of feel my way through,” before noting he has had plenty of success in that realm with Starbucks.

Mostly, though, he said his platform would not be what Democrats and Republicans are offering.

A lifelong Democrat who said “the Democratic Party has left me,” Schultz reserved his harshest criticism for his former party, warning they were going to blow the election against Donald Trump by embracing extreme positions that, while “well-intentioned," are “never going to happen.”

“Americans are not going to embrace socialism,” Schultz said, specifically mentioning presidential candidates Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Kamala Harris.

And he said it was telling that fellow billionaire Michael Bloomberg decided last week against running for president as a Democrat. “For him to realize that there’s no room for him is a litmus test that party has gone so far to the left,” Schultz said.

When asked to define "socialism," he pointed to Venezuela, which elicited the only negative reaction from the crowd during his remarks. “You don’t like that?” he said, before making case for capitalism.

Still, Schultz received applause with his calls for rewarding successful innovators and for saying the two-party system doesn’t work anymore.

And he said he wouldn’t do anything to help Trump get reelected.

"If the math doesn't work, and there's any indication that my presence in the race would re-elect Donald Trump, then I would not proceed,” he said.